1) Difficulties Describing Dancing
Describing any experience in depth is going to be difficult. Every moment of my waking life, I am constantly receiving new sensory information. Dance is similarly full of information—my accelerated breathing and heartbeat, the presence of others around me, the pressure of my feet on the floor, and so many other things. When I’m asked to describe it, what should I focus on? What about the point in the short duet phrase where I always get tired—the pivot on the ground, then the catch step into the Cunningham walks? By the time we finish the Cunningham walks, there is a moment of silence on the sixth count before the clap. Right there, I realize I’m tired.
What about other thoughts that enter into your head uninvited? I noticed the nice swish of Derek’s leg in Big Brick, the moment he describes as:
“then there is the left leg that flicks you into 1st position. This is one of my favorite parts. It’s like swooping and snatching something with the tip of your toe and then having your lower back vacuum your leg back into first and into alignment.”
That was the quality I so admired in Derek’s leg swoosh. I’m getting up from my chair to try this right now, which I think is important to say. Yes, now I do feel a flick, a flick that is like stirring up dust with my left foot. Then it eggbeaters in at the knee and suddenly my whole body is facing the other direction. That shift happens on my right heel, which pushes in the floor in plié as it turns.
Even as I write this, I wonder how much Derek’s description is going to influence this moment now. To resort to the oft-pirated physics analogy (sorry Amymarie!) it’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The act of capture tells you the position of something at a given time, but the momentum is altered by the act of capturing. Maybe a more apt description is seeing a movie based on a childhood book— suddenly you don’t picture things quite the same way anymore. I guess this testifies to the fragility of these moments.
When thinking about writing out a phrase, I had to wonder, is there a methodology for censorship for clarity’s sake? Are there moments where description will alter my understanding of the choreography? Will it set me in my ways, making me think, “this is how it SHOULD be?” I certainly hope not, and I want to use writing in another way. What if I use the act of description as an act of destruction, voicing sensations as a way to cathartically purge myself of habitual patterns? Is this helpful, or interfering? To make it personal, how will my writing affect my dancing, and vice versa? Writing can’t pin down or replace choreography, but will it change my relationship to it?
I’ve decided I’m not going to get hung up on this “relationship” as a static thing. My relationship to the choreography is that I do it; there is nothing qualitative there. However, maybe by pouring out all these fleeting sensations, I can get over the need to document, the need to have the dance feel a certain way each time, and the fear that writing won’t “capture” the way I want. So here goes, free and uncensored:
Right shoulder left shoulder it’s as simple as that I’m doing it right now trying to describe it it’s kind of like the movement of those paddle toys you put in water there’s definitely a feeling of liquid in the shoulder blades arms up “PLIÉ ON THESE WALKS” right elbow to hip arms straight front like diving both elbows to hips right arm up “left hand catch the right hand beat it to the finish line!” now it’s caught like a little praying Buddha pose left arm sweeps cobwebs (I don’t think I ever really thought of cobwebs while doing it but now they’re coming to mind), right arm up flamenco flourish TRISHA BROWN curving the back left leg extended step left leg through to Fosse dressing up a doll/Macarena melt into right hand holding left arm right leg kicks out in out step left leg kicks back step step step CLAP with the PELVIS UNDERNEATH you walks REALLY SHAAAAAAKING your head step right HEEL leads back left ONE STEP cabriole facing front turn into a lunge WHOLE SIDE sweeps up and over arms and legs sloshing like water sprinkler two arms one arm this is my FAVORITE part it feels so satisfying then DROP the pelvis now we’re really going places three steps heel hips twist a little leg hips twist a lot step step rond de jambe let the HEEL lead (are you REALLY letting the heel lead, be honest!) It pulls you around into attitude use your plié use the floor chugjump reset arms left right GENIE! Hands to the ground right left right plié right leg and look through look through your legs…aaaannd fall forward (ARE YOU BREATHING?) open second twist in it’s the satisfaction of a corkscrew champagne EXPLODE up walk walk PINA BAUSCH languishing arms (why do I randomly associate this movement with strips of raw bacon??) flick like a parrot monkey down roll up PINA BAUSCH languishing arms Rond de pied like tiny boat going around tiny island three steps rib scratch rib scratch rib scratch BREAK pelvis underneath you plié to bring right arm over flick arms jump back as if pulllled by the elbows hop open arms hop to lunge step right into back attitude around push the left knee OUT and through the membrane (pink sunburst! I’m on the beach pushing through a wave seeing the open water stretching stretching stretching from here to Japan sunlight on water turn under self like spinning water step step step piqué DON’T SAIL I love the wrenching feeling in my gut when the arm steers me onto the diagonal weaving the hands in and out (I always look in the mirror right here), out out in in out out in in feels like West African dance step and a bit like some kind of drumming routine…
In describing this, I’m dissecting where I’m being honest to real sensation and where things are a bit forced. The most nonsensical associations in this are in fact the most relevant; it’s like my body has memory or imagination that my mind can only hint at. Honestly, a lot of it is directives and associations from Reggie and our rehearsal directors. I don’t think I ever really saw the rond de pied as a tiny boat, but I see it now as I’m writing. Do I forget it now? Can I forget it? As I read the passage, I see all the forged associations—where writing tries to “interpret” movement and where movement resists interpretation. Do they affect each other? On some level, none of these relationships is static—me to choreography, dance to writing, all are constantly changing in the act of DOING. When I dance, changes happen in my understanding of my body and the choreography. When I write, the same is true. This is the dialogue I see in my description.
How will the reader experience such descriptions? I’d love your responses!
2) Pushing and Pulling: Two Sensations (and Thoughts About Knees)
The pelvis has been getting a lot of attention, so I want to talk about my knees. For years, they took the brunt of the turnout task, compensating for my hips. I now prefer parallel or loose turnout. My knees sound like the choreography of a hip-hop dance: pop, lock, crunch, creak, crack, click!
Needless to say, Reggie’s choreography used to scare my knees. It contains a huge amount of flat-footed twisting and jumps that launch off one leg and twist in the air. My first acknowledgement of patterns in the work came from this fear of injury: There is a lot of turning underneath yourself with a bent knee. For example, the “Heathcliff moment” and the numerous “hanging turns” in the duet. Even scarier are the jumps that twist in the air and launch off one leg. The torque in preparing for these is a big force, and I try to always stay in plié to keep myself safe.
Through these “fear tactics,” I’m finally learning to think down into the ground and use my plié. A jump or turn may seem to go up, but I’m constantly thinking down. The depth and strength of my plié has increased in this work, and I feel I have stronger quadriceps and less knee pain. For me, this is a revelation. This brings me to the first of two important sensations in this work—the push. In ballet, the plié was crucially important, but often as an interstitial step. Many of Reggie’s movements require a sustained plié for safe and smooth execution. I’ve found my plié not as a bending, but as a real pushing into the floor. During one astounding moment, I swear the floor pushed back. I sprung up into a kind of tour jeté with much less effort than I was used to, with great surprise.
Rather than using my plié for the anticipated “up,” I think about how much force I need to direct towards the floor for the purposes of what I’m doing. It’s no longer a sense of walking normally vs. walking in plié for me; the two only differ in the amount of push I give to the floor. I’ve grown to love this satisfying sensation of pushing down softly into the reciprocal force of the floor. I no longer need to clench my abdominals like a life preserver and hope for the best. I’m finally beginning to feel the amount of pressure needed to stay afloat, rather than sink into the floor. The hanging turns in the duet (suspended from the arm and turning under yourself in a deep plié) have gone from my feared enemy to utterly juicy moments of release into the floor—one of my favorite feelings in Reggie’s work.
My other favorite sensation is the pull, which is equally prevalent in the choreography. In Big Brick, your heel pulls you up and over into a crouch, and around into a jump. In the duet, the heel pulls you out of a rond de jambe and into an attitude jump several times. At first, all these pulls from the heel felt forced, and I never felt like I was honestly letting my heel lead me. Then, at rehearsal just this past Wednesday, I felt the yank of my heel into an attitude leap and it hit me: MY LEG HAS WEIGHT! If I fling it the right way, it’s going to take me with it. Finally, I feel that I’m learning to distinguish between letting the weight of my leg give into gravity and resisting gravity to développé my leg. It’s the difference between letting your body take you places and taking your body places.
I used to try and imagine a weight in my heel to get the right effect. Now I want to actually FIND the weight of my heel, and the rest of my body as well. The pull occurs in other places, too. Reggie often has distal flings of the forearm and the foreleg that carry you places, provided you use your weight the right way. In the solo, the elbow is pulled in to pull you out! How does that happen? The secret for me lies in actually using your left hand to pull in your right elbow, and then letting it rebound!
I love the sharp inhalation of apprehension that accompanies the pull, when the movement seems to pull out the rug from under you and you can fly for an infinitesimally joyous second. The exhilaration of pulling, along with the luxury of pushing, are the two textural qualities that have made me fall in love with this movement, and they are also what I find most difficult.