Yale Dance Theater is an arts-based research project. One thing this means is that our research methods are experimental and reshaped according to each new project. It also means that the research coevolves with the studio practice: we allow the experience of learning a choreographer’s technique and repertoire to shape our questions.
Our focus artists for the semester, Akram Khan and Reggie Wilson, investigate through their choreographic practices cultural syncretism, hybridity, globalization and the transnational passage of expressive forms. These issues preoccupy cultural studies, anthropology, dance and performance studies. Leading rather than following theory, these artists invent what might be construed as post-postcolonial practices as they go.
Reggie, our first artist, borrows liberally from postmodern choreographic strategies and deploys anthropological methods in a kind of retro-nod to American artists of the mid-20th century, and then conjoins and redefines those tools for the 21st.
But these historical connections rumble on the distant horizon, far from where we are at this moment in time. Five weeks into Reggie’s residency, the students are absorbed in mastering his steps: 1, 1, 3, 4, 4, 6, 7, 7, 9, 11, 11, 12 one phrase goes, built on the structure of a fractal.
The first half of this year’s project differs from our past work in that the choreographer is on hand during the rehearsal process, guiding the inquiry. We have spent significant time with Reggie discussing how to ask questions from the perspective of physical experience. Another meta-theme that has moved into center stage is the integration of dancing and writing.
Over the six years that I have known Reggie, we’ve talked more about writing than choreography, which says something about the peculiarities of our relationship, as much as the investment we both have in coming to terms with the interaction between these practices. When we disagree, it usually boils down to semantic differences and personal predilection. I’m a dance artist who writes. Reggie is a choreographer who does not.
He explains that his choreographic brain and his writing brain are separate. When he writes, he produces grant applications—speculative artist statements and intentions of process that prematurely fix an investigation. He stores his writing brain with his administrative brain: he must budget, calculate available dancers and other funders, timelines, and space needs. Words and numbers commingle to project experiences into the future that may or may not happen. At its best, grant writing gives birth to reality through a supreme act of imagination. For Reggie, that language is not creative. To choreograph, he must shut it off.
He also maintains, and here I do not disagree, wariness of the privileged, authoritative position conferred on the written word in American culture. In the countries he travels to for his research, gestures, songs, rhythms, and dances bind communities, preserve histories, and shift political power. In many of these places, language has historically been imposed, a site of misinterpretation by outsiders.
However, for all of his ambivalence, in talking with him I find that Reggie’s way of being resembles that of a writer. He reads extensively to gather ideas, theorizes about his work, remains acutely attendant to the ethics and outcomes of contemporary practice, and understands the importance of critical reflection. His research-into-practice dances read to me like solidly crafted essays, mini-manifestos that collect, redistribute, and re-fix cultural forms according to his vision of equality. The title of his 2010 creation, The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn, created in collaboration with Congolese choreographer Andreya Ouamba, displaced written language—the Bible—with a dance. His obsession with the written word comes so full circle as to suggest intense love. I would speculate that a writer lies sublimated within his choreographer’s identity. Choreographer means, after all, dance-writer.
I can hear him disagreeing with me. Correcting my interpretation of his ideas—fixed on this page, as it may now seem.
Writing about movement is an infamously difficult task. A swift imagination and firm grip on poetic language helps, as does the ability to transpose rhythmic meter between mediums. Actually dancing informs these skills. Many choreographers are also writers. The writing serves overlapping and divergent functions. Some artists write to insert their voice into the historical record. Other artists theorize ideas in writing they feel they cannot fully articulate in movement. For an artist such as Ralph Lemon, writing is another art object. In his books, he gathers images, reflections, and interpersonal encounters that shape his performances, without documenting or trying to replace them.
The overlap between dancing and writing lies mainly in the unfurling pathway of ideas produced through the practice: ideas come into being through the doing. One cannot embody choreography or write a blog post without passing through a process.
YDT’s approach to dancing, writing, and research is also a work-in-process. There are no requirements for the writing aside from the number: two posts during Reggie’s residency and one reflection post after it ends, and the same for the Akram Khan half of the project. The dancers are encouraged to approach the material from their own experiences and studies, to find creative angles, stay close to the movement ideas, and play with language. The blog posts are our “raw data,” which we sift through later on reflection.
Despite his antipathy toward writing, Reggie would like his work to be written about, delights in the writing the students have done so far, and understands the value for an artist who works in performance to enter the archive through multiple perspectives. Together, we have been shaping an approach to dancing, writing, and research. This is what we agree on:
The writing does not replace the dancing. Rather, the practice of dancing exists in its full, embodied presence. It feeds and directs the language. The best writing vibrates with the same emotionally resonant presence as a good dance.
Writing also possesses a power of dissemination: YDT dances locally, while our blog travels globally. When we resume the project this April, we’ll work with two dancers from the Akram Khan Company, Eulalia Ayguade Farro of Spain and Young Jin Kim of South Korea. We won’t have UK-based Akram Khan in the flesh to debate these issues with us. We can only hope he will read and respond to our blog.