by Aiano Nakagawa
hers and hers is a San Francisco based queer feminist dance collective. I first saw them at the ODC Pilot Program showcasing their piece Gen, Ryan, Inez, Dylan, Salome, or Quinn. Their message, their movement, and their medium of communication left me feeling empowered and hungry for more. I got to sit down with the founders, Melissa Lewis and Courtney King, and share a meal where I got to know more about their queer feminist dance collective, their friendship, and their artistic process. I had a blast getting to know them and am honored to share this interview with you all.
Aiano Nakagawa: What do hers and hers do and why do you do it?
Courtney King: We do a lot of things, [but] mainly we make dance - like performances. We also, on our website, have a blog and we use that to explore other things. We like visit[ing] events and writ[ing] about them. [And we have] the Choreographer's Playbook ---
Melissa Lewis: -- featuring other choreographers that we admire who are doing really awesome work and [we have]…
CK: the photo series.
ML: Yeah that’s the other medium I’d say we use most.
CK: Well Melissa takes photos, I don’t take photos.
ML: Lots of film photography.
CK:We like to interview people a lot.
ML: Yeah, [we are] a lot of other things [in addition to] the dance collective.
CK: It depends on our schedules and timing, but we try to do all of them all the time. [We're] probably going to start a new photo series [this summer].
ML: Yeah when we started [hers and hers] it was more just the two of us performing our own work. It was very much [a] personal reflection of what was going on --
CK: -- a diary on stage --
ML: (Laughs) Yeah, a diary on stage.
ML: And I feel like we’ve been trying to expand it from those really personal things. [We have recently been asking ourselves] what are the themes and how can we expand it to other bodies and dancers --
CK: -- and communities?
ML: and communities!
AN: How did you two meet and why did you decide to start a hers and hers with one another?
CK: (raises eyebrow and nods head) okay (laughs). We met at University of San Francisco. We were in a performance together with Malinda LaVelle who currently runs Project Thrust. It was my birthday…? And [Melissa] brought banana bread to the rehearsal [for me]. I just remember at the time, it was really in the beginning, I was a freshman and [Melissa] was a sophomore. She used to come in late a lot. It [wasn't] like a [flustered] “I’m late ahhg!” but it was more like she had so many things going on. [She] had a job at the time, this ambassador thing, and [she’d] come in [to dance] and take off [her] pants. [She] would have these lace shorts underneath and I remember just being like “This girl is so cool. She wears two pairs of pants. She’s ready to dance!”
ML: I think being in that piece together was really formative for both of us.
CK: It was huge, I mean really therapeutic. And that’s [how] we became friends, because of Malinda, the process, going to see dance shows together, and talking about our broken hearts.
ML: [Malinda] is still very much a part of our consciousness as makers --
CL: The physicality of her pieces are just really human and I think we try to continue that. It was kind of hard because for forever we were trying to copy her and eventually [we were] like “No, we have to be ourselves.” But we started talking about creating a company three years ago when we were sitting and listening to a talk [by] this woman. She’d just come back from Europe and was saying something like “You should never go into the arts, because you’ll never get paid…”
ML: She kept saying “precarious!”
CL: Yeah, (laughs) “Everything’s precarious!” “Don’t go into the arts - you’ll just get screwed over.” And I remember I had my journal and I wrote to Melissa and was like “Maybe we should start a dance company... when we graduate?” Then I slid it over to her. (Laughs) I still have it, it’s probably in one of my old journals, is it in --
ML: -- yeah, I think it’s in --
CK & ML at the same time: The blue one!
CK: Yeah, so there was just like this agreement in my personal journal where it was like “okay we’ll do that later” and then [Melissa] graduated and we kind of just started…
AN: So the reason you chose each other was because...
ML: It’s always started with the personal.
CK: Yeah, we just gravitated towards one another really naturally. It just seemed like the natural next step in our friendship, our personal goals, what we’re interested in… I’ve never really questioned it before. I sometimes have people tell me stuff like “Oh I always knew you guys would make art together.” And I’m always a bit surprised, like I didn’t even totally see it coming, it just [happened].
AN: What does your choreographic process look like? Do you use improvisation, collaboration, prompts, free writing? How do you generate your movement?
ML: It’s a lot of those things that you mentioned. For this most recent work we were sort of in the experimental phase up until a few weeks before the show, making changes and trying new things. It started with free-writing and sharing, just getting to know each other. I feel it’s really important to actually understand who our collaborators and dancers are and to have them know each other [as well].
CK: [We generate movement] with the dancers directly. Sometimes [we're] literally forming them as it’s happening. Like creating directly, right in the now. And then other times we ask [the dancers] to contribute. We have different ways of asking them to do that [through] words, movement prompts, [etc].
ML: I’ve always been really responsive to having a series of words and then making phrases from that list of words. That was definitely part of our process.
CK: I’m super visual. [Sometimes] I have to step out and it’s like I get hit. [Melissa,] you’ve seen it so many times when I get hit in the face by the right thing to do or the right image, and then I have to try to create it. Sometimes it doesn’t happen.. It really doesn’t happen.
ML: To be honest though, I think that movement isn’t our first instinct. Like we have to get ourselves moving, but we work really visually. [We do things] like set up things on stage, [try] different relationships, or more theatrical things. [We also use] texts. That’s always been part of our work so far, writing these epic poems. These things happen and they’re really clear to us, but one of our biggest challenges is to get ourselves dancing.
AN: In your piece "Gen, Ryan, Inez, Dylan, Salome, or Quinn", one of the dancers recites a monologue about this seemingly perfect person. How did you come up with this text?
CK: I was thinking about the perfect person. Not [someone] you lust after or anything, [but she’s] that person who you used to go to school with, you could work with them, or you don’t even really know them [but] you see them around and you’re like “Oh god, they just do everything right.” And for some reason whenever they see you you’re sweating, or running somewhere, or didn’t get much sleep last night and [you] haven’t brushed your teeth in two days and are like “Aghhh! She’s probably in the same situation [as me], but she’s doing it so much better!”... having that moment of just like putting that person on a pedestal and not even knowing them. I just kind of sectioned her out into categories.
ML: [For example] What does she dress like?
CK: Does she exercise? What does she eat? What’s her relationship with her family? Is she dating? How does she date? How smart is she? What does she do in her free time? How does she treat you? What does it seem like she would be doing on a Saturday when you’re sleeping and she’s been up for four hours already like? All these things. So [we] section[ed] her off and kind of [gave] it to the [dancers]. [We] asked them “what would her name be?” Then [we got] all their responses and listen[ed] to what they said. Then [we took] it all and compiled it. It was huge. We kept filing it down and then tried to find how it could still be sincere, how you can still mean it, how this person can still exist, and also [how to] share [it] with the audience. She’s not real, she’s a joke, and also she kind of sucks. She’s not the best. [That process] was kind of hard [and] it took a long time. There was so much information about her.
ML: I think the humor of it is what hopefully makes it relatable and allows people to have an entry point.
AN: I am noticing as a trained dancer I’m terrified to vocalize or make sound on stage. I was thinking about why and I realized I’m really comfortable taking up physical space, but there’s a whole other space that is filled by sound that I have been taught to not occupy as a dancer and a woman. I am curious about your choice to have a dancer vocalize? What that some sort of statement?
ML: I feel the text and it’s content are things that are so internalized that we don’t talk about [them], they’re not voiced in the open. It feels like a strong choice to have somebody sort of getting worked up about and saying it to the audience --
CK: And [she's] saying it in the [same] space where there’s a mannequin that can’t talk. So that kind of juxtaposes these two things. [A mannequin] can’t move itself and can’t speak for itself, but it's on display. Then there’s this woman who’s kind of doing everything opposite.
ML: Having the audience have to take this in and understand what the text is saying and have their own reaction to the dancer reading the monologue and work with their own judgements of her and in real time deal with how she’s delivering the text and the feelings.
AN: Any ideas on how we can break past the ideas we project onto people? When I heard the monologue I understood it as everyone I know through social media, but don’t know in real life. How do you think we can move past this self destructive behavior?
ML: I guess one thing is that is true of the text is... the stepping back moment and realizing that it’s ridiculous. It’s not possible to have all of these qualities and be a real person. It’s just impossible. [We need to take] it lightly.
CK: I think the first line of the text is, “She shows up. She’s early, but just late enough.” So [she’s] all these things made up of so many contradictions. She’s just a woman made up of contradictions. [It’s about] starting to recognize that there’s a spectrum of perfect and you’re in there.
ML: [We] created the list together and in the list of all these attributes [are] little parts of each of the dancers. Then collectively something formed. I think supporting each other, being like “Yeah! You’re awesome!”, and being able to step up for each other in that way [just in everyday life] is really important. Showing up, being really loving and curious about each other, and [acknowledging] we are all super awesome and working on this thing together has been really powerful. I think that [kind of relationship] is helpful in this question of not hating and being critical, 'cause that’s real.
CK: [Aiano,] it’s interesting you bring up social media, though. Just that it was something that you thought about. All these people that you don’t really know, but for some reason you have tabs on in your internet life. I think that was something we talked about while costuming the piece, we thought “Well we really love to dress up.” We were going to have them in like evening gowns or like lacy, sexy clothes. We had all these ideas and then we just decided “Well it’s about modern young women. Why wouldn’t they be dressed how they would be?”
AN: I loved witnessing your cast, they were super fierce. How did you all come together?
ML: Some of the dancers we knew and some we didn’t.
CK: We started with open rehearsals.
ML: So we just invited people --
CK: -- our friends,
ML: -- to sort of have an evening with us. We warmed up together, we talked, did some phrase work, did some choreographic stuff. We had a few of those and it was helpful because it showed us who --
CK: When we were deciding who to work with it was kind of like noticing who had been there all along. Like who had been a supported the entire time. Even if they hadn’t been there, how did they still show up?
ML: It was pretty magical seeing how they all connected and are now connected.
CK: I think that one of my favorite things we do is this exercise where for a minute you’re meant to just talk at someone. They’re just meant to receive it and not respond or anything. Not like [a] bored [response], but just nothing. I think those are always really helpful. You get so much from someone when they’re like "Here, this is how I woke up this morning.” I don’t know, it’s just nice. [I think} those kind of activities really helped.
ML: Yeah, It was a really lovely group. Really different energies, backgrounds, and instincts as performers. I feel like it was a really nice balance.
AN: What are your hopes for the future of hers and hers? Dreamworld.
CK: I think… we should probably… get… fiscally sponsored.
ML: (sounding overwhelmed) Oh my god.
CK: (playfully mimics Melissa) Oh ma god!
CK: Yeah, eventually. Maybe.
ML: Eventually. Whoo.
CK: We haven’t talked about that in a while… The future...
ML: That was like the textbook answer.
CK: I know, I know, but I just thought about it around the show like “Hmm... I want to be able to pay [the dancers] every time.” And if we want more props I don’t want us to feel like we need to buy a mannequin from Maryanne’s. That would kind of nice I think.
ML: Yeah, I think we should do that.
CK: What else do you want [Melissa]? What do you want?
ML: Well I think it would be nice to make another ensemble work because that was our first one. [I want us to] get settled in our choreographic [process], how we work together, [and] just settle into that flow and relationship and how we can do that best. Going back to the beginning there was definitely a spark when we work together and I think that growing into how we actually choreograph together is something that I am always looking forward to and seeing how it builds and changes. [I] just [want] to be making more work and finding people who connect to it and are really excited about it.
CK: I’m curious who we’ll work with next… Scheduling.
AN: If you need a dancer….
CK: We’ll keep that in mind, thank you.
ML: Yeah I guess that's on the dance side of things, but I’m also really excited for [eventually] taking a break [to do] some research and photography, and seeing if that will yield inspiration for choreographing.
CK: Yeah I really think it will --
ML: (jokingly whispers) -- change us forever…
CK: -- It will be nice for us to take some time to inform ourselves 'cause feminism is ever changing and there’s so much response to it - just to engage with would be nice. Instead of contributing to the whole thing, [I want to] just step back and see what’s being created or responded to, especially right now.
AN: Yeah, there’s so much happening now and so much popping up all over the place.
CK: Yeah, there’s a lot of commentary about that as well just that it’s a “hot” word right now.
ML: Yeah it’s like "trendy" at the moment.
CK: "Trendy," that’s a good word [for it].
AN: How do you support each others' needs as friends and artists? How do you make sure you’re each feeling safe, happy, loved, and creative?
CK: It’s been a weird year.
CK: Well I have a full time job and it was just ridiculous. I feel like I wasn’t able to help [Melissa] with as much administrative work as I wish I could have. I feel like [Melissa] naturally has this talent that… I don’t know how [she] do[es] it, I get really bored. But [Melissa] is so scrappy, like “So… I found another thing we can apply to!” and I’m like “Never heard of it!” and then she’ll be like “We have to fill this out!” I studied communications in college and I love writing [so] whenever I can put words together it’s really nice. Melissa’s also super fucking great with Instagram and social media and that’s like sort of my job, but I really don’t like it very much. But she’s also a photographer, so there’s like these things that... I don’t know, I always wonder what can I bring.
ML: (Reassuringly) No, no, no, no, no… It’s just been a really hard year transition wise, for both of us. I feel like it’s all a part of it. I mean having a dance collective where you’re trying to make something creatively but also let other people know about it, that’s a lot of work.
CK: Just to exist in the Bay Area, like to get recognized as a dance thing.
ML: Yeah! Even just to be living here, but that’s another conversation...
CK: That with the balance of dance --
ML: -- Yeah, it’s so fucking hard.
CK: It’s really hard. Really hard.
ML: And sometimes I feel like all we’re doing is trying to get by.
CK: And how are you enjoying living in the city? Like how can you enjoy yourself while you’re trying to survive? And then balance that with like selling yourself constantly --
ML: -- as an entrepreneur --
CK: -- yeah, or as an artist.
ML: It’s a lot, but I feel like we’ve just had to figure out what that balance is at different moments [and] step up like “Oh we have to apply to this thing so I’m going to work on this. Courtney, I’m going to need you to like look over it and then we’re just going to send it cause we’re so busy and” --
CK: -- I feel like we at least connect in the beginning [of the process] because when you’re apply for things you have to know what you’re going to do beforehand. So there’s this moment of like "Alright we need to sit with one another and know what we want to do." That’s what we had to do before this piece like, "What are you interested in?" "Uhh.. I don’t know?"
CK: For a long time we’d go to these personal rehearsals and just talked about how we didn’t know what we wanted to do.
ML: And then slowly things would come to the surface, like [our] conversation about saying sorry and how that turned into this piece that we made.
CK: Positions wise…
ML: I think we’re still trying to figure that out.
CK: Outside of business partners, we actually just talked about this, we haven’t had any time to just hang out --
MK: -- and not talk about dance --
CK: -- and just sit. Like we’ve actually been working.
AN: Can you talk a little more about this whole saying sorry conversation?
ML: It just came up when we were talking --
CK: -- it was a comic.
ML: Oh! Wait really?
CK: Yeah. This girl sent me a little comic of this woman [with] a little [conversation] bubble and it was like “Sorry” and the next image was like “sorry, sorry, sorry” and then the last one was like, you couldn’t even see her anymore she was saying sorry so many times. I think at the time both of us had just talked about how we felt like we were saying sorry for no reason at all --
ML: --like all the time.
CK: Because we were being nice.
ML: And [we weren't apologizing for] anything in particular. It was like this automatic thing that would come out. I still do it I think.
CK: It’s like this automatic thing. But I think that conversation grew to be a lot larger. We started thinking about how women are expected to say sorry --
ML: and be courteous --
CK: -- and respectful --
ML: -- and a good hostesses--
CK: -- and there’s all these ways that women are supposed to fit in and --
ML: -- constantly be apologizing for their bodies, or how they look, or how they act. Like everything.
CK: Then we started to ask “How do their bodies represent the ‘sorry’? Like how does it show through the body?”
ML: And that’s where the theme of apologetic/unapologetic came for the the ODC [Pilot Program] shows.
CK: We really expanded out of that though, because I don’t totally see the original themes from the beginning. When I was watching it [during] one of the runs I thought about how just the word “bitch” is… Who says bitch?
CK: She said it really big that time and it got really noticed. For that run I used it as my theme because it really stuck out and specifically that word when it’s used against a woman. It's interpreted so differently both in the corporate world or when you’re walking on the street. I’ve been called a bitch so many times and never really understood why. It also hurts my feelings, I take it so personally and it will be for something I don’t even know I did. I don’t know... that was just one thing, but how can we take that word and own it versus apologize for it? Cause why should it be something we need to apologize for? If it means anything, it means that we’re empowering.
AN: In my own work, the piece I created for my undergrad was based on the book Women Who Run With the Wolves. The author has her PhD is psychotherapy, but studied wolves for like twenty years in their natural habitat and has drawn all these connections between women and wolves. In the book she writes about the word “Bitch” as literally translating to “female dog” or “female wolf.” So if you’re a wolf (bitch) it means you’re in tune with your intuition. You’re your most fierce, powerful, and creative self. That’s how I’ve come to understand the word and am really proud to identify as a bitch.
AN: Your website features some really amazing photographs, beautiful interviews, and intriguing blog posts. Can you speak a bit more about your post “How Can Making Dance Be a Feminist Act?”
ML: I think dance can be a hugely feminist act not only in its process of how it’s made, but how we chose to represent what’s on stage. Speaking to the process, I think there’s something really powerful about gathering a group of people in [a] space that’s really open, supportive, and inquisitive of each person’s experiences, and asking [each person] to contribute is really feminist and really awesome. I think that not all processes of making work are like that and I feel that’s something to stand up for and something that we believe in. It’s not just about the dance that’s on stage, but about what happens in the rehearsal, in the dancer’s lives, and how all of that comes to life. The whole other side of it is the work that actually gets made and the themes that [we] chose to address or not address, how [we] handle the content that [we] want to put up there, how [we] chose to represent the bodies [we] have on stage and not reinforcing stereotypes.
AN: What is a challenge you find yourself coming up against?
ML: It’s just so hard, the financial thing. That’s the question mark of the year… of the century.
CK: I wonder if it will ever shift in San Francisco, because everything’s been bubbling up so much recently.
AN: It’s also hard for dance artists in general. I feel like we’re kind of the least respected on the "artist hierarchy."
ML: And it requires so much more --
CK: -- you have to have a space --
ML: -- to dance and have the time. It’s so much.
AN: Can you share an artist who has been feeding you lately?
Courtney: Miguel Gutierrez. He’s a cool guy. He’s doing great things with the queer body and dance. He’s a very interesting man.
ML: He’s so smart.
CK: I went to his thing at Counterpulse. He’s such a great communicator, super engaging. Total weirdo - in the most respectful way possible - total weirdo.
ML: It was a little while ago, I went to a show at Counterpulse, this artist from LA named Marina Magalhaes showed this work called “Unbridaled” where she had a cast of six dancers who were mainly Latina identified women and it was a work about a lot of similar themes of being unapologetic, but also about the Latina experience and growing up in that kind of cultural family setting, and having a reaction to that. It was feminist with super strong dancing --
CK: You know what, I’m going to interrupt you.
CK: I just thought of someone who we could talk about. I mean it’s not huge, but when we went to see Maligrad Contemporary Dance all the of physicality of that was like “whoa that was amazing.” She’s just coming back from something abroad, but she’s working with [one of our dancers] from hers and hers and we went to go see it and it was just such an, oh god… the physicality is just so committed and full. Just so full. And when we’re talking about fierce… it’s like on fire. That was really cool. That was fun. Sorry I interrupted you.
ML: That’s okay!
CK: But I remember you talking about [Marina Magalhaes] when you first saw it.
ML: There’s this section that just blew my mind! There was this one girl who started this chant and the dancer - I’m going to mess it up… But she was like “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK. NOT A SINGLE FUCK. I DON’T GIVE A FUCK. NOT A SINGLE FUCK, MOTHERFUCKER.” and it just kept going on a loop and then all six of the dancers were singing it and it was just so amazing! And I’d never seen anything like that on stage, ever. There were never that many fucks not being given by strong women in front of an audience.
ML: I definitely messed it up.
CK: I don’t give a fuck --
ML: -- not a single fuck!
AN: hers and hers is identified as a queer feminist dance collective, can you speak a little more to the “queer” part and why that was important for you to include that?
CK: It’s mainly how we approach creating movement. That’s such a boring answer (laughs). Yeah… so I got really into Miguel Gutierrez and I did all this research on the way that he creates his movements and shows us[ing] queer technique. When I went to go take a class with him, that’s what he was focusing on.
AN: Can you elaborate a little more on “queer technique?”
CK: I had looked into it a lot and read a lot on it. I was trying to use it to create a piece at the time. It’s just being aware of how you’re creating movement and trying to shift it. It’s basically non traditional. That sounds boring as well, but it’s like including the people in the room with you. It’s very vague. I Think we also said it was queer because we were thinking about sexuality as well and that spectrum. I think playing a large part for us. 'Cause I identify as queer, and [Melissa] what do you identify as?
ML: I'm not totally sure of the answer because I am an ally, of course, always, but I've been in this year or so of asexual/questioning.
CK: [Melissa] is actually part of the reason… [She] suggested we go to this thing to talk about LGBTQ and straight allies. I had just come out. I was like (takes a deep breath) “okay…” and it was so helpful to me. I was terrified. I will always remember that moment standing in that room with you being like “what’s going on?”
CK: It’s like I was learning about myself. (Laughs) But yeah, it’s a technique, but also an identity. And I mean people who want to be part of hers and hers don’t have to identify as queer - I would hope they identify as feminist - and they don’t have to be woman. I think we worried about that, especially calling ourselves hers and hers. It was like, are we calling upon people who only identity as woman with nothing else or pronouns? There’s all this stuff and it’s so political, but it felt right to call it hers and hers. I hope people don’t think that we’re leaving them out. I wonder what will happen with gender? Like I really do. I wonder. Especially right now.
To keep up with hers and hers - their writing, their dancing, their photos, and their shows, visit their website here.