A Fiendish Conversation with KT Niehoff
Something is stirring in ACT Theatre's Bullitt Cabaret, a mysterious creative force that's been dormant for half a decade but is primed to explode once more. As part of ACT’s 50th anniversary festivities, choreographer KT Niehoff revives the chaotic glam rock cabaret of her 2010 show A Glimmer of Hope or Skin or Light. As the action spills across the Bullitt Cabaret, audience members are encouraged to move freely throughout the space to follow the performers in this raw, experimental (and sometimes nude) modern dance spectacle. A Glimmer of Hope or Skin or Light reemerges from the darkness for a three-weekend run from October 30–November 14.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Niehoff about the evolution of Glimmer with a new cast, turning off the thinking mind to be creative, and the narrative through lines of memory.
What are you most excited about with regards to rendition of Glimmer?
I mean any piece that closes is always a little sad, a little bit like you’re saying goodbye to your friends. But this piece in particular for me, more than any other I’ve ever generated, really felt like a constructed world. So when it closed down it felt like a little death of a world and all its inhabitants. [Laughs] So, as an innovating artist, I don’t know that I would remount many of my past works. But when [ACT executive director] Carlo [Scandiuzzi] contacted me and suggested that we do it again for the 50th anniversary of ACT, it just sounded great.
I also have this feeling about Glimmer that it just sort of lives down in the Bullitt Cabaret, and so the idea of kind of opening up the box five years later and seeing what’s been going on down there, so to speak, felt really exciting to me. [Laughs] It definitely doesn’t feel like a remount in that way. It feels like there’s been some excavated evolution that we’re looking at right now. There’s a lot of new life, but also, just like 5 years later, it’s been growing. You know how when you see a kid 5 years later you’re like wow, you’re so big!? [Laughs] It feels a little bit like that; sort of an unruly 5-year-old.
And I’m also super excited that the entire cast is new. I’m really excited about just working with a new group of people in a new iteration and seeing… I’m the kind of artist that really works with performers and dancers to try to bring their best and most unique self forward, so it’s nice to have a new group of people that are really changing the tone of the work.
It was never a very static piece to begin with, so as you’ve been rehearsing it with this new cast, how have you noticed the show morphing and growing while still remaining something that’s familiar?
It’s nice to have the container of the work. I feel like I’m the kind of generate of artist that’s not necessarily pleasant when making something. [Laughs] It’s usually kinda tooth and nail. So to have a container really feels like it can allow my creative pathos to dissipate. And so being back in the generative process with this piece is actually fun. It’s really enjoyable. Rehearsals are really fun. And there’s less sort of weightedness. So inside of that new calm, I feel like we’re really able to look at the details of the piece and kind of figure out what we didn’t get to do first time around.
So as a result of that, the music is really shifting and morphing. The band was separate from the pre-recorded material last time. Basically we just switched off. So my music collaborator, Ivory Smith, and I are getting [that aspect honed]. We have a lot of new vocals, there are vocals throughout the whole piece. And then I hired a dancer that’s also a vocalist, Molly Sides, and we’re giving her a couple of songs. So it feels a little more musical-like in that way. And this piece is really character driven, so anybody in a role is just creating a new role. A new character, a new look, a new feel.
So the structure’s the same: the through line is the same, the arc is the same. We’re just taking a look at how to create these new characters inside of that. In terms of the actual physical vocabulary—the dancing part—we’re looking at the dancers that created the roles originally and trying to figure out like what is the energy around that duet, or around that trio, quartet, etc., and then allowing these new artists to generate material in the vein of their own material. In that way, it has a new twist.
What’s kind of the generative spark for you when you’re coming up with a show? Do you latch onto specific little things, like a movement, and create from there?
Well I am not a very premeditated art maker. I usually have some very large concept or construct that I’m thinking about, and in the largeness of it, there’s also a vagary to it. It could be like I’m interested in something dark, or durational, or a specific location, or I have an image for a scene design, or an image for costume, or an image for part of the music, etc., etc. But I tend to be a responsive maker. So I usually just set up a preproduction timeline, find the right people through instinct, create a rehearsal schedule, go in with this very, very loose construct, and then begin.
And I tend to have sort of a waiting process in the studio. I try to leave the word “why” at the door and then just start almost from any shard of an idea and then let that spark the next idea and so on and so forth, and just try to follow a line of inquiry without second guessing it. I really feel like the creative process is about being outside of a critical or judgment mind. You have to get out of that thinking mind. When I’m trying to impose an idea or a specific movement or sound or anything onto a piece, I tend to get in trouble.
How do you feel like Seattle has influenced your creative output?
I think more ways than I could ever articulate or really even know. I’ve been here for 22 years. I think in general, not just artists, but humans that move to Seattle, or even stay in Seattle, tend to have a specific kind of… they have their own ideas and they really just need time and space to manifest them, as opposed to going to a city that might have a larger density, where you kind of need to be in close proximity to other ideas. There’re just a lot of makers here that just have their own specific points of view and aesthetic. And so I think just being around that kind of culture of people that have their own creative pathways, and you’re just running parallel to them, is pretty profound.
The Seattle dance community itself… wow. I mean, that’s like lineage, right? It’s like down to the very DNA of what you physically create, the streets you walk, and the classes you take and teach and everything. That’s like mentor/mentee/apprentice. That’s everything really. I think this quirky little culture at large in Seattle imprints on everybody who lives here, so I feel culturally and creatively like I self-identify. I’m a Seattleite, and I’m very happy about that.
As you’ve been putting together this production of Glimmer have there any specific memories that spring to mind from the original staging back in 2010?
Oh yeah, that’s really fun. It’s like a bizarre, esoteric family reunion or something; like a high school reunion with your mind from five years ago. When Carlos first contacted me, I said I actually have to go home and see if I have this chart before I say yes, because I literally couldn’t do it again [without it]. There’s 24 moving parts in the show at any given time, and because it’s a non-presidium piece, the footage that I have of it is… I mean I just don’t have footage. I have the footage of like the main action, but there’re 23 other things going on that I often can’t see. So I have this 35-foot long chart that has like all the sections on top of it, and then to the side it has all the moving parts. So just looking at that was like oh my God. Right there was that section, and we called that section this, and ahhhhh! So that’s been really fun.
And then looking at the footage is really profound. My initial cast was a group of artists that I’d been working with for almost ten years at that point, so there’s just a lot of personal memory there too. There’s very elaborate makeup in the show that was originally designed by BenDeLaCreme, and one of my original company members, Bianca Cabrera, just flew up from Oakland to do all the faces, and that was really profound too. Just to have that history in the room. A lot of the dancers had been staring at her in video, and she’s incredible. They were like “Oh my God, you’re Bianca!?” So I mean, that’s just one of the cool things about life. That sort of narrative that we carry through. And the ability to revisit it is really beautiful.
A Glimmer of Hope or Skin or Light
Oct 30–Nov 14, ACT Theatre, $35–$40