When Fluency Falters

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Learning repertory from Akram Khan and Reggie Wilson, but particularly from the former, has felt like an intensive language-learning immersion program. I dove into Reggie’s unembellished, minimalist (but above all unnaturally natural) world in which the pelvis is at its core before navigating a dynamic space with lightning flashes of power, whirling energy, and glittering details in the fingers and hands. These long, arduous sessions of learning and practice would leave me thinking about the work and the philosophy behind it long after walking out of Broadway Rehearsal Lofts. Hearing the music or reviewing (both theoretical as well as choreographic) material in my suite reminded me of when I would listen to French television programs online or read newspaper articles online to get more practice outside of class.

But after the immersion session is over, in the contexts of both language-learning and YDT-dancing, I’m at a huge loss for what to do. How can I communicate in French to maintain that level of knowledge? How can I continue practicing Akram’s style beyond that which I’ve learned with Lali and Young Jin? I already have holes in my memory about Reggie’s choreography and feel anxious about losing Akram’s choreography from my memory too.

Language fluency comes and goes in waves. When in France for a week, my Spanish died. But it came back when in Spain. And then in French class, my French came back, too. The environment, and above all the mindset, can help flesh out what may have been feared as forgotten. And I think the same is possible for my inimitable, unbeatable dance experience with YDT. The tide of memory may recede but it will come back because it never really went away to begin with.

But beyond choreographic memory, I think I’ve developed a more deep-seated knowledge about the choreography, in learning about the creative motivations about it, that I think will last longer than my muscle memory about the choreography, for this deep-seated knowledge doesn’t apply to only certain repertory, but also any and all work that I do from now on: with YDT, A Different Drum, or at an open Contemporary class at Steps. My awareness about dynamics, the pelvis, appendage-related details is so much higher, and I’m slowly improving in the ability to stop being so cerebral in my dancing.

They say if you learn one foreign language well, picking up other languages becomes significantly easier because you’ve worked that mental muscle. Perhaps one can compare a talented dancer to a polyglot who is well-versed in a couple of corporeal languages and can easily learn others to achieve fluency. I’m still very much in the process of really digging into Contemporary dance, which is my foreign language (or language family since it’s such an umbrella term), while Ballet remains my mother tongue. But I’m glad that I’ve picked up phrases and structures from different corporeal languages to help me adapt more easily to other tongues. I mourn the brief but wonderful time I learning everything I could from Lali and Young Jin, but even if my memory of the work fades, I’ve gained much more than I will eventually lose to time.

modes of thinking, modes of doing

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Having learned work by both Reggie Wilson and Akram Khan,  I feel I can confidently say that they not only have different movement styles, but different approaches to thinking about movement.  A different mindset, a different way of interacting with movement, a different way of treating the body.  At the end of Reggie’s residency at Yale, he asked me if I felt like there was a link between his choreography and his work and the post-modern choreographers we had learned the repertoire of previously (Cunningham, Twyla Tharp).  At the time I said no, that his work felt completely different. 

However, once we started working with Akram Khan’s repertoire, I realized what completely different actually feels like.  Akram’s work definitely is riddled with difficulties, intricacies and complexities in the execution of his work, but there was a simplicity in the approach.  You were working towards something complex, but the thinking and processing of that movement is very direct and straight forward.  It was a mode of rehearsal that felt very different from anything we’ve worked on previously in YDT.

Despite Reggie’s insistence in the rehearsal room that we stop thinking about the movement and just do it, the amount of thought in the doing of his work is still immense and complex.  The way in which he uses different textures of movement or the way he patterns or sequences simple phrases of movement is complex, and provides a rigor in the body and the mind. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Akram’s work is rigorous, but it operates within one mode of doing.  There takes time to understand stylistically how his movement works, whether that be the way he uses dynamics and energy, the intricacy of the hands, or the consistent sense of circular movement.  And while I can’t say it’s a rigor I mastered, it’s a rigor that is contained.  The shape and the form of it is clear.  It stays within one mode of thinking about movement and one mode of doing movement and it remains there.

Reggie’s work is dealing with several modes of thinking and analysis at once; but as a dancer it also deals with several modes of doing.  The distinction between the movement in a single phrase of Reggie’s work isn’t just a distinction between quality or dynamics, it’s a distinction between the way you approach doing the movement.  It has to be done, yes, but the way you think about doing one movement will not necessarily help you understand how to navigate the next. In Akram’s work, there is a sense that the correction for one movement can be a correction for most of the piece as well, there is an attention to detail that is unique and specific and consistent.  Reggie’s attention to detail shifts from place to place depending on where he is coming from.  In that sense Reggie has a different implentation of dynamic range, one that is born out of the independence of the multiple movement styles he incorporates, whereas Akram’s dynamics seem to born out of the fusion of his movement styles into a singular style. 

control

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A lot of the posts so far have talked about the way energy works in Akram Khan’s choreography, and while I think energy is definitely important in his work, and what distinguishes it from others, I think control is a really important aspect of the energetic qualities in this work.

There is definitely a sense in some modern techniques that the energy is primary and the body is secondary and a result of that energy.  Often there is a sense of starting with an energetic impulse that the body than must follow through on.  In this situation there is a lag time between the energetic impulse and the completion of the movement, as if the body is always slightly behind and is catching up, a victim to these energetic impulses.

This is not how I experience Akram Khan’s work.  As a dancer you are not following the energy, but actively shaping it.  If you don’t, you either fail to capture the essence of the movement, or you are incredibly late.  Yes, different energies are passing through you, but you are cultivating them, sculpting them, sending them out, drawing them back in.  The path, even when circular, is direct, and if the energy shoots out of the arms or the hands, you are the one that brings it back in for the next movement.  It doesn’t happen to you, you MAKE it happen. 

So how do you become the master of the energy rather than the victim of it?  The answer is not an intuitive one, at least not for me.  The control lies in the smallest details.  Its not just your arms that cut the air but the outside edge of your forearm turning in.  you don’t throw your whole upper body back in around in order to achieve the effect of your body spiraling up, you shift your weight very clearly from right to left, you look up, and lead with your elbows; but you stay on top of yourself.  No matter how fast you can pull back into the lunge, it is actually the snap of the head from left to right that makes that moment sharp.  You don’t just throw your arms back but curve your hands around, the toss happens mostly in the wrists.  You must be in control, and you must be specific.  Most of the time I don’t feel the space around me as the thing that is holding me up.  More often than not I feel like I’m carving the space in the slower parts, or whipping through it and hitting it, digging and sculpting.  I’m not floating, I’m not being pulled, and I’m definitely not falling.  My weight is firmly under my control, or else I still need to practice.

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. 

Fragments – on describing and comparing ways of moving:

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II. 

When the term “energy” comes up it tends to point to a limit of explicability, but also to foreclose further specificity.

The term is not un-useful: it comes up so often, particularly in certain circles (certain lineages of dance training in conversation with a certain lineage of somatic work and certain cultural milieux…) that this frequency alone indicates an importance to what it maybe fails to elucidate. 

To use the term “energy” typically seems to indicate really ‘getting something,’ ‘powerfully,’ but being at a loss as to how to unpack it, at a loss even literally as to how to ‘locate’ it – how to link up an experiential with a classificatory dimension.

Classificatory projects are needless to say a double-edged sword: the saving grace of a classificatory term such as “energy” can obscure and halt the unfolding (via inquisitiveness, sensory attunement, reflection) of its own content.

The words we launch into have a penchant to decide for us what we are describing: where did the thing described go?  Is all that remains the package it should have fit in?  Suddenly the referent is squirming uncomfortably, feeling excluded yet shoved into the spotlight. 

To let a comparison fall to rest on “energy” – unqualified – does not really get us any further: it leaves the likeness in the dark.  I shouldn’t move to quickly with this metaphor of darkness, now: depth is a great part of (the fun/interest of) anything, right?  And where would depth be if all were exposed to light to the same degree?  (See the totalitarian treachery of the Enlightenment project… quant à Horkheimer, Adorno.)

So maybe let’s scratch the metaphorical binary of light/dark – it privileges the visual all too absurdly for our purposes anyway.  In fact, perhaps it is precisely this which obscures the precision of whatever we mean when we refer to “energy”: energy must happen, be known or perceived, some where, correct?  Even if it is a purely ‘mental’ phenomenon, this helps us recognize it as medium-specific.

An audience member’s comment on the similarity of the Khan choreography presented to certain forms of Tai-ji pointed again to something I had been considering since we began working with the Khan dancers.  Maybe we don’t have to stop at saying the connection was an (unnamed, unknown?) “energy”: ears could prick up at that mention and we could reorient to attend to what exactly, or at least what is the context of, what we are registering as such.  Maybe it is not necessary to aim straight for “energy” itself to get more specific – maybe the most room for specificity, for ‘gaining ground’, is along its edges.  Where does it happen; what is its trajectory; when does it come; how does my body rearrange when I think I’m feeling what I think these others mean by “energy”?

What I noticed, having studied a little Tai-ji, is that similarly in how Lali and Young Jin have been training us I am nudged toward a stance that encourages a clicking-into-place of viscously elastic relationship between the planes of the hands, the planes of the head (which is conversely the gaze) and the volume of the chest-to-abdomen zones.  This elastic relationship does have to do with a distinct attention to, or technique of, weight shift – what I’ve heard often qualified as “pouring” weight, like water, from one bottom-point or vessel-zone of the body to another.  This is only the roughest of sketches of where I might inquire further, but maybe it begins to focus in on this paradox of circuit/circulation: that perhaps the problem of what is circulating can be significantly alleviated by bringing more specificity to the relational composition of the elements of the circuit itself: how are the relational dispositions of (anatomically identifiable) elements of the circuit already ‘charge’?

Akram Khan’s Energy Dancers

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If we were only dance—water that’s not

wet, warriors with no shields, nothing

 

but our primordial feet—their protozoan

pulse, our flagella-fingers washing away

 

our features—we could have spun into

forever on one spring breath, but instead

 

we were water that transpired into

air, and our feet stretched into earth,

 

and our hands blended with sky,

but once we put words to it, the dance

 

imprisoned itself into those words

and nothing more. If my mother

 

had seen us move, our Kathak rhythm—

it’s good, she would say, and the dance

 

would have stayed burning in our

bellies, like the Olympic torch, or

 

summer sand on your soles, or nothing

but the sea keeping everyone at bay.

Whiplash

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It’s the image that always comes to mind when I see Young Jin and Lali demonstrate the movements. Their arms and torsos move with a sinuous grace before they, like a preying serpent, attack a pose, from which sparks appear and vanish in a matter of a fleeting instant, as if their previous movements came together like pieces of flint to create that exceptionally striking pose. And yet, that strike doesn’t signal the end of the movement, but merely a part of a continuous phrase. Like a whip, there is a kickback that keeps the movement going even after you’ve reached that the peak of a movement.

I find that to be my biggest challenge when engaging with this choreography. Another image that comes to mind is a cross between a sin curve and an EKG/ECG heart machine, such that I need  to maintain this continuous curve in my movements before and after certain peaks in the movement that are brief but powerful.

As you can see, I’ve found myself trying to understand this movement style through a lot of imagery to help me develop that texture in my movement, whereas with Reggie I found myself focusing more on following an internal monitor of my weight as it rises and falls to guide my pelvis and keep it in timing with my co-performers. But that isn’t to say that this choreography doesn’t also require an immense amount of awareness regarding weight changes. In fact, it’s more emphasized but in a less muted way that with Reggie’s choreography. For me the marked changes in weight and pivots helps me create a skeletal structure or outline of the choreographic essay before I can add the details of hands and arms.

With Reggie’s work, we were told that we needed to feel each other’s pelvises and use that as our guide to timing. I relied solely on that. With Khan’s choreography, I need to keep both an internal metronome (my mind ferociously keeping time for fear of breaking the beautifully delicate house-of-cards-like composition of our spacing), but also an external, jazz-like timing in that it changes all the time but we all remain in unison because of our breath. We develop distinct, but compatible inflections in our breath that allows us to understand the accents and transitions. Because I have to focus more on breath here, it definitely translates into a more spiritual experience for me.

 

I struggled to enter this extreme state of concentration when working with Reggie Wilson choreography, but here it seems as if it’s required in the movement,  especially w

Fragments – on describing and comparing ways of moving:

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I.

More often than not, it is not enough just to invoke “momentum” as a quality of movement.  Momentum manifests with qualitative difference depending on the succession of material it passes through; and further (or, the same said a little differently), how that material succeeds itself, how it is succession, how it allows specific allowance of momentum and specific resistance or deflection of momentum. 

In dance, momentum concerns mass of the body and gravity of the body, especially.  As long as we are still dealing with live human bodies, it would not be fair – it would not be logical – to say that any genre or instance of dance movement (or, indeed, non-movement) is without mass or gravity (even for those experimenting limited gravity situations… link to come).  But we could talk about how mass and gravity are deployed in the body – namely by their mobilizations, differentially.  Particularly, the mass of the body is not strictly unitary.  It is articulated.  By bony structure, but also by other systems – organ, lymph, nervous, muscular, etcetera.  There is necessary consistency to these systems that structure the body – the possibilities for moving them, moving by way of them, are concrete.  But just as the possibilities are concrete, they are also many, and not necessarily all are always available at once.   One could say I am a whole city within my skin, and as the supreme mayor (which, unfortunately or not, I don’t seem to be) I could set speed limits, limit automotive access, install barricades, foreclose houses, bomb subway systems, build monorails, encourage critical mass rides, prohibit panhandling, stun everyone all over with a transcendental firework display – at my “will”.

There is something consistent about the phrase material we have been learning from Akram Khan’s dancers.  Maybe we could describe it in terms of the momentous channels in which the composite movements seem to invest the bulk of their identity (their respective likeness to self).  Is a set of anatomical references enough to characterize this?  How can we characterize both the force and the stuff it passes through in order to refine our descriptions of quality of movement?

Traveling Vertical Roads

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Traveling Vertical Roads

 

I wrote a blog post yesterday about the Akram Khan material, but it keeps inspiring me to write more and more. In the past I’ve veered away from overly impressionistic descriptions, but a course I’m currently taking (called Moving Texts) is an exploration of the fruitful interplay and dialogue between dance and creative writing.

 

Communicating the experience of dance through writing can be difficult; rather than viewing writing as the keyhole of a locked door, an incomplete glimpse of a subjective experience from which the reader is barred, I’m envisioning a photographic aperture. This device allows a small amount of light into a camera lens to create an image. Writing may not be able to “capture” the ineffable experience of dance, but, like a photograph, it speaks to the experience and frames it in a new way, shedding light on what could easily be passed by. It becomes something new.

 

Furthermore, dancing and language have been in dialogue in my mind, and the practice of writing about dance helps me form new ways of articulating these perceptions. The dancing is affecting my writing; I can feel the cadence of the rhythms as I write about the choreography, and as I search for synesthetic and imagistic ways to convey what I want to say.

 

I wanted to write about a piece that we are learning, called Vertical Road, which presents as much kinesthetic challenge as its title implies. This is my response to the first snippet of a phrase:

 

 

We stand poised to move, breath quickening slightly to the rattling drum beats that punctuate the air.

 

“wuuunn—TWO!”

 

Drop to the ground. I’m never ready enough to embrace the jolt—a warrior suddenly reminded of the thousand years of accumulated dust that I am shedding.

The weight shift on three is like a return to the sun, trying to cup a tiny sphere of warmth, a disbelief in the light that my eyes track across the sky after eons of silence in clay vaults.

 

Wuuuun two threeeee FOUR!

 

Is a suspension longer than myself, my curved wrists cling to air with a rock-climber’s grip—the only break in verticality that keeps me from falling down the waterfall of my own body.

 

So sudden—

I become aware that I breathe without thinking

Arms snake up a sparkling trail

Fireworks burst and the movement lingers in smoke patterns

Ash that disperses with the wind

You inhale the gunpowder smell of the last movement

Right as you blaze on to the next

 

Everything crackles like fire and lingers like smoke

 

Each arm circle turns a wheel of a thousand years

But a twist of the hands

Caging energy

Disappears as quickly as embers thrown from a bonfire 

Into the night

 

Tiny moment of vulnerability

Dreaming of flowers around my neck

What I thought would be

An inhalation of perfume

Awakens me to battle

 

Sharp shift of weight, supported in a crouching knee, leaning away from clawed hands that fend off danger

 

Then a swing of the arm that sounds like a roar at myself

A dragon of energy

It loops through the hoop of my left arm

And births a baby snake that spits out

A tiny jewel a my feet

 

The glint directs my gaze downward

 

Now the movement is water 

My arms stir spirals

 

Like the current,

I am no longer a swimmer

But the sea swimming through itself

 

In a low crouch I feel my arms moving like mad to pull me back to the surface, my arms wrap around my head and my waist, as tight as holding breath, then

 

TWO! Triumphantly dry and regal I fling water from my hands

 

My head initiates the next step

Lungs—blowing a bubble larger than myself

I hold the iridescence by my skin

Feeling the fragility of film

As it pulses with my breathing

 

I inhale through my elbows

 

Then shatter the whisper into a crash

 

The counts quicken and the movement becomes red—

Streaks of color that reinvigorate my blood

A reminder:

We all dance in the sky of a setting sun

 

I too share colors. When I throw my whole being into the count, I can feel them working.

 

Space between beats echoes the space between breaths between heartbeats

 

Dance that sparks me into remembering to live

I am its rhythms and its colors

 

Fire that burns no less energetically

Simply because smoke and ash promise immortality

 

Final Showing from the Reggie Wilson residency

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I found this free-write/thick description/poem that I wrote the night after our performance, and am posting it now as my final post for the Reggie Wilson residency. 

We open to the audience, the last heel dig into the floor—Ba dum, dum dum, out out, in in…

My peripheral vision on Karlanna

the involuntary inhalation—Anticipation given breath and bone.

I see/hear/feel it successionally/ then all at once, not realizing our unison in breath and body until we feel the pelvis pull back, push front—tiny increments made miles in microsync.

 

In an exhalation, the span of evolution.

 

Now there goes the world. It shoots down the elbow and flings from the wrist.

BOOM

Your side is your front:

A universe of difference where we once walked slow circles in silent space.

 

The angle of the light. Everything.

 

Curved over the electric potential—Bang! Cross! Surge into right foot, electric drill spiral down WHOOSH, like turning on the tide in the circle of a dime, is sucks you under and in and down then BURST! You’re up and you see the backs of heads of those around you, then falling

 

(Elena

Karlanna

Indrani

Clarissa)

 

the reminder of gravity’s down. No! Too free, too much force to fall it’s a JUMP down, pulled back into the tide, feet begging contact, legs bend deep deep into the briefest reciprocal

push

Then up. Thrown like a starfish. “I can’t be up here,” you whisper to the ground

when it’s already nearing over

 

That force—Unimaginable! A throw AND a tug, it must be. I threw my other self into space into freedom and the rope on my pelvis tugged me and I felt an intake of breath pull up like a yank then I’m a cloud and there’s roaring at my limbs and soft peace that floats at the center

 

I see ground below

I am slung over cities

            ,flung over fields

                        ,sprung over seas

 

There’s enough space up her for ten of me, and in the time it takes to fall

 

I realize I fly

 

Nearer to the ground and I’m less—to save myself from the force of so many of me

all falling

 

Plié. And it’s already gone.

 

Shoulders back as the knee presses forward. I’m down, use my arm, my arm must pull me around and up. Torso cycles over forced arch feet

 

Arms spiraling side left, down. Clarissa’s yellow presence speeds up and pulls me to join her as we near the horizon, the sound barrier—

 

then Hit it! Break up, fall and slice the air a satisfying sweep, coupé

 

arm comes over, I’m down—

 

“END THIS DANCE!” echoes in my ears then the words are in my blood and they’re pounding against my eardrum, in my pulse, in panting breaths

 

Huuuh huh huuuuh huh huhh—

 

Pelvis underneath you. Facing down. Straight leg parallel.

 

I imagine that my slowing heartbeat

is dimming the lights

 

that my body is letting this all go,

that it’s not being taken away from me