[PREMIERE] Emma Portner's "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie"
Text by Caroline D'Arcy Gorman
Together with dancer Aidan Carberry and cinematographer Elliott Sellers, Emma Portner debuts "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie", an impeccably choreographed performance set to a spoken word piece by Bob Dylan. Portner is quickly making a name for herself, largely by harnessing an online platform. On her Instagram, you will see Portner’s riveting in-studio choreography released almost daily, and short, cinematic videos (among them Slack Jaw, performed with her girlfriend Ellen Page). We had the opportunity to speak to Emma about collaboration, choreography, and how dancing for an online audience differs from performing live.
How does dancing to spoken text as opposed to music change the way you choreograph?
In my experience, dancing to spoken word is much more of a challenge than anything else. Luckily, with this poem (by Bob Dylan) there is really a palpable rhythm to the way he is speaking. It takes much longer to embody the musicality as we set the choreography because we literally have to learn how to recite the poem ourselves. And not just recite it, but be able to emulate it fully. Diction becomes musicality, emphasis becomes bass, and pace becomes metronome. It is honestly much more of a mathematical process than an emotional one.
What role does architecture play in your performance?
My videos are all personally funded and as a result, very D.I.Y. So, I often have to use what is available to me (and what can still remain private). I really like the raw feel, unobstructed openness, and natural light in the studio space here in Los Angeles. A lot of recent commissions have tended to be “site specific”, which has resulted in focusing more on how the choreography relates to the space verses on the choreography itself. So, when I think about choosing a space to move, any space, I feel so much luxury in the use of a plain old dance studio which allows me to almost escape my environment.
Just like some of your other collaborations with Elliott Sellers, the camera is a dynamic element of the performance. Did you and Elliott also choreograph the camera movement or was it improvised?
Elliot and I are kindred spirits of sorts. We really operate on the same wavelength. He always walks in the room with 500 ideas but is also willing to let some of them go for the integrity of the piece. I really respect that -- someone who is both interested in giving but who can also let go. I always start by giving him a general map of the spacial blocking. He then improvises a few takes back-to-back. We then watch back, and discuss what we think we still “need” to get, and make it happen. But for the most part, I often end up using his very first take. Naturally, the first take tends to be the most improvised and strongest impulse of them all.
When choreographing for yourself and a partner do you come into the studio with the piece all mapped out or do you and your partner creative it together through improvisation?
I’m now very much and “in-studio” kind of choreographer, meaning that I don't arrive in the studio already having crystallized ideas of what I envision. When I was younger, new in the industry, I really cared about what people thought ... I mapped everything out constantly. But, I quickly learnt that over-mapping often leads to something synthetic feeling, or means mentally investing in ideas that turn out not to be feasible. It’s much less forced when I can walk in on the day, and invest what I feel right then and there. I always think of a beginning, middle, and end but I’m never married to those dreams. Always willing to recycle ideas for the natural through-line of a piece. So, if the time is alive for me to exercise “trial and error”...I love to [do that].
What are the benefits of performing largely for an online audience? How do you find your performance changes when dancing in a video as opposed to live?
The benefit of performing for an online audience allows the perfectionist in me to feel most comfortable. I get to edit, re-try, and manipulate how something feels, seems, or looks through a screen. With this said, there is really nothing like live exchange. I miss that. I would prefer to fault-find right in-front of you than to become a dehumanized art making machine, of sorts. Online performance is definitely much more convenient. I think about the camera as I move and I try to think about my potential audience as I edit. When I perform live, I am much more conscious of my eyes. I do hold myself to a high performance standard no matter who is in the room though. I don’t slack off if my audience happens to be a camera and vice versa. That’s for sure.