What Renée Said


or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love 


Let’s remember the words that started this: beauty, diversity, inheritance, love.

“I don’t do pain.”

Once upon a time I was a bluebird or a fairy or a French peasant girl and I had no body but an engine and my heart was an ember that burned, burned away the body I did not have so that I could have “spark,” so that I could have “special,” so that I could blaze bright through the haze of stage light and through my cocoon of tulle and satin and false lashes and warm the people out there so that they could applaud and say “lovely.” But fire burns until it runs out of fuel, and when I’d run out I’d slouch back to the body I left in the wings aching, unprotected, ugly, a ragged hole in me where that tremendous vitality had been ripped out, had been ripped out by those people out there so that they could applaud and say “lovely” while I ached. How could I love people who took so much from me? How could I love my body and take so much from it?

“I’ll tell you what your body is telling me.”

As much as I bitch about the construct of mind/body dualism, I’ve stopped fighting it. The model may be wrong, but it’s useful*: each is so adept at ignoring the other, so accustomed to wanting what the other does not, that they are often forced into opposition. They cower in fear, or they lash out and fight. My mind thought my body was ugly; my body thought my mind was ugly. And at the time, I think they were both right—beauty cannot live where discord does, after all. Beauty is cooperation and beauty is clarity. Ugly is something that doesn’t want you to see it, that fights you when you try.

“Don’t fight it. Come with my energy.”

It was hard to get my body and me back on speaking terms, but Renée showed us the way. Though the relationship remains rocky, at least we’re talking. We start talking in the studio like old friends getting reacquainted; we step on stage smiling, saying “just like old times” even though everything’s totally different now. It’s amazing how far a little kindness, a little patience, can get you. On the best days I tell my body, “it’s alright, you don’t have to extend the legs so high, you don’t have to jump so big” and it tells me, “but I want to.” My body carries me easily and I care for it easily and together we tell the story. Other days, it’s not as easy: we can’t extend, we can’t jump, we misunderstand, we quarrel. But we forgive, too, and it’s that capacity for forgiveness, that desire for understanding, that enables us to work together. And together we tell the story.

“Stay in your body. Stay in the story. The audience will forgive an off day, technically, but they will never forgive you for not telling the story.”

Once upon a time… This story isn’t really about me, but I’m telling you because it’s kind of about me and it’s also about all of you, too, so please stay with me. We come from different places, but now we’re gathered here and it’s time to share what we brought. I’ll start. I’ll share with you something better than True, better than Real. I’ll share with you something simple and clear and beautiful.

Between lines there is stillness, coolness, space. Space within and without. There is no burning now. Instead the energy is here in the space, here in the story and we need only claim it—the first piece of our inheritance. It’s the electricity of when cocoons and other constructions fall away leaving just the space and the flow of something unencumbered through it, between my humanity and yours. It’s the electricity that only happens because we’re all really here, really here in the story, picking up the bits of ourselves we find and building something beautiful. It’s a partnership, an exchange, an unspoken desire to understand and to be understood. Perhaps it’s the thing that allows us to love.


* “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” –George E.P. Box. Sometimes people who aren’t Renée say good things, too.

out of words


This post will be short, not only because I haven’t slept in 76 hours and am about to fly across the Atlantic, but mostly because it doesn’t need to be long. I don’t have very much to say, and usually I’d interpret that as some kind of problem, but today it’s fine. I’ve been thinking about Renee (because how can one not be thinking about Renee at all times?) and about a type of sentiment she expresses a lot in rehearsal. “I’m not sure yet,” “I can’t find words to tell you now,” “Bear with me.” I’m not a patient person, and phrases like these tend to set me on edge. But for some reason, when we’re all in that room (discovering, as she says; going on a journey together) and everything truly is in (in the space, in your body, in our story) and there’s just music and her words (sometimes the two blend together too well) it all just seems so okay. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know or you can’t say what, the what doesn’t really matter except when it’s happening right now. What matters is the why, the why you are reaching and why you are running and why you are where you are (in) and all the other whys that hold the narrative together while tugging it through time, invisible stitches attached to intangible puppet strings. That’s what the why is. And we never lose sight of the why because it’s in us (where we are), and it’s between us. Our house, the house we all built together, is built on the why, and sometimes you have a what to put up on the walls but it’s actually just whatever. I’m tired and I’m out of words. And that’s fine for now.

whence “compassion”?


There are a lot of things about this project that make me feel frightened, uneasy, inadequate, and apprehensive. I will not talk about any of them right now. What makes this project different? What about it has made me feel this way—has made me feel at all? This isn’t like a lot of other things that make me feel, because a lot of other things that make me feel are bad. Nothing makes me angrier than someone else making me do something. I hate being made to do things, and I hate that my response to it is hatred. It doesn’t matter if what I thought was just a nondescript slab of indifference before because the act of argument pricks and prods my truth to life until it is the truth as far as I can tell. And I need to make you see that I’m right, even once right and wrong cease to be relevant, when they cannot be at all because we are answering different questions by now, or expressing the same truths in terms that are different, personal, idiosyncratic and (unacceptable?). Argument drags us far away from the truth, creates dissonance where there is none inherently and that cannot be sustained. Departure from equilibrium. Over time, even the tiniest shift requires immense energy to maintain. And the energy might not even be yours, but its expenditure wounds you like it is. I wonder if the cure is more empathy, more perspective, if this asphyxia might be the inability to breathe with another’s lungs. But it’s true that if I could just breathe better on my own then I maybe wouldn’t need that to begin with, and I could stop gasping and hating you for stealing my air. Security. Practice: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Not a breath wasted for dissonance. Sometimes in rehearsal, I feel like I can breathe better. The corrections we get here are special, bequeathed unto each of us individually, so that we may reach our most beautiful. We become the movements, and they are still the same movements, but each of us touches beauty in a different place—the one is many and the many are one. No worrying over “what types of movement look good on me,” for movement craves ownership. Make it yours, stop doubting and just do. And the space that we create when we just do is where beauty moves in. The corps that we are creating—and it literally feels like one body sometimes—is a world away from the corps of ballet bots I once so desired to disappear into. I would have crumbled my body and soul into sparkles and sprinkled them on every starched white tutu in the world for a chance to be part of that beauty, and it would have been beautiful, but it would no longer have been me. Now I know how to make myself beautiful, and it brings me ineffable joy. I never believed that dance could really create joy, but I do now. I’m glad that Ailey works are referred to as “ballets”—to me the association seems to breathe lightness into a sublime art weighed down for years with every imaginable form of human oppression. Another breath of air, and Redemption. Perhaps we are redeemed through compassion and nothing more. I want to ask, How can compassion be, when we cannot know each other—cannot know how another body feels when it dances, how another mind twitches and writhes as it reaches for truth? Maybe compassion is not knowledge or understanding, but celebration of the individual. Maybe compassion sometimes means trusting another when you don’t believe them, and believing that they trust you too. Maybe compassion is the opposite of fear. Learn to not fear the truth we’re not telling, forget there ever was the truth, celebrate your truth and my truth, for each is powerful. Forget what we thought we thought. What is left? People breathing together, and there is beauty in the rhythm.

More Real than True: Grabbing Hold of the Very Slippery


            My previous blog posts have been, I think, about pretty concrete things, or at least inspired by pretty concrete things. Specifically, I’ve explored the ways in which Trisha Brown’s work is different from or similar to ballet, as well as how these differences and similarities make me feel as a dancer. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist at heart, but a lot of talk about feelings makes me uneasy. To me, feelings have always seemed slippery and confusing and seldom substantial enough to be worth writing about.

            Well, this project encourages us to step outside our comfort zones, so in this post, I’ll attempt to tackle something even slipperier. This post isn’t just about a set of feelings that I noticed I felt. Instead, it’s about how studying Trisha Brown fundamentally changed the way I feel.

            Some of my fellow YDTers may have heard me say this, but I don’t know when I developed so much patience for art. I guess most people would say it’s a college thing. For most of my life, my only response to modern art was “I don’t get it.” In fact, not understanding it and not liking it was almost a point of pride. To me, the scientist, the universe was unfathomable enough as is. We can try to puzzle out tiny pieces of it, but zooming out to the big picture always reveals a contradiction. Even “facts” are not really true; they’re just beliefs that haven’t yet been proven false. So why, I wondered, given all this maddening uncertainty, should I accept the validity of this thing called “interpretation?” Interpretation, the very existence of which posits that some beliefs don’t have to be true or false, that sometimes proof isn’t required or even possible, and that things with no intrinsic, universal purpose somehow still matter. Interpretation, the thing humans invented to make ourselves feel better, like we can really escape the binary nature of reality and somehow gain an advantage over the universe.

            I don’t believe any of the above anymore. Something bizarre happened to me over the past semester: I get art now. “Get” is the wrong word, because I think that part of “getting” it is acknowledging that nobody can ever “get” it. Art is un-gettable. I feel that reality now, and it’s a different feeling from the one I used to feel when I said, “I don’t get it.” Maybe I’m wrong and there really are people who do get art, but what I know for sure is that it doesn’t matter if I get it; you don’t have to get it for it to be important. And how do I know that? Feelings.

            I can look at a Rothko now and be legitimately interested. Entertained, even. If I saw a milk carton on display in a gallery, I’d know in my mind that it was just a stupid milk carton, but I would still say, “Oh, that’s really neat, because it’s in a gallery.” If the me from one year ago could hear me now, she’d think I was on drugs. I know it was definitely Trisha Brown’s work that trained me to experience this new level of meaning, but I doubt I can adequately explain how it happened. My best theory is that anytime someone is focused on the same small thing for long enough, the mind gets bored, and meaning is created. You see something new, because what else are you supposed to see? We crave novelty; the mind rebels at stagnation. Calling something “art” lends us patience, gives us a reason to focus on that thing until it becomes meaningful. I hesitated to write that, because implying that anything can be art might be taken as an insult to art. But if that’s not the definition of art, what is? Art doesn’t have to be effortful or deliberate. I think that Trisha Brown’s work happens to be extremely effortful and deliberate, but that’s not what makes it art. It’s art because it can make us feel a level of fascination we logically shouldn’t feel.

            Ah, but the idea that the brain arbitrarily creates meaning seems to trivialize the whole experience of art, says the scientist in me. But again, I’m convinced it’s not trivial because it doesn’t feel trivial. It affects me, and so it affects the universe. It matters. There’s a phrase we used in my English class, “more true than real.” A cursory summary of that discussion: sometimes authors bend the rules of their own universe, creating something that’s not “real,” in order to tell us something that rings “true.” My experience with Trisha Brown has been almost the reverse of this. Trisha Brown’s work is art, and so there’s nothing “true” or “false” about it. It wasn’t there until she created it. It didn’t matter until she said it did. I’ve worried several times that the fascination I feel with it isn’t grounded in anything, that I just made it up to feel like I did something worthwhile, that it’s not true. But what I absolutely cannot deny is that it’s real. To me, it’s become powerful and significant. In a very real way, it affects how I feel in the moment. And more than that, Trisha Brown’s work has affected the way I feel in general. For that, I guess I can only offer a general, “thank you.”

Common Ground


            I attacked Trisha Brown like a ballerina. This made the first few weeks of rehearsal exceptionally frustrating. Since ballet was the only style of dance I had substantial training in, I equated “dance” with ballet technique—if I’m not turning out and stretching through my legs and pulling up in my core, I thought, I must not be dancing. So I would look for moments in Trisha’s choreography that felt a little like ballet—“my leg is behind me, it’s basically an arabesque”—and latch onto them, letting the rest fall by the wayside. But treating Trisha Brown like modified ballet prevented me from both understanding it and feeling like I was dancing.

“The rhythm is in the construction” -Irène

One of the things I struggled with most was the lack of music. I think that in the best ballets, you are the music. This is what I always loved about Balanchine. Serenade has no story; there is only music and dancers, and beautiful as they both are on their own, it is their perfect union that makes the piece so extraordinary. I couldn’t comprehend how you could have dance without music.

But what I came to realize was that it was really the rhythm I missed, and this work does have rhythm—it’s just internal instead of external. If you want to make the right shapes, you need your bodies to interact at precisely the right time. The rhythm is even more a part of the choreography than it is in ballet: rather than fitting the movements to the rhythm, the rhythm is uniquely generated by the movements. Trisha Brown has taken what is most glorious about ballet and made it not only explicit, but absolutely essential. If you’re doing the right thing, you make a picture in both space and time, and you cannot make one without the other.

“Just be you—you are enough.” -Irène

            It wasn’t until the art gallery that I felt like a performer. I know that Irène always tells us not to perform, but I think that “performing” means something different to me than it does to her. It’s not about theatricality or putting on a false act. For me, it’s always been about bringing one part of myself, however small, into the light to share with others. As a human being I am spritely, flirtatious, soft, grieving, sultry, passionate, demure, angry, rebellious, mysterious, and countless other things in different proportions. Maybe I bury a lot of those things in my daily life, but the stage is where I get to say, “See? This is me, and it’s you, too.” Trisha Brown has also made this statement explicit in a way that ballet often does not. When we perform Trisha’s work, we are not angels or ethereal beings. We are nothing but ourselves—gorgeously imperfect, unique human beings, just like the people watching us. And if the people watching think there’s something extraordinary about our performance, it’s only because they’re thinking of the extraordinary things mere humans can do.

“…like a flower blooming” –Man at gallery

            I’m sorry if this sounds cliché, but it fills me with joy to think that our dancing can really touch people. I’ve always thought that good dance is a dialogue. Actually, “dialogue” is misleading, because there are really more than two players talking. The dancer’s mind and body talk to each other, and the whole dancer talks to the other whole dancers, and if the dancers are very good then they can bring the audience into the conversation, too.

            The quote above was spoken by one of the museum security guards during a performance of Spanish Dance. I don’t know if Trisha or any of us associate that image with Spanish Dance, but it’s a beautiful one and I’m sure it gave that man some small new thing to marvel at.

Verbal communication is one of the most amazing things to me in the world. It’s a little ridiculous that we have sequences of electrical signals in our heads that we perceive as an infinite array of abstract ideas, and that we can take these signals and flap around meaty bits in our throats to form sound waves that, when they strike the eardrums of another person, can reliably produce electrical sequences in their brain that they perceive as the very same abstract ideas. I always worried that language was the only thing that could do that, but this man’s testimony proves me wrong, and I am so glad. Of course, dance as we know it is not language—we don’t have it standardized and refined so that we can express ideas with much precision. But the fact that it’s different doesn’t make it any less real or amazing as a form of communication. There’s something authentically beautiful about the fact that you can take six bodies and have them shuffle around to a Bob Dylan song and someone will say, “this reminds me of X.” What I saw at the art gallery, and also as a spectator at the TBDC’s performance, was that dance does speak. Loudly. Dance may not say the same thing to everyone, but what it can say is powerful. I have to praise Trisha Brown for using the communicative power of dance to its fullest potential.

“I see understanding” –Emily Coates

            I’m saying a lot of wonderful things about Trisha’s work, so you must have figured out that I got out of my ballet-induced stagnation. I think what did it was realizing that what I love about ballet is what I love about dance in general; the technique and style is inconsequential. It’s as if I’m standing on a mountain now, looking back at the valley that is ballet, and realizing that the land around me is riddled many separate valleys, as far as the eye can see. Countless different forms of dance, reaching out beyond the horizon, and yet they all share something. Now I feel like I can still be a ballerina, but I’m something more, too. Like ballet once did, Trisha Brown is seeping into my blood, the “understanding” of the movement permeating every sinew and bone. I know I have but scratched the surface on this immense body of work, but I feel accomplished just for having attained this new perspective. Now that I have internalized this minimal understanding—of both how Trisha’s work is dance and how it is different from other dance—the real learning can begin.

An Abundance of Patience


            These first few rehearsals have been exceptionally frustrating. As a ballet dancer, I’m used to dance being frustrating. I’m intimately familiar with the persistent feelings of annoyance and inadequacy that come with always pushing for perfection. When I dance ballet, the frustration is in my muscles—I tell myself to turn out further or lift my leg higher and I can’t. I know exactly what I want from my body, and my body says “no.”

            But Trisha Brown’s choreography is frustrating in a way I’ve never encountered before. It sneaks up on me. And it comes in waves. The first wave comes when we’re first learning the choreography, and it hits me square in the mind. It pushes back on my mind when all my mind wants to do is move forward through the choreography. The movements seem so simple and so intuitively arranged, but for some reason my brain seems to actively block me from recalling them. “That’s alright,” I tell myself, “it’s a completely new style; soon you’ll catch on.”

            And I do. Slowly but surely, I make sense in my head of the movements. I discover, or I think I discover, that it’s really not different from learning any other new style. There’s a delay of twenty repetitions, give or take, but after I’ve done a phrase enough times I do really feel like I know it. The frustration subsides for a time and I’m proud of myself.

            But then, when I least expect it, it comes back. I’ve angered it with my arrogance and it’s here to put me in my place. It usually strikes during a drop, or a fall—anything where I’m supposed to be letting go—and then suddenly I’m stuck. There’s an extraordinarily awkward, private moment I have that marks my transition from “dancing” to “not dancing.” I don’t feel like a performer anymore; I’ve locked myself out of that headspace. I just feel silly. “Why,” I ask, “can’t I just let myself fall?” Or that’s what I think I’m asking.

            It’s taken me a while to realize that what I’m really asking is, “why can’t I make myself fall?” And the answer to that is just that my body is smarter than I am, and it won’t let me make it fall. I can know the choreography and I can do it again and again, but I’ll always feel imprisoned in it as long as my mind is trying to call the shots.

            The only answer is that the mind has to back off. I think that’s what Irène meant when she told us on our very first day that we had to say “yes.” The dancing starts in the mind, since that’s where the learning happens, but it can’t stay there. It’s not about performing—I keep getting locked out of performer mode because I’m not supposed to be in there in the first place. What it is about, I guess, is being in the movement and feeling it with the whole body, and only by really being in the movement can we feel free again.

I’m trying to move towards this way of working, but I’m worried that the act of trying is just another way of forcing something that can’t be forced. My entire understanding of dance to this point has been based on effort. Dance is something where you internalize “the right thing” in your head and then you work really hard to make your body do it. This approach is completely foreign to me, and getting out of my old mindset is a frustrating process—frustrating because it seems effort won’t get me; it only digs me deeper in. But if effort isn’t the answer, then perhaps the answer is simply time and patience. And we have time, and I have an abundance of patience.