“First you have to say “yes” deep inside…from a guttural place”
Iréne spoke these words during one of our first rehearsals, and the directive has stuck with me. I had the opportunity to learn bits of Trisha Brown’s choreography last year through Iréne’s Dance Theater class—Glacial Decoy, Set and Reset, Locus, and Foray Forêt. When I first encountered the inexorable flow and seamless fluidity of Brown’s choreography, I used the following metaphor to describe my experience:
“I sense there is a flow to the choreography that I must find in reverse. I feel at first like I am swimming upstream and feeling the current against my skin, and for brief moments I can let go of the struggle and float.”
Giving in to the current and saying “yes” seem like two ways of getting at the same underlying principle. But what am I agreeing to when I say “yes?” As we continue to learn Newark, I have become interested in natural movement and what exactly that means. Now, by “natural” I do not mean the psycho-spiritual approach to movement undertaken by early modern dance choreographers, but something much more bare bones: a way of moving in concordance with the body’s kinetic chains wherein everything feels organic. As Iréne has said before, if it doesn’t feel right, then it’s not right. My question is this—is developing efficient movement a process of accumulation (additive) or a process of paring down and unlearning (subtractive)? Or perhaps it’s not something to slap a binary onto.
As we work on the choreography, we focus a great deal on somatic work. We become attuned to the weight of our heels on the floor, the crease of our hip sockets, the alignment of our skeletons, and the flow of our breathing. We look for moments to allow our “gut-sight” to kick in and direct us. We frequently talk about the body’s knowledge, saying that the body knows more than our minds are aware. Through this process, I am looking for new modes of engagement with dance and trying to make discoveries. On one hand, I must say “yes”—yes to falling, yes to direction, yes to weight. On the other, I am also trying to ask questions at the same time. If yes is doing and questions are feeling, then it seems there is a tension between self-observation and self-participation; I would like to examine this relationship further as we continue.
From this experience comes another question: What is ease? Nothing could be easier than gravity. From a physical standpoint, a fall requires no effort, just mass and acceleration due to gravity. But falling is one of the hardest things in this material. The inevitability of physical laws becomes more complex when we interact with them while dancing—the vast majority of our lives are spent resisting gravity and maintaining upright orientation. When I fall or flip upside-down, I become so much more aware of my body’s “object-ness.” My own weight causes me to topple, or fall uncontrollably. If “yes” is commitment without looking back, then I need to start understanding what I’m looking towards. Through this process, I am beginning to reeducate my body.
“Really look!” “It’s visual rhythm.”
“Feel the body, feel the heel, feel the knee, feel the hip joint…”
Iréne has mentioned sight numerous times, referring to both the appearance of the dancer’s geometry in space and the dancer’s gaze. We watch video of rehearsal footage, trying to absorb the qualities of a phrase. More than most choreography I see, there is something really kinetically luscious about just watching Brown’s choreography—a kind of kinesthetic synesthesia. In Newark, I see a specificity of shape that is tactile; I feel each weight shift, and I feel each precisely angled gesture. Watching the “Cranwell” phrase, I feel the satisfaction of each logical kinetic chain as I see it unfold—the tantalizing energy of a phrase that you can really sink your teeth into.
I feel the phrase differently when watching it than when doing it. While dancing is much more consuming, both experiences hit me somewhere visceral. As I watch, I feel a powerful desire to emulate the movement. When rehearsing a phrase, if I finally achieve the flow of a movement, I feel like I’ve known it always. Maybe it’s the body’s knowledge coming back to me. I’m trying to understand the interplay between these sensory modes. The best way I can describe the work is by offering the contrast between seeing and looking as a metaphor. Looking is seeing with a kind of directive action; it is both an act of direction and an intake of sensory information at the same time. I need a parallel verb to contrast with feeling—feeling as an act of direction rather than just the intake of sensory information. I think this sense is what I am pursuing.
This push-and-pull sense is what makes a smart dancer, I think. Until now, I have entered ballet class ready to engage my “ballet body”—abdominals pulled up, hip rotators engaged, chest lifted, etc. It was an act of direction that overwhelmed sensory information. The same process doesn’t work for Trisha Brown’s material. I warm up my joints and try to engage my core, but I can’t tap into any preset body that will allow me to execute any phrase we learn. I must take each step on its own terms, its own mechanics, and its own logic. It is a balance between knowing what to do with my body and knowing what my body is doing.
I’ve identified some other concerns—recreation vs. resonance, and direction vs. detail. Recreation of a movement is form-based and exclusively judged on a visual basis—the approximation of a movement from video or observation. Resonance is the mechanics and flow of form, the correct impulses and initiations that allow the body’s responsiveness to propel it through forms.
Direction is the uninhibited “yes” that takes the body with it, a full commitment to direction in space. Detail is the small somatic prompts or mechanical corrections that help us discover the intricacies of the phrase, which build up into its entirety. Both are indispensible, and I’m trying to cultivate both. In doing so, I feel like I am trying to be the driver and the passenger of a car (while also being the car itself).
3) Translation: Walkthrough of a Phrase
I see colors as I inscribe a circle. Shifting from corner to side, I am a statue of skin. A line extends from Point Toe to Point Head, a ray I call the spine. Then I pick something up backwards, a crumpling retraction. I feel the space behind me, and the space in front of me. The elbow leads. There’s a shift of axis, a shift of plane, like water but more planar—a planar sloshing as the elbows change their direction. As water flows from two to three dimensions— that is where this movement occurs.
The left knee is a pivot point. The elbows settle into a little mountain, and my spine erupts through it. As the distance increases, a leg on a hinge changes the whole orientation. I follow it like a chain on an anchor, compressed into a hieroglyph. Then come shifting sheets of metal, and the space is full of light. How would my body refract and reflect so that each shift of angle tells me something new about myself in space?
A midline abruptly appears, an incidental axis, and then it vanishes. My eyes follow a dragonfly on the surface of the water. I fall into smoothness—how a collapsible flower would fall in a very sudden autumn to listen to the warmth of the ground. I become a leaf.
Now, I am on a microscope slide. My limbs become their own organisms spreading across the glass. As the cell begins division, the nucleus spins and everything remembers togetherness. The span of evolution takes place in milliseconds, and I am on my feet—a two-legged creature. A brief flirt with gravity and I’m back on the ground.
On the floor again, hips push up and pull back in a little snail of a spiral, then burst from the shell to build a little house on a toppling hill. The leg shoots back and the arm forward, a split second of freestyle swimming, then calm. Now I feel like an elevator, looking out the window. Now it’s something towering, a dinosaur, perhaps. There is a little puff of air and the arms make an uneven windmill connected by my sternum. Again, it’s the surface of the water, but now with lag time. I unfurl through, and then fall in reverse of how I grew. The head buoys on the neck, nodding in agreement with an inevitable gravity. Fall.