For Lee Serle, from Melbourne, Australia, the first three months of his mentorship with Trisha Brown, one of the world’s leading names in dance, in New York, have been principally a personal and human interchange, not focused solely on choreography and dance. The experience is not easily packaged in formula or hype, which he is quick to say is anathema to his sensibility as an artist.
Serle's quiet confidence, poise and humour provide cover for a fiercely analytical intelligence. In this recent interview with art curator and historian Susan Rosenberg, he speaks about the importance of the arts in general; his mentor and the experience of performing her works; and living in New York.
Overflowing with precise observations about Brown's work and his recent performance experiences, Serle looks forward to developing a new solo choreography.
What is it like to live and dance in New York?
I have always had a fascination with New York. I first came here to perform in 2005, and have travelled here almost every year since. Having visited five or six times before was quite handy: I had already experienced many different neighbourhoods of the city before I moved here to begin the Rolex Mentorship in August 2010.
It sounds like it has been an easy adjustment. Have the rhythms and routines of your life changed a lot since your arrival?
It hasn’t been a big move for me. I’m not a “rush around” person. I’m happy if I have a day at home. I don’t have a constant need to be out exploring, seeing, doing. There is a huge difference between living a busy life and leading a rich life. First of all, it’s necessary to know the difference.
What’s on your current New York “to see/do list”?
Most of what I have been seeing so far is dance and visual art, not so much music, which was a big interest of mine when in Melbourne. What I want to do in New York is see more theatre.
Since theatricality is something I include in my own work, being in New York is a great opportunity. Being educated in dance is not enough to be an interesting creator and artist.
What happened during your recent tour to Europe with the Company, and then when you performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York?
I performed in some of [Trisha Brown’s] Early Works when the company toured to Lyons, France, in September, but it was particularly exciting to perform in New York. Travelling here with Australian companies to perform is very different from performing the work of a New York-based artist in New York.
When I performed here in the past, the majority of the New York audiences were seeing the work for the first time. People here have knowledge of The Trisha Brown Dance Company’s history, so there was great excitement and respect for her and for these works.
Performing at the Whitney was truly an event – the fact that the performances were presented at the Whitney Museum 40 years after their first showing. There was so much buzz and it was thrilling to be part of the history of Trisha’s work. Being of my generation and being from Australia – so far away – it was incredible be involved with a project like this, including seeing Stephen [Petronio] and Elizabeth [Streb] stop traffic when they performed Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970).
What are the challenges in performing the Early Works?
What’s wonderful about performing the Early Works is that you are given a lot of freedom within each of them. Although there are some rules, it’s not disastrous if you break a couple of them occasionally.
And each work gives you the freedom to explore within the guidelines of what each work is investigating. That is what is interesting to me as a performer. But if you push it too far, you lose the initial intention – the relationship between the task and what it’s supposed to display to the audience.
It’s also wonderfully casual. When you are in a gallery space and you’re moving around and the audience is moving around, it’s more like an informal showing, and you feel more freedom. You don’t have to put on airs, so it’s very different from the proscenium context.
Was it difficult performing in Walking on the Wall at the Whitney Museum – one of Trisha Brown’s most famous Early Works in which dancers in harnesses move along a wall?
At first it was daunting to get up on the wall. We had one private rehearsal and one rehearsal where there was an invited audience – which meant, essentially that our second rehearsal was a performance. I didn’t know how difficult it would be – having never before experienced being horizontal to the ground. It was just a matter of stepping onto the wall – having a go to try it out. The harness, a half-vest, was very secure and then it was a matter of feeling the force of pushing off the wall.
There is a daredevil quality to all of the Early Works we performed. All are about taking an element of risk to its limit. What’s exciting and still relevant about the work is its unpredictability.
It can work perfectly well, but in a way that’s not as exciting as when something goes wrong: it conveys the message to the audience that this isn’t easy. I think dancers can make the works look easy, but to execute everything perfectly is counterproductive in displaying the exercise, the works’ concepts.
Has learning Trisha Brown’s movement language brought surprises?
In many ways, the movement does feel familiar and natural to me, based on my previous knowledge of it and my training. Being here and experiencing Trisha’s work has made me appreciate the mechanics of the body, and to become more interested in moving.
A lot of dancers question the importance of dance. I’ve had periods – it is a common story for a lot of dancers – where interest in dance itself wanes, and one thinks: “Who cares? – it’s just dance; I’m not saving lives.” This is one of the most important things that has changed for me since being here. For a long time I avoided seeing pure dance performances, because I felt I had seen it before. Working with Trisha’s company I have been drawn back to “pure movement”. To the intelligence and beauty of it – and how incredible dance can be.
Can you describe your contact with Trisha Brown?
On our first meeting this summer, Trisha walked me around SoHo [New York], talking about what it was like when she first moved there – and what a difference there is between then and now. Trisha is very playful and has a great sense of humour. At a formal dinner in Lyons recently, a journalist documenting the event asked her: “Why did you choose Lee to be your protégé?” And she said, “Because I’m almost as tall as he is!” [Serle is 190cm tall.] What has been enjoyable is that Trisha likes to talk about many different things – not just choreography and dance: she is a great storyteller. Most recently we met to discuss a lecture we are presenting together when the company is in London next week to perform the Early Works program at Tate Modern.
What lies in the immediate future in the mentorship?
In November Trisha plans to start building a new choreography. The Company will be on tour so I anticipate being in the studio with [company dancers] Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas. I am very excited about this.
I have spoken with the company dancers about it, so I know there will be a lot of improvising involved – directed improvisation. That is a process I am familiar with – for example I have worked with choreographers who use task instructions to generate improvisation while making a work, but Trisha’s unique process, how she works is still a mystery to me.
Do you have plans to choreograph in the next few months?
I’ve been ticking over in my head ideas about the next work I want to make. I am very excited about working on my own choreography and presenting it to Trisha, to get her perspective while I am developing a new piece. After I performed my solo for her, during my audition for the Rolex Arts Initiative last February, I assumed Trisha enjoyed the piece: she responded by mimicking some of the facial gestures that I make as part of this choreography. When we talked about making work, in this informal interview, I told her I had made that solo two years before, but that as a free-lance dancer I was finding it difficult to make time to create something new. Her response was direct: “Well, you need to make the time.” I would like to find a residency here [after the mentoring year] – space and time to focus on choreographing.