drawing dance


            I spent some time trying to draw dancers last semester, and since the drawing dance seems relevant to Trisha’s work and our experience dancing in the art gallery, I’d like to explore this idea further. Trisha drew body parts, patterns to represent dance movements, and she even drew with her feet—a sort of dance in itself. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of drawing dance, and I seem to be in good company. Many visual artists depict dance, from Degas to Warhol.  Recently however, I’ve I started to wonder—why dance? What makes drawing dance different from drawing other things?

            Dance involves three-dimensional space, sound (even if there is no music—the sound of breath and footsteps) and passing time—things that a drawing (two-dimensional, silent, unchanging) cannot reasonably be expected to express. Yet artists try to draw dance anyway. Maybe they’re drawn by the challenge of attaining the unattainable.

            Or perhaps there is something to be gained not just from striving for the impossible (accurately drawing dance) but from simplifying the impossible into something that can be drawn. Dance overpowers us with sensory experience, but drawing dance could allow us to appreciate specific aspects of dance. Freezing the movement could emphasize a dancer’s lines or the way her muscles stand out. Drawing multiple movements at once could reveal patterns in the choreography that are harder to see in real time and space. In Trisha’s drawings, patterns of movement across the floor suddenly become clearer in drawings that look like fractals or Celtic knots. This abstracts the movement from the physical body, but simplifies it by showing the path as a line.

            One day I brought my sketchpad to our YDT rehearsal and tried to draw the dancers doing Trisha’s choreography. Any kind of dance is difficult to capture because dancers don’t usually stay still for long, but I think I had more trouble capturing Trisha’s movement than I would have with ballet, since ballet follows a vocabulary of (to me) familiar positions. I was forced to observe more closely, since I couldn’t rely on preconceived ideas of what an ideal attitude, jeté, etc. should look like. Sometimes I still tried to capture poses. Sometimes I  just let my pencil follow the dancer’s lines and movement paths without holding on to specific shapes. This gave me a page of scribbles, but maybe those scribbles were a good representation of the movement…?

            As a dancer, I have the added possibility of combining what I see with what I remember. When I brought my sketchbook to a YDT rehearsal, I drew from a combination of observation, visual memory and muscle memory. Although I couldn’t rely on my familiarity with ballet to sketch positions, if I could  imagine or remember my own body in the position of the dancer, I found her easier to draw.


we were watercolor.


            It felt strange to dance in the art gallery alongside art that had remained still for many years, and would remain still for years to come. As a dancer, I felt more conscious of how alive I was, and how much my body moved. I felt like both a collaborator (fitting myself into the art on display, adding a new idea to the space) and a foreigner to the museum (I was new to being a piece of art: I was just visiting, just trying it out, unlike the sculptures who resided there permanently).

            A crowd gathered around us as we performed “Accumulation” below a Rothko painting. I wondered what drew them to us, when there were so many other things to look at in the museum. Why watch the dancers instead of sculptures? I think movement arrests the viewer’s attention in a different way. If you glance away from a painting or sculpture, it will still be there when you look back. But if you glance away from dance, you’ll miss something. Dancers are alive, and each second gives different information. I suppose you could have a similar experience of discovery when studying a painting, but while the discovery might take time, the discovery would not be bound to specific time, as it is with dance…so the audience watched us dance, even though we were surrounded by static masterpieces.

            Here is another way I’ve been thinking about the art gallery: placing Trisha’s choreography at the art gallery sets her alongside Rothko and ancient sculptors. But where does it place her dancers? It aligns us with stone, or paint. We are the materials that the artist molds. Using humans as your paint seems like a big risk. Humans don’t dry like paint on canvas, or hold  shape like stone sculptures. We forget, smile, stumble, and think for ourselves. Dance is a collaboration. If dancers really were paint, we would be some magical brand of self-propelling, never-drying watercolor on a wet surface—sometimes moving where the artist wants us to, sometimes getting mixed up, changing shape or color, creating something new.

heading in the right direction


            A lot of posts so far have been about the mental experience of learning Trisha Brown’s choreography. While I agree that this is important, I’ve been having some enlightening experiences that have (arguably) less to do with what goes on inside the head, and more to do with the physical head itself. Many of the corrections Irène has given me have come as slight touches to my back and neck as I lean over: gentle reminders to let my head go. I’m usually surprised to realize that although my body feels completely drooped over, tension remains in my neck, clamping my head tightly in place.

            Last Saturday during warm-up, we practiced walking around the room, then suddenly letting our heads drop down. Our bodies followed hot on the heels of our heads (…?) as we melted to a crouch, then buckled sideways and trailed smoothly to the ground, still chasing our heads. In that exercise, I felt my head’s weight in a new way.

            Although I struggle with the concept, when I do manage to loosen my neck and free my head, Trisha’s choreography feels better. For example, a sequence near the beginning of one phrase (arabesque, twist, throw right hand to left foot, sweep left hand, lift right foot, sweep left hand…) feels much more fluid and natural if I can let my head go with the rest of my body.

            My favorite application of the gravity/head relationship was introduced two weeks ago when Nick and Iréne explained how to fall backwards from our two feet to our bottoms without bending our knees.  The single most useful piece of advice about this potential plop was to drop our heads down towards our laps as we fell. This sounds counterintuitive—how can dropping our heads  prevent us from falling down hard? I’m still not exactly sure, but somehow it works. Falling down becomes this magical moment; I try something that seems risky and counterintuitive, but it turns out well every time.

            The best parallel I can think of is the feeling of doing a “back line-up” in diving: if you lean backwards off of a three-meter diving board while staying stiff like a board, although you’ll feel helpless in free fall, you will inevitably rotate just enough to land cleanly, head-first in the pool below. Like leaning backwards off a high diving board, Trisha’s head-drop and fall from standing to sitting is delightfully and surprisingly painless.

            I’m going to  try to be more conscious of my head from now on. My default is to hold on tight, but I know that sometimes I need to let my head fall in Trisha’s choreography; when I do, the movement feels better. Perhaps, after all, this has as much to do with what goes on inside my head as it does with my head’s physical weight. Holding on is easy; for now, dropping my head requires more thought.

writing movement–an experiment


            Walk forward. Stay in plié.

            Roll right shoulder back.

            Keep walking. Keep the plié.

            Left shoulder back.

            Stage light changes you. You feel its warmth on your cheekbones and raise your chin to meet it, half-conscious of a ballet teacher’s instructions to lift your face to the last balcony, although there is no balcony here.

            Reach both arms up, straight.

            Feel the tension in your shoulders, caught between your floating arms and the downward pull of your center. Your back and arm muscles feel wrapped, tight, holding your humeri in their sockets.

            Stay in plié.

            Keep walking.

            Bend right elbow down to right hip, palm up.

            There is Nothing in your right hand. Look down at it. After all, you control the audience/dancer stare-down. They will look where you look.

            Reach both arms forward, straight. Let your eyes follow your fingers.

            Remember: Plié. Walk.

            Turn out both arms. Both elbows elbow both hips.

            Right arm straight up.

            Look left.

            Walking still. Still in plié.

            Step out with right foot. Close left to parallel, facing the right downstage corner. You’ve stopped. This feels different. Awkward, legs pressing together, knees bent. Reach both arms forward, straight, but this time, press your palms together. Your arms form a V with the point extending from your core. Your upper back and shoulders tighten again to hold your arms in place.

            Break out! Croise. Right leg bent front, forced arch. Right arm curved, up and front. Look audience. You’re moving again: big movements now, and faster.

Battement left side, don’t turn out. Bend chest over, like a bird. Shoulders up, arms, wings.


            Is it possible to write dance steps in a way that captures the details of the movement but is still engaging to read? I don’t think I was especially successful here. What bothers me is the discrepancy between the timing of my words and the timing of the choreography. My writing caught thoughts and directions, but lost the rhythm of the dance.

            Perhaps losing time is inevitable. Movements that occur simultaneously in space separate into multiple words on paper. Reading these words, we assemble every split-second slowly, like a puzzle whose pieces are limbs, facings, torsos, speeds, levels, expressions, orientations, thoughts, etc.

            The dance was not meant to be experienced as disjointed puzzle pieces; translation from movement to words robs even simple steps of their sparkle. Perhaps just hinting at the steps would be truer to the choreography. Should I have called the whole sequence “a series of flowing movements” and left it at that? Or just summarized it as “post-African neo-hoodoo modern dance”? The reader would have imagined something—probably something completely unlike the actual steps—but the timing and emotional quality of that description may have been closer to the feel of the choreography. I think that when writing movement, we face a trade-off between the loyalty to the dance’s flow (timing, emotion) and loyalty to details of physical movement. 

overanalyzing underanalysis


            A few weeks ago, Reggie and Emily had a polite disagreement about the relationship between writing and dance. Emily argued that two forms of expression fit together perfectly while Reggie argued that writing has a necessary place, but can also push us too far into our own heads and reduce our ability to actually dance.

            My first impulse is to agree with Emily. I have ideas about dance, but I often don’t fully formulate them until I write them down. Writing helps me to discover my thoughts, and express them with a clarity that I often struggle to achieve when I speak on the spot. I don’t think that writing about dancing hinders my dancing. However I think that some of the ways I (we?) think about dance really are problematic, and that in connecting them to our writing process, Reggie draws attention to difference between the way we are used to learning in classes, and the way we must learn Reggie’s choreography.

            As Reggie mentions almost every rehearsal, we need to do the steps with our bodies, not to think them with our minds. He connects writing to overthinking, or not being present in the body, and since I know I am guilty of “thinking” the steps some of the time, perhaps I should not argue against Reggie’s semi-condemnation of writing. Still, writing seems separate; I am not composing paragraphs as I dance. I believe that I overthink not because I write, but because many of the movements feel so strange to me that my mind becomes the loudest thing going on in my body. (“Did he really want this leg turned in?” “How does he kaflop in such a natural-looking way—does my kaflop look like that?” “Help! What step is next?”) I have noticed that as I become more comfortable with the sequence of steps, I think slightly less, so maybe not-overanalyzing just requires familiarity and practice.

            So while I don’t agree that writing causes our thinking problem, I agree that the thinking problem is there, and that Reggie has an important point about how much we (as Yale students) rely on analysis and language when we learn. We use a lot of words.

            “What quality is this movement supposed to have? Is it sharp? Smooth?”

            “Just watch.”

            “Can I ask another question?”


            Reggie is right—words can be superfluous. He wants us to realize that physical movement has the information in it that we need. But this reality is hard to accept. Yalies exist in a blizzard of words (our professors and classmates’ words, our own words, textbooks, papers, computer screens—words words words everywhere). Words are how we have learned to learn. We are used to articulating our confusion through language, so we struggle to separate the confusing aspect from the rest of the movement without the focus of words. I think that this reliance on words (and the over-analysis which can accompany it) are what Reggie notices when he worries that writing gets in our way as dancers. So while I don’t agree that writing itself is the problem, I agree that we should notice that Reggie’s (non)language is different from what we are used to, and work to approach it in a different way.

sentiment and the serengeti: what should we feel?


Every time we sit down to chat with Meg, Jen or Neil, one of us asks about emotion. Our first question was straightforward: what should we be feeling? Later, we phrased it as a personal question (what did you feel when you danced this?) and then as a question about Cunningham (what did Merce want you to feel?).

The answers that Jen, Meg and Neil gave were thoughtful and honest, but never definitive. So we kept wondering. The emotion-questions lengthened as we tried to distinguish them from what we had already asked. “Such-and-such section of the dance seems very powerful. Isn’t there any kind of story behind it?” or, “How do you think the dancer’s experience of this piece differs from the audience’s?” They were good questions, but they all restated the same concern. We wanted to know how emotion interacted with Cunningham technique.

Cunningham’s non-answer was something new. Until I met Jen, Meg and Neil, my dance teachers all provided clear instruction about emotion. It could be anything from “just look pleasant,” to “get rid of those zombie ballerina faces!” but it was usually pretty straightforward.

Even without a teacher’s input, most of my dancing peers cared about defining emotion. During post-dress-rehearsal notes in my student-run dance group, the same comment surfaced again and again: “good, but work on the emotion.” Facial expressions often became part of the choreography. The story was integral to the steps.

That’s why we keep asking about emotion.  Cunningham’s ambiguousness baffles us. It contradicts what we think we know about dance. But we can only rephrase our question so many times. Besides, Yalies like to overthink things. We ask more questions during dance class than any group I’ve ever met. What happens when we just dance?

I’ve noticed that some steps subtly speak (feel?) for themselves. The up-up-downs with their direction-changes and choppy coupés are perky and light: I imagine twitching rabbits. And staying stiff while being slowly lowered and raised by a single hand against my neck has a grave, chilling quality. In contrast, flopping from foot to foot with one leg in attitude à la seconde channels pure silliness: cross a child’s summer hopscotch game with a balletic frog.

In response to last week’s version of the emotion question, Meg compared Cunningham’s dancers to animals migrating across the Serengeti plains. For me, the image resonated. It isn’t an answer. While it gives a vague sense of story, it doesn’t tell us what to feel. But the analogy fits. I imagine watching the herds from high above. Perhaps one animal feels edgy, another hungry, another calm. But my outstretched hand can hide a whole herd of wildebeest or zebras. I am much too far away to tell their emotions. Instead, I feel the way they move on the plains, resting, darting, gliding.

poetry, not melody


After years of ballet class accompanied by piano, I think of music as an integral part of dance. Music keeps time, pushing us to move faster or challenging us to slow down. It coaxes us out of our exhaustion, concealing footsteps and heavy breathing. Most of all, the melody adds something—character? conviction?—to our steps.

In Cunningham class, we’ve been dancing without accompaniment. Although I miss the melody, in silence I become more aware of dancers in the space around me. I’ve started to notice the subtle sounds of footfalls, exhalations and arms swishing through the air.

I’ve also begun to internalize the choreography differently. In the absence of music, I find myself memorizing the sound of my own footsteps. It is a new way of experiencing the motions for me, but it seems to work; hours after our first Cunningham class, my mind was still pulsing with choreography and I couldn’t sleep.

Earlier this week, I was reading sonnets for an English class and it occurred to me that the rhythms of Roaratorio translate into a sort of wordless poem. Just for fun, I thought through how our choreography would scan as poetic feet. The section of fives (ONE two THREE four five, ONE two THREE four five) becomes a falling meter—trochee, dactyl, trochee, dactyl. It feels like classical Greek poetry. The walks in the opening duet become “spondee, anapest, spondee, anapest.” The section of threes (step step coupe, step step coupe…) is a line of anapestic feet: weak-weak-strong, weak-weak-strong. Sometimes the emphasis changes to hop step step: a dactylic substitution. Of all our choreography, the rising meter of this sequence is most like the galloping iambic meter of a sonnet. When I think about the steps as poetry, the rhythm takes on its own character.

I’ll be thrilled when we finally have our pianist, but this auditory isolation has been enlightening. When music plays, the melody sweeps me away. Without music, I notice the movement of dancers around me and internalize the beat of my own steps. I recognize that that dance’s rhythmic skeleton is alive.