“What Keeps You Going?” is a new performance by the experimental dance theater company HOLDTIGHT. This new show begins on September 15 at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre.
“What Keeps You Going?” is a blend of dance, storytelling, live music, structural and mental disruptions, and video design equaling an intimate and participatory experience. The show comments on the liminal space between past, present, and future and what it would mean to exist in all three at once.
Director Gwendolyn Gussman founded HOLDTIGHT in 2016 and has subsequently received much recognition for her work with the organization. She recently discussed this latest show via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for dancing and what was it about performance art that most interested you?
Gwendolyn Gussman (GG): I started dancing when I was 3, taking creative dance classes at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. I continued my dance training and education at Cleo’s, dancing with their Youth Ensemble and ultimately, joining the company as an Apprentice in my last years of high school. I attended Denver School of the Arts as a Dance Major from 6th-12th grade, then moved to NYC to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as a Dance Major. I graduated from Tisch in 2014. While dance has always taken a front seat in my life, music and psychology have played big roles as well. I grew up singing in a Cathedral Choir, Vocal Jazz Ensemble, taking private voice lessons, and singing in local musicals. I studied acting at Denver Center of the Performing Arts as a child, and I played the harp and piano as well. Both of my parents have backgrounds in Psychology, notably my mom who has had a private practice as an LCSW for over 40 years. My upbringing included a lot of questioning, tuning in to oneself, building empathy, and feeling whatever it is that comes up. At NYU, I took numerous courses in Child & Adolescent Mental Health Studies and have continued my studies of Jungian Psychology, beyond school. I think the combination of my interest in psychology and coming from a multi-disciplinary arts background, has laid the groundwork for what I create in the present. My community is full of artists in different backgrounds who are doing amazing work, so to me, it’s been a no-brainer to create a company which blends these different forms together with a focus on deepening our understanding of ourselves, one another, and the macro world at large.
MM: How did you break into the performing industry, especially in the field of immersive dance theater?
GG: My first job right out of college was dancing as a company member with Shen Wei Dance Arts. It was during this time of living out a part of my childhood dance dream (working with a prestigious, world-touring company) that I realized that in addition to performing & collaborating in other’s work, I wanted to continue creating and growing my own work. I learned a lot from working with Shen Wei, and one important lesson was seeing the power of strong artistic vision. Right after I left the company, I felt the strongest inspiration and pull I had ever experienced, towards making a show that incorporated dance, live music, visual & video design, with food and drinks– in a non-traditional, site-specific, and immersive setting. I had the urge to cultivate ways to bring together new audiences, and the weaving together of all of these multi-sensorial elements stirred excitement in me! In 2016, with the start of HOLDTIGHT (then by the name Gwendolyn & Guests), we presented “Nourishment (what does it feel like to fall in love?)” at a historic site in Denver, The Fleming Mansion.
MM: Why did you select the name HOLDTIGHT?
GG: Initially, when I first started presenting work professionally, I used the name Gwendolyn & Guests. This was definitely a filler of sorts as I ultimately knew I didn’t want my own name to be that of the company, but wasn’t sure what that right name would be. In 2019 I landed on the name HOLDTIGHT Company. For me, this name means so much! It means love. It means yearning. It means hope. It can be in relation to oneself, but often in relation to others. It means desire, it means care, it means support. It means pause. It means perseverance. It means resistance. It means holding someone, something, or an idea, close to your heart. It speaks to paradox, as sometimes we hold something tight for much too long, while sometimes we let go too soon.
MM: What inspired this latest piece and what are some of the multi-layered complexities in it?
GG: We started developing “What Keeps You Going?” in 2020, but ironically, we chose the question in late 2019, pre-pandemic. We had just finished our NYC run of “Nourishment: Why Believe” in September 2019 and the question that kept swirling around my brain was, why care? In less of a pejorative way, and more of a why do each of us care? The more I journaled and chatted with collaborators about this, the more we landed on what I believe to be a sub-question: what keeps you going? Our approach to exploring this question involves movement, in the form of set choreography plus sprinkled with devised/structured improvisation, personal storytelling by the cast, live music and sound design by Johnny Butler which involves the use of analog tape recorders, interactive, site-specific & disruptive scenography by Anna Drfitmier, video design projected and on monitors in the space by Alex Taylor, and lighting design by Aja M. Jackson. The show moves between the 3 levels of the cell’s historic townhouse, and is in 3 acts, blending together all of these elements. The piece explores what it means to live in the present moment, versus in a memory of the past, or the fantasy of the future. Within this we explore concepts of chaos, joy, grief, isolation, belonging, and hope.
MM: Was it a challenge to plan for live performance during a lingering pandemic?
GG: Yes! Last summer of 2020 at the height of the pandemic HOLDTIGHT presented a 2-person live show called “What Distracts You?” in an outdoor courtyard in Denver. That was my first time presenting live work during the pandemic, and while it taught me a lot, nothing could quite prepare me for this show. The biggest difference I’ve felt from the show last year to now, is the overall state of fatigue most people are feeling. All of us are tired of this pandemic. It’s been a long slog for everyone, and I’ve felt a different energy of brittleness, of fried nerves, I guess you could call it. I am grateful for the cast rallying to do this work. I think this show has been the ultimate test of resilience and pushing through, for me. It has truly asked me to keep going even when it’s felt nearly impossible. This is what gives it even more magic! I also want to say that this show would not be possible without the cell theatre, who is presenting us. They have been integral in the process of making this whole thing happen, making us feel safe, and giving us such an incredible space to bring this piece to life. Despite the challenges of making live work during this time in history, I feel incredibly blessed.
MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?
GG: So far, we’ve been told it is extremely evocative, intimate, honest, and compelling. That it speaks to the heart of the past year and a half, while being entirely fitting for the present. That it “accomplishes precisely what theatre and dance should be trafficking during this time of retrospection and introspection”.
MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?
GG: Right at this moment, I feel entirely immersed by this current production. That’s a beautiful, blessed, and rare feeling to be truly present in what one is making! After our season at the cell has come to a close in early October, my plan is to figure out how to bring this production to Colorado in 2022. Two of the choreographers for whom I work (Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance & Vanessa Walters ‘Ripening’) are also preparing for live seasons down the road, and I am excited to resume working with them!
For more details and info on the cast visit holdtightcompany.com & @holdtightcompany