Emma Portner: Love Is a Thick Glass

By Harry Burke

5 September 2018

An interview with choreographer and dancer Emma Portner on her new short film, breaking the male canon, and the power of emotional vulnerability.

The Canada-born choreographer Emma Portner has had an explosive twelve months. Last autumn, she was the youngest woman to choreograph a West End musical (Jim Steinman’s Bat out of Hell, based on Meatloaf’s album of the same name). She became L.A. Dance Project’s first artist-in-residence, and, with dancer Anne Plamondon, in October 2018 will premiere Counter Cantor, the festival commission at Fall for Dance North, in Toronto. In January, she delighted fans by announcing her marriage to actress Ellen Page. The two often collaborate.

This August, Portner premiered a short film, Femme Debout , at Basel’s Fondation Beyeler. While she is well-known for video clips posted online, which blend complexity with instantaneity, a tension at the heart of her improvisational approach, Femme Debout represents a more ambitious undertaking. Blissfully produced by the same company responsible for the video of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, the film portrays the contorted emotional lives of five dancers, and was commissioned by Beyeler as part of their current exhibition “Bacon–Giacometti”. Bacon’s freakish cage motif provides Femme Debout ’s structural conceit. This bifurcated glass box simultaneously frames and denies human contact: through the dancer’s movements, we understand that transparency both connects and dissociates. “Love is a thick glass”, intones the soundtrack, distortedly, “a pain that hides me from freedom”. One dancer enters on stilts, in reference to Giacometti’s lengthened figuration. The stilts render the dancer superhuman, yet are destabilizing: arms lean on the glass cage in moments of unbalance, allowing the rest of the body to remain in flow. Portner’s choreography is evocative and unresolved, but imbued with torque and tangible dialectical tensions.

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Sickness prevented Portner from attending Femme Debout ’s premiere. Her collaborator, Keanu Uchida, who stars in the film, presented an eight-minute solo within “Bacon—Giacometti”. The audience retreated along two ends of the expansive rectangular gallery; artworks, too, became observers as Uchida, as if coming in and out of focus, culled a series of deft, muscular arcs through the room’s middle. In a way, the legacies of the two twentieth-century artists provided the performance’s cage. Their rupturing studies of the human form are precedents for representation today, but these are complicated, macho lenses when compared to Portner and Uchida’s fluid, affirmative engagements with the body in space. Uchida wore an absurdly elongated pair of trousers while dancing – these had covered the stilts in the film – evoking the body brought back down to earth.

Fondation Beyeler recently published the film on its website . It will receive its North American premiere at the Guggenheim this week, in a program that includes Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and music by Devonté Hynes. Spike spoke with Portner over email, where she reflected on this commission, her reengagement with dance, and, with startling honesty, her mental health.

Bacon and Giacometti reconfigured the modernist figure in daunting ways. Yet their work is inextricable from a performance of masculinity, and they were misogynist in their attitude towards, and treatment of, their female subjects. What does it mean for you to respond to their work and legacy today, as canons are dismantled and patriarchy loudly critiqued?

Bacon and Giacometti's imagery served as a template for me to explore the impacts of abuse and hyper-masculinity: how these, through their debilitating influence, thwart freedom of movement. Traditionally, women have been kept from taking up space. Male artists have been responsible for how women are seen as objects shaped to personify a man's perspective. Consequently, female artists use much of their already compromised room for work refuting false representations. My experience as a queer woman has been informed by a society directed by aggressive men who are often not leaders, but manipulators. Trying to take back lives never experienced necessitates invention and risk, and has led my art along a road paved by my imagination. Reclaiming these freedoms as an individual and as an artist has been tough, but not as tough as what other women experience every day.

Artistic interpretations can subvert dominant power systems. In Bacon’s dialogue with Velásquez, the authority of the Church is made to seem desperate. The series of paintings constitutes an attack on a moral order that perhaps felt especially constrictive to a gay man living in mid-twentieth century London. Bacon’s revision of Velásquez might be seen as a precedent for your revision, in turn, of Bacon. What affiliations, and disaffiliations, did you have with Bacon as a queer figure?

All of the characters in Femme Debout are queer in some shape or form, whether closeted to a point of harm or open and out to a point of questioning. Bacon’s work stems from the abuse and pain he endured as a child. He was deemed weak by his father, was whipped, and was kicked out of his home aged seventeen for wearing women’s underwear. His contortions of the faces of powerful, religious figures feel like a rebellion against the perceived strength and control of those strict, abusive forces. I understood him to be building invisible rooms that allow us to see, but not to reach, placing the “other side” so desperately close, but remaining unable to escape the contortions that patriarchy has forced upon our individual realities.

The fact that a young queer woman has responded to his work at all is a statement in itself. It’s an affiliation because of how experiences of queerness overlap, and a disaffiliation because, regardless of Bacon’s trauma and sexuality, he was a white man who could forge an artistic life for himself in a time where women could not do so as easily or at all.

Artistic exchange seems integral to your process – with musicians who provide scores, filmmakers, other artists, designers, and with your dancers, of course. In what ways does collaboration shape your work? Does it become part of the choreographic process?

I hate it when choreographers don’t credit their dancers for contributing in some way, shape, or form. Because they always do. Even just by having them stand there while listening to your idea transfer, you are in collaboration. Every single body takes to the same idea differently. When I choreograph, I’m even in collaboration with those who came and fought before me: Martha Graham, Loie Fuller, Judith Jameson, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Julie Taymor, Fred Astaire, Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, Richy Jackson. It’s a collaboration, always. The lineage goes back and back, and it’s cyclical. Collaboration is this planet – we are collaborating right now.

"Dance belongs to those that came before us who used it to get through the darkest of times, and it belongs to anyone who is willing to want it"

Instagram has been a powerful way for you to expand your audience and your craft, but what has it been like to work on a longer, more multi-layered production?

I'm bored with and desensitised by Instagram. Clips of myself dancing alone in a studio make me feel nothing. I found myself falling out of love with dance this year but when I took a step back, it wasn’t dance that I was falling out of love with, but the way I was approaching it. I was constantly approaching it from inside of my own head while trying to push out “impressiveness” that could somehow fit into a sixty second clip. That's no formula for happiness. My heart isn’t there anymore because I grew tired of dancing for quick gratification. I got addicted to a synthetic form of love I felt from Instagram but, deep down, my soul was craving theatricality, stagecraft, other human beings, depth, fully developed ideas, research, and most importantly live exchange. I actually just deactivated my Instagram account: I want to keep my process more private moving forward. Instagram slowly became a place for death threats, body shaming, and hate comments. It wasn’t healthy to wake up to that commentary anymore. I couldn’t just “ignore them”. I would take each comment into the depth of my body and they really fucking hurt me. I take things personally because the art is personal.

I miss mystery and word of mouth. I wore multiple hats – choreographed, edited, directed, performed, helped color, sound designed – during this (extremely short: seven-hour) film process, but I loved every moment because I danced with friends. I am happiest when I can do that that. But I learnt everything from studying the men who were taught how to do this stuff. No one taught me how to edit or direct; I just taught myself from observation. And that needs to change. Give young women the same access to tech education as young boys.

I like that your work sidesteps hierarchies of presentation. An art museum, a dance studio with a camera on a tripod, a music video – these are as valid as any traditional dance context. What possibilities for dance do you see this fluid approach opening up?

I am starting to believe that dance doesn't belong in the studio anymore. When training as a ballet/modern dancer, of course you'll need sprung floors and daily classes in a studio, and these breed a certain type of excellence, but I want to leave the studio and indulge, and revisit dance as a social culture. Dance belongs in your kitchen, it belongs on the streets, in your head, on trains, in celebration, and in mourning: it belongs everywhere. Dance belongs to those that came before us who used it to get through the darkest of times, and it belongs to anyone who is willing to want it. It belongs to the next generation and it is our responsibility to educate.

Dance is becoming more popular in the mainstream media, which I think is a great thing for our community. But dance is sacred to me, and there is a line as to whether I feel dance is an integral part of a project or not. I'm not interested in projects where the dance aspect is pushed into the back corner. I've done that, been abused in those ways, and I'm done with that. I want dance, to fly, and I want us all to fly with it. There is room for all of us.

Your choreography is infused with an emotive, expressive relationality; Femme Debout , a queer, feminist, and even polyamorous expression of love, is a wonderful example. Love is a space of liberation, but it is also a site of possession. It is personal, but fundamentally public. How do you navigate these boundaries in your work?

I don't take my friends’ or dancers’ stories and call them my own. I integrate them as authentically as I can with respect to that person’s personal narrative. I let it all be told as it should be – not through telling dancers how to feel, but through structuring improvised moments that let dancers run wild within their own personal narratives. We’ve all walked a different world. It’s important for me to show that diversity but not to steal it.

What are you working on next?

My mental health. After this year of dreams coming true, I will reconsider my career path very deeply. I have many interests and it would be a shame not to explore them, and it would be a shame if I didn't continue to work on my mental health – and unfair to my wife, coworkers, friends, to my career and my body. I have severe panic attacks every time I try to fly and I get shaky speaking publicly. I'd rather be a little controversial and recluse through extreme mental health transparency while making the greatest work I can. I don’t want to be an actor in my daily life anymore. I feel grateful, excited, and privileged, but I have to be careful. My body and mind simply weren’t made for public pressure.

HARRY BURKE is a writer based in New York.

The film Femme Debout by Emma Portner was commissioned by Fondation Beyeler on the occasion of the exhibition “Bacon-Giacometti” and is a physical response to the works of the two visual artists: Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. The film is presented by The Creator Class, a global creative community for the new cultural economy. The exhibition “Bacon-Giacometti” is on view at the Fondation Beyeler until September 2, 2018.