The Difference Between Can and Should


The question that Reggie’s work poses is simple: Can a body? Can a body? For many traditional dance forms, what a body can and cannot do is superfluous—it is merely about what a body should do. From perfect turnouts to multiple pirouettes to jumps that seem to suspend in midair, dancers are told what they should do. Even in last year’s project with Merce Cunningham’s choreography, I felt a constant awareness of what my body should look like in motion, what the rhythms of my footsteps should sound like. Usually, the word I associate the most with dance is “should.” Not so with Reggie’s work. 

Anna, one of the Fist & Heel dancers, told us that Reggie self-described (facetiously?) his work as “post-African neo-hoodoo modern dance.” Coming from a background of mostly jazz and ballet, I was flummoxed by post-African neo-hoodoo modern dance. I didn’t know what I should be paying attention to when he demonstrated the choreography. I didn’t know what my body should look like when executing the movement. I didn’t know how to approach this incredibly new movement at all. Where does one begin when one’s body is backing away, shaking its head, and saying, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t?” It was beautiful to watch, but I had no conception of how I could make my own body replicate the action.

At this point, after several weeks of rehearsal, however, I am starting to realize something. In the very beginning, a dancer always faces the question of can. Before my first ballet class, I watched the instructor with awe and asked myself, “Can I?” Before my first double pirouette, I watched the other girls complete them and asked myself, “Can I?” It is only after conquering can that a body can move onto should, which is in itself a somewhat individual construct in Reggie’s work. While many dance forms use can as a pathway to the bigger question of should, Reggie’s postmodern work urged me to slow down through the can and embrace fully the confusion and depth of wondering, “Can a body?”

A Natural Ending


As I sit back home, far removed from Yale and Yale Dance Theater, I can’t help but feel disbelief at the fact that this journey is over. I will never again dance Roaratorio in the Payne Whitney gym. I will never try the Canfield skips in the awkward rectangular confines of the rehearsal studio. I will never have the pleasure of working with a tandem of three generations of Cunningham dancers to better experience and understand an avenue of modern dance which had previously bewildered me. What I feel is only a fraction of what the Cunningham Company must have felt after their last performance of the Legacy Tour–a mixture of pride, joy, and sadness. It is over.

These past five months have drastically changed the way I see and experience modern dance. I used to be a competitive dance team junkie–the more turns, jumps, and extensions that were in a routine, the more impressed I would be with the performance. When I began ballet, I slowly started to develop an appreciation of the elegance and grace involved in dance. That is why modern dance confused me so much. Why, I wondered, did people dance to non-rhythmic music with non-traditional movements? Where were the fouettes and quadruple pirouettes that were so expected in competitive dance? Where was the “prettiness” that is so lauded in ballet? Where were all the things that I was familiar with? Cunningham was uncharted territory.

The best way to truly understand something is to experience it deeply and fully, in one’s bones. I spent the first half of the project being confused by the choreography, only to realize that by the end of it, I was enchanted by it. I was even more enchanted by it when John Cage’s score was layered on top of the rhythmic movement. It all made… sense.

When I usually dance, I’m wracked by nerves beforehand, thinking about the triple turn or the quick footwork that I don’t quite have yet. But as I sat in the offstage area awaiting my entrance, I didn’t feel nervous at all. In fact, I felt rather at home. The movement was exactly what was natural to do at that moment. I had no hesitation about what came next or the rhythm of my movements. Dancing had never felt more natural.

Before the first performance, Meg smoothed back my hair, held my hands, and said to me, “Promise me one thing: have fun.” And I did. I had the time of my life.

Chicken or Egg; Dancer or Choreography?


In our MinEvent, four different excerpts are featured, from three different decades. When I first learned the choreography, it seemed all the same to me–put your arms here, add in a lower back curve, now tilt! The nuances of different dances were lost on me. It is only after hours of interaction and observation of the material that I have gained any real sense of the movement quality in each dance.

The earliest piece that we tackle, Canfield, debuted in 1969. The “skips” game that we play is one of the first appearance of chance games in choreography. Cunningham seemed to give his dancers much more freedom and choice in earlier works. Canfield, from action to length of duration, is dancer-determined. The game can go on for quite a while, or maybe no time at all, depending on the whims of the dancers involved. Even for Numbers (1982), when we asked Neil about extremely trivial movements (swing of the arms, position of the fingers), he would respond that he didn’t get a lot of direction for it. With many of us hailing from classical ballet backgrounds, it’s hard to wrap your head around the choreographer not having established the position of every cell in your body.

That freedom is also evident in Roaratorio (1983). After I learned my jig, I decided to watch a recording of Roaratorio and compare myself to the original dancer of that part. I was shocked by what I saw–it didn’t even look like we were doing the same movements! The dancer’s choice in terms of head movements, extremeness of tilts, and apparel vastly differed from what I was doing and wearing. How was it possible that we could–and had–interpreted the same notes and movements so differently?

By 1998’s Pond Way, though, the direction seemed to have gotten clearer, more precise, less dancer-determined. Right arm straight, left arm to the side, look, straighten left arm, arch up! Every moment had a direction, and there was less doubt about the position of every limb at every single second. Did Cunningham spend his first few years searching for a style that was inherent in each dancer? Is his later choreography indicative of his relative wealth of knowledge after having watched numerous dancers interpret his work differently? Did Cunningham become more and more certain of his style as the years went on? On a more personal level, am I supposed to emulate the original dancer of the role, or am I supposed to create something completely different and unique with the same set of movements? I wish I had the answers to these questions, but with the show coming up in less than 48 hours, I can sum up all my questions in one query that I will hopefully answer before performing on Friday:

Should the dancer influence movement, or should movement alone influence the dancer?

Chance and Engagement


What’s a better way to engage people–gambling or ballet? Well, who hasn’t seen an audience member fall asleep at the ballet? But has anyone ever seen someone asleep at a poker table?

Gambling is a serious addiction. It draws you in, tempting you with the possibility of something, until it is all that you pay attention to. Even board games for children incorporate the chance element of the dice roll to engage the players (who hasn’t looked pleadingly at the dice in their hands and exclaimed, “Please not a 4, anything but a 4!”?). Chance, the possibility of success or failure, is a decisive element in engaging people. And Cunningham takes full advantage of this phenomenon in his choreography.

Having had the opportunity to dance some of Cunningham’s movement involving chance operations, I’ve come to appreciate chance as a method by which dancers can be engaged more so than in traditionally choreographed works. After several weeks of Cunningham warm-ups, I am now able to participate in some of the easier exercises without really thinking about it–both a sign of my improved familiarity with the technique and my laziness. Even in previous choreography and performance, I’ve found myself performing purely through muscle memory, focusing my mental attention instead on facial expressions and emoting.

When I found myself watching a group from across the stage dancing and having to decide for myself when the proper time to enter the sequence was, I realized that I was more aware of the movement and the rhythm and the timing than I had ever been before. In being subjected to the chance of when I, and others, should enter the movement phrase, I had to possess a deeper connection with not only my motions, but those of everyone around me, as well. I suddenly noticed that one group was on the third set of movement, indicative of an appropriate entry. I heard the sound of feet against the floor, using the bum-bum-ba, bum-bum-ba to gauge timing. All the details of dance were magnified when chance was involved. Dancing on autopilot would be impossible in such situations.

I have always considered chance operations in dance choreography as a cop-out for choreographers whom I thought were simply too lazy to finish their own sequence. After engaging in one of Cunningham’s chance-involved works, though, it seems more like an effective way to engage both the dancers and the audience in a deeper fashion. Dancers cannot blindly go about performing without being aware of their surroundings. The audience will see something different and new every single time. Together, the heightened attentions of both the dancers and audience create a synergy that greatly differs from traditional, set works.

Dear Mr. Cunningham: Who am I?


In ballet, there is usually a story behind the dance. Whether it be Swan Lake, Giselle, or Coppelia, the dancers in ballet are given clear characters which they should emulate and act. You always know exactly who you are and what your motive is, and that is what drives your dance–every epaulement, every arm position, every step of the technique. The court jester does a pirouette quite differently from Odile, who does it quite differently from the Arabian prince. It’s all very character-driven.

Since learning more of Roaratorio and especially my own particular jig, I’ve had to grapple with who I am when I dance. Even after having danced it several times, I still don’t really know who my character is, to be honest–or if there even is a character. The movements themselves don’t lend much help in this regard. Is the foot flick supposed to be flirty and fun, or more of a simple kick? Is the turn in attitude supposed to be smooth and graceful or strong and powerful? I don’t really know, nor can I discern from any of the group choreography that we’ve learned, either. I do feel like I’m dancing, but I’m not sure how I should be feeling about my dancing. It’s a similar dilemma that I faced with the lack of music, except this time I’m not so sure if there is an answer or not.

When I watch older videos of the Cunningham Company performing, I try desperately to catch the expressions on the dancer’s faces. Are they smiling? Are they performing with intense facials? Serious? Calm? Angry? Ecstatic? Alas, the videos are from a distance and the quality is not clear enough so as to afford me much information about the dancer’s attitudes beyond their choreographic movements.

Therein lies the beauty; therein lies the rub. For the first time in my life, I am going to have to come up with my own character in dance. There is no choreographer telling me that Don Quixote should be danced lively and with spirit, no coach yelling at me to look more excited in a pom routine or sadder in jazz. The only hint that Cunningham left behind is simply the bare minimum of movement and choreography. As I continue searching for a character to dance in, I can only hope that I will do Roaratorio justice in the end.

Music in Motion


For me, dance was always about the music. Choreography largely depended on the rhythm, feel, and lyrics of the song upon which it was based upon. Especially in popular dance choreography such as in TV shows like SYTYCD, the music drove everything about the dance. Thus, it was a strange experience for me to dance Cunningham’s choreography to… absolute silence. Nothing but the count, and even the counting of the rehearsal director was a gratuitous gift that would not exist under real circumstances. Dancing without music, without even counts? How was it possible? How was the dancer to properly convey the choreographic mood?

That’s when I discovered that there was a mood in the rhythm and beat of the movements. The choreography didn’t require music to emote, because the movements themselves were already so emotive. The tight rhythm of triplets conveyed a much different mood than the more languid rippling of quarter ronde de jambes. Choreography based upon Irish step dancing had a freer and livelier feel than hinges and lunges. Mood was in the movements, not the music.

I had never appreciated modern dance, simply because it struck me as, like one of our rehearsal directors said of some of Merce’s work, more accomplishing a difficult sequence rather than dancing. Dancing, in the full sense of the word, previously, was losing your own self-awareness in the flow of the music. The music carried the movements until the dancer did not quite exist except as a vehicle for the music. That is probably why modern dance struck me as so strange at first. Now I realize that the dancer can lose him or herself in simply the movements, as well, because in Cunningham’s choreography, the movements are the music.