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. 

Migrations and Revelations: Wrapping it all up, and untying more loose ends


Migration and Revelation


What a semester it’s been! For me, the opportunity to learn and compare choreographies by Reggie Wilson and Akram Khan has been an unprecedented and unparalleled experience. More than ever before, this session of Yale Dance Theater has provoked numerous questions about the interplay between physical and metaphysical inquiry, conducting dance research, and my personal relationship with dance. I’ll walk through all my major questions and discoveries as best I can.


Well before the project began, I was infatuated with its global scope. Here were two acclaimed contemporary choreographers, working in itinerant and diasporic forms that simultaneously drew upon and shaped their own histories, engaging traditions separated across time and space in entirely novel and cutting-edge ways. I was brimming with questions before rehearsals even began, anticipating concerns of cultural fusion, appropriation, synthesis, and influence.


However, when we began working with Reggie, we had to reevaluate the nature of our questions, as well as the information we were pursuing. While I do think there is a place for the kinds of macroscopic questions I was thinking about at the beginning, I had to reformulate my approach to the choreography when I realized that I was overly concerned with my preconceived notions of use and value, and trying to make information pertinent in an academic sense. This is certainly not to say that choreographic research is not an inherently academic pursuit. Rather, it is a process of discovery that often requires us to reconfigure our thoughts, destabilize biases towards static conceptions of information, and form new kinds of connections.


How does one ask questions of choreography? What is it to know a dance? I found myself asking such questions a lot, and thinking about the relationship between choreography and information. Information can be in the details of a movement, whether it is Reggie telling us to change direction with the whole pelvis in Big Brick or Lali emphasizing the sharp turn of the head that punctuates the Bahok phrase.


Additionally, there is a sense of how to inhabit a choreographic world that comes with doing and with discussing. This too can be a kind of information. Both choreographers have philosophies about the body, space, rhythm, and time that come to light through the efforts of undifferentiated physical-mental work. Sense of flow and use of weight are also important considerations. These are not two parts of a whole, the practical and the theoretical, but rather undivided information that feeds into our own choreographic understanding of an artist’s practice.


In the past, I’ve tended towards a view of looking for information below the surface of the choreography. I used to imagine some kind of implicit knowledge tucked away and inaccessible within the choreography, and it was my job as a thinking dancer to excavate it through practice. However, with these two residencies, I stopped seeing analysis as what I’m left with at the end of the day and started looking at it as an active, all-the-time pursuit. Instead of bypassing initial frustrations (of which there were many) and looking forward to the day when everything would become clear—physically and conceptually—I took moments to breathe and consider what the process of encounter could tell me.


By allowing this paradigm shift, I found it was in struggle, not ease, that I began to understand what I was doing. These residencies pushed me to extend my body with struggle that was not only a matter of capturing a certain aesthetic, but also reconceptualizing my body and myself as a dance. Reggie’s eternal question, “Can a body?” was what triggered this realization. To dance in these choreographies has been to discover new bodies, new selves, and new ways of understanding, and I’d like to elaborate on some of these for both artists.


Reggie’s work, for me, reveals the dynamic contrast of actualization. It is, as he said, the difference between the words “up” and “down,” as they are enacted in the studio versus conceptualized. It is the difference between just jumping and thinking to oneself, “I’m jumping, I’m jumping.” There is a complex relationship between doing and speaking; while they seem autonomous, I found that they were mutually informative.


This work was setting oneself into motion, and riding a unique and unstoppable flow. The choreography feels very migratory, never settling in space and time. We dance in microsync—working with the time it takes for our own weight to move a certain distance, with a certain force. The choreography travels; contrast creates a sense of changing place. This is not a domination of space, since we never inhabit or claim it. There is directionality that isn’t geographic; we pursue one intention and then veer off towards another. The metaphor that makes sense for me is thinking of topography versus geography.


With Cunningham, we danced in space with no fixed points. This was an uninflected, geographic space, with evenly distributed potential for inhabitation. Space became that in which things take place. With Reggie’s choreography, the experience of space was vastly different. I call it topographical because we moved through the terrain of space, encountering various places in our interaction with it. Space and time were not lines of meter to fill; instead, they were forces to be encountered as we travelled through them. Geography is the space we fill, while topography is the space we interact with. Ideologically speaking, this is a departure from the domination or systematization of space that exists in many concert dance forms, from ballet to Cunningham.


Having our sense of space shaped by the movement is something I will return to when discussing Akram Khan, since I think both choreographers engage with space and time in ways that I was not accustomed to.


Time, too, was something set in motion. Rather than arching over us as a series of counts, time was the physical reality that the movement of our bodies necessitated. Time was a process, the trajectory of “travelling through” rather than an arbitrary measurement. Khan’s approach to time is similarly related to the dancer’s actions, but in a different way.


So, in ontological terms, what is the nature of the body in Reggie’s choreography? No matter what I say, I’m sure Reggie would be able to add a “both…and…” While the movements look dramatically different from those of Akram Khan, I find more similarities than differences in comparing the two choreographies. First is the emphasis on contrasts and dynamic, the excitement of doing, truly doing. There are two moments fixed parallel in my mind: The first was Reggie telling us what he didn’t want us to do, saying, “I’m jumping, I’m jumping,” while frowning in mock concentration. The second was Lali talking about the dynamic shifts in Vertical Road, saying, “It only looks good if everyone does it.” Here is an activation of the body, necessitating exertion and commitment, a step beyond intention. Taking the extra step, moving beyond my body and my questions as I had them neatly conceptualized, is the fall into new discoveries.


I found that my body, my presence in Reggie’s choreography was fuller in a sense than anything I’ve done before. The contrasts in dynamic, navigation of complex phrases, and full-bodied movements demanded nothing less. This work, as well as Khan’s, has complicated my ideas about body and presence in dance. I cannot say that my mind was “off,” since I don’t believe that dance is or can be without thought, but self-judging and preemptive evaluation were subsumed into the movement. Our second showing was, as Reggie said once, “me in my full presence.”


A recurring issue I’ve encountered in several of my classes this semester is the overly static nature of traditional metaphysics, the constant and undevelopable nature of being. My experience with both these choreographers has shown me the incontrovertibly physical aspect of the metaphysical (contradictory as it may seem), and how the body in action spurs philosophical discovery on the personal level.


Reggie sought to make this experience personal, and I felt this, sincerely so. Getting into the dance strips away preconceived questions and throws open whole new epistemologies; I must grapple with the “I” that fixes objects for my critical consideration and become immersed instead, realizing that dancing brings “me” into existence in a new way, validating and even creating a presence in time and space.


Like others have written, I felt a similar surge of validation performing the Akram Khan repertory. Rather than travelling through space and time, Khan’s choreography gave the empowering sense that I was creating space and time. This assertion lies in the rhythms, the staccato breaths and suspended counts that punctuate the phrases. Linking back to space, rhythm is not a metronomic means of dividing a blank stretch of time here. Instead of marking an imposed, inhabited time, the rhythms are how we create time as dancers. I felt my body as a powerful source of gravity, actively warping rather than drifting in the fabric of time.


Viewers commented on the raw energy of the movement, the universality of effort, and even the resistance of mortality. The counts were our key to empowerment, not tools of subservience. When we hit a “wunnnn TWO!” right in the meat of the count, the sensation is tangible, not conceptual.


In an earlier blog post, I wrote about energy, and what that means in dance. In the Khan repertory, this too blurred the line between physical and metaphysical. I described energy as a metaphor for itself, an imagined dynamic force with a very real physical manifestation. Energy is the sounds you follow through a phrase, the economy of exertion found in efficient physical chain reactions (the Khan movement is all about hits and releases, attacks and suspended withdrawals), and the way your breathing fits into that of those around you.

Going off of breathing, there was a sense of social togetherness in both choreographies. Reggie once mentioned that breath was not an obsession of his, but we became attuned to the paths of each other’s pelvises and found unity in our rhythmic chants of “See Line.” In the Khan pieces, our unity was in energy, rhythm, and breath. While there was a definite group dynamic in the Cunningham work, I remember that more as a field of synchronized rhythms, independent in time and linked by proximity.


If I felt like a full body in Reggie’s work, in Akram’s I felt like a “flow body.” I imagine the barriers of my skin replaced with an energy that is both diffuse and direct. I assert my presence by letting go of my control. Dean Cahan asked if there were philosophical insights to be drawn from this work, and I think there most definitely are. Akram Khan and Reggie Wilson’s choreographies both have a kind of decentralization of the body. In many Western forms, there is a controlled autonomy of the body, a kind of solipsism that puts forth a singular subject who “does a dance.” Movements come from the core as a control center, and this muscular action becomes the choreography’s focus. Ballet has pull-up, Graham has the contraction, etc.


While Reggie works with the pelvis, it is not a means of controlling the body’s movements from a single point. Khan, too, does not conceive of such a control center. Both choreographies are decentralized in their initiations and reactions, which gives them a unique flow. Reggie makes use of weight in the heel, the forearm, the “foreleg” and other extremities. Khan’s movements also use the extremities extensively; Lali and Young Jin told us that we could find the flow of a phrase by following the hands, and responding with the rest of the body. The head, too, is not always perched on top of a stacked spine, but sharp and responsive to other movements. It punctuates, rather than navigates. As Lali once said, upon finishing a spitfire phrase that ended with a quick turn of the head, “This is all you see.” This was all a part of discovering a new kind of body logic.


In Khan’s choreography, I also had to abrogate some of my fixed identity as a single dancer. Instead, I attuned myself to the group, emulating a collective and flowing energy rather than existing as one body dancing with other bodies. Giving up this autonomy ushered in a new way of being, and a new philosophical look at my “self” as a dancer. While I long resisted understanding dance as energy, instead preferring to treat moving as an anatomical activity, the choreographic idea of energy gave me a key to a new and different understanding of my body and myself—I am not a static entity, and this is paradoxically how I can fully experience dancing.


In conclusion, this two-part residency has left me with much to think about. I will continue to investigate these questions of self, energy, space, time, rhythm, group, flow, and many others as well. It is somewhat ironic that I am ending this year with so many questions when I sought after so many answers at the beginning.


Dynamic Action


I loved Akram Khan’s choreography. Although I will not pretend that the motions were not physically demanding and mentally tiring, the lessons I learned were more than one hundred times worthwhile. It was spectacular. Every rehearsal was difficult and eye opening at the same time. The motions were grounded, but in no way hindered or stiff. The body would drop very low to the ground and continue in its journey, in its shift of weight, until the body found itself at a new height. His pieces were lead not only by the types of movements but an overall tone that was both unique to each piece and a marker connecting every phrase. The energy in each rehearsal never ceased to flow. It was constantly in motion, constantly shifting in position and intensity, but it never stopped moving. I learned how to control the energy, releasing it, grasping it, and throwing it. Even the pauses, the points in the piece where the body ceased to move, the energy still buzzed beneath the surface. The analogy used to describe this liquid flow of energy was that of a bouncy ball. A bouncing ball can be thrown with a large amount of force> Once it hits a surface it momentarily pauses as it comes into contact with the wall before it changes direction, but the energy of the original throw never disappears. That is the mentality that I constantly kept while learning this movement. It was flexible, dynamic, and beautiful simultaneously.

kathaa kahe so kathak


kathaa kahe so kathak 


thath thirathaka dhuna dhuna dhuna dhuna nakithada thakita thakita tirathaka thakita thakita tirathaka dhum dhum dhum dhum takithatakitha tharenda kira tharenda thakita tharenda thakita tharenda thakita tharenda that kiradé kiradé kiradé kiradé djidjikitha djidjikitha djidjikitha théh thram djidjikitha djidjikitha djidjikitha théh thram djidjikitha djidjikitha djidjikitha dhum

When the world is wild, here at its center I remain. We perform the Kathak Chakkars. Do you feel the Earth turn. The Universe in rotation. Head catches my breath just as I am about to loose it. A spring that releases. The heart of the cyclone they say. Oh, the wave at storm! -yet beneath its surface an unspoken silence awaits: the one within Thomas Hood’s poem. The one you can never hear and only know. 

Thomas Hood

648. Silence

“There is a silence where hath been no sound,

There is a silence where no sound may be,

  In the cold grave—under the deep, deep sea,

 Or in wide desert where no life is found,

 Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;


There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.”

At the heart of Akram Khan’s choreography, his dancers and his art; and from this deepest search initiated by Reggie Wilson, I met an inner-world, patient and dormant.  At a time when I nearly dropped my arms and left, left loud lectures and sleepless nights… a semester off to find myself. To rekindle with my fire that was slowly dying, asphyxiated by the empty wind of society’s useless agitation. Just when I thought I was treading on surfaces, I found the entrance. The entrance to my inner-world, the sort of ocean in which I have always longed to drown. Was it dormant, or rather entrapped? 

One slow inspiration fills my breast. And in a gasp, a shudder and the cry of a chalk falling to the ground, as it slices through the pounding stillness of the air./What if Vertical Road’s stone soldiers dusting away their sleep… were nothing more but the lakes of our consciousness stirred to waves, at last crashing against the rational frivolity of our schedules, freed and surging through my senses in currents?

In my mind these surging currents can only be Federico Garcia Lorca’s Duende. 

I remember seeing Vertical Road in Marseille, a few years back. I shuddered when the lights died. And mourned as coats shuffled and voices rose. After that I cried for a few hours and wrote a lot, I could have wept. When the dancers left the stage and the lights died, something at my core died too. Something that had been building up , and up, up along that Veritcal Road until it was just suddenly, as a thin thread cut sharp, shtak, released. I fell into my seat, but something else remained hovering above me, undisturbed it stayed, continued its journey upwards. That night I left behind a little dust, it died with the dance and there it stayed, beyond time. And sometimes I can picture it to myself: in the empty theater, above the square platform, floating with the other particles that had been brushed into thin air. Suspended. And so there is this force that charges through Akram khan’s movement; a force so inebriating that it was stirred within me, just by watching it develop. The Duende. 

“The Duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. The Duende is not in the throat, it surges up inside, from the soles of the feet. The mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained, the spirit of the earth.  Arrival of the Duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kind of form… generating an almost religious enthusiasm, the Duende that shakes the body of the dancer, a real poetic escape from this world.The duende works on a dancer’s body like wind on sand.” (Garcia Lorca 1933)

For some time now I have tried to understand, what it is that gives this work so much Duende. Here I have dispersed some thoughts…

-At the end of our representation the audience wanted to know about the presence of Martial arts within these dances. Often I too was tempted to see certain movements as directly inspired from T’ai chi ch’uan.  And yet our two professors shook their heads: influenced maybe, but not incorporated. 

There must be a link between the two, but then it is not so specific and straightforward: 

Indeed, I quickly came to find that Akram Khan’s work requires a serenity of the soul, an intense connection of the body and mind: Peace; one drop that lies at the crest of a floating petal. 

Our work revolved around the control of breath, of our center, and an intimate understanding of time and space. The choreography is so complex and intricate, so fast that if your mind moves at the same pace, it is hardly possible to comprehend and execute. The dancer must grasp the quality: melting into water to understand the ways in which it flows, or vice versa, understanding flow to embody water.

As Zeno’s paradox: thinking of time as a sandglass, sand grain after sand grain (to pursue the sand/dust and dance analogy). And conceiving of space as quicksand, compact particles, into which you carve your fingers and press against the structure, moving through space and time as if you could touch them:

“… that the flying arrow is at rest, which result follows from the assumption that time is composed of moments … . he says that if everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always in a now, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.” (Aristotle Physics, 239b.30)

I believe the answer lies at the heart of the Chakkar spins.  

Akram Khan’s work encapsulates an entire universe, this parallel paradigm that hides within, the vertical at the heart of the cyclone, the vertical at the heart of the Chakkars. The vertical on which all things rotate? Our vertical. Akram Khan’s vertical, as he swirls.

 In Buddhism, Yoga, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, meditation… all perform -the point to which returns the eye, turn after turn, as the head effortlessly engages the spin -within this state of the mind that requires a single-pointed concentration. Timeless and spaceless. 

The Infinite balancing over the fine line of human cognition: an ontological argument?

This Duende. This force.

As I swirl: I keep what Lali once said about rhythms. We were practicing our footwork to the rhythms (which I transcribed in the opening). Somehow we could not maintain the set pace and our speed would systematically accelerate. Lali told us how that was the nature of rhythms, they will always pick up, men have a tendency to let themselves be carried away by the rhythm, is what she said. The way she phrased it was particular since it implied that the rhythm was the main actor in this process. The man sets the pace, but ultimately the rhythm will take over, carrying away the dancer in its wake. And so, in agency and form I always wonder which comes first. 

Names for one part, and language for another: music. 

For instance, I was once told that my name suited me, we often say this “I couldn’t imagine you with another name!” My next question is if the name suits me or if I suit the name? In which order do these things work. Do I fit the name? Has endlessly affirming  “My name is Indrani, I am Indrani” shaped my character, perception and feel. Have the soft vowels, harsh consonants repeated my whole life seeped into my character? I believe in the phenomenology of things. I believe in how every smallest detail of an object feeds into its “being”. Each chosen material, and from the humidity of the air to the poem muttered under our breath: every process has a final word in the craft. 

Last Summer in Singapore Akram Khan told a masterclass, of which I was lucky to be a part, about thinking in terms of music and rhythms as a quality.  We worked on Kathak basics and he taught us about the dance’s rigor and its rhythmic counts. We learned a story, which became a melody, and then a rhythm… a footwork, a dance.

And so in this same order of things: recalling a dance through numbers is quite different from being reminded with a rhythm, with a melody, with a story. The intention is absolutely everything and can change the whole quality of a movement. 

Kathak comes from the Sanskrit Katha:story. Katthaka is the storyteller.

This Force again, this force that runs through the story, is the same force that will run through the rhythm and into the movement. And it is a force that burns from within, a narrative, the same tale that has sent the blood rushing through our veins.

The Duende is the destruction of preestablished order. Akram Khan’s Art, and I am here reminded too of Reggie Wilson’s work, is a reestablishment of the self. It is rejection of time and space and all the knowledge with which we have been infused for so long. (It is a remastered version of the Matrix (mind my humorous propaganda))! 

Discovering this space of pure creation was for me such a revolution, because for the first time I exited the “thinking paradigm” /the paradigm of structure and knowledge and all that information as layers of clothes in water, pulling me down/ and instead entered the “feeling paradigm,” as a matter of fact, Kathak’s related form Abhinaya, which is bhaav bataanaa (lit. ‘to show bhaav or ‘feeling’). The Paradigm of a-structurality and imminence.  One journey inwards.

During the 16th century, Moghul domination in India tainted traditional Kathak with Persian imports. A slim parallel can be drawn between Kathak’s Chakkars and The Sema swirls.  The Sema may be an anthropomorphic god for some, a spiritual concept for other. But, for example understanding the Sema (Swhirling Dervishes) is another manifestation of the Duende within this art: 

The Sema, a “physically active meditation” is the “remembrance of God. When the dervishes turn, they are focusing their attention on their inner centre and they turn around and around their own centre in this way. In turning, making a pilgrimage to that centre of our their being.” And for me, God in Akram Khan’s work is a monistic force more than anything else, it is Spinoza’s abstract and impersonal, immanent god? For me it is the Duende, it is the life of things.

When the fury of our everyday life keeps our inner ocean at bay, Akram Khan’s work is a raw struggle with ourselves. It is a struggle against the external force, against the authority of structures and rationality. This work is a strugglewith the internal force, and the acceptance/welcoming of an ungraspable irrationality in our existence, in Existence. 

“Deus sive Natura” (Spinoza)

Does the Mind or the Body Lead the Dance?


My experiences learning Reggie Wilson’s choreography and Akram Khan’s choreography were different. There was an emphasis on manipulation of time in the Khan choreography that was absent in the Wilson choreography. In the Khan choreography my movements were informed by the counts. The goal is to hit the movement at the same time as the count, not before or after. This creates tension in the movements followed by bursts of sharp or smooth energy. This also forced me to be extremely present in each moment. I could not dance the Khan steps on auto-pilot. Both the mind and the body are equally exerted, but the mind is the leader in this choreography.

There is more focus on finding the true movement in the Wilson choreography. When I was learning the steps, rather than manipulating my form to fit into time, I listened to my body to find the form. The body is the leader in the Wilson choreography.

A similarity in my experiences of Khan and Wilson choreography is the importance of the mind and body connection. I felt that both forms of choreography required attention to my own thoughts in relation to my body, or my body in relation to my thoughts. For example, in Wilson choreography the pelvis is the key part of any movement. When I danced the steps, I tried to listen to my pelvis to determine how long a movement should take. It takes a given amount of time to transfer my weight from my left foot to my right foot. I can calculate this amount of time by listening to my pelvis. 

In my experience of Khan choreography I learned to manipulate my body using my mind. I determined what time I wanted a certain movement to happen, then performed that movement by manipulating my body in time and space. For example, first I decide that I want to shift my body from my left foot to my right foot on the third count of a phrase of four. Then, I count: one, two, shift-three, four. I do not shift at the beginning or end of three, but in the middle of the count.

Both of the ways I just described of shifting my weight from one foot to another require a strong connection between the mind and body. This is what connects all of my experiences of dance. I believe the connection of the mind and body can only be explored in the artistic art form of dance.

Akram Khan: Defining Dance


Watching the Akram Khan dancers demonstrate choreography was one the most inspiring parts of the Akram Khan residency. There is a quality about the movement that I could not place at first. I stood amazed at their grace, and was eager to learn how to move in the same way.

My learning process began with imitation of the physical movement. Half of my attention focused on analyzing the movement of Young Jin Kim and Eulalia Ayguade Farro, the Akram Khan dancers. Another quarter focused on imitating those movements, and the last quarter focused on checking myself in the mirror to make sure that my form was correct.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the residency that I realized that I was focusing on the wrong things. The body does have to be physically trained to create the forms that the Akram Khan choreography demands. However, the mind also requires training. My conception of the mind-body connection is both dualistic and monistic. The mind and body are two entities that are inseparably attached and interwoven. The Akram Khan choreography highlights this fact. The beauty of the dance comes from both physical and mental prowess. The body and the mind are heavily exerted in equal amounts. The mind is engaged in an active stillness. This stillness comes from the heightened connection between mind and body. When the focus of the mind is heightened the dance becomes more beautiful. The same is true when the abilities of the body are stretched to their limits. When both the mind and the body are used at their optimum capacities the movements become art. For myself, the key to learning Akram Khan choreography was to identify the way Eulalia and Young Jin were thinking about the choreography, and then to find a way of thinking for myself to follow.

One of my favorite moments of the Akram Khan residency was when we started rehearsing in the Coop High School Theater. I watched as the first group performed the choreography on the stage. Something in their dancing was different from three weeks ago. It was more than just physical. The energy of the dancing had a different quality. It was if we had all undergone some sort of small transformation over the past three weeks. The steps were no longer just steps, but movements instead, connected by the thread of the dancer’s energy. The energy gives the steps power. This energy stems from the connection of the mind to the body.  It keeps the art transient and makes it beautiful. Every moment lasts only a moment, and will never happen again. This is the essence of dance. The Akram Khan choreography is so liberating to dance because it highlights energy in its practice. When dancing I am both extremely aware of my physical presence and in tune with my consciousness.  The energy of the dance stems from the intense focus of my consciousness. My consciousness is focused on the manipulation of the body in time and space with music. You would expect mirrors in the room to heighten this focus. However, this is not the case. Mirrors draw the attention away from the self and onto how the self is perceived by others. This hinders the focus and draws away the energy of the dance. So, when performing in the Coop theater without an audience, I felt the strength of the connection between my mind and my body at its highest.

Performing the choreography for an audience was more difficult. I felt that the audience was similar to the mirror. I have not yet mastered how to both keep my own mind and body connection strong and connect with other dancers and the audience. I believe that attaining the skill requires practice and even greater mental focus.

This project has informed my dance practice. I now have a better understanding of what dance is. I now understand that dance is created when the mind and the body are at equally exerted and the connection between them is at its strongest. 



Dusting off an interest in dance


            1. Rhythms.

            In high school, I choreographed a dance to a metronome. The dancers’ stomps pounded out the rhythm of the dance, and at the end one dancer suddenly turned the metronome off. In college I joined the Step Team, and in YDT’s Cunningham project we stepped out meters in tandem as we danced to Jennifer’s snapping fingers. In Reggie’s work we learned a bit of African gumboot dancing and timed our movements to an ill-defined rhythm dependent on our own shifts of weight, the other dancers’ pelvises, and sporadic instructions shouted out during the course of the excerpt. And in the Akram Khan project, we stomped out kathak rhythms and meticulously pounded out seven-counts in our heads, using syllables and breath and “shh…TAK!” to stay in sync. Rhythms are fun because they remind us of a heartbeat. Rhythms are universal. 

            2. Dust

            The dancers in Vertical Road were covered in dust. We all wanted to be coated in dust, some of us even joked about buying a bag of flour at Stop&Shop and rolling around in it. It is so rare in serious dance study that one gets to be truly theatrical, which is odd since dance is inherently a visual, performing art meant, for the most part, to entertain. The severe beats, the huge triangle formation, and the fierce movements of Vertical Road made for an incredibly exciting experience both for the dancers and the audience. This sort of unbridled excitement is what is often missing in today’s dance that takes itself too seriously, and it is why, I believe, it is difficult to appreciate and enjoy watching modern dancing, especially without a dance background.

            3. Learning

            I kept thinking about studying dance. Why is this project so groundbreaking? Dance combines music, visual arts, and theatrics. Yalies overwhelmingly flock to music, art history, and theater classes. They watch movies and TV shows regularly, constantly listen to music, and attend concerts out of genuine interest. The two large art museums on campus are some of the best in the country. Why, then, is dance such a niche? Why is the academic study of dance almost inherently linked with the practice of dance, and why do my friends come see me dance to be supportive, not because of an outside interest in dance?  Anybody on the street could name dozens of musical artists and at least name a few famous painters throughout history, but would have trouble placing the name Margot Fonteyn. What is different?

            I think it’s because the practice of dance today lacks the theatricality, excitement, and accessibility that music and art provide. Choreographers like Akram Khan, paired with growing access to video material through the internet, can change this reality. Akram Khan uses props and stimulating music to actively engage both the audience and dancers. His collaborations (or attempts: see video) with various artists (from Kylie Minogue to the National Ballet of China) show an interest in dance as a universal human practice, not as part of an elite cultural knowledge.

           This is what the dust can do. Whenever I started Vertical Road I never thought about the pretentious meaning I sometimes felt like I had to stuff into my movement, or the lengthy and circular discussions we often had throughout the project. I thought of the verse “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” and thought of the terra cotta warriors, and how the music sounded like a heartbeat. I thought about being powerful, hoped I would remember the steps, and then threw myself into a lunge. 



The final episode of the series Stargate SG1 is entitled “Unending.” It’s a rather complicated episode involving the cast being in a sort of suspended timestream, but luckily for you the only aspect that is relevant to this post is the title. 

In working with Lali and Young Jin on the Akram Khan material this semester, we were told to see the moments of sharp “hits” not as endings but as hits that then rebounded into the next moment (often, if not always, a moment of relative softness). These moments then in turn move into the next movement in a phrase. Watching myself and my fellow dancers work with this comment, the difference was immediately apparent. It kept our energy visibly moving through the phrase rather than allowing it to stop in these moments where we were tempted to lock up. Creating the idea of (un)ending at these moments allowed us to craft our way through the phrase. In my mind I imagine the way we move our energy through Khan’s phrases as though we are sculpting with a limited amount of pliable putty.  In sharp “hits” we gather it up into a central peak, but rather than it solidifying in that position, it flattens itself out naturally, flowing back into a pliable mass, still active, and then immediately swept back up by us into a new form – here a wave, there a flower. This, to me, holds something essential of the incredible dynamic of his movement and about the insight of our teachers.  

The use of the breath in Khan’s phrases also echoes this theme of (un)endings. The breath doesn’t stop – the end of every inhale is the beginning of an exhale, and so on. The deep connection we were taught to find between the breath and the dance was life-changing for me. The shaping of these breath dynamics allows Khan’s phrases to carry incredible energy and power in sweeping arcs, gentle releases and sudden pops. The exhilaration of “breathing” through one particular phrase, from a piece called Bahok, is a feeling I will not soon forget. Everything comes alive. Connecting the life force of the body, breath, to the dance allows for a palpable connection between the movement and that life force, an idea I hope to be able to work with in the future.

In my three years in Yale Dance Theater, I have always wished that each project did not have to end. Never has that feeling been so acute as with the Akram Khan project. Experiencing the way that Khan’s movement felt on my body, the way that his principles of movement cultivated that experience, and watching Lali and Young Jin has changed my own way of approaching dance training and composition. I have new-found motivation to train myself physically, knowing that this type of choreography exists in the world, knowing what it looks like when performed by incredible dancers, and I wonder how his principles of fusion and breath can be applied to my own cultural dance form, Irish step dancing.

This, then, is an (un)ending as well, an exhale at the end of my Yale career on its way into the inhale of my future. I will carry with me in my breath and in my body what I have learned from Yale Dance Theater, and I could not be more grateful to Emily, Lali, Young Jin, my fellow dancers, and all of the previous coaches for the experience. 

Sisyphus, The Dancer


As the Akram Khan showing has come and gone, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the ideas I mentioned in my last post. I talked about risk, about tension, about Khan’s choreography affirming my own existence. I realized that virtually everything I said stands in the face of mortality. I think perhaps that is why I so identify with the Khan movement: each time I complete one of his movements, lunging deep to the ground or thrusting my arms as far away from my chest as I can go, I emerge victorious out of battle with the unknown, with gravity, with all the forces that surround me in this absurd situation we call life.

I emerged from the lecture-demonstration with a strong adrenaline high, as if I had just overcome some great obstacle. After the performance, it was particularly strong, but I had that feeling every time I did these movements in rehearsal too. It reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, whose punishment for his deceitfulness was an eternity of pushing a stone up a hill. Each time he reached the precipice, the stone would fall back down, never continuing over. It seems tragic, but I prefer the interpretation of French writer Albert Camus, who wrote: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This is dance—an eternity of improvement, of never-ending happy failures. When I did the Akram Khan movement, I felt as if it was a string of pushes; each one of my movements paralleled Sisyphus’s steps up the hill. I often felt as if I might fail, forced to stop from sheer tiredness or shaky muscles. I never did. Each rehearsal, I pushed the stone up the hill; the next day, I would have to start from the bottom again.

Still, at least I get to push the stone up the hill. At least I have a body that can move, that can do (or attempt to do) the virtuosic Khan movements. This session of Yale Dance Theater was not only my third year in the program, but it was my second year performing after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee and having surgery to repair it. Each time I squatted to the ground, mimicking Lali’s low-placed pelvis or Young Jin’s turned-in ankle, I felt a twinge of pain in my knee. Each time I practiced the beginning part of Kaash, literally lunging every two seconds onto my right knee, it hurt. According to my orthopedist, it’s the kind of pain I’ll probably have forever, left over from scar tissue and bone misalignment. Doing the Akram Khan movement made me realize that dance might possibly be my ideal pain killer. I can’t explain it, but even though I felt pain when practicing the movements in rehearsal (focusing on a single kick or lunge), when we actually did them all together in sequence, I forgot the twinges. My physical pain was erased; it didn’t register. Instead, all I could feel was the simultaneity of my head and hand moving together; all I could focus on was moving from point A to point B in the given rhythm. Nothing else mattered. Pain was an afterthought that my mind and body chose to ignore.

I don’t know if dance can truly cure pain, but I do think it literalizes the human life force. It deeply engages our bodies and minds, it creates communities, it questions the limits of reality. I can honestly say that I have never felt more alive than after doing Akram Khan’s choreography. Thank you to Akram Khan, Lali, Young Jin, Emily, and the members of Yale Dance Theater for providing me with this incredible opportunity to experience such a crazy metaphysical phenomenon. Now I know: dance really is life. 



[I wrote this post about two weeks ago and never got around to posting it. Here it is, at long last!]

Akram Khan’s choreography affirms my existence. There’s something about the power in it—the rawness and the sometimes impossibly fast pace—that makes me feel lucky to be alive. Slamming into a movement, I can often barely breathe; my balance is unsteady; I risk falling. At the beginning of Vertical Road, I often feel as if I’m falling in space, landing only when I crash into a deep lunge, my left leg tenuously clenching its muscles to hold steady. The dance is a string of movement risks, of high-tension moments and sharp, painful breaths. When I throw my right arm over my chest and towards the back of the stage, my head following its pointed action, I am committed. In fact, if I don’t commit, I will fall; if I fall, I fail.

This might seem harsh, but to me, Akram Khan’s choreography is harsh. It is demanding; his dancers are demanding in their teaching. Lali recently told me that every time I do a certain movement in Kaash where I reach my right arm up in a diagonal away from my body, my left arm clasping my right elbow, I have to feel as if my right-hand fingers, hand, and arm are continuously reaching up, extending beyond their flesh. Even if this isn’t visible to an external viewer, I need to feel it. I need to expand, to go beyond. I need to take my movements so far that they ultimately snap back like a rubber band taken to its limits. This tension defines the movement; the choreography cannot exist without it. What a difficult task, this reaching is; it is a continuous struggle but an incredibly satisfying one.

When this happens, I simultaneously know myself and forget myself. The task is so engrossing that all I can do is breathe and grunt and be body and flesh, mindless and animalistic. On the other hand, my mind is activated intensely, approaching each movement problem in a matter of milliseconds; my neurons are firing at light speed (or I like to imagine they are). It is exactly this paradoxical splitting and combining of mind and body that is so life affirming, it makes me want to scream with approval just thinking about it. “Everything is one,” the movements seem to say. The spirituality in Khan’s ideas, the rhythms in his Kathak movements, the breath in his dancers’ bodies—they all are born out of the same organisms: living, thinking human beings. As I lunge to the ground, I know I’m one of them.