Finally a long-overdue blog post! I began this one shortly after our performance and just finished it up:
The performance on Friday was an amazing experience, and I’ve needed some time to process and allow verbal thoughts to coalesce out of the experiential impressions.
From the moment the showing began, there was an electric and yet sacred energy in the space. Friends I spoke to later about the performance mentioned a sense of severity, which I found interesting because my own experience was so freeing. However, for this post I don’t wish to talk about what our dancing looked like, but rather how it felt. I think it is these impressions that are most transient, and the least able to be recorded.
From an outside perspective, I’d always thought Cunningham’s dancers appeared very serious in performance. Before our learning Roaratorio, it seemed like an imposed demeanor and just a part of the aesthetic. The value of inside research into this choreography is the revelation that this “seriousness” is something far more than a staged appearance: It is an incredible focus on the movement and attentive engagement to the present around you. Most surprisingly, I found it rose organically rather than through a conscious effort on my part. All I had to do was dance.
Nancy Dalva wrote a wonderful and thorough response to our blog posts discussing Cunningham’s choreographic practices and thoughts; anyone reading our posts should definitely read it here: http://www.nancydalva.com/2012/04/from-dance-ink-way-of-merce.html.
One quote in the response that piqued my attention was from Carolyn Brown: “Chance is the dogma, but look deeper.” For me, this whole semester has been about trying to “look deeper,” and what I’ve discovered is the value and beauty of Cunningham’s innovations, including chance, not simply as aesthetic revolutions in their own right, but also as perceptual interventions that bring focus back to the experience of dancing.
While chance, indeterminacy, and independence from music certainly alter the visual appearance of the dance, I discovered that the beauty of the choreography existed in how the dancer interacts with the movement and innovations, not simply their imposition on the dancer. Our showing of Roaratorio was unlike any performance experience I’ve ever had. For one thing, the portions of indeterminacy required me to be attuned to what was going on around me, since these parts of the piece were different every time. The slow crossings and the shoulder pop, for example, required active navigation each time so it was impossible to go into any kind of “autopilot” mode.
Through looking deeper, I’ve found a choreography that offers an authentic experience. Dancing in Roaratorio affirmed for me the remarkable sensation of dancing in a landscape that Meg described so aptly. What I loved about this experience was how we functioned as a community and not as individual performers. Audience members later spoke of a singular organism—like a school of fish or a pack of animals. This was not about an aesthetic; this was about togetherness in a shared present.
Another innovation, dancing to internal rhythms instead of music, similarly served function rather than form. While we had external music for the performance, our internal score kept us unified. We weren’t dancing to music, but rather to each other. I think it is this kind of internal experience, of movement, of rhythm, of others, that makes Cunningham’s work so captivating to watch and rewarding to learn and perform.
One of my favorite things about this piece is that it feels not so much like a dance, but a world choreographed through movement. We don’t simply occupy the space; we interact with and navigate through it, paying equal attention to every point and orientation. I had the sense that everything in my world at that moment was right there—in the choreography and in my fellow dancers. Even in retrospect, it was like an escape into some kind of dilated time in a distant space removed from the world; it felt like an eternity, while still ending too soon. The only sense of time I could rely on was the rhythms that were the lifeblood of the choreography, like a collective heartbeat. Cunningham once said that rhythm was time cut up, but for me the rhythm the only time there was.
While I try, there are some nuances of this experience that I can’t really articulate, and I think that is appropriate. For one, I can’t define where my embodied knowledge of the choreography ended and external, in-the-moment decisions began. My senses were so heightened to everything going on around me—the rhythms, the movement, the space—but I also felt an internal groundedness in the movement and in the rhythm. I think there was some kind of interplay at work here between the familiar and the surprising, the known and the unexpected. Some parts of the piece—the rhythm of my jig, the spatial orientations of the “up-up-downs”, or the slow crossings are so internalized that I can really focus perfecting their details. Other moments are fleeting and perhaps not replicable—a moment of unanticipated eye contact, or a brief collision. I love that there is room in the choreography for these kinds of moments; it keeps the dancer constantly engaged on what they are doing and what is going on around them.
This experience has helped me begin to understand another question from Nancy to Merce: How could his dances be so passionate without narrative, without music, and using chance to remove himself? His response: Because I love dancing!
The truth of these words lies in the experience of learning and performing Cunningham’s choreography. He was a dancer and he loved dancing—not just the look of it, but also the sheer ineffable experience of moving in space and time. Learning and performing this choreography has been such an enlightening privilege. For me, the passion in the choreography came from the freedom to just dance.
After intense focus on learning the movement and trying to perfect the details, I entered the performance with no anticipations. Although performing often makes me quite nervous, even the presence of the audience couldn’t distract me because I felt that in the movement I had a tool that gave me access to a whole other world. I was not bare onstage; I had the choreography to perform and that was all I needed. The surprises that followed were remarkable: Suddenly the familiar movements of my fellow dancers were brightened like Technicolor, as if I were seeing them for the first time. The choreography was something to be explored, a framework in which we as living, breathing dancers could create a totally shared experience.
In short, I was totally wrong about what I initially thought Cunningham’s work would feel like. It was in no way an artificial imposition; rather, it gave me agency as a performer that I’ve never known before. While I’ve performed many times before, this showing was the first time I experienced dancing with all my faculties, despite an audience. Finally, I could pay attention to exactly what I was doing while doing what I love, if this makes any sense. Being able to just focus on the movement and enjoying the perceptual surprises that inevitably arise while dancing with others afforded me so much freedom; it was like breathing or seeing for the first time.
Lastly, and most importantly, this experience has given me the answer to a personal question: This was what I was looking for during all my years of dance training. For me, this is what dance should feel like.
I’d like to say thank you to everyone who collaborated to bring this project together, and I hope I don’t miss anyone. Thank you to our faculty director Emily Coates; rehearsal directors Jennifer Goggans, Meg Harper, Neil Greenberg, and Patricia Lent; The Merce Cunningham Trust; Cunningham Trust Scholar in Residence Nancy Dalva; Yale College Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan; Yale Theater Studies and Dance Studies; Alliance for Dance at Yale; School of Music musicians Matthew Welch, Scott Petersen, Garth Neustadter, Anne Rhodes, Ian Rosenbaum, Michael Compitello, Paul Kerekes, and faculty director Christopher Theofanidis; costumer Amanda Walker; photographer William K. Sacco; and the Yale Daily News.
Also, thank you to all my fellow dancers for making this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity even more special; I’ve immensely enjoyed dancing with all of you.
Finally, I’d like to thank Merce Cunningham for his vision and passion. As Cunningham’s work redefined for the world what dance could be, this experience has redefined for me what dancing can be.