Two Sides of History, and a Phenomenological Bridge

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I was walking out of the Yale Art Gallery into the sunshine, carrying a bundle of ten-foot long sticks, when I suddenly knew what I was going to write about. During those three hours in the gallery space, I unknowingly began to understand something. After the performance, I realized that the conceptual gap I previously wedged between Brown’s early works and her later choreography had narrowed considerably. For three hours I felt like I was able to enter Brown’s artistic world and glimpse the concepts and questions that resided there. Discovering this mindset bridged the decades; I found in the Early Works an altogether unexpected congruity with the choreography we’ve been rehearsing for weeks. Like the faces of our audience pressed against the glass of the gallery windows, from the outside I can only see things. From the inside, I feel them. In feeling, in doing, there resides an understanding of the artist that cannot be uncovered from the outside. Today I came to terms with this realization, and from the inside I’ve begun to discover foundations that underlie both the Early Works and “Newark” (New Work).

 

Above all, there is patience. Without patience, there can be no discovery. Patience is an allowance to work through things, rather than towards things. Patience relieves the anxiety of “getting it,” the goal-directed anticipation that clouds my efforts with frustration. By accepting patience, repetition and simplicity become first bearable, then pleasurable. I am patient with the weight of my body as my arm drops, feeling its directionality and momentum. When accustomed to instantaneity, patience feels like “no.” But now, willingness unto openness, responsiveness, and patience is a resounding, “yes.”

 

In my last blog post, I focused a good deal on the notions of activity and passivity, and how this choreography throws the specious binary into flux. Patience is the implication of waiting, of passivity, and implying non-action—a deferral of action. In this choreography, however, I find an active patience; much like active feeling, the phenomenological vocabulary of the choreography does not fall into two easy categories. Experiencing can be “agentive” (consciousness directed towards phenomena), and directing can be “passive” (saying yes to physical force), so the two blur together inextricably. Implicit to the distinction is the tacit assumption that agency is closed and passivity is open. Given the deeply experiential nature of YDT’s work, I want to pause and consider consciousness as a topic of discussion.

 

I will cursorily sketch out some of the main philosophical ideas relevant to consciousness, and later on see how my own experiences depart from or align with them. Consciousness forms the foundation of phenomenology, and learning choreography is often an experiment in consciousness. Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenology relies on the consciousness as intentionality, emphasizing the subject’s intentional direction awareness of objects. From this, objective conclusions can be drawn about first-person experience and its relationship to knowledge. Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty propose a more dialogical process, in which the subject is contextualized in the greater world of objects and consciousness cannot be reduced to its knowable components, focusing more on being than knowing. Whereas Husserl focused mainly on the mind, Merleau-Ponty’s idea corporeity proposed that the body is always inherent in lived experience.

 

Buddhist philosophies of mind and body, particularly mind-body theorist Yasuo Yuasa’s thought, bypass the Cartesian mind-body dualism/spirit-material idealism all together, an alternative to the metaphysical basis of Western philosophies of consciousness. There are several reasons why I think Yuasa’s philosophies are particularly suitable for dance:

 

1)    The basis of non-dualism avoids the need for material/spiritual, subjective/objective, and theoretical/practical distinctions.

2)    Consciousness is not static in an innate form. Rather, the body-mind can train latent consciousness through cultivation (including physical practice).

3)    Physical practice, by virtue of non-dualism, develops the undifferentiated body-mind.

 

 

Keeping in mind Yuasa’s ideas, my experience studying this choreography has been a journey from the feeling of mind encountering body as two separate entities to a sense of unity working united, facilitating focus and responsiveness. To bring the discussion back to the gallery, while performing I discovered that the philosophy of patience serves as a way to train consciousness, which carries over into Brown’s dances. My goal is to provide a phenomenological analysis of how they are the same.

 

Lying on the ground of the art gallery sculpture courtyard, cool stone and leaves under my back, I wait for the cue to lift my stick and proceed to lift it up and slide underneath it. In “Horizontal Sticks,” five dancers slide under their sticks to the other side, sit up, swing their leg over to straddle the stick, change their grip, and then sit back down on the original side to slide back underneath it. Sounds simple, right? The catch is that the dancers have to keep the ends of their sticks in contact the entire time. If the connection breaks, the dancers must fix it before moving on.

 

The horizontal sticks can be maddening. My hands cramp as I painstakingly try to meet the end of the stick in front of me, shaking all the while. A single break in the line has a domino effect, requiring us all to regroup. The exercise can be taxing, but it also brought about an amazing realization. At the gallery, it struck me that the stick game ends exactly as it begins. The point is not just getting it done; it’s the moments of sheer satisfaction when the sticks stay together, and the exhilarating concentration of working as a group. “Sticks” requires us to move together and sense one another’s actions in a concrete, tangible way. We are not putting out our magical antennae to pick up on each other’s “energy.” It truly is a fantastic exercise in learning to overcome frustration and come into responsive awareness.

 

Our excerpt of Newark is just like the sticks. Where I am affects Christine’s entrance, which affects Holly when she comes to push us; we keep the points connected just like the sticks. I must reach center to sweep my arm over Christine, and then join Caroline before weaving through Lila and Naomi. Newark and the sticks from Early Works may seem disparate, but they share a similar underlying choreographic ethos. The early studies are exercises in consciousness—of a group, of one’s actions, of a task—and the same kind of consciousness extends to later stage work. This discovery, accessed from inside the material, felt like a breakthrough for me in understanding Trisha Brown as an artist.

 

Another Early Work in the gallery, Primary Accumulation, requires similar patience. Four dancers lying in a line perform a sequence of 30 movements as an accumulation (1; 1,2; 1,2,3 and so forth), and then repeat the sequence 3 additional times in its entirety.

 

I was astounded when I added up the discrete movements; we do the first movement 30 times, the second 29 times, the third 28 times, and so on. Then we repeat every movement an additional three times. The sum was 555 individual movements! Like John Cage’s observation about repetition, the sequence initially took my mind through frustration and boredom, but ultimately became elucidating and beautiful. It’s a gorgeous piece to watch, and time felt slower, more measured, when we performed it in the gallery.

 

More notably, while the repetitions become engrained until they are almost automatic, I never feel that my execution is complacent. Each movement, though fairly even in time and energy, takes on its own flavor and color; I feel like I get to know them. Their idiosyncrasy, I realized forms the basis of where I find emotion in the Trisha Brown material. While my mind is devoid of any prescribed emotionality, there is something compelling and ambiguously narrative in the gestural movements of Newark. Movements are treated individually, almost as if with great care, in their details—a step forward on the right, a gentle break at wrist, another step, the hand approaches the foot (like a little boat).

 

Accumulation is also a reflection on the “naturalness” of movement. Discussing the experience of Trisha Brown’s choreography, words like “ease,” “flow,” and “efficiency” often arise. Returning to Yuasa, perhaps the phenomenon of flow is more of a practiced consciousness than an inherent state of things. Perhaps the experience of ease is actually a process of building kinetic chain reactions into the body, as well as a process of discovering objective movement efficiency from an anatomical vantage point.

 

What makes a string of disparate motions more or less “connected?” At the beginning of a phrase in Newark, we shoot our right arm into a diagonal arabesque, and then twist the plane of the body to face the wall, collapsing the back leg and dropping the arm in a single smooth unfolding. When I felt I could tap into that series of kinesthetic chain reactions, if felt like a discovery. Primary Accumulation, however, made me entertain the thought that perhaps flow is in part created as well. It’s tempting to speak of the movement as if it comes from a natural place, but the range of human movement is much broader than one kind of choreography. Primary Accumulation develops a feeling of natural flow, even though the movements themselves discrete. In the Newark material, arriving at the smooth kinesthetic fascia is as much a process of ACCUMULATION as it is an innate musculoskeletal fact. It is an accumulation of information as we negotiate with physical forces—a building up as much as a paring down.

 

In short, flow, as a conscious activity, can be cultivated, not simply found as an inherent or objective quality in the movement. As an exercise in consciousness, Primary Accumulation, like sticks, grounded me in my environment. My memories of the sequence are especially vivid: I remember how my head pressed into the stone terrace on #24, and the way Maddie’s toes pointed in my peripheral vision on #11, the only time I could open my eyes due to the bright sunlight on that day.

 

Again, patience for process fosters an ability to experience actively. If I interrogate the purpose of the movement, or even focus excessively on how it feels, my responsiveness is impeded. Repetition breeds the kind of mindlessness that is, paradoxically, utter mindfulness. The key to understanding this is tweaking the definition of mindful and mindless activities. Mindfulness, referring to analysis in the humanities, is more often continuous critical engagement. Repetition of an arbitrary series of movements may not seem like active engagement (i.e. mindless), but that level of familiarity is necessary to access information about the choreography. In this way, YDT’s research process aligns more with the laboratory approach of science experiments that are repeated to gain information.

 

The way I have been trained to think often makes repetitive or painstaking tasks extremely boring. As a student, a critical voice in my head often asks, “What’s the point? What’s the point?” and this is reified all the time. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling this way.

 

All too often, I see ideas as things to be discovered, not cultivated. Even as a dancer, I often link mindfulness with stillness. Trisha Brown’s choreography is challenging me, challenging me to see that the world is movement, and nothing has to be still for me to truly understand it. The world will not slow down for me to find focus, so my focus readjusts. Consciousness is a dance—sweeping arms, flinging legs, dives into gravity, losing my balance and finding it again, and again, and again.

 

 

 

Three Things

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1) Yes:

 

“First you have to say “yes” deep inside…from a guttural place”

 

            Iréne spoke these words during one of our first rehearsals, and the directive has stuck with me. I had the opportunity to learn bits of Trisha Brown’s choreography last year through Iréne’s Dance Theater class—Glacial Decoy, Set and Reset, Locus, and Foray Forêt. When I first encountered the inexorable flow and seamless fluidity of Brown’s choreography, I used the following metaphor to describe my experience:

 

“I sense there is a flow to the choreography that I must find in reverse. I feel at first like I am swimming upstream and feeling the current against my skin, and for brief moments I can let go of the struggle and float.”

 

            Giving in to the current and saying “yes” seem like two ways of getting at the same underlying principle. But what am I agreeing to when I say “yes?” As we continue to learn Newark, I have become interested in natural movement and what exactly that means. Now, by “natural” I do not mean the psycho-spiritual approach to movement undertaken by early modern dance choreographers, but something much more bare bones: a way of moving in concordance with the body’s kinetic chains wherein everything feels organic. As Iréne has said before, if it doesn’t feel right, then it’s not right. My question is this—is developing efficient movement a process of accumulation (additive) or a process of paring down and unlearning (subtractive)? Or perhaps it’s not something to slap a binary onto.

 

            As we work on the choreography, we focus a great deal on somatic work. We become attuned to the weight of our heels on the floor, the crease of our hip sockets, the alignment of our skeletons, and the flow of our breathing. We look for moments to allow our “gut-sight” to kick in and direct us. We frequently talk about the body’s knowledge, saying that the body knows more than our minds are aware. Through this process, I am looking for new modes of engagement with dance and trying to make discoveries. On one hand, I must say “yes”—yes to falling, yes to direction, yes to weight. On the other, I am also trying to ask questions at the same time. If yes is doing and questions are feeling, then it seems there is a tension between self-observation and self-participation; I would like to examine this relationship further as we continue.

 

            From this experience comes another question: What is ease? Nothing could be easier than gravity. From a physical standpoint, a fall requires no effort, just mass and acceleration due to gravity. But falling is one of the hardest things in this material. The inevitability of physical laws becomes more complex when we interact with them while dancing—the vast majority of our lives are spent resisting gravity and maintaining upright orientation. When I fall or flip upside-down, I become so much more aware of my body’s “object-ness.” My own weight causes me to topple, or fall uncontrollably. If “yes” is commitment without looking back, then I need to start understanding what I’m looking towards. Through this process, I am beginning to reeducate my body.

 

2) Seeing/Looking…Feeling/______:

 

“Really look!” “It’s visual rhythm.”

 

“Feel the body, feel the heel, feel the knee, feel the hip joint…”

 

            Iréne has mentioned sight numerous times, referring to both the appearance of the dancer’s geometry in space and the dancer’s gaze. We watch video of rehearsal footage, trying to absorb the qualities of a phrase. More than most choreography I see, there is something really kinetically luscious about just watching Brown’s choreography—a kind of kinesthetic synesthesia. In Newark, I see a specificity of shape that is tactile; I feel each weight shift, and I feel each precisely angled gesture. Watching the “Cranwell” phrase, I feel the satisfaction of each logical kinetic chain as I see it unfold—the tantalizing energy of a phrase that you can really sink your teeth into.

 

            I feel the phrase differently when watching it than when doing it. While dancing is much more consuming, both experiences hit me somewhere visceral. As I watch, I feel a powerful desire to emulate the movement. When rehearsing a phrase, if I finally achieve the flow of a movement, I feel like I’ve known it always. Maybe it’s the body’s knowledge coming back to me. I’m trying to understand the interplay between these sensory modes. The best way I can describe the work is by offering the contrast between seeing and looking as a metaphor. Looking is seeing with a kind of directive action; it is both an act of direction and an intake of sensory information at the same time. I need a parallel verb to contrast with feeling—feeling as an act of direction rather than just the intake of sensory information. I think this sense is what I am pursuing.

 

            This push-and-pull sense is what makes a smart dancer, I think. Until now, I have entered ballet class ready to engage my “ballet body”—abdominals pulled up, hip rotators engaged, chest lifted, etc. It was an act of direction that overwhelmed sensory information. The same process doesn’t work for Trisha Brown’s material. I warm up my joints and try to engage my core, but I can’t tap into any preset body that will allow me to execute any phrase we learn. I must take each step on its own terms, its own mechanics, and its own logic. It is a balance between knowing what to do with my body and knowing what my body is doing.

 

            I’ve identified some other concerns—recreation vs. resonance, and direction vs. detail. Recreation of a movement is form-based and exclusively judged on a visual basis—the approximation of a movement from video or observation. Resonance is the mechanics and flow of form, the correct impulses and initiations that allow the body’s responsiveness to propel it through forms.

 

            Direction is the uninhibited “yes” that takes the body with it, a full commitment to direction in space. Detail is the small somatic prompts or mechanical corrections that help us discover the intricacies of the phrase, which build up into its entirety. Both are indispensible, and I’m trying to cultivate both. In doing so, I feel like I am trying to be the driver and the passenger of a car (while also being the car itself).

 

3) Translation: Walkthrough of a Phrase

 

            I see colors as I inscribe a circle. Shifting from corner to side, I am a statue of skin. A line extends from Point Toe to Point Head, a ray I call the spine. Then I pick something up backwards, a crumpling retraction. I feel the space behind me, and the space in front of me. The elbow leads. There’s a shift of axis, a shift of plane, like water but more planar—a planar sloshing as the elbows change their direction. As water flows from two to three dimensions— that is where this movement occurs.

 

            The left knee is a pivot point. The elbows settle into a little mountain, and my spine erupts through it. As the distance increases, a leg on a hinge changes the whole orientation. I follow it like a chain on an anchor, compressed into a hieroglyph. Then come shifting sheets of metal, and the space is full of light. How would my body refract and reflect so that each shift of angle tells me something new about myself in space?

 

            A midline abruptly appears, an incidental axis, and then it vanishes. My eyes follow a dragonfly on the surface of the water. I fall into smoothness—how a collapsible flower would fall in a very sudden autumn to listen to the warmth of the ground. I become a leaf.

 

            Now, I am on a microscope slide. My limbs become their own organisms spreading across the glass. As the cell begins division, the nucleus spins and everything remembers togetherness. The span of evolution takes place in milliseconds, and I am on my feet—a two-legged creature. A brief flirt with gravity and I’m back on the ground.

 

            On the floor again, hips push up and pull back in a little snail of a spiral, then burst from the shell to build a little house on a toppling hill. The leg shoots back and the arm forward, a split second of freestyle swimming, then calm. Now I feel like an elevator, looking out the window. Now it’s something towering, a dinosaur, perhaps. There is a little puff of air and the arms make an uneven windmill connected by my sternum. Again, it’s the surface of the water, but now with lag time. I unfurl through, and then fall in reverse of how I grew. The head buoys on the neck, nodding in agreement with an inevitable gravity. Fall.

 

Migrations and Revelations: Wrapping it all up, and untying more loose ends

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Migration and Revelation

 

What a semester it’s been! For me, the opportunity to learn and compare choreographies by Reggie Wilson and Akram Khan has been an unprecedented and unparalleled experience. More than ever before, this session of Yale Dance Theater has provoked numerous questions about the interplay between physical and metaphysical inquiry, conducting dance research, and my personal relationship with dance. I’ll walk through all my major questions and discoveries as best I can.

 

Well before the project began, I was infatuated with its global scope. Here were two acclaimed contemporary choreographers, working in itinerant and diasporic forms that simultaneously drew upon and shaped their own histories, engaging traditions separated across time and space in entirely novel and cutting-edge ways. I was brimming with questions before rehearsals even began, anticipating concerns of cultural fusion, appropriation, synthesis, and influence.

 

However, when we began working with Reggie, we had to reevaluate the nature of our questions, as well as the information we were pursuing. While I do think there is a place for the kinds of macroscopic questions I was thinking about at the beginning, I had to reformulate my approach to the choreography when I realized that I was overly concerned with my preconceived notions of use and value, and trying to make information pertinent in an academic sense. This is certainly not to say that choreographic research is not an inherently academic pursuit. Rather, it is a process of discovery that often requires us to reconfigure our thoughts, destabilize biases towards static conceptions of information, and form new kinds of connections.

 

How does one ask questions of choreography? What is it to know a dance? I found myself asking such questions a lot, and thinking about the relationship between choreography and information. Information can be in the details of a movement, whether it is Reggie telling us to change direction with the whole pelvis in Big Brick or Lali emphasizing the sharp turn of the head that punctuates the Bahok phrase.

 

Additionally, there is a sense of how to inhabit a choreographic world that comes with doing and with discussing. This too can be a kind of information. Both choreographers have philosophies about the body, space, rhythm, and time that come to light through the efforts of undifferentiated physical-mental work. Sense of flow and use of weight are also important considerations. These are not two parts of a whole, the practical and the theoretical, but rather undivided information that feeds into our own choreographic understanding of an artist’s practice.

 

In the past, I’ve tended towards a view of looking for information below the surface of the choreography. I used to imagine some kind of implicit knowledge tucked away and inaccessible within the choreography, and it was my job as a thinking dancer to excavate it through practice. However, with these two residencies, I stopped seeing analysis as what I’m left with at the end of the day and started looking at it as an active, all-the-time pursuit. Instead of bypassing initial frustrations (of which there were many) and looking forward to the day when everything would become clear—physically and conceptually—I took moments to breathe and consider what the process of encounter could tell me.

 

By allowing this paradigm shift, I found it was in struggle, not ease, that I began to understand what I was doing. These residencies pushed me to extend my body with struggle that was not only a matter of capturing a certain aesthetic, but also reconceptualizing my body and myself as a dance. Reggie’s eternal question, “Can a body?” was what triggered this realization. To dance in these choreographies has been to discover new bodies, new selves, and new ways of understanding, and I’d like to elaborate on some of these for both artists.

 

Reggie’s work, for me, reveals the dynamic contrast of actualization. It is, as he said, the difference between the words “up” and “down,” as they are enacted in the studio versus conceptualized. It is the difference between just jumping and thinking to oneself, “I’m jumping, I’m jumping.” There is a complex relationship between doing and speaking; while they seem autonomous, I found that they were mutually informative.

 

This work was setting oneself into motion, and riding a unique and unstoppable flow. The choreography feels very migratory, never settling in space and time. We dance in microsync—working with the time it takes for our own weight to move a certain distance, with a certain force. The choreography travels; contrast creates a sense of changing place. This is not a domination of space, since we never inhabit or claim it. There is directionality that isn’t geographic; we pursue one intention and then veer off towards another. The metaphor that makes sense for me is thinking of topography versus geography.

 

With Cunningham, we danced in space with no fixed points. This was an uninflected, geographic space, with evenly distributed potential for inhabitation. Space became that in which things take place. With Reggie’s choreography, the experience of space was vastly different. I call it topographical because we moved through the terrain of space, encountering various places in our interaction with it. Space and time were not lines of meter to fill; instead, they were forces to be encountered as we travelled through them. Geography is the space we fill, while topography is the space we interact with. Ideologically speaking, this is a departure from the domination or systematization of space that exists in many concert dance forms, from ballet to Cunningham.

 

Having our sense of space shaped by the movement is something I will return to when discussing Akram Khan, since I think both choreographers engage with space and time in ways that I was not accustomed to.

 

Time, too, was something set in motion. Rather than arching over us as a series of counts, time was the physical reality that the movement of our bodies necessitated. Time was a process, the trajectory of “travelling through” rather than an arbitrary measurement. Khan’s approach to time is similarly related to the dancer’s actions, but in a different way.

 

So, in ontological terms, what is the nature of the body in Reggie’s choreography? No matter what I say, I’m sure Reggie would be able to add a “both…and…” While the movements look dramatically different from those of Akram Khan, I find more similarities than differences in comparing the two choreographies. First is the emphasis on contrasts and dynamic, the excitement of doing, truly doing. There are two moments fixed parallel in my mind: The first was Reggie telling us what he didn’t want us to do, saying, “I’m jumping, I’m jumping,” while frowning in mock concentration. The second was Lali talking about the dynamic shifts in Vertical Road, saying, “It only looks good if everyone does it.” Here is an activation of the body, necessitating exertion and commitment, a step beyond intention. Taking the extra step, moving beyond my body and my questions as I had them neatly conceptualized, is the fall into new discoveries.

 

I found that my body, my presence in Reggie’s choreography was fuller in a sense than anything I’ve done before. The contrasts in dynamic, navigation of complex phrases, and full-bodied movements demanded nothing less. This work, as well as Khan’s, has complicated my ideas about body and presence in dance. I cannot say that my mind was “off,” since I don’t believe that dance is or can be without thought, but self-judging and preemptive evaluation were subsumed into the movement. Our second showing was, as Reggie said once, “me in my full presence.”

 

A recurring issue I’ve encountered in several of my classes this semester is the overly static nature of traditional metaphysics, the constant and undevelopable nature of being. My experience with both these choreographers has shown me the incontrovertibly physical aspect of the metaphysical (contradictory as it may seem), and how the body in action spurs philosophical discovery on the personal level.

 

Reggie sought to make this experience personal, and I felt this, sincerely so. Getting into the dance strips away preconceived questions and throws open whole new epistemologies; I must grapple with the “I” that fixes objects for my critical consideration and become immersed instead, realizing that dancing brings “me” into existence in a new way, validating and even creating a presence in time and space.

 

Like others have written, I felt a similar surge of validation performing the Akram Khan repertory. Rather than travelling through space and time, Khan’s choreography gave the empowering sense that I was creating space and time. This assertion lies in the rhythms, the staccato breaths and suspended counts that punctuate the phrases. Linking back to space, rhythm is not a metronomic means of dividing a blank stretch of time here. Instead of marking an imposed, inhabited time, the rhythms are how we create time as dancers. I felt my body as a powerful source of gravity, actively warping rather than drifting in the fabric of time.

 

Viewers commented on the raw energy of the movement, the universality of effort, and even the resistance of mortality. The counts were our key to empowerment, not tools of subservience. When we hit a “wunnnn TWO!” right in the meat of the count, the sensation is tangible, not conceptual.

 

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about energy, and what that means in dance. In the Khan repertory, this too blurred the line between physical and metaphysical. I described energy as a metaphor for itself, an imagined dynamic force with a very real physical manifestation. Energy is the sounds you follow through a phrase, the economy of exertion found in efficient physical chain reactions (the Khan movement is all about hits and releases, attacks and suspended withdrawals), and the way your breathing fits into that of those around you.

Going off of breathing, there was a sense of social togetherness in both choreographies. Reggie once mentioned that breath was not an obsession of his, but we became attuned to the paths of each other’s pelvises and found unity in our rhythmic chants of “See Line.” In the Khan pieces, our unity was in energy, rhythm, and breath. While there was a definite group dynamic in the Cunningham work, I remember that more as a field of synchronized rhythms, independent in time and linked by proximity.

 

If I felt like a full body in Reggie’s work, in Akram’s I felt like a “flow body.” I imagine the barriers of my skin replaced with an energy that is both diffuse and direct. I assert my presence by letting go of my control. Dean Cahan asked if there were philosophical insights to be drawn from this work, and I think there most definitely are. Akram Khan and Reggie Wilson’s choreographies both have a kind of decentralization of the body. In many Western forms, there is a controlled autonomy of the body, a kind of solipsism that puts forth a singular subject who “does a dance.” Movements come from the core as a control center, and this muscular action becomes the choreography’s focus. Ballet has pull-up, Graham has the contraction, etc.

 

While Reggie works with the pelvis, it is not a means of controlling the body’s movements from a single point. Khan, too, does not conceive of such a control center. Both choreographies are decentralized in their initiations and reactions, which gives them a unique flow. Reggie makes use of weight in the heel, the forearm, the “foreleg” and other extremities. Khan’s movements also use the extremities extensively; Lali and Young Jin told us that we could find the flow of a phrase by following the hands, and responding with the rest of the body. The head, too, is not always perched on top of a stacked spine, but sharp and responsive to other movements. It punctuates, rather than navigates. As Lali once said, upon finishing a spitfire phrase that ended with a quick turn of the head, “This is all you see.” This was all a part of discovering a new kind of body logic.

 

In Khan’s choreography, I also had to abrogate some of my fixed identity as a single dancer. Instead, I attuned myself to the group, emulating a collective and flowing energy rather than existing as one body dancing with other bodies. Giving up this autonomy ushered in a new way of being, and a new philosophical look at my “self” as a dancer. While I long resisted understanding dance as energy, instead preferring to treat moving as an anatomical activity, the choreographic idea of energy gave me a key to a new and different understanding of my body and myself—I am not a static entity, and this is paradoxically how I can fully experience dancing.

 

In conclusion, this two-part residency has left me with much to think about. I will continue to investigate these questions of self, energy, space, time, rhythm, group, flow, and many others as well. It is somewhat ironic that I am ending this year with so many questions when I sought after so many answers at the beginning.

 

Traveling Vertical Roads

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Traveling Vertical Roads

 

I wrote a blog post yesterday about the Akram Khan material, but it keeps inspiring me to write more and more. In the past I’ve veered away from overly impressionistic descriptions, but a course I’m currently taking (called Moving Texts) is an exploration of the fruitful interplay and dialogue between dance and creative writing.

 

Communicating the experience of dance through writing can be difficult; rather than viewing writing as the keyhole of a locked door, an incomplete glimpse of a subjective experience from which the reader is barred, I’m envisioning a photographic aperture. This device allows a small amount of light into a camera lens to create an image. Writing may not be able to “capture” the ineffable experience of dance, but, like a photograph, it speaks to the experience and frames it in a new way, shedding light on what could easily be passed by. It becomes something new.

 

Furthermore, dancing and language have been in dialogue in my mind, and the practice of writing about dance helps me form new ways of articulating these perceptions. The dancing is affecting my writing; I can feel the cadence of the rhythms as I write about the choreography, and as I search for synesthetic and imagistic ways to convey what I want to say.

 

I wanted to write about a piece that we are learning, called Vertical Road, which presents as much kinesthetic challenge as its title implies. This is my response to the first snippet of a phrase:

 

 

We stand poised to move, breath quickening slightly to the rattling drum beats that punctuate the air.

 

“wuuunn—TWO!”

 

Drop to the ground. I’m never ready enough to embrace the jolt—a warrior suddenly reminded of the thousand years of accumulated dust that I am shedding.

The weight shift on three is like a return to the sun, trying to cup a tiny sphere of warmth, a disbelief in the light that my eyes track across the sky after eons of silence in clay vaults.

 

Wuuuun two threeeee FOUR!

 

Is a suspension longer than myself, my curved wrists cling to air with a rock-climber’s grip—the only break in verticality that keeps me from falling down the waterfall of my own body.

 

So sudden—

I become aware that I breathe without thinking

Arms snake up a sparkling trail

Fireworks burst and the movement lingers in smoke patterns

Ash that disperses with the wind

You inhale the gunpowder smell of the last movement

Right as you blaze on to the next

 

Everything crackles like fire and lingers like smoke

 

Each arm circle turns a wheel of a thousand years

But a twist of the hands

Caging energy

Disappears as quickly as embers thrown from a bonfire 

Into the night

 

Tiny moment of vulnerability

Dreaming of flowers around my neck

What I thought would be

An inhalation of perfume

Awakens me to battle

 

Sharp shift of weight, supported in a crouching knee, leaning away from clawed hands that fend off danger

 

Then a swing of the arm that sounds like a roar at myself

A dragon of energy

It loops through the hoop of my left arm

And births a baby snake that spits out

A tiny jewel a my feet

 

The glint directs my gaze downward

 

Now the movement is water 

My arms stir spirals

 

Like the current,

I am no longer a swimmer

But the sea swimming through itself

 

In a low crouch I feel my arms moving like mad to pull me back to the surface, my arms wrap around my head and my waist, as tight as holding breath, then

 

TWO! Triumphantly dry and regal I fling water from my hands

 

My head initiates the next step

Lungs—blowing a bubble larger than myself

I hold the iridescence by my skin

Feeling the fragility of film

As it pulses with my breathing

 

I inhale through my elbows

 

Then shatter the whisper into a crash

 

The counts quicken and the movement becomes red—

Streaks of color that reinvigorate my blood

A reminder:

We all dance in the sky of a setting sun

 

I too share colors. When I throw my whole being into the count, I can feel them working.

 

Space between beats echoes the space between breaths between heartbeats

 

Dance that sparks me into remembering to live

I am its rhythms and its colors

 

Fire that burns no less energetically

Simply because smoke and ash promise immortality

 

Final Showing from the Reggie Wilson residency

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I found this free-write/thick description/poem that I wrote the night after our performance, and am posting it now as my final post for the Reggie Wilson residency. 

We open to the audience, the last heel dig into the floor—Ba dum, dum dum, out out, in in…

My peripheral vision on Karlanna

the involuntary inhalation—Anticipation given breath and bone.

I see/hear/feel it successionally/ then all at once, not realizing our unison in breath and body until we feel the pelvis pull back, push front—tiny increments made miles in microsync.

 

In an exhalation, the span of evolution.

 

Now there goes the world. It shoots down the elbow and flings from the wrist.

BOOM

Your side is your front:

A universe of difference where we once walked slow circles in silent space.

 

The angle of the light. Everything.

 

Curved over the electric potential—Bang! Cross! Surge into right foot, electric drill spiral down WHOOSH, like turning on the tide in the circle of a dime, is sucks you under and in and down then BURST! You’re up and you see the backs of heads of those around you, then falling

 

(Elena

Karlanna

Indrani

Clarissa)

 

the reminder of gravity’s down. No! Too free, too much force to fall it’s a JUMP down, pulled back into the tide, feet begging contact, legs bend deep deep into the briefest reciprocal

push

Then up. Thrown like a starfish. “I can’t be up here,” you whisper to the ground

when it’s already nearing over

 

That force—Unimaginable! A throw AND a tug, it must be. I threw my other self into space into freedom and the rope on my pelvis tugged me and I felt an intake of breath pull up like a yank then I’m a cloud and there’s roaring at my limbs and soft peace that floats at the center

 

I see ground below

I am slung over cities

            ,flung over fields

                        ,sprung over seas

 

There’s enough space up her for ten of me, and in the time it takes to fall

 

I realize I fly

 

Nearer to the ground and I’m less—to save myself from the force of so many of me

all falling

 

Plié. And it’s already gone.

 

Shoulders back as the knee presses forward. I’m down, use my arm, my arm must pull me around and up. Torso cycles over forced arch feet

 

Arms spiraling side left, down. Clarissa’s yellow presence speeds up and pulls me to join her as we near the horizon, the sound barrier—

 

then Hit it! Break up, fall and slice the air a satisfying sweep, coupé

 

arm comes over, I’m down—

 

“END THIS DANCE!” echoes in my ears then the words are in my blood and they’re pounding against my eardrum, in my pulse, in panting breaths

 

Huuuh huh huuuuh huh huhh—

 

Pelvis underneath you. Facing down. Straight leg parallel.

 

I imagine that my slowing heartbeat

is dimming the lights

 

that my body is letting this all go,

that it’s not being taken away from me

 

Economy of Exertion, Exploration of Energy, Time, and Counting

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Economy of Exertion, Exploration of Energy, Time, and Counting

 

There is no doubt that the movement we are learning is challenging, but what makes it challenging? On the surface, I would ascribe its difficulty to the sheer speed and intricacy of the choreography, but I think I am grappling with something more. What I am investigating is not only the physical exertion that the movement necessitates, but also the physical economizing that equally facilitates its execution.

 

I’m realizing that much of my dance experience has vacillated between two philosophical and physical extremes—difficulty and ease. My first training was in ballet, a form that thrives in some ways on insurmountable goals. There is an often-heard maxim in ballet studios that if it is not the difficult way, it is the wrong way. This kind of ideal in training comes up when we talk about necessary physical adjustments as “cheating” to make movement work, such as the slight shift of the hips to the supporting leg in a very high extension to the side, or the small opening of the hip in an arabesque. While this is by no means the only way of teaching ballet, it seems that many of these anatomical realities become “necessary evils,” hence the idea of difficulty by impossibility.

 

By contrast, the somatic practices, release techniques, and improvisational methods I have done in the past—including Gaga, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and Authentic Movement—focus on goals of ease and efficiency in breath, alignment, muscle tension, and response to gravity.

 

With both these frameworks in mind, I sometimes feel that I am “between bodies,” always sorting out what needs to be working and what doesn’t. Furthermore, how I use and approach my body depends very much on the relationship between my own goals and the purpose of the movement I am doing. Efficiency and ease, challenge and difficulty, both take on different meanings for different movers and movements.

 

When we began the Akram Khan material, I felt a sense of unrequited effort. I tried to imitate the percussively harsh yet fluidly continuous movements of Lali and Young Jin, but struggled to approximate them with my own body. It was as if I were punctuating every sentence with an exclamation mark, but not actually saying anything, or swinging a baseball bat and continually striking out. I saw the dynamism in Lali’s and Young Jin’s movements, but even once I began to grasp the mechanics, I was still unsure about how to economize my energy. How to exert and conserve is my lingering question.

 

The use of the term “energy” itself in teaching dance is fascinating to me, because it is a concept that floats between the metaphorical and the physical. We sometimes hear, “You shoot the energy from your fingertips,” or,  “The energy builds up in the legs and then spirals through the spine.” In this sense it sounds almost magical. At other times, energy is a very specific physical request, such as, “Not so much energy; you won’t stop turning.” This correction asks for efficiency, for less force. Energy is mysterious because it refers to both the real exertion that accompanies movement and its own imaginary metaphor—an image that helps the dancer know how to move.

 

As Lali said during one rehearsal, you have to conserve energy to execute the movement, or you will never reach the speed and dynamic required. You have to find out what needs to work. She said that she always thinks about the arms—they are never thrown away. This is a shift for me as a dancer; I often think about the work the legs are doing moving through space. But it’s true, the arms are incredibly specific (perhaps influenced by the intricate mudras, or hand positions, of Kathak) and following the arms gives the flow of the phrase.

 

The movements in Vertical Roads and Kaash are incredibly dynamic, with quick shifts of weight, a constant grounding in earth, but arm gestures that crackle, flow, sizzle, twist, and warp—fluent in fire, water, and wind. Each movement burns color into the air with the precision of lightning, and yet when I finish the phrase I feel like years went by—over and under different terrains, through architecture that falls away before it is even stabilized. Perhaps I am romanticizing the fusion of Kathak, with its ancient and rich history in Bangladesh and northern India, with contemporary European trends, but I truly feel a different sense time and space while dancing this choreography, feeling hints of a secret story in the dynamic rhythms.

 

Time and energy, as I have written about, converge most importantly in counting the dance. The counts are more than temporal information, i.e. divisions in a blank stretch of linear time:

 

“wuuun TWO! threee four one two THREE! foourr, one TWO! three FOUR!”

 

The rhythm is dynamic rather than metronomic, tangible rather than abstract. You hit movement on each count with bull’s eye accuracy, like punctuation rather than a trailing pause. The counts aren’t subdivisions of time chugging along. Rather, the counts are creating rhythm and dynamic. This is perhaps why the choreography’s treatment of time feels so different: Time doesn’t pass separately from the movement that happens within it.

 

I think of the idea of a blank canvas. We can think about painting as filling the canvas, or we can think about the canvas as bringing the painting into existence. The movements of these dances don’t fill time—they make it, shaping its dynamics and its rhythms. Counting becomes a palette of color instead of an incremented ruler.

 

I feel like time is not outside me while I’m dancing to these counts. The choreography is fast, but I am not racing to fulfill each movement at a certain speed. My task in the dance is to create time, not overcome it. Time is my achievement, not my competitor. 

Two Posts for the Price of One!

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1) Difficulties Describing Dancing

 Describing any experience in depth is going to be difficult. Every moment of my waking life, I am constantly receiving new sensory information. Dance is similarly full of information—my accelerated breathing and heartbeat, the presence of others around me, the pressure of my feet on the floor, and so many other things. When I’m asked to describe it, what should I focus on? What about the point in the short duet phrase where I always get tired—the pivot on the ground, then the catch step into the Cunningham walks? By the time we finish the Cunningham walks, there is a moment of silence on the sixth count before the clap. Right there, I realize I’m tired.

What about other thoughts that enter into your head uninvited? I noticed the nice swish of Derek’s leg in Big Brick, the moment he describes as:

 “then there is the left leg that flicks you into 1st position. This is one of my favorite parts.  It’s like swooping and snatching something with the tip of your toe and then having your lower back vacuum your leg back into first and into alignment.”

 That was the quality I so admired in Derek’s leg swoosh. I’m getting up from my chair to try this right now, which I think is important to say. Yes, now I do feel a flick, a flick that is like stirring up dust with my left foot. Then it eggbeaters in at the knee and suddenly my whole body is facing the other direction. That shift happens on my right heel, which pushes in the floor in plié as it turns.

 Even as I write this, I wonder how much Derek’s description is going to influence this moment now. To resort to the oft-pirated physics analogy (sorry Amymarie!) it’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The act of capture tells you the position of something at a given time, but the momentum is altered by the act of capturing. Maybe a more apt description is seeing a movie based on a childhood book— suddenly you don’t picture things quite the same way anymore. I guess this testifies to the fragility of these moments.

 When thinking about writing out a phrase, I had to wonder, is there a methodology for censorship for clarity’s sake? Are there moments where description will alter my understanding of the choreography? Will it set me in my ways, making me think, “this is how it SHOULD be?” I certainly hope not, and I want to use writing in another way. What if I use the act of description as an act of destruction, voicing sensations as a way to cathartically purge myself of habitual patterns? Is this helpful, or interfering? To make it personal, how will my writing affect my dancing, and vice versa? Writing can’t pin down or replace choreography, but will it change my relationship to it?

 I’ve decided I’m not going to get hung up on this “relationship” as a static thing. My relationship to the choreography is that I do it; there is nothing qualitative there. However, maybe by pouring out all these fleeting sensations, I can get over the need to document, the need to have the dance feel a certain way each time, and the fear that writing won’t “capture” the way I want. So here goes, free and uncensored: 

 Shoulder Duet:

 Right shoulder left shoulder it’s as simple as that I’m doing it right now trying to describe it it’s kind of like the movement of those paddle toys you put in water there’s definitely a feeling of liquid in the shoulder blades arms up “PLIÉ ON THESE WALKS” right elbow to hip arms straight front like diving both elbows to hips right arm up “left hand catch the right hand beat it to the finish line!” now it’s caught like a little praying Buddha pose left arm sweeps cobwebs (I don’t think I ever really thought of cobwebs while doing it but now they’re coming to mind), right arm up flamenco flourish TRISHA BROWN curving the back left leg extended step left leg through to Fosse dressing up a doll/Macarena melt into right hand holding left arm right leg kicks out in out step left leg kicks back step step step CLAP with the PELVIS UNDERNEATH you walks REALLY SHAAAAAAKING your head step right HEEL leads back left ONE STEP cabriole facing front turn into a lunge WHOLE SIDE sweeps up and over arms and legs sloshing like water sprinkler two arms one arm this is my FAVORITE part it feels so satisfying then DROP the pelvis now we’re really going places three steps heel hips twist a little leg hips twist a lot step step rond de jambe let the HEEL lead (are you REALLY letting the heel lead, be honest!) It pulls you around into attitude use your plié use the floor chugjump reset arms left right GENIE! Hands to the ground right left right plié right leg and look through look through your legs…aaaannd fall forward (ARE YOU BREATHING?) open second twist in it’s the satisfaction of a corkscrew champagne EXPLODE up walk walk PINA BAUSCH languishing arms (why do I randomly associate this movement with strips of raw bacon??) flick like a parrot monkey down roll up PINA BAUSCH languishing arms Rond de pied like tiny boat going around tiny island three steps rib scratch rib scratch rib scratch BREAK pelvis underneath you plié to bring right arm over flick arms jump back as if pulllled by the elbows hop open arms hop to lunge step right into back attitude around push the left knee OUT and through the membrane (pink sunburst! I’m on the beach pushing through a wave seeing the open water stretching stretching stretching from here to Japan sunlight on water turn under self like spinning water step step step piqué DON’T SAIL I love the wrenching feeling in my gut when the arm steers me onto the diagonal weaving the hands in and out (I always look in the mirror right here), out out in in out out in in feels like West African dance step and a bit like some kind of drumming routine…

 In describing this, I’m dissecting where I’m being honest to real sensation and where things are a bit forced. The most nonsensical associations in this are in fact the most relevant; it’s like my body has memory or imagination that my mind can only hint at. Honestly, a lot of it is directives and associations from Reggie and our rehearsal directors. I don’t think I ever really saw the rond de pied as a tiny boat, but I see it now as I’m writing. Do I forget it now? Can I forget it? As I read the passage, I see all the forged associations—where writing tries to “interpret” movement and where movement resists interpretation. Do they affect each other? On some level, none of these relationships is static—me to choreography, dance to writing, all are constantly changing in the act of DOING. When I dance, changes happen in my understanding of my body and the choreography. When I write, the same is true. This is the dialogue I see in my description.

 How will the reader experience such descriptions? I’d love your responses!

 

 2) Pushing and Pulling: Two Sensations (and Thoughts About Knees)

 The pelvis has been getting a lot of attention, so I want to talk about my knees. For years, they took the brunt of the turnout task, compensating for my hips. I now prefer parallel or loose turnout. My knees sound like the choreography of a hip-hop dance: pop, lock, crunch, creak, crack, click!

 Needless to say, Reggie’s choreography used to scare my knees. It contains a huge amount of flat-footed twisting and jumps that launch off one leg and twist in the air. My first acknowledgement of patterns in the work came from this fear of injury: There is a lot of turning underneath yourself with a bent knee. For example, the “Heathcliff moment” and the numerous “hanging turns” in the duet. Even scarier are the jumps that twist in the air and launch off one leg. The torque in preparing for these is a big force, and I try to always stay in plié to keep myself safe.

 Through these “fear tactics,” I’m finally learning to think down into the ground and use my plié. A jump or turn may seem to go up, but I’m constantly thinking down. The depth and strength of my plié has increased in this work, and I feel I have stronger quadriceps and less knee pain. For me, this is a revelation. This brings me to the first of two important sensations in this work—the push. In ballet, the plié was crucially important, but often as an interstitial step. Many of Reggie’s movements require a sustained plié for safe and smooth execution. I’ve found my plié not as a bending, but as a real pushing into the floor. During one astounding moment, I swear the floor pushed back. I sprung up into a kind of tour jeté with much less effort than I was used to, with great surprise.

 Rather than using my plié for the anticipated “up,” I think about how much force I need to direct towards the floor for the purposes of what I’m doing. It’s no longer a sense of walking normally vs. walking in plié for me; the two only differ in the amount of push I give to the floor. I’ve grown to love this satisfying sensation of pushing down softly into the reciprocal force of the floor. I no longer need to clench my abdominals like a life preserver and hope for the best. I’m finally beginning to feel the amount of pressure needed to stay afloat, rather than sink into the floor. The hanging turns in the duet (suspended from the arm and turning under yourself in a deep plié) have gone from my feared enemy to utterly juicy moments of release into the floor—one of my favorite feelings in Reggie’s work.

 My other favorite sensation is the pull, which is equally prevalent in the choreography. In Big Brick, your heel pulls you up and over into a crouch, and around into a jump. In the duet, the heel pulls you out of a rond de jambe and into an attitude jump several times. At first, all these pulls from the heel felt forced, and I never felt like I was honestly letting my heel lead me. Then, at rehearsal just this past Wednesday, I felt the yank of my heel into an attitude leap and it hit me: MY LEG HAS WEIGHT! If I fling it the right way, it’s going to take me with it. Finally, I feel that I’m learning to distinguish between letting the weight of my leg give into gravity and resisting gravity to développé my leg. It’s the difference between letting your body take you places and taking your body places.

 I used to try and imagine a weight in my heel to get the right effect. Now I want to actually FIND the weight of my heel, and the rest of my body as well. The pull occurs in other places, too. Reggie often has distal flings of the forearm and the foreleg that carry you places, provided you use your weight the right way. In the solo, the elbow is pulled in to pull you out! How does that happen? The secret for me lies in actually using your left hand to pull in your right elbow, and then letting it rebound!

 I love the sharp inhalation of apprehension that accompanies the pull, when the movement seems to pull out the rug from under you and you can fly for an infinitesimally joyous second. The exhilaration of pulling, along with the luxury of pushing, are the two textural qualities that have made me fall in love with this movement, and they are also what I find most difficult. 

Philosophy in Physicality

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This project has been challenging my body and my expectations at every rehearsal. On the first day, we learned what seemed to be a step dance in changing meter (I later found out it was Reggie’s experimentation with movements from South African gumboot dancing). For full disclosure, I am pretty rhythmically challenged and at first was incredibly frustrated. Everyone else seemed to have mastered the coordination of steps and claps, and I stumbled along as best as I could. Despite my confusion, I began to enjoy the percussive movement and stop perseverating on my inadequacy. I hit whatever beats I could, and instead of dwelling on my frustrations I let myself be a little lost.

 I realized something that might seem obvious—I’m learning. Sometimes while learning new choreography, I have the drone-like feeling that I must perfect and memorize it, then move on, all within a matter of minutes. This movement vocabulary was new and different, and I had no choice but to accept that this was unfamiliar, and I would need some more time, practice, and work. Yesterday was only our third rehearsal, and I’m already beginning to feel at home with the movement. Reggie’s classes and choreography are waking me up to the fascinating process of learning movement, and making me more aware of my mentality towards it. Once he told us we can laugh if we want while doing a warm-up, and I began to wonder why this seemed so strange to me. If the desire to laugh while dancing struck me, did I usually suppress the urge? Or had I never even entertained the possibility?

 Reggie said he wants to get us out of our minds and more into our bodies, and I feel the additional benefit of getting out of my ballet training and into other ways of moving. Now, this is not to say that I think ballet has been an unnatural imposition on my body; Reggie also noted that all our bodies house various habits, histories, traditions, and trainings, so I don’t think any kind of movement is more “natural” than another. Rather, I am becoming cognizant of the affectations my own body takes for granted as natural while moving, whether it’s doing something as simple as looking up to the ceiling or making eye contact with another dancer. This is one thing I love about the work we’ve been doing—the physics and the physicality of it.

We talked during a rehearsal about the huge difference between what physically happens in the dance studio and how you write about it. I’ll do my best to articulate the experience for me, aware that this is a written platform. He told us to think of what we learn on Sesame Street, concepts that might seem obvious or stupid. Near and far. Up and down. In the dance studio, these aren’t abstract concepts. Thinking about the concept of near and far tells you nothing about really moving in space in proximity to others. Similarly, I thought I knew up from down. Reggie distinguishes between “up” (just looking up) and “dancer’s up” (for example, looking out over your hand in arabesque). Up and down, near and far, these concepts are so easy to talk about, but feel so different in the studio. I’m going to go out on a limb here and form a somewhat random association, just because I think this is a beautiful idea that does have philosophical as well as physical resonance.

Derrida has a notion of “différance” which he explains helps make meaning in a text. The main idea (summed up nicely on Wikipedia) is this:

 “In the essay “Différance” Derrida indicates that différance gestures at a number of heterogeneous features that govern the production of textual meaning. The first (relating to deferral) is the notion that words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined through appeal to additional words, from which they differ. Thus, meaning is forever “deferred” or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers. The second (relating to difference, sometimes referred to as espacement or “spacing”) concerns the force that differentiates elements from one another and, in so doing, engenders binary oppositions and hierarchies that underpin meaning itself.”

 It may sound strange, but I immediately thought of this idea after hearing Reggie’s way of thinking about pairs like up and down or near and far, and then experiencing physically just how great a difference there is between “up” and “down” and “up and down”. The terms are accepted as abstract opposites when you just talk about them, but in movement the conceptual binary between them dissolves and all you have is dancing.

From here I want to write a bit about our exploration of these kinds of basics in rehearsals, which are fundamental but not at all easy. I feel like a system of physical basics informs the choreography, and gives it a very powerful sense of directive. Our bodies are all different, but watching Anna and Raja perform the duet last Wednesday I was struck by the similarity of their physical intentions, even though they have different bodies and movement training. They look up or drop the pelvis down, kick straight back or twist from left to right. Reggie talked a bit about physics, and how force is always mass times acceleration. I was reminded of the idea of task-based choreography from postmodern dance, but realized as he spoke about physics that all movement is a task—a real and physical thing.

Another idea mentioned was the pelvis as a kind of “point zero” for different kinds of movement, and this really makes sense to me. As your center of gravity, the pelvis is where all these directions (up, down, right, left, etc.) can be initiated on different bodies with different training. When I do the movements more like physical tasks, like moving up or down, I discover myself working in fully new ways. For example, I’ve found a “magic calf muscle” area right near the back of my knee that fires when I simply flick my feet during part of the solo we’ve been learning. In the same solo, there’s a moment where I can shake my knees and feel a ripple move up my spine with no effort on my part. There is a unique tension between control and release in this work, and I’m excited to continue exploring. All movement is physical and physics, and I think realizing this basic necessity is key to delving into the diverse and dynamic materials that are created, combined, reconfigured in this choreography

Final (Maybe) Blogpost

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Finally a long-overdue blog post! I began this one shortly after our performance and just finished it up:

 

The performance on Friday was an amazing experience, and I’ve needed some time to process and allow verbal thoughts to coalesce out of the experiential impressions.

From the moment the showing began, there was an electric and yet sacred energy in the space. Friends I spoke to later about the performance mentioned a sense of severity, which I found interesting because my own experience was so freeing. However, for this post I don’t wish to talk about what our dancing looked like, but rather how it felt. I think it is these impressions that are most transient, and the least able to be recorded.

From an outside perspective, I’d always thought Cunningham’s dancers appeared very serious in performance. Before our learning Roaratorio, it seemed like an imposed demeanor and just a part of the aesthetic. The value of inside research into this choreography is the revelation that this “seriousness” is something far more than a staged appearance: It is an incredible focus on the movement and attentive engagement to the present around you. Most surprisingly, I found it rose organically rather than through a conscious effort on my part. All I had to do was dance.

Nancy Dalva wrote a wonderful and thorough response to our blog posts discussing Cunningham’s choreographic practices and thoughts; anyone reading our posts should definitely read it here: http://www.nancydalva.com/2012/04/from-dance-ink-way-of-merce.html.

One quote in the response that piqued my attention was from Carolyn Brown: “Chance is the dogma, but look deeper.” For me, this whole semester has been about trying to “look deeper,” and what I’ve discovered is the value and beauty of Cunningham’s innovations, including chance, not simply as aesthetic revolutions in their own right, but also as perceptual interventions that bring focus back to the experience of dancing.

While chance, indeterminacy, and independence from music certainly alter the visual appearance of the dance, I discovered that the beauty of the choreography existed in how the dancer interacts with the movement and innovations, not simply their imposition on the dancer. Our showing of Roaratorio was unlike any performance experience I’ve ever had. For one thing, the portions of indeterminacy required me to be attuned to what was going on around me, since these parts of the piece were different every time. The slow crossings and the shoulder pop, for example, required active navigation each time so it was impossible to go into any kind of “autopilot” mode.

Through looking deeper, I’ve found a choreography that offers an authentic experience. Dancing in Roaratorio affirmed for me the remarkable sensation of dancing in a landscape that Meg described so aptly. What I loved about this experience was how we functioned as a community and not as individual performers. Audience members later spoke of a singular organism—like a school of fish or a pack of animals. This was not about an aesthetic; this was about togetherness in a shared present.

Another innovation, dancing to internal rhythms instead of music, similarly served function rather than form. While we had external music for the performance, our internal score kept us unified. We weren’t dancing to music, but rather to each other. I think it is this kind of internal experience, of movement, of rhythm, of others, that makes Cunningham’s work so captivating to watch and rewarding to learn and perform.

One of my favorite things about this piece is that it feels not so much like a dance, but a world choreographed through movement. We don’t simply occupy the space; we interact with and navigate through it, paying equal attention to every point and orientation. I had the sense that everything in my world at that moment was right there—in the choreography and in my fellow dancers. Even in retrospect, it was like an escape into some kind of dilated time in a distant space removed from the world; it felt like an eternity, while still ending too soon. The only sense of time I could rely on was the rhythms that were the lifeblood of the choreography, like a collective heartbeat. Cunningham once said that rhythm was time cut up, but for me the rhythm the only time there was.

While I try, there are some nuances of this experience that I can’t really articulate, and I think that is appropriate. For one, I can’t define where my embodied knowledge of the choreography ended and external, in-the-moment decisions began. My senses were so heightened to everything going on around me—the rhythms, the movement, the space—but I also felt an internal groundedness in the movement and in the rhythm. I think there was some kind of interplay at work here between the familiar and the surprising, the known and the unexpected. Some parts of the piece—the rhythm of my jig, the spatial orientations of the “up-up-downs”, or the slow crossings are so internalized that I can really focus perfecting their details. Other moments are fleeting and perhaps not replicable—a moment of unanticipated eye contact, or a brief collision. I love that there is room in the choreography for these kinds of moments; it keeps the dancer constantly engaged on what they are doing and what is going on around them.

This experience has helped me begin to understand another question from Nancy to Merce: How could his dances be so passionate without narrative, without music, and using chance to remove himself? His response: Because I love dancing!

The truth of these words lies in the experience of learning and performing Cunningham’s choreography. He was a dancer and he loved dancing—not just the look of it, but also the sheer ineffable experience of moving in space and time. Learning and performing this choreography has been such an enlightening privilege. For me, the passion in the choreography came from the freedom to just dance.

After intense focus on learning the movement and trying to perfect the details, I entered the performance with no anticipations. Although performing often makes me quite nervous, even the presence of the audience couldn’t distract me because I felt that in the movement I had a tool that gave me access to a whole other world. I was not bare onstage; I had the choreography to perform and that was all I needed. The surprises that followed were remarkable: Suddenly the familiar movements of my fellow dancers were brightened like Technicolor, as if I were seeing them for the first time. The choreography was something to be explored, a framework in which we as living, breathing dancers could create a totally shared experience.

In short, I was totally wrong about what I initially thought Cunningham’s work would feel like. It was in no way an artificial imposition; rather, it gave me agency as a performer that I’ve never known before. While I’ve performed many times before, this showing was the first time I experienced dancing with all my faculties, despite an audience. Finally, I could pay attention to exactly what I was doing while doing what I love, if this makes any sense. Being able to just focus on the movement and enjoying the perceptual surprises that inevitably arise while dancing with others afforded me so much freedom; it was like breathing or seeing for the first time.

Lastly, and most importantly, this experience has given me the answer to a personal question: This was what I was looking for during all my years of dance training. For me, this is what dance should feel like.

I’d like to say thank you to everyone who collaborated to bring this project together, and I hope I don’t miss anyone. Thank you to our faculty director Emily Coates; rehearsal directors Jennifer Goggans, Meg Harper, Neil Greenberg, and Patricia Lent; The Merce Cunningham Trust; Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence Nancy Dalva; Yale College Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan; Yale Theater Studies and Dance Studies; Alliance for Dance at Yale; School of Music musicians Matthew Welch, Scott Petersen, Garth Neustadter, Anne Rhodes, Ian Rosenbaum, Michael Compitello, Paul Kerekes, and faculty director Christopher Theofanidis; costumer Amanda Walker; photographer William K. Sacco; and the Yale Daily News.

Also, thank you to all my fellow dancers for making this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity even more special; I’ve immensely enjoyed dancing with all of you.

Finally, I’d like to thank Merce Cunningham for his vision and passion. As Cunningham’s work redefined for the world what dance could be, this experience has redefined for me what dancing can be.

Back to the Body

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One astounding revelation from something Meg said was the ways in which Cunningham’s technique is influenced by Eastern body techniques like Tai Chi and yoga, both of which he practiced regularly. The use of the spine is not quite a Graham contraction, she said, but more the idea that the spine has the pliability of a tree. There is a rootedness in the spine and a centering that complements the classical strength of the legs. She mentioned that the focus is also philosophically Eastern, maintaining awareness of the moment you’re in.

As a longtime Pilates practitioner and Feldenkrais student, I can see some similarities between the Cunningham choreography we’ve been learning and forms of bodywork. Ballet and modern dance comprise many various techniques, but there’s something different about Cunningham technique. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the fact that the technique wasn’t developed to tell stories, or to be rooted in some deep and supposedly universal phenomenology. The Cunningham technique is all about the physical body as it is—it contains a kind of strength and breath and meditative attitude towards the movement that I often find more in Pilates, yoga, or Feldenkrais than in other forms of dance. Where lies the boundary between a dance technique and a technique of the body? Is it in performance, training, or attitude towards movement?

Cunningham technique is also shaping my body in ways I never imagined. After our classes I feel taller, suppler through the spine, and aligned with strength in the core. It is one of the only things I have found that stretches every single part of my back, even the difficult to isolate muscles of the thoracic spine. Ballet helped significantly to improve lordosis in my lower back and kyphosis in the neck, but practicing Cunningham technique has accelerated the process even more. After our rehearsals, I often feel like I have not only danced, but been to a chiropractor as well.

Secondly, one thing Meg said that struck me was the fact that there are no successional movements in the choreography, such as swings or suspensions like those of Limon or Graham technique. She said the technique is drawn from natural movements of animals, with the center held and quick action or movement in the extremities. There is no successional cause and effect (an idea from Cage); the focus is just on movement in the moment without overt anticipation.

Another savvy observation, made by fellow dancer Amymarie (and for which I give her full credit), is that practically all the movements in Roaratorio feel like they could be the end of the phrase. This seems fitting given Cage and Cunningham’s attitudes toward a democratic use of sound and movement respectively. This notion was also revelatory for me, since I find so much truth in this statement while performing the movement.

Lastly, I’d like to talk a bit about how Cunningham in praxis has altered my conceptions of the movement. Before this project, while I admired Cunningham as a choreographic innovator, I feared that style might be restrictive or mechanical. What I found was in fact the opposite: the movement contains a sense of lushness and satisfaction, particularly in the spine. Meg’s use of natural imagery—of landscapes, marshes, or herds of animals on the Serengeti—is quite apt because the dance space feels energized, alive, and human. I feel this experience of changed understanding through practice speaks towards the need to secure embodied research as a valid intellectual pursuit, since for me moving and learning are never separate entities.