"I'm a person, not a robot." - an interview with Erika Boudreau-Barbee

Erika Boudreau-Barbee started her training as a child in Oregon. After graduating with a BFA in Dance from the Tisch School of the Arts in 2013, Erika went on to produce new works in Germany and Spain, as well as performing in Ensemble Dance. For this interview, Thomas Baldwin sat down with Erika to talk about her residencies in Germany and Spain, the work that came out of them, and her artistic process.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Thomas Baldwin: So you studied at NYU for three years. Did you go to Berlin that summer?

Erika Boudreau-Barbee: In Summer 2013 I went to India. Not for art, just to go. I backpacked around Nepal and India for five weeks with my friend Jay, who graduated with me. We both said, "Let's go!" That was life changing. There was never another time in my life where I felt so many things at the same time. After that, I came back for a week to pick up a suitcase and then I went to Germany. It was quick! I was in Germany for three months.

Thomas: What do you think you got out of your trip to India? Anything that really stuck with you?

Erika: Things still resonate. We spent two weeks in the north and two weeks in the south and we joined up with a group, so we weren't all by ourselves.

Thomas: That's good. [laughs]

Erika: It definitely was. [laughs] Our guide was fantastic. He took us to tiny, tiny villages where you've never seen such poverty, and they've never seen white people. I think in Germany it influenced my work. It didn't later in Spain because India was so far removed at that point. Many of my thoughts were about poverty and about the women and color. You have to be incredibly present to travel through India. There is no way to be there and not be present. You would just disappear. In that respect it came through in my work, Start Over, with the paint that I did at the gallery in Berlin. Originally that idea was in born in New York, but then I went to India and it changed entirely.

Thomas: Those influences weren't obvious for me.

Erika: Right. Most of my work is like that. The things that go into making the final product are not are removed from the final product. Many of the phrases for I Bit the Dust were from poetry I had written and didn't relate at all to my concept. But then you manipulate them and you make it work with your idea. It's sort of strange. Then, of course, there are pieces that I do where I have an object, such as the work with the wooden frame [Dear Jayne]. There's an analogy of body frame and wood frame. That's it.

Thomas: Oh really? My interpretation was coming from an art historical background. What exactly was the audio track on Dear Jayne?

Erika: The audio was a YouTube video that I stripped and cut apart. Then, I added in a bunch of sounds of tools not original to the video.

Thomas: What was the video about?

Erika: It was about constructing a wooden frame. I just made it more destructive. I wanted to destroy the structure of the frame, of me and the frame.

Thomas: To me it looked more like canvas stretchers than a traditional frame. So I was looking at it sculpturally or painterly.

Erika: And I think that goes with it. I was comparing myself to a frame. I was trying to find ways I could fit in it to make a photo or to make a sculpture. It's very similar.

Thomas: I have very few reference points of dance, but it reminded me a lot of Yvonne Rainer and the work she did at Judson Memorial Church. She was dating Robert Morris at the time and a lot of the works they did at the time involved the dancers interacting with Morris's sculptures, which had human-proportioned dimensions. And the frame in your work is about a man's height. Especially later where you're stretched out on the floor, it looked painful.

Erika: [laughs] It was!

Thomas: That was serious commitment. It reminded me of Pollock's paintings and the idea of horizontal gesture as action. Did that influence you at all?

Erika: No, but I've actually used [Pollock] as a reference with another composer before. We had a couple composers we were working with on a project, and we asked them to make the music like a Pollock painting. He looked at me and was like, "What does that mean?"

Thomas: What did you like about living and working in Berlin?

Erika: It was strange because it was the first time I was out of school and I was like, "Whoa, I have to do this all myself!" I liked the opportunity that they gave. It was a lot of space and I created a lot of work there. I screwed around with film; I did whatever I felt like; I painted a lot; made some dance work, of course. The city itself is very free. But I don't speak German at all, so the people I talked to were people all our age. People would get frustrated at me if I didn't speak German, which was all the time. I liked the freedom and I got to travel. I went to Hamburg and I went to Dresden. I like Germany in general. The landscape is beautiful.

Thomas: How did you get connected to the residency?

Erika: I found it online and I applied. It was a lot smaller than the residency in Berlin. In Berlin there were about 12 people at a time, but this one had only five.

Thomas: Only five?

Erika: Well, when I got there, there were seven, because two were couples. When I left there were three. We were in a tiny beautiful house in the middle of nowhere.

Thomas: What was the institution that sponsored you?

Erika: There's a couple that runs the residency. The wife is from New York and her husband went to grad school at NYU, and he's from this small town in Spain, with only 3,500 people.

Thomas: That's it? Wow.

Erika: I think there were more people in my high school. But they moved back and they thought, hey, let's run a residency program here. I made a lot of friends with farmers. I would go out and help them in the fields. No one spoke English. Some of the kids, maybe 12 years old, could speak a little English, because they were learning it in school, but I met the English teacher at the school and she didn’t speak English! My Spanish got pretty good. I would talk to those farmers for hours. The couple took half of a convent. Half is still active and the other half is for studio space. That's where I did Posting and that's where I did From the top - the one where I'm hanging like Jesus.

Thomas: Did the nuns know about that?

Erika: No, it was a closed convent. They didn't come out to see. I liked the convent. It was a very peaceful place to work, unlike Berlin. You would go to the convent late at night and it would be just stars and silence. You could hear crickets. It was a little creepy. I was there for two months and I made a ton of work, because what else are you going to do?

Thomas: I was going to say it sounds like a good place to go and get shit done.

Erika: Exactly. You wake up and say, "What am I going to do today? I've got nothing to do except make art and drink wine."

Thomas: What should we talk about first regarding this residency? Do you want to talk about Posting?

Erika: Posting was just fun. I like to play on objects. This one was the only one I recorded. I just climbed up the ladder. The only goal that I had was to make a different shape each time.

Thomas: This one made me think - going back to Modernism – about Minimalist seriality and methodical process. You would go up on one post and then go up on the next post and so on.

Erika: I wanted it to be very patterned. It was just a task, and I make a lot of “just task” work.

Thomas: I noticed that in I Bit the Dust. There were movements in it that were task oriented. There was a part where you walked mid-stage and then walked back and forward, without any choreographed steps, and placing the clay?

Erika: Mineral dust. I work with a lot of unsafe materials. [laughs]

Thomas: When you threw it all down in the center and that cloud came up, I was so worried. I thought, "How much of this is she inhaling? Does she stop in the middle and hack up dust?"

Erika: I would rehearse with a mask on, but I didn't want to wear one in the show. For some reason, I want to perform this in a space here in NYC and make the audience wear masks. I think that sounds fun.

Thomas: You could probably find a warehouse in Bushwick to do it in. I'm sure.

Erika: It's fun to talk with you, because you have so much other knowledge. When I talk to some of my other friends they say "oh that's cool," but they can't articulate. You actually know art.

Thomas: But you realize that I've actually shied away from speaking formalistically about dance, because I have no understanding of formal content in dance. That's why if we talk about Tolerance, well, it's completely different from your other work.

Erika: It's concept-based. It didn't start out that way.

Thomas: People were so polite in the video, braking their cars. They probably saw the video camera.

Erika: There were people in the house next door and they said they wanted some beer, too. This idea came about late at night at the convent. I wanted to do things they don't like there. I would fill up a glass of wine and take off an article of clothing, and fill up a glass of wine and take off an article of clothing.

Thomas: You were intentionally antagonistic?

Erika: Yeah. [laughs] For some reason that idea is how Tolerance started. I know it seems far from that point, but I would change one thing about it and another thing would change, and it would switch and grow and it became this, which is much clearer and direct. It had a point. My friend in the video, Juan, was an intern at the residency. He was a nice guy. We sat there for two hours, which went by very quickly. My original idea was that we would just sit and not speak, but the more beers you drink… we would start cracking up, which was incredibly inappropriate. I wanted to continue it as a series. I just did it with my friend at Union Square Park during the protests regarding the Eric Garner decision. It only lasted an hour, because there were so many tweets coming in. We couldn’t do it anymore, we ran out of beer! It was fun, but it's harder to do here since we have laws that you are not allowed to drink in a park. We hid our drink in a McDonald's cup. You can look at it so many different ways. Some of my friends who saw Tolerance were totally disgusted by it, which was perfectly fine and acceptable. The other half got it.

Thomas: One thing I wasn't sure you thought of was the relationship of news consumption and alcohol consumption. The German word rausch means drunk or intoxicated, but it also means inability to take everything in, to be overwhelmed. I thought there might be a relation between the amount of information coming in and the inability to process it and the feeling of being intoxicated. Being overfull of alcohol or devastating information. I liked how simple it was and I thought it sent a good message.

Erika: That's all it needed. It didn't need anything else, but that.

Thomas: How many did you drink in two hours?

Erika: Five, I think.

Thomas: That's not so bad

Erika: You would think, except we were chugging it. For the first half-hour we had only one, and then the tweets started coming in. The timing was not right. When we did the one in Union Square, we had five in an hour; they were coming in that quickly.

Thomas: You've got to pick your topics more carefully!

Erika: Well, that's the news part of it. It's the top story of social media at the time of intolerance. So when it switches, then I'll do another one. This one was overwhelming, so I had to do it.

Thomas: Chronologically after that, did you do I Bit the Dust or From the top?

Erika: I Bit the Dust. I worked on these at the same time, because I had to paint the backdrop for From the top. It took some time so I would go work and dance and then I'd go paint a little.


Thomas: You were suspending yourself by your arms and your waist, and the noose around your neck was just for show?

Erika: There was no noose around my neck. It's around my shoulders. That would be really intense. When I rigged it the first time, I was just hanging by my shoulders and my wrists. The guy who ran the program said, "No, we're putting a harness on you," which was funny, because the harness was tied to the same rope. It didn't make it any more safe. It made it more comfortable, so I didn't mind. I was only up there for a couple of minutes and I got the worst cuts.

Thomas: Who threw the balloons at you? Random passersby or people in the program?

Erika: People that came to the event.

Thomas: Did you choose wine for the balloons because of the convent or a connection to the Eucharist?

Erika: I chose wine because of the blood of Christ, and black balloons for sin and death. Everything was symbolic. This was the piece I proposed and was accepted into the program for. The other stuff I did for fun.

Thomas: You’re pretty high up there. That is not a low wall!

Erika: I'm about five feet up.

Thomas: What were you trying to convey? Did you feel that you were successful?

Erika: Well, I thought it was successful for an experiment. I didn't know how people were going to react; I don't know what people are thinking. The balloons were supposed to pop when they hit the rock wall, but they didn't. When I tested it I filled it with water, but when I filled it with wine, I blew up the balloon a little. I threw it against a tree and it popped fine. When it came time for the show, they wouldn't pop. I loved that, though! It made it another game. I like irony in my work, and you can find some in all my work. Kids came and were throwing them as hard as they can. My sister came and she ripped her balloon with her teeth and then threw it at me. All the other people caught on and followed, but the kids kept trying to get their balloons to pop on the wall. I think it was successful, because it was unpredictable. I think it went better than I expected. You can see here what I was anchored to.

Thomas: A burning barrel full of rocks?

Erika: [laughs] I was thinking, "How am I going to do this?" We tied a rope around an iron rod, put the rod in the barrel and threw rocks and sand in the barrel. The rope that held my arm was supported by just a nail. What was cool was that people saw the rigging as they walked in. They probably didn't realize what it was as they came in, but when they left they probably saw it and thought, "That girl is psycho!"

Thomas: And there was a ladder to get you up and down?

Erika: Yeah. I climbed the ladder, tied myself up and in and someone came and removed the ladder.

Thomas: That's intense. When you were up there did you talk or were you silent?

Erika: I was silent, until a kid hit me in the face. I laughed a little, which was fine. That was the weird thing. The more I do performances, I learn that it is ok to react. In performance, it's part of the work. In dance you cannot react. You fall on your butt, you get up and start dancing again. I much prefer performance for that, because I'm a person, not a robot. I was just letting it happen.

Thomas: How do you think From the top relates to I Bit the Dust? Do you think they relate?

Erika: In my mind they were totally separate, but I do find a lot of similarities between them. I find more similarities between the piece I did in Berlin [Residual] and I Bit the Dust. They are both very primitive. So is Sun Salutation. I was thinking, "Let's go back. Man is made from dust." Most of the material for I Bit the Dust came from an improv. I spent a lot of time doing improv, and I would record my improvs. I would look back and think, "That moment worked. That moment could be expanded upon. What are you doing?" [laughs] Usually I would keep those. And I also added lots of task-based movement. The tasks in the improv were very sense-based. That’s where putting the dust on my face and smelling it came from. I did not lick it, because it is mineral dust. Most of the improv work would be the in-between stuff that's more dance-like.

Thomas: There's a dance move in there that looks like breaking character.

Erika: Those are the only parts that really came with sound. I would play the chorus of Queen's “Another One Bites The Dust.” For the soundtrack I used Cliff Martinez.

Thomas: Like the Drive soundtrack?

Erika: I used everything of his but the Drive soundtrack. It's too well-known now. Some of his earlier works are really wonderful. I stripped his tracks, added sound to some of them, and put the Queen chorus into it.

Thomas: I thought your dance looked like pop when Queen came on.

Erika: I was grooving! It's a switch, because it's a dramatic shift in music. It was the only time I was in sync with the music.

Thomas: I thought that, when the piece reached its climax, your movements became more in rhythm with the music. Especially with that mousey step where your hands are in front and you’re making many little steps on your tiptoes. That one point seemed in rhythm. Were you introducing that step earlier in the piece to set up a motif that would make sense later on in the piece?

Erika: With most of the movements I create them separately. I put them together and I practice and I see where the happy accidents are. I see what worked well, what I’ll keep, what I’ll switch. At the end where there is a climax and it is more light-hearted, that should all come together. I like when my work is contradictory and it doesn't make sense when I'm doing it and they merge later on. I'll do several movements where movements won’t make sense the first four times you see it, but the fifth time it does. Or that time where it makes sense will be in the middle sometimes. Generally speaking, movements are created before their order is determined. I record and look back and figure out the order afterwards.

Thomas: Especially towards the beginning of I Bit the Dust, where you had the windmill movement of your arms and your hands, it reminded me a lot of Merce Cunningham. The Brooklyn Museum has a video from the early 80's of him dancing in front of a green screen, a new technology at that time. He's doing a fairly stationary dance with a lot of those small hand movements, while the green screen behind him shows the ocean, the road. To us it looks dated to us, but it must've been innovative at the time.

Erika: He did a lot of work with chance, which I appreciate, but at the same time I don't. I like chance and I improv frequently.

Thomas: But it seems that chance is not a part of your choreography.

Erika: I find that I make better work when I make the decisions. I think people need to know that a work was made using chance in order to appreciate its role in the choreography. I saw a piece by him at BAM recently and one piece was all chance. The piece, the costumes, the set, all decided by chance. But what if you made a choice? Would it have been better? I have a weird relationship with chance. When I did Sun Salutation I didn't plan where I went. I didn't have a solid plan. So I guess chance goes both ways. But I make choices, and sometimes those choices take months to make. I Bit the Dust took a few weeks to make. I did it in August.

Thomas: Where are you in this piece?

Erika: I'm in an empty room at the convent. I don't know what it was used for in the past, but the roof is beautiful, all wood. There is a lot of space to perform there. When I showed it at our show, I had I Bit the Dust playing on a small TV in that room, but I blasted the music so that it was overwhelming when you approached it. The piece that I submitted for my upcoming second residency in Berlin will be crated similarly to I Bit the Dust, where the music will not correspond with the movement. I'm using a lot of text, such as projecting text on my body... I keep a journal and I write and record my influences. The ideas spark at random. Some manifest quickly and some take some time to be sure that they're something that I want to be seen.

You can find more of Erika Boudrea-Barbee's work on her website.