Keep looking!

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I might be misremembering this, but I think that in the movie “Pina” at some point a former member of Tanztheater Wuppertal recalls that Pina Bausch once told him or her to “keep looking” for what the piece or movement was about, for the meaning of the dance, or something along those lines.

The idea underlying those words is simple and elusive at the same time. It’s the same idea that we find in Merce’s[1] quote on Nancy Dalva’s website The Informal Formalist: “keep looking”.

To my non-native English speaker’s ears, the words can be interpreted in two, mutually compatible, ways: keep searching, on the one hand, and keep watching, on the other. This might be wrong, and I thought about asking a native speaker for confirmation, but then I thought: if Heidegger can invent etymologies and get away with it, can’t I keep my supposed ambiguities and write about them? Well, of course, I am not Heidegger, and I might not get away with it, but I’ll give it a try anyway.

One can search in many ways. Using your eyes is one important way. Eyes are the organ of perception par excellence, the means for our primary way of interacting with the world. Dance as an artistic form is something to watch. We could spend many, many hours talking about the role of the gaze in dance: the gaze of the audience, the gaze of the dancers, the relationship between the two. So one obvious way for a dancer, or an audience member, to keep searching for what’s to be found in a dance, is to look with one’s eyes.

But it’s not the only way. After all, you can stare at a landscape, a painting, a beloved face, or a sequence of movements as long as you want, but you might not see what is there to be seen. We have many more organs of perception, including our brain and our heart.

Why splitting the mind in two cheesy metaphors[2], you might ask? The answer is fairly obvious, but maybe less obvious, or less universally shared, is the constant struggle that I experience in reconciling the different searches for meaning that the emotional, the intellectual (and the visceral) parts of me embark on. I am a philosopher and a dancer. I approach dance, such a physical, necessarily embodied enterprise, from a conceptual point of view. When I started choreographing, my dances were primarily concepts, concepts that I found in my dancers’ bodies. I am realizing as I write that my way of choreographing is the way Socrates does philosophy (absolutely no comparison in philosophical value intended!!!): as a midwife. I maieutically extract from my dancers what I want them to say with their bodies, helping them to give birth to a dance that is mine and theirs at the same time. For a long time I felt this was a bit like cheating, not genuine choreographing, and evidence for my lack of creative talent. But I am finally starting to set aside narcissistic self-doubts and questions about talent, and recognize that this is a legitimate way of choreographing, because it is the way a philosopher choreographs, or, more importantly, the way I choreograph, the way I can “keep looking”. I keep looking into other people’s bodies for my meaning and I try to bring it out.

But there is another way in which I see myself as following the dictum of two choreographers as different as Pina and Merce. I keep looking into my own body for the meaning that someone else intended. (Or for the lack of meaning. Or for the impossibly thin line between meaning and lack of meaning, which I think is what is to be found in most of Merce’s dances)

For every dance I learn, I keep looking into my body (and my body includes my mind, and my mind is my body) for what is to be found. In Merce’s case, I keep looking for the ever elusive lower back curve; for the perfect circle of plies and tilts and uniquely Jennifer-esque bounciness that starts “my” jig in Roaratorio; for the sharp and lighthearted precision of the up-up-downs; for the hypnotic smoothness of the slow crossings and of the Pond Way sequence; and for every step that I performed on Friday afternoon there is a never-ending list of discoveries to be made, of little sparkling treasures to be found.

It makes me sad that I have to stop looking for them, at least momentarily. But it’s also a relief brought to me by life, with its limited resources and other necessities, because never-ending quests are exhausting and terrifying.

And of course art just is life on a illuminated, elevated stage, and life itself is an exhausting and terrifying never-ending quest. But thankfully there are moments of enclosed rapture like those in the Payne Whitney gym on Friday night, when we dance to our own, collectively established, rhythm, and we hear each other breathing, and we feel each other’s protective gaze, and we look up and we hear the music for the first time, and we are just finitely, infinitely, happy.

 

 

 


[1]    I say “Merce” hesitantly, given that I never met him, but after Friday night I cannot help but feeling part of the Cunningham’s family, presumptuously but unavoidably.

[2]    And it should really be three: we shouldn’t forget about the guts, our primitive brain.

From Canfield to Pond Way, it’s a demanding, fascinating journey

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These are the dances from which Jen derived excerpts for our MinEvent:

Pond Way 1998
Roaratorio 1983
Numbers 1982
Canfield 1969

Of Numbers we don’t know much: we have done only a solo (that was originally made for Neil Greenberg, I think). It’s a solo that I enjoy doing a lot. It feels somewhat more natural and easy than other things we have done: it’s fluid and intuitive in a way that no other sequence we have done is (except maybe for the slow crossing, which—I realize now—I don’t know where it comes from).

Similarly to its “decade-neighbor” Roaratorio, the Numbers solo is quite light-hearted, but it is less idiosyncratic, somewhat more traditional than Roaratorio.

Canfield seems to allow the dancers to be more free and experiment with their choices. From the little evidence I have, Canfield is really different from the thirty-year older Pond Way, which seems more impressionistic and less playful, more organic and less geometrical. Pond Way is certainly more structured and fixed than other pieces we dance, as Cece observed.

There are still some choices that can be made, however, even in Canfield: we can choose where to positions ourselves, when to start, how fast to go, and where to exit. It’s interesting that I have always thought of Cunningham’s choreography as extremely rigid, and now I realize that even in what seems completely fixed there are small niches of freedom and flexibility.

Overall, I find very hard to compare such short pieces of these dances. It seems easy to misread the dances. If I had watched only the MinEvent and tried to guess what goes with what, what pieces are part of the same dance, I don’t think I would have guessed. Maybe I would have put the “Benders” together with Pond Way, for instance, given that the slow parts in Roaratorio are unexpected and so different from the faster jigs.

A slightly different way to put the same thought is that even such a small collection of Cunningham’s works is enough to reveal the variety of choreographic inventions and solutions that are present in his work.

The experience of learning and rehearsing them, however, has been incredibly uniform. No matter which piece it is, I hear in my mind the counting, the sound of the dancers’ feet and breath, the internal rhythm that by now we have all internalized. The fact of learning them all without music is a powerful unifying factor. Furthermore, all the pieces are so complex, their choreography is intricate even when it appears simple! The steps are far from being spontaneous or natural, and yet, with a few exceptions, I have, we have all, “become those steps”, as Meg put it more than once. The level of focus required by Cunningham’s dancing is such that we can never, ever, afford to go on automatic mode. Even if we may appear a little like automatons at times because the mental effort leaves our faces blank, inside we are constantly paying attention to what our bodies are doing. There is not one sequence that is not mentally demanding for me, even the sequences that my muscles have memorized. It’s really fascinating how the fact that the body can go on its own does not let the mind free to wander. I am not sure whether this is a sign that I am not a professional dancer, or that I have not fully internalized the steps, or is rather evidence of the intellectual demand that a Cunningham piece poses on a dancer.

But I am slowly slipping into the next post’s topic, so I’ll stop here.

Addendum on the question “When is a dance the same dance?”

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Now, really. This is embarrassing. While trying to answer the question “when is a dance the same dance?” I talked at length of many things: different bodies, different ways of impersonating a character, music, etc. And I didn’t think of chance!!!

The use of chance brings in the potential for disruption and uncontrolled variety that improvisation has. And in some ways it is a form of improvisation itself. A while ago Neil distinguished between two ways in which chance is involved in Cunningham’s choreography.

One is during the creative process. He rolled a coin and the outcome affected the choreography. But the dancers weren’t always made a part of that, and anyway after that decisional process the steps were fixed. That use of chance does not seem relevant to my question.

But the second method is relevant: chance can be used by the dancers themselves, as in Canfield: dancers have the choice to perform a sequence of jumps at different times, from different corners, and they can stop at different moments in the phrase. Another “game” (in the “shoulder pop”) involves choosing a different order of six combinations of steps. In both cases, dancers have specific rules to follow, but also lots of choices. There are infinite combinations possible. In an important sense, every time the work is performed, it’s not the same work! But of course in a sense it is, answers the little voice in my head… The rules stay the same. The constraints are (part of) what makes the dance the same dance.

Impressions from coming back

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What comes immediately to my mind when thinking of today’s rehearsal is the pleasure of fatigue (Note: this was written on Wednesday 21st). After three weeks without dancing, the physical movement of the barre that Meg gave, which felt unusually difficult to perform, just felt good. The sweat, the heat coming from my body, at some point so unbearable that I had to splash cold water on my face to cool down—something I very rarely do—felt so good.

But there was also the pleasure of finding the choreography, as an old friend I had not seen in a while. And the corresponding pleasure of finding old friends in the choreography, as when I grabbed Aren’s hand in the “fives” and remembered “Ah, that’s what it feels like to find you here!”

In the same way as Meg found herself comfortably teaching a Cunningham technique class again, maybe to her own surprise, I felt comfortable coming back to class and rehearsal, notwithstanding and maybe also in virtue of the physical fatigue.

When is a dance the same dance? (part 1)

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As promised, I’d like to think more about the question: “What does it mean if it can be either way? Is it the same dance? What do those points of uncertainty or debate do? When is it no longer that dance?”

I want to focus on Roaratorio in particular, or more precisely, on the parts of Roaratorio that we learned.

The dance is pretty structured. There is no improvisation. The only time, as far as I can remember, when Jennifer replied “it doesn’t matter” to a question of ours about a detail of the choreo was about the “up-up-downs”. We asked where the coupe was, if side, back or front, and she said she thought it doesn’t matter, whatever comes natural. There might have been other times, but if they were, they are likely to have involved as minute a detail as this (well, of course, the minute detail of a choreographer might be the hugely important feature of another one, but you know what I mean: “minute” from the perspective of the choreographer in question with respect to a specific dance).

Overall, we are given quite specific instructions, except for quality, as I mentioned last week. We are sometimes told about a general emotional tone: going back to the up-up-downs, we know that those can, should, be pretty cheerful in character. The same holds from some other parts, and actually Jennifer said the whole Roaratorio is an overall happy dance, being Cunningham’s take on Irish folk dance.

(Cheerfulness, and in general any comment about emotional tone in Cunningham—Jennifer remarked last Wednesday—does not imply making big smiles or expressing emotions as externally as in ballet. I’ll come back to this point in a little bit.)

Having some kind of instructions about emotions does affect the quality of the movement, of course. So in a way we do have some indirect instructions about quality.

But then it seems there is not much space left for variations, and hence it seems that Roaratorio isn’t the best case study for the question I want to answer.

And yet any dance, actually any piece of performative art, is a good case study for this question. Assume there was no variation whatsoever in the instructions. Assume that every detail about where the coupes are, about the shape of the arms, about emotions and qualities, everything were fixed.

It would still be different people, different bodies, making them.

This is the simplest discovery and yet maybe the single most powerful discovery I have made since starting to dance at Yale and thinking about post-modern dance.

Flash news: bodies are different! Take the same shape, the same tempo, the same music, try to hold every variable fixed, and you’ll have something different! Gasp.

You see this simple fact explicitly exploited by post-modern dance: think again of Yvonne Rainer’s use of differently trained (and shaped) bodies to perform a dance that is otherwise fixed in choreography (up to the most minute detail) and quality (tempo is let to the dancer to decide).

But of course this holds for any kind of dance, ballet and Cunningham included. Bodies are always unavoidably different. What differs is the attitude one takes toward this fact. You can react by trying to select your dancers so that they are most resembling in appearances and skills, as in a corps de ballet. Or you can rejoice in the difference and use it as a creative tool, as Pina Bausch among others seems to have done (I am cautious because I don’t know her work beyond what I saw in “Pina”).

At the very beginning of our technique classes Jennifer explained what a low-back curve was supposed to look, and then added: but every body is different, so for some people it’s not going to curve as much. I was so excited to hear it!! My lower back fiercely resist to curve that way (all backs naturally curve the others, but mine particularly so, and I suspect there is also a sex difference, that I think also Jennifer mentioned when she said that the technique was created by a man) and I have felt so reassured by hearing a prominent Cunningham dancer say that her own back resists curving that way.

But aside from personal reassurance, this plain fact about bodies affects the ontological question I’m interested in. If bodies differ, and they do, then in a sense no dance is the same dance, ever.

There is a trivial sense in which a dance is never the same: even the very same body will do something slightly different every time it performs the steps (also because sometimes it can feel differently, as Jennifer was saying when talking of her different expressions of the same dance). But what I am thinking of is the same choreography performed by different ensembles. The fact that these are different people, differently shaped and abled bodies, seems to determine a change in the dance in a non-trivial sense.

So is Roaratorio performed by us different from Roaratorio performed by the company with Jennifer last year, or different from Roaratorio performed by the company with Meg? Is it still the same dance? Hoping the tension won’t kill you, I’ll answer this question next time…

On space, spatial manipulation and quality

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A couple weeks ago I, together with a few of other YDTers, took a workshop with the director of the José Limón school (Alan Danielson). He is an amazing teacher, and the workshop was fun and formative. At some point he said: the quality of the movement will result from the space you have to travel and the time in which you have to do it (or something along those lines). I immediately looked at either Derek or Aren (sorry, don’t remember who!) with a glance of recognition. It was the very same concept that Neil (Greenberg) was talking about in relation to what Cunningham said!!

Now, if you know Limón, you know how different the two techniques are. Radically different, in both how they look and feel. And yet you find the same way of deriving quality! And this methodological fact has interesting implications. In both cases, the process is as important as the final result, as what appears to the spectator. In both cases, different bodies will perform the same steps in very different ways: if the quality of movement is not prescribed as an external, top-down requirement, but is derived bottom-up, from one’s own peculiar and internal implementation, then we might have interesting differences. Shorter dancers will be sharper than taller people when asked to move fast, even when doing the same movements. Taller dancers in turn will look more fluid than shorter people when asked to cover longer distances in a short time. Well, maybe these are not accurate predictions, especially given how many more features factor in one’s bodily movements, but you get what I mean.

This brings me to another question that I found interesting:

What does it mean if it can be either way? Is it the same dance? What do those points of uncertainty or debate do? When is it no longer that dance?

Compared to other choreographic works that I have learned, Cunningham is quite structured. Even if some variations are occasionally allowed, most steps and movements are fixed. Last year, within a Yale college course, together with Amymarie, Juliette, and Aren, I studied and performed Trio A (by Yvonne Rainer) and Torelli (by Twyla Tharp). In those pieces there can be a lot of individual variation. In Trio A, performers can adopt their own tempo (provided that the quality is the same! Which now I start thinking as a necessity: if you hold fixed quality, then you need to allow differently-trained bodies to take liberty elsewhere) and often different dancers vary in experience and technique and so their execution of the steps can be pretty different. In Torelli, there is a long section of improvisation, in which the dancers manipulate the same sequence. There too dancers will come up with radically different solutions. And yet, I would say that the dance, the work of art, is the same, and it would be the same even if it was entirely improvised. One reason to think this comes from the instructions that are given to the performer.

This is not even close to a sketch of a comment on this huge question, so I think I’ll come back to this next week.

my own music

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I am comfortable dancing without music. It allows me to go with my internal rhythm, my breath (when I remember to breath…), my own kind of movement, what feels good to my body. It’s a liberating experience as a dancer, especially after it stops being so frightening. But my own rhythm is regular, my pace is slow, my movements spontaneous. I am very bad at rhythms that are not regular. I grew up as a ballet dancer, where the most adventurous tempo was a waltz. (Note: I am completely ignorant about music terminology, and I might be mixing up things like tempo and rhythm). When using XX century music, my dance teacher would choreograph independently from the music, in a way that was aesthetically interesting, but not rhythmically challenging. The first time I verified my difficulty with unusual rhythms was in flamenco, where, like in some postmodern dance, dancer’s bodies make music (in addition to musicians and singers).

When attempting to follow Jennifer’s and Meg’s instructions, the hardest part is not just remembering the steps, or keeping in mind directions, or executing them cleanly (well, that too). But doing all of these while counting on 5, or quickly changing from “on the beat” to “off the beat”, or accentuating some counts over others.

The absence of music makes working on different rhythms at the same time more and less challenging. It is more challenging because music can alleviate the cognitive load, providing a perceptual support: I can just “go with the music”. But if the rhythm in the music is difficult to grasp, then there is a further challenge to face. So sometimes not having music is less challenging. Absence of music also allows one to focus on internal counts, on being present to one’s body’s rhythm and to that of the other dancers around. Dancing with others in silence is always an exhilarating experience, that requires much more attention than when dancing in music.