Economy of Exertion, Exploration of Energy, Time, and Counting
There is no doubt that the movement we are learning is challenging, but what makes it challenging? On the surface, I would ascribe its difficulty to the sheer speed and intricacy of the choreography, but I think I am grappling with something more. What I am investigating is not only the physical exertion that the movement necessitates, but also the physical economizing that equally facilitates its execution.
I’m realizing that much of my dance experience has vacillated between two philosophical and physical extremes—difficulty and ease. My first training was in ballet, a form that thrives in some ways on insurmountable goals. There is an often-heard maxim in ballet studios that if it is not the difficult way, it is the wrong way. This kind of ideal in training comes up when we talk about necessary physical adjustments as “cheating” to make movement work, such as the slight shift of the hips to the supporting leg in a very high extension to the side, or the small opening of the hip in an arabesque. While this is by no means the only way of teaching ballet, it seems that many of these anatomical realities become “necessary evils,” hence the idea of difficulty by impossibility.
By contrast, the somatic practices, release techniques, and improvisational methods I have done in the past—including Gaga, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and Authentic Movement—focus on goals of ease and efficiency in breath, alignment, muscle tension, and response to gravity.
With both these frameworks in mind, I sometimes feel that I am “between bodies,” always sorting out what needs to be working and what doesn’t. Furthermore, how I use and approach my body depends very much on the relationship between my own goals and the purpose of the movement I am doing. Efficiency and ease, challenge and difficulty, both take on different meanings for different movers and movements.
When we began the Akram Khan material, I felt a sense of unrequited effort. I tried to imitate the percussively harsh yet fluidly continuous movements of Lali and Young Jin, but struggled to approximate them with my own body. It was as if I were punctuating every sentence with an exclamation mark, but not actually saying anything, or swinging a baseball bat and continually striking out. I saw the dynamism in Lali’s and Young Jin’s movements, but even once I began to grasp the mechanics, I was still unsure about how to economize my energy. How to exert and conserve is my lingering question.
The use of the term “energy” itself in teaching dance is fascinating to me, because it is a concept that floats between the metaphorical and the physical. We sometimes hear, “You shoot the energy from your fingertips,” or, “The energy builds up in the legs and then spirals through the spine.” In this sense it sounds almost magical. At other times, energy is a very specific physical request, such as, “Not so much energy; you won’t stop turning.” This correction asks for efficiency, for less force. Energy is mysterious because it refers to both the real exertion that accompanies movement and its own imaginary metaphor—an image that helps the dancer know how to move.
As Lali said during one rehearsal, you have to conserve energy to execute the movement, or you will never reach the speed and dynamic required. You have to find out what needs to work. She said that she always thinks about the arms—they are never thrown away. This is a shift for me as a dancer; I often think about the work the legs are doing moving through space. But it’s true, the arms are incredibly specific (perhaps influenced by the intricate mudras, or hand positions, of Kathak) and following the arms gives the flow of the phrase.
The movements in Vertical Roads and Kaash are incredibly dynamic, with quick shifts of weight, a constant grounding in earth, but arm gestures that crackle, flow, sizzle, twist, and warp—fluent in fire, water, and wind. Each movement burns color into the air with the precision of lightning, and yet when I finish the phrase I feel like years went by—over and under different terrains, through architecture that falls away before it is even stabilized. Perhaps I am romanticizing the fusion of Kathak, with its ancient and rich history in Bangladesh and northern India, with contemporary European trends, but I truly feel a different sense time and space while dancing this choreography, feeling hints of a secret story in the dynamic rhythms.
Time and energy, as I have written about, converge most importantly in counting the dance. The counts are more than temporal information, i.e. divisions in a blank stretch of linear time:
“wuuun TWO! threee four one two THREE! foourr, one TWO! three FOUR!”
The rhythm is dynamic rather than metronomic, tangible rather than abstract. You hit movement on each count with bull’s eye accuracy, like punctuation rather than a trailing pause. The counts aren’t subdivisions of time chugging along. Rather, the counts are creating rhythm and dynamic. This is perhaps why the choreography’s treatment of time feels so different: Time doesn’t pass separately from the movement that happens within it.
I think of the idea of a blank canvas. We can think about painting as filling the canvas, or we can think about the canvas as bringing the painting into existence. The movements of these dances don’t fill time—they make it, shaping its dynamics and its rhythms. Counting becomes a palette of color instead of an incremented ruler.
I feel like time is not outside me while I’m dancing to these counts. The choreography is fast, but I am not racing to fulfill each movement at a certain speed. My task in the dance is to create time, not overcome it. Time is my achievement, not my competitor.