An Interview with Sara Pearson

by Donald Hutera

Spring 2003

Sara Pearson, originally from Minnesota, and Swiss-born Patrik Widrig have been working as a team since 1987. The pair met while studying with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis in New York circa 1985. Touring extensively throughout the US, Europe, Asia, Latin America and New Zealand, the eponymous company they formed two years later has acquired an international following for work which aims to transform the familiar into the mysterious, the subversive, and the intimate. Additionally they have become well known for intriguing site-specific works and community performance residencies which combine dance, music, text, and video and involve volunteer community participants.

The Return of Lot’s Wife, the piece Pearson and Widrig bring to Umbrella 2003, premiered just this year. Featuring the Sufi poetry of 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz and an intense, elemental score by Carter Burwell (also responsible for the music in the modern cult films Fargo, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), the show was conceived, written, choreographed and directed by them with creative in-put from onstage dancers Katherine Fisher and Lindsay Gilmour. A New York reviewer dubbed it ‘one part Woody Allen narrative, one part prayer.’
Its makers call it an ‘evening-length dance/ theater/ salt epic’ in which the Biblical character of Lot’s Wife confronts God in a 1950’s Brooklyn kitchen as she looks back again and again. Drawing on Sufi and Jewish mysticism and on the stories of Ganesh, Hindu god of New Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles, and of Kali, Hindu goddess of Destruction, they explore issues related to Lot’s Wife: the concepts of obedience as a tool of both oppression and freedom, destruction as a force of divine love, and how the act of turning back is played out between the domains of these two gods.

Donald Hutera: How was the idea for show born?

Sara Pearson: How Lot’s wife ever became a subject of discussion with my new dentist is beyond recall, but I soon discovered that Dr. Sanders was a Jewish mystical scholar. As he drilled, I began asking him questions about biblical stories that I hadn’t thought about in decades. Okay, so she disobeyed God and turned back to look at Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed.

But isn’t being turned into a pillar of salt pretty steep punishment? And what was her motivation in turning back? And why salt? And why doesn’t she have a name? Each interpretation he gave shocked me in how radically different it was from my own. I became intensely interested in other people’s interpretations of this story (as well as my own) and what it revealed about one’s relationship to justice, obedience, love, and God. As choreographers we view ourselves as a mix of archeologist, blood hound and midwife

DH: How was it put together, including from a choreographic angle? SP: As choreographers we view ourselves as a mix of archeologist, blood hound and midwife. Once we pick up the scent of the new work – which in this case lay in that highly specific yet completely new angle of movement, that edgy place where everything is unknown, dangerous and exhilarating – we try to listen to where it wants to go and follow its hints, rather than beginning with an idea and putting things together to fit the vision. In terms of the text our task was to find a way that ‘works’ to talk to God. If you’re an African- American you can sing a gospel song or thank Jesus at the Academy Awards and it’s fabulous and inspiring and hip and cool. But if you’re white and you talk about God, either you’re a right-wing bigot or a narcissistic new-age embarrassment.

DH:What kinds of audience reaction has the show had? SP: Incredible! Lots of laughter, heightened stillness, crying. In our post-performance talks almost everyone stays and doesn’t want to leave when they’re over – really smart, provocative, deeply moving responses. Someone even suggested we make a documentary just on these Q&A sessions because they have been so insightful!

DH:What are the strong, salient points of the piece for the two of you?

SP: To face the edge of what one experiences and of what one resists with honesty and curiosity. To take the audience, performer, and creator into unknown territory of mind, body, and heart.

DH:What have you learned from doing it?

SP: In the beginning we thought the story was all about punishment. Now we feel it’s all about love. Patrik is a ‘recovering Catholic,’ meaning he grew up in a conservative Catholic family but ejected Catholicism as a teen. This initially led him to resist making a piece inspired by a Biblical story, although of course he could approach the work as art. Through the process of creating the work – especially through coming across a large number of completely different interpretations of the story – he gradually arrived at a new understanding and valuing of the content and meanings of the story.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal. He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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Edited by Jeff

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