Performance view of Really Queer Dance with Harps, Dance Theater Workshop, New York, 2008. From left: Johnni Durango, Luke Miller, Shelley Burgon, and Kristen Theriault. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Neil Greenberg danced for Merce Cunningham from 1979 to 1986, when he left the company to pursue his own choreography. Greenberg has been known for his use of projected text in dance, as well as for making dances using material culled from videotaped sessions of himself improvising. His most recent work, Really Queer Dance with Harps, which features three harpists on stage concurrently with the dancers, is having its premiere at Dance Theater Workshop in New York, June 11–21. Here, Greenberg traces the trajectory of some of his ideas.

THE FIRST PIECE I created that I really owned, in 1987, wasn’t the first thing I made after leaving Cunningham. It was called MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost—referring to Hitchcock’s term for the red herring. This was the first time that I incorporated the extra-dance element of projected text, and it was also the first time that I really let go of the idea that I had to know what I was going to do before I arrived at the studio. MacGuffin had a sort of burlesque element, where I would do the same movements several times and propose different meanings using the text, like “a flower blooming,” or “hope,” signified by the same flick of the wrists. It wasn’t until Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994) that I began to include personal information about the performers.

The first time I began to videotape, and then relearn, my own improv was with Destiny Dance, which premiered in 1991. This was the year I got my own camera, and it was also when I was studying somatic techniques, which freed me up to improvise. Before that, I would combine and recombine known vocabulary. It wasn’t until 1992, though, that my dancers and I began explicitly to learn the improv verbatim, hewing to the idiosyncrasies of the movement, looking at the specificity of the wrist, or the turn of a forearm, or the way that a shoulder might be inverted. This generated interesting material, more three-dimensionally complex than traditional dance vocabulary, which is typically based on Euclidean geometry and forms (front, side, and back). I was using the “natural” complexity of the body to produce elements for a complex choreography.

For Really Queer Dance with Harps, I took a different direction and drew material from videos of each of my performers improvising. After seventeen years, I felt that I had mined the majority of the gems in my own body. I was also getting a bit uncomfortable with the idea of making everyone dance like Neil. It’s a bit old school, like Martha Graham technique, which is basically about getting a coterie of acolytes to imitate you—there’s something deeply creepy about that.

By rigorously approaching the re-performance of this spontaneously generated material, it would often become more formally articulated. I’ve tried over the years to get at some of the other qualities of improvisation; for this dance, I tried to veer away from the tendency to make the movements more boldly drawn—I kept saying, “Don’t draw it with Magic Marker when it was originally written with a fine lead pencil”—and we would pull back. To some of the dancers, this would feel like we weren’t really dancing.

Up until the final section (the coda) of this new dance, there had been almost no physical touching in my work. This didn’t begin as an explicit artistic plan, it was just inherent in the things I made, this interest in maintaining individual boundaries. Obviously, there can be connection and partnering without physical touching. I used unison, or certain canon forms, a great deal to create the sense of making one out of two. Groups could become this whole “stage shape” that would pulse and morph.

Also, in my dance background, which was pretty conventional—Western dance, ballet, and forms of modern dance that used ballet—the roles of partnering were very gendered. If you were a man, and you couldn’t lift a woman above your head, you couldn’t be a male dancer, because this was, by definition, what a male dancer did. The lack of touching, in this way, also became a method of avoiding these gender hierarchies.

My introduction of touching in this piece has something to do with the subject matter—to the extent that I have something like subject matter in my dances, but I did put a lens on it by calling it Really Queer Dance with Harps. The touching in the coda is very explicit, and to me, it’s sort of a joke: It’s like, “OK, the first real touching in Neil’s work is going to be two men touching and then two women touching.” And it’s not contact improvisation, it’s a sort of utopian “hippie ballet,” because they’re basically doing cygnets—just holding hands. It’s both tongue-in-cheek and not; it straddles that. It both comments on the thing and is the thing.

— As told to David Velasco