How Anne Bogart Forged a New ‘American Document’

Sanford Biggers, Nyabinghi, 2017. Three appliquéd forms of standing women are collaged with quilt fragments and painting referencing Hokusai's Great Wave print.

Anne Bogart enjoys the kind of theatrical and directorial career many aspire to and most will never attain. Seemingly without effortless, she segues from project to project with an omnivorous enthusiasm — new plays here, amalgams of styles or schools of thought there, or else she’s reveling in her Columbia University professorship. Her oversight of the graduate directing program is, perhaps, legend, not just for the manner in which she challenges students on her terms as well as their own, but how she forces the more mainstream-inclined to reconsider what constitutes refreshing and fearless. She is one of very few American directors who explicitly places her faith in the questioning process of theater, not in the dysfunctional egotism of furnishing and expiating all the answers.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

For actors, Bogart is also known as the nation’s chief purveyor and most esteemed interpreter of Viewpoints, a technique that was “discovered” (to use the preferred parlance) by NYU’s Mary Overlie and which Bogart has solidified into a developmental and deeply performative language that is singularly her own.

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It is not always Bogart’s modus operandi to celebrate linearity in the : some of her work, especially with her extraordinary SITI Company but in freelance assignments as well, reels audiences in yet leaves them unexpectedly, almost ingeniously, unmoored. Her collaborations with playwright Charles L. Mee, Jr., whose profound sense of pastiche, of egalitarianism, is unmatched in contemporary American dramaturgy, is a natural fit.

Still, Bogart’s current project, enmeshing members of the SITI Company with members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, is less a departure for her than a moment of arrival. Running through June 13, there will be eight performances at the Joyce Theater featuring four programs forged between the groups, each combining new commissions with classics. One of the new pieces, and arguably the one observers are watching most closely, is American Document (2010), which is less of a worshipful homage to Martha Graham’s seminal work American Document, produced in 1938, as it is a fecund riff on Graham herself. Like the original, it asks the question “What is an American?” At the same time — also like the Graham original — it communicates intrinsically, through both movement and text, that such a question is existential and ambiguous; it can never be answered conclusively and, in fact, it means something different to each age, each demographic, each generation. There is bittersweet tension in the idea that today’s dance, today’s theater, is going to be gone tomorrow. Thus dance is made inscrutable and theatrical. Thus theater is made specific and propelled, in this case, by the communicative powers of human movement.

(Notably, the Joyce run features, among other pieces, Dance as a Weapon, a multimedia montage created by Martha Graham Artistic Director Janet Eilber, with text by Ellen Graff and media by Nancy Stephens, in which dances from the 1920s and ’30s, created by Graham and her contemporaries, are presented.)

In doing some research, I came across this video:

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For tickets to any of the performances, click here.

Can you talk about the genesis of the Political Dance Project?
Two summers ago, the Martha Graham Dance Company was in residence at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the SITI Company has been in residence every summer for the last 18 years. Each summer, the college hosts a different dance company, and it’s interesting to see which company SITI’s actors interact with and which where there is less chemistry. With Martha Graham, something extraordinary occurred: the actors became intrigued with the dancers and the dancers became intrigued with the actors. You know — everyone sneaking into everyone else’s rehearsals, a mutual love affair from a distance.

So, I started having a conversation with [Martha Graham Artistic Director] Janet Eilber about what we might have in common — to figure out how the companies could work together. Soon we were resurrecting American Document. It was created 1938 at the Bennington College summer program, where Martha was responding to the then-burgeoning events in Europe.

You’ve set a high bar, though, revisiting such a canonical work.
Janet actually gave me the freedom to do whatever I thought was right, so it seemed like a fantastic opportunity, and a pretty remarkable confluence of previous and present work.

I then called Chuck [Mee] with whom I’ve obviously done a lot of work on various pieces, who said he’d reimagine the text. Martha gathered documents that she thought help create the American psyche: Whitman, the Declaration of Independence, etc. Chuck looked at putting together some new documents, with some parts in the same spirit as the original and some parts to bring us up to date, with the Internet and writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You also had to contend with performers of very different disciplines intermingling.
On a basic level, the actors had to learn how to dance and dancers had to learn how to act. It was traumatic. I’m a huge, huge fan of Martha Graham, how she thought about performance. I feel everything she did with the body was what leads to the actor speaking — speaking is the event. I ran up more against my preconceptions, though, than they did. The dancers would get very emotional — they said, “We’re never allowed to speak! We have to speak!” And the actors needed to dance. No matter what happens in performance, this has already been a successful collaboration. What the theater does is show you a society functioning — these two companies onstage functioning beautifully. So, for me, what makes theater theater is the question.

As the piece is considered a new work, what is your responsibility to the history of the piece, to dance history, to theater history?
I share your interest in that. I’m often accused of being avant garde, but I spend all my time thinking about the past — on theater as a verb, to remember. I like the word conservatorship; I don’t feel this piece is an homage at all. When I do a play written in an earlier era, I don’t ask “What did it look like?” I ask, “What is the energy released upon its premiere?” If there was something cultural, where it created lines around the block, excitement and gossebumps, what was that? What was the culture? What would be the equivalent now?

The primary source material on the original, too, isn’t perfectly intact.
Martha kept changing the libretto; her choreography exists in little patches. There’s about five minutes of film material and then there are her notes. So I would take handwritten notes by Martha, hand them to each dancer, and say, “Make a solo based on these.” If the dancer would say, “I can’t read the handwriting,” I’d say “Guess.” It’s about using the DNA of the original piece as a springboard — being concerned with the impulse to make the work.

A new ending that we made recently — or at least 90 percent of it — was asking the dancers “What do you really want to do?” We were able to chain down the original choreography. I think this is conserving Martha’s work to some extent but not necessarily.

I’m not sure I know what you mean.
Well, I know the Graham company is doing bits of the original in this piece; they’re trying to preserve the fragments that are from the film portions. In this case, I think it’s the spirit of the whole that we’re looking at — the impulse, the reasons why Martha did the work. Very central in the piece, clearly, was that Martha was falling in love at that time, for the first time, with Erick Hawkins. The notion of male-female sexuality seems ingrained in the piece. My first decision — to have eight men and eight women — was based on this. She made a duet for hself and Erick in the middle of the piece that is so sensual, we wanted that sensuality to be pervasive.

It feels there’s a certain amount of estimation involved in terms of knowing what was in Graham’s head — what she was really thinking — to your point about understanding the energy of the time.
Obviously, basically, we never can truly know anything. I think we can barely know what a person is really undergoing when they’re spilling their guts. But the attempt to empathize is why I’m in this business. It’s the attempt to give voice to people. And guessing is the point. Occasionally, one hits the sweet note. But it’s occasional. It’s certainly not about the historical restoration — it’s really about entering into the imagination of somebody else, or one’s imagination of a person’s life.

An informed guess, I guess.
It’s very much the onion that you peel back, peel back. I did a piece with Chuck Mee looking at the work of Norman Rockwell, who had this opinion of what American culture should look like, and, next to him, the work of the installation artist Jason Rhodes. So we had the idea of taking those worlds and making a piece about the notion of what America was — and to actually look at what happened. There is no end to the diversity of what it means to be an American. The question can never be answered to any satisfaction in terms of finishing the answer, but, I think, the deeper you look, the more you see the complications of what it means to be American.

I think everything good play has a really big question. And the plays that have survived the longest have asked the best questions. It’s the opposite of frustration: it’s endlessly full of curiousness and never satisfied. If I felt I had answered the question, in fact, I would move on. Instead, I’m always intrigued. I think curiosity is the central ingredient to any artistic work. If it isn’t fueled by curiosity, there is no point to it.

Is there an assumption in this American Document that we’re all liberals? Because it’s very clear we’re not united as a country politically, so the question of what it means to be American is very much a political one, too, right?
There’s a section of American Document where an actress delivers, essentially, a diatribe against immigrants. She ends up saying, you know, we want you here, but we don’t want you wearing your veils. It’s a beautifully thought out, extremely right-wing position. At our open rehearsals, there were people who nodded, nearly throwing their arms up in agreement. In a way, it’s shocking to me that there would be people who actually were listening to that. But what makes theater possible is the working arrangement: the fact that a piece of anti-immigration text is placed next to text that isn’t is very, very difficult. That you can contain them in the same evening — that dialectic I find wonderful. It’s the opposite of didactic. We’ve included many points of view that many Americans have. When we’re given the freedom to put our own puzzle together, that, too, is American.

But if you’re a liberal listening to some screed about immigrants, that quite alienating. To what degree is there any kind of Brechtian element in this?
I think there’s aspects of alienation — theater being a place where you can think, think freely, and you’re not being manipulated into feeling, but instead allowed to move into different landscapes and to move through different feelings.

CATEGORIES: Interviews, Theater
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