we were watercolor.

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            It felt strange to dance in the art gallery alongside art that had remained still for many years, and would remain still for years to come. As a dancer, I felt more conscious of how alive I was, and how much my body moved. I felt like both a collaborator (fitting myself into the art on display, adding a new idea to the space) and a foreigner to the museum (I was new to being a piece of art: I was just visiting, just trying it out, unlike the sculptures who resided there permanently).

            A crowd gathered around us as we performed “Accumulation” below a Rothko painting. I wondered what drew them to us, when there were so many other things to look at in the museum. Why watch the dancers instead of sculptures? I think movement arrests the viewer’s attention in a different way. If you glance away from a painting or sculpture, it will still be there when you look back. But if you glance away from dance, you’ll miss something. Dancers are alive, and each second gives different information. I suppose you could have a similar experience of discovery when studying a painting, but while the discovery might take time, the discovery would not be bound to specific time, as it is with dance…so the audience watched us dance, even though we were surrounded by static masterpieces.

            Here is another way I’ve been thinking about the art gallery: placing Trisha’s choreography at the art gallery sets her alongside Rothko and ancient sculptors. But where does it place her dancers? It aligns us with stone, or paint. We are the materials that the artist molds. Using humans as your paint seems like a big risk. Humans don’t dry like paint on canvas, or hold  shape like stone sculptures. We forget, smile, stumble, and think for ourselves. Dance is a collaboration. If dancers really were paint, we would be some magical brand of self-propelling, never-drying watercolor on a wet surface—sometimes moving where the artist wants us to, sometimes getting mixed up, changing shape or color, creating something new.

New Space

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The movement:

The shapes felt more organic in a space that already held objects and art.  We as figures felt less artificial. More natural.

 

The audience:

            The most intriguing part of performing was the audience’s relationship with us.  It was a bystander audience.  They arrived at the gallery with no obligation to watch our movement and no expectations for our performance. And that made it so easy to perform. Eliminating commitment and money created an entirely different dynamic between the performers and spectators.   Instead of required anticipation brought on by sitting behind a curtain before a traditional performance, our instantaneous audiences had the freedom to stay or leave and were truly curious about our movement. 

            Practicing movement studies, Sticks in particular, in the studio is tedious and I’m focused on getting it right, moving – or not moving – my limbs to make the pattern of movement happen. But performing with this type of spectator, one with a predetermined, genuine interest for art, and one with continuous freedom to engage or disengage, allowed for an entirely different thought process. 

             In front of this spontaneous, flowing audience in the open environment of the gallery I wasn’t so separated.  The distinct parts of the shapes created by the sticks, my body, and the other dancers previously needed to be melded and pieced together.  Instead, in the gallery, the people and the sticks felt stronger and closer, like a single structure. 

 

The floor:

            In the studio, Group Primary Accumulation was about perfecting the sequence of gestures, having the mental stamina to not lose count, and staying in line with the other dancers.  In the gallery, everything changed because I lost my senses.  Performing on the terrace meant feeling the floor much more than in the studio.  The scratchy surface of the outdoor tile intensified my awareness of even the slightest movement against the ground.  The deep etches between tiles made kinesthetic spacing easier.  But direct exposure to the sun meant I was blind. Only during 4, 13-15, and 28-30 could I quickly catch a bright glimpse of the dancers around me and attempt to relieve my forced reliance on aural cues.  More than anything else, when performing Group Primary Accumulation in the lobby of the gallery, I focused on the security camera above me and thought about the permanent recording of our experience from some security office in a remote part of the building.  I liked the idea that even a security guard reviewing the tape could at any moment experience our live art. 

Two Sides of History, and a Phenomenological Bridge

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I was walking out of the Yale Art Gallery into the sunshine, carrying a bundle of ten-foot long sticks, when I suddenly knew what I was going to write about. During those three hours in the gallery space, I unknowingly began to understand something. After the performance, I realized that the conceptual gap I previously wedged between Brown’s early works and her later choreography had narrowed considerably. For three hours I felt like I was able to enter Brown’s artistic world and glimpse the concepts and questions that resided there. Discovering this mindset bridged the decades; I found in the Early Works an altogether unexpected congruity with the choreography we’ve been rehearsing for weeks. Like the faces of our audience pressed against the glass of the gallery windows, from the outside I can only see things. From the inside, I feel them. In feeling, in doing, there resides an understanding of the artist that cannot be uncovered from the outside. Today I came to terms with this realization, and from the inside I’ve begun to discover foundations that underlie both the Early Works and “Newark” (New Work).

 

Above all, there is patience. Without patience, there can be no discovery. Patience is an allowance to work through things, rather than towards things. Patience relieves the anxiety of “getting it,” the goal-directed anticipation that clouds my efforts with frustration. By accepting patience, repetition and simplicity become first bearable, then pleasurable. I am patient with the weight of my body as my arm drops, feeling its directionality and momentum. When accustomed to instantaneity, patience feels like “no.” But now, willingness unto openness, responsiveness, and patience is a resounding, “yes.”

 

In my last blog post, I focused a good deal on the notions of activity and passivity, and how this choreography throws the specious binary into flux. Patience is the implication of waiting, of passivity, and implying non-action—a deferral of action. In this choreography, however, I find an active patience; much like active feeling, the phenomenological vocabulary of the choreography does not fall into two easy categories. Experiencing can be “agentive” (consciousness directed towards phenomena), and directing can be “passive” (saying yes to physical force), so the two blur together inextricably. Implicit to the distinction is the tacit assumption that agency is closed and passivity is open. Given the deeply experiential nature of YDT’s work, I want to pause and consider consciousness as a topic of discussion.

 

I will cursorily sketch out some of the main philosophical ideas relevant to consciousness, and later on see how my own experiences depart from or align with them. Consciousness forms the foundation of phenomenology, and learning choreography is often an experiment in consciousness. Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenology relies on the consciousness as intentionality, emphasizing the subject’s intentional direction awareness of objects. From this, objective conclusions can be drawn about first-person experience and its relationship to knowledge. Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty propose a more dialogical process, in which the subject is contextualized in the greater world of objects and consciousness cannot be reduced to its knowable components, focusing more on being than knowing. Whereas Husserl focused mainly on the mind, Merleau-Ponty’s idea corporeity proposed that the body is always inherent in lived experience.

 

Buddhist philosophies of mind and body, particularly mind-body theorist Yasuo Yuasa’s thought, bypass the Cartesian mind-body dualism/spirit-material idealism all together, an alternative to the metaphysical basis of Western philosophies of consciousness. There are several reasons why I think Yuasa’s philosophies are particularly suitable for dance:

 

1)    The basis of non-dualism avoids the need for material/spiritual, subjective/objective, and theoretical/practical distinctions.

2)    Consciousness is not static in an innate form. Rather, the body-mind can train latent consciousness through cultivation (including physical practice).

3)    Physical practice, by virtue of non-dualism, develops the undifferentiated body-mind.

 

 

Keeping in mind Yuasa’s ideas, my experience studying this choreography has been a journey from the feeling of mind encountering body as two separate entities to a sense of unity working united, facilitating focus and responsiveness. To bring the discussion back to the gallery, while performing I discovered that the philosophy of patience serves as a way to train consciousness, which carries over into Brown’s dances. My goal is to provide a phenomenological analysis of how they are the same.

 

Lying on the ground of the art gallery sculpture courtyard, cool stone and leaves under my back, I wait for the cue to lift my stick and proceed to lift it up and slide underneath it. In “Horizontal Sticks,” five dancers slide under their sticks to the other side, sit up, swing their leg over to straddle the stick, change their grip, and then sit back down on the original side to slide back underneath it. Sounds simple, right? The catch is that the dancers have to keep the ends of their sticks in contact the entire time. If the connection breaks, the dancers must fix it before moving on.

 

The horizontal sticks can be maddening. My hands cramp as I painstakingly try to meet the end of the stick in front of me, shaking all the while. A single break in the line has a domino effect, requiring us all to regroup. The exercise can be taxing, but it also brought about an amazing realization. At the gallery, it struck me that the stick game ends exactly as it begins. The point is not just getting it done; it’s the moments of sheer satisfaction when the sticks stay together, and the exhilarating concentration of working as a group. “Sticks” requires us to move together and sense one another’s actions in a concrete, tangible way. We are not putting out our magical antennae to pick up on each other’s “energy.” It truly is a fantastic exercise in learning to overcome frustration and come into responsive awareness.

 

Our excerpt of Newark is just like the sticks. Where I am affects Christine’s entrance, which affects Holly when she comes to push us; we keep the points connected just like the sticks. I must reach center to sweep my arm over Christine, and then join Caroline before weaving through Lila and Naomi. Newark and the sticks from Early Works may seem disparate, but they share a similar underlying choreographic ethos. The early studies are exercises in consciousness—of a group, of one’s actions, of a task—and the same kind of consciousness extends to later stage work. This discovery, accessed from inside the material, felt like a breakthrough for me in understanding Trisha Brown as an artist.

 

Another Early Work in the gallery, Primary Accumulation, requires similar patience. Four dancers lying in a line perform a sequence of 30 movements as an accumulation (1; 1,2; 1,2,3 and so forth), and then repeat the sequence 3 additional times in its entirety.

 

I was astounded when I added up the discrete movements; we do the first movement 30 times, the second 29 times, the third 28 times, and so on. Then we repeat every movement an additional three times. The sum was 555 individual movements! Like John Cage’s observation about repetition, the sequence initially took my mind through frustration and boredom, but ultimately became elucidating and beautiful. It’s a gorgeous piece to watch, and time felt slower, more measured, when we performed it in the gallery.

 

More notably, while the repetitions become engrained until they are almost automatic, I never feel that my execution is complacent. Each movement, though fairly even in time and energy, takes on its own flavor and color; I feel like I get to know them. Their idiosyncrasy, I realized forms the basis of where I find emotion in the Trisha Brown material. While my mind is devoid of any prescribed emotionality, there is something compelling and ambiguously narrative in the gestural movements of Newark. Movements are treated individually, almost as if with great care, in their details—a step forward on the right, a gentle break at wrist, another step, the hand approaches the foot (like a little boat).

 

Accumulation is also a reflection on the “naturalness” of movement. Discussing the experience of Trisha Brown’s choreography, words like “ease,” “flow,” and “efficiency” often arise. Returning to Yuasa, perhaps the phenomenon of flow is more of a practiced consciousness than an inherent state of things. Perhaps the experience of ease is actually a process of building kinetic chain reactions into the body, as well as a process of discovering objective movement efficiency from an anatomical vantage point.

 

What makes a string of disparate motions more or less “connected?” At the beginning of a phrase in Newark, we shoot our right arm into a diagonal arabesque, and then twist the plane of the body to face the wall, collapsing the back leg and dropping the arm in a single smooth unfolding. When I felt I could tap into that series of kinesthetic chain reactions, if felt like a discovery. Primary Accumulation, however, made me entertain the thought that perhaps flow is in part created as well. It’s tempting to speak of the movement as if it comes from a natural place, but the range of human movement is much broader than one kind of choreography. Primary Accumulation develops a feeling of natural flow, even though the movements themselves discrete. In the Newark material, arriving at the smooth kinesthetic fascia is as much a process of ACCUMULATION as it is an innate musculoskeletal fact. It is an accumulation of information as we negotiate with physical forces—a building up as much as a paring down.

 

In short, flow, as a conscious activity, can be cultivated, not simply found as an inherent or objective quality in the movement. As an exercise in consciousness, Primary Accumulation, like sticks, grounded me in my environment. My memories of the sequence are especially vivid: I remember how my head pressed into the stone terrace on #24, and the way Maddie’s toes pointed in my peripheral vision on #11, the only time I could open my eyes due to the bright sunlight on that day.

 

Again, patience for process fosters an ability to experience actively. If I interrogate the purpose of the movement, or even focus excessively on how it feels, my responsiveness is impeded. Repetition breeds the kind of mindlessness that is, paradoxically, utter mindfulness. The key to understanding this is tweaking the definition of mindful and mindless activities. Mindfulness, referring to analysis in the humanities, is more often continuous critical engagement. Repetition of an arbitrary series of movements may not seem like active engagement (i.e. mindless), but that level of familiarity is necessary to access information about the choreography. In this way, YDT’s research process aligns more with the laboratory approach of science experiments that are repeated to gain information.

 

The way I have been trained to think often makes repetitive or painstaking tasks extremely boring. As a student, a critical voice in my head often asks, “What’s the point? What’s the point?” and this is reified all the time. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling this way.

 

All too often, I see ideas as things to be discovered, not cultivated. Even as a dancer, I often link mindfulness with stillness. Trisha Brown’s choreography is challenging me, challenging me to see that the world is movement, and nothing has to be still for me to truly understand it. The world will not slow down for me to find focus, so my focus readjusts. Consciousness is a dance—sweeping arms, flinging legs, dives into gravity, losing my balance and finding it again, and again, and again.

 

 

 

Common Ground

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            I attacked Trisha Brown like a ballerina. This made the first few weeks of rehearsal exceptionally frustrating. Since ballet was the only style of dance I had substantial training in, I equated “dance” with ballet technique—if I’m not turning out and stretching through my legs and pulling up in my core, I thought, I must not be dancing. So I would look for moments in Trisha’s choreography that felt a little like ballet—“my leg is behind me, it’s basically an arabesque”—and latch onto them, letting the rest fall by the wayside. But treating Trisha Brown like modified ballet prevented me from both understanding it and feeling like I was dancing.

“The rhythm is in the construction” -Irène

One of the things I struggled with most was the lack of music. I think that in the best ballets, you are the music. This is what I always loved about Balanchine. Serenade has no story; there is only music and dancers, and beautiful as they both are on their own, it is their perfect union that makes the piece so extraordinary. I couldn’t comprehend how you could have dance without music.

But what I came to realize was that it was really the rhythm I missed, and this work does have rhythm—it’s just internal instead of external. If you want to make the right shapes, you need your bodies to interact at precisely the right time. The rhythm is even more a part of the choreography than it is in ballet: rather than fitting the movements to the rhythm, the rhythm is uniquely generated by the movements. Trisha Brown has taken what is most glorious about ballet and made it not only explicit, but absolutely essential. If you’re doing the right thing, you make a picture in both space and time, and you cannot make one without the other.

“Just be you—you are enough.” -Irène

            It wasn’t until the art gallery that I felt like a performer. I know that Irène always tells us not to perform, but I think that “performing” means something different to me than it does to her. It’s not about theatricality or putting on a false act. For me, it’s always been about bringing one part of myself, however small, into the light to share with others. As a human being I am spritely, flirtatious, soft, grieving, sultry, passionate, demure, angry, rebellious, mysterious, and countless other things in different proportions. Maybe I bury a lot of those things in my daily life, but the stage is where I get to say, “See? This is me, and it’s you, too.” Trisha Brown has also made this statement explicit in a way that ballet often does not. When we perform Trisha’s work, we are not angels or ethereal beings. We are nothing but ourselves—gorgeously imperfect, unique human beings, just like the people watching us. And if the people watching think there’s something extraordinary about our performance, it’s only because they’re thinking of the extraordinary things mere humans can do.

“…like a flower blooming” –Man at gallery

            I’m sorry if this sounds cliché, but it fills me with joy to think that our dancing can really touch people. I’ve always thought that good dance is a dialogue. Actually, “dialogue” is misleading, because there are really more than two players talking. The dancer’s mind and body talk to each other, and the whole dancer talks to the other whole dancers, and if the dancers are very good then they can bring the audience into the conversation, too.

            The quote above was spoken by one of the museum security guards during a performance of Spanish Dance. I don’t know if Trisha or any of us associate that image with Spanish Dance, but it’s a beautiful one and I’m sure it gave that man some small new thing to marvel at.

Verbal communication is one of the most amazing things to me in the world. It’s a little ridiculous that we have sequences of electrical signals in our heads that we perceive as an infinite array of abstract ideas, and that we can take these signals and flap around meaty bits in our throats to form sound waves that, when they strike the eardrums of another person, can reliably produce electrical sequences in their brain that they perceive as the very same abstract ideas. I always worried that language was the only thing that could do that, but this man’s testimony proves me wrong, and I am so glad. Of course, dance as we know it is not language—we don’t have it standardized and refined so that we can express ideas with much precision. But the fact that it’s different doesn’t make it any less real or amazing as a form of communication. There’s something authentically beautiful about the fact that you can take six bodies and have them shuffle around to a Bob Dylan song and someone will say, “this reminds me of X.” What I saw at the art gallery, and also as a spectator at the TBDC’s performance, was that dance does speak. Loudly. Dance may not say the same thing to everyone, but what it can say is powerful. I have to praise Trisha Brown for using the communicative power of dance to its fullest potential.

“I see understanding” –Emily Coates

            I’m saying a lot of wonderful things about Trisha’s work, so you must have figured out that I got out of my ballet-induced stagnation. I think what did it was realizing that what I love about ballet is what I love about dance in general; the technique and style is inconsequential. It’s as if I’m standing on a mountain now, looking back at the valley that is ballet, and realizing that the land around me is riddled many separate valleys, as far as the eye can see. Countless different forms of dance, reaching out beyond the horizon, and yet they all share something. Now I feel like I can still be a ballerina, but I’m something more, too. Like ballet once did, Trisha Brown is seeping into my blood, the “understanding” of the movement permeating every sinew and bone. I know I have but scratched the surface on this immense body of work, but I feel accomplished just for having attained this new perspective. Now that I have internalized this minimal understanding—of both how Trisha’s work is dance and how it is different from other dance—the real learning can begin.

Trisha in the Gallery: a study of studies

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It felt like we belonged there. Like we had been born there doing Early Works and the museum always had barefoot college students balancing sticks on their heads, wearing white. Natural is the wrong word of course – all art is fabricated, all art is contrived, all art is made, created, and that is its genius – maybe easy? We eased into the space, in between all of the created art, did our created dance, and we fit. We fit easily. 

There’s something about the sanctity of an art gallery that compels people to keep hushed. Some say they just don’t want to disturb other patrons but really, if you were alone in an art gallery, would you be your normal, clunky, noisy self? Would you even speak at all? And there’s something about the professionalism of a dance piece that shuts you up too – the dancers don’t talk, they dance, and you don’t talk, you watch. Therein lies the beauty, I think, of Trisha in the Gallery: here was a place for sanctity, for professionalism, for purity in the dancers wearing white. And we dropped our sticks on the ground so they smacked and everyone jumped. We shook our hips to Bob Dylan in the Ancient Artifacts room. We laughed falling out of the leaning duets, or puffed in frustration. We grass stained our knees, got gallery floor dust all over our backs. We squinted our eyes in the sun. We tried things that we never had in rehearsal. We Spanished our way into a tree. Where was the sanctity? The professionalism? The purity?
 
It was in the ease. The belonging. Trisha’s movements studies belonged in the rooms with the art to be studied. The art was finished and we were dynamic, shifting our weights, synching our steps, adjusting our timing. The art was created and we were creating, recreating, rediscovering, feeling through the art again, revisiting it, like those visiting the gallery a second, third, sixteenth time. Art is new every time you see it – it is dynamic, it shifts, it synchs, it adjusts to your gaze. And the sanctity, the professionalism, the purity, is actually the awe that comes with realizing that all these things – the paintings, the sculptures, the dancers, the movements – are all studies, sketches, constantly reconfiguring before your eyes, and beautifully so. All art is a study, it stumbles like a leaning duet, it disconnects and refinds itself like sticks in a line, it balances on top of a dancer’s head as she walks, and beautifully so; and beautifully so.

The Wrist Accumulates: The First of Three (Untold) Acts

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  1. Iron wrist arcing, short hand tracing the quarter

hour—unwind. Soft iron wrist arcing, short hand

tracing, long hand tracing—unwind. Soft iron

wrists, short hand tracing, long hand tracing, short

hand for the halo around a girl’s ear, forged from

fire—unwind. Hot iron wrists, second hand, minute

hand, after-breath halo around the ear, down, not

your turn, stay—unwind. Iron wrist tracing, short

hand, tracing, long hand, tracing the halo hovering

above the ear of the girl, and stay, turn yourself

inside out and upside in to lift—unwind. Iron

wrist arcing, tracing short, tracing long, bunny

around the ear tree, nothing for you now, so dig,

step without stepping—unwind. Iron wrist traces

small, traces double, traces the halo a firefly leaves

around the right ear, wait here, scoop, wait a footy

moment, second moment, expose overlapping smiles

as if the black-box photographer moved too soon—

unwind. Iron wrists, short tracing, long tracing, firefly

halo tracing, then fading, opening to catch water, then

turning back empty-handed, out of the act for a breath

then a hula, you are not here—unwind. Soft iron

tracing a wrist, tracing a farther wrist to envelop, not

too close, the iridescent ear, and away, and curling,

uncurling, playing dead fish, hula fool, you’re not

here, you’re a puppet rising on a string—unwind.

Movement as Nature, Movement as Sculpture

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As we moved through the gallery spaces, indoors and outdoors, I became aware of a shift taking place in how I perceived the movement in relation to its physical space. It’s interesting to me that, while dance is theoretically one of the more three-dimensional art forms – bodies moving through physical space – the experiences that I’ve had viewing dance as an audience member have almost always been limited to a two-dimensional frame – the proscenium or the screen. In that way, movement becomes related to a photograph or painting. Dance becomes a series of images, with each image having the potential for perfection. But with Trisha Brown’s work, there is a heightened awareness of the space – depth, height, onstage, offstage. And because of this acknowledgement that the dance will breathe and transform within the physical space, I think a greater freedom for the movement can be achieved. Rather than the movement being a series of images, it becomes a journey through the space. The movement, its intention and effect, is transformed repeatedly. 

When we were performing Spanish dance in the art gallery, I was struck by how sculptural the movement was. Surrounding us were ancient replicas of the human form – the torso, the face, the body – in marble and mosaic. In front of us, a piece created in the 1970s was brought to life. The small, repetitive movements of Spanish dance seemed to magnify the human body. I became aware of the specificity of each step. I was deeply struck by each dancer’s attention to her fellow dancers. Spanish dance became a piece about heightened listening, an ode to the unspoken language of the body – movement. In some way, all dance is an ode to the human body, just like the sculptures and mosaics surrounding us, illuminating the poetry of the human form. 

When we moved the work outside, I noticed how the movement fit into the environment. The movement worked with the environment. The performance quality of the work seemed to fade. There a recognition of the dance as pure movement in the work of Trisha Brown. I think that acknowledgement allows this work to be intensely affected by its environment, no matter what the environment is. I could imagine Trisha Brown’s work being performed in an abandoned factory, or in the ocean at dusk, or in middle of the desert in the heat. All of these locations would inspire new relationships between the dance and the environment. This is one of the most powerful things about Trisha Brown’s work for me – the potential for transformation. The work is never finished, but evolving based upon where it is performed, who is performing it and who is watching it. Nuances are uncovered and illuminated. The experience of performing throughout the art gallery has proved to me how alive her work is and how it has the power and capability to inspire a new sense of presence in the dancers and the audience.

form, negative, abstraction, reference

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(from notes 2.19.14)

What I am understanding as the fundamental problematic of Trisha Brown’s work with negative space – as approached through YDT’s study of “Newark” and “Early Work” of course – is that the dancer’s body is interlocutor of the negativity formed by its very imposition or intervention on or into environment.

The movement is not purely functional (functional in what sense, moreover; since when was dance functional? Since when did we discard functionalism?). It gives an aesthetic ‘idea’ or ‘image’ of functionality – but this is a functionality abstracted from its object. In this sense the choreography is not ‘realist’ nor even ‘pedestrian’ – even though it remains, ontologically, not unrelated to “task based” choreographic schemes of the early 1960s Judson Church explorations. It is a search for “pure” movement, without possibly being able to achieve such a thing. “Pure” movement as physicality refined, abstracted of the muscular and affective anguish of the everyday as of the great “modern” concert dancers.

But neither is this choreography a-referential: and this is its brilliance, the sly sass that the choreography incorporates, the nuggets of popular culture, ‘other’ practices and people, and gendered socio-historic gesture that it slips in suavely, style shucked of style. There is style here, reborn with the ultimate commendation of appearing ‘natural.’ Naturalness and neutrality – a close, slippery relation. Neutrality – as position? As disposition? 

But back (briefly) to negativity: negative space is produced in-the-same-instance of the dancer’s interlocution. The forms of this choreography – so sublimely clean, linear, geometrically lucid – are produced precisely in, where, the dancer-body is not. The dancer’s questioning sensing of “negativity” is what makes it’s non-presence so visible.

Presence

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So as some sort of artist headed into the “real” world in a just a few short months I have spent a whole load of time thinking about just what it is I want to do with my life when I leave the comforts of Yale. I am foremost trained as an actress, then a playwright. I grew up dancing (albeit bizarrely in the competition dance world in a small town in Georgia) and now choreograph and dance a whole lot. I’ve done devised mime work and maybe am interested in professional European clown work. And luckily Yale tolerates my 300 interests and has let me play around but I keep getting worried about just how I will choose! It seemed for a while that what type of work I headed towards would be so important but as I have been really refining my craft in different genres over the past few months I have come to realize something that seems to apply across disciplines – an ability to stay present.

I have a very frightening but phenomenal voice teacher who has been yelling at me for months about staying present and in the room. “Receive, receive the notes!” She always yells at me. And recently I have noticed how similar this is to things Irene yells at us as we dance. “See the floor, see the piano, be here and now, be present!” There is a real sense of presence and receptiveness that is necessary to Trisha’s work as I have been finding is necessary in my voice lessons. And when I really think about it – I talk about this in playwriting too. Playwriting teachers always talk about hearing your characters, just letting them speak and receiving the material rather than constructing it.

Thus I have really started to notice this interesting prominence of the idea of presence across all my artistic work. As much as these genres I work with differ –my musical theater can often seem rather distant from the work of Trisha Brown – they are all connected by the idea of presence.

I think I often try to place my finger on what makes something good art, be it a play, a dance or really any work – and I am thinking more and more that really great works that move us are united by this idea of being present and receiving our surroundings. We often think of art as a creative process but this word “create” makes it seem almost as if we are imposing ourselves, really piecing together something, when I am starting to think that really good work just comes out of people ready to receive and filter their surroundings through their bodies. Of course this can produce things of huge variety still  – we all receive things differently so there will still be loads of possibilities – but I can see an amazing awareness and receptiveness in all the artists I admire and in the moments that I feel myself succeed at work. The best moments in this process have not been the ones that I hit some position sharply and perfectly but the moments when I was really aware and awake in my body and felt, to my core, the rhythm of some moment or the body-logic of a fall.

Today was the first day I think I was able to find myself fully present in Trisha’s work – Irene had us focus on a lightness and I think this help me pull myself out of such an internal focus and really notice and receive my surroundings. Growing up in competition dance I know I have super showy external habits left over from that work and thus often my response is to shut down and go super far in the other direction – I just stop looking outwards at all in an attempt to tone myself down. But focus on lightness changed the whole work for me today. It was amazing what a difference this made. I was totally exhausted by the end in a way I had not been from just the physical – I had really mentally entered new space that connected me to the work.  It was so liberating and so exhausting.

And I think this is something that really great artists do no matter the genre of the work. Great dancers and choreographers like Trisha have an ability to be present inside their bodies, playwrights are hyper-present with human interactions, singers with the sounds of notes, actors with the moment on stage. I think I am coming to realize that no matter what I head towards, as long as I can stay present in my work it will turn out well! Thank goodness I am starting to find my presence in Trisha’s work and I hope to continue to find moments where I am just there, present in our little 3rd floor studio, present with the work and with my surroundings, really taking it all in.

Hearing Trisha’s Rhythm

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It’s like you are rubber. You are rubber and you stretch and snap and bounce on your bones. Like you’re a superball thrown hard against a wall, and you spring unpredictably all around the room, and each time you hit you thump, you bump, you thud. That’s Trisha’s movement. A surprising and strong (and unpredictable?) rhythm. The movement is impossible to separate from the rhythm it creates, the thumps are inherent, in fact they are integral. For the dancer, they are essential to understanding the quality of the movement. You say bahhh-DUM-dum-dum to yourself and suddenly you realize that you haven’t been holding the breath long enough, haven’t been melting down low enough. Now you are informed, your movement is suddenly more deep, honest, thorough, believable. It’s less scraping the surface, because you know when to bounce and when to stretch and when to bend, and not just intellectually either: your body understands as well. Especially because a lot of Trisha’s movement divides itself sequentially – you’d never get the proper feel for the whole movement if you couldn’t find the rhythm of the knees pulling forward and the head following and the arms swinging. This is the reason why the rhythm is essential for the viewer, the audience member, who is not moving and must experience the choreography secondhand: without rhythm, everything Trisha would just be an undistinguishable simultaneousness. The moves can only slide together so pleasingly because of the subtle pauses, the subtle changes in weight through your heels, the subtle thumps of your superball body against the ground; rhythm absent, you’d see a stream of unending movement, as if you were hearing a sentence from another language. Trisha is that other language. And the ba-DUM-dum-dum-DUM rhythms are the only tool the audience has to make meaning of the foreign terms.