Thursday, December 21, 2017

Give Me More... of what?

As both an avid reader and dancer, I am always thinking about how new concepts and ideas that I stumble across in my research might inform movement.

My current work, Give Me More, first emerged as a meditation on fascia or connective tissue. In the last few years, my teaching of anatomy and somatic practices has led me to dig deeply into this amazing part of our bodies. Fascia not only connects our bones, muscles, and tendons, it also plays a significant role in our nervous system. While I am excited by the versatile material itself, I’m also a fan of fascia because it dismantles mechanistic views of the body that have been at the forefront of anatomy teaching for many decades. I tend to get excited about all kinds of things that ask us to unlearn outmoded concepts, as we are presented with new ones.

The many scientists and somatic practitioners who are advocating for a more holistic view of the body are doing so at the same time that intersectional feminism has come to the fore of socio-political conversations. The current US administration has an impressively wide-reaching ability to hurt people, places, and things that I, and many in my community, care about. It occurred to me in the wake of the 2016 election, that shifting our perspective on our bodies from being a collection of disparate parts, to being a whole composed of diverse yet interrelated movements, could shed light on a helpful way to look at our society in general, and the Resistance in particular.

At the Woman’s March early in 2017, people held signs and shouted slogans for a vast range of causes. It was a moment of beautiful realization to see that our love of the environment, our need for access to healthcare, the fact that Black Lives Matter, and that immigrants make our culture richer, are ideas that connect many of us. Give Me More grew out of my meditations on connectivity both within the body and in our society.



I imagined dancers connected by a huge piece of fabric as big as the stage. Of course, I have no budget for such things. But as I toyed with the image and ways to create it, I ran across several headlines that talked about waste in the fashion industry and I realized that I could very likely get all the fabric I needed for free… I sent ONE email to the faculty, staff, and students at Marymount Manhattan College asking for donations and, in less than a month, people brought me over 200 lbs of clothing!

The epic net/quilt that is being constructed out of these clothes reflects the concept of interconnectivity, not only because of its origin in community donations and the fact that it is sewn together, but also because clothing carries so much meaning. The donated items are rich in stories of gender, size, class, age… and as the dancers interact with them, these meanings are accented and subverted in a variety of ways. I was particularly struck by the highly fashionable women’s clothing I was given that still had the tags on it – purchases that were undoubtedly made in order to make the buyer feel well adorned, but then discarded as fashions changed even faster than one can remove a price tag. This led to me to contemplate the role gender plays in our conditioned need to consume. The costumes and props that we purchase to declare our masculinity, femininity, or disregard for binaries, become invaluable aspects of our identity… right before they become landfill.




All of this contemplation on clothing led me to think a lot about drag. Drag performance has been an interest of mine since graduate school (2007-09), when I made a study of it, and even more since 2011 when I began to practice it. Drag performance reveals the fluid, performative nature of gender expression as a whole. When one begins playing with gender in our society, one is playing with power. For me as a woman, to dress as a man, I am freed from concerns of beauty and kindness. I am invited into a world where my dominance is assumed. No one stares, no one cat calls, and people stop asking me why I have not had children. As a female choreographer, my work is judged by how "good" I look performing in it, while as a male artist I am free to express, debate, and discuss ideas.

Gender inequality in the dance world has always seems to me to reflect the culture in which it is produced. As demonstrated by the #MeToo movement, our culture has some serious work to do in this arena. The fact that the dance field is primarily female while the power structure that choreographs, presents, and curates festivals is primarily male, is increasing being recognized and critiqued. Shifting this oppressive hierarchy however, means taking on a level of gender inequality that is so prevalent as to be almost invisible to many members of the dance community and its audience. The time seemed right to create a new drag character, a male choreographer in particular, who is making a piece about the “Power of Woman.” Every time in the last year, that I have mentioned this concept to a fellow dancer, their response is inevitably to roll their eyes and say, "Oh, yeah. I've been in that piece." I collected specific stories about the painful misunderstanding and misrepresentation of femininity and power from 14 dancers and wrote the male choreographer's monolog as a composite of these stories. It is an aggressively ironic and cathartic scene.

So… a piece about gender, consumption, and environmental destruction has emerged from a meditation on fascia.



Connective tissue also feels key to Give Me More because it has been supported so generously by people in my community who, despite the frustration of these trying times, still believe in the power of art to uplift the human spirit. I am incredibly thankful to all of the people who supported my successful Kickstarter campaign in order to be able to pay my collaborating artists.

When the Kickstarter launched I was attending a Dance Scholars Association conference in Ohio. It was a wonderful event, not only because it reconnected me to people from my Bill T Jones dance family, my Graham dance family, and my Seattle/Graduate School dance family, but also because I was reunited with so many folks from my family of fellow makers. In the past, academic dance conferences have drawn strict lines between makers and scholars, but it is clear that these boundaries are now breaking down. Makers are scholars, who are able to present their own research and create their own contexts. At the same time, the rich creativity of scholarship is being recognized; interconnectivity once again.


So, it seems that the ways to think about connectivity are limitless; the body, our communities, what we fight for, who we know ourselves to be, all this is a web. I look forward to sharing Give Me More, and to spinning many more connective threads with all of you.

Give Me More premieres at Theater for the New City Jan 25-27, 2018.
For Tickets... www.smarttix

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Southern Discomfort

I was so moved by Southern Discomfort, performed and created by Aimee Rials and Trebien Pollard at Dixon Place June 4th 2017, that days later I am still being nourished by my reflections. The work was impactful, not only in the content expressed, but also because of the aesthetic ingenuity employed by both artists.

Aimee and Trebien are both remarkably seductive performers, but not in the way we usually consider that word. They are seductive because they are completely self-possessed. Whole and complete in and of themselves, they invite the audience to join them on very personal journeys. As viewers, we are willing and able to be carried along with them because the weight of their performative presence makes it easy to trust them. As an audience member, I often feel that I am being sold something, but in this performance, I felt honored to be witness to the profound sense of generosity, that flowed from every turn of Aimee Rials and Trebien Pollard’s wrists.

Rials is a remarkable mover. She conducts energy through her body in a way that is both grounded and fantastically fluid. Her movement vocabulary demonstrates deep movement research, as powerful in its subtlety as it is in its considered use of attack. Her solo, Modifi(her), was deeply moving, both because of the strength of her performance and because of its refined compositional craftsmanship.  She used repetition effectively, as the repetitive movement allowed the audience to experience the emotional evolution within the work. Repetition also created a trancelike quality that enabled the dance to exist in the space between memory and presence. The space between the longing, regret, desire, and hope that we felt in the past and that which we feel in the present, blur. The body is always caught between past and present, scars and postures being tangible manifestations of memory, yet every breath is potentially attuned to the now. Rials milks this temporal indeterminacy as the dance orbits a single chair, beautifully designed by Emanuelle Schaer, a symbol of all of the, “should haves,” and, “could haves,” that haunt us. Rials dances circular memories, familiar to many of us. She embodies roles both accomplished and resented, as well as those that we cold not fulfill; yet we are still bound to as they define our defiance. In the final section, her liberation from this web of reflection is wildly open hearted. She gives back to the audience all that she has gained in her processing, facing us unapologetically, radiant, and whole.

It is also important to mention that Rials offers the audience a gender expression rarely seen in New York dance. Most theatrical gender play consists of the juxtaposition of culturally defined extremes. Drag, in its many iterations, plays on the gender based social expectation and subversion of dress, make-up, posture, hair, etc.... Drag creates an expansive space to define gender through beating against the edges of the binary spectrum. The flashiness of this tug of war makes for excellent theater. However, the quiet, yet fierce embodiment of androgyny I saw in Rials, is much less common on stage.  It speaks truth to power in a very different way than drag does. It does not use cultural codes to flip audience expectation, but rather exists as a whole alternative, an expression of completeness that is not ruled by indoctrination, but by a hard won honoring of the individual self.  It threatens the status quo, not by revealing and manipulating the game, but by decidedly refusing to play. On a personal note, it was incredibly validating for me to watch Rials in performance because in my life I am relatively androgynous, but in my dance career I have mostly been asked to perform (for both male and female choreographers) as a hyper-femme, and hence dishonest, version of myself.

Trebien Pollard’s work is a wonderful pairing with Rials. The works are equally powerful, yet they utilized very different means of aesthetic expression. As a dancer, Pollard’s satiny movement quality is unparalleled. His whole body moves in a way that is simultaneously deeply considered and at the same time open to the wild pulls of his vast heart. Like water deep in the ocean, Pollard moves in response to unseen currents, made visible through an on-going commitment to multifaceted articulation.  As an artist Pollard is interested in visual density, effectively incorporating a set, projections, and multiple costume changes into his solo performance of Seeing the Unspeakable/An Eye on Struggle (work in progress).

His costume design incorporates numerous layers of black cloth that play with varied gender expressions, but perhaps more importantly, extend the movement of his body. The shifts in costume transform him from terrifying creature, to rooted tree, to wise yet questioning human, to swirling vortex. In coordination with original spoken poetry, a relentless projected slide show of gut-wrenching visuals by artists such as Kara Walker and Barkley Hendricks as well as photos of Ruby Bridges on the steps of her formerly all white elementary school, and a cloth set that lists the names of some of the POC who died at the hands of police in just the last few years, the performance presses the audience right up against the history of racism in America that conditions and affects us all.

It is a heart breaking, overwhelming reality, well expressed through Pollard’s use of different media. It is so easy to feel helpless in the oversaturation of human rights violations that constantly threaten POC in contemporary culture. As a light in this darkness, Pollard’s work was a balm, which did not sugar coat a thing, but did remind us that life, in all its complexity, does go on, and that we are all in this together. Pollard’s strong voice allowed the audience to experience a wide range of emotions; anger and disgust, but also the respect for community, history, and progress, and the potential ecstasy of spiritual beauty that transcends cultural and religious views. His spoken poetry is as captivating as his movement quality, evoking a multiplicity of meanings that leaves the audience’s mind swirling with possibility. It is through this vivid ambiguity that we are able to thread together the personal and the political, the past and the present, and to entertain the possibility of hope.

I look forward to seeing future work by both of these artists, and I thank them with all of my heart for their courage and their work.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Why dance now?

To my Dancer, Dance Teacher, and Dance Maker Friends,

When I pulled myself out of a fetal position on Wednesday November 9, 2016 to teach a dance class at the college I currently work at, the hardest part was that my work felt pointless. Why teach dance in a world this divided and violently hateful? I considered going in and telling all my students to drop their dance major. “Study something useful.” I would say. But a few breaths later, as I imagined those words actually coming out of my mouth, I realized that to speak from a place of fear and disillusionment was to allow myself to be defeated. I know that I owe my teachers, my students, my peers, my ancestors, and my self much more than that.

Here is what I said instead:

Do not forget for a moment that the arts have been on the front lines of the culture wars in this country for generations. When government swings to the far conservative right, artists are more important than ever. Artists take conversations about diversity and make them tangible. They allow us to see a world rich with nuance and color, wherein conflicting energies are harnessed into vivid content, which through its subjective nature inspires discourse across all kinds of boundaries.

Art making builds communities and through that, safe spaces for those who feel marginalized and unheard.

When we study dance specifically we are reminded that change takes time, and that the path to progress is not a straight line. 
When we look at dance history we see figure after figure, who worked in obscurity for decades before being recognized as a game changer.  
Our culture changes how we inhabit our bodies, and as a result, we are continuously in need of dance artists who have the courage to offer new ideas and perspectives.

I encourage you, now more than ever, to take daily technique classes not because you want to fit yourself into some kind of historic ideal, but because the practice of dancing, no matter what the technique, is an opportunity to make yourself stronger, to increase your physical and intellectual range of motion and to enhance your ability to articulate complex ideas with clarity and passion. 

As dancers, we fortify our bodies so that they can be effective vessels for the communication of issues and perspective of our own time.

Technique class isn’t about looking good or getting a job, it is about learning how to listen to our bodies, communities, and spaces. It is about learning how to embody and embrace multi-faceted and multi-dimensional ideas. It is about learning how to get up after you are knocked down, and how to organize yourself in order to use energy efficiently. It is about practicing working with others, learning how to communicate effectively, and finding the courage to be open to desire.

Dance technique class is a forum to investigate how your own voice and perspective can reach as wide an audience as possible.

It is not an act of selfishness or vanity to dance. If we do not take care of ourselves we will never have the strength we need, to do the work that needs to be done in this world.

Throughout human history people have danced together in solidarity, in protest, and in love. We have danced through war, through discrimination, through the gutting of the NEA, and through economic depression. Dance lets us perceive and embody the beauty in effort, the integrity in tragedy, the power of resistance, and the enduring hope in our spirits.

Our work matters. Together, let's dance.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Historic and Significant Female Solos

I cannot imagine a better location than the 92nd St Y, to witness a program of Historic and Significant Female Solos.  The program, performed by Jennifer Conley, Kim Jones, Ella Rosewood, and Meggi Sweeney Smith, was presented in the Y’s Buttenweiser Hall, Friday April 22, 2016 at noon. The Y has been a site of great significance to the New York dance community for decades. Many of the choreographers featured in the program, Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, Louise Kloepper, Helen Tamiris, Anna Sokolow, and Jane Dudley, danced, taught, and created at the 92nd St Y during the early to mid 20th century.

As a regisseur myself, for the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and a teacher of the Martha Graham technique at Marymount Manhattan College, I live much of my life tethered between the past, present, and future of dance. As an ephemeral art form, dance history is a fragile subject, and modern dance history is particularly so. Unlike ballet, which as the language of the aristocracy is slow to transform, modern dance history is a rapid-fire evolution of the expressions of myriad brave individuals who were active in the social and political contexts of their time. Most early modern dancers were invested in making statements through dance that celebrated the underdogs of society, such as the working class, women, and people of color. Modern dance history is a history of struggle, resistance, and integrity. This creates a distinct carriage of the body in early modern dances, which is as essential to a reconstruction of classical choreography as are the individual steps.

Many of the artists who are now recognized as the pioneers of modern dance, created training methods to facilitate their distinct choreographic voices. These historic techniques are encoded not only with individual idiosyncrasy, but also with a distinct perspective on the ever-shifting cultural standards of posture, beauty, class, race, and gender. Hence, contemporary bodies that train in historic techniques are potentially given valuable insights into their own embodied context by enacting the ideals of a different time and place, and noting the juxtaposition to their own.

Women dancing alone on stage in the beginning of the 20th century were directly linked to the first wave of feminism. The ingenuity of many of the corset-less costume designs facilitates the agency of the female performers. In these works, the female body is seen, not as an object to be manipulated in the eyes of the audience, but as a vessel. All of the formidable women who performed in Historic and Significant Female Solos were not on stage to be objectified, but to make a statement. Their power came not through seduction but through channeling energy that connects historic struggles to contemporary ones and which allows each individual body to stand for the concerns of many. The ability of an individual to transform into a symbol brings us back to the importance of historic techniques. These techniques train the body to gesture as a whole body activity, to study form and motion as products of emotion, and to work within a landscape of human movement that emulates archetypal forces rather than contortion.

As well as being cultural time capsules, the well thought out physical training systems of 20th century modern dance also hold timeless insights that continue to support dancers as they work to encompass space, conduct energy, and communicate directly, through their bodies.  In particular, I find that historic techniques are an excellent way to train dancers in performance presence. The Post-Modern dance movement that emerged in the second half of the 20th century rebelled against the grandeur of dramatic performances. It too developed training methods that, in contrast to classical modern dance techniques, are designed to access a dancer’s unaffected state of being. Contemporary dance at its best mixes these aesthetic agendas, allowing for a co-mingling of transparent honesty and classical virtuosity in the performing body. Contemporary techniques are rich with innovative ways to access physical power and expression. They also stem from and/or reference the informality with which our society costumes itself. The posture of a dancer who has trained their body entirely wearing breathable synthetic fabrics, and who goes through daily life in T-shirts and jeans, is very different than the posture of someone who trained wearing wool jersey leotards and who wore white gloves as a part of their daily life.  Shifts in dance training lead to wonderful new possibilities in contemporary work, but they also make it difficult for contemporary dancers to reconstruct historic dances. The essential posture of the dancing body, and the relationship between bound and fluid movement choices, must shift when a contemporary dancer takes on a historic role.

It was refreshing however, in Historic and Significant Female Solos, to see historic works performed by bodies that are also trained in historic techniques and that were hence willing and able to honor presence and clarity of expression over kinetic virtuosity. In all of the performers on the program, the lines of the body, rather than reflecting the extremes of contemporary athleticism, referenced sacred geometry, allowing the body to become a conduit of space rather than an acrobat. The performers communicated directly with their audience, through choreographies that were created as decisive statements, rather than as vehicles for displaying extreme physicality.

 I was particularly moved by Jennifer Conley’s performance of Anna Sokolow’s Lyric Suite: Andante Amoroso. Conley’s strong presence and commitment on stage carried her gestures far beyond the boundaries of her skin. When her arms crossed over her body the space within her seemed to deepen, drawing the audience into her desire. When she ran in circles around the stage, arms out stretched, it was an expression of infinite expansion that pulled the audience’s hearts and minds with it, inviting our imaginations to run wild. I was not surprised to hear her say at the end of the performance that the regisseurs she worked with used no videos of other dancers in their reconstruction process and that they left room within the choreographic structure they set on Conley, for her to make some of her own choices. This approach to reconstruction, as re-imagining rather than replication, allowed the historic choreography to truly live though Conley’s contemporary body. Conley embodied regality, but it was not the regality of an imagined or historic queen. It was instead the very real regality of all women throughout time who have the courage to acknowledge their own desires.

Most of the dances in Historic and Significant Female Solos premired before the use of film and video recording became a common means of preserving dances. As a result, many of them have been painstakingly reconstructed by cross-referencing photos, artist’s notebooks, original reviews of the work from a variety of sources, the historic context in which the work was created, and perhaps most importantly, oral histories. Kim Jones beautifully articulated this process in a presentation about her reconstruction of Graham’s Imperial Gesture at the end of the performance. Reconstructing a dance, which is by nature evanescent, is a project akin to archeology. It asks the performer/scholars who reconstruct the works to negotiate between historic accuracy best articulated through precise imitation, and historic accuracy that requires innovation and translations across cultural contexts.

Re-imagining historic choreography is particularly important in the case of the works shown in Historic and Significant Female Solos because the choreographers who originally made the dances were such were ground breaking artists. These revolutionary works do not live on if we learn them off a video and toss them back on stage. They must be deeply investigated through embodied research and risk taking, so that the revolutionary spirit of the work can be seen in a contemporary context.


All of the artists who collaborated to make Historic and Significant Female Solos clearly worked to cultivate the spirit and intention of the works presented, as well as their form. The current field of dance is enriched by their efforts. These historic works establish all of the rules of composition that contemporary choreographers strive to break. They position the female body as one that possesses power, agency, and a valuable perspective. They illuminate the historic connection between art and social change and inspire us to reconsider the role of the individual body in cultural innovation. I congratulate all of the artists who collaborated to make Historic and Significant Female Solos a success.