Writing My Dancing Life
50 Moves #3 - On Flow, The Critic and The Deadline
6 weeks. That’s how long until I perform a shortened version of my solo “50 Moves” at Judson Church. I like the feel of 6 weeks. It’s a good amount of time but still it’s soon. “6 weeks” instills just the right amount of stress. I have to mobilize, get in the studio and stay focused.
There are people who work along in a measured consistent way. I’m not one of them. I percolate a group of ideas on paper and in my head, I noodle around without seeming to accomplish anything physically until the time seems right to wap it out and then I really bear down. I often have the idea of a photograph developing itself in a bath of chemicals. The photo is there before the chemicals act on the emulsion on the paper, you just can’t see anything. Then gradually the forms begin to be visible, the darks darken to make detail clear and finally you have a gradation of tones from blackest black to white and the images are clear.
Deborah Hay spoke about a process not unlike that, a performance practice. She said in the talk following her piece “The Match” at Danspace, that she dances a whole solo performance over several months and allows the performance to develop itself in that context. Then after she performs, she notates what she did. I’m interested in that model. I’ve often done something similar, taking vague ideas or fragments and just “doing” the piece, finding more of what I mean to be doing in the process. It’s “instant choreography”.
Having just enough time is pivotal to me in the psychology of creating for another reason. A lot of time can mean space for extra, unhelpful voices to waft in. The writer Ursula Hegi said that as she writes the only voices she hears are those of her characters. As she moves into later drafts and finer edits, she hears the voice of her editor and other critical types. But not too early.
Meredith Monk points to the differences of “the mind of judgement , which anticipates results and cuts off impulses, and the mind of discriminating intelligence which sees clearly and at the right time what needs letting go”.*
The “Flow” paradigm is that we enter a state of complete engagement when we are challenged and interested in the activity at hand and it is appropriately matched to our level of skill. Too many internal critics tilt too heavily on the side of being not-skilled-enough. Every writer who has written about the act of writing shares some strategy to deal with those naysayers. Natalie Goldberg’s was “Think of the negativity as being pieces of laundry flapping on a clothesline and zoom the picture out, ‘til it’s further and further away”.
I have been onstage dancing since I was very young. I have delivered many talks and several eulogies too. It always seems that the times that have had the most meaning for the audience are the times that really had meaning for ME – that is, I connected to my material, opened my heart wide seeing the images arising, and trusted to let whatever the expression was flow directly from there. Isn’t that the performance practice? To stay with that state and to “invite being seen”**? It’s not a bad place to start.
* pg. 78 in “Buddhadharma, the Practitioner’s Quarterly” Spring 2004,
**a Deborah Hay instruction for improvising
50 Moves #2 - Fresh Start and Throwing Away
In a recent New York Times article, Sofia Coppola describes the living space of a veteran Japanese designer who worked on her film “Lost in Translation” as being “an utterly bare, completely white apartment”. Ishioka herself said: “I have a chair, a glass table and big windows. I am frightened to buy a sofa. Empty space is very important for me. When I start to work with a new project, I must throw away all my achievements in the past and have a blank canvas and think about it from zero.”
And Meredith Monk: “the artist aspires to start fresh, free from past solutions, glories and failures. One begins with emptiness, without a conceptual framework that filters natural impulses, without striving to make a recognizable “product”, simply engaging in a process and getting out of the way of the work.”*
I love “fresh start”. I mistrust it too. Could the wish be for a flavor-of-the-month, a lazy quick fix for a short attention span? Robert Rauschenberg (who is anything but lazy) said he sticks with an idea until he gets bored with it or until he understands it, which is one and the same.
Here’s my quandary: I can review the videotapes of my piece, clarify the set movement, and reconstruct it in a quite literal way. Or I can work from my ghost images of the piece, remembering my intentions, allowing them to shift as a reflection of where I am today. Finding the original “50 Moves” in the first place was a surprising treasure hunt. I kept moves I wouldn’t expect – humble ones that were insistently recurring. 50 is also not as many moves as one might think. The actions themselves are quite circumscribed. The issue is not so much what you do as how you do it. That piece of it is still completely compelling. The use of some rousing blues by Muddy Waters and Skip James gave me more context, a stripped down juke-joint place to celebrate a big birthday – 50 .
When I ran into Merian Soto, a respected colleague, at a Philadelphia concert I mentioned that I might want to start over on a lot of the piece. She’d seen the original and said I should “milk it” some more. I’m not sure if the part of me that wants to toss and is quite critical of what I create is actually a goad to improving or an impediment that nips work in the bud before it’s had chance to ripen. I’m sure it can be both, depending on circumstance.
In the studio yesterday I took the ghost memory approach. I reviewed most of the movement, I put on the performance tape and danced/marked my way through the whole thing. Some moments feel hot, some cold and uninteresting to return to. Like “been there done that”, no need to return.
I like slow moments where emotion fills the physical action. I like slightly manic moves including a repeating series of breaking down falls. I like crumpling. It’s the reverse of what d. Sabela grimes did in his recent show. He looks to me as if he’s reconstituting himself from the ground up over and over. I want to disintegrate in stages over and over. I like having the momentum of a roll on the floor get speeded up, whipped beyond ordinary physics. I remember seeing Wim Vanderkeybus’ group do that way back and being excited that you don’t have to go with the flow, you CAN push the river, in the direction it’s already going.
Two of the original 5 pieces of music I used are still really compelling. That’s handy because the performance needs to be half the length. The visual effect I created with hand held lamps resembles a shadow puppeteer with themselves as the puppet. I love doing that. The tricky thing for Judson is that with minimal set up and tech time I’ll have to travel circus style, come with my own backdrop and everything! A minor logistical issue...
50 Moves #1
There is much to be said for the practice of just going in the studio and doing ‘it’ whatever it is. For the past few days I’ve been perplexed about how to approach “50 Moves”, the solo I made in ’03 for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. At the time I made it, it expressed everything I needed it to at the moment. And in the last few days it has seemed like a six month old newspaper. How do I bring that to life? It’s the proverbial oyster chafing against its grit before there can be any pearl.
That quandary is not new to me. It has happened that I’ve performed work for a series or tour, then let it sit a few months, taken it back out and renewed it, usually making some changes for more performances. Usually the piece ends up becoming the form it was meant to be all along but hadn’t quite gotten there. Now and then a piece just gets dropped. I am pleased that there are 3 separate performing opportunities to renew “50 Moves” this spring. We’ll see how much it resembles its original self by the end.
Sometimes the work of a given moment just doesn’t make sense to recapture. There are a few pretty good ones that got away. They got beaten to death in the moment of making and didn’t have juice in them anymore, or they just got left in the dust as I raced off into new ground. One little piece performed just once with a stellar cast (see to Peter Pleyer) used a few Motown songs including Otis Redding singing “Pain in My Heart” with such an intensity you just want to do whatever might be in your power to help him out. Or to help yourself out because the basic deal there is identifying with the low down feeling. Anyway, I had a chorus of Supreme dancers behind me doing gestures while I had the more flamboyant solo. It was tongue in cheek and not at all. Anyway, it got away, not even being committed to video that I know of.
I did keep the music and the beginning of the main phrase for a dance called “Interactive Random Access”. There I pillaged earlier work for hunks of material and sound that the audience could choose from. Menus hung in the space. The effect was reductivist – years of work condensed to a 20 minute improvisation. And unpredictable – the audience invented commands that I did my best to embody – “sexier”, “in a foreign language”. Changing modes on a dime was really the virtuosic part of the performance. Changing the relationship to the audience was refreshing. The dance became not so much my property to trot out for their amusement, as our creation, something arising in the space between performer and audience.
Back to “50 Moves”. It was originally a research into what moves want to stick around after decades of dancing. Like, if you were to clean out your movement closet as fully as possible, what do you keep? It also attempted to bring in the elements that have kept recurring in my work – use of “big music”, shadowplay, extreme light effects and text often autobiographical in nature.
Movement Research’s contract just arrived and had the surprise stipulation that the dance be 15 minutes. The original was 30. I guess the program is to be shared by more people than I’d imagined. So there was a “let’s tear up the structure and start from scratch!" moment.
Going along that way and still knowing that I mean to base the performance on the original research I’ve been assaulted by a host of ideas in the last 24 hours. The first is that later this spring at Bennington I’m to give a lecture followed by a performance and I thought the lecture could be dancing and talking about all the associations the moves one move at a time. Usually you see that a gesture has meaning for the performer and part of the fun of dance is that the moves are filled but an ambiguity remains as to with what. But I wouldn’t mind letting it all be known because every time I go into a studio I am bringing in memories of dancers I’ve seen, dances I’ve done. So the lecture could end up being a “Tracing Lineage and the Movements of Mind through 50 Moves”.
The second idea is to combine forms again. 50 Moves could become “Interactive 50 Moves”. The audiences can call numbers and my dancing will be determined by them and the moves they request. It will be a massive memorization job. Usually you have a sequence to hang a move to. Taken individually I’m not sure what mnemonic device would help me jump into the given move on hearing the number 37.
Anyway, the fresh gust of inspiration has me eager to go in the studio again where no doubt things will transform a lot more...
As a sidelight, I haven’t performed in New York since the spring of ’89 which makes it 15 years! And the first performance I ever did in New York City was at the Judson Church with James Waring who had me that same summer work with chance procedures to make a solo for Richard Colton. The arbitrariness of the result didn’t please me one bit. Still, there’s a wonderful symmetry to returning to New York, to Judson, to perform something where chance is a main element.
Standing Up To Sprawl
In the last few days, while ideas for this web log have been piling up, I’ve been forced into rude awakenings in more formal areas of publishing. I’m writing reviews, a first, and working at editing. Here on blogspot.com no money changes hands, there’s no limit on space, and the freshness of the medium is all about being unexpurgated. It’s not like too many words here will make you fat, or as if sloppy punctuation will get your hand slapped. You can indulge! But yesterday, Nancy Stark Smith of the Contact Quarterly gently introduced me to a new image as we work to pare down the original “Decoy Among the Swans” web log. She said you trim a piece down because it’s like needing to get through a door when you’re just too fat! Lisa Nelson who first asked about putting the web log into the Contact Quarterly, ushered me gently into the process of being nipped and tucked. But now we are starting to get closer to the family jewels and attachment runs high.
I think there’s something key here that runs through many of my endeavors. Yesterday I’d been invited to tell stories for Valentine’s Day to my son’s 3rd grade class. I’d been a witch at Halloween with a scary Scottish tale and had been in at Christmas as well. I did well enough on the actual story part yesterday, a strange Tibetan tale about love and wishes granted, but afterward I wanted to do MORE, to show the kids a great book by Ed Young* full of Chinese characters for emotions that are all based on the use of the symbol for “heart”( ex. Respect = The heart honors others. The pictogram shows twenty pairs of hands symbolizing twenty generations over the pictogram for heart. “When the heart acknowledges the wisdom of twenty generations, respect develops”). It was just too much. Way over the kids’ heads. That was clear quickly. But I’d been so attached to sharing it with them…it was hard to let go and just wrap up.
Judith Dunn used to say: “Don’t have tails on your dances”. Often people in her class would keep going on after they’d actually finished, whether improvising or making something set. And not that I follow Doris Humphrey’s advice in most things, but I think she had it somewhat right when she wrote that an ending is 40% of a dance. I read that as being about how you contain the material and create a final moment of satisfied completion.
I guess I can let go of the extra width of my Decoy article to squeeze through the door, to let other people’s voices have space and hopefully to render what’s left in my writing more lucid and essential. Sometimes space is more valuable than things or events, it puts everything else into relief, teasing the edges out away from each other. We only ever do or perceive one thing at a time anyway.
When Deborah Hay’s “The Match” was shown last weekend at Danspace in New York, I was so happy with Mark Lorimer’s improvised solo at the beginning because it was the opposite of our usual freneticized time sense. He pranced into the space. And he kept prancing, this way and that, not actively seeking to be inventive, just being with his really simple, squishy footed action in the light, in the dark. He stretched time by being unhurried, by staying with one thing. It was as far away as you could get from the traffic barreling down Second Avenue, just a few steps out the door. At the middle and end of the piece too, Hay stretched out time, bringing our attention down to fine detail in scenes of minimal activity.
In one of the last talks he gave, my Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, challenged students by saying “do nothing”. He was talking about reducing too many activities, a central Buddhist idea, but he put it in the most extreme terms. The audience, thinking he was telling them to let go of all their activities and endeavors, were up in arms. His grin and delight in people’s consternation belied the fact that he was really trying to goad them into opening to slowing down, not stopping altogether.
I’ve been around a lot of dying people recently and it is remarkable how easy it is to let go of things and unimportant activities when time is clearly running out. Maybe it’s that quality of being only with essentials that’s drawn me to hospice work and the elderly. Many of my very old friends can’t really “do” anything now. But there was a time when they were in a generative phase too, accumulating, making, building, growing. There’s that old saw “If I only knew then what I know now”.
Well, time to get out my pencil again and x out more sections of the Decoy chronicle. Onward!
* “Voices of the Heart” by Ed Young, Scholastic Press, New York
Peter Pleyer, a German choreographer who is one of the graduates of the European Dance Development Center where I taught for nearly a decade, mailed me with a couple of questions. He’s working on a birthday performance in Berlin for next summer and wants to draw together many threads of his dancing life and make sense of history. He mentioned the lecture Barbara Dilley gave while guest teaching at EDDC called “Tracing Lineage”. Anyone who was present that evening will likely remember it for the rest of their lives. She spoke with tremendous appreciation about the unfolding her long dancing life, telling about all the teachers she had learned from, choreographers and colleagues worked with (Cunningham, Paxton, Brown, Rainer, et al) and younger students and influences, filling a huge blackboard with names and the lines linking them to her and to each other. The sum effect was of a body of activity created by a large group feeding ideas and knowledge to each other, building on the collective wisdom passed to them by another group that had gone before. That perspective is at once humbling and empowering. The hubris of the ‘auteur’ and the loneliness of venturing into uncharted ground is subsumed by the knowledge that one represents one intersection on this net, that ideas arise and are chewed on by groups of people simultaneously and that we all stand on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before.
Peter writes: “when i was in new york the last time i met yoshiko chuma and she asked me about what was so special about you, that you must have given your dancers (that were in your company then) something special that most of them are so successful now (sasha waltz, meg stuart ,john jasperse..). do you have any idea what that might have been?”
In the 80’s, dancers who were versed in the virtuosic style of moving that came out of a combination of release work and contact improvisation with more traditional technique had rather abstract forbears. There was something unusual then about being really rigorous in dancing, making demanding phrases and interrelationships and also having a theatrical bent. My work at that time had that combination. It was literal too – I used text, video and other visual imagery as a locator, giving audience a ‘way in’. I also played with things that were funny – melodramatic, ridiculous, outrageous. I think it was just another small opening in the doorway toward including everything and anything. My work coincided with what others in my generation were researching (Stephen Petronio, Stephanie Skura, Yoshiko et al). Sasha and John and Meg were in their formative moment. It was an auspicious coincidence. They worked with me and other people as apprentices, getting deeper into craft. I can be critical of my work at that time but I know it provided a valuable gestating experience for those younger choreographers.
Some of my strongest work has been solo. There I work with transmutation of emotion and history by becoming it in performance. The deeper and more complex the emotional score, the better. This got me into dance in the first place – dance's expressive nature. I couldn't remain in the Trisha Brown Company longer than I did because there was more gut and mess in me that wanted expressing than would fit in the cleanness and comparative dispassion of her forms of that time. So I made along with everything else, some pretty sloppy work – half-baked things, but appealingly risky. Watching me plunge in to that work as part of the performances probably offered Sasha, John and Meg as much or more than following our process and doing our ‘steps’.
I love to see what those three and countless other younger colleagues and former students are up to. One of the great pleasures in being a longer standing tree is seeing what the other trees look like when they become full sized and fully leafed out: spectacular, individual, related but not derivative. Going way beyond anything I might have imagined. We each have our point on the net…