NO GUILT: Interview with Susan Macpherson personæ home

Montreal-based dance critic Aline Gélinas spoke to Susan Macpherson during production of No Guilt on April 4, 1994, in Toronto.

Aline Gélinas: I would like you to talk about the story of the whole thing; how did it start?

Susan Macpherson: The story of "Non Coupable".... I had a company called the Susan Macpherson Dance Collection. For the most part I commissioned choreographers to make dances for me, and I think it was the suggestion of my friend James Kudelka, who had already made a solo for me, that I approach Paul-André. I had seen him perform. I didn't know him, except to say hello, but I thought it was an excellent idea. I got to know him a little bit through James, and I asked him if he would be interested in making a dance for me.

We started to work in Montreal. I went there to work for a couple of weeks, and then came back to Toronto, and went back again a month later or so. At the beginning he started working just on movement phrases. I think pretty early he had the rocks in the dance studio, at UQAM, the university. The rocks were propping open the shutters of the windows, and he said, "why don't you carry these around?"

He gave me various things to do, all of which were completely foreign to the way I had danced before. My training was in the Martha Graham technique to a large degree, and the movement that Paul-André wanted me to try was difficult for me, very different from anything I had been trained to do. It tended to put me off-balance; he loved it when I fell off-balance, if I stretched a movement as far as it possibly could go before I shifted my weight. He wanted it to look as if I was almost falling on my head - turns with my head down around my knees somewhere, and things that would make me quite dizzy.

I remember some of those rehearsals I had to say, "excuse me, Paul-André, I have to lie down for just a few minutes, do you mind?", because I knew if I didn't, I was going to be quite sick! Some of the movement was so... (makes face) unsettling for me to do, and I think it was also emotionally unsettling. It was a very different side of me that he tapped into for this work, and I was quite uncomfortable with it for a time.

I would go back to Toronto and rehearse on my own to remember it before I went back, or I would rehearse it with John, my rehearsal director, and some of it was very hard stuff. I felt it was bringing out a really ugly side of me that I was very uncomfortable with. I didn't know how it was ever going to come together.

I kept going back to work with Fortier, many times. At some point, we made a videotape in silence, I think that was after I had had a trip to Europe, and he went on working on the dance with one of his dancers in Montreal, Louise Bédard. He finished the dance with her, and then the next time I went to work with him again, she taught me the shape the material had taken. None of it was new material to me, but it had just taken more of a shape.

Then I made a videotape of the piece without a score. At that point I was still feeling really uncomfortable with the piece, with my presence in the piece; it was very unsettling for me. So Paul-André asked if I had a composer in mind that I thought would be good, which is a very unusual way to work. I'd never worked that way before, had never had to come up with a suggestion for a composer. I suggested Henry Kucharzyk, who had done some wonderful dance scores, and Paul-André said "Great, ok", and so did Henry.

They met each other, and they liked each other, and so Henry started working with the videotape and came back with the score. Paul-André did a little adjustment to make some of the accents happen on the music, but basically the dance fit the score, the score fit the dance, like a glove.

In some way, the music helped me find a way into the piece, so that it started to sit more easily on me. It was never an easy piece to do, but I started having some confidence that the piece made sense the way he had made it on me, and I had the confidence that I could perform it, whereas somehow before the score came, I just thought, "this isn't going to work, I can't do this piece, there's something so ugly about me in the piece; I can't do this". Then when the music came, it made sense.

Aline Gélinas: How do you perceive this woman, this character? How would you describe her?

Susan Macpherson: It's hard because it's a very personal piece, I've always felt very close to it. There's something about the piece that speaks of offering oneself to (sigh) to the public, to someone, to people. I guess it's really, partly - that's what a dancer is about. I mean, that's the whole life of a dancer - there you are on stage, you're giving yourself to - (deep breath) - perhaps this is a little too difficult.

Aline Gélinas: Take your time.

Susan Macpherson: (sigh) I think it's partly so difficult because I'm not doing it any more. I didn't think it was going to hit me like this, but it's strange to come back into it after... I mean, it's really not my life, any more... (deep breath) so coming back into it this way, I just remember what it's like to - sorry, I didn't mean to - (sigh) - do you have a kleenex?


Aline Gélinas: Okay. Let's go back to the process. When you were with Paul-André, did he demonstrate things on himself, or was he talking, mostly?

Susan Macpherson: He did demonstrate. He demonstrated these peculiar turns, and these strange sort of chicken walks - very odd things. He did demonstrate just enough for me to get an idea, and then he'd get me to try something. Then he'd push me to do it further, or fall over more, or get my legs up higher, or get my head down lower, and after a while he'd either say, "ok, remember that", or, "well let's try something else", when it obviously wasn't working.

He'd finally put together a string of the things that he thought were working, and I'd go off after the rehearsal and write them all down immediately, which was the only way I could hope to remember them the next day, because we weren't working with the video, as I remember, which is the way a lot of people work now. This was in 1982.

Aline Gélinas: You were saying it was quite disturbing. Is there a point when you started to feel what the images were about - right from the beginning, or when you saw the audience?

Susan Macpherson: In fact, no. When I performed the piece, people would come back and talk to me afterwards, and tell me what they saw in the piece, what the images meant to them; they were always things that had never occurred to me. When I danced, I didn't have very specific - I didn't articulate what exactly the character was doing in my own mind, I was just inside the movement physically. So it often surprised me what people saw in the piece. That piece particularly was open to quite a few different - conflicting, often - interpretations.

Some people saw it as a very anti-female statement, and they were really surprised that I was doing this piece that was so anti-woman; they thought this man must really not like women. Other people, at the same performance, would say, "oh, such a moving statement about how a woman struggles to express herself." They really saw it as a piece that could have been made by a woman, because it came so much from a woman's point of view, talking about her own personal struggle to be who she could be.

Aline Gélinas: I think it has always been performed by women. Can you imagine it being done by a man?

Susan Macpherson: I think at one time we talked about Paul-André doing it. I don't know why he never did, but it would be a different piece, obviously. There are a lot of images that have to do with suckling the rock, with treating the rock as one's baby, the rock coming out from between one's legs; all that imagery would mean something quite different with a man performing it. It would be very interesting.

Aline Gélinas: At some point the work existed with you and with other dancers at the same time.

Susan Macpherson: Yes; the first time it was performed was with Paul-André's company, and he invited me to come to perform the piece as a guest. Michèle Febvre performed as well - she did the opening night of the piece. It was at Centaur Theatre in Montreal. Michèle did three nights, and I did two. I was dancing with the Grossman company at the same time, and they could spare me for a week-end, so I went in and did a Friday and Saturday.

Aline Gélinas: Did you have a chance to see it on other performers?

Susan Macpherson: I saw Michèle do it from the wings. I saw Manon Levac also, and it was very hard for me to watch her do it because her timing was very different from mine; all the way through, I really couldn't see her performance, all I could see was all the differences. Then I saw Peggy do it three times. The first time I saw her perform it, I was still looking at the differences, and I couldn't see the piece, but by the third time she did the dance, she made it very much her own; it was thrilling to see it, it was really extremely moving.

It was no longer my piece; Peggy had made it her own statement, and she did it very beautifully. I was sitting in the front row of the Premiere Dance Theatre, and I remember standing up applauding at the end of the show - she closed the program with that piece. I don't do that up for very many dancers; that was definitely a performance to stand up for.

Aline Gélinas: Can you talk a little bit about the process of transferring the work to her?

Susan Macpherson: I tried to give her all my little timing cues from the music, and the kind of thinking behind some of the changes of direction; what kind of time to take after one of the rocks had dropped, or what kind of reaction to hold in the body, and so on. I taught her everything I could about the dance from my perspective, and then she went and worked with Paul-André. I think that he said, "that looks too much like you're trying to be Susan Macpherson, we'll change that." He didn't want her to be doing a Susan Macpherson, and of course, she shouldn't have been, so he changed little details for her so that it fit her. It's not different in any major sense, but little tiny details are different that worked better on Peggy.

Aline Gélinas: Did you give her images, or mostly formal cues - "you should do this, then that"? And was it quite different for you at the end than at the beginning, from the inside, because something had built during all these years that you performed it?

Susan Macpherson: I'm not sure how much imagery I gave her, because as I say, I don't tend to think in images much myself. I think most of our rehearsal was pretty specific, just technical; how I managed to do this turn, how it might be easier for her to do this turn, where the arms were exactly on this hinge, or how long to hold this stare into the audience. Working with her was mostly working quite concretely.

I probably gave her some of the images that I had from my rehearsal directors, like the moment when the second rock drops, and you think.. "oh no! I dropped the birthday cake!" I probably told her that one. That came from one of my rehearsal directors.

I tended to work on the dance from the movement. The images came from everybody else looking at it. I absorbed some of them, so I ended up using them, but, in the end, the piece was the movement for me.

Aline Gélinas: So how would you say the piece evolved from the first time you performed it, with the years, because this feeling of discomfort that was there....

Susan Macpherson: The discomfort went when I got the score. The difficulty that I had in the early rehearsals disappeared once I got the music. It's not that it wasn't still difficult physically to do some of that movement, because some of it never really came naturally to me. I had to do rehearsals where I would make a list: I have to practice this turn three times, I have to practice this turn five times, I have to practice this little jump phrase five times. I'd make up numbers of times that I had to go through something difficult; whether I managed to do it well or not, I'd have to do it five times or ten times or whatever it was. It was a question of doing it over and over again, and eventually I would get a handle on it somehow. That was just physical work, trying to get into that stuff.

Aline Gélinas: How did it evolve?

Susan Macpherson: I'm not sure that it changed much from my point of view from the beginning to the last time I performed it. I may gotten a little deeper into the character, but I don't think the dance changed; I think it got a little richer, but that probably had a great deal to do with the people that were directing my rehearsals. I had some very good people helping me with that dance. There was, of course, Paul-André, but he didn't get to look at it very many times after he made it. He had a wonderful woman working with him in Montreal, Christina Coleman, who worked with me quite a few times, and gave me a great deal of help.

John Faichney with whom I worked for many years, gave me a lot of insight into the piece. In Munich, we did the first of what became a little series of things that we called "Arbeits Proben"; the German title means "study of the work". It was a little presentation of about an hour just on a dance piece, and the first time we did it, we used "Non Coupable".

The first time we did it was in Munich, and suddenly there was a great deal more imagery than I had ever been aware of, that John spoke while I was doing excerpts of the piece in silence. He just gave out images of things that might apply to this character; he was quite clear that there were lots of other ways you could look at what was happening, but this was an aspect that you could think of. It was very exciting for me - to do the movement and have a voice speaking this poetry.

I think it was very enlightening for the audience also. We did it again in Toronto, and it gave me another way of looking at the piece. A lot of the richness and the layers of the piece came from how other people saw it and communicated what they saw to me; that added some kind of resonance for me, some extra layers of depth.

Aline Gélinas: You did it on tour; were there discrepancies in your public in terms of cultural background? If they were from a certain cultural background, did they react in a particular way?

Susan Macpherson: The only time I remember people saying they thought it was a misogynistic dance was in Toronto. I don't remember that reaction from people anywhere else. I did the dance in Paris - in fact, the reason I got to go to Paris in the first place, on this European solo tour, was because of the man who ran the dance program at the Pompidou Centre. He saw me doing "Non Coupable", and fell in love with the piece, and was determined that he would bring it to the Pompidou Centre. So he made me one of four companies from Ontario that went to the Pompidou Centre. The reception for "Non Coupable" in Paris was very strong. Also all through Europe.

Aline Gélinas: Do you want to comment about the title, about the "guilt"?

Susan Macpherson: In the early version of the dance, there was a second character who appeared just at the end of the dance, a watchman, or a threatening figure, who came in at the very end, and shone a very strong light in her face, and seemed to be accusing the dancer of something. At the end she is saying, "no I'm not guilty, it's not my fault." It's also as if the audience is accusing the dancer, and she does this gesture (holds arms in front of face) at the end where she's shielding her face from accusations. That's about as specific as I got with the idea.

About Aline Gélinas, interviewer:

Aline Gélinas (1956-2001) wrote extensively about theatre and dance in Montreal. She contributed to the daily La Presse and the weekly Voir, as well as to a number of specialized publications. She taught dance history and in her later years devoted her time to editing books on dance, to writing fiction, and to performance.

Interview edited by Susan Macpherson