Sisyphus, The Dancer


As the Akram Khan showing has come and gone, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the ideas I mentioned in my last post. I talked about risk, about tension, about Khan’s choreography affirming my own existence. I realized that virtually everything I said stands in the face of mortality. I think perhaps that is why I so identify with the Khan movement: each time I complete one of his movements, lunging deep to the ground or thrusting my arms as far away from my chest as I can go, I emerge victorious out of battle with the unknown, with gravity, with all the forces that surround me in this absurd situation we call life.

I emerged from the lecture-demonstration with a strong adrenaline high, as if I had just overcome some great obstacle. After the performance, it was particularly strong, but I had that feeling every time I did these movements in rehearsal too. It reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, whose punishment for his deceitfulness was an eternity of pushing a stone up a hill. Each time he reached the precipice, the stone would fall back down, never continuing over. It seems tragic, but I prefer the interpretation of French writer Albert Camus, who wrote: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This is dance—an eternity of improvement, of never-ending happy failures. When I did the Akram Khan movement, I felt as if it was a string of pushes; each one of my movements paralleled Sisyphus’s steps up the hill. I often felt as if I might fail, forced to stop from sheer tiredness or shaky muscles. I never did. Each rehearsal, I pushed the stone up the hill; the next day, I would have to start from the bottom again.

Still, at least I get to push the stone up the hill. At least I have a body that can move, that can do (or attempt to do) the virtuosic Khan movements. This session of Yale Dance Theater was not only my third year in the program, but it was my second year performing after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee and having surgery to repair it. Each time I squatted to the ground, mimicking Lali’s low-placed pelvis or Young Jin’s turned-in ankle, I felt a twinge of pain in my knee. Each time I practiced the beginning part of Kaash, literally lunging every two seconds onto my right knee, it hurt. According to my orthopedist, it’s the kind of pain I’ll probably have forever, left over from scar tissue and bone misalignment. Doing the Akram Khan movement made me realize that dance might possibly be my ideal pain killer. I can’t explain it, but even though I felt pain when practicing the movements in rehearsal (focusing on a single kick or lunge), when we actually did them all together in sequence, I forgot the twinges. My physical pain was erased; it didn’t register. Instead, all I could feel was the simultaneity of my head and hand moving together; all I could focus on was moving from point A to point B in the given rhythm. Nothing else mattered. Pain was an afterthought that my mind and body chose to ignore.

I don’t know if dance can truly cure pain, but I do think it literalizes the human life force. It deeply engages our bodies and minds, it creates communities, it questions the limits of reality. I can honestly say that I have never felt more alive than after doing Akram Khan’s choreography. Thank you to Akram Khan, Lali, Young Jin, Emily, and the members of Yale Dance Theater for providing me with this incredible opportunity to experience such a crazy metaphysical phenomenon. Now I know: dance really is life. 



[I wrote this post about two weeks ago and never got around to posting it. Here it is, at long last!]

Akram Khan’s choreography affirms my existence. There’s something about the power in it—the rawness and the sometimes impossibly fast pace—that makes me feel lucky to be alive. Slamming into a movement, I can often barely breathe; my balance is unsteady; I risk falling. At the beginning of Vertical Road, I often feel as if I’m falling in space, landing only when I crash into a deep lunge, my left leg tenuously clenching its muscles to hold steady. The dance is a string of movement risks, of high-tension moments and sharp, painful breaths. When I throw my right arm over my chest and towards the back of the stage, my head following its pointed action, I am committed. In fact, if I don’t commit, I will fall; if I fall, I fail.

This might seem harsh, but to me, Akram Khan’s choreography is harsh. It is demanding; his dancers are demanding in their teaching. Lali recently told me that every time I do a certain movement in Kaash where I reach my right arm up in a diagonal away from my body, my left arm clasping my right elbow, I have to feel as if my right-hand fingers, hand, and arm are continuously reaching up, extending beyond their flesh. Even if this isn’t visible to an external viewer, I need to feel it. I need to expand, to go beyond. I need to take my movements so far that they ultimately snap back like a rubber band taken to its limits. This tension defines the movement; the choreography cannot exist without it. What a difficult task, this reaching is; it is a continuous struggle but an incredibly satisfying one.

When this happens, I simultaneously know myself and forget myself. The task is so engrossing that all I can do is breathe and grunt and be body and flesh, mindless and animalistic. On the other hand, my mind is activated intensely, approaching each movement problem in a matter of milliseconds; my neurons are firing at light speed (or I like to imagine they are). It is exactly this paradoxical splitting and combining of mind and body that is so life affirming, it makes me want to scream with approval just thinking about it. “Everything is one,” the movements seem to say. The spirituality in Khan’s ideas, the rhythms in his Kathak movements, the breath in his dancers’ bodies—they all are born out of the same organisms: living, thinking human beings. As I lunge to the ground, I know I’m one of them.    



I lunge, sitting into my hips, staring straight ahead into nothing

My right arm picks it itself up, dragging the rest of my body with it to the left so that I’m facing the back

The arm continues swinging as my leg follows

I jab my elbow once, twice to the right, not making a big deal of it, just letting my arms and legs do their thing

I stop. 

I plie abruptly, letting my pelvis sink where it wants to

Pivoting to my right, I walk to the upstage left corner

I halt, showing off my left heel once, then a second time with a nice twisting gesture of my arms overhead


My left heel reaches to the left, causing the rest of my body to fall after it, then walking once, twice

I plie only to reach out with my right heel, which drags me forward, forcing me to turn and lurching my right leg out to the side and back

I step back to stop.

My right arm bends and wraps around and so does my left, meeting each other in a folded “I Dream of Genie” gesture

I lean forward, shoving my hands to the grand and stepping



Right—as I do this, my left leg kicks up to extend out side while my arms reach overhead

I contract my stomach, peering under my legs and toward the front

Until I can’t look any farther

And my body flips around, facing forward with my head, my foot, and my hands


I step right left right

I pivot to the right, sinking into a slight plie as my head begins to tilt forward while my right heel lifts off the ground, leading the rest of my right leg into a straightened position as my left arm falls until it is perpendicular with the floor

There is a moment of falling


Until I land, and walk

Only to let my fingers be carried by a string on the ceiling so that the rest of my body can swivel around easily



This description could go on and on, but I’m going to stop it here, simply because writing this made me want to dance, so I’m going to, and I’m realizing also that the poetry I’ve created here is actually what happens when I’m dancing. Even if it’s more difficult to see, the same listening occurs. Between choreography and body and vision and mind, the same sort of beauty and clumsiness and rawness emerges. I guess that’s how I feel dancing Reggie’s choreography: I feel raw. Like I’m announcing: This is it, folks. This is me. This isn’t a character. This is real, live Elena, without artifice. I feel as if, by following my body’s cues, I’m following my truest self, my most real reality. It’s scary and fun and exciting and difficult all at the same time. I didn’t expect that simply feeling my pelvis underneath me could actually lead to a sort of exposure of myself through dance. In short, thanks Reggie, for forcing some rawness out of me.

Finding Flow


Stomping my feet. Singing. Humming. Yelling. Walking. Kicking. These percussive gestures have proven the most difficult for me in Reggie’s choreography, but also the most constructive. The African, African-American, and Afro-Carribean songs and rhythms we sing with Reggie are simultaneously immersive and distracting. As soon as I get lost in the rhythm, my attention is pulled to the feeling of my feet touching the ground, and just as soon I start to over-think about my feet, I become lost in the clapping motion of my hands. It seems that my body’s continuous distraction allows me to reach a momentary “flow” state that is almost meditative. This type of movement seems to theorize a strict connection between the mind and body, since only through the preoccupation of the body can the mind find a meditative trance state.

Interestingly, this trance state achieved through the body having a specific task could be used to describe much of postmodern dance. In Reggie’s work, even, he asks the dancer to move her body in functional, often unadorned ways, setting up a set of tasks that the dancer must complete (taking task to mean functional movement). The movement is often so “distracting” or complex that I can sometimes reach the flow state described above. It’s funny how movement from completely different traditions can achieve a similar effect in the mind. I’m still trying to determine if this “flow” is unique to these types of dance, or if I can achieve it in other more externally focused practices (Graham movement, for instance). Perhaps it has happened before, and I was unaware. In any case, Reggie’s movement has been hugely satisfying in giving me the tools to achieve this state. For meditation, Reggie’s choreography > yoga.

Forever New


It dawned on me the other day that what happened on the gymnasium floor at Yale University on Friday, April 27th, 2012, has never happened before and will never happen again. It was singular, in the truest sense of the word. Every movement we dancers made, every step, misstep, leap, or turn of the head, was unique to the very moment it existed. Between the two performances, even though the choreography remained the same (save the few chance-based sections), our movements differed. Maybe we inhaled more on the same arm movement, maybe the sun washed over our faces at a certain point, maybe the audience applauded less after Roaratorio. Each moment was born and died and just as soon created a new moment, so that the relationship between the audience and the dancers, between the dancers’ minds and their bodies, was forever new.

This is the beauty of performance. It can never be a staid object on a wall, hanging on for an eternity, unchanged. Many say this might be the death of performance, but I say it is its saving grace. Sure, we can never truly capture a performance, despite all the photos and videos and ephemera we might compile. But this is what makes the liveness of dance and theater and performance art so incredible: for a certain period of time, our attention is drawn to the moving, acting, performing bodies in front of us. We have to be there, and in being there we recognize that time is passing right before our eyes; we recognize the tension inherent in a moment.

I believe that dance shows this tension more than any other performative form, since it relies on the entirety of the human body, an organism so complex that it seems quite impossible to repeat any one thing in exactly the same way. Even in classical ballet, historically attempting to hide any effort in dancing, there is a certain tension: when Giselle does a simple pique arabesque, she appears to be suspended, and yet she is also moving, breathing, thinking, acting, doing so many things at once that there is indeed a visible, captivating tension, for both the dancer and the audience. I felt this tension in Merce’s work. I feel it whenever I dance, because I know that the step I’m about to do will be over just as I soon as I begin it.

This transience, this fleeting existence, is both frightening and exciting. It means that dance provides a world of endless possibility, forever mutable and new. But it also reminds us of life’s transience, of our own unsure existence, of the fact that everything ends just as it begins. Dance forces us to notice moments in our lives, and in the absence of moments, to notice blocks of time, like the minutes of a pas de deux or the seconds a body rests motionless in space. A dance must always begin and must always end, just as life must begin and end, even though it is a lovely thought to think that Merce might still be dancing away somewhere, hidden behind a curtain or one of Rauschenberg’s set designs. I think he’d agree that what we did at Yale was singular and new in that certain space and place and time. And what a wonderful time it was! Thank you Yale Dance Theater 2012—I’ll remember those fleeting moments forever.

On the Longevity of a Legacy


For my senior thesis in art history, I’m writing about the longevity of works by contemporary artists dealing with situational art forms—that is, artworks that are defined by the context in which they are presented and in the very ephemeral nature of their existence. The longevity of dance works poses many of the same questions as these conceptual and performance artworks: should these works exist merely in ephemera, through the photographs and videos and paper documents accompanying them? (In the case of artist Tino Sehgal, ephemera are impossible, as he does not allow photographs, video, or written contracts about his work. Everything is conveyed orally, and the knowledge of these works dies with the people responsible for them.) Working with the various generations of dancers in the former Cunningham Company, I’ve found that much of the knowledge is anecdotal and person-based, sometimes even coming solely from muscle memory to fully explain a step. It is often conveyed through conversation and metaphor, with dancers recalling, “Merce used to say this,” or, “We called this section the benders.” If only every dancer could write down every single memory they have of the work and of the choreographer, then we might have a fuller history of the work. Alas, this is impractical and impossible, and so the ultimate reality is that as these dancers pass (apologies for the grim reminder of our mortality, but this does unfortunately effect longevity) we will lose both their movement knowledge and their anecdotal knowledge. So, in the absence of people, will we resort to paper documents and photographs? Will video be our saving grace? Again, the questions are virtually infinite, and the way we deal with them will only be known with time.

Another question: can and should we reconstruct these works? These pieces are the products of their time, often being performed and understood under a distinct set of circumstances that are impossible to replicate. Should we even try? I recently saw a work by relational artist Rirkrit Tiravanija that had been acquired by MoMA. The piece was first shown in 1992 at a gallery in Soho, where the artist stripped bare the gallery walls, flipped it inside out, and cooked curry during the day, inviting the public to come and enjoy what was deemed an cross-cultural/artworld experience. A veritable caricature of the piece was presented at MoMA, and though I didn’t see the original work (being an infant at the time), I can tell that the sentimentalized docent tour and odd setup in a white-walled museum does not do justice to the original work and even trivializes it in the process. With Merce’s work, this specificity of time/place is less important, but the distinct set of chance-based events put into play by his works were most definitely determined by their surroundings and distinct set of circumstances. (Ahem, Chance and Circumstance.) Then again, perhaps because Cunningham’s framework distinctly set out to play with these circumstances, his works are better suited to new circumstances today. Perhaps our reconstruction of Roaratorio or, more aptly, our Minevent, is exactly the kind of situation-based model that Cunningham set out to explore. Each time we dancers solve the problems put forth by the choreography, we change the finished product in some way. So the fact that dancers have continued to solve these problems from the mid-twentieth century to the twenty-first means that this may be a never-ending pursuit, and one that should very well be continued.

The questions surrounding these issues could go on and on. I might discuss the continued codification of the Cunningham technique, the archived intellectual history of his work, the possibility of a posthumous evolution of choreography. But the main questions, the “how” and “why” of it all, are pretty simple. How? Well, you can figure that out at our performance tomorrow, when we show you the process of learning and understanding Merce’s work. Why? Once again, I’m nearly positive that by simply being at the performance tomorrow and seeing this postmodern work inhabited by twenty-first century students, seeing it enlivened, re-understood, and re-imagined—you’ll just know. This work—Merce’s work—is worth it.

Ballet, Another Way


When I first did the Cunningham warm up series, I was relieved. Relieved to see pointed feet, held arms, first positions, plies, essentially remnants of my lifelong ballet training that I could fall back on. Compared with last year’s Tharp movement, which was a sort of anti-technique while still retaining some technique (if that makes sense), the Cunningham style is quite heavily ballet-influenced. Sure, legs are often turned in, arms held rigid, backs inverted, but in a general sense, it is the ballet movement vocabulary from which Cunningham takes its cues. For me, finding this balletic aspect in such a modern style was like rereading a favorite childhood book with a more mature, theoretical eye: it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it also shed light on the limitations of my first encounter. This time, I realize the physical shortcuts I took to achieve the ballet body aesthetic. That is simply impossible with the Cunningham movement, since it takes ballet and adds torso twists and arches and awkward rhythms and turned hips. Cheating is not an option. And I don’t think Merce would have had it any other way.



At first, the Cunningham movement seems stoic, even robotic. It is at first look a sort of language, a bodily sign system that is based more on its visual elements than any audio-based aspects (especially since sound was added in ex-post-facto as a kind of game of chance to complicate the composition). And yet, when learning the Cunningham movement, one discovers certain rhythms that provide another type of logic. This logic is perhaps more organic, as it grows from the synthesis of human body and machine-like movement. Personally, this rhythm drives my movement, keeping me grounded and focused more on accomplishing the physical exercise rather than achieving a certain shape or aesthetic. This rhythm allows me to focus inward rather than thinking about the audience’s experience of my movement.

Such inward focus has a mainly utilitarian purpose, as Merce’s choreography is decidedly not about personal experience or movement style. Sure, we are still individual bodies with certain tics and differences (and such idiosyncrasies were played with in his early choreography, according to Meg), but these differences are not often highlighted. Instead, we are a group, equal in our sameness and providing a perfect field of people with which to display the many intricacies of Roaratorio, a dance so complicated that an entirely inward focus would lead to collisions and discontinuity. Thus, a paradox emerges: the seemingly robotic Cunningham movement forces us as dancers to have both an internal rhythm and an external awareness, allowing what is at first self-contained to result in a community of dancers working together onstage to achieve the same artistic goals.

Final Thoughts


Twyla’s work is more challenging than I could have ever imagined. No, you’re not being asked to put your leg behind your head or to whip out thirty-two fouettes or split your legs in the air. Instead, her work forces you to reevaluate your body’s natural weight and tendencies, and to then put these tendencies to use in a very pedestrian, jazz-based technique. Working with the choreography over the course of this semester, I found that I was introduced to a completely new relationship with the floor. Suddenly, my feet were grounded, always stroking, as if my sole purpose in dancing was to create a fossil-like impression in the floor, recording my every movement. This led to greater cohesion between different steps, as this flat weight-bearing unifier connected them all.

Even though it may not be “technically challenging” in the way we normally think of dance (relating to ballet and more classical forms of modern dance), it definitely increased my stamina. Eight Jelly Rolls is virtually non-stop, especially since we had all the dancers performing each jelly roll, not allowing for the breaks that were in the original version. Added to that, the juggling of the many different counts, inversions, retrogrades, etc. made my mind and body work overtime. This intellectual stimulation, I believe, is the key ingredient in what makes Twyla’s work so compelling. It’s not just movement—it’s equations and sentences and rhythm changes and games —it’s the whole world boiled down to a twenty-five minute dance.

Not only do Twyla’s dances consist of worlds, they create them as well. For me, Eight Jelly Rolls created a world, a community (whatever you want to call it), where I was free to explore a new kind of movement, free to make mistakes, even free to get angry. Twyla’s pieces, originally constructed in a utopic studio community, create an environment that encourages learning and forces you to become closer with the other people involved in your exploration. Thus, at the end of this semester, I found that I had a new community whose shared movement experiences made us closer than many other groups of people I’ve encountered. When I injured my knee during the dress rehearsal for the final lecture-demonstration and was unable to perform the next day, I realized that the people surrounding me made me feel safe, even in a time of vulnerability. I truly believe this is because they know me through movement, through kinesthetic interaction, which is so much more soul bearing than these constructed, premeditated sentences I now write on this page, so much more raw than a verbal conversation mediated by forethought.

As cliché as it sounds, dance is life. It’s not performance; it’s not pointed feet and stretched legs. It’s you and me, walking along the street doing the drill, marking the steps of the second jelly roll on the subway platform, dancing, moving, living.

Following Function


Less is more. That’s what I keep telling myself as I go through the steps of Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls in my head. I’ve trained as a ballet dancer since childhood, so I’ve been conditioned to think that I should be doing as much as I possibly can with my body in order to appear to be doing as little as possible. Ballet consists of a huge expense of energy for a delicately veiled payout. But with the Tharp movement style, what you see is what you get. Each turn of my hip is exactly that, a rotating of bone in socket, requiring only as much muscle tension as is necessary for a functional movement. It’s akin to the modern architecture philosophy of “form follows function.”

What’s interesting, though, is that I’m not completely barred from accentuating the movements. As Katie and Jenny explain, you can add movement only if it is helping to better express the original step given. So, here’s my plan: first, I’m going to completely rid myself of excess movement or tension. Once I’ve mastered that, then I will allow myself to accentuate or enhance, while still remaining true to Tharp’s choreography. I’ll let you know how it goes!