to see with two eyes

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“Keep your eyes open.”

“Take in information from the room.”

In a Gaga class—especially if it’s your first class—the immediate instinct is to close your eyes.

“Float. Feel water around your flesh. Let it lift your bones.”

“Open the doors in your joints.”

“Feel the movement echo in your body from far away engines.”

To see the image in the mind’s eye, to translate it into the body’s physicality, is a difficult undertaking. Especially if the prompts are new—unfamiliar to the body and strange to the imagination—your mind wants complete focus. To reduce distraction, you let your eyes close softly. This after all, is a time for introspection, for individual research, for discovery.

“Keep your eyes open.”

 Dammit.

Though the impulse is understandable, to close your eyes is one of the (very) few no-no’s in a Gaga class (add to the list, no mirrors, no late-arrivals, and no stopping, and that pretty much covers it). While you grapple with continuously changing prompts (not to mention the layering of prompts), Gaga instruction encourages you to STAY HUMAN. Yes, the language of Gaga asks that you continuously see with the mind’s eye—see your seaweed spine, see balls in your joints, see the thread that connects one arm to other, traveling through the chest—but at the same time, the rules of a Gaga class ask that you continue to see what’s right in front of you, with your very normal, very regular, anatomical eyes. Take in your surroundings. See the other moving bodies in the room; see what information they give you. Remain curious.

When I first delved into a Gaga practice, this simultaneous “double-sight” was the sensation I most struggled to internalize. My mind wanted to live in a world of pictures: imagine melting flesh; imagine balls circling throughout your body; imagine engines in every unit of your body and ignite them. Even with my eyes open, I failed to see beyond the pictures, beyond the bounds of my own body. Only when I watched my instructor demonstrate choreography did I begin to understand the difference. Although the choreography itself was not and could not be Gaga, Gaga was the practice that informed her movement and you could see it in her every step. But where I saw it was her eyes. She had this look that I couldn’t identify; something that made it impossible for me to look away. Only after many rehearsals did I realize what the look was: even while she danced (with all the aliveness of Gaga imagery: melting flesh, floating bones, multiple engines firing at once) she continued to see—the walls, the floor, the dancers—with curious eyes.

This is what a Gaga class asks of you: to see inwardly (the images that elicit multidimensional movement) and outwardly (the world which surrounds you) with equal attentiveness. Such a feat is nothing short of very impressive multitasking, but I believe that’s exactly what Gaga is after. In an interview in which he was asked to make a choice—choose one person you would like to be stuck in an elevator with—Ohad Naharin responds by saying, “Whenever you choose one thing, it’s always the wrong thing. We should always choose more than one. Like one idea, even if it’s the best idea, is a bad idea.”[1] Although this comes in answer to a rather light, silly question, I believe it speaks to an important ideology that can be seen everywhere in Gaga. As you move from floating to shaking to grooving, you’re asked to keep each of the prior ideas in play. Float while you shake; float and shake while you groove. Similarly, in the concept of bodily engines, you are encouraged, as you awaken more and more engines, to use as many as possible, all at once. Surprise yourself. MULTITASK. Choose more than one idea.

[1] Lewis, Kristin. “The Elusive Ohad Naharin: A Conversation with the Artistic Director of Bat Sheva Dance Company.” Dance Spirit Feb 2006: 103&125.

to receive and give; to sense

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“Cancel the box of your chest.”

We stand scattered around the room, eyes wide, collarbones reaching for the ceiling, threatening to escape our chests. The top half must strain, you see, to make room for the leg bellow, which wants to float outward and up.

“Cancel the box of your chest.”

Come back collarbones! Stop! Don’t pull away! Give in to the effort of that reaching, stretching, floating leg. Come back, be soft, and let the effort move you. Listen, and you will hear its echoes. Give in to the effort. Revel in it, even. Enjoy.

***

As dancers, we have a pesky little habit of dividing our body into parts: right arm; right leg; left arm; left leg; chest; core; butt; back; collar bone; neck; right foot; left foot; head. Even when the parts work simultaneously—right leg rises, left leg stands, head tilts ever-so-slightly upward, collarbones reach for the sky—they are worked as separate entities. Each part follows a separate command (lift; stand; tilt; reach).

The language of Gaga however, aims to disintegrate the barriers between parts. Throughout class, dancers are urged to consider “the thread of their arms,” “the rope of their legs,” their “seaweed spines.” One imagines a single thread that reaches from fingertip to fingertip, traveling through the chest; a single rope that reaches from one foot to the other, traveling through the pelvis; a fluid spine that will have nothing to do with boxed rigidity. When a body translates this imagery into its physicality, there can be no movement in the right arm that doesn’t affect the left—for they are of one thread; there can be no movement in the left leg that doesn’t implicate the right (as well as the pelvis in between)—for they are of one rope. To feel this sensation is to feel the connection between body parts, to feel the channels of the body open.

The channels of the body. This concept is key. In Gaga, the body is composed of a network of channels (the thread of the arms and the rope of the legs, connected by the seaweed spine). When open, these channels can carry movement, the memory of movement, and its echoes. When open, these channels can give movement or they can receive it. A rolling motion in the right ankle travels through the rope of the legs and up the seaweed spine, causing it to undulate. The undulating spine then sends a wave of movement through the thread of the arms, causing one arm to lengthen and the other to rise. Fingers splay and curl gently (and every-so slightly). Here, the right ankle “gives” movement and the fingers receive it (along with the rest of the body, the entirety of which partakes in the movement’s “journey”). But in a Gaga class, the body is constantly moving; in fact, this is one of the few rules of a Gaga class, that you never stop moving. So the channels of the body are constantly giving and receiving, often doing both at the same time. While one arm jerks and sends a wave of movement to the opposite foot, a knee bends and sends a shoot of energy through the pelvis. Simultaneously, a circular motion passes through the seaweed spine. At every moment, the channels of the body must be ready to give and receive, give and receive. Give movement and receive its echoes.

To allow for this “transfer” of movement however, one must be able to listen. If you command your chest to pull towards the sky—tensed and perfectly placed—while your right leg floats freely beneath you, the channels in your body break (the chest becomes a box and severs from the seaweed spine, which in fact becomes rigid and no longer responds to the movement of the pelvis) and information ceases to travel. You eliminate the possibility of hearing the legs’ movement echo in your chest. And in the lexicon of Gaga, this is a great loss. Reflecting on his love of moving, Ohad Naharin writes, “I’ve learned that listening to the body is a lot more meaningful than telling it what to do.”[1] More meaningful, he says. Perhaps this is a matter of movement potential. While a command to the body only allows for a certain range of motion (there are only so many ways you can tilt your head the right), listening to the body allows for limitless possibilities. A jolt in the leg can send a quiver through the spine, which radiates through the head and arms, moving you in ways you’d never expect. Maybe this capacity to surprise oneself makes listening more meaningful. Maybe the process of constant discovery and play gives the movement meaning. But there’s also more to this meaningfulness, I think, and it has everything to do with the ability to give and receive. In class, Saar has told us repeatedly to give and receive. Receive the floor, receive the room, receive information from your fellow dancers; give information to the floor, give yourself to the room, give information to your fellow dancers (be “generous” Saar once said). Give movement and receive its echoes. This constant giving and receiving creates an inherent multi-dimensionality in one’s movement. It creates a sensitivity in one’s body—so that you’re ready to receive at any given moment—as well as a readiness and availability to both move and be moved. This, I think, is what Naharin refers to when he talks about the meaningfulness of listening to one’s body. To listen is to be constantly sensitive, constantly available, ready to give and receive at a moment’s notice.

***

In a brief tirade against mirrors, Naharin discusses what the body should aim to do without the influence of soul-spoiling mirrors.[2] “To get to the real discoveries of [your] abilities and potential,” he says, “you must sense. It’s not feeling, it’s sensing.”[3] Clearly, the difference between feeling and sensing is imperative, and once again, I think it has everything to do with giving and receiving. To ‘feel’ is to experience a sensation (perhaps passively) with one aspect of your physicality; to ‘sense’ is to know a sensation with the full artillery of your person, to let it travel throughout the body, to let it ripple and echo unimpeded. To sense is to give and receive, to know the full engagement of your awareness and physicality.

[1] Naharin, Ohad. “why i choreograph.” Dance Magazine Oct 2013: 88.

[2] Ohad is quoted in various interviews saying, “the mirror spoils the soul.” Here, the quote is from: Lewis, Kristin. “The Elusive Ohad Naharin: A Conversation with the Artistic Director of Bat Sheva Dance Company.” Dance Spirit Feb 2006: 103&125.

[3] Lewis, 2006.

Unexpected Intersections

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Dance and language relate more than you think. They relate more than I thought.

Yale Dance Theater sings the gospel of a combined dance and writing practice. And it’s a good gospel to preach. Writing about dance augments a movement practice by allowing one to express more, access more, research more than dance alone would allow. Writing about dance allows us to process movement in a novel way. But language is relevant to dance beyond our writing about it. Language is found in the studio, when we transmit movement from one person to another; it’s found in articulations of “inspiration” and reflections on our experience.

The many metaphors:

When teaching movement, you can only rely so much on demonstration. We all see through different lenses. There are gaps between what see and what we can do. To fill that gap, Matthew and Renee gave us images.

You’re running through a field of flowers. Point at a distant star. Dance it like you’re a child, telling a halting story. In Matthew’s choreography, it mattered less that we did the movement identically and more that we owned the movement individually, making it belong on our unique bodies. So Matthew would demonstrate and explain his choreography, but never too much. When those means fell short, he gave us metaphors, shared images we could all see. These gave us access to the essence of the movement…because dance is much more than physical mechanics. You can turn and point without pointing to a star. You can stop in all the right places without having the energy of a child. The images Matthew gave us thus allowed us to dance his movement; they allowed each of us to tell a story in our individual way, through our bodily memories and imaginations.

Your body is a race car; don’t lose control of the wheel. You’re building a house; if the foundation is weak, the whole house falls down. You each have the key to access your bodies—use it. Renee is the body whisperer. Through regular floor-bar warm-ups and consistent, clear corrections, Renee helped us to know our bodies and control them. During a pause in class she would look one person in the eyes: “Your body is telling me to tell you…” she’d say, and proceed to give an instruction that that particular body was ready to hear. Renee understood the power of words. In any given moment, we need some words and not others; there are some we can hear and some we can’t. Renee knew what words our bodies needed in order to process them. Sometime those words were individual, meant for one person alone—these were our specific keys. Other times, those words were spread throughout the group—these were the images we could all use to visualize, understand, and maintain the progress we were all making.

Four words:

Beauty. Love. Diversity. Inheritance.

These were the four words that inspired Matthew’s choreography. These were the four words that inspired our writing. These were the words we discussed—sitting side by side in a tight circle, sharing stories and tears—to ground our work. All of these words shaped Matthew’s dance and gave it life.

A reflection:

Sometimes you just need one word to help you understand an experience.

Considering our four words, the first three were the most generative for me. I struggled with the idea of inheritance. When we had talked about it in a discussion with Matthew, we all turned introspective. I thought about my Mexican heritage—the one I take so much pride in, yet feel so disconnected from; the heritage no one can see. Others shared their stories—stories of foreignness, stories of belonging or wanting to belong, stories of uncertainty. This was the aspect of inheritance most apparent in our final work.

But there was also a broader manifestation of the idea, present throughout our entire process. While working with Matthew and Renee, we were inheriting their bodily memories of Ailey movement. They carried so much embodied knowledge with them and we became the lucky repositories. What a privilege. I didn’t recognize this process of inheritance at the time, but as we talked about our experience post-show in a Q&A, that’s when I began to see it.

At the beginning, we were all like sponges. Out of respect for Matthew and Renee and out of respect for the movement itself, we appropriated what we were taught unquestioningly. We tried to stay true to the movement as best we could, and in that sense, started to embody a whole new lexicon. This was one mode of inheritance—the initial one.

Then, as the rehearsal process progressed and we started inserting ourselves into the project more and more, the inheritance became one of ownership. Matthew and Renee had already passed on the movement and it was now our job to make it our own, make it true to our bodies, our experiences, our narratives. This is the process that made our performance what it was.

Finally, I began to see one last level of inheritance. From the beginning, Matthew and Renee seemed to see something in us that we couldn’t see in ourselves. As we worked with them over the course of the semester, I think they taught us how to see ourselves how they saw us. We inherited their eyes. And through those eyes, we saw our own beauty, individual and collective.

 

A source, a seed; an inspiration

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HERITAGE:

I’ve been thinking a lot about heritage—and what heritage I have the right to claim.

I was born with Mexican blood. Throughout my life, I’ve taken pride in that fact, as if I somehow earned it. I celebrate my Mexican butt; I brag that I tan—and never burn; I cherish my thick, dark hair, my big, brown eyes. But my right to be Mexican ends there: in blood. To inherit a culture, to inherit an identity, you need a point of access—and I was never given a key. My father, the bearer of my Mexican blood, actively disengaged from his Latino identity. Maybe it was a choice or maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps he too was deprived his point of entry into a culture he didn’t know…(I never asked). But if my father didn’t pass me the key, who would? Who could? 

Most people don’t see the tan, the butt, the hair, in which I take so much pride. They don’t see my roots, dug deep into the ground. They can’t see my heritage. 

DIVERSITY:

There’s a definition of diversity that calls “identity” its antonym. There are mathematical, philosophical ways to validate this claim. But I can’t support it. 

My identity is diverse. I am Mexican. I am Jewish. I am Eastern European. I am a dancer, a farmer, and a woman. I’m a four-year-old child, goofy, curious, and joyful as can be. I’m a daughter (to my mother) and a mother (to my friends). I’m an eighty-four-year-old woman, slow in my pace and woefully out of touch with current technology. I’m a performer and an introvert…yet also an extrovert. I’m a twelve-year-old boy, quick to laugh at fart jokes and anything about sex. I’m a talker, a listener, and a big-bellied laugher. 

I am all these things and more. 

LOVE:

I identify myself very closely with love. I love puppies. I love people. I love vegetables, rivers, and hillsides. 

I love deeply and I love often. 

So what is love?

For me, it is the sharing and giving of one’s self. It’s the opening of one’s spirit…to an experience, a place, a person. 

BEAUTY:

In the studio, as we all work together to create this new work, I feel lucky to partake in our collective beauty. 

 *****

The dance Matthew is creating is about all these things. Dance (and music) allow visceral and intimate access to a person’s heritage. When we truly perform a dance, we open a window into our souls, where each of us can be all the people we are. Matthew’s dance abounds in love: the sharing of each of ourselves with one another. Matthew’s dance abounds in beauty. 

Thank you Matthew and Renee for allowing us to realize and share our collective beauty. 

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If I’ve learned one thing from our two-part work—first with Reggie Wilson, then with Akram Khan—it’s that movement with energy, movement with body, it breathes. I’ve done plenty of choreography that is simply a series of steps strung together, often topped with a Vaseline-induced smile. Such movement only has the energy you bring to it—hence the attempts at a cheek-achingly wide smile. Watching—and dancing—this sort of movement becomes tiresome however. It all looks the same. It all feels the same. There’s nothing full about it. Not so for Reggie Wilson and Akram Khan’s choreography. Their movement, though different in many respects, is similar in this most fundamental way: it has life. It has rises and falls, stillness, breath.

Working with Reggie was a full-person experience. Reggie wants his dancers to be smart. He wants and needs you to think. But of course, he cares equally about the body. KNOW WHERE YOUR PELVIS IS, up is up, down is down, know your real weight—plain and simple. All together, you end up thinking with mind and body. Reggie’s work calls for your full presence. If you fail to be present, the spark will not light.

Doing Akram Khan’s work is a more physical and also visceral experience. His work requires a full-bodied and full energy engagement at all times. The dynamics, the rounded circles connecting one step to another, require that you never lag. And of course, the choreography is theatrical. It incites emotion, both in watching and in dancing it. You must give yourself to the dance, or it’s not worth it. I have never felt more exhausted.

Originally, I wanted to draw some sort of distinction between Reggie and Akram’s work: about where the energy resides or why it feels so different to do one work versus the other. But then I realized, there’s something more important in the similarity. In doing both Reggie’s work and Akram’s work I felt the rises and the falls. I felt myself fall in line with the breath of the movement. This did not happen—and could not happen—immediately. It happened only when I somehow, FINALLY understood the work, its curves, its pauses, its rushes and its rests. This, to me, is what good choreography is: a work that breathes, a work that lets me breathe with it. I was lucky enough this semester to learn from two choreographers, who in their own way, have mastered this art of breathing life into a string of movements. 

Energy. Breath.

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In a split second the floor falls out from under me and a breath escapes my body. Impelled by communal impulse, I inhale deeply and my hands come together, immediately rising over my head. Both phrases, Vertical Road and Bahok, begin with dynamic movement; both begin with breath.  

In Akram’s work, beginnings are of the essence. They are the entrance to the rest of the piece, the first impulse that will carry you through on a wave of inhales and exhales, an ebb and flow of expanding and contracting energy. But to let these waves impel you there the piece, you must achieve a certain intimacy with the steps. As Lali and Young Jin taught us excerpts from Akram’s work, they made sure to start with the basics and go SLOWLY. With each added count, they described the movement richly, showing it over and over and over again to clarify how it should look, how it should feel, how it should unfold from the last breath of energy, and how it should lead into the next. Most importantly however, the slowness of our introduction allowed for a specificity of weight. To do this work, you must know where your weight is at any given moment. The freedom of your energy requires that awareness; it requires that intentionality.  

When this precise understanding is embodied, the movement can truly be danced. And when it is danced, dynamism and breath take over. The movement can carry you. During our rehearsals, Lali had the habit of making sounds for each movement: a sharp intake of breath, a long “shhh,” “tak!” At first, the sounds were amusing, but not much more. Then, I reached a turning point. Just a week before our final performance, I felt the phrases seep into my body. I felt the awareness and intentionally that had otherwise evaded me—and when I got there, the sounds made more sense than ever. They weren’t just a personalized soundtrack to accompany the steps, but rather, a vocalization of the ever-present energy, rising and falling to make the breathing body of a movement phrase. That’s how I’ve come to think of Akram’s pieces: as breathing bodies.

In his work, the energy is almost palpable. Dancing these phrases, it’s almost as if the energy instructs you. It expands, it compresses, it hits, and it stretches, but it never stops. For this, the sense of rebound is invaluable. Throughout, breath is indispensible. Walking away, those are the two sensations I will remember most from Akram’s work: breath and dynamism. 

Presenting Me in All My Fullness

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We start facing forward. My right leg is bent in a lunge, my left leg extended out, creating a diagonal from hip to floor, and my pelvis is under me. In this position, I am firmly planted: body parts aligned and grounded in the floor. But when I shift my weight, bending my right leg to get into place, I do not settle, at least not completely. My mind, my body—all parts of me from the top of my head to the end of my toes—knows this is the home base from which everything will start. 

With a sudden impulse, my right arm swings up and around: no tension, no imagined position—just force, propelling my arm in a front-to-back pinwheel. Simultaneously, my position shifts a clear one hundred and eighty degrees. My body wants to pause, to take a moment in this familiar stance—but my memory says otherwise. When my arm falls down, completing its arc, my right leg swings out from under my hip. It crosses over my other leg in a split second of suspension before gravity forces my foot back down. At the same time, both arms circle over-head, completely loose, happy to follow their circular momentum. When my foot has once again found its place and my arms have settled down—at that exact moment—I shift onto my right leg, flicking my left leg from the soft part behind my knee. With my leg, I toss both arms across my chest. The same leg flick follows, but this time I jab with my right arm, elbow taking the lead. After this continuous series of tosses, swings, flicks, and jabs, I pause. Then I drop. Both knees bend and my enter center of gravity drops a good four inches. Even with both feet planted firmly on the ground, it is a fall, one I feel in my gut, like a vertical carnival ride that hurtles you straight down from the seat of your pants.

One, two, three, present…and present. The first three steps: a regular meter, but quick. Strung together, they carry me in a full circle, travelling left. With the third step, I end facing back, standing straight and standing tall, feet slightly more than hip-width apart. Sensing the momentary composure, my hips torque left. The movement then ripples through my left leg, heel stubbornly connected to the floor, toes and arch lifting up while both arms rise above my head; I present. A moment of returning to neutral. Then, another torque, allowing the ripple to take its course. This time, my leg lifts up ever so slightly and I suspend my limbs from hand to heel, presenting me in all my fullness. After this suspension, my lifted leg remembers its weight and it carries me left. Another three steps. Without pause, my right leg swings out in a flexed ran-de-jamb. In that moment, I extend, stretch out, feeling the space between each vertebra of the lower spine. As my leg circles to the right, its heel pulls me out, body responding in kind as rib and shoulder also take the lead.

Two steps on a slight diagonal and a back attitude-hop to carry you around. Then two more steps out. Once again facing back, I raise one arm and then the other. First, the right arm folds down, finding position in front of my chest. Then the left arm joins it, forearm resting atop forearm. Genie: one, two, down. Once the arms reach their position, my upper body drops down, body folding at the hip joint. Suddenly, my hands are planted on the ground, becoming third and fourth feet. Eager to be on the same plane, my right leg steps forward, then the left, each one landing on the outside of those newly-planted hands. The steps are clunky, loud, and completely flat-footed. Yet, they bring a surprising satisfaction with their weight and their sound. There will be no forgetting them. Immediately following that left step, I lift up from the crease at my hips, returning my full weight to the balls of my feet. As I thread myself through the opening in my legs, I reach. My left leg lifts off the ground and I continue to reach. Reach, reach, reach, until I can’t go any further. Don’t unthread until you have to. Then, when the moment comes, my forward reaching arms pull me forward.

The phrase continues from there, but this is the part that my body plays on repeat. When I want the comfort of a phrase that carries its own momentum, motivated by a mind and body joined as one, I start facing forward, right leg bent, left leg extended, pelvis underneath me. 

Finding Home

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And if you’re lost enough to find yourself

By now, pull in your ladder road behind you

And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me,

Then make yourself at home

—“Directive,” Robert Frost

As a dancer, I live for those moments—when everything falls away and it’s just my body in space, those are the moments that keep me dancing.  In a recent discussion after rehearsal we talked about them as “trance moments.” Instead, I like to think of the sensation as losing myself. Inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “Directive,” I describe it as losing myself just enough to find myself, then making myself at home.  The image feels so apt, for in those moments, I feel myself lost in the movement, but at the same time I find home…within me.

In rehearsal, Reggie implores us to listen to our bodies, to think about our bodies. He said once, “How you think about your body becomes how you use your body.” When he said that, it struck me.  For so long, I had thought of the mind and body as separate entities. I never thought to put them in conversation with each other. Working with Reggie however, I’ve realized how important this conversation is.

Dancing with Reggie, it is always all about the pelvis. To know where your pelvis is at any given time, that is the key.  For Reggie—and so many other dancers/choreographers—the pelvis is the dancer’s home base, the body’s home base. It is the starting point of our alignment and it anchors us. If you know where the pelvis is you can know not only where you are, but also where you’ve been and where you’re going.

But to use the pelvis as your anchor, you must first think about the pelvis. You must know your body deeply. Once you’ve achieved this knowing, it becomes that much easier to inhabit your body, to lose yourself in space and find your home within. I think that’s the magic of Reggie’s movement. Drawing from movements of the African diaspora, from post-modern dance, from various times and places, Reggie keeps the pelvis as the constant anchor. If his dancers think about the pelvis and use the pelvis, they can find that glorious sense of home.