Sisyphus, The Dancer

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As the Akram Khan showing has come and gone, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the ideas I mentioned in my last post. I talked about risk, about tension, about Khan’s choreography affirming my own existence. I realized that virtually everything I said stands in the face of mortality. I think perhaps that is why I so identify with the Khan movement: each time I complete one of his movements, lunging deep to the ground or thrusting my arms as far away from my chest as I can go, I emerge victorious out of battle with the unknown, with gravity, with all the forces that surround me in this absurd situation we call life.

I emerged from the lecture-demonstration with a strong adrenaline high, as if I had just overcome some great obstacle. After the performance, it was particularly strong, but I had that feeling every time I did these movements in rehearsal too. It reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, whose punishment for his deceitfulness was an eternity of pushing a stone up a hill. Each time he reached the precipice, the stone would fall back down, never continuing over. It seems tragic, but I prefer the interpretation of French writer Albert Camus, who wrote: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This is dance—an eternity of improvement, of never-ending happy failures. When I did the Akram Khan movement, I felt as if it was a string of pushes; each one of my movements paralleled Sisyphus’s steps up the hill. I often felt as if I might fail, forced to stop from sheer tiredness or shaky muscles. I never did. Each rehearsal, I pushed the stone up the hill; the next day, I would have to start from the bottom again.

Still, at least I get to push the stone up the hill. At least I have a body that can move, that can do (or attempt to do) the virtuosic Khan movements. This session of Yale Dance Theater was not only my third year in the program, but it was my second year performing after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee and having surgery to repair it. Each time I squatted to the ground, mimicking Lali’s low-placed pelvis or Young Jin’s turned-in ankle, I felt a twinge of pain in my knee. Each time I practiced the beginning part of Kaash, literally lunging every two seconds onto my right knee, it hurt. According to my orthopedist, it’s the kind of pain I’ll probably have forever, left over from scar tissue and bone misalignment. Doing the Akram Khan movement made me realize that dance might possibly be my ideal pain killer. I can’t explain it, but even though I felt pain when practicing the movements in rehearsal (focusing on a single kick or lunge), when we actually did them all together in sequence, I forgot the twinges. My physical pain was erased; it didn’t register. Instead, all I could feel was the simultaneity of my head and hand moving together; all I could focus on was moving from point A to point B in the given rhythm. Nothing else mattered. Pain was an afterthought that my mind and body chose to ignore.

I don’t know if dance can truly cure pain, but I do think it literalizes the human life force. It deeply engages our bodies and minds, it creates communities, it questions the limits of reality. I can honestly say that I have never felt more alive than after doing Akram Khan’s choreography. Thank you to Akram Khan, Lali, Young Jin, Emily, and the members of Yale Dance Theater for providing me with this incredible opportunity to experience such a crazy metaphysical phenomenon. Now I know: dance really is life.