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.