Writing My Dancing Life
Honey on a Razorblade - Charles Linehan Company
The afterimage of Charles Linehan’s U.S. debut concert at the Danspace Project (March 18 – 21) is of the lofty space glowing with linear corridors of light, inhabited by adults whose movement has the clean edge of a glinting razor. The dancing seems an inquisitive play on physical range and limitation. The effect is quiet but charged, intimate but unsentimental.
Grand Junction opens with Greig Cooke describing ellipses with his arms and legs, sweeping his body through elongated shapes that transform from one to another with a swift toss of the head or of any limb. His phrase recycles, changing facing and emphasis. It’s his language. He can throw himself into it, slashing the space, or dance a lower-key version.
His partner, Andreja Rauch, has her own things to say in moves that hug closer-in to her torso, that catapult her swiftly in space and stop just as suddenly. Flurries of action erupt like exclamations, then pause, as we do when listening during conversation. Timing and placement in space are everything. There’s no simple connection. As complex human beings, these dancers momentarily agree on an impulse, then go their separate ways to function independently together, then reconnect in contact. They wear street clothing, and like some couples familiar with each other’s presence at the breakfast table, they are ever aware of the other but not necessarily directly involved. They catch an updraft from the other, come together a bit, then just as easily go their own way.
Their exchange in contact hovers in the terrain of where one begins and the other ends, to find the limits of push and pull, the ripples of cause and effect. There’s much stopping of the other’s momentum with a hand grab or lean. Action is rapid, like a mind moving quickly, surveying the body’s capacity for rotation, for folding. Though nothing about the relating is fraught, there’s momentary grasping and rough handing, and it has intensity, amplified by the musical score. I wonder here about varying cultures’ approach to emotionality, and whether this understated fullness is a particularly British quality.
As if to underscore the sense of time’s passage, lighting changes, fades to black, offers some breathing space, defines new moments. Grand Junction takes time out. Pauses between sections lead to new beginnings with fresh material and new placements in the space. Music is wall-like sound, not unlike the light which ripples across the space, bands of light and dark alternating. Sometimes individuated sounds, like silver dropping, surface, to be later submerged in a swell of bigger sound, like industrial noise, like a ratchety ocean. In the course of time, the intensity of both sound and dancing mounts to a limit, its maximum in speed and fullness. And the lights are suddenly out, leaving the feeling that it had to be this way, but why exactly one isn’t sure.
New Quartet begins, amusingly, with Greig Cooke reprising his earliest phrase from Grand Junction. Then, as before, other dancers enter. As the number of dancers is brought up to four, though never all in the space simultaneously, the human story is more complex to read. In the whole piece there are never the simple devices for unity we find in so much choreography. Linehan researches momentary confluences, relationships of carefully choreographed coincidence.
With the larger group we see a more divergent spread of movement. The powerful Rahel Vonmoos’s base phrase has her rotating her wrists, shooting earthward as her weight slides out from under her. At one moment she rests on all fours, swinging a leg and opposite arm like a saloon door. There are glorious space eating trajectories to the floor and back out just as easily, and shifts in scale as intimate gesture is followed by large displacement. Last to enter, the diminutive Ben Ash appears largely as a foil for the women’s dancing, but brings a new sprightliness.
The dancing language, pedestrian clothing and nature of sound are similar in the two pieces. But in New Quartet a light mist fills the church sanctuary, rendering the light voluminous. It’s a locus where exchanges continue ad infinitum. Dancers come and go, dance solo, interrelate. Walking out of the space seems always an option and shifts are abrupt. Some dancers we see a great deal, some are absent. Like in an Italian piazza, human scaled and revealing the patterns of pedestrians over the course of the day, New Quartet implies an ongoingness that is dispassionate but fascinating. Space is as vital as presence. Only long afterward do I sense a connection to Merce Cunningham’s aesthetic. But here the dancers, though never displaying emotion overtly, are anything but abstract.
This work - reflective, mature, subtle and intricately worked - holds great satisfaction for those who revel in faceted complexity. Linehan, who is London-based, has received support from the venerable Dance Umbrella. He was choreographer in residence at The Place, which is roughly equivalent to New York’s Joyce Theater. His dancers have come through Britain’s finest institutions. The only disappointment in the evening was that these credentials didn’t speak to enough of the New York dance audience to pack the house.
50 Moves #5 - Dancing for My Grandmother
There’s a Buddhist idea, related to reincarnation, that all sentient beings have at one time or another been our mother. It's a thought is intended to engender compassion. After all, if someone standing before me was my mother and had the patience to clean up after me and comfort and feed me, I could find a bit of patience and care in relating to them now. Having been exposed to that thought again and again, whether or not one is entirely at home with the idea of reincarnation, it begins to take hold. In the work I did for hospice and in the nursing home of Normandy Farms Estates, I continually thought “this person could easily be my mother, or father”. It made my connection to them immediate and touching.
Yesterday I used the dance studio in my local YMCA to rehearse 50 Moves. It’s about twice the size of my home studio and I know exactly when there are large-ish blocks of empty time there. Right now Tuesdays are especially good as they just changed the schedule. After 15 minutes or so, a fairly aged lady came into the space. She sat quietly in the corner. I was still at the beginning of my work, doing meridians stretches mixed with some Pilates for the belly and back. I asked if there was to be a class. She said yes, at 2 o’clock. Not entirely trusting my schedule, I waited. As the clock nudged past two I showed her my copy of the schedule which indicated a seniors class for the day before at two. “Oh well, I guess I missed it” she said and went on to explain that she’d be out of town for two weeks so this really was a shame! “Go ahead and give yourself a class!” I encouraged. She thought a minute, then answered “Why not?”.
By this time I had come to the “barre” part of my warm-up where I mix t’ai chi pliés and rises, traditional tendus, degagés and other ballet work for the legs, and more post-modern sliding into the floor, taking weight on all fours and sequencing through upper body. I could feel her eyes, curious. She worked with small weights. I had watched the Senior Stretch and Tone class a few times, interested to learn how Joanne, the teacher, worked with people of more limited range of motion and steadiness of balance. Her class seemed quite healthful to me, developing strength and flexibility in an encouraging atmosphere. Here I saw my studio mate running through some of Joanne’s exercises . And then she would pause. And watch.
The atmosphere of the room was wonderfully quiet. And focused. I never did ask the name of my studio mate, nor she mine. She watched as I began practicing the 5 set phrases which contain all the 50 chosen moves which are the language of my piece. She said “I’m looking for something I can copy, but you’re way beyond me!” I replied that I am younger, but she said “it’s much more than that!”.
I imagined what it looks like to see me through her eyes. It made me grateful that I CAN swoop down into the floor, that I can stand surely on one leg, reach far, jump, get my heart racing, play with gestures. Her gaze had the effect of centering me, of making me delight in the great good fortune of being in that place, at that time.
For a long time I worked one phrase, then the next, passing through moves or strings of them repeatedly, getting them to feel right. Once or twice I shifted the placement of a move within a phrase and I found a few new ones which I may choose to take on, discarding others less favored. Many of the moves are the kind of thing you could base a long exploration on – figure 8 walking, banking on the sides of the feet; or eye 8’s opening the question of focus and the relationship of movement direction to gaze. I got into that exploratory aspect of the moves, beyond the quick shorthand version of doing them once. It’s the seed aspect, where you see what will grow from a given move.
By the time I was about finished, my friend was just watching from the corner, having done her leg swings at the barre and some stretches on a mat. I launched into the main phrase from Decoy, using it as a final full out blast before warm-down. I could feel the contrast between my ways of working – the more organic and exploratory dancing with this blast of chimerical lightning fast gestures and big moves of Decoy. As I was ending she padded out of the room. “So long” I said, still dancing. “Thanks for letting me watch” she said. “The pleasure was mine” I responded, meaning it fully .
50 Moves #4 - The Dam Breaks
My husband is highly superstitious. If I say anything really positive about how things are going, he looks immediately for the nearest wooden surface, urging me with his eyes to knock it ASAP. So of course I write this with some trepidation. BUT I do feel like the dam broke today in working on "50 Moves". That old analogy of the artist being like an oyster chewing on its grit in order to fashion a pearl is 100 percent a description of how I’ve been feeling. Nasty. Graham called it “divine dissatisfaction”. You know you’re looking for something and you haven’t found it yet and you don’t know how what you’ve found so far is going to evolve when given enough breathing space and trusting energy. It’s like having kids – they don’t need to be fully formed – they’re kids. If they got to be 18 and they behave as thought they’re 8 you’d begin to wonder. But the 8 year old version of the growing dance is hard for me to live with. Susan Rethorst says you have to hang in there at that point with "nerves of steel".
My dance jumped to about 30 today. I finally looked at the videotape of the first performance at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I'd shyed away because I often have a hard time looking at a lot of my work on tape. Here I could unexpectedly get behind a lot of it. I had thought my structure would need a lot more of an overhaul, and that had me anything but motivated. I’d been thinking about using different music, a whole new structure. Thinking. Continuing to train the body, to play, but not getting down. Now it looks like I’m not in need of major surgery. I can let the dance transition more organically from its present shape. And the studio is a whole lot more inviting as a result.
In my notes to myself from watching rehearsal tapes I wanted to see LESS material. I wanted to rest my eyes on something changing not so fast. And generally, “50 Moves”, in its redundant use of a limited palette is full of strong shapes that are easy on the eye. They repeat, becoming familiar. I think of it like Rashomon, a favorite paradigm, the story thrice told. You don’t know which version is the REAL one. Here it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there are different stories fashioned from the same template.
A curious cousin
In last Sunday's New York Times there's an article about the film and video director Michel Gondry. After making a film that didn't go over well, he wrote about what bothered him in the film, and things that critics had said that touched a nerve. He wrote about what he would do to strengthen his work. It ended up totalling 40 pages of text. Useful. That's the spirit - turn the critical awareness into something you can really work with! My husband, Tom, showed me a few Gondry videos. They are full of surprises, giddiness, invention, and life. The guy is seriously brilliant, a n inspiration. He talked about dealing with naysaying voices in his mind and how he just decided to go beyond them and become a greater artist than Picasso.
On Dance and Mnemonics
I asked Vicky Shick how it is to remember the seemingly endless streams of subtly shifting faceted movements in Susan Rethorst’s choreography. She bemoaned the fact that it’s harder as a middle aged person to take in and retain movement. Her performance looked flawless to me, but I can only imagine the effort involved. Susan herself said that she makes her work inch by inch and as the dancers learn it, she no longer has to hold all the detail.
I had an idea about taking my 50 Moves and learning the numbers for each move so that the piece could resemble “Interactive Random Access” (1989), where the audience gives me verbal commands based on a menu of options. Here they would call the numbers of moves, which would determine my actions. I like the idea of not being being self-determining. It’s a great relationship to set up with the viewers. But it would be so HARD!!! Setting a format where I have to know that 37 equals a particular fall and 38 a specific turn may just be beyond my appetite for discipline in applied mnemonics. My acuity at learning movement has definitely decreased. Perhaps it’s something I could regenerate... Would it be worth it? It would be fun, certainly. With a trick pony quality.
On the Continuum of Set/Improvised
Students I had in the heyday of improvisational performance used to rebel at the very idea of setting anything. A student in the iconoclastic School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam thought my proposal to the class of creating a set phrase was preposterous. He declared an utter lack of interest and had no respect for the idea that it might be a handy tool. A couple of years later I saw a solo of his that was choreographed down to the fingernails! That’s about younger and older generations confronting each other - authority and the fight with it, as well as not wanting to be confined in any way. Still within myself the debate continues – where on the continuum of set form to improvisation do I most fruitfully locate myself? And having established a form, how much will I throw it wide open each time I revisit it?
On Labor Intensity
Think of it. I work 6 weeks (on and off) for a 15 minute performance. Is that completely crazy??? What should I do instead? Decide it’s only worth x amount of time based on the time seen onstage? Dance is so labor intensive…the economics of it NEVER work out. In my experience, even in a University setting, because dance technique needs to be a daily affair, the amount of time for a full teaching load is far more than in an “academic” discipline!