modes of thinking, modes of doing

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Having learned work by both Reggie Wilson and Akram Khan,  I feel I can confidently say that they not only have different movement styles, but different approaches to thinking about movement.  A different mindset, a different way of interacting with movement, a different way of treating the body.  At the end of Reggie’s residency at Yale, he asked me if I felt like there was a link between his choreography and his work and the post-modern choreographers we had learned the repertoire of previously (Cunningham, Twyla Tharp).  At the time I said no, that his work felt completely different. 

However, once we started working with Akram Khan’s repertoire, I realized what completely different actually feels like.  Akram’s work definitely is riddled with difficulties, intricacies and complexities in the execution of his work, but there was a simplicity in the approach.  You were working towards something complex, but the thinking and processing of that movement is very direct and straight forward.  It was a mode of rehearsal that felt very different from anything we’ve worked on previously in YDT.

Despite Reggie’s insistence in the rehearsal room that we stop thinking about the movement and just do it, the amount of thought in the doing of his work is still immense and complex.  The way in which he uses different textures of movement or the way he patterns or sequences simple phrases of movement is complex, and provides a rigor in the body and the mind. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Akram’s work is rigorous, but it operates within one mode of doing.  There takes time to understand stylistically how his movement works, whether that be the way he uses dynamics and energy, the intricacy of the hands, or the consistent sense of circular movement.  And while I can’t say it’s a rigor I mastered, it’s a rigor that is contained.  The shape and the form of it is clear.  It stays within one mode of thinking about movement and one mode of doing movement and it remains there.

Reggie’s work is dealing with several modes of thinking and analysis at once; but as a dancer it also deals with several modes of doing.  The distinction between the movement in a single phrase of Reggie’s work isn’t just a distinction between quality or dynamics, it’s a distinction between the way you approach doing the movement.  It has to be done, yes, but the way you think about doing one movement will not necessarily help you understand how to navigate the next. In Akram’s work, there is a sense that the correction for one movement can be a correction for most of the piece as well, there is an attention to detail that is unique and specific and consistent.  Reggie’s attention to detail shifts from place to place depending on where he is coming from.  In that sense Reggie has a different implentation of dynamic range, one that is born out of the independence of the multiple movement styles he incorporates, whereas Akram’s dynamics seem to born out of the fusion of his movement styles into a singular style. 

control

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A lot of the posts so far have talked about the way energy works in Akram Khan’s choreography, and while I think energy is definitely important in his work, and what distinguishes it from others, I think control is a really important aspect of the energetic qualities in this work.

There is definitely a sense in some modern techniques that the energy is primary and the body is secondary and a result of that energy.  Often there is a sense of starting with an energetic impulse that the body than must follow through on.  In this situation there is a lag time between the energetic impulse and the completion of the movement, as if the body is always slightly behind and is catching up, a victim to these energetic impulses.

This is not how I experience Akram Khan’s work.  As a dancer you are not following the energy, but actively shaping it.  If you don’t, you either fail to capture the essence of the movement, or you are incredibly late.  Yes, different energies are passing through you, but you are cultivating them, sculpting them, sending them out, drawing them back in.  The path, even when circular, is direct, and if the energy shoots out of the arms or the hands, you are the one that brings it back in for the next movement.  It doesn’t happen to you, you MAKE it happen. 

So how do you become the master of the energy rather than the victim of it?  The answer is not an intuitive one, at least not for me.  The control lies in the smallest details.  Its not just your arms that cut the air but the outside edge of your forearm turning in.  you don’t throw your whole upper body back in around in order to achieve the effect of your body spiraling up, you shift your weight very clearly from right to left, you look up, and lead with your elbows; but you stay on top of yourself.  No matter how fast you can pull back into the lunge, it is actually the snap of the head from left to right that makes that moment sharp.  You don’t just throw your arms back but curve your hands around, the toss happens mostly in the wrists.  You must be in control, and you must be specific.  Most of the time I don’t feel the space around me as the thing that is holding me up.  More often than not I feel like I’m carving the space in the slower parts, or whipping through it and hitting it, digging and sculpting.  I’m not floating, I’m not being pulled, and I’m definitely not falling.  My weight is firmly under my control, or else I still need to practice.

Dancing Big Brick

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I’d like to preface this blog post by saying how difficult it was for me to post this.  Emily had asked us if this blog post could focus on a detailed thick description of what its like to do Reggie’s movement as we are doing it.  That is, to go through a phrase of choreography movement by movement and reflect on the experience of doing that choreography.  When I heard the assignment a part of me cringed inside.  I was aware of a strong part of me actually revolting against the idea.  I can’t tell you why.  I’ve actually sat down to write this several times only to feel stifled or stop midway through in frustration.  When I tried everything ended up either sounding dry and anatomical, or making little to no sense.  Which begs the question, how the f#&$ do you write about this?!?!  I feel like the more detailed and descriptive I try to be the further away it takes me from the actual choreography, and from the actual FEELING of dancing it.  And there is feeling. There is a whole lot of feeling. But for me it’s a feeling you DO rather than talk about.

 

 That being said, I’ve tried when I can to take imaginative and poetic leaps AWAY from the actual description of the steps.  The steps are unimportant; they could be anything.  It is how they function is what provides any sort of meaning.  Also, this is an extremely personal interpretation. I’m a fairly theatrical being, so sometimes I use theatrical metaphors to describe the movement, but it doesn’t actually get to the heart of my experience, it’s just a substitution for the dancing of it.  I’m not terribly happy with what I wrote below, but it’s the closest I think I’ll be able to get to verbalizing it. 

 

The whole first chunk of Big Brick is like a hunt.  Pelvis low, moving steadily forward until an obstacle comes in the way and the direction of it changes.   Its about advancing forward, covering ground, and also being able to navigate terrain.  The skips and the hops are not up. They are on the same level (even when jumping, it should feel like its on the same level), the take you forward or back, they change your facing. I feel the direction changes in my tailbone (a pull back from my tailbone).  If my knees aren’t bent, then my hips aren’t level and I feel stupid doing this part of the dance.  Contact with the floor.  Grounded, grounded, grounded.

 

We just finished the box of step-hop-hops (counted 1-   uh-2;  3-   uh-4) and then there is the left leg that flicks you into 1st position. This is one of my favorite parts.  Its 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.  Then: falling (shifting is probably better) forward, shoulders back and relaxed (the opposite of slumped forward?), fish hook in your chest. Reset to neutral. Shoulder rolls, thick like kneading dough, folding them over the edge of the counter.  Left knee and head pull you, but in slow motion, like your body were taffy and those were the points being stretched away from yourself.  The fall forward is not a fall, but a shifting of wait, (RIGHT FOOT CONTACT WITH THE FLOOR), sternum open, arms hanging from chest (if gravity worked so that forward was up), arms are propelled back as chest is propelled forward (please don’t throw the arms). Left hand and left heal anchor and pull you around (you feel the pull in your neck).  Slow plie and left foot turning in and out as if you were doing this in outer space (zero gravity), then throw the right leg out of your hip socket.  Pique section is like my toes are nails that are hammering into the ground.  Then the next part is like two chugs to the left, but in your pelvis, your left arm and leg are like the pistons of a steam engine, purely reactionary but extremely set and functional.  Repeat pique section into an opening then a gathering of the right leg.

 

The ron-de-pie section is where we enter new territory.  If done right, it’s religious. If done wrong its just really boring and tedious.  Think Jesus walking on water. That smooth.  From here on out it colors the rest of the piece. This movement comes and goes, but its always there.

 

The right foot up is a decision to stop moving forward, it means a lot (remember, Jesus is still with us). Then your left knee drops down and your right hip drops into a hinge (you do not lift your leg, your hip hinges and carries it up), it should feel like a sharp punctuated exhale.  Drag around leg from your lower back.  brush/fling water off the sides of your legs. In the jump around the left leg is pulling you around, it should feel more like falling/being tossed than jumping, landing as if wrapping your arms around a barrel on its side. As you open up I feel it in my chest and my wrists, coming back behind to wrap around again.  Wrap around the barrel, open up, wrap around the barrel. The chugs back again I feel in someone pulling back my tailbone.  All of these movements are happening to you rather than you doing them. The step out to the right by contrast is so direct and controlled, you are carving your own path and with your torso/arms and your feet are following. But the momentum never stops.

 

I’ll stop there.  After this point things start to repeat, and each time it repeats it feels different.  Some sections get more intense, some become more comforting, some become incredibly sad, especially if you’re tired. 

Thinking on your feet

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After the first few rehearsals with Reggie, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  Each rehearsal felt so radically different that it was hard for me to figure out what connected them all together.  I could tell he was drawing from different sources, but beyond that I wasn’t really sure what held it together. The first session we worked on a solo that drew from gumboot dancing an Africa, the second was a solo that drew from ceremonial images, whereas the third was a piece that drew from a number of influences spanning as far as Cunningham and “Wuthering Heights”. I almost felt like it was from three different choreographers. 

Of course, all of it was from Reggie, and the answer of what brings all these things together is the most obvious one, if not the most intuitive: it is being generated from the same body.  In class Reggie was talking about the way people sometimes think of their dance training as something outside of them, and that it is only when we bring the training within the context of the body that it is really valuable.  In the end your “training” is expressed and limited by your body, and the sooner you acknowledge that as what connects you and keeps you going, the better. 

What does that mean in practice?  We’ve had a lot of discussion about the relevance of the mind/body dualism that plagues western thought.  To me Reggie’s work is proof of the body’s intelligence, an awareness that not only informs the rest of the self, but has the ability to analyze, identify commonalities in movement synthesize a smattering of different styles and energies into one being.  What makes working with Reggie exciting is his ability to narrow in on movement qualities in the most precise way, and then placing them in radical juxtaposition with each other. 

For example, when working with Raja in rehearsal, Reggie said that the move he was doing needed to be a cross between Fosse and Trisha Brown.  The suggestion at first seemed both absurd and impossible to combine such radically different movement styles. And then we watched Raja playing with it a few times until he had found exactly that: the essence of both choreographers in a single gesture.  In the context of choreography at large this combo lasts only for a moment, and just as quickly as it is found it is dropped and a new quality of movement takes place. The intelligence comes not only from being able to master all these different styles, something that can only be acquired through practice and repetition, but also connecting them all together through one body, tapping into your sense of weight and grounded-ness throughout while continue to find the nuanced shifts and changes of textures.

 

Beyond Cunningham

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Having had a little time to distance myself from our final performance and dancing Cunningham,  the question I turn to is what will stay with me after this experience.

There has been a push throughout the semester to try and define what the Cunningham style is, and what about it makes it special.  And yet in spite of this, all that is Cunningham is limited to the man and his work.  There is nothing else in the future that will be “Cunningham”. That time has past.  And even in the reconstruction of his work, or the teaching of his technique, there is always the sense of facing back towards the past. As time goes on that image of the past will undoubtedly become blurrier and blurrier until it is nearly unrecognizable.

So what is left? Where is Cunningham now? Where will he be 50 years from now?

While his work may not live beyond a certain point, the impact he has made in the dance world will never disappear.  I don’t really think I realized the magnitude of influence Cunningham has had on dance today until after being able to dance some of his work.  There have been a host of people who have called him one of the most influential figures in dance, and there have been several prominent choreographers who have cited him as an influence, but it wasn’t until embodying his work that I was able to understand the validity of those claims.  Cunningham didn’t just create dance, but a way of seeing, feeling and understanding movement.  When approaching different styles of dance, some of which I have already been familiar with, I feel my body has a whole different relationship to the movement then before.  Pieces of his work and technique have become the building blocks for the work of many choreographers today, and having had the opportunity to dance Cunningham’s work, I can feel his presence within the vocabulary of movement.

Systems

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During the rehearsal process the idea of “problem-solving” came up again and again, no matter what piece we were working on.  On a similar note, after the dress rehearsal today Patricia Lent gave a note about not trying to mask where you’re looking or where you’re taking you’re cue from, but instead acknowledging the system that you’re dancing in, and allowing the audience to see the system as well.

While I don’t have the experience to speak for the entirety of Merce’s work, I can say that in what we’ve learned the idea of problem-solving within a given system has been a central aspect of the choreography.  I think his work might be that simple.  Each piece proposes a different system and a new set of problems to solve.  Rather than trying to connect the variation among his pieces to a broader arc in his work I think what is simpler (and more appropriate) is to treat each piece as a separate system, with its own specific inquiries.  There are so many choreographers that get stuck in a certain mode of creating, that after a while you feel like their work starts to repeat itself. Merce isn’t one of them.  His way of creating has been compared to scientific research, each piece is an experiment with its own set of results.  There are constants and variables, and the act of dancing the work is seeing how those elements fit together.

Now I’m asking myself, how can I say that each piece is like a system or a scientific experiment, when my last blog post I compared his work to dancing within landscapes?  I think what each image shares is the emphasis on observation.  The dancers aren’t telling a story or reenacting an event, they are creating a detailed portrait of the land.   The importance of the system isn’t to eventually find the best model; the purpose of the experiment isn’t to cure a disease; Instead it’s about observing what happens within the context of the system or experiment, how do the elements react?

I realize that I’ve strayed away from the intent of this blog post, which is to compare the changes in his work over the years. But again I’d like to emphasize that his work was constantly changing.  If it wasn’t he wouldn’t have choreographed for as long or as consistently as he did.

Dancing Landscapes

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During one of Meg Harper’s visits to our rehearsals, she mentioned that she thought of Cunningham’s work as landscapes rather than narrative.  That statement really resonated with me, and I want to use this post to try to explore what it means to dance/perform within a landscape. How is it achieved?

Gertrude Stein has an essay where she describes the goal she is trying to achieve when writing plays is to create a piece of “landscape theater”, where time is not experienced as a linear function, but rather the audience is within a single frame of time and is presented with multiple small images making up a larger portrait.  She does this through use of repetition, abnormal use of syntax, and generally long strings of words that could be thought of as multiple incomplete sentences chopped up and spliced together.

I’d like to think of dancing Cunningham as reading Stein.  If you’ve ever attempted to read Stein, you know that the first attempt is nearly impossible.  Her work comes off as nothing but nonsensical words on a page that don’t add up to anything.  Its frustrating and difficult to get through and unrewarding. However, if you take the time to not just read the text, but listen to the text as it is being read, phrases start to pop out at you, patterns begin to be perceived, and while if no direct meaning is gathered, there is at the very least a haze of significance surrounding the work.  The beautiful thing about Stein is that her work allows for a sheer multitude of different readings to occur depending on how the reader chooses to interpret the words or divide the phrases within the work.

Learning Cunningham is like learning this long repetitive string of movement phrases with slight variations.  His choreography is difficult, and for all the technical mastery you need to execute it, it’s not pretty. You don’t feel graceful doing it.  But his work is legible in the same way that Stein is.  You cannot simply do the movement, you have to be seeing the movement as you do it, and only then is there an awareness that extends beyond the individual steps and hangs over the whole piece.  His work demands a heightened sense of dedication to the movement itself from the performer in order to make the work alive.

music (in)dependence

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One interesting aspect of much of Cunningham’s work is the lack of music in the rehearsal space.  I feel that as a dancer you are held much more accountable for the movement when you dance without music.  There are a lot of dancers I know who claim they don’t count or don’t like to count.  And I’ll admit it: I love to count; I’m a counter.  But to me counts are so much more experiential than they are quantifiable.  I’ve always consider timing as part of the movement, and can sometimes get frustrated by those who don’t operate in the same manner.

Part of what I love about Cunningham’s work is that it forces you to make the timing come first.  To constantly have that rhythm in your head, that is to be manufacturing it yourself rather than having the music manufacture it means that you are never really lost at any given moment;  Knowing the timing of the steps becomes an essential aspect of knowing the steps themselves.  You sink deeper into the rhythm rather than dancing on top of the music.

It also adds a lot more pressure as a dancer. The idea that you’re not dancing “to the music” means that there is nothing supporting you, and you are not performing a role that supports the music in terms of conventional aesthetics.  Rather you are a stand alone entity that exists by itself.  You can’t use the music as some sort of crutch to keep you going.  While this is somewhat frightening, in many ways it is much more liberating.  Because there is not that conventional 1:1 relationship between dancer and the music, the assumptions and expectations of how that relationship should function are cleared.  There is a lot of choreography that is so music-dominated, that the dance (in terms of use of space, movement quality, tempo, etc.) becomes secondary and subjugated to the music itself.  While dancing Roaratorio, I still find myself counting,  but I am also much more aware of how I interact with these other stylistic elements within the piece.  Fully integrating the timing of the piece into the work at the time you learn it means that the rhythm actually takes up less mental space and gives you more opportunity to focus on other aspects of the dance.

Performing Eight Jelly Rolls

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One thing I appreciate tremendously about Tharp’s choreography and the process of learning it is that it is much more than a process of learning steps.  Eight Jelly Rolls demands that you have a relationship with the movement, and encourages you to explore nuances in a much more active way than in the dance I’ve done before.  The question of performance is one that is often ignored in the dance world.  When taking classes, the emphasis is solely on technique.  The few teachers who do address performative aspects in class treat it as a bonus to be placed on top of proper technique. The same thing can be said for many rehearsals.  While there may be minor notes about the emotions of the piece along the way, it is not until the steps are perfect that the choreographer delves into a discussion of what the face is doing.

With Tharp it is completely different.  Yes, it is true you still need to learn the steps before you can perform the piece, but perfecting the steps is completely dependent on the dancer’s relationship to the movement rather than the technical mastery of them.  This relationship is something the dancer needs to form on his/her own.  The dancer is not asked to project a certain emotion out towards the audience. That often leads to the emotion to be isolated from the steps.  What is more crucial is letting emotion be informed by movement.  This is evident in the way Tharp choreographs.  Often times we’ll start by learning a phrase, and then proceed to distort that phrase in every way imaginable. By exploring all these options I am given the opportunity to explore several different ways of performing the piece and am allowed to choose the way that suits me.  Most choreographers would have the performance limited to the way they themselves see the piece, leaving the development of the dancers vision completely out of the picture.

When it comes to performance in dance, more often than not a choreographer will demand that the emotion be BIG (“big enough to reach the upper balcony”, as a ballet teacher once told me).  In Twyla’s work, the emphasis seems to be that the emotions be REAL.  Having a piece with BIG emotions throughout I find can often be boring.  But in Eight Jelly Rolls, especially in the solos but also layered throughout much of the ensemble work, the dancer is free to constantly adjust emotional response and the scale of performance based on reactions toward both the movement and the music that happen in the moment.  While it is definitely a more challenging way of dancing, it is also far more engaging as a dancer, and leads to a far more dynamic performance when watching.