On making yourself, on moving, on letting be

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Rehearsal demanded letting some things go – perhaps for the better. Only now do I come back to them, now with these words that try to pin something down, capture.

I have gone through such an identity shift in the past year. A crisis? At the beginning of this year, at least superficially, I was not a dancer – especially not of the high legs and ballet arcs. In fact I was moving away from that, because I also came out, cut off my hair, and entered the queer and complicated world of destabilized gender. A world where the scripts were thrown out, new ones were offered, to leave or take, where masculinity and femininity wrestled in my gaze, in my fantasy, in my body and in my closet. A world where nothing was automatic. Where everything is a negotiation, a measuring – even the act of measuring. I’m still going through it, definitely, and so perhaps I’m not going to be able to explain or retroactively summarize but what I experienced was not dysphoria nor specifically dissatisfaction with my gender as it was but rather flexibility, and inability. The realization of categories, the desire to find my place, the experience of wandering, unsure, and restless.

Which is all to say: do I wear pants or a skirt? Eyeliner or none? How do I walk, talk, hold myself? What do I feel and how do I perform it and must I perform it at all? The stakes are different when they are supposed to impact the way you conduct your social life – romantic and otherwise. I never really wore skirts, I do look good in eyeliner, I am strong, I am short, I am discovering queerness and I have cut off all my hair.

At a point where “traditional” femininity seemed both ill-fitting and like giving up, how did I approach dance? And not just any dance, but dance with a base in ballet, that feminized and feminizing form?

Who am I supposed to be? What is true to me, and is it viable? I can argue easily against much of my discomfort: you can be someone else, in performance, identity is fluid, multifaceted, ultimately not that important. Don’t worry, be happy. Be yourself. It is okay that no one has taught you how.

It is one thing to decry labels. It is another to try to shake them off my heavy arms.

But I did let it go, for this. I think it was a letting go, rather than an ignoring. By the time we got to costuming, I was calm. Whatever it is, I thought. I can wear it. I can be it. Perhaps there is an empowerment in that, rather that a surrender. Surely it is better not to be preoccupied with self. Self-image, identity. Instead, find your leg. Stretch your consciousness to the tips of your fingers, through your hips to your toes. Isn’t that another way of being? Expand to the very reaches of your body. Let their perceptions melt away. And dance.

Embodiment as Ownership, and Dancing Away Alienation

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(This was originally written for a lecture class with Elizabeth Alexander, one of the speakers on our symposium panel. As I drew directly from my experiences with YDT, I thought it relevant to share here.)

One of the things I have begun to think about is the idea of black culture traveling without black bodies. Scholar Gina Dent (whom I must credit for first introducing me to this as a concept) explains this by tracing the movement of ragtime music through James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man from the Deep South, to Europe, to the Northern United States – an argument I cannot fully reconstruct here. In other writing, I have spent some time dealing with the sense of rupture, even mistrust, one feels (myself and Jonathan Holloway included) when first laying eyes on the (lone) white dancer in Revelations – dealing with both the legacies of cultural appropriation it may call up and the tendencies towards racial essentialism it may expose. But though this concept and its complications have become more familiar to me, today’s class actually allowed me to see dance as a medium that contains some pushback to this phenomenon.

Thomas DeFrantz writes about the almost footnoted influence of black movement idioms on early modern dance, a space that both he and Professor Alexander indicated was mostly about a new white female subjectivity. (And as I learn more I see this kind of dynamic cropping up constantly – there is a similar relation to be found if one looks at white women learning from their work in movements for black suffrage in the late 1800s and then applying their skills to (white) female suffrage). Dance forms, it seems, like musical forms (jazz being a prime example) are by no means insusceptible to this kind of migration(/alienation) from black to white bodies.

And yet, something Professor Alexander said in class struck me: she spoke of dance as a medium reliant on human presence. Perhaps oral histories can now be recorded or transcribed, maybe the fundamentals of music may be written down, but dance, even with the advent of video, is still transmitted in person. When you learn dance, said Professor Alexander, teachers put their hands on your bodies.

My experience in YDT has allowed me to specifically attest to this. Renee often starts rehearsals with floor barre – a balletic exercise done – meticulously – on the floor, which she calls “organizing the body.” In between instructions she will stop, tell you to release your hips, find the space in your ankle. She will come over, feel your feet, guide your leg, tell you to “come with her energy.” How she can see from across the room what seem to me to be nearly entirely psychic shifts is absolutely beyond me, but if you can figure out how to do what she is telling you, it is clear she knows exactly what she is talking about. In fact, even without the physical touch, rehearsals with these two have taught me the importance of physical presence. One day, I forgot my contacts, and danced horribly. Matthew was choreographing in real time, and though I could see where his limbs were going, without the full 20-20 3D experience of his movement – a fullness of facial expression, movement quality, emotion, affect – I could not embody it.

So from the perspective of learning there does seem to be a certain inalienability about dance, a necessity of direct connection from person to person that may guard against appropriation or, at the very least, forge a kind of community around the work. But even for the non-dancers, this seems to be true. Though DeFrantz, in Dancing Revelations, describes in detail the televised version of Alvin Ailey’s classic ballet, Revelations, I feel fairly confident in saying that dance – at the very least, this kind of dance – is most often experienced live. Unlike with jazz records or hip hop mp3s, which, while certainly distinct from live musical performance, may nonetheless permeate people’s homes and spaces in their own way, few people really watch – or do! – dance away from the bodies who dance it. Thus, as can be seen when Jonathan Holloway writes about going to see Revelations as a standard part of black middle class life, there is a different dynamic with dance, both of production and consumption. When experiencing dance, it is actually necessary to share the physical space – both for the dancers and the audience – and this, while perhaps changing, and while by no means an answer to the many questions of appropriation and essentialism involved in race, bodies, and the living world of art and culture, may be a conduit to creating tangible communities, whatever their racial lines – places where alienation is harder to breed, and possibilities may take its place.

 

DeFrantz, Thomas. “Revelations 1962.” In Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture, 3-25. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Holloway, Jonathan S. “The Black Body as Archive of Memory.” In Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940, 67-101. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

technique, excellence, and what it means to embody

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2/18/15

 

My body is a quiet ecstasy.

 

I have just left the third of our three-hour rehearsals of Blues Suite. Of House of The Rising Sun, to be more exact – Renee is setting it on us, and the though the expression is new to me, it now makes perfect sense.

 

At the beginning of this year, I could not have imagined my body doing the things it has just done. Sure, there is work to do. Sure, my attempts at following and Renee’s movements, her embodiment, are on an entirely different plane of existence. I probably cannot yet even perceive all the differences. But for once in my life – for one thing, in my busy, achievement-oriented Yale life – I am okay with this. I know there is work to do. I will do it, as best as I can. I look forward to it. But for once – how unlike me – I am also satisfied. 

 

It’s funny to think about, too, in relation to Ailey. Excellence, said Renee when she visited my African American arts course, today. “Excellence is contagious.” That’s what Ailey is, what it strives for – and of course, how could it not, as a black company in a white world of “high” art, especially in the 1960s? The necessity of being twice as good, of course. But, strangely enough, for me, this is the one space right now where I am freed from that. In the rest of my life, Excellence – Brilliance – has become a heavier and heavier weight. When I dance, somehow, that burden is lifted. Oh, I am working hard. But the angst is absent. The striving is a joy.

 

Perhaps this is because I have never “really” danced before. Never seriously, I mean – another loaded word. Unlike maybe everyone else in this group, I have no classical training. No ballet – except for some stretch of months at 4 years old. When Renee says “arabesque,” I think of 1000 stories, on 1000 nights – but I don’t know if the leg is bent or straight. There were some Jazz classes, in middle school. A smattering of hip hop, afro-Brazilian, across coasts and grades and continents. Capoeira, if that counts. Aikido, a 10-year habit. And of course I have always moved.

 

But I never imagined my body doing these things. Even two weeks ago, when she began to show us Blues Suite – there seemed to be no way. No one had shaped me, given me ballerina bones to lift my leg like that.

 

Now, two weeks later, as things begin to work – no matter how imperfect, how far off – I cannot contain my joy.

 

And of course it has been longer, it has been weeks and weeks of Renee’s hands on our legs as we lay on the floor, as we learned to find the space in our hips. 

 

But dance, unlike everything else, has never been a striving, never an existential competition. It is something about embodiment, I think. However alienated I get from my body, dance does not work like that. I cannot be alienated from my dancing.

 

I think there is something else there as well – perhaps something more.

 

 It was not just the impossibility of the technique that washed over me on that first day. On the first day, when Renee was to begin setting Blues Suite, she began with a story. House of the Rising Sun: Three prostitutes, a brothel. The older woman, resigned, a veteran of the trade. The middle woman, knowing it is probably too late, but still at that window. And the youngest, unbroken, ready to break something. Ready to tear off her skin.

 

 As she explained this story, she did not simply speak. Her shoulders fit to her silences – the curve of her neck spoke of the oldest woman’s weariness. I happened to be sitting in the front of the studio, right near her. When she spoke of the youngest girl, she held my eyes. You’re young, she said. Maybe you don’t really understand what goes on here. Maybe, the first time, they try to make it seem nice. It’s an occasion. You get to use the biggest bed.

 

 I was frozen. I forced my chest to soften.

 

Later, when Renee spoke at the symposium, and again, during class, I understood better. It is about telling a story, she said. She was told: the audience will forgive an off night, technically. But the audience will never forgive you if you don’t tell the story.

 

 I remember my aunt, a singer, giving me a tip: know what you are going to say when you take a breath.

 

She was telling us a story. The story is the impetus behind the motion.

 

 So I softened my chest. Being trapped, hope at the window, and hopelessness. Feeling dirty. No way to wash, or to leave. Loving and hating each other. The wild call of the passing train. Faced with this brothel, these women, I knew I needed to understand – if not exactly, then to come to it in my own way.

 

 And Renee, who can already dance this, embodied the story as she spoke.

 

 Perhaps dancing is mostly empathy.

 

 In any case, that may be part of the pleasure. I realized today that as I learned the steps, I also learned the feelings. As I learned the feelings, the steps came easier. When I felt how to reach with my leg, the opposition she always talks about, I learned something about hope. And the reaching became easier. As my spine curved to those signature Ailey contractions, as my energy turned both inwards and outwards, I learned something about a large kind of pain. Even if I cannot put it into words. And my shoulder came over properly. And maybe this is the joy, and the difficulty, and the pain. And the striving: the stakes are in the story. First to understand, and then to tell.

 

 Renee makes this intuitive. In class, she stands upright, light and sure as if she had giant wings, catching the air behind her. But she doesn’t. You must lead with this, she says, always. And lays her hand on her chest, near her heart.

 

Whose body, whose dance?

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It is amazing to watch choreography fracture outwards

 

Someone asked me today: when you dance, do you feel yourself dancing or do you feel the group? Do you feel your individuality or do you feel together?

 

I thought for a minute. It was a surprisingly difficult question. At first I wanted to say I felt nothing – there is a certain trance-like state about dancing, at least when it works. In the best moments, I am not a brain with a body – my brain is my body, and the thinking is already movement.

 

But who is thinking? Is it the choreographer, is it the dancer, is it an energy we make together, something about all of us moving in a room, in a space, through each other’s air?

 

When we are still building the material, Matthew will teach us a dance the way a dance class is run, everyone in lines, learning the steps, everyone together because they are the same – even though we are not. When we do the same thing it is nonetheless not the same. Sometimes I remember to look in the mirror, or watch the others when we split into groups. Everyone wears the movement differently. I am usually surprised. It is like a word variably pronounced, everyone making new possibilities out of the letters. But movement is more slippery than words, and if you stretch these vowels the meaning changes in shades. On the other hand, sometimes we all say the same thing another way. It is about what has already passed through our bodies, what has been left behind. It is about meaning that sticks to gestures, like words are the sum of the sentences we have heard them in.

 

But if this is an attempt at unity that is obstinately diverse, what is interesting about working with Matthew is that he manages to create the opposite. When we move from making material to creating the piece, he breaks apart the lines. He breaks apart the steps. Matthew fractures his choreography, distributes what was on one body onto many, sometimes many at once. While in the lines we were together because we were the same, now we are together because the dance, that of a single body (many single bodies), somehow still remains one. We are running the same narrative in different times. We each take a piece of the line, and make it our own. And hand it off, speak to each other, finish each other’s sentences. Even as when we dance as a collective we are nonetheless individuals, here individuality is rendered collective. We have our own moment to tell – but our bodies share the burden – and the joy – of something larger, a communal tale: a whole now many parts, that does not cease to be a whole. 

–LBT