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The middle section of “Triangle Theory,” Kyli Kleven’s first evening-length work, places two dancers and a wall of square foam pads (“butters”) on the ground in front of a laptop. Using the mirror effect in Photo Booth, Kleven builds a world of double-sided spider hands, and spinning levitating butters; triangles form where the mirroring images meet. The projection appears gigantic behind the dancers on the back wall of the theatre. It looks like skin mountains and flesh eagles; it is distorted selves, or a second set of dancers. At once a completely basic use of technology and a complicated theoretical reflection on how we manipulate it, Kleven’s work is also magnetically beautiful.

The dance was performed in late November at Roulette, in Downtown Brooklyn, and I met Kleven soon after in her Flatbush apartment. She’s guarded and funny, and when she’s surprised she looks like a cautious Disney squirrel—a tall, elegant one. Here’s a portion of our conversation.

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Can you tell the story of the tripod in the river? The image you described of the tripod trailing and making even more triangles in the water makes so much sense. And I think it offers a way into the dance, in some way. 

In some way. And I think some way is the only way. The tripod is—I was born in a small village in Alaska called Nenana, and every year since 1917 people have been putting—building and placing—this tripod on the frozen river around March every year, and people from around the state and around the world bet on when this tripod will be pulled down the river by the ice breaking up. And the tripod is connected via this string of triangular bunting to this clock that’s in a shack on the riverbank. And as soon as the bunting is pulled, the clock stops. So it’s this performance art piece that’s been happening for over a hundred years. And it’s just not perceived in that way, and the data is collected, and the EPA is using the data to understand climate change, because it’s a hundred year record of when that river breaks. Which is pretty beautiful, and cool, and lovely.

I have a question about writing things down when you’re planning the dance. How do you annotate the movements?

Such a good question. It’s actually something I was thinking about so much in the making of the work. Because part of what I was wondering about, what I was questioning, was form and codified ideas of form, and how to make something, and how much information to give. It’s this very question. So there are lots of parts I think you can tell, you can see the form, you can see the choreography. Like at the very beginning you see a square, and then you see me close it in. It’s very, very clear. In other parts, I was inspired by the way Wendy Carlos made the Beauty in the Beast album [which accompanies “Triangle Theory”]—she just practiced making it over and over and over again, and then started to record herself, and each time it was a challenge of improvisation and form. So, for lots of things, I was able to write things down, and we had systems. Like to get those butters, those foam squares, it was all very planned out. But then the exact timing, and the specific way it’s done was still pretty loose. So each section and each question, or each question of what form is, demanded a different type and level of codification, which was just a really exciting problem for me.

In terms of how to tell other people what you wanted? Or in terms of writing it down for yourself?

Both. I think for the video, even up until and in between performances also, we were trying to negotiate how much information we needed to do something that would transform through time, but also negotiate form. So we we finally mapped out the screen itself, so they could understand where their bodies were—

When they were performing in the video portion, could they see their actions on the screen?

Yes. They can see themselves. And, in a way, they act as musicians in the sense that they’re performing for something that’s being produced that we all see. They’re doing something here that we all interact with outside of themselves. But they’re also—I don’t even know how else to explain it. It’s a really different way of improvising with dance. You’re producing something outside of yourself, live. 

So those moments weren’t strictly pre-planned. 

There’s a rough score and then there’s lots and lots of talking about intention, and trajectory, but it’s not as planned as say, the last section when they’re carrying sets of three foams across—that’s much more planned, much more narrow. I think for each section there are different levels of information that are containing it, and different levels that are open in some way.

How do you communicate with your dancers? Do you explain things out loud? Do you perform, and then have them do it? Is anything written?

There’s a mixture of all those things. But I think with most dance, because dance is super interpersonal, that’s the way we’re all taught for all generations; that’s the way information is passed. So some of it is talking. We go through cycles. A lot of it is showing and talking, and showing and talking, and switching back and forth. And then for myself, I just wrote down a rough idea of an event for each person. For example, “push out the wall,” and then, “fly in the second tier,” and then “Jessica Cook will do face” and then “Angie will do face.” We’ll just really roughly write it out, and then talk and show back and forth, and look and talk and show, and look and talk and show… and that’s the work of making the dance. You kind of throw the thing back and forth to each other for long periods of time. 

So the video portion was unscripted? It seemed so specific! All of the movements in that section seemed so minutely, carefully planned.

I think that dancers are very smart. And I think that the dancers I work with are very smart—they’re extremely experienced improvisers, and so when they’re given that kind of task, they have an acute understanding that absolutely everything they physically do is seen, and how. They’re just really fucking smart. So they know that whether they do this [she gestures with her wrist] or this, or how they come in and out of the frame, there’s an extreme understanding and care and attention that’s just part of our fucking awesome, sick training. I think we’re always totally undervalued.

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You mean just a simple attention to where your body is?

An extreme attention. And then an extreme awareness of how it’s affecting what you’re seeing. It’s like watching someone paint. They understand that craft so acutely that they’re able to see how every small stroke affects everything, affects the whole composition. They understand that their shadow is being seen, and they understand that this arm is creating this [holds a frame with her hands] and they’ve seen it so many times and we’ve talked about it so many times that we start to get better at it. But I think that’s an awesome example of their intelligence. 

I loved it. That section of the dance was really, really wild. 

I think so too. I’m always in awe of people’s awareness of their bodies, and their space. What I really love about it is there’s a huge trend in the dance academy, and in university dance, to use technology in your work. How do we use innovation to support the extreme intelligence that’s already there? In a lot of technological dance, people make the mistake—or, it’s easy to make the mistake, I should say—of putting a demonstration of the technology ahead of the awareness and body intelligence of these dancers. Which is also a technological craftsmanship, which is also a technological awareness. They have an understanding of how what they do affects what we see and understand about our bodies and ourselves, which is a technology in a way. It’s so important that whatever sort of technological mechanisms we’re using support that intelligence. Until it subverts it, but I just can’t imagine that happening. Dance is for people, by people. So I think [Triangle Theory] is an amazing example of using the intelligence that these dancers have been honing for twenty years or so. Let’s use that!

Photos by Nicolas Maloof