I find myself repeatedly writing about the distinction between the mind and the body in my Yale Dance Theater Blog posts. Saar Harari’s Gaga classes have prompted me to further explore this distinction. More specifically, they’ve prompted me to question it. Harari’s classes challenge me to think using my flesh. I think with the skin under my elbow, my pelvic muscles, and the fleshy pads of my feet. I listen to the rhythms of my body. All the while, using my eyes to pay attention to what’s going on in the room around me. I find it challenging to combine an inner focus with an outer awareness. We have to both listen to rhythms of our own bodies and be ready for anything that happens in the space around us. And as this careful attention and action grows exhausting, Harari encourages us to give in to that exhaustion. But you don’t give in by stopping. You give in by connecting your pleasure to your pain. You bend more, you jump further, you reach higher. And it seems that a kind of humility is necessary for this giving in. You don’t give in by becoming more than human. “Be human,” Harari tells us. I’m still unsure of what being human means in Gaga. But maybe it has something to do with erasing the barriers we put up between our minds and our bodies.
As I rehearsed in New Haven this spring for Yale Dance Theater’s Inheriting Ailey, I keenly explored and proudly exalted my identity as a black woman. For over a decade I advanced from primer classes to a pre-professional ballet company member, for years I had studied movement passed down from mostly white bodies and performed by mostly white bodies. This year, I’ve had the thrill of studying movement as passed down from black bodies with Renee Robinson and Matthew Rushing of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Alvin Ailey, an iconic African-American choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, choreographed “House of the Rising Sun” (Blues Suite, 1958). In 1957, my grandfather graduated from Yale and stood with his fellows Elis as the only black graduate in his class. When my grandfather came to visit me during the 2013 Yale Family Weekend, he was amazed by the vibrancy of the Yale black community from the arts, to the fellowship, to academia. My father, who graduated from Yale in 1986, loves to relate his Yale years to his father’s and to mine, those of a member of the Class of 2016.
It’s been only a few years since I was one of two black ballerinas attending a summer intensive program in New York City. In my dance pursuits, I’ve often surveyed my peers and wondered, as Gia Kourlas’ 2007 NYT article surmised, “Where are all the Black Swans?” Before college, I studied ballet at the School of Ballet Chicago and attended summer intensives at the School of American Ballet in New York City and the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. In Chicago, I found comfort dancing across the stage from my younger sister. In New York and in Seattle, I found community in the mere presence of one other black student.
At Yale, I was amazed by the energy at the Afro-American Cultural Center (AACC). New Haven, Yale, and the AACC have all enriched my connection to heritage and culture. Life, as always, transcends academia or art as I and many others tragically heard the pain of black men and women whose lives have been touched by disproportionate police brutality and racial profiling. I exclaimed as my kindred shared stories of police brutality. A sad resonance of “black lives don’t matter” threatened to erode the progress made since my grandfather hustled to class at Yale almost 60 years past. With education, with inspiration, and with expression, I am proud to assert that Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter in my studies as a philosophy major. Black Lives Matter with my aspirations to practice entertainment law. Black Lives Matter with my dancing in Yale Dance Theater’s Inheriting Ailey. Black bodies dance…Black Lives Matter.
When I learn a new dance technique, I feel as though I’ve been transported into a new body, and am learning to walk all over again. I’ve always had two legs, but now I suddenly have three. I have to figure out how to use what is now an awkward third leg. But once I figure it out, that third leg can be put to good use. The learning process may not be pretty—it often isn’t—but the lessons are so valuable.
In our classes and rehearsals, Renee Robinson and Matthew Rushing have urged me to “stay in my body.” A correction made more evident by learning a new technique. Who would have thought that I would need reminding for such a seemingly simple notion? But then, I stopped to think, as I usually do… because I am a philosophy major… In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates discusses the immortality of the soul while facing his own impending death. Socrates doesn’t fear death because he argues that when we die, the soul separates itself from the body. When someone devotes their life to practicing philosophy, they are also devoting their life to separating the soul from the body. Philosophers aim to see past their bodies. Just because my vision tells me that there is an external world, doesn’t prove the existence of the external world. To find an answer to this question, instead of picking up my pencil and saying,“HERE! Here is your external world!” I sit down in what is hopefully a comfortable armchair and think. I separate myself from my body.
Upon realizing this, my correction to “stay in my body” becomes ever more poignant. I do love philosophy. I find joy in abstraction. But in the dance studio, I’m doing a different kind of work. Ultimately I hope to be able to convey something to another person with my dancing. Communication—either to myself or with someone else—requires tangibility. Even metaphors require tangibility. Otherwise they would lose their power. An intangible metaphor wouldn’t communicate anything. In my philosophy classes I practice separation from my body, and in my rehearsals with Renee Robinson and Mathew Rushing, I practice finding my body again.
It seems that Ailey dancers are masters of the paradox of abstraction whilst maintaining tangibility. Their dancing moves me. As both Matthew Rushing and Renee Robinson have described to us in our discussions, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater holds up a mirror to their audience with their performance. One might wonder how on earth these superhuman dancers can be a reflection of what I am? I’m no superhero. What is it about their dancing that gives me that impression? I suspect it is the tangibility—or as Renee Robinson has described it, the vulnerability—of their performance that gives me that impression. They are superheroes that stay in their bodies so that they can meet and communicate with us.
My experiences learning Reggie Wilson’s choreography and Akram Khan’s choreography were different. There was an emphasis on manipulation of time in the Khan choreography that was absent in the Wilson choreography. In the Khan choreography my movements were informed by the counts. The goal is to hit the movement at the same time as the count, not before or after. This creates tension in the movements followed by bursts of sharp or smooth energy. This also forced me to be extremely present in each moment. I could not dance the Khan steps on auto-pilot. Both the mind and the body are equally exerted, but the mind is the leader in this choreography.
There is more focus on finding the true movement in the Wilson choreography. When I was learning the steps, rather than manipulating my form to fit into time, I listened to my body to find the form. The body is the leader in the Wilson choreography.
A similarity in my experiences of Khan and Wilson choreography is the importance of the mind and body connection. I felt that both forms of choreography required attention to my own thoughts in relation to my body, or my body in relation to my thoughts. For example, in Wilson choreography the pelvis is the key part of any movement. When I danced the steps, I tried to listen to my pelvis to determine how long a movement should take. It takes a given amount of time to transfer my weight from my left foot to my right foot. I can calculate this amount of time by listening to my pelvis.
In my experience of Khan choreography I learned to manipulate my body using my mind. I determined what time I wanted a certain movement to happen, then performed that movement by manipulating my body in time and space. For example, first I decide that I want to shift my body from my left foot to my right foot on the third count of a phrase of four. Then, I count: one, two, shift-three, four. I do not shift at the beginning or end of three, but in the middle of the count.
Both of the ways I just described of shifting my weight from one foot to another require a strong connection between the mind and body. This is what connects all of my experiences of dance. I believe the connection of the mind and body can only be explored in the artistic art form of dance.
Watching the Akram Khan dancers demonstrate choreography was one the most inspiring parts of the Akram Khan residency. There is a quality about the movement that I could not place at first. I stood amazed at their grace, and was eager to learn how to move in the same way.
My learning process began with imitation of the physical movement. Half of my attention focused on analyzing the movement of Young Jin Kim and Eulalia Ayguade Farro, the Akram Khan dancers. Another quarter focused on imitating those movements, and the last quarter focused on checking myself in the mirror to make sure that my form was correct.
It wasn’t until about halfway through the residency that I realized that I was focusing on the wrong things. The body does have to be physically trained to create the forms that the Akram Khan choreography demands. However, the mind also requires training. My conception of the mind-body connection is both dualistic and monistic. The mind and body are two entities that are inseparably attached and interwoven. The Akram Khan choreography highlights this fact. The beauty of the dance comes from both physical and mental prowess. The body and the mind are heavily exerted in equal amounts. The mind is engaged in an active stillness. This stillness comes from the heightened connection between mind and body. When the focus of the mind is heightened the dance becomes more beautiful. The same is true when the abilities of the body are stretched to their limits. When both the mind and the body are used at their optimum capacities the movements become art. For myself, the key to learning Akram Khan choreography was to identify the way Eulalia and Young Jin were thinking about the choreography, and then to find a way of thinking for myself to follow.
One of my favorite moments of the Akram Khan residency was when we started rehearsing in the Coop High School Theater. I watched as the first group performed the choreography on the stage. Something in their dancing was different from three weeks ago. It was more than just physical. The energy of the dancing had a different quality. It was if we had all undergone some sort of small transformation over the past three weeks. The steps were no longer just steps, but movements instead, connected by the thread of the dancer’s energy. The energy gives the steps power. This energy stems from the connection of the mind to the body. It keeps the art transient and makes it beautiful. Every moment lasts only a moment, and will never happen again. This is the essence of dance. The Akram Khan choreography is so liberating to dance because it highlights energy in its practice. When dancing I am both extremely aware of my physical presence and in tune with my consciousness. The energy of the dance stems from the intense focus of my consciousness. My consciousness is focused on the manipulation of the body in time and space with music. You would expect mirrors in the room to heighten this focus. However, this is not the case. Mirrors draw the attention away from the self and onto how the self is perceived by others. This hinders the focus and draws away the energy of the dance. So, when performing in the Coop theater without an audience, I felt the strength of the connection between my mind and my body at its highest.
Performing the choreography for an audience was more difficult. I felt that the audience was similar to the mirror. I have not yet mastered how to both keep my own mind and body connection strong and connect with other dancers and the audience. I believe that attaining the skill requires practice and even greater mental focus.
This project has informed my dance practice. I now have a better understanding of what dance is. I now understand that dance is created when the mind and the body are at equally exerted and the connection between them is at its strongest.
Dancing Reggie Wilson’s technique has reassured me of the connection of the mind to the body. One of the classes I am enrolled in this semester is the Introduction to Modern Philosophy. The class has focused on reconstructing the arguments Descartes makes in his Meditations of First Philosophy. At the beginning of the Meditations Descartes convinces himself to doubt everything. The only thing that he can be sure of is that “I am thinking, therefore i exist”. When I first encountered this argument, I interpreted the “I” Descartes referred to, to mean the mind. To me, it seemed his argument meant that the mind could exist without the body. Therefore, the body could not exist. This conclusion seemed valid to me, but it went against what I intuitively felt to be true.
As a dancer I am very aware of my body. My body is my instrument to create art. I can distinctly perceive the differences in flexibility between my left and right ankles. I notice as muscles that were less flexible two weeks ago, gradually gain flexibility.
When I am studying as a Yale student I tend to neglect the presence of my body and focus on thinking by using my brain. What I have discovered while dancing Mr.Wilson’s technique is that the body can think too. I am better able to execute the difficult combinations that are in his choreography when I let my body be the movement, rather than if I think about what the movement is supposed to look like. When I let my body be the movement, I am actually letting my body think. My mind simply focuses on where each movement ends and begins in order to connect them.
Dancing is similar to riding a bike. After you spend a lot of energy familiarizing yourself with the movement, your body simply knows what to do. I simply have to focus my mind away from the idea of the movement and to the actual movement.
In this blog I want to continue to discuss my relationship with the music.
As a dancer I have always felt very connected to the music. The music starts and then I move. I studied at the school of Ballet Chicago since I was 8 years old. At the barre, before every single combination, the pianist played a preparation of music and then after a certain amount of counts, we began to dance. As I grew older, I learned new ways to have a relationship with the music. I would play with the counts. I would hold one step longer, do another step faster, or freeze for and unexpected couple of counts. I lived the quote, “you should see the music and hear the dance.” That was my experience learning Balanchine technique.
Studying the Technique of Merce Cunnighham is extremely different. I discovered a world were there is a disconnection between the music and the dance. This world was completely foreign to me. When Jennifer Goggans explained to me that we wouldn’t be hearing the music potentially until our performance, I was shocked. In many ways, I missed my relationship with the music. I missed having my movements inspired by music. As I continued to learn new Merce Choreography, however, I got a better understanding of where rhythm came from in his choreography. As I mentioned in my last post, his choreography asks dancers to create their own internal rhythm. In a way, we create our own music inside our minds, and our bodies our instruments to share that music, or rhythm with the audience.
For me, the act of dance is intertwined with listening to music. To dance is to move to music. Music inspires my movement. Because my movement is inspired by music, I call it dance. The process of learning choreography by Merce Cunningham is more different from any other choreographic learning experience that I have ever had. We have been learning choreography for the past couple of months, and we still have not heard the music we will be dancing to.
This choreography has to come from an internal place. The rhythm has to be internalized. This is a very difficult process. The choreographer or teacher has to communicate the rhythm they want expressed to the dancer. This can be done through counting. When rhythms are displayed through musical instruments they are externalized. When they are created in the minds of choreographers and then interpreted by the dancers they are internalized. I have always thought of dance as an intellectual activity. The process of learning choreography by Merce Cunningham is intellectual to an even greater extreme. The dance is the music. We will not hear the music we will be dancing to until the whole piece has been choreographed. The music will not inspire my movements, rather I predict that the music will set the tone to my movement.
The dancer is an instrument in this choreography. So is this dance, or is this simply movement? I think that it is a little bit of both. This is art. This is an expression of creativity that cannot be labeled. As I dancer, this technique of choreographing has forced me to search for new sources of inspiration. Without the music, I must look inward to find inspiration.