Dance Beyond The Stage: An Interview with MFA Candidate Meg Kirchhoff

Published November 17, 2021

MFA Dance candidate Meg Kirchhoff.

MFA Dance candidate Meg Kirchhoff

Meg Kirchhoff is a modern dancer, educator and choreographer. She is invested in the exploration of somatic understanding and dance collaboration. Recent projects include a cross-country dance-theatre collaboration that utilized projection to join audiences in Philadelphia and Minneapolis. Meg holds a degree in Dance from St. Olaf College and certifications in Yoga and Pilates Instruction.

Though the production is collaborative, Kirchhoff is the director of this fall’s MFA Dance Showcase at UB Katharine Cornell Theatre on November 19 and 20, 2021. In the days leading up to the show we interviewed Meg about her dance work, research interests, and ongoing studies at UB as a third-year MFA Dance candidate, towards her thesis work in spring 2022.

Theatre and Dance (THD): From your biography on the THD website you’re a self-described modern dancer, educator, and choreographer, and interested in the exploration of somatic understanding and dance collaboration. For the lay person, can you elaborate on what somatic understanding is?

Meg Kirchhoff (MK): Somatic comes from the word “soma.” Soma just means “body,” so somatics are body-centered practices. And they're not just dance. Things like yoga, meditation and Tai-Chi are all under the umbrella of somatic practices. When I say somatically-focused what that means for me is sensation: touch, hearing, taste, and sound.

THD: When you say that I feel like I see it in your choreography because, as a non-dancer, I might almost describe it as mix between dance, yoga, and meditative practice. And that's where your interest lies?

MK: Totally, yes. And I think my interest in performance is pushing the boundaries of how entertaining a performance needs to be, or what it means to perform somatic movement, because often it's a tool that's used in studio practice. It's a solo practice and very internal. I think it's beautiful to do, to facilitate, and I like watching that sort of movement too. That’s always where (I am)–“How do I make somatics a performance event also?”

I want my work to be something that non-dancers are interested in watching or feel like they have access into. I also feel that part of what I’m trying to create is an experience where the audience brings themselves and their experiences and perception of the world to it, and (I) leave space for them to make their own connections about what they're seeing.

I don't work very narratively. (The meaning) is whatever the performance makes you (an audience member) feel, and that's valid. I’m interested in slowness and pushing the boundaries of how long I can have somebody watch, because I think it’s interesting to think about attention and how long people will stay invested.

THD: Is that in any way a reaction to the pace and noise of our modern sci-fi world?

MK: Oh totally. I have a separate project with a friend; we have a “slow forms” collaboration that we're always working on. We go on different social media platforms and use them in a not-intended way. We’re trying to slow it down. Tik Tok now lets you make one-minute long videos, but they prefer that they're fifteen seconds. You feel it when you’re on it (Tik Tok)-that quick pacing, and as soon as you feel bored you can (immediately) swipe to the next one.

So we've been making these very long, slow videos, like one of the rain for a minute and a half. Not a lot of people are watching them, but some are. I'm investing in that in that idea of attention, or disrupting that. We're bringing people's attention to the fact that we're (as a society) in a very set pattern and it's very quick.

I'm interested in whether performance can facilitate different sorts of physical experiences for the person watching. For example, do you feel like you’ve slowed down after seeing it?

THD: It's a timely thing because of where we are with technology and social media. Which is kind of making us all quick fix addicts. On a related note, there seems to be a running theme in your work, whether intentional or not, of this desire for reconnection with nature. I see it in your video piece Fleeting and Unfolding, on the beach (see embed below), and then in another video in nature with winter imagery. Most of your dance films / videos have a heavy outdoor element.

MK: Totally, yes. I think my interest in somatics led me down this more niche somatic world of “eco-somatics.” Specifically thinking about the body in relation to the world. I guess the more I've gone down that path it’s important to think about the natural world as not separate from us, or that it’s this thing outside of us, but that we're always interrelated with our environment. The effects that we're having on the people around us, but then also the physical landscapes and ecologies in very subtle and constant ways.

For example, breath is something that I think about all the time. How we're always exchanging with the world. With breath, it's something you don't have to think about to be doing, and the pandemic has made this very clear, like just being in a space and breathing around other people has a very real physical effect. Then the studio is also an environment, and the stage is an environment. I think of those spaces the same way and (by) putting dancers in natural spaces in dance film I try to make that point clear to the audience that I'm thinking about the spaces that we're in.

"Fleeting and Unfording," a Dance Film by Meg Kirchhoff. Created for the Zodiaque Dance Company fall 2021 concert at UB Center for the Arts.

THD: You also recently did a cross-country dance theatre collaboration. Please tell me about it.

MK: Yes, that’s the same person I make the slow Tik Toks (videos) with. I did the project a few years ago, before video meetings became a regular thing (during COVID-19). My friend lived in Philadelphia and I lived in Minneapolis and we devised a live show where the other person was projected on screen through Google Hangouts. It was two shows happening at the same time, and the other person was videoed in.

THD: You were remote on each other’s show from a distance?

MK: Yes, and it was the same show, but obviously both of us were in that lead character role (based on location), and we played with that element, chance operations, and by using interaction, including having the audiences in both spaces interact. It was super fun and we did it at a few different fringe festivals, so they were intimate spaces.

THD: Was it a dance show?

MK: It was a dance theater piece; there was movement and there was also text. It was kind of a piece about the making of the piece. The text was about remembering what it was like when we created the initial movement phrases and then put them back into our bodies. There was an element of memory and friendship. We had some lines that were set, and some of it was just kind of our (improvisational) back and forth.

That's more and more my interest in choreography. It’s less that I come in with a whole (pre)set work and more that I give prompting questions or imagery or structures that we build upon. Those are my favorite moments, in the moment. Kind of magical, performative moments.

With live performance the show always varies, but I think when what you're trying to accomplish is so strict (with entirely fixed choreography) there's a different kind of anxiety for me like, “Am I going to be able to do it?” Whereas “improvisation anxiety” feels exciting to me! Again, the feeling is, “Am I going to do it?!” But it’s open, and exciting.

THD: Yes, there’s always an aspect of “playing a character” in the piece you're presenting, but you can use a little more of how you actually feel in that very moment on stage.. You can put it right in, and that feels truthful. It's closer to how you actually are then being fully preset.

I think that speaks to what you're doing in your videos too because, especially with Fleeting and Unfolding, that definitely feels like a reconnecting with nature, and kind of peaceful. Some of the movement reminded me of what might be considered a ritual or something from the past. Something pre-technology. It also seemed to be largely improvised.

MK: Yes, concept wise I came into that thinking about the idea of “contact zones.” If we can create spaces to say, “This is the exploration zone,” and the dancer (should be) thinking about the texture of sand and then allowing that encounter to unfold instead of trying (for a specific result). You’re not trying to be the sand, you’re trying to authentically respond to the feeling of being there. We played with structures about how to get into these improvisations but everything we filmed was improvised.

I felt that if I set material in the studio and then brought it out to the beach that would be one thing, but what movement is generated when you start on the beach? So that it really comes from a relationship to the place.

THD: Again, it's more about being in the moment, in the space, in the day.

MK: I think of the editing process as the choreography. The other movement thing that I’m coaching is a stripping away of this contemporary technical aesthetic. I hope that it feels, as you were saying “ritualistic,” or it feels (connected to the past). I’m hoping that's because it's coming from a deeper place. It’s not just, “This is how I show I’m a dancer. I lift my leg up really high.” Which is entertaining and beautiful and I also want to watch, but I’m interesting in that deeply human, non-stylized movement, which is the style which I’m cultivating. But I don’t like to use the word “natural” or “authentic” movement, because that’s very culturally coded.

THD: Is that style that you're talking about-do you feel at this moment that it's more unique to you-or is there some kind of broader “movement” with more people embracing this approach?

MK: I place that in the somatic. That to me is what makes it somatic movement. And I think the more somatics develops as a field, the more (we may) see trends in terms of movement.

All humans are dancers, because we are all movers. We all have a sense of recognizing movement and interpreting movement. What dance has done is given me the vocabulary and the skills to be really good at that-but everyone is capable of it-so I think when you watch dance, you will naturally have a reaction to it. If you can let yourself go to that level of just sitting in not knowing what it means.

THD: Ok, shifting the conversation a little, a lot of your recent work has been on video. Let’s talk a bit about dance on film.

MK: Yes, so many more people made dance on film during the pandemic year (because) they were (essentially) forced to. It really has shifted just in the last year. My film for the Zodiaque Dance Company concert this semester was screened as part of the live concert (with an audience). I don't know how other people feel about that but I don't mind having a few video works interspersed in an evening of live dance performance. To me that fits.

THD: Yes, it breaks it up and creates more variety in the program between live performers and pre-recorded pieces. You’re still at a live dance performance, but (when you watch a dance on film as part of a live concert) you’re having a slightly different, shared experience with the rest of the audience, as opposed to just being in your living room watching by yourself.

MK: Yes. And there are and have been dance film festivals (online) in the last year. One of the festivals I did was organized in New York City. (Due to the pandemic) it was a virtual festival, but they previously did live performance festivals. Next year they’ve decided to continue to do it online because-although it has always been an international festival-it mostly consisted of people from New York performing because that's who could travel there to do a live show. But when they made it a virtual show they said they had applicants from all across the world and they were able to show more of a range of artists from many countries, which was the goal when it began as a live event, but it just never really happened before. So I think that (the growth of virtual dance festivals) is a huge positive of this.

In this contemporary moment artists benefit when their (recorded) work goes viral (online). We have to learn how to live in a digital world and share our work in a digital world that also allows people to be paid. I get that that’s the rub. I hope we keep innovating ways to make it (our dance work) shareable and easy for people to see what other people are doing and working on.

THD: Changing topics, you were an artist-in-residence at Homestead National Park near Beatrice, Nebraska this summer, but first can we talk about the MFA Dance Showcase this weekend? Are you presenting new work at the MFA Showcase and what is your role as the show director?

MK: Yes, I’m presenting a draft of my thesis, which is a live performance work which may include video elements, but doesn’t at this time. I’m working with a composer so he'll be playing music live during the show. I've been working with film and I really like it, but it’s been two years since I’ve been able to work with a large cast in person, and I feel like I have to do it. I want to be in the studio (with a cast of dancers). I don't dislike making works for stage; it feels like a different challenge (than film). I wanted to take that on as my final project.

Yes, I am the director of the show though everybody has been working very collaboratively. I’m the point person. The MFAs have had to put the whole showcase together: figure out the tech, and do all the organizing and scheduling. Mounting a show, it's been fun and a lot of work!

MFA Dance candidate Meg Kirchhoff.

THD: The composer that you're working with for this piece-did that that come from the Public Humanities grant you recently received?

MK: Yes the grant is in support of the thesis project, so I’m using some of the grant money to pay Thomas Little. He’s a PhD student in composition in the Music Department. The music is more electronic / abstract. It’s funny too, because Thomas and I really gelled on the initial idea and then I’ve sort of shifted while he’s still going down that path, and it’s still working! (laughs)

He’s working with an old synthesizer and a theremin. It’s fun. He runs it through a computer program to create loops, and then a lot of it is in the moment because the (sounds the) theremin makes are based on where your hands are in space. It's been like a lot of trial and error which feels fun because there's this surprise, not-quite-set-ness to the music.

THD: So again, it fits your improvisational model, where you have a foundation of it set, but he's going to perform aspects of it live, including the theremin?

MK: Yes, and that environmental, in-the-moment reactivity is also at play; it's specifically honed to the music and the lights in the stage space. By the spring it’s going to be 25 minutes for the thesis concert, but right now it's about 12.

In my process it’s important for me to be up front that I don’t make this by myself. I can only do this because I’m in the room with these eight dancers. Yes, I’m the choreographer, but the role (can be very) broadly interpreted. I have four first year students, and then four other MFA students in my piece.

THD: How do you get a Public Humanities grant?

MK: It’s a SUNY system thing. We’re a cohort of people who have received the grant this year. I think there's five or six of us. We meet once a month and take turns sharing what we're working on. All the other people in the cohort are PhD students working on dissertations.

I was excited about this grant coming from a Humanities Institute, as opposed to an art specific organization, because the feedback I get on the work from people outside of the field is really useful and I like hearing about what other people are doing across the humanities disciplines.

THD: Right, because the recipients are not necessarily all artists or maybe you're the only one?

MK: Yes, I’m the only one. That's my trick! (laughs) I apply for things where I’m the one where they (the funders) say, “Oh, I don't know about that, tell me more!” It was the same thing with the Homestead National Park residency. I was the first dance artist they'd ever had. And they asked, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “I’ll show you!”

Homestead wants artists to come and be visible and work in the park and to present some sort of public program. What I proposed was somatic experience. I worked on site specific dance, and then I lead people through a kind of eco-somatic experience and hopefully gave them embodied tools for experiencing the park to coincide with the historical legacies that they're upholding and the ecological stories they're trying to tell and give people other access points into the park.

So I got to just hang out in Nebraska for two weeks, and I learned a lot about prairies and the Homestead Act, which was interesting.

"only for a while," a Dance Film by Meg Kirchhoff. Created at Homestead National Park, Beatrice, Nebraska.

THD: What was interesting about it?

MK: Well I'm from the Midwest, so I’ve been fed a steady diet of the pioneer story. (laughs) But thinking about how the Homestead Act is also so much the story of America. I don’t fully remember the statistic, but it was either forty or sixty percent of the west was homesteaded, broken up into these five-acre chunks, and then people were supposed to “better the land.” If you put a house on it and you put some fields up then that land was yours. That built an American middle class, but it also displaced Native Americans. It also transformed and destroyed the prairie ecosystem and turned all of this land that we thought of as useless and in need of cultivation from what it had been and sustained for thousands of years (before it was settled by Americans). It's also very American. Like the way that we've transformed our landscape, I think, is also part of the story of, “We control the land. This is our birthright. We belong to be here.”

So all of those things are overlapping in this little place in Nebraska in a really interesting way. It is the spot of the first homestead. It was the first plot of land that was given, and the most beautiful irony is that they’ve now chosen to honor this legacy by taking the original homestead and transforming it back to what it looked like before. I love that!

THD: What was the time period for that mass homesteading?

MK: Mid 1800s. And it just closed in Alaska in the ‘80s. You could homestead Alaska through 1981! And I believe Alaska opened to homesteading later than the rest of the country.

THD: Yes, it raises all kinds of interesting issues. Probably in those days they didn't see a prairie as having utility. But that was also what they knew at the time, because if you want to survive you have to go conquer your land and make it fruitful with crops or whatever, or build on it, so the idea of that being destructive probably didn't even enter their minds, or not the majority.

MK: Right. It wasn't malicious. That’s what I find interesting. That we felt like this was actually going to be really successful.

THD: And is in some sense (successful).

MK: Yes, right.

THD: But not without cost.

MK: Entirely, yes. And then in some places like Nebraska, very successful homesteading and there are still a lot of farms that started as homesteads. They have a genealogical search you can do at the Park while you're there, and I found out that my great grandfather homesteaded! Unsuccessfully! He gave up after a couple years, but I found the title.

A lot of people homesteaded in Florida, and none of them succeeded because they were trying to grow corn! (laughs) So we (the United States) learned a lot about agriculture in that period, too. Where things will work.

THD: Yes, and at that time, how would you know until you tried it?

MK: …until you did it on a massive scale, yes. And / or failed.

THD: When your grandfather didn't succeed did he have to essentially give the land back?

MK: Yes, so he didn't cultivate it long enough to own it. He stayed a couple of years. It was called “proving up.” You had to prove up the land, but he never did that. It was interesting, I did a whole family search, and he ended up driving stage coach out west. “Instead of keeping the farm I’m going to go to Montana and be a stagecoach driver!”

THD: Wow, that's really interesting. I feel like, for lots of reasons, that we are in a period of really digging back into the foundation of the country, and a lot of those energies, and a lot of things that haven't been thought about in 150 or 200 plus years all seem to be coming around for a reexamination, so it's interesting how this all fits in.

MK: Yes, and how are we telling stories, how do we want to be telling these stories? Dance, performance, and theatre-it's (all) storytelling. I'm interested in that in a lot of aspects of my life and so it’s fun when I can make it overlap (with the dance work I make).

THD: Okay, wrapping up, how did you first get into dance and decide to pursue it as a career, and what is your post-graduation goal?

MK: My (very) first memory is of being very small and watching a ballet class and then, according to my parents, I just begged them.

I don't remember choosing it, but just always loving it. And then it was never a conscious decision-it did become conscious later I think when I went to grad school-but even through undergrad, going out into the world and working, I never wanted to not dance. I thought about doing other things, and always couldn't quite give it up.

And then, as I was doing it all the time, I realized, “This is sustaining. This is something I want to keep doing. I just need the time and space to develop my skills as a teacher and an artist." That's what brought me back to school and UB.

And I'm hoping to work in higher education, because I like working with college age students. Being able to work with them physically in the studio is great. I also like the questions we get to ask about dance at the college level and the kinds of discussions that we're able to have. So that's my goal-to never leave school, but to be employed instead!