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Talking to José Perez, the man behind FIGHTER

March 29, 2011
FIGHTER poster

Click on the poster to see dates, times, and ticket information.

José Perez IV is one of my favorite stage combat people, and I balestra’d at the chance to be in his show FIGHTER, his independent project for the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU Tisch Drama, which goes up this week. José was nice enough to take some time to talk with me about the show.

MM: There’s a lot going on in FIGHTER. What are the various elements that came together in the project?

JP: The biggest piece, the most noticeable thing happening in the show, is fight choreography strictly set to pieces of rock music. And that started about when I was in fourth grade. One of my favorite things to do is stay up really late and just listen to music. And certain songs — I remember one of the biggest ones was an Evanescence song, “Bring Me to Life,” I would play it over and over and fights would be in my head, really epic things. And then at some point in my theater education, I realized that amazing work came out of people being experts in very particular things, and I thought to myself, “What am I an expert in? What have I been doing for my entire life? Choreographing epic fights to rock music?” And so I thought, why not try it? Because it’s been in my imagination forever. So that was the biggest puzzle piece.

José and Keenan Joliffe

José with Keenan Jolliff as Jake

The things actually within the show, the storyline — it’s about two boys on a journey during the summer, collecting stories about a warrior. A lot of it was inspired by the journeys my father had, like when he was young, like thirteen, he rode his bike with two of his best friends from Michigan to Florida. That was a really big trip, one of the friends almost died, they lost him and he got really sick. And then my father left home, he ran away from home, and he hopped trains from Michigan to Texas. And he just talked about the people that he met. He met this hobo on one of the trains,  a guy with a briefcase, who kept telling my father, “If I die on this trip, this briefcase, it’s filled with all this music that’s gonna make me famous, and I want you to send it to my wife and kid, and it’ll make them rich.”

And lot of the inspiration comes from, not necessarily just my father, but how adventures could have been for that generation. Now if you try to hitchhike, you’ll get raped and killed, that’s just the world we live in. But I love, like, back in the sixties, seventies, you could hitchhike and be fine and have these adventures just on your own. I wanted to bring out that feeling of possibility, adventure and openness, especially within nature, not knowing what you’re going to do, and there is a juxtaposition in the show — Jake’s character brings in the technology crisis that our generation is in right now, where Google has all the answers, and using your body and talking to people is a thing we fear rather than aspiring to live our lives in that way. So those are the two main elements.

José directing a scene: "This...much...energy!"

"This! Much! Energy!"

And the reason I could do fights has everything to do with Fight Master J. David Brimmer. I owe him so, so much. I got to to NYU, I kept seeing people with swords, and I was like, “What is happening? Why are there swords?” and I found out that stage combat was a class and it blew my mind. I got hooked right away. So J. David Brimmer is responsible for a lot of the things we pull off in the show.

MM: He’s responsible for a lot, in general.

JP: He’s responsible for my life!

MM: I was watching the rehearsal videos, and I see tai chi, capoeira, and surreal videogame violence coming into it, and obviously the fact that the fights are done to music sets the rhythm — I love watching things that are broad-minded like that.

JP: I mean, the thing that interests me the most is style. I follow a lot of different movement forms, so the show is a conglomeration of a lot of different things. In the SAFD a lot of our work tends to be about what is realistic, what is historically right. I don’t believe in “right.” In quotes. I believe in deviating from that, just as an artist. Even something like post-post-postmodern dance, those artists who consider themselves the most open people still definitely think there’s a right way. And that happens within the fight community, as well. It has a lot to do with “good” fight choreography — what is “bad” to be stylized in, and what is “good” to be stylized in. We’ve invited a lot of people in the fight community to come see this show, and I predict — well, people will think it’s great, or people will think it’s an abomination, and I predict a combination of the two, because we break a lot of rules in the choreography. My training at ETW, I think, gave me the strength to always question anything you’re given, even from my fight masters, like, is this the way we do it?

So in general the choreography in the show flows in and out of styles, and a lot of times it’s a combination of styles, and sometimes it’s just the way I fight and the way I use my body. And that’s the way I like to work in general. Mitch and I were very much of the practice — we learned from Brimmer and Turner Smith and John Robichau and Danny Crawford, the guys who really got me through — we learned to just go move to move, see what makes sense move to move. So we keep that structure when we make choreography, but the nice thing is that we have this large vocabulary, that it’s not just straight punches, it’s things that do under curves and backbends into punches, or that do ascending kicks from the ground, and that’s been a lot of fun.

Art imitates life: José at the center of some whirling chaos

MM: And if you’re stepping outside of the more traditional kinds of choreography we do in stage combat classes, what exactly are those ingredients in your choreography, what kinds of movement are you drawing on?

JP: Before I came to New York University for training, my movement background was all athletics or martial arts. Wrestling in high school has made me the type of performer and worker I am, because I will never do anything harder in my life than wrestling. You find out your physical limit, when your body literally will not stand for you, pretty much every practice, so that’s given me a lot of confidence, in that I know I can never work harder than that.

MM: So if you’re not literally collapsing, it’s a good day.

JP: Kind of a bad day, actually. It’s nice to feel your potential. It reminds you you’re alive. So I came to NYU, in the Experimental Theater Wing, and we have a lot of viewpoints training, we do a lot of Grotowski work, he teaches a fusion of really rigorous sets of physical scores and acting work. It’s amazing. The first movement form that’s taught at ETW for freshmen is contact improv, which they’ve started teaching at all the stage combat workshops I’ve gone to, because it is the best thing for an actor-combatant to have. You learn how to see without your eyes. The second you make contact with another body, you know everything, you know where the limbs are, you know where the weight is going, where their weight is being held on their body, and it teaches you how to flow, and body awareness, spatial awareness, tempo, rhythm, all of these instincts that are inherent in being a really good performer. So that was really driven into us.

We do a lot of post-modern dance with a woman named Annie-B Parsons, who runs, with her husband Paul Lazar, Big Dance Theater. She’s an amazing choreographer, and she taught us so, so many ways of developing choreography out of nowhere. One of my favorites is that she Google-mapped somewhere in Jersey to her apartment in New York, and each direction, you had to make movement to. And that has exploded the way I look at developing choreography. Rather than just being, like, he has a sword and I have a sword, what should I do, think, okay, those are the elements. Mitch and I have been talking a lot about different ways of playing video games and recording it, and exactly what we recorded in a minute, we have to choreograph what that was, in whatever form we can. Or just taking a verse out of the Bible, and be like, what would this fight be. Things like that, that really stretch your mind and make you create something that you couldn’t just make yourself with just your preconceived notions.

And  if you really invest yourself in stage combat, inevitably you pick up at least the beginnings of a lot of different martial forms, just because you’re surrounded by people who are masters of this and that, because that’s how they got into it. So I took a couple of wing tsun classes with Mike Yahn — I love taking beginner classes, because if you can get the basics down, you can adapt your choreography to that style, and wing tsun influenced a lot of this show. And ETW got me into capoeira, which taught me the art of recoil. Instead of something that takes me off my base, and I have to stop and stick somewhere to get it back, capoeira taught me to take that energy and use it to flow into the next thing — instead of choppy transitions, smooth transitions, so, as an actor and as a fighter, capoeira is the best thing.

MM: And it gets the musical aspect into it, too.

Capoeira on the beach

JP: Oh, yeah! Because the music is your soul, it’s your life in capoeira. So, we’re exposed to a lot at NYU, if you run after it. You can remain blissfully ignorant, if you choose not to go out into the city.

MM:  I noticed that you’re the writer, director, choreographer, butcher, baker, and candlestick maker for the show —

JP: — all in a boat —

MM: — and Mitch McCoy is the fight director, which isn’t the way it usually divides up. How are you guys working together?

JP: I started setting the fight choreography in late December, and I had a good chunk ready when I got back into the city. So when Mitch came in to take his seat as fight director, the choreography was done. But he sees things I don’t see, and we were able to tweak choreography from there. I made it, had it ready, showed it to him, and then he made it better. He has a great eye.

Along with Mitch, I have three other assistants, Keenan Jolliff, Melanie Glickman, and Carlotta Summers. We  started last semester, just training and working out concepts. We would come in, and I would be like, here’s a slow song with clear beats and a snare hit on the one and the three, let’s see what happens if we punch every time we hear the snare, how does this work theatrically? So they’ve been with me from the start, working on this. They’re taken on so many hats, helping me run lines, edit the script, music edits, sound cues, light cues, this and that, they’ve been really everything.

MM: I love production teams.

JP: Yes! It’s really a family. The whole show has been a treat.

MM: For me, too! I’m never just in a show.

JP: Yeah, it’s rare we get to perform. The only times we perform, quote unquote, is the SPTs. And then — me and you, at least, we’re just doing choreography. I mean, I’ve done film shoots, and little things here and there, but I never get used to my extent. I never have someone come and be like, here’s a complicated sword phrase, you’re going to do it for a show, and it will contribute to a greater theatrical purpose.

MM: Thanks for the chance.

JP: You’re more than welcome. And I hope it gets well-received, because it’s a project I want to take out into the city, and — before we even started rehearsals, we held these training sessions, just so we could get into shape. It was open, anyone could come, and we were doing serious training, clapping push-ups, crazy sit-ups, not just actor movement stuff. A lot of the actors were like, “I don’t get this, I miss this, this is really, really good for me,” and that’s something I want to take out after I graduate. I would love to have a company and hold these kind of training sessions for actors, and develop a specific fight choreography that really investigates style. It’s something I’m very interested in.

It’s the same thing as being a singer. Your range should be great, you shouldn’t feel limited, you shouldn’t feel like “I can’t really sweat, I can’t get to the ground quickly.” Every actor knows this — you really need to stretch you instrument so that, rather than choices based on limitations, you can make choices based on conscious thought about what the work requires. I think as a practice, we should be a lot more sweaty, we should be a lot more fall on your face until your body figures it out. We just had a teacher, Mr Tim Caroll, probably the best Shakespeare teacher living on earth right now, he made a very good point that stuck with me: that the French for “rehearsal” is “répétition.” If I’m teaching a roll, I’m not going to have you do it once and tell you what you did wrong, I not going to give you a comment until you’ve done it at least thirty times. Your brain can’t figure shit out. You need to let your body do it.

* * *

I was watching all the videos from the sections I’m not in, just curious to get a sense of the show, and I see tai chi, capoeira, and surreal videogame violence coming into it, and obviously the fact that the fights are set to music does something to the rhythm you perform them in, and I love it. It’s fun to me to watch dance pieces and go, this reminds me of a fight, because…. Or, this dance taught me a lesson about the body that I will apply to fight choreography in this way. So I love watching things that are broad-minded like that.
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