Season Artist Profile: Paloma McGregor

In the months leading up to the start of our 2013 Main Stage season, I am once again profiling the creative minds behind our productions. The final installment of the 2013 Season Artist Profile series introduces you to choreographer Paloma McGregor, whose movement work on last summer’s Spunk helped make it one of the liveliest productions in our nearly-40-year history. This season, she again teams up with her sister, director Patricia McGregor, for our production of A Winter’s Tale.

What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Paloma. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

Stefanie Kalem: What are your most recent, current, and upcoming projects?

Paloma McGregor; photo courtesy of Angela's Pulse.

Paloma McGregor; photo courtesy of Angela's Pulse.

Paloma McGregor: I rounded out last year with two exciting projects: 

In September, I directed a devised performance work about food systems at UC Berkeley, developed during a five-week residency with three dozen participants from across the Bay Area. In October, I was invited to show a work-in-progress development of my latest Angela’s Pulse project, Building a Better Fishtrap, at St. Mark’s Church as part of Danspace Project’s DraftWork series. Fishtrap, based on my father’s fishing stories and my memory of building a small fishtrap as a child, is a performance work that explores water, memory, and home, as well as examines what we take with us, leave behind, and reclaim. I have been developing the piece for more than a year. In December, with support from the Jerome Foundation, I traveled home to St. Croix to do more research for the project, including spending two weeks as a fisherman’s apprentice. I will continue developing the work this year, involving Patricia in the text development and dramaturgy, and plan to premiere the work in the 2014–15 season.

Also this year, Patricia and I are excited to spend time in June, July, and August at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, developing a new musical together (our latest Angela’s Pulse endeavor). The piece is based on the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case on mixed-race marriage. At a time when marriage rights are once again at a historical crossroads, we will revisit this political precedent, and the young black woman and white man who had to choose a quiet life apart or the fight of their lives.

I joined NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics as a yearlong Artist in Residence, researching embodied memory, agency, and cultural reclamation.

And…I’m still dancing, collaborating as a performer two works that premiere this Spring: How to Lose a Mountain, choreographed by Cassie Meador, artistic director of Dance Exchange, and last days/first field, choreographed by Jill Sigman. 

SK: Had you any experience with designing movement for an outdoor stage before Spunk? How was Spunk/Cal Shakes different? What were the challenges or advantages specific to choreographing for our stage?

IndomitablePM: I grew up in a culture of public performance. In St. Croix, formal parades and informal “tramps” at Carnival time are an integral part of community life. My first major performance as a child dancer was in an outdoor theater, Island Center, the same stage that Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem performed on. Two summers ago, I brought those experiences to my work as choreographer for Indomitable: James Brown, a show Patricia directed for SummerStages in New York. The show involved—among other things—a soul train line that the audience could join. With Cal Shakes, I was able to build on these experiences with the added gift of time: I had weeks to work in the actual performance space, during which I could consider the setting, stage, scenic design, lighting, and costumes in my movement development.

SK: What’s your experience with Shakespeare—watching it, working with it—in general, and A Winter’s Tale in specific?

PM: My first introduction to Shakespeare was the witches’ chant from Macbeth—”Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”—which I used to recite when I was maybe 5 or 6, as though it were a nursery rhyme! Later, in high school, King Lear drew me in with its tragic reflections of love, justice, and betrayal. I saw A Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare in the Park a few years ago, and delighted in its magic and wit.

SK: What can you tell me about your thinking about the Cal Shakes production this early in the game? What role will movement play in the story? What other early thoughts can you share?

Aldo Billingslea, Omoze Idehenre, and Tyee Tilghman in Cal Shakes’ SPUNK; photo by Kevin Berne.

Aldo Billingslea, Omoze Idehenre, and Tyee Tilghman in Cal Shakes’ SPUNK; photo by Kevin Berne.

PM: I often say that characters reveal themselves in their bodies first, before they ever say a word. I am excited to develop and differentiate the two worlds of this piece—Sicilia and Bohemia—by distinguishing the ways their people walk, stand, sit, revel, fume … and dance.

SK: I understand you were a journalist for a time. What kind of writing did you do? I’m thinking of that famous quote (attributed to everyone from Martin Mull to Thelonious Monk to Laurie Anderson) that says “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—but is there any way that journalism and dancing intersect? The skills you use, the perspective you need? Or do they engage completely different parts of your brain and body?

PM: I like to think of the brain as just another important part of the body. So being a dancer allows me to use my full body to hone the skills I practiced as a journalist: listening deeply and to everything, obsessing over details, noticing subtle shifts, adjusting to what the circumstances require, being efficient and creative, thinking and acting fast, and synthesizing multiple layers of information to make a legible statement. Good storytelling, whether in the body or on the page, necessitates patience, persistence, and grace.

SK: What was the first piece of dance or performing arts that you saw that inspired you to think, “I want to be a part of that”?

Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun

Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.

PM: As a young child in St. Croix, I saw Alvin Ailey perform. After the show, I took my autograph book back to have the dancers sign it. They were all so beautiful and kind, and I knew one day I wanted to be like them. Every time I sign a program for a child now, I think of that moment.

My first memory of going to see theater was Annie Get Your Gun, probably when I was 6 or 7. The lead character was so dynamic, funny, and brave, and I believe she shaped some of my early notions of what a strong, sassy woman was capable of—ideas that stick with me today. I remember that show when I think about the impact I want my work to have.

SK: What or who inspires you right now? Any particular writers, music, current events, people, et cetera?

PM: My mom and sister are always an inspiration when I think about working with purpose, integrity and compassion. My current project is tangling with objects and sites as containers of memory, so visual artists are inspiring me a great deal, particularly Theaster Gates and El Anatsui. The slow, powerful work that’s happening around developing, supporting, and perpetuating sustainable environmental practices inspires me each day.

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