Interview with Allie Hankins and Rachael Dichter

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Interview with Allie Hankins and Rachael Dichter

By James Knowlton November 14, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


During TBA: 16 (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival), artist Allie Hankins performed a show titled Better to Be Alone Than to Wish You Were (2017). The piece had the movement of ripples, never reaching a climax. Instead, the performance flowed through reflections of desire, love, togetherness, and ultimately solitude. Hankins is preparing to premiere a new performance with San Francisco-based artist and collaborator Rachael Dichter. Their two practices will collide with When We (2017), in search of the possibility of something neither could have imagined alone. Below, fellow Portland artist James Knowlton prompts the pair about their collaborative process, with ruminations on humor, desire, and the palpable tensions that performance can produce.

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James Knowlton: Let's start with the basics. How did the two of you meet?

Allie Hankins: We first met in Portland at the TBA Festival in 2014. Rachael was here doing Larry Arrington’s SQUART show, and we met in a workshop the next day. Then we had some more time together the following summer, both at Dos Rios in California for some workshops and again outside of Berlin at Ponderosa for more workshops. It was at Ponderosa that we ended up working together a lot—we performed a few small things we made together—and a couple weeks after that, Rachael wrote to me and asked if I’d be interested in working on something together.

JK: I like to think about the origins of some of my closest working relationships. What were your impressions as you got to know one another, and what do you feel you both individually bring to this performance and partnership?

Rachael Dichter: We were all dancing, shaking together, and I saw Allie across the room. She was wearing a worker’s jumpsuit and looked strong, focused. I remember her eyes. We didn’t get to know each other until about a year later, but I kept remembering her eyes. They were penetrating. They stayed with me.

My first impressions of Allie were that she was powerful and lightning quick. I think we’re both slow burns—you get to know us slowly. As we’ve gotten to know each other better, other things have come to light as well: her wit, vulnerability and caring, and her empathy. But the first impressions have also held true. There’s an intensity and a richness to Allie that I appreciate and feel like I’m still exploring. There’s also a quickness and a creativity that she brings to the relationship that’s great. She is often quite funny onstage, and I love that. I love that suggestion and that influence. It helps me to take myself less seriously, which feels like such a gift.

AH: My first impression of Rachael was that she’s a no-bullshit person. She struck me as incredibly confident and also very kind. She can engage easily with everyone she meets, and she has a sincere interest in people. She’s open, curious, persistent, and integrous. Rachael brings a steadfast presence to the work, and a commitment to crafting image. She’s capable of holding people’s attention for long stretches of time, and she’s excellent at combing through details and calibrating duration of events. She sees details in a way that I overlook. It’s hard for me to know what I bring. On my worst days, I’d say that all I bring is mood swings and a bad attitude. On my better days, I might say that I bring a free-associative approach that allows me to find absurdity, and an ability to layer and flesh out seemingly simple actions.

Allie Hankins and Rachael Dichter. Promotional Photo for When We, 2017. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: Ashley Sophia Clark.

JK: How did you both come to performance and dance as an expressive medium?

AH: I really found my footing in dance when I was in college. After graduating, I moved to Seattle (from Albuquerque, New Mexico), where I began choreographing solos as a means to get seen and potentially hired by other choreographers (auditions were few and far between when I moved there). I found that I was compelled to continue making my own work as well, and I have been ever since—10 years, now.  

RD: I’ve been dancing since I was 3. My mom took me to a mother-and-daughter creative-movement class one day, and I kept dragging her back. I danced professionally as a ballerina when I was in high school, found modern dance in college, and then started becoming interested in more contemporary work.

JK: You live in different cities. As artists, how do you engage one another across distance, and how do you feel this manifests in the work?

RD: It’s been a really interesting process, working at distance like this. We've been working for a while, but it's often in short, intensive bursts. We've been traveling back and forth to each other's cities, working in Berlin where we both often go, or meeting at residency spaces. I feel like something about the distance is built into the work. Something about the intensity of long-distance relationships, and the specific intimacy of so much time spent in constant company while working, informs the quality.

AH: There is something about the distance that has resulted in an inversion of action/event & transition. I guess I mean that in this work, the moments between "events" are where the actual "work" is being done. The moments that might feel exceptionally quiet, or like transitions, are covertly propelling the piece forward, setting everything in motion. I sort of equate this to how we spend so much time apart, but the piece is always there, being made, even if not directly. And our short, intensive working periods are just a crafting of whatever dynamics have emerged between us since the last time.

JK: This piece is part of a larger body of work you two have collaborated on over the span of two years. How has performing iterations of this piece affected your process over time? Have the themes remained constant, shifted, or transformed once they've been witnessed by an audience?

RD: The themes have stayed interestingly consistent, but I think have distilled over time. We have tended to work a lot with stillness, but have also begun to explore movement, dance, and phrase work alongside this. Everyone in contemporary performance has been saying dance is coming back to dance, and I feel the wave.

Allie Hankins and Rachael Dichter. Promotional Photo for When We, 2017. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: Ashley Sophia Clark.

AH: It has been so curious to see how we are sort of folding ourselves or our affinities into each other—I see so much of both of us in this work, but we've almost become uncanny in the ways we present ourselves. I feel like that's in keeping with some themes/ideas we've been exploring from the beginning: understanding of self in relationship to another, twinning energies, et cetera. Now, as we near the end of this process, I feel like there have been parallel developments—as the piece evolves, we are also becoming better friends, and our growing familiarity is really feeding the work as we continue. I feel more comfortable taking risks with Rachael—I enjoy proposing things that might be ridiculous because I appreciate how she considers them and turns them over in her head as we discuss them. It's so satisfying to feel our ideas become richer and more multifaceted, and to constantly be surprised by each other's suggestions or interpretations.

JK: Within the show statement, you speak of three actions that drive the piece: “Tension is currency, mischief is sustenance, and surreality is a given.” In these observations, there’s a level of satiation and acquisition, as well as a celebration for the chaotic or absurd. How can one utilize ruptures such as humor and tension as a gift? What can one discover when resting in these moments?

AH: For me, the humor is the antidote for the tension. It’s the rupture that allows that momentary reprieve before the time falls back into place and the tension reestablishes itself. The humor is really subtle in this piece—way more subtle than things I’ve made in the past. I think what I’ve gained is this perspective that if given enough time, then images can emerge without much coaxing. This is something Rachael shown me, for sure. She is good at sitting with the stillness, with the silence. I’m always squirming in my seat to do more. I guess that’s where the tension lies for me—in my desire to make a spectacle, but finding restraint with it.

RD: It’s nice because I think Allie and I also approach these things differently, which has been interesting. I’m not sure I relate to the term “tension”, but rather feel it as a depth. It may just be semantics, though. I think we have slightly different but complementary senses of humor, as well, which has been great. I feel like a lot of what we are interested in and work with is quite similar, but we approach it from different sides, and that’s been really inspiring.

JK: I am also an artist that utilizes humor, nudity, and tension in order to create a mood and fissure in an audience’s reality. At the show of Allie’s I attended, she mentioned that the piece originally contained nudity but was later adjusted. In the promotional shots for When We, you again return to the exposure of flesh. How does nudity operate in the work?

AH: When I was working on the solo you mention, I was reading Sexuality & Space by Beatriz Colomina. In one of her essays, she talks about the home as theater. She offers examples of hidden rooms or spaces in houses where the occupant can view intruders (or guests) without being seen, and how that position is so fucking powerful because it is hidden in plain sight. I thought this could be an interesting way to be onstage. Fully visible, maybe even fully naked, but not AT ALL vulnerable. I think that idea is still at work with our duet—at least for me.

RD: I would say that my work engages with the paradox of the apparent intimacy and vulnerability of self-exposure and the female body in performance to query the intersubjective relationship between subject and object, audience and performer. I think for me it functions quite similarly in this new collaborative work as in my previous works. I want to acknowledge that I recognize that it isn’t neutral, though. That the body is never neutral, and the body onstage, and the way we choose to present our bodies onstage, isn’t neutral. The body is always written, always political.

Allie Hankins and Rachael Dichter. Promotional Photo for When We, 2017. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: Ashley Sophia Clark.

JK: What does your day-to-day inquiry and exchange look like in the studio together? What are the kinds of values you see or hope to see in collaborative relationships?

AH: When we first get back in the studio together, we spend a lot of time talking and catching up. We do body work on each other, we work with images, we talk through ideas we’ve had since our last working period. This is really the first collaborative project I’ve ever made, so I think what I value most is the mutual care and interest, the friction, the compromises, the unexpected influences of working alongside another person. There’s also something really special about sharing this type of performance experience with someone. We both had an equal hand in creating this piece, we are both incredibly intimate with the work, and we’ve both seen its trajectory. We share all that history when we perform this piece together. We have a particular type of alliance because of this, and it feels like a real strength.

RD: I think we’re still finding that out. We work in different ways at different times. We both have a strong physical practice, and so we often start working with the body. I find it incredibly inspiring to share studio space and like nothing more than to have Allie come in and turn something around that I’ve been staring at forever and show it to me from another side. It’s so beautiful, so satisfying.

JK: This interview will run a few days after When We debuts. If you could share with your future self a statement about the show, what would that be? What do you hope to feel from the aftermath, and also, what can we expect from you two in the future?

AH: “You really took your time, and you filled the space.”

In the most immediate future, we will be performing this piece at the FRESH Festival in San Francisco, January 12 and 13. We hope to continue working beyond that on a new piece. And I’ll premiere a new solo sometime in 2018.

RD: That we were fierce. And it keeps going. It always keeps going…

When We was performed at Performance Works NW in Portland, OR from November 9–12, 2017. The work will be on view at FRESH Festival in San Francisco, CA from January 12–13, 2018.

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Allie Hankins is a Portland-based performer who makes works that toy with the destabilization of persona through uncanny physicality, wry wit, labyrinthine logic, and skillfully layered imagery, all while trying to suppress her contentious eagerness to please. She is an inaugural member of FLOCK, a dance center and creative home to Portland’s experimental dance artists spearheaded by Tahni Holt, and in 2013 she co-founded Physical Education, a critical & casual, reading and researching, drinking and dialoguing, dance and performance body comprising herself, keyon gaskin, Taka Yamamoto, and Lu Yim. Physical Education hosts open reading groups and lectures, curates performances, and teaches workshops nationally. Most recently, Allie has performed with Julien Prévieux (Paris), Morgan Thorson (Minneapolis), Tahni Holt (Portland), and Ruairi Donovan (Ireland). She has been an Artist in Residence at Caldera, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, the Robert Rauschenberg Residency, and will be an Artist in Residence at the Wassaic Project in February 2018. Outside of Portland, her work has been presented in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Berlin, Austria, Cork, and Tel Aviv.

Rachael Dichter is a San Francisco-based dancer, performer, choreographer and curator. She studied dance and art history at Mills College and was a 2015 Danceweb Scholar. Her work has shown at Dock 11 Berlin, Ponderosa Tanzland Berlin, Paf St Erme, Joe Goode Annex San Francisco, and On the Boards Seattle, and she has been lucky to collaborate with a number of fierce and talented folks including Laura Arrington, Mica Sigourney, Ruairi Donovan, Allie Hankins, Sara Kraft, Abby Crain, Jesse Hewit, Marten Spangberg, Keith Hennessy, and Jess Curtis, and for four years she co-curated the San Francisco-based live arts festival THIS IS WHAT I WANT.

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