Dance and language relate more than you think. They relate more than I thought.
Yale Dance Theater sings the gospel of a combined dance and writing practice. And it’s a good gospel to preach. Writing about dance augments a movement practice by allowing one to express more, access more, research more than dance alone would allow. Writing about dance allows us to process movement in a novel way. But language is relevant to dance beyond our writing about it. Language is found in the studio, when we transmit movement from one person to another; it’s found in articulations of “inspiration” and reflections on our experience.
The many metaphors:
When teaching movement, you can only rely so much on demonstration. We all see through different lenses. There are gaps between what see and what we can do. To fill that gap, Matthew and Renee gave us images.
You’re running through a field of flowers. Point at a distant star. Dance it like you’re a child, telling a halting story. In Matthew’s choreography, it mattered less that we did the movement identically and more that we owned the movement individually, making it belong on our unique bodies. So Matthew would demonstrate and explain his choreography, but never too much. When those means fell short, he gave us metaphors, shared images we could all see. These gave us access to the essence of the movement…because dance is much more than physical mechanics. You can turn and point without pointing to a star. You can stop in all the right places without having the energy of a child. The images Matthew gave us thus allowed us to dance his movement; they allowed each of us to tell a story in our individual way, through our bodily memories and imaginations.
Your body is a race car; don’t lose control of the wheel. You’re building a house; if the foundation is weak, the whole house falls down. You each have the key to access your bodies—use it. Renee is the body whisperer. Through regular floor-bar warm-ups and consistent, clear corrections, Renee helped us to know our bodies and control them. During a pause in class she would look one person in the eyes: “Your body is telling me to tell you…” she’d say, and proceed to give an instruction that that particular body was ready to hear. Renee understood the power of words. In any given moment, we need some words and not others; there are some we can hear and some we can’t. Renee knew what words our bodies needed in order to process them. Sometime those words were individual, meant for one person alone—these were our specific keys. Other times, those words were spread throughout the group—these were the images we could all use to visualize, understand, and maintain the progress we were all making.
Beauty. Love. Diversity. Inheritance.
These were the four words that inspired Matthew’s choreography. These were the four words that inspired our writing. These were the words we discussed—sitting side by side in a tight circle, sharing stories and tears—to ground our work. All of these words shaped Matthew’s dance and gave it life.
Sometimes you just need one word to help you understand an experience.
Considering our four words, the first three were the most generative for me. I struggled with the idea of inheritance. When we had talked about it in a discussion with Matthew, we all turned introspective. I thought about my Mexican heritage—the one I take so much pride in, yet feel so disconnected from; the heritage no one can see. Others shared their stories—stories of foreignness, stories of belonging or wanting to belong, stories of uncertainty. This was the aspect of inheritance most apparent in our final work.
But there was also a broader manifestation of the idea, present throughout our entire process. While working with Matthew and Renee, we were inheriting their bodily memories of Ailey movement. They carried so much embodied knowledge with them and we became the lucky repositories. What a privilege. I didn’t recognize this process of inheritance at the time, but as we talked about our experience post-show in a Q&A, that’s when I began to see it.
At the beginning, we were all like sponges. Out of respect for Matthew and Renee and out of respect for the movement itself, we appropriated what we were taught unquestioningly. We tried to stay true to the movement as best we could, and in that sense, started to embody a whole new lexicon. This was one mode of inheritance—the initial one.
Then, as the rehearsal process progressed and we started inserting ourselves into the project more and more, the inheritance became one of ownership. Matthew and Renee had already passed on the movement and it was now our job to make it our own, make it true to our bodies, our experiences, our narratives. This is the process that made our performance what it was.
Finally, I began to see one last level of inheritance. From the beginning, Matthew and Renee seemed to see something in us that we couldn’t see in ourselves. As we worked with them over the course of the semester, I think they taught us how to see ourselves how they saw us. We inherited their eyes. And through those eyes, we saw our own beauty, individual and collective.