Ashley Byler

FPP spoke with dancer/choreographer Ashley Byler about high/pop art mash-up, the infantilization of dancers, and K-Pop.

Your choreography is often comedic, employing deadpan, sharp but good-natured personas.  Could you talk about your influences?

I grew up loving Saturday Night Live, Carol Burnett and Michael Jackson. I also loved Dolly Parton, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Hee Haw, Solid Gold, The Mandrell Sisters, and later, In Living Color. I guess there was a lot of gender exaggeration, southern-ness exaggeration, just exaggeration to the point of absurdity in my childhood. I liked “song and dance” people and comedians. Later I discovered the more “refined” arts- the Ballet, the Symphony, the Theatre. Much later I discovered Modern Dance and even later “post-modern” dance. By the time I came to this intellectual community of moving scholars I had witnessed and internalized a lot of shame for my crude upbringing and first loves. But I also saw the silliness in the expressionless face employed by post-modern dancers. Of course, it’s probably a reaction to the emotive face of Martha Graham and the sublime face of Isadora Duncan, or the buffoon’s face of the vaudevillian. Without sharing this connection to the history of Modern Dance with lots of older artists in the tradition, I had (and have) my own reasons to revere the skill of deadening my face.

So, my influences are sketch comedy, television shows that parody, the recombinant practice common to many definitions of post modern, and the ethnographic practice of participant observer. The idea that somehow I can be a character and critique the character simultaneously is important to me. I also feel the need to have a physical practice and a compositional practice that is mostly concerned with form. The work I perform is my attempt to marry these interests or ways of being.

Your pieces feel both original and highly referential—for example, the piece we’ll see on November 12th blends a modern dance classic with “club moves.” What are you hoping the different genres will reveal about one another?

I’m trying to place the club moves in the sanctified realm of “high art” and I want to make a rigorously composed piece that’s accessible to a more popular audience- to make the compositional choices visible and engaging. I’d like to remove the shame from loving these club moves and address the idea (and practice) of how the popular conception of a dancer is deeply tied to our ideas about women.  I hope that the pairing can reveal something about how we sexualize the act of dancing and how certain movements are disregarded by dance artists, how there is a hierarchy of movements.

What do you think is the most common misperception about dancers/dance?

Something along the lines of infantilization- as much from within the field as from without. There is a rich community of dancers in New York that work with ideas that are complicated and informed by an intellectual’s desire to converse in a sophisticated way. There are dance makers who continue working their entire lives without making some strained attempt to approximate the body and methods they had when they were in their mid-twenties. This idea of a dancer- one who grows and changes and continues to be relevant and conversant their entire lives- is one I find sorely missing from popular consciousness. The way I view a visual artist, poet, scientist or composer- as sometimes most brilliant when they are young (perceived this way because we all feel their immense potential), but valued as they age for sustained wisdom, for the real contribution and inspiration they provide over time- is how I would like to be received as a dancer.

How would you describe the collectivity that happens on the stage when multiple dancers are performing the same moves together?  What sense of multiplicity and singularity are you after in your own work?

The word collectivity seems to imply something generally positive and I’m ambivalent about groups. I’ve often thought that unison, particularly in movement, is a kind of fascism. I know that’s a strong word and I’m not going to make a huge argument for using it. I just want to emphasize the idea that there is a certain militaristic commonality between all forms of physical training and demonstrations of that training. If the dancers are exactly together in timing and form, something hypnotic and kind-of magical happens and I like that. But even in the lull of that trance, I see military implications. I receive the message of “power in numbers” and power in the dancers’ loss of self or ego in the larger body. As an audience member I usually feel it’s my job to decipher the value system being broadcast. Is this a utopian system or a critique of some dysfunction in society? I look for the cues that tell me whether it’s a formal composition without a specific message or whether it’s meant to “say something”. I can usually “read” whatever message is being sent as long as everyone’s in agreement. When a group isn’t in agreement about the way in which they’re presenting themselves, how they’re moving, how they’re holding the fourth wall (or not), I get uneasy. It seems a mistake, unintentional, not a collective- not a shared understanding. I want to feel everyone’s confidence in or commitment to the endeavor.

Another effect of the collectivity in a unison piece is the opportunity to see variations in the dancers’ bodies or their approach to the movement. If the dancers are doing the same movements but at different times, in a more complicated composition, my eye moves from the dancing to the broader compositional choices of the author(s). I can begin to objectify the dancers and see them as abstract tools of expression. So, the unison can allow me to see the dancers’ individuality more than a fugue, for instance, because the structure of a unison work is not too distracting. I’m engaged with trying to interpret in another more theatrical way: what is the meaning of these actions, these words? What is the relationship between these people? I really don’t want to speak in favor of unison, though. It’s often done sloppily without that intention and that’s a crime.

In my own work, I’m hoping the dancers will be revealed in some way and that any unison will provide a common ground for the audience to see singularity in the dancers. The choice to have multiple dancers in the work you’ll see on November 12th is made to emphasize the intentionality of the moves and the way they’re performed- to indicate that this is a developed and defined language with meaning. I think there is a multiplicity within the composition of this work, as well. Repetition is used to reveal the compositional structure and to give the audience time to reflect on their own perceptions and projections at work on the dancers and their bodies.

What new dance forms or dancers do you find compelling?

I’m pretty entranced by K-Pop dance groups right now. The movement vocabulary borrows from hip hop (well, music videos’ spin on hip hop, anyway) but it’s more reserved in its energy, more precise in the unison and the dances are extended pieces, tightly choreographed for large groups. It’s so collective while hip hop is so individualistic. I like the contradictions and I really like to look at gender through this lens. There are girl groups and boy groups. When I watch it on youtube, I see the gender-specific moves as particularly “worn” or “put on.” And I look for some missing violence- like I’m looking for what I’d expect to see in US hip hop- something “harder” and “tougher.”

Where in the city do you feel most first-person-plural?  That is, where do you feel most like a “we”?

In Morningside Heights, at family places in our neighborhood: Sakura Park, Beals’ House, Book Culture, Oren’s, Deluxe, the farmers market.

In Chelsea: Chelsea Piers, some galleries, the playground by Chelsea Piers.

Places I dance or nearby: Cathy Weis’ studio in Soho, Judson Church (when Movement Research is there), McNally Jackson bookstore.