Rosemary Lee: On Work and Working

Rosemary Lee in rehearsal photographed by Simon AlleyneRosemary Lee in rehearsal photographed by Simon Alleyne

Rosemary Lee has been choreographing, performing and directing for over 30 years. Known for working in a variety of contexts and media, she has created large-scale site-specific works with cross-generational casts, solos for herself and other performers, installations and films. Rosemary also writes and guest teaches and lectures internationally.

In June I visited Rosemary at her house in North London. It was a warm day but we sat in her cool kitchen with cups of tea and talked for a couple of hours. The conversation seemed to hover around particular topics, resulting in an interview that seems to ask to be published in six parts of varying lengths.

As speech became text, Rosemary wanted to make changes. These changes are in the text – green for additions or alterations, blue for comments, and gaps where things have been removed.

I talk about my interest in what work is and how we connect our identities to the work that we do.

That’s a really interesting point
I have removed a line as it’s too personal sorry.
I remember  a colleague once saying “it’s your work, it’s your work”
This was a while back
And I hadn’t used the term work
So there must have been a five-year period in my career that I changed from saying
What I do? Would it have been what I do? I don’t know what word I would have used
But I never called it work
Because I thought it demeaned it
I thought work was your day job
So I didn’t use that word
And he was telling me it’s your work, you’re an artist, you should value it as part of your life
I’ve call it my life, or something, and he’d go it’s your work, and those could be the same thing but it’s your work
And then I started thinking
I’d better call it my work, but now I’m not sure again!
I haven’t earned much, I’ve not got a career out of it, in terms of money I mean, my yearly income has been around the same for many years
I was just checking to see if I would get a state pension – I am! Sorry wrong everyone gets a state pension but I was wondering how much I would get or if it would be the basic.
I think the reason is that I had children
If you have children and you got child benefit you automatically get credit I think

I was a bit worried – I’m in my mid-50s now and both my kids are in the arts at present, and I think it’s gonna be hard
Gillie I and partner think this is a bit too personal to put in print sorry
As above and I was pleased because it was because I had done my work, and my sister said no, it’s because I’d had kids!
It isn’t through my endeavours, my meaningful work – apparently its about my other meaningful endeavour –parenting!

I had to learn to call it my work and now I call everything work! So now you’ve said that it’s made me think again
And the other thing that relates to what you’re saying is
Someone gave me this book that talks about art being a gift
I read the introduction – that sums me up because I never read those big books, it was really                    dense
It’s too hard, oh, god
The introduction was really clear – it was about different systems of bartering or different systems of value and passing a leaf around islands, and that was their precious thing
What value is
And that art is – I don’t know, you’d have to check what he’s saying – but that if art has to be paid for it’s not art
Now, if I’m honest, that’s personally what it feels like
That’s why I like it when people can see my work for free
I don’t want them to have to pay for a ticket now
I’ve been so fortunate with Square Dances that it was free, and what I’m doing at the moment in Derry,                           is free
I love it’s like that
I understand that it can’t always be like that but at galleries, museums, you can go and see stuff for free, and that’ s what I grew up doing,
So it feels like that’s how I would like to do it, if I could, if I can
That’s the best possible thing, because it doesn’t rule people out
Obviously different places rule people out
It feels far more important than money
I can offer the work as an unconditional gift

And now because we’re in capitalism, post-capitalism, whatever they call it – late capitalism
I have removed this because it’s incorrect and I sought advice from an environmentalist and this is a bit more accurate
Some environmentalists have chosen to try to put monetary value on rivers or space to show people how precious it is- and therefore to drive change  but it is still hugely contested  and controversial.
Oh god! That is horrible!

I ask if there’s a divide between work time and non-work time in Rosemary’s life.

Yes, I’ve heard Wendy [Houston] say, y’know, I’m not looking at my emails at the weekend and I was like, ooh god, isn’t she? Good for her!
I’m there every hour god sends, but that’s something to do with something else
About feeling connected
I’m useless
I work all the time
I wake up and my laptop is beside me
It’s dreadful! Dreadful!
I think I’m really poor at living a healthy lifestyle on some level, myself, but I’m very good at giving out and trying to promote wellbeing
I’m not very good at it for myself
Having said that,               I really appreciate              what I’ve had the good fortune to be able to do
That’s what it feels like
I’ve been so lucky to have that support, that I had a government, or a way of thinking, that it was OK that I got housing benefit for a short period as a young artist, questions weren’t asked about how I’m living my life
I have been really fortunate, but what I’ve tried to do…

What I am careful at is not killing myself doing participatory projects and so as an artist
Whatever these labels are
Or for my work
I like to do a patch with really big projects, where I’m hopefully giving out to big groups of people and I love all that
And then I might want a more solitary period where I come here or make solos
So I used to go solo big solo big solo big
Now I’m not doing solos myself
I haven’t quite got back into that pattern
Because there definitely is that pattern
But I don’t know quite what that solo area is
So I need to…

I ask about future solos.

I would really like to perform again
I’ve realised I do not wanna peg it and have not got back on the stage
It feels a bit like – god, I should do it again
But I’m not sure how, but I do miss it

I saw that in a lot of what’s being said I’m hearing things about discipline and care, how there’s a lot of that in dance and that I find it a bit contradictory.

It’s like climbers
I often think dancers and climbers are a bit similar
There’s a kind of incredible spirit of massiveness and the universe, go to the edge of your limit
And the discipline of the care that you have to take, I dunno
I think that’s what I love being with dancers
I mean I do notice that, that one of the reasons that I feel so privileged to be in this line of ‘work’
What the hell is it
Is because I am with these extraordinary people
Dancers tend to be, especially in the kind of world we’re in,
sorry that sounds awfully judgemental so I had to take that out!

What is it about dancers that I love?
I just find…I know that you can’t make generalisations, but they do seem to be people who do think outside the box
It does seem to be something where they haven’t slipped into the mainstream
Sometimes when I find myself in a situation where I’m surrounded by people that have sort of ‘jobs’, 9-5 jobs
They’re lovely people, and I’m with them, but I kind of feel a bit like I don’t know where the questions are
And mostly the people who I seem to be with when I am making work, my team
They always question everything, and I love that
I wanna carry on questioning, being curious
And it feels like some people don’t want to do that because it’s too unsettling
With dance it feels like we ask really difficult questions, and we’re somehow brought to places…
I think, and I don’t know if this is me being incredibly innocent and naïve
There’s a bit of me that believes that this work with our bodies, and kind of sensation based work, is that we’re constantly reminded of our ephemeralness, we’re constantly reminded that we

Birth, death, viscerality, the kind of physicalness of our bodies holding ourselves up in this moment
Moving through time, moving through space is like a sort of mini metaphorical microcosm of what our life is
Time’s arrow on this earth
We’re here for this moment in this time in this space, aren’t we, and then we’re gone
And dance feels like that
So for me it feels like you’re constantly being reminded of your place and lack of place
You’re constantly reminded that we don’t know, that we’re gonna go, of the unknown, of the fact that you can’t hold anything close and permanent
If everything is about change and every second of one’s dance is about change and the unknown, it feels like it’s embracing life more fully
And so when I’m                                          in certain situations I feel a bit dead, and I feel like I wanna get out, be with people that have more of those kinds of questions
That’s what I value about those people
It’s like when you were saying that you couldn’t fit into those economic…
Where do we fit as artists in that way?
Where do we fit?
And maybe the fact that we don’t fit is the best thing, really…

And I suppose that’s why I did resist the word work,                                 perhaps it’s time to rethink that word again

This is the big worry for me about my work
I don’t want to ever be seen as part of the Big Society
Recently, as I was making big works I was thinking oh, this looks like the Big Society!
I’m worried about this
Of course there is an overlap somewhere there
But I don’t want it to be swept into it, that rhetoric

It’s very complex and worrying, I must say
I don’t know if I answered, there, when you asked about work
It does feel
I really love
I think that’s why I feel like a cow let out of the barn, a bit (this metaphor related to the section that would have been published previously will it still work here?)
It’s not just that we’re gonna dance, or move, and there’s these wonderful people to gather and it makes me happy to be part of the human race again
It is also being around those people
I remember once – interesting that you were talking about politics
I’d been queuing up for petrol
And it was                                when the lorries were barricading the oil refineries and it felt so messy because I wanted petrol to be more expensive because I think…going down the line where I think we should get the right values for things for the cost on the earth
I agreed with      that
I was stuck – I was in a car – I shouldn’t have been in a car
I was trying to get to a studio, and I couldn’t because I hadn’t got any petrol
I remember looking out of the world and thinking about the complexity of this horrible mess and feeling really disconnected and really like I didn’t fit
Lost like none of my values fitted
Quite a bad feeling
A day later I got into a dance studio
And my whole body and mind suddenly went ppphhhhwwwwuuuh and I thought now I understand why I do this: it’s because it makes me feel sane
If I’m not having some spells in the studio, or with people that really believe in the things I believe in and get something out of it, I would go bonkers
The rest of the world sometimes just feels so awful
It’s my attempt to stay sane

I think about maybe how that’s another way to think about work, that work is for the workers.

It’s a purpose, maybe that’s the word, rather than work
For me, that’s my purpose in life, no question
That’s why it feels like life

While listening I again and again feel the sensation of relief. I find it so relieving that someone of Rosemary’s experience and success still works with laptop by her side, still seeks other things, and is still pressed by questions of what dance is and what its place is in society.