Performing Cunningham in the gym made a huge difference for me — although I had been watching my fellow dancers all semester, I suddenly felt like I was seeing them do something entirely new. Having a little bit of physical distance from what was going on allowed me to visually take the choreography in all at once, instead of digesting it in little parts. A friend of mine said that he thought that Cunningham’s movement was “strange, but in the way that an insect is strange.” I think he really touched on something here: there are all these intricacies and quirks in the movement, and it is sort of fascinating in the way an insect is–all of its little joints fit together so perfectly.
Lately, I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot about kinesthetic intuition. I was in a ballet class this week, and the teacher reminded us that you would never lift your arms from second position to fifth en haut with your palms lifted. (Unless it was a choreographic move). My first response was—well, duh—but then I realized that it was quite a remarkable thing to have that sort of intuition grafted into your body.
What’s more, all of the information programmed into your brain about ballet constitutes a very specific intuition, and one that can’t necessarily be relied upon in other techniques. On the one hand, that’s very self-evident. But it makes a huge difference when you’re learning a new technique (let’s say, the Cunningham technique!) Certainly, you can’t just toss all of your previous technical training out of the window. But you do have to be strategic about the manipulation of what your body already knows. But instance, something as simple as doing tendus in the Cunningham technique is different than at a ballet barre. Whereas my own ballet teachers have taught me to shift the center of my weight entirely over your standing leg, that’s not what you want to do with Cunningham’s warm-up; the idea is to keep your weight as centrally balanced as possible, to be able to switch standing legs more easily.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that in moments of choreography where I’m uncertain about the placement of my body, it automatically assumes ballet posturing. It’s funny to me that ballet has become my “neutral,” when ballet can actually very affected.
I’ve also been thinking about to what extent (if at all) I’ve developed a kinesthetic intuition for Cunningham’s work. It’s fascinating to me that the shoulder pops, one of the simplest choeographic moments in the MinEvent (and by simple, I mean involving minimal movement), has been one of the most difficult to nail down. For me, I think this is because I lack the intuition about keeping your head up while you do a lower back curve, or about how to get the “dandelion” effect in my body.
I love the way that Meg has consistently described the effect of viewing Pond Way as experiencing life within a marsh—you want the audience to watch the performance and say, “Look at that. How did they do that?” I’m beginning to wonder if the astute observer (or maybe even the non-astute observer) takes note of the pattern of movement, or if the point is really to create an effect that takes the viewer’s attention away from the structural elements. A quick arm looks like a frog’s tongue snapping out; arms opening out during the hinge look like an egret spreading its wings—but two sets plus three counts to the left, hinge, and then to the right?
I’m torn between thinking that losing oneself in the marsh effect is really the best experience for a viewer to have and between thinking that a knowledge of the structural elements (plus an enjoyment of the effect) enhances the experience. Are total absorption and attention to formal elements mutually exclusive? Probably not—but it does seem that the absorption would, at least to some extent, distract a viewer from trying to pick up on a pattern.
Jacques Maritain writes in his work Art & Scholasticism that “art is before all intellectual and its activity consists in impressing an idea upon a matter” (8). Even if it is the case that an artist’s intention is to communicate that there is no significance to the world, that intention still exists; in other words, art cannot help but have meaning. (Otherwise, why create?)
With this in mind, I’ve been asking myself what is communicated with Merce’s movement. I’m still really interested in the prioritization of space and time in the dancer’s body and movement, and this is what I find really delightful while working on his choreography. Later on, Maritain also argues that “manual dexterity” is something extrinsic to art. But not with dance! Isn’t it the very opposite? That the dexterity of the artist is the very thing intrinsic to movement? I don’t think he had dance in mind, but this seems significant.
Another aspect of his work that I’ve really begun to appreciate is that it’s not “stripped.” (Out of the choreography we’ve learned so far, I love Pond Way – especially its layers, and the texture that comes with all of those layers. Also, I love Love LOVE the partnering bit we recently learned.) Often, I think I am under the impression that to understand what something is, you should take away its non-essential parts. But this is misleading. Does taking away a dog’s leg (a non-essential part of the dog) make it more of a dog? No. It just makes it a three-legged dog. In fact, you might argue that this reduction takes away from its “dog-ness,” because the animal is now less capable of performing the actions that dogs are generally good at doing, like running after and catching balls.
I am fascinated by the use of chance in Merce’s choreography—of course, I don’t know exactly to what degree the choreography was influenced by chance operations, but this is a totally fascinating concept to me. In my aesthetics class now, we’ve talked a lot about this idea that we ask nothing of what provides us with aesthetic delight. Kant wrote on this “aesthetic approach” and argued that when we see something that is beautiful, we regard it solely as itself; we leave the object undisturbed because it is perfect the way it is.
And yet, with chance operations, the viewer is left with the feeling that the choreography could have been otherwise. In fact, if the viewer was aware of the function of chance operations in the choreography, he is not only left with this feeling, but with the knowledge that it could have been otherwise. How might this affect a viewer’s experience of the beautiful?
Dance, more generally speaking, is differentiated from something like sculpture or painting in another way – an encounter with a beautiful object involves a clear distinction between single subject and single object. (On Schopenhauer’s view, this distinction becomes blurred during the aesthetic experience, but the conceptual division is clear.) With dance, on the other hand, there’s more going on, because there are two subjects: viewer and dancer.
There’s the dancer’s relationship to the choreography, the execution of the movement; and there’s the viewer’s relationship to the choreography (and not only the choreography, but also the physicality of the bodies being seen). Even if we grant that an audience member might have a disinterested aesthetic experience (disinterested in the way that he did not wish the performance to have been otherwise), does a dancer ever really have a ‘disinterested’ relationship to choreography? Maybe so, at least in relationship to choreography qua choreography, while still remaining interested in its successful execution. But especially with something like modern dance, where you might be tailoring choreography to specific bodies, how much can you really pull apart choreography from its execution? It seems like there’s a closer relationship here between choreography and execution than there would be in movement where there is something like a “form” of the movement.
This is not the first time that I’ve danced without music, but to be honest: my heart feels a little droopy every time I find out that music won’t be used. Of course, music will be used eventually, but I am still not clear as to what the dancer’s relationship to the John Cage score is supposed to be.
Even so, we can’t properly be said to be dancing “in silence” during rehearsals – because our time in the studio is anything but silent. The rhythm is inherent in the phrasing and is made manifest in our bodies; and I am really trying to cultivate an awareness of the sounds that our bodies create (feet swiping and swishing on the floor, pattering, breathing, etc.) This is also something that came up while learning the Tharp repertory, but I have found that on the whole, it’s been easier this year to maintain a steady rhythm throughout the movement. I’m not sure whether this is the result of anything inherent to the choreography, or of an (even very minor!) improvement to my internal metronome’s accuracy. I do wonder if putting all of the phrases together will feel like singing something that keeps changing time signatures…
Meg mentioned the idea of a landscape of rhythms – this is fascinating to me. Why the landscape imagery? Does a viewer primarily experience the rhythms visually or aurally? I mean, I suppose since the whole experience is integrated, maybe it doesn’t make much sense to try and parse that out. But say for some reason you couldn’t hear the dancers’ breathing or contact with the floor – how would you experience those rhythms differently? Or say when the John Cage score is being performed – to what extent will this interfere/interact with the rhythmic sounds being created by our bodies? I am interested in the way that visual imagery (landscape) is used to describe something that is inherently non-visual (rhythm). I find that when I am watching others dance, their rhythm in some way is transmitted to my own body, but I am not sure what primarily accounts for that transmission.
So, after working on this material during the past several weeks, I find that the lingering question is – so what exactly is this that we’re doing?! In rehearsals, I just had the sense that Jenny and Katie knew something that we didn’t know, even when I thought I was “getting it.” For example, when Rose Marie Wright ran rehearsal, Amymarie and I were going over the end of Sara and Rose’s duet when they play the trombone sort of bent over towards the ground. And Rose’s telling us, “Okay, so you need to improvise.” And Amymarie and I reply, “Oh! So we can play the trombone up here?” And Rose replied (perhaps without any sense that this was our feeble attempt at improvisation), “Well, no. You have to play it down here.” Insert confused glances.
And more generally speaking, I’m really interested in what it is that makes Twyla’s work what it is. What is the essence of this movement? Is it that anything can become “dance”? (Polishing a table, sticking your little finger out, flipping a coin, etc…) Is it the way you hold your weight? (I second Amymarie’s observation on what she calls held and real weight.) Is it the structure and manipulations? Or is the essence of this movement so intimately tied to the people who helped create it that with each degree of removal, it loses some of its Tharpness (Tharpateity)?
I wonder about the role of the original individual dancers to the movement. To talk about creation gives the impression of something being static—like: check that off the list. It’s been “created.” But from what I understand, that’s never how this piece operated to being with. It was in a constant state of creation, to the extent that there was something of a foundation (an essence, if you will), and then the accoutrements were layered on top of the essential movement.
And maybe this gets at a question about dance—is it intrinsic or extrinsic? Or both? And how? It seems like it’s intrinsic in the sense that it can’t exist without the individual dancer, but extrinsic in the sense that it is something you can pass on. But not perfectly. And not unless you have bodies. Which is crazy. I mean, I guess in some cases you have dance notation—but dance notation isn’t dance.
That makes me head spin. Here are some other random thoughts about the performance:
1. The SHOES! The shoes made a huge difference. I didn’t use suede-soled shoes until about two weeks before the performance, and baby: I’m never goin’ back. Katie and Jenny kept telling us that the shoes would make a big difference. I don’t know why that didn’t really sink in. Pointe shoes make a big difference. Tap shoes make a big difference. So why not suede-soled shoes? I hope at some point I get the chance to work on Tharp repertory again, and I’ll start at the beginning with the shoes. Dancing with them hugely changed how I experienced a relationship with the floor (more massage-y and fluid, less rubbery and sticky), and I think it would make a difference to get that right at the start of a piece.
2. Performing Sarah’s solo in darkness was so awesome! I think there were 3 factors at work: I couldn’t see the people watching us, I wasn’t aware of a mirror (because there wasn’t one), and the darkness made it feel sort swanky. This time doing it I tried to conjure up in my mind what it’s like dancing outside at dusk in the French Quarter, in the humidity. I wonder what it would be like to dance that with a live band. An alive band. Yesss. I also LOVE the way Sara and Katie and Jenny talked about that solo as a duet, and working with the music and being attentive to it. In a lot of ways, Eight Jelly Rolls is something like embodied jazz—the give and take, the responsiveness and attentiveness to what’s going on around you, but still being grounded in a theme. I love it. Makes it distinctively American, too.
This whole experience was such a gift!!! MERCI BEAUCOUP to all who made it happen. Virtual love, comin’ atcha.
What I’d like to hone in on for a moment is Sara Rudner’s visit. First of all, when Emily told us that she’d be coming, I nearly wet my pants I was so excited. This woman – who has been referred to as “the greatest dancer in the world” (here) by the New York Times is a personal hero of mine – her simultaneous embodiment of class and sass in Eight Jelly Rolls has won Sara a permanent place in my heart, that’s for certain.
A couple of random thoughts:
-Who ever knew walking could be so complicated?! How do you make sense out of – relax, release your pelvis, walk normally, swish your hips, relax your shoulders – all at the same time? Why is looking cool so freaking hard?! As a dancer, I really like to pat myself on the back sometimes and congratulate myself on my own superb physical and spacial awareness. And then I meet someone like Sara, who gives you a firm, metaphorical kick in the rear end, forcibly removing you from the High Horse and reminding you that, actually, you look pretty spastic right now, and you’re only walking.
-Sara Rudner: “This dance isn’t a solo. It’s a duet with the music.” Awesome Awesome AWESOME. Sara Rudner, please tell me you have more nuggets of wisdom like that up your sleeve. What an awesome way of thinking about it. Actually, the first time I started listening to the music (and before I put it together that it was Jelly Roll Morton), there was something about it that felt really natural about it. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but it just made everything seem kind of right with the world. And then, when it dawned on me that Eight Jelly Rolls = Jelly Roll Morton = New Orleans, LA, it made a lot more sense why the music sounded so familiar. (I myself hail from the NOLA). And then I got to wondering what that solo would be like if it were performed with a live band, and how/if that would affect the musicians. I would imagine in that case there’s a lot more mutual energy-sharing that goes on.
Oh! And another thing. Something that I have found really fascinating throughout this whole process is how movement—something visual—is consistently described with vocabulary traditionally associated with sound. And to think of your body as an instrument “playing” with the other instruments is completely bizarre and awesome. Hm. I’ll have to think about that some more.
-Also, my favorite moment was when Sara started improving and totally got in the zone. It was funny, because she was sort of working through it, and then suddenly – the look in her eyes just totally changed and you could see something click. And it was so crazy to see her do the solo now, because even though her physical accidents are older now (accidents as in the features about you that aren’t intrinsic to your being, like eye or hair color), the dancing revealed something very essential about her that was revealed in her movement.
By the way, what does it mean to have a “look” in your eye? It can’t mean expression, because the expression comes from the muscles in your face. And to the best of my knowledge, eyes are generally the things doing the looking. Or when we talk about someone having a “look” it usually refers to their trendy habiliments. Hm. That’s kind of confusing. But there was definitely an intensity of focus in her eyes. It’s funny how we pick up on things like that – but I would love it if someone could explain to me what that actually means…
I don’t know if anyone else felt like this, but my perception of time was totally manipulated while watching her dance. (The mark of a successful performance!) While I was watching her, it was as if time had stood still. And when she finished, I had this moment where I felt like I had been standing there for either hours or seconds. Really weird. And since one of my favorite things to read about is how people conceive of time, here’s a little gem from Plato’s Timaeus for you:
“Now it was the Living Thing’s nature to be eternal, but it isn’t possible to bestow eternity fully upon anything that is begotten. And so he began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we now call ‘time.’” (37d)
A moving image of eternity!!! Isn’t that awesome? I don’t think that human beings were made to exist in time as we know it, which might explain why we can never really get a handle on it. (This week is going by slowly! Or maybe, I can’t believe how fast this year has gone by!) And also maybe speaks to why some of our loveliest moments are ones where we aren’t aware of the passage of time. Anyway, watching Sara dance was definitely one of those really delightful moments where your awareness of everything just dissolves.
I could say more about her visit, but I think those were the highlights. It was really wonderful to have her here. But before I can really aspire to Sara’s sass and class in her solo, I think first I’ll have to work on my walking issues and incontinence problems.