Monday, January 18, 2010

Bill T. Jones

Last Friday, I got to see Bill T. Jones' newest work, Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall.  It was a grand work, large and far-reaching, with the life and meaning of Abraham Lincoln at its heart.  It was such a complex work, with so many strands of meaning and question and possibility that it really deserved an essay, but I didn't have the time or brainspace for that.  Here's a paragraph from my review for World Dance Reviews:

"As the lights go to black, faint sounds, far-away bits of melodies, fragments of voices murmur through the auditorium.  Down the dark aisle comes Clarissa Sinceno, singing, guiding us with her lantern into the world of the dance.  A misty white curtain encircles the stage, glowing behind the tall silhouette that strides across its curving surface, a stovepipe hat clutched behind his back.  A long, African-American woman stands alone on a smaller, circular platform that presses slightly into the audience.  As she dances, a list of body parts is read aloud, moving from the top of the head down to the bones of the feet, and every joint and hollow along the way.  Does this list assemble or dissemble her?  Her movement is lyrical, mostly soft, but disjointed.  Her arms, like an extended embrace, reach away from the twist and lean of her body.   We will hear this accounting of body parts again—during a slave auction, as a man dances trapped in a circle of columns—and again—during the section called “The War,” a litany of broken bodies and fighting limbs."

Read the whole review here.

If you have the opportunity to see the work, I recommend it.  I haven't stopped thinking about it since Friday.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A somatic response

In studying Forsythe's work, we had to learn part of the dance and write about the dance, from a somatic and autobiographical perspective.

Arms arcing and rebounding, hips swiveling, propelling between tables, legs darting out, piercing the slowly lightening space. The dancers are so specific in their movements and pathways, so precise and fluid. Their joints seem to rotate beyond the normal range, even as they maneuver through the space and around each other with speed and clarity. As I watch, I picture myself in the large dim space, ceiling arching far above, the bank of high windows cranking slowly open to let in the sunlight. The table under my palm is hard-edged and solid—heavy and secure. I can see the trails left by each flung arm and fanning leg. I am ready to join in.

I am not ready at all. I spend an hour whining to myself—the computer screen is too small; my connection speed is too slow, making the video jerky, fragmenting the dancers’ fluid movement; the table isn’t sturdy enough, not the right shape, and I only have one table—a substantial obstacle. And the movement itself! I watch a few seconds, clicking back again and again, but I forget the details as soon as I get back to the table. Did his arm travel this way? Does he do a little hop before spinning around and sliding over the table? Which direction did his head move?

I have chosen to learn a short movement theme of One Flat Thing, reproduced that includes four dancers. I want to learn each dancer’s part, to know and feel the interactions between them, to sense the cues and the connections tying them to each other. In this clip, their movement has been isolated from the dance as a whole—only these four dancers are shown, close-up. Yet, still they are everywhere and I can’t keep up. I watch them from behind, watch their backs as they place their elbows—right, left—on the table, or sweep their arms across its surface. I am not included in their dance—left out, unable to follow or catch up. I long for the luxuriousness that one of the women seems to feel in the movement, the back of her wrist swiveling on the table, head draped back as her knee rises. I want to bring this virtuosity, this strength and power into my body. Memories return of older, “cooler,” more experienced dancers that I looked up to as a young dancer—or even in college. In middle and high school, I desired what seemed to be their perfect ballet technique, or the way they inhabited the stage—filled it to the edges and beyond with their personality and their energy. In college, I no longer wanted to be “the ballerina,” but to be one of the grounded, daring modern dancers. The sense of watching from the outside, a mixture of envy and awe, comes back to me now.

The Synchronous Objects website is designed to encourage participation in this dance. Each window into the dance illuminates a different angle, a new way of experiencing or viewing Forsythe’s choreography. Dancers and non-dancers can find a way in— a way to interact with the movement or the structure. I notice now, however, that this interaction seems limited—as outsiders, we are meant to watch and interact in an intellectual and visual way with the dance, not physically. The movement is intricate, complicated, and virtuosic; kinesthetically, we may feel the rush and flow of the dancers’ movements as we watch, but we are not really meant to do.

I’ve learned the sequence of one of the men and gotten my movement almost up to his tempo, but I know I’m not doing it right. Despite the different interpretations I see in the various bodies of the dancers, I know I have missed key information about the performance of this movement. My frustration grows as my questions mount. But I can’t question a computer. I hear myself, in class and rehearsals, asking questions to get to the movement, the words of the question and the answer filtering into a physical understanding. My questions have caught others off-guard sometimes, required them to be more specific, to break down a whole into parts, or to admit they’re not sure. I remember the sudden exasperation of a choreographer—“I don’t know, Anne! Ok? Sometimes I just don’t know yet!”—my shock and hurt dissolving to understanding. These days I try to not ask all my questions—to trust what my body knows and the sense it makes of movement. In the studio now, I decipher what I can from the video and let some of the questions hang, unasked and unanswered, as my body figures out what makes sense.

Forsythe’s dancers have to trust not just their own bodies but each other’s. Although the dancers are each doing something different almost all of the time (not much unison or syncing up), so much of One Flat Thing, reproduced depends on shared timing, cues, visual and physical connections. The woman trusts that the man with the ponytail will be right behind her to scoop her off the floor as she leans back. The man in grey depends on his partner’s back being at just the right height for him to roll over, onto the tabletop. After the kind of rehearsal that is required for this choreography—extreme sensitivity to place, time, weight and momentum—the dancers are free to move through the space with abandon. I admire their bravery, their fluency with the contours of the movement, their environment, and other bodies.

Alone in the studio, I don’t have a partner to trust, and the table is not quite reliable, either. I ease myself onto the top of the table, lower my back down to its surface. My legs stick off the end, and my shifting around has started the table wobbling. The table is sturdy enough—it can hold my weight, but I hesitate to drop my weight towards the ground, support myself against the table, let my hips and legs loosely swivel. Instead, I hold my own weight and rely on myself for balance and stability. I have made this decision many times before: group projects in middle school where I did most of the work rather than struggle with uncooperative group members; dancing with a partner that I couldn’t quite let support my weight. But that sense of trust is not foreign to me. I have danced with partners that I trusted completely—even with our eyes closed. My marriage is both a product of great trust and a source of stability. I am able to believe in that relationship entirely. How much of finding that sense of stability and trust in others is trusting myself?

In learning the dance of this quartet, I started with the male phrases. Why did I choose to follow the men first? Is it because the women are the ones who are slid around or lifted through the air (trickier to learn on my own)? Watching the work as a whole, I started to pick up on this dynamic—from what I can tell from the occasional chaos of the dance, it is only the men who lift the women. No women lifting women and no real lifting between the men; there is a rare sliding pull between men or between women. All cue each other, all initiate movement in some way, but the physical interactions seem to maintain the traditional ballet partnering rules. Did I isolate the phrases of the men because they are less intricately detailed? More broad strokes, fewer quick turns and reverses and snaking spines? As I do this movement, I can find the sense of purpose and strength I see in the men, but not quite the softness, the fluidity of the women—a switch from how I tend to characterize my body’s movement.

I discover that without at least two tables, it’s impossible to physically perform much of the movement, so I learn the shape of the phrases, rest my arms and legs on imaginary surfaces, and mark the movement the best I can. I keep up a constant hum of cues and murmurs as I walk through the phrases, reminding myself what comes next: then hands push down against the table, jump! Left, right arms windmill around…look over at the other guy, and together, elbows down, swipe the left arm around…right leg on this table, fouette around to face the diagonal…arm carves forward, looks like he hits the other man—bam!—then pulls back and crouches…reach up for the woman, bring her down to the floor….

The rhythm and hum is akin to one of the sound options that can accompany One Flat Thing, reproduced: William Forsythe’s Sing Through. His low voice swings up and down with the movement, punctuating the moments of attack and plunge with sharper, stopped sounds. He clearly has a sense of every second of this dance; perhaps he can even see all the dancers at once, somehow. I wonder if the dancers themselves have that kind of awareness of the landscape of the work. Do they run a constant monologue in their own heads, as I’m doing? A list of their own cues and notes or corrections from Forsythe? Even now, ten years later, I coach myself through dance classes in the voice of a once feared but much-loved ballet teacher, Mr. Paulk. He saw everything and knew when you weren’t thinking about the movement as you should—and called you on it, pushed you farther than you knew you could go. I still feel the light sting of his hand against my sweaty back—a reminder even now to move my arms from my back.

These dancers work together as a close-knit community— each glance, each shared step a strand in an intricate web. The movement theme, likewise, fits into the dance as a whole, tied to other themes and variations in complex permutations. I am not a part of this community. Stuck in the space between first attempt and mastery—a place I don’t inhabit gracefully—I am both isolated outside of the smooth operation of this dance—alone with my single table—and trapped in the middle of these darting, pulling, connected dancers. The uneasy, hesitant version of the dance I have found for my body only feels tangled and out of place here. I miss the communities of dancers I have been a part of—current and past; worlds where we used our knowledge of each other to align our energies, to work together rather than as individuals. I want to find that moment of relief after tension, when the awkwardness of impossibly foreign movement dissolves and my body feels at home in the dance.

I begin to notice the subtle phrasing of the dance. Rather than the constant motion I saw at first, I start to feel the brief pauses, a light exhale before the next burst of movement. Each dancer is riding on his or her own wave of motion, a rising and falling, a crashing in and pulling back. Sometimes the waves flow together, or reach their height simultaneously; other times, the motion crests and drops with a more individual dynamic, giving the work as a whole its chaotic, constant feel. I haven’t quite found my own flow within the dance, yet, but I’m starting to sense the potential.

The tangle and the strand

The first approach (Forsythe's One Flat Thing, reproduced. )

How to build a dance? How to know a dance?

Take it apart, reassemble, translate, rearrange, regenerate.

I am both witness and participant.

Pelvis elbow arc and slide

Expanding the definitions, the definitive answers, the contours of movement, the boundaries between art and science.

Spin arm pull drag stop dive arc

Is there an illusion here? Or does it deconstruct the illusion, lay bare the inner workings, the cogs of the machine?

Is the truth just under the surface? Not just split into its individual components,

but layers made visible.

Rushing elbow pull slide swoop pelvis slap

Complex web of connections, dense, too tangled for my eye to pull apart, but each strand quantified, arranged, known.

I am defined by my geometry, the lines and shapes that fit together,

defined by my motion through space, through my life.

Defined by my relationships to others, by the inner workings of my brain—

the patterns generated, the creative potential.

Surface (swoop and slide) and under and between

The creation of form; non-divisible wholeness. The experience and the data. The table and the palm. The arc and the line. The cue and the reaction. The tangle and the strand.

20 word sets:

Under which surface?

Explore! Look! Participate!

Arrange boundaries

to quantify strands.

Choose tangles between contours.

Geometry knows.

Connections superimpose—


Rearrange landscape, generate space

Create motion!


translate tangle

under surface strand arrange

choose rearrange quantify know

participate motion create look landscape

generate geometry contours space

explore connections between

boundaries superimposed

Monday, January 4, 2010

Catching Up

I've been swamped by the semester, and haven't gone to any performances outside of the Department this fall!  
However, I've been doing plenty of writing about dance.  One of the classes I was taking this fall was called Dance: The Phenomenon, and over the semester, we studied one dance in great depth and from a number of perspectives.  We wrote a description of the work, we learned part of the dance and then wrote about what we learned of the dance from a somatic/autobiographical perspective.  We researched the dance from a particular theoretical angle, and wrote a review of literature surrounding the work.  We taught a 2-part lesson on the dance to a Dance Appreciation or Intro to Dance class.  And finally, we put all of our writing together in one big paper about the dance.  Whew.
The dance work I studied was One Flat Thing, reproduced, by William Forsythe.  Specifically, I studied the version on the Synchronous Objects website (, but you can also watch the dance here (this is Part 1) and here (this is Part 2).  This version is the dance for camera version, directed by Thierry de Mey.

Stay tuned--I'll be posting some of my smaller pieces of writing I did on this dance throughout the semester.