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The Difference Between “Is” and “Was”

Rachel Levitt chats with A Dance Way of Life’s Nicole Decsey on her new dance film, The Departed.

Nicole Decsey wanted me to keep it off the record that she has always been obsessed with the idea of dancing on train tracks, because she’s scared of getting in trouble with the authorities...I told her that if Jordan Matter can publish a full book of nude dancers in public places without any arrests or fines, she is definitely in the clear.

Her new dance film, The Departed, premieres at Our Stories – Flash Show this October, and we have all your behind-the-scenes questions answered here.

What is your piece about?

My piece is about…looking at the idea of life and death and really wondering what will happen after you're gone. Will anyone remember you? And I think that’s a big question that everyone wonders, even if you’re not at a bad point in your life, it’s just like: will anyone remember me? Will anyone mourn me? Will I still live on with other people?

And the poem is something I had written a long time ago, because I was thinking about that idea of “is” and “was”. It’s such a powerful transition. I’ve read it in books and heard it in films, people just start saying ‘was’. Or they’ll correct themselves, like if they’re talking about someone and they say ‘she’s great, she is’ and then ‘oh, she was.’

To me it’s such an interesting verbal shift of when you’re talking about someone, and it’s such a simple thing that talks about so much. I feel like it’s something we glance over a lot, the fact that we’re talking about someone now in the past tense. And I’ve always thought that it’s really powerful, that your whole life can be summed up in a simple shift of words. And, it’s kind of scary at the same time to think that.

But then there is that thing…you live on with those people. And I think we all wonder who will remember us? Who will we stay with? So I guess it is pretty dark, but it’s also kind of hopeful. Even though there is that darkness surrounding it, we’re all hopeful that we will stay with someone.

Tell us more about how you turned this poem you wrote into a dance film?

It started with the idea of train tracks. I’ve always just loved that image and I think it’s a beautiful image for life and death and journeys.

When I was doing the choreography, it was actually a lot of improvisation. And I knew kind of what I wanted, like I wanted to lie on the tracks and I wanted to walk on the rails and stuff like that. And so, the pacing with the poem actually came afterwards, it was that extra layer when I was doing the editing.

Parts when I found that it looked like I was really struggling with something in my improv and in my work, is when I really tried to tie it in with words of struggle and of ‘he was, he is’. I definitely reacted to the movement and I paced it so that it followed the movement. I also wanted it to feel like it stretched out throughout, because it’s a short poem, but I wanted it to flow throughout the piece and I wanted it to be done before that final walk along the tracks.

That simple image of walking down the tracks was really important to me. And I wanted it to end – I really like cliff hangers – I wanted that cliff hanger of who knows? Like it’s up to you how it ends.

And so, I wanted that final image of walking away and I wanted the poem to be kind of on a cliff hanger so I actually took out a little bit of what I had written at the end of the poem, and I just left it with the ‘was’. I was like, that’s the cliff hanger I wanted for this piece, so I abbreviated the poem slightly to fit with my idea.

How did you film on a train track and not get hit by a train?

We did it on a Sunday where I pretty much knew there wasn’t trains coming through at that time. And we also wanted to get it done fast, so we did it probably within an hour. Even without thinking about train tracks I was like, I want to get in before I lose the natural light! So we did it fast.

You referred to you dancing as ‘her’, so do you see this image as yourself or a character?

I guess I do see it as a her. When I was doing it, I was very invested in all of the ideas that I was playing with, but when I look at it specifically…like there’s a section where it’s just my torso – and that was an accident, that was a complete accident. The sun was blocking my camera person and she had no idea she wasn’t getting my face. But I think it’s a really beautiful image of this person who doesn’t know if she has anyone there for her or doesn’t know if someone’s going to remember her after she’s gone, and the torso is very detaching. It detaches you from the character completely, because you don’t see a face.

I was very invested when I did it, but looking at it and editing it, I was seeing it as a her. Do we remember her? Does she have anyone? How are we detached from her? Which is where that torso and the black and white came in. Is that a flashback? Is that saying that she’s not there anymore?

And I have my own ideas, but I love the idea that anyone can interpret that how they want. And with the detachment of the torso, maybe it’s you watching it, or maybe it’s a friend of yours, or maybe it’s some ethereal character that is embodying this idea of this transition and this journey.

The Departed premieres at Our Stories – Flash Show, free to watch 12am Oct 3 to 12am Oct 5 via a YouTube playlist. Link will be available on Dance : Corps' Instagram and website, or you can get it straight to your inbox by emailing



Nicole Decsey spills her fave pre-dance tea, her dream dance destination and her dance crush...



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