Is It Possible to Grieve Dance?

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cathexis |kəˈθeksis|
noun. Psychoanalysis
the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object.

Note: I started writing this post a few days before the show. By the time performance day came, I had more of a glass-half-full perspective.

There is no doubt I am not alone in having had various blog post ideas come and go without ever committing them to paper. One of these I had a few weeks ago, as I was trying to better understand the quality of movement Merce Cunningham intended for his work. A lot of us get in trouble in class for “épaulement,” that divine and automatic head tilt associated with certain movements. This somewhat inane tradition of gazing at one’s hand or foot somewhat adoringly is, upon reflection, one of the things I love the most about ballet. In Graham technique, one of my favorite movements is the spiral, the subtle but powerful dissociation of the upper body from the lower, starting with the focus.

Thinking about épaulement, I came to realize  that part of ballet’s entrancing (and therapeutic) quality for me comes from the cathexis of space, from that feeling of sculpting beauty first with my limbs, but also through a vaguely admiring gaze. I never stopped to consider this before, but one might conceive of dance as a form of self love, and ballet’s particular relationship to space might in part show how.

Although Cunningham’s work requires the dancer to use her focus differently, using less affect (vaguely adoring or otherwise), I have nevertheless been cathecting his movements just as much as I have ever anything else, if not more. I wanted my body to sculpt these new and intricate forms I was discovering, forms which had graced legendary bodies. The extent to which I had been cathecting of course became all the more clear to me when I injured my calf muscle and was no longer able to dance most of the choreography I had learnt and embodied. I have been trying to infuse that energy into the three sections I am still doing, but it isn’t easy. It  feels like I am grieving those movements, grieving the feeling I had as my body carved them curvethrough space, as I pushed myself to be more precise and to better capture Jennifer, Meg, Neil, and Merce’s vision.

I had actually just figured out what I thought to be the perfect way to do those  fast pas-de-chat type movements in my jig. Meg had been trying to coach me to make them fast and snappy, and by using the floor to resist and push off faster, I thought I had finally achieved this and was excited to show her. The day of my injury, I also got the correction to relax my arms a little more, which I anticipated would be a compelling challenge: to better strike the balance between arms that were held, but still relaxed and natural. More still, perhaps, I miss precisely what I was doing when I got injured: running and jumping across space in that triplet rhythm.

I write about this because injuries are a part of dance, and because cathexis and grief are a part of art. The act of (re)creating is an act that engages with death, and this project in some ways has been a response to the idea that Cunningham’s work may die. Needless to say, the experiment has been successful, since it has moved 17 students to cathect his technique and his choreography through our bodies and through our writing, thus allowing it to live on in new and rich ways.

 

Facets

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When developing a semester-long project such as this one, I imagine there are many questions to be answered. Particularly with an artist such as Merce Cunningham, who has an enormous body of work and also a challenging, well-developed technique, there are many ways one could go about immersing us, the students, in the work. What is the value of giving us a chance to delve into many works from his prolific career versus the value of getting an in-depth look at one work, the value of learning repertory versus training our bodies in Cunningham technique. Six hours a week may seem like a lot to those of us booked with classes and other projects, but with so much we could learn it is an extraordinarily short amount of time.

In light of all of this, I think that Jen, Meg, Emily and everyone involved in the planning of this project have done an incredible job of balancing these different facets of the Cunningham experience, if you will. We had the incredible experience of working extensively on a large section of one important work (Roaratorio), gaining glimpses of other works (Numbers, Canfield, Pond Way), and also working on the technique itself during hour-long warm-ups as part of each rehearsal.

In looking at Cunningham’s work over time through the four pieces we touched upon, I am hesitant to draw any evolutionary line. These works demonstrate that there is a fair amount of range in his work, and based on that alone I think tracing any sort of development would take a much broader examination of his works. That said, learning excerpts from Canfield, Numbers, Roaratorio, and Pond Way makes for a really interesting comparison-in-motion. In all of the works, the presence of Cunningham technique is unavoidable – and thank goodness we got to work with the technique as much as we did! There is a strength of balance and an awareness of shape, line, and rhythm that runs through each piece. However, these four works show these fundamental principles being used to create naturalistic, moving landscapes (Pond Way), interactive, indeterminate games (Canfield), and so on. Although the works do not have a story to tell, each carries with it a sense of mood, and even within the larger structure individual sections carry their own little atmospheres, changing the shape of the energy onstage almost tangibly as dancers enter to begin sprightly jigs or meditative “shiftings” in Roaratorio. The use of a certain shape, rhythm, or even indeterminate structure does not in and of itself create this sense of mood, but rather the combination of all of these elements – and in the snippets of work we have learned, it is amazing how many different ways Cunningham uses his building blocks of shape, rhythm, and structure.

As a brief and unrelated aside, we have now rehearsed with music several times in order to prepare for the performance and adjust to dancing our own rhythms while hearing something else. In general this wasn’t really much of an adjustment at all. As expected, the music and the dancing function in their own realms, and it is not particularly challenging to keep track of our own rhythms, especially since we have been working in them for so long now. However, performing our Roaratorio excerpt to a recording of the Cage score yesterday I encountered a bit of a surprise. Running under the various other sounds in the score was a clearly discernible tune used in Irish step-dancing. The way that Irish step-dancing is performed to Irish music is extremely regimented rhythmically, and in learning Irish dance one spends an enormous amount of time in the studio listening to music and waiting for the right bar of music on which to start – whether one is performing for the teachers or simply practicing in the background. It took a lot of effort on my part not to get sucked in to that mode of listening to the music – listening to it intently and waiting for the right bar. Certainly I wasn’t going to cue my movement off of it, but the effort was to avoid the level of distraction from the Cunningham work that would arise if I allowed myself to run through my Irish dance steps in my head. A fascinating surprise! It makes me glad we had a chance to rehearse with the score at least once rather than having the score and the work put together during the performance itself.

Systems

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During the rehearsal process the idea of “problem-solving” came up again and again, no matter what piece we were working on.  On a similar note, after the dress rehearsal today Patricia Lent gave a note about not trying to mask where you’re looking or where you’re taking you’re cue from, but instead acknowledging the system that you’re dancing in, and allowing the audience to see the system as well.

While I don’t have the experience to speak for the entirety of Merce’s work, I can say that in what we’ve learned the idea of problem-solving within a given system has been a central aspect of the choreography.  I think his work might be that simple.  Each piece proposes a different system and a new set of problems to solve.  Rather than trying to connect the variation among his pieces to a broader arc in his work I think what is simpler (and more appropriate) is to treat each piece as a separate system, with its own specific inquiries.  There are so many choreographers that get stuck in a certain mode of creating, that after a while you feel like their work starts to repeat itself. Merce isn’t one of them.  His way of creating has been compared to scientific research, each piece is an experiment with its own set of results.  There are constants and variables, and the act of dancing the work is seeing how those elements fit together.

Now I’m asking myself, how can I say that each piece is like a system or a scientific experiment, when my last blog post I compared his work to dancing within landscapes?  I think what each image shares is the emphasis on observation.  The dancers aren’t telling a story or reenacting an event, they are creating a detailed portrait of the land.   The importance of the system isn’t to eventually find the best model; the purpose of the experiment isn’t to cure a disease; Instead it’s about observing what happens within the context of the system or experiment, how do the elements react?

I realize that I’ve strayed away from the intent of this blog post, which is to compare the changes in his work over the years. But again I’d like to emphasize that his work was constantly changing.  If it wasn’t he wouldn’t have choreographed for as long or as consistently as he did.

Open letter to Nancy Dalva

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Dear Nancy Dalva,

My name is Indrani Krishnan-Lukomski, I am a Yale student taking part in the
Merce Cunningham Legacy project. It was a pleasure and honor listening to you
last week. Your words were beautiful and powerful and I hope we will be able to
hear more of them at the end of this week.
I have always loved Merce Cunningham. I remember going once to a festival in
Marseilles, around 3 years ago, Merce had just passed away and they played
recordings of some choreographies. The room slowly emptied, people leaving one
after another. I guess I couldn’t grasp a lot of what was going on, but I found
his work extremely powerful and could not understand the general reaction. Since
then this experience stuck with me and you can imagine my surprise and disbelief
when I heard the Legacy project was coming to Yale.

This semester has been a unique experience for me and I have constantly been
inspired by J.Goggans, M.Harper, N.Greenberg and Merce Cunningham.
Yesterday I danced for three hours, going through Jen’s warm up exercises,
through Roaratorio and the Mini Event. This morning I woke up at 6 thinking
about Roaratorio. I started the day going through each step each rhythm in my
mind. And then it blew across my mind that in a week it would be all over. I
just couldn’t help feeling pain and loss because it is as though I have
forgotten how any other way of dancing is possible. Recently there was a click
and I made my first few steps into a universe. And I feel it with Meg and Jen.
It is more than just dance that they share with us: I always have the impression
it is a part of themselves they are revealing to us, because once you enter that
?total? it becomes the air you breathe and just sticks.
I don’t know, I just suddenly really wanted to write to you and reflect on what
you said last week, about your “fidelity” to Cunningham’s universe. I can’t
even try to imagine what the company went through. I think I have now realized
just a small portion of what dedication is. I had not really understood until
now. I just wanted to introduce myself and share my experience.

Thank you and all best regards,

Indrani Krishnan-Lukosmki

On the Longevity of a Legacy

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For my senior thesis in art history, I’m writing about the longevity of works by contemporary artists dealing with situational art forms—that is, artworks that are defined by the context in which they are presented and in the very ephemeral nature of their existence. The longevity of dance works poses many of the same questions as these conceptual and performance artworks: should these works exist merely in ephemera, through the photographs and videos and paper documents accompanying them? (In the case of artist Tino Sehgal, ephemera are impossible, as he does not allow photographs, video, or written contracts about his work. Everything is conveyed orally, and the knowledge of these works dies with the people responsible for them.) Working with the various generations of dancers in the former Cunningham Company, I’ve found that much of the knowledge is anecdotal and person-based, sometimes even coming solely from muscle memory to fully explain a step. It is often conveyed through conversation and metaphor, with dancers recalling, “Merce used to say this,” or, “We called this section the benders.” If only every dancer could write down every single memory they have of the work and of the choreographer, then we might have a fuller history of the work. Alas, this is impractical and impossible, and so the ultimate reality is that as these dancers pass (apologies for the grim reminder of our mortality, but this does unfortunately effect longevity) we will lose both their movement knowledge and their anecdotal knowledge. So, in the absence of people, will we resort to paper documents and photographs? Will video be our saving grace? Again, the questions are virtually infinite, and the way we deal with them will only be known with time.

Another question: can and should we reconstruct these works? These pieces are the products of their time, often being performed and understood under a distinct set of circumstances that are impossible to replicate. Should we even try? I recently saw a work by relational artist Rirkrit Tiravanija that had been acquired by MoMA. The piece was first shown in 1992 at a gallery in Soho, where the artist stripped bare the gallery walls, flipped it inside out, and cooked curry during the day, inviting the public to come and enjoy what was deemed an cross-cultural/artworld experience. A veritable caricature of the piece was presented at MoMA, and though I didn’t see the original work (being an infant at the time), I can tell that the sentimentalized docent tour and odd setup in a white-walled museum does not do justice to the original work and even trivializes it in the process. With Merce’s work, this specificity of time/place is less important, but the distinct set of chance-based events put into play by his works were most definitely determined by their surroundings and distinct set of circumstances. (Ahem, Chance and Circumstance.) Then again, perhaps because Cunningham’s framework distinctly set out to play with these circumstances, his works are better suited to new circumstances today. Perhaps our reconstruction of Roaratorio or, more aptly, our Minevent, is exactly the kind of situation-based model that Cunningham set out to explore. Each time we dancers solve the problems put forth by the choreography, we change the finished product in some way. So the fact that dancers have continued to solve these problems from the mid-twentieth century to the twenty-first means that this may be a never-ending pursuit, and one that should very well be continued.

The questions surrounding these issues could go on and on. I might discuss the continued codification of the Cunningham technique, the archived intellectual history of his work, the possibility of a posthumous evolution of choreography. But the main questions, the “how” and “why” of it all, are pretty simple. How? Well, you can figure that out at our performance tomorrow, when we show you the process of learning and understanding Merce’s work. Why? Once again, I’m nearly positive that by simply being at the performance tomorrow and seeing this postmodern work inhabited by twenty-first century students, seeing it enlivened, re-understood, and re-imagined—you’ll just know. This work—Merce’s work—is worth it.

Letter from Nancy Dalva

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Nancy Dalva submitted the following letter to me to share with the members of Yale Dance Theater:

Dear Yale Dance Theater Dancers,

I want to thank you and Emily Coates for the privilege of visiting the studio, and the chance to talk with you afterwards. It is always an honor to be allowed into rehearsal, a vulnerable time of learning and trying things, and I am most appreciative of your warm welcome. I had been reading your blogs all along, and it was wonderful to put names with faces. In response to our meeting, I have blogged back to you. Just as being at Yale was a strange back-to-the future experience–returning to New Haven with a cell phone! a laptop! things we didn’t dream of or imagine back when I was a Yale School of Drama dramturg–so was writing the essay I have posted for you. It is an answer to the question you asked, “Where does Merce Cunningham’s work fit in dance history?” and it isn’t really an answer. It is the beginning of an answer, with the benefit of interviews, photographs, video, and hindsight. So here, in response, is The Way of Merce. I’ll check back with your blogs as you complete this adventure, so you might find me popping up there, too.

With very best wishes, and a “merde!” for tomorrow,
See you soon,

Nancy Dalva
Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence.

 

 

Kinesthetic intuition (and the lack thereof…!)

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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.

Space, Time, and Movement in Ages of Cunningham

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One broad arc I observe in the excerpts of the four pieces we have learned is a shift in focus from time and spatial constraints/patterns to the physiology of movement, as Cunningham departs ever further from classical technique and explores new boundaries of the human body.  The technique used in our “Canfield skip” (1969) portion is largely derivative of ballet—sautés in passé, assemblés, arms movement through first and fifth high.  Though the legs are turned in and arms held straight down at moments, the aesthetic seems one of minimalism and understatement.  The main statement of the step is 1) the conceptual aspects of chance and game-playing, and 2) the geometric patterns and interlocking paths of bodies moving in space, governed by certain rules.  These create a sense of beauty and order among disorder, and allow the dancer a degree of autonomy and decision-making in the moment (though I wonder how much this translates to an audience, and if they sometimes assume that the full sequence is pre-determined).

Numbers (1982) also emphasizes patterns and timing (conducted in a round, like a chorus tune), though the technique diverges much more from classical.  I remember Neil strongly resisting labeling leg positions as a precise turned-out or turned-in attitude—an enigmatic instruction that was a bit frustrating, but makes a lot of sense in that 1) there is a degree of flexibility in the exact movement because the emphasis is on time and flow (though that may partly due to Neil’s valuing these qualities as he explained), but also 2) hard as it may be for a ballet mind to comprehend, it’s just a different movement!  It didn’t have to be the classical turned out or the binary opposite subversion (turned-in).  The round also creates a full and lush layering effect quite different from Canfield, since dancers are added at predictable intervals and more remain on stage together.  It reminds me of layering in audio recording when there’s a slight delay, and the dancer’s movements seem to accent each other.

Though Roaratorio (1983) has certain large group moments that were constructed through chance mechanisms, it seems much more about the movement itself than the patterns or concepts behind it.  For one, there are so many more individualized parts, for which there are unique movements that are not used anywhere else.  Though there are moments that are quite balletic, there are many distinctly Cunningham aspects such as the triplet/fives and lower back curves.

Finally Pond Way (1998) seems in some ways like a merger of new movement with an emphasis on space.  There are no time constraints, but rather each dancer is allowed and encourage to move at their own pace.  As Jennifer explained to us (and as our difficulty learning indicated!), the independence and dissonance of the arm and leg sequences was a very new feature that Cunningham was working with.

I cannot say which of these combinations of elements was better or more exciting—for one, I lack the dance studies expertise.  But in my mind they each grant the dancer and the audience different freedoms and ways of thinking about bodies in space.

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.

Chicken or Egg; Dancer or Choreography?

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In our MinEvent, four different excerpts are featured, from three different decades. When I first learned the choreography, it seemed all the same to me–put your arms here, add in a lower back curve, now tilt! The nuances of different dances were lost on me. It is only after hours of interaction and observation of the material that I have gained any real sense of the movement quality in each dance.

The earliest piece that we tackle, Canfield, debuted in 1969. The “skips” game that we play is one of the first appearance of chance games in choreography. Cunningham seemed to give his dancers much more freedom and choice in earlier works. Canfield, from action to length of duration, is dancer-determined. The game can go on for quite a while, or maybe no time at all, depending on the whims of the dancers involved. Even for Numbers (1982), when we asked Neil about extremely trivial movements (swing of the arms, position of the fingers), he would respond that he didn’t get a lot of direction for it. With many of us hailing from classical ballet backgrounds, it’s hard to wrap your head around the choreographer not having established the position of every cell in your body.

That freedom is also evident in Roaratorio (1983). After I learned my jig, I decided to watch a recording of Roaratorio and compare myself to the original dancer of that part. I was shocked by what I saw–it didn’t even look like we were doing the same movements! The dancer’s choice in terms of head movements, extremeness of tilts, and apparel vastly differed from what I was doing and wearing. How was it possible that we could–and had–interpreted the same notes and movements so differently?

By 1998’s Pond Way, though, the direction seemed to have gotten clearer, more precise, less dancer-determined. Right arm straight, left arm to the side, look, straighten left arm, arch up! Every moment had a direction, and there was less doubt about the position of every limb at every single second. Did Cunningham spend his first few years searching for a style that was inherent in each dancer? Is his later choreography indicative of his relative wealth of knowledge after having watched numerous dancers interpret his work differently? Did Cunningham become more and more certain of his style as the years went on? On a more personal level, am I supposed to emulate the original dancer of the role, or am I supposed to create something completely different and unique with the same set of movements? I wish I had the answers to these questions, but with the show coming up in less than 48 hours, I can sum up all my questions in one query that I will hopefully answer before performing on Friday:

Should the dancer influence movement, or should movement alone influence the dancer?