Many classify dance as a performing art, but I feel this is sometimes conflated with “performative art.” From ballet to Broadway, dance is often expected to be larger than life in its emotional expressivity and pyrotechnic virtuosity. One gets the impression that dancing just springs up on stage, or even that dance exists solely to be performative.
While training in ballet, desire to perform was always secondary to my love of class. Class is where you work and where you see improvement, whether it’s a few inches more height on your développé or finally landing a double tour en l’air. You can try and fail that triple pirouette, and then try again. Barre is especially important; each exercise holds the familiarity of routine while also requiring one hundred percent of your mindfulness and effort. There’s a lot more to closing a tendu or ascending from a demi-plié than one might think!
The movement was enough for me, but it wasn’t always enough for the stage. I was often asked to smile more or project more feeling, even though I wasn’t always sure what I was supposed to be feeling. As for smiling, I didn’t always feel happy in that way on stage. If I smiled, it would be because I particularly enjoyed whatever movement I was doing, usually a grand jeté or another big jump. Otherwise, smiling just felt like added muscle tension (and who knows, maybe that’s all it really is).
Cunningham technique has been particularly appealing to me for its integrity of focus between class and rehearsal thus far. Each rehearsal begins with an hour long Cunningham technique class; the focus on alignment, rhythm, and technique begins here and is sustained through the entire rehearsal.
This task-like attitude towards dance may bring up an existential question for the dancer: What are you doing, and why? After rehearsal last Wednesday, our rehearsal director Meg Harper provided an elucidating analogy that captured perfectly what I love about dance, and the Cunningham technique in particular. She said the movement was like cooking, and since I love this image (and also enjoy cooking) I’d like to pursue it a bit.
Referencing another Cunningham work called Winterbranch, Meg mentioned that although the piece communicates heavy themes of death and renewal, these shouldn’t be what the dancer is thinking about while moving. In fact, it will spoil the effect that comes naturally from the movement itself. I like to think of these movements as individual ingredients: They don’t exist solely to create one dish, and no one flavor is more important than another. The impression of the piece is the result of its numerous “flavors,” and each one is integral.
An example of this from Roaratorio is the beginning section of jigs and duets. The accumulation of rhythms and movements on stage creates a textured environment of fun and a feeling of community, but these impressions rise organically from the steps themselves and the dancer doesn’t need to think about forcing it to have a certain mood or emotional timbre.
Secondly, cooking can be considered an apt metaphor for the internal experience of dancing Roaratorio. Most importantly, both require that your mind be fully present. You are not focused on projecting to an external viewer. There is no pressure to feel any certain way, think in cosmic terms, or even daydream about tomorrow. There is a task-like simplicity of focus on what you’re doing, but there is something highly satisfying about both activities, too. They never seem menial or monotonous, even during the umpteenth repetition.
The movement in Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls that we learned last year demanded a similar focus, but in a different way. The choreography was problem solving, forcing the dancer to constantly think about weight shifts, energy, and momentum so the movement could be manipulated and performed backwards, sideways, and inside-out. Improvisations within complicated parameters were also a part of the choreography. While vigorously athletic, it was also highly cerebral.
By comparison, I feel a bit more grounded rehearsing Roaratorio. I feel the steady rhythm of the movement, and focus on clear articulation of each curve, twist, and tilt. It is often meditative for me, but never meditation. Rather than trying to transcend or clear your mind, you are engrossed entirely in the now of what you’re doing. If I were to sum up the experience of Roaratorio thus far, I would say that it feels like I’m doing something that requires my full presence, and meaningful work. In doing this, something is made that others can experience. The process and the result are simultaneous, and viewer thus gets a more real and uninflected glimpse at the experience of the dancer, I feel.