What I think: Rebecca Lazier

March 21, 2016 noon

Rebecca Lazier, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a senior lecturer in dance in the Lewis Center for the Arts who also choreographs and directs a project-based group of dancers in New York. She began ballet lessons at age 6 and left home at 14 to attend the pre-professional program at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. She discovered her love of contemporary and modern dance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. After graduating from Juilliard, she became a choreographer and joined Princeton in 2002. Her newest work, "There Might Be Others," was developed over three years — including a sabbatical in Poland, Turkey, Greece and Canada — and premiered March 16-19 at New York Live Arts in Manhattan. A condensed version, "This Is Another," will be presented in "Under Pressure," a performance by Princeton Program in Dance seniors of new and repertory works at 8 p.m. Friday, March 25, and at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 26, at McCarter Theatre Center's Berlind Theatre.

These musings are drawn from two interviews.

"What I Think: Rebecca Lazier" in Nova Scotia

Rebecca Lazier enjoys the ocean view at her family's cottage in East Chester, Nova Scotia, where she spent weekends and summers as a child and now visits each summer with her extended family. (Photo by Rebecca Lazier, Lewis Center for the Arts)

I'm the middle child. You've got the boss ahead of you and then the baby behind you. On long car rides we would build Tinkertoy walls between us in the back seat of the blue Chevrolet sedan so that we would not touch each other.

My family has a seaside cottage, and all you do is talk about the water. It's an hour's drive from my childhood home in Halifax. Growing up, we spent every weekend and summers there. The house, called Mussel Shoal, was originally built on 17 acres in the 1700s, and sits on a bay three nautical miles across, speckled with 365 islands. There is a grass bank from the house all the way down to the water and in the winters we would sled down that. And then there's a rocky beach. It's raw. The huge pine trees grow right onto the edge of the water. 

The water is an antidote to my busy life. Now I spend every August at the cottage, with my husband, actor Price Waldman; our son, Jasper; our twins, Grace and Sylvia; and extended family. It's a bodily craving. I have to go be there and sit and look at the water. I dance on the ferry on the way over, I'm so excited. It's cold; we wear wetsuits. We throw ourselves in the water with the salt and the brine. I've taught my kids to do that.

When I come to Princeton and drive over the Verrazano Bridge, I look out and make sure I see the water. I do that instinctively.

We have Scrabble dinners. My husband was just in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" on Broadway for two and a half years, so there were a lot of dinners without him. We don't follow the rules of no proper nouns. And we might make up a few words. But you have to justify the word means something. We made up "disimaginary" so Grace could get 90 points.

"What I Think: Rebecca Lazier" as a child

Lazier demonstrates her flexibility at age 13. (Photo by Pam Collins)

I cannot remember anything else but wanting to be a dancer. 

At Royal Winnipeg, they told me I needed to lose 20 pounds in two weeks or I'd be kicked out. I'm 5 foot 7 and I weighed 120 pounds. "Why don't you try smoking instead of eating?" they suggested. I tried it and I passed out and I never did it again. I would aim to eat only strawberries and cantaloupe and drink Crystal Light. But of course I would end up eating cereal at night. I definitely had a borderline eating disorder.

I felt like I had been let out of a shell the summer I spent at Jacob's Pillow. I signed up unknowingly for the post-modern dance workshop, I had never even heard of modern dance. I was there with Sally Banes, who's the writer of all of the books on avant-garde dance in the '60s, doing improvisation all day every day.

From my parents I get the steadiness of research. I am like a tortoise. My dad, an oceanographer, would go to sea for a month every summer. My mother was a biochemist who taught at Dalhousie University. I'm not an artist who had fame or huge opportunities early on. I've just slowly been building. Twenty years after I was making and producing my first pieces, I just last weekend had my first big show in New York in a mainstage theater, New York Live Arts — Bill T. Jones' theater.

The scariest thing I've ever done was the New York opening of my show last week. That is, besides nearly sliding off a mountain and being saved by my sister planting a ski pole and me catching it when I was 19. If someone's reading your book, you don't watch them read your book, but in dance you sit there and watch the audience watching your work. I get an aerobic workout, my heart beats so fast.

At Juilliard, while on tour, I woke up one day and couldn't walk. It was an injury that had slowly started at Royal Winnipeg with my back: I was very flexible but I was working in all the wrong ways, and I herniated two discs and broke three vertebrae. I was 20 and the doctors said, "You have the spine of a 40-year-old hockey player; do something else."

"What I Think: Rebecca Lazier" teaching dance in Turkey

While on sabbatical in spring 2015, Lazier teaches a class to a folk dance community in Rize, Turkey. (Photo by Metin Çavuş)

There's this thing about my feet. They're size 9, but it's the width issue: size ZZZZZ. It doesn't even exist. Around age 10, I used to squeeze each foot and then wrap it and then I could get the foot in the pointe shoe. So between the bunions from doing that and the width and then they got wider because I dance barefoot, that actually caused a lot of my anatomical issues. Turns out I have perfectly terrific feet for modern dance.

Podcasts and a bag of chips get me home: "The Moth," "This American Life," books on tape. I'm listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" now. Sometimes I bike to Penn Station and bring my bike on the train to Princeton and sometimes I drive. When I drive in, I can't listen to anything, I just have to let my mind wander but when I drive home to Brooklyn I need something to distract me.

Wherever I go I take pictures of my feet in water. It's a thing. The river at Mt. Olympus in Greece, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Atlantic Ocean.

I love to feed others. I read six recipes and come up with the one that merges a little bit from all of them. I have an herb garden on my balcony in Brooklyn. The practice of taking pleasure in making food, growing food and eating that food — that comes from summers in Nova Scotia.

As a biochemist, my mother is a great cook. We have a huge garden — lettuces, raspberries, vegetables. Growing up, we used to pickle and jar all the bags of beans we would take in. We had a whole hill covered in blueberries, the little wild ones, that's how I learned to make blueberry pie. I always do the pastry from scratch: we used to do lard but then switched to butter when Alice Waters came about.

"What I Think: Rebecca Lazier" whiteboard with dance modules

A whiteboard displays the names of some of the 40 modules of movement in Lazier's latest work "There Might Be Others." Lazier collaborated with Professor of Music Dan Trueman, who wrote the score, which also consists of 40 modules with the same names. "The trick of the piece is that in performance dancers and musicians are choosing independent orders for their modules but must track each other so that they can come together at times," said Lazier. (Photo by Rebecca Lazier, Lewis Center for the Arts)

In my choreography, I'm fascinated by the balance between chaos and order. Chaos is part of what I envision in a theatrical space because I actually think at the heart of chaos there is almost always order. It's complex order but there is order. When people watch my work, I want them to have an experience of recognition and empathy. I'm presenting what I believe is beautiful. That's a personal aesthetic and I believe chaos is beautiful.

"There Might Be Others" was a great compositional exercise for me. It was inspired by Terry Riley's score "In C," which is a masterpiece of 1964 minimalism made of up of 53 modules of music. I took that structure and I made 40 modules of movement, each with a name: Whip It, Jangle, Flamingo, Jumping Bean, etc. (I chose 12 for the condensed version.) The performers are instructed to repeat each one as many times as they want before moving onto the next; they have to go in order, and they have to stay within three modules of the rest of the group. Our structure departs from the Riley piece in that the performers will choose the order in real-time. In the Riley there is a predetermined order. I find that structure really beautiful because you see people come together yet remain individuals, and then you see them go off and do similar things in different ways, always creating new possibilities. Every performance is different. That to me is this balance between chaos and order.

Developing "There Might Be Others" on my sabbatical provided the structure for staging a kind of diversity. I brought three of my dancers from New York to Turkey, Poland, Greece and Nova Scotia, where we rehearsed for one week and performed with dancers in each place. You start to see people's different approaches to society. That's when I knew the piece had the potential to be about staging something other than movement, but rather staging interactions, community and individuality. The dancers are not just learning material and replicating it. They're learning a base of material and then doing their version of it. They have agency. In a talkback after a performance at a university in Turkey, with an audience full of women in headdress, one woman said: "It's about negotiation: I saw people coming together and leaving, I saw people arguing and solving. I saw life."

"What I Think: Rebecca Lazier" with dancers in Turkey

While on sabbatical, Lazier took members of her New York group to Poland, Turkey, Greece and Canada to develop her new work "There Might Be Others" in workshops with resident dance professionals in several cities. Above, the group takes a break in Mersin, Turkey. (Photo by Rebecca Lazier, Lewis Center for the Arts)

I have had incredible opportunities to collaborate with other artists at Princeton. I had no music score for "There Might Be Others." Last year, I was at a dinner with [Professor of Music] Dan Trueman and told him about what I was doing, and he got this big crazy smile on his face because he was collaborating with Naomi Leonard [the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering] to use Terry Riley's "In C" as a system to investigate emergent forms in science and music. Over the summer, Dan invited me and my dancers to collaborate with him, Sō Percussion [the Edward T. Cone Ensemble-in-Residence], Möbius Percussion and students in the Sō Percussion Summer Institute. Dan composed his music modules to match mine with the same names — and then we worked out how the dance and music would work together in performance. We decided that for some modules the dancers and musicians would perform the same tasks together. This kind of exploration and experimentation is an example of what research in the arts looks like. The trick of the piece is that in performance dancers and musicians are choosing independent orders for their modules but must track each other so that they can come together at times. The chances for chaos are huge.

Choreography is a form of knowing, a way of knowing. Princeton's investment in the arts has put the University on the map in terms of embracing the understanding that art making is a form of knowledge making.

The thing we're missing with dance in the academy is that there is no peer review platform where research-based choreography is being published — "published" means performance. In science, it's expected that experimental work is happening in the academy and the knowledge of the world is enhanced because of what happens at universities. You go to a science conference, you go to a humanities conference, you read the journals. I'm exploring the possibility of creating a recurring conference where choreography can be presented and videotaped and documented. If this conference happens, it will be available online so we have something to go back and bring into our classrooms. That's the intersection between research and the classroom.

"What I Think: Rebecca Lazier" with Princeton students

Lazier, center, rehearses her piece "I Just Like This Music" with Princeton students for the spring 2012 senior thesis show. (Photo by M. Teresa Simao for the Lewis Center for the Arts)

Princeton students are not afraid to bring ideas from other fields into the studio. It might be something they might be thinking about in an anthropology class or a science class. They have a richness and a depth and an understanding of what research is; our framing of dance complements that.

As a teacher, I believe it's my job to get students to ask questions. I keep learning from them. By the time they're seniors, they're true peers to one another and working on these creative senior theses. I'm just watching at that point. I say, "You know that you can make that decision." "I can?" "Yes." And they learn so much from each other, too.

When a Princeton student tells me they want to take a dance class "just for fun," I tell them that it just might change their life. Then I give examples of the many people who took their first dance classes at Princeton and are now leaders in the field — David Rousseve [associate dean, UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture] and Silas Riener [choreographer and former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company] to name just two.

One of my joys of teaching at Princeton is being able to watch students change and grow. Not all my students will go on to be dancers but they might become a lawyer writing about the copyright issues in Beyoncé's video. There are so many ways to integrate this passion about dance they discovered. I love being able to mentor people to find their place in the dance field, however tangentially it might be — as a donor, I hope. Or an audience member.