A Conversation with Marisa Gruneberg – white road Dance Media

February 3rd, 2014 | Author: Pentacle

This blog features Marisa Gruneberg, artistic director of white road Dance Media (wrDM), which will be performing February 13-15 at Triskelion Arts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Some artists, like Pina Bausch, are more interested in creating social commentary about this world, or evoking and recapitulating themes from another era in time. Others, such as Alonzo King, are interested in creating new worlds with an unexpected vision for the future, or of alternate universes. The otherworldly choreographers are often misunderstood as they try to link that which cannot be connected—by reference to the past, current events, or even by analogy to another artist’s oeuvre—to the science of being and reality. The former are equally plagued by difficulties, such as trying to fail less in telling a story with a language that seems happiest abstracted.

Marisa Gruneberg of white road Dance Media (wrDM) finds room for both worlds in her work. Her bio, a sleek two lines, is an admirably cinematic and earnest proclamation of artistic intent: “I am a choreographer and filmmaker working in New York. My passion is building new worlds with moving images.” She manages to evade the cynic’s chuckle at the use of “passion” and “building new worlds” with their evanescent nod to the quintessence of the beauty queen, by offering up her “moving images” and its double meaning. When strung together like that the lines take on more importance, and we quickly forget any sentimental gesture lingering there. And, indeed her films and the gestural motifs in her dances do just the same. We have the sentiment of some history needing to be unearthed and re-recorded, and then, just as soon as it’s rewritten on a demarcated space before us, the moment gets cleverly abstracted from that history and made into something that stands on its own, without a history. I like this quality very much about her work. The machinery of the deeply felt, which like a Faulkner novel, sits down the road a spell from the great sweltering houses of memory and history, powers her dances.

I asked Marisa to speak to us for this month’s blog, to tell us a little about her world, and to, perhaps, shed some light on our place in it.

BCC: Tell me a little about your family, Marisa. Where are you from?

MG: So I’m originally from south Mississippi, and was raised there and in the Carolinas. This is definitely why I drink iced tea straight through the cold of winter, know all of my cousins’ kids’ names, and thrive on telling stories. It’s just how I grew up. The south is one of my favorite places on earth.

BCC: And yet, here you are in New York. The things we do for love.

MG: Exactly.

BCC: Why is the south such a special place for you? Being a California soul through and through, I find the south hot, itchy and sticky.

MG: [laughter] There’s a sweet sadness there, I think—a beauty, and also a deep pain—a kind of grace you won’t find anywhere else. If you’ve ever read As I Lay Dying or Beloved, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or listened to Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, or even, Elvis, you can maybe sense something of what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever lain down in some green grass in the summertime and watched a late afternoon thunderstorm roll in, you 100% know what I’m talking about.

BCC: Ooh, I like where this is going, what with our weather in the teens. Tell me more!

MG: Down south there’s a kind of natural embrace for people’s eccentricities, and I love that. A person is the way they are, and if people know you, that’s just fine. If you’re committed to your bizarreness, your people will back you up. For example, out where we lived when I was young, one of my neighbors had a huge Jolly Green Giant statue put up in his tobacco field.

BCC: Was it to scare away crows?

MG: Nah. It was just because…. A friend of mine from Louisiana decorated his whole kitchen with forks balanced on nails, set in patterns, like wallpaper, because his grandmother always said spoons attract ghosts. Made sense to me.

BCC: So there’s a sense of superstition and tradition and loyalty and freedom in the south. You’re building new worlds with those old ghosts, then?

MG: Yes, you could say that. But I could add that I think I draw heavily in my work from the south’s strong sense of place. It is very much itself. Place is very important to me when I’m making something—building the world, it’s bones and roots, it’s texture, and how it ultimately feels.

BCC: Yes. You definitely situate us in your work.

MG: Research helps. During college I attended Bates Dance Festival and was lucky enough to take a composition class with Mark Dendy, who still is a guiding light for me here in NYC. Mark taught me that research is a powerful thing—that there is a place and a need in dance for well-researched work. Research can take a number of forms, but it always means putting the time in, grounding and growing and shaping an idea.

BCC: It’s true. Observers of dance sometimes don’t know just how much work goes into the dance before one even gets to the studio. And then once in the studio, the sweat and blood that goes into shaping a form. You mention Mark as a pivotal role model. Are there any others that influence your work?

MG: Yes. I studied dance and English on scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi. My mentor there was Patti McConnell, a remarkable dance artist and teacher with the brightest, reddest fingernails in creation. When she gestured in the air it was downright poetic [laughter]. And through her I began to cultivate a deep respect for craft. Dedication to craft and love of craft is still something that I feel is really necessary, not just with dance making but across disciplines. Patti doesn’t know this, but I watch this incredible piece she made, Winter Was Hard, once a year. It still slays me.

BCC: Wow! I want to see it! Long gone are the days I honored someone else’s work like that! I use to carry around Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Glück, and reading them, whip out a journal on the subway, but now, they rest on my walls. There’s something quite admirable in continuing to honor a teacher like that. You’re inspiring me here to go back and in. I am a poet and choreographer studying medicine. And, I must remember to keep the poet and the choreographer healthy.

MG: Yes! You must!

BCC: And you are a filmmaker and choreographer. Can you tell us why video and dance? What does video accomplish in your work that dance alone cannot?

MG: I feel strongly that new technologies offer us new possibilities, and that somehow, live performance must begin to adapt if we’re going to stay relevant. Film, though not really all that new on its own, is, perhaps, the next medium in dance. I like how things change in terms of dimension and space. There’s also a permanence there that cannot be duplicated in dance. It’s definitely where I’m headed.  I also look forward to writing and bringing in words, something I’ve never quite felt at home doing with live dance.

BCC: Do you work with any other media?

MG: So, I don’t write music seriously, but it is a HUUUUUGE part of my life! I’m a crazed super fan with delusions of wailing into a mic with a Stratocaster wrapped around my neck. My records are primarily soul, 90’s hip-hop, and mid/late 70’s rock.

Every morning I wake up knowing what feeling I want to hear. Lately I’ve been building these little themed progressions for myself. This morning it was Nina Simone, Live at Montreux 1976. So deep, raw, driven, and bold. Which led me to Wild Gift by X. Very undercooked, dark, and ballsy. Then Myrmidons of Melodrama by the Shangri-Las. Edgy, shy, yet strong pop from the mouth of a 16-year-old girl. Finally, Back in Black by Amy Winehouse: teenaged hot water boiled over with grit.

BCC: I can see you’re passionate about music. Glad I asked.

MG: [laughing] This particular grouping was so strong and feminine, which makes sense because of the piece I’m currently working on, Hoarse. What I’m listening to when I’m in the middle of a new piece definitely shapes the way I work with my long time composer, Justin [Sherburn], and the sound that ultimately results. We’re dancing to all of them in rehearsals.

BCC: From that list of music, the dancers must be having a ball! What’s Hoarse up to these days?

MG: Let me start with my last Google search, “taxidermied horse head.” It’s a safe bet to say I’m in uncharted territory. I’m going to meet with a guy upstate to get this horse head for the stage. 

white road Dance Media perform Hoarse February 13, 14 & 15 from white road on Vimeo.

BCC: [laugher] Nice. What else?

MG: I was thinking the other day that I have no idea what technique means anymore. Discipline I understand, willingness—but the idea of what technique is exactly is starting to disappear. A pointed toe? What is that?

BCC: Well a pointed toe isn’t technique. Couldn’t it just be simply a pointed toe?

MG: Yes, but I do much better encouraging people to question parameters. A friend once said that my dances always looked like they were falling all over the space. I like this.

BCC: I like that too. And, the pointed toe as well, though. For me, I will just say that technique is everything. But, the concept of technique warrants a deeper and completely separate blog. Perhaps you and I can write it together? We could have a blog battle [laughter]. For now I’m going to leave this one open to interpretation. I hear your pain, though. Technique is enigmatic. But, let’s get back to you. Tell us about the title for your company white road Dance Media. I’m fascinated by choreographers’ company names, and am ever curious how yours came to be.

MG: Well, nerd alert. The name white road comes from TS Eliot’s, The Wasteland, a work that, to me, is pretty close to perfect. It’s timeless, immediate and gorgeous, with the right amount of raw:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.

BCC: I love how he puts memory up front down the road up ahead. You don’t even have to know what the lines mean to the poet himself to have a strong sense of what they may mean for you. It’s that third interrupting the two that’s just spectacular, haunting, and universal. Three is a crowd whether in one’s head or an apparition. It’s a sad bit of news too, if you imagine the relationship to be unstable. It seems to me, Marisa, if I may be bold, that the white road is the path in your works that aims for timelessness, immediacy, and beauty, with the right amount of raw.

MG: Thank you. Those are very kind words.

BCC: Well, I believe I got it right. Thank you so much for this visit. It has been such a pleasure.

MG: Thanks so much, Brian. I’ll send you that video!

For more information about white road Dance Media;s upcoming shows, visit