Create Award Resident Artist Rowan Salem on the Blurred Lines between Choreography and Improvisation and the Fleeting Nature of Movement
- On December 5, 2017
Rowan Salem is a modern dancer, choreographer and teacher. She moves like a ninja in a pullover sweater, deft and quiet. Her wide eyes keenly take in her surroundings, as if she’s listening to everything, even things she cannot see with her eyes. One of her great loves is improvisation in dance–which, she says, requires sensitivity to your environment and the ability to always be noticing, noticing, noticing.
Our outreach director Julia Dillard caught up with Rowan to find out more about the installation she’s producing for the Create Award Residency exhibition Unseen, opening January 2018.
(The Create Award Residency is a 6-month residency for recent graduates of arts programs. Find out more here)
“Something I’ve learned is that when I’m doing choreography, I can think of it as improvisation, and vice versa. It just makes sense to bring both mindsets to each other, they enhance each other.”
Photography Credit: Derek Fowles
Julia: I’d love to hear a little about your background as an artist. How did dance come into your life?
Rowan: I grew up dancing, as many dancers do. When I was 10, I knew ballet wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what else there was. At 14, my mom took me (kicking and screaming) to a modern class. But when I got there, it was technical and difficult and full of life. They did improvisation, which blew my mind. I was able to home school and dance through high school, then I did my BFA at U-Mass. In my late 20’s I began studying improvisational performance (composing in the moment) with Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser, and that really reignited my choreographer self. So now I’m working with blurred lines between choreography and improvisation, and combining them. I just finished my MFA at Smith which was a teaching fellowship, so teaching and my own art were very interconnected.
Julia: What drew you to improvisation?
Rowan: What I’m really interested in is what’s referred to as an “ecological approach” to performance. Just because I’m in a blank space doesn’t mean it’s neutral. Every day my body, my experiences, even the room will be different. My ability to react to the moment and make decisions based on what’s happening right now is really exciting to me. We are constantly adjusting based on what we notice, and this applies to improvisation, especially when you’re improvising with other people. The only way you can make an informed decision about what to do next is to be in tune with what’s happening around you, you have to always be noticing, noticing, noticing.
And that also goes for set or choreographed movement too. Something I’ve learned is that when I’m doing choreography, I can think of it as improvisation, and vice versa. I just makes sense to bring both mindsets to each other, they enhance each other.
“I think that’s why I like improvisation; when you rehearse you are training for a moment that is coming. You’re training to react to the moment of performance, and improvisation faces that more fully and honestly.”
Photography Credit: Erynn McConnell
Julia: Tell me about what you’ve been working on for the Create Award show.
Rowan: I’m completing my thesis ideas about occluded information. Exploring this idea of things that temporarily block information, like a pause or gap, and the ways our minds fill in those gaps automatically. We can’t really see it, but our minds fill it in. I’m working with projection for the first time, projecting my movement onto fabric of varying opacity. I’ll also be capturing objects in the video and then also placing those objects in the gallery space. I want to play with the difference between seeing objects captured versus seeing it right in front of you. I have a recurring theme of using fruit in my dances, like clementines and apples, and whenever I watch a video of a pieces I’ve done in the past, I’m like “Ooohh, that piece of fruit doesn’t exist anymore–it’s rotten now.” It’s easy to objectify things that are videoed.
I am also designing the installation to move people through space, because when we move it changes our point of view, what is hidden and what is seen changes. I want to encourage viewers to move something out of the way, or look around a corner.
“The most beautiful and scary part of the creative process is that something you don’t know yet is going to happen. And that always terrifies me so I don’t want to start. But the creative process is the thing.”
Photography Credit: Jim Coleman
Julia: What’s your best advice to other emerging artists?
Rowan: I’m still very much learning that starting is the hardest part. The most beautiful and scary part of the creative process is that something you don’t know yet is going to happen. And that always terrifies me so I don’t want to start. But the creative process is the thing. And then the performance or installation is just one point in that process.
Julia: What has working at Art Gym been like?
Rowan: It’s sunny, and so unique and inspiring to have all different artists together in one place. You walk through the building on the way to the dance studio and there’s twenty things to look at to inspire you.