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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Integrity of Anonymity

This is a series of excerpts from an essay that questions the role of external recognition in our understanding of identity, and explores the importance of doing unrecognized work for the common good. It situates identity and environment as interdependent, re-framing the unseen labor of being one of many, not as an affront to who we are, but as an essential aspect of our self and our power. It seeks to inspire and support us as we allow our diverse identities to breath into the space of shared experience and to celebrate the integrity of anonymity.

As a teacher and artist I feel a void in our culture when it comes to celebrating the huge amount of work that must often be done anonymously as part of a political movement, scientific inquiry, or institutional advancement. In order to align our society and education systems with environmental sustainability and human rights, many individuals must work together toward goals, which may have nothing to do with personal recognition. Social media however, has turned daily life into a popularity contest of sorts, amplifying the fear that we might cease to exist if we are not seen. For many people, this has reversed of the cause and effect relationship of action to recognition. Public recognition is increasingly a primary motivator for generous actions, rather than a result of them.

The current presidential primaries reflect our culture’s obsession with celebrity and delight in the entertainment value of baseless, shocking claims made by overstuffed egos.  At the same time they are revealing that there are pockets of the American people who see very clearly that our political, economic, education, and criminal justice systems have become corrupt. These people are mobilizing behind a candidate who speaks almost entirely about transforming American systems for and through “we” rather than “me.” The realization that change in our governing systems might be possible is gaining inspiring momentum, but its basis in the collective good is so revolutionary to our egocentric American culture, that the mass media is still in shock. Many Americans are casting votes for candidates who embody status quo selfishness as a reflection of their own fear of equality.

Living in a hierarchical society, we are conditioned to perceive the misfortunes of others as “good” for us. Through his, her, or their loss, we are given the opportunity to look down at someone, giving us the false sensation that we have somehow risen.

Numerous studies have shown that greed does not lead to happiness. Greed, selfishness, and our desire to be acknowledged as “special,” are powerful motivators that separate us from our environments and convince us that the only consequences of our actions that matter are the ones that we can acknowledge as personally beneficial. Our culture does a fantastic job pitting the oppressed against one another so that we will be so distracted by our own disputes that we will continue to look the other way, as we are all taken advantage of.

The Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, and the 4th wave of feminism are all political movements that are charged by particular events and individual stories, but which represent the interests and experiences of large groups of people. Social movements have historically consisted of masses fueled and organized by outspoken and articulate leaders, but as the times change so do our ideas about participation and recognition. The integration of media into almost every aspect of our daily lives, and the resulting un-curated access we have to the construction of celebrity culture via digital followings, has dual functions. Social and mass media both simplify and accelerate the mobilization of large groups of people, and at the same time they can feed the hungry ghost of the ego that often times wants to be recognized as an actor more than it wants to act. 

Current breakthroughs in the field of cognitive science however, stand in direct opposition to the idea that we are individual agents who must see others loose in order for us to win. The emerging field of Four E Cognitive Science investigates our self-realization, not through our isolated identities, but through our engagement with the world around us. It also points out that every one of our actions impacts our immediate and extended environments.  The definition of mind and self articulated by Four E Cognitive Science supports us as we seek to break down the outdated notion that we are protected, by the walls we construct to divide us.

Artists always seem to be one step ahead of scientists. Visual artist Carrie Mae Weems began a lecture in 2015 by saying that she was inspired by the simultaneous truth of two opposing facts. On the one hand, we are living on a tiny planet in the middle of a vast ever-expanding universe. On the other, we leave traces of our DNA on everything we touch and these traces of our presence can remain in our environment for thousands of years. The first observation points to our undeniable anonymity in the eyes of universal forces. The other suggests that our every action affects the world around us, and that through these actions our individual identities are manifest and consequential. Both observations are true.

In his February 3, 2016 lecture entitled, Embodying the Extended Mind, Al Kaszniak, referenced the work of contemporary cognitive scientist and philosopher Even Thompson and the late neuroscientist Francisco Varela, who have reconceived the notion of “mind.” These figures are using Western scientific methods to prove what Eastern philosophy has claimed for thousands of years; the mind is not a computational device that is manifest in our brain alone, but a process that arises from the interaction between living organisms and their environments. Drawing on Thompson’s work in Four E Cognitive Science, Kaszniak describes mind as, “embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended" and adds to these four E's that the mind is also, "evanescent.” This articulation of mind-as-one-with-experience has helped me tremendously to understand how illusory individual identity is. It does not deny that each of us has a perspective, but it situates all of us as both in process, and interconnected. It suggests that our world, communities, and cultures are in themselves, recognition of our action. For me, the acknowledgement that my actions have an impact on the world soothes the desire for further recognition. Both Carrie Mae Weems assertion of contrasting dynamics our human condition, and this articulation of the mind/self as an inter-subjective process, can help us to reconsider our individual connection to the common good.

The embodied mind refers to the 2-way neurological streets that connect our physical bodies to our brains and breaks up one of the oldest hierarchies we have been conditioned into, that which separates the mind and body. “Mind” refers not to the workings of the brain in isolation, but to the interaction between the brain and the rest of the body.

Embedded mind refers to the depths of cultural conditioning. Despite our efforts to think for ourselves, we are always making judgments in relation to the web of ethical and aesthetic priorities that are woven all around us though our societies. Whether we agree with or rebel against the status quo, our minds are shaped by the cultural contexts in which we live. Our actions re-enforce cultural conditioning and we become subject to what we assert, or as visual artist Jenny Holzer states in her 1978-87 Truisms, “You are a victim of the rules you live by.”

Enacted mind refers to the interconnectivity of action and consciousness. Through action, we become aware of our environments and ourselves. Numerous studies have shown that not only does our physical and mental development depend on dynamic sensory stimuli, but also, movement throughout our lifetime is what makes us aware of our physical being. While we are in motion, the ways in which our choices resonate with or fracture our environments, feeds back to us. This feedback reinforces or inspires change in our minds and actions. At the same time, each choice that we make affects the environment and society we inhabit. “The path is laid in the walking of it,” Kaszniak asserts. Similarly, choreographer Bill T. Jones once counseled me, “The answer is in the doing.”

Extended mind is an articulation of our desire to outsource certain aspects of our thinking to external devices. Whether we are talking about Google searches on a smart phone, the use of pen and paper to catch a “to-do list,” books that hold histories, or artworks that communicate cultural ideals, humans have long “extended” our minds through technologies. As our integration with technology steadily increases it becomes increasingly important that we do not becomes slaves to technology, but rather embrace and fully utilize it as part of our extended mind in a process of collaboratively co-creating reality.

Kaszniak deftly connects this evanescent definition of mind to Zen practices that support our embodied understanding of the mind as a process, not a thing. Key to this process is the interactivity between our mind and body, personal and cultural histories, changes in our environments, and the countless causes and affects of our actions. This articulation of integration between an “in-process” individual and their environment, in turn this reveals that our society is also in constant motion, which illuminates the potential for change.

Seeing my “self” as a process that is co-creating reality with my environment and community is a perspective that I find immensely empowering. Similar to the dichotomy presented by Carrie Mae Weems, it suggests that while my perspective is of consequence, it is also a product of collaboration. “I” am making choices that are constantly informed by and informing my environment. Hence, “self” improvement, and community improvement are one.

Perhaps I find the idea of co-creating reality so empowering because I have recently transitioned from the life of a full-time performer to that of a full-time professor. As an artist I am primarily interested in communicating ideas, and as a teacher I am overwhelmingly dedicated to communicating ideas, so in many ways, this is really just a change in venue for the same, on-going work. However, as you may well imagine, the shift in lifestyle is rather dramatic.

My life as a teacher is decidedly less glamorous than that of my still performing peers. The daily relationship to identity construction and recognition seeking has been replaced by a daily rhythm of service. I thought I would miss the spotlight, but instead I find that I am increasingly drawn to the freedom, power, and integrity of anonymity.

As a dancer, one of the things I loved most about performing was that I was part of something larger than myself. Though I was acutely aware of the strain in my own legs, heart, lungs, and focus, I was also aware that I was only one part of a moving painting, an experience being shared with fellow performers, audiences, technical crews, funders, presenters, arts administrators, etc. I have always loved working in community with others. At the same time, I would be lying if I were to suggest that I, as a dancer, did not consistently desire recognition for my tiny piece of the performance puzzle. It is part of a dancer’s job to aspire to be luminous, and most of us choose to perform because we want to be recognized for that momentary glow, which is supported by a lifetime of work. We want to be part of a successful production, but also to have the choreographer choose us for the featured solo, to have critics mention our name as one of the shows’ many attributes, and many of us eventually leave performance companies to start our own, so that our own voice and name can be found in bigger type and bolder font.

In stark contrast, there is no spotlight on a teacher (that is unless the teacher’s goal is to harness devotees instead of actually teach). One who is dedicated to education as a form of growth and development can hope to be admired and respected by one’s students and colleagues, but as a conduit for knowledge, you can be assured that to the students you work with, your voice will be one of many, co-creating the students’ paths.

One of the dance techniques I teach is the Martha Graham technique. Graham (1894-1991) is undeniably one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century. She created over 180 ballets in her lifetime and revolutionized American culture’s ideas about dance as an art form, gender and costume design, and the relationship between abstraction and narrative in theater. She created an angular and aggressive movement technique in collaboration with the dancers with whom she worked, in order to facilitate the performance of her repertory. Graham technique is based in precise movement practices such as the contraction and release of the torso, the use of spirals and rotation to connect the limbs of the body to the core, and assertive shifts of weight that allow a dancer to cover immense amounts of space in a single stride. These principles are still useful today in relation to contemporary choreography. Unfortunately however the technique is more often taught as a form of idol worship, than as a series of principles. Graham’s notorious ego would have it no other way. She worked in collaboration, but demanded sole recognition for her successes. As a result, instead of being celebrated for its enduring underlying principles, Graham’s legacy is quickly being reduced to a series of “Martha said…” quotes.

As a part of this legacy I am beginning to notice, that teaching through a singular historic figure or even through a cannon that was established through a historic (which in America means racist and misogynistic) filter, only serves to guide students towards imitation and reverence, not towards the critical and creative thinking needed to inspire a generation to move forward with their lives as agents of change in a troubled world.

The confusion between the teacher and teachings is not isolated to the performing art world. There are teachers in all subjects who use their positions of power over students to boost their own egos. The style I aspire to when I teach is inspired by my study of Ashtanga Yoga and Zen Buddhism, wherein the guru or teacher can take almost any form of embodiment or experience in order to be a conduit that can open a student’s eyes to certain truths. However, even in the long-standing schools of the supposedly spiritually uplifting Yoga and Zen practices, egomaniacal teachers often prey on the inexperience and devotion of their students.

Just because something is common and/or wide spread however, does not make it right. Teaching anything in order to establish or maintain power over others is at best a waste, and at worst an abuse, of education systems. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, philosopher John Dewey states, “Each generation is inclined to educate its young so as to get along in the present world instead of with a view to the proper end of education: the promotion of the best possible realization of humanity as humanity.”

By teaching students to revere an individual teacher, we keep our lesson plans locked in the past. They honor what has happened, rather than what could happen. I share Dewey’s opinion that the proper end of education is not to prepare students to enter the workforce and maintain the status quo, but it is instead to empower and inspire students to change the world, and to create new roles for themselves within it. Through education, we, students and teachers, create reality together. My perspective colors my delivery of information, as does the generation, ability, race, gender, class, and curiosity of the students with whom I work. However, I seek to engage the classroom as a collaborative space. One in which I lead by example, letting my identity and anonymity dance an intimate duet.

Dewey also asserts, “The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.” This brings us back to the political concerns that opened this essay. If we are seeking to build a society of individuals who prioritize power over others as opposed to power with others, then teaching students to imitate from a celebrity pedestal will create the kind of followers that society calls for. If instead we define the “best possible realization of humanity” as one in which, community, human rights, and environmental sustainability are respected, then we need to think about how individual teachers can become channels for teachings that are much more consequential than any one artist, intellect, or cannon. In this way perhaps we can develop educational models that celebrate the embodied, embedded, enacted, extended and evanescent mind.

It’s one thing to say, we should all love each other. It is entirely another thing to work tirelessly towards a society in which equality manifests. How many of us are interested in that work, which makes the world a more just place, rather than the work that attempts to put our name in lights, leaving others in shadows? Can we begin to frame, and understand, identity and anonymity, not as mutually exclusive states, but as simultaneously possible? Can we anchor our identity in our works, as opposed to our titles? Can we, as a culture, find ways to celebrate the integrity of anonymity, so that enough individuals recognize their interdependence in time to create the ground swell needed for a political revolution in the upcoming election?

I believe that the answer to this lies in the cooperative efforts of students and teachers, educators and presenters, performers and audiences, creators and consumers, scientists and religious leaders. For in fact our identities are embedded in one another. Whether we are conscious of it or not; we are all co-creating reality. To honor this interconnectivity and work for the common good is to celebrate our embedded identities and allow the integrity of anonymity to amplify the power of our actions.

Abbreviated Works Cited
-Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan, 1916. 96-97.
-Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000.
-Goldberg, Michelle. The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. New York: Penguin, 2015.
-Juhan, Deane.  Job’s Body. Barrytown: Station Hill, 2003. 21-55, 185-202.
-Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
-Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
-Shlain, Leonard. Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light. New York: Morrow, 1991.
-Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
-Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score; Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. 223-227. 
-Varela, Francisco. Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Standford: Standford University Press. 1999.
-Weems, Carrie Mae. "Constructing History: An Artist Explores the Context of Her Work." Lecture, The Jack and Lewis Rudin Distinguished Visiting Scholars Program, Marymount Manhattan College, New York, October 28, 2015.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Excavation Site: Martha Graham USA

It was an honor and a strange pleasure to be a part of Michael Kliën’s Excavation Site: Martha Graham USA, on January 16, 2016.
Photo:Brigid Pierce
Kliën’s “social choreography” seeks to dismantle dominant notions of productivity and representation in dance, replacing these agendas with relatively open scores, which reveal the actual choreography of social interactions that are colored by historic and present contexts.

When I was told that Graham, PS122, and the New Museum were collaborating via Kliën’s vision, I knew I wanted to be involved. I grew up in a New York that was still strictly divided between “uptown” and “downtown” dance. Though my own career has bridged many aesthetics, and the geography of the New York dance scene has shifted, the division between for-profit and experimental dance is still rarely broken. Hence I was intrigued to see what would come of a group of dancers tied together via an outrageously formal and performative movement technique, diving together into an experimental space of the unknown.

The project utilized the entire 11th floor of Westbeth, which will always in my mind be the Cunningham Studios, not the Graham studios. The space was transformed into a kind of salon through the ingenuity of dramaturge Steve Valk so that the audience could engage in a brief philosophical and historic Graham intensive before venturing into the main studio. This beautiful studio was draped in heavy black curtains, closing it into a black box that was immersed in a surround sound electronic score.  In response to Graham’s assertion that, “where a dancer places her feet is holy ground,” the audience was asked to take off their shoes before entering this space. In the studio the audience encountered 20 past, present, and future members of the Graham legacy, who were involved in their own, collective excavation.

Kliën’s prompts for our excavation were simple, yet at the same time baffling. The entire project reminded me of a Zen koan. Something designed to short circuit one’s brain, so that we might catch a glimpse of what lies beneath the mind-as-director of our constructed selves and rehearsed interactions. My understanding of the instructions was to actobserve, ponder, and take note of the sediment that remains. Through these four tasks we were to excavate how action becomes dance, how observation enables attunement with one’s environment, to allow pondering to shift into evoking spirits, ancestors, or gods, and through them to sanctify the sediment. We were to stay engaged with one another, but not communicate in codes (language is a code, a wink is a code…). There were also underlying rules, “do not have ideas, do not be creative, do not perform, do not judge, do not perform touch, do not improvise, do not resolve, do not worry, be shameless.”

It is fascinating to ask such a performative company to “not perform,” to act, observe, and be, but to not try, do, accomplish, resolve… Wasn’t it Martha who said, “anything but indifference…”
For me it was the evoking of ancestors that allowed me to make sense of my task. Graham dancers know how to channel. It was/is part of Martha’s technique to allow the blood memory of human experience to speak through your body, as both a mere, and an exulted, vessel. We were in a space and a community that are rich with ancestry.  Through the four-hour experience I found myself engaged in an amazing conversation between the present moment and a loaded past, being danced.

In her essay, The Female Dancer and the Male Gaze, Susan Manning refers to Dempster’s assertion that, “social and political values are not simply placed or grafted onto a neutral body-object like so many old or new cloths.  On the contrary ideologies are systematically deposited and constructed on an anatomical plane, i.e. in the neuro-musculature of the dancer’s body.” (Manning 156)
In my experience, classical techniques are similarly grafted into the facial container of a dancer’s body. Graham’s interest in spirals, contraction/release, and shift of weight, are movement experiences that become lenses for a Graham trained dancer, through which to perceive, contemplate, and respond to the world. The technique isn’t “in” our bodies. Rather, this specific kinesthetic intelligence, no matter how we deconstruct, rearrange, or rebel against it, “is” our body. The body of a dancer is a multi-faceted process, always unfolding and redeveloping itself in relation to what needs to be honored, what needs to be dismantled, what needs to be said. We can build new aesthetics out of deepening how we consider our training, but we can’t drop it. The body remembers. (Rothschild 38)

Those of us from the Graham tradition, who started Excavation together, share this embodied knowledge. It has a variable aesthetic and ethical value, depending on whom you ask. For the consumer of traditional western theater, Graham technique carries a high aesthetic value. Most of us from the Graham tradition believe sincerely in our work because the profound emotional truths embodied by Graham’s movement vocabulary have resonated with our own lives. Through these dances we have been assured that we are not alone in the intensity of our pain and our ecstasy.  

At the same time, to a connoisseur of contemporary art, this aesthetic is often seen as a site of farce and ridicule, a vocabulary that has been bankrupt by commodification, and which is now best used ironically. Viewed in this way, those of us from the Graham tradition also share embodied knowledge of a community that reeks of a disregard for the potential ethical value of art. In relation to social hierarchies and gender binaries, Graham’s theater is decidedly old fashioned. As a modern artist, Graham’s concerns were aesthetic, not ethical, but we cannot help but to look at the work now through contemporary eyes, filtered by postmodernism and an awareness of body politics, which tie aesthetic evaluation to ethical considerations. (Merrill Viii)

The intersection of aesthetics and ethics in classical dance is a fascinating subject to me, because I have inhabited communities that are suspicious of modernism’s hierarchies, as often as I have inhabited communities that are based in them.
Most of my dance life I feel like a spy. I don’t really drink the kool-aid in either camp. 

Photo: Martha Graham Dance Company

I’ve often been told in improvisation jams that my pointed toes and straightened knees show that I am not being “honest” to myself about how I really want to move, that I am not moving “naturally.” (Someone who either has not undergone classical training, or someone for whom the training never reached the level where the discipline transformed into ecstasy usually launches this critique.) But in this Excavation I was calling the ancestors from this space and community, surrounded by other humans whose vessels have been similarly sculpted to fall into classical alignment. Deep within ourselves, is a love of the intersection between the body and sacred geometry, and an unrelenting faith that dances can align us with spiritual forces through technical precision.

After laying on the studio floor for nearly 30 minutes, opening my senses to the energy in the space, the first thing I felt compelled to do was a series of Cunningham tendus with the full torso involved in many opposing directions. Throughout the Excavation I would find myself on relevé,  balanced on one foot, and being drawn into the constellation of bodies I observed in the space, my own body channeling the lines of that living architecture.

For the audience I imagine there was a strange aesthetic disconnect between the informality of the whole and the precision of the individual disciplined bodies. However, when I would start to hear the voices in my head saying that I was surely doing too much, that the aesthetics embodied by my “uptown” physicality are “wrong” for this sort of experimental performance practice… That my embodied “old school” aesthetics represent tyranny and ignorance, I could let myself drop that shame and observe myself in a precarious balance, being stretched into physical lines that cut through the space.  It was an incredible luxury of permission.

As my body was pulled into various forms, it was also pulled into various people. Some of them were in the room in bodies; others came through movement and touch. At one point I knew Dudley Williams was with me, as I was pulled into a coccyx balance that lasted for many, many breaths. A spiral that started from Graham’s pelvis broke into a Laura Dean spin that continued until I felt that it would surely be easier to keep turning forever than to stop. The diagonals of the space kept pulling me, as I fell into the energetic etchings of numerous dancers who have gone “across the floor” in that room. Eye contact and physical contact with friends and strangers allowed for equal parts fascination, connection, and disinterest. Non-attachment fueled dignity in both greetings and departures, but the infinite possibilities in a room of experienced humans are also tinted with risk.

Channeling in a community of Graham dancers can be dangerous business.  At times, the ricochet from heartbreak to ecstasy in the air was enough to give me spiritual whiplash. Graham was always battling demons, and they came too.

There were many times when I tried to walk away, only to find myself on a circular path, back where I had begun, facing the same challenges. There were times when the open channel of my body pierced my heart with insatiable longing for something I cannot name. At one point I found myself dancing with Abdiel Cedric Jacobson, but it was no gentle pas de duex. It was a dance in which I was genuinely working hard to survive. From the depths of his excavation, he had brought the Minotaur and it came for me, pushing me up against all of my supposed limitations of strength and age. I do not know Abdiel well, but in this moment of being danced we were intimate conspirators and servants to momentum, grasping for each other in a dynamic, asymmetrical equilibrium.

Graham’s universe upholds old-fashioned binary ideas about gender. This is the main ethical dispute I have with her theater. As powerful as she is as a woman artist, her choreography maintains the “asymmetrical equilibrium of patriarchy” that Ann Daly articulates in Classical Ballet: A Discourse of Difference (Daly 116). My own life, and choreography, pushes against these gender roles constantly, but in the Excavation I found myself placing my foot on a man’s back in a gesture of power-over, only to find myself melting into him and being lifted. A strange permission; to indulge in a dance that is not my own, to be danced by history, to be taken, lifted… and left. Endings without resolution send us again into the ricochet of ecstasy to heartbreak that is this legacy.

Danger makes us present. Perhaps this is why Graham insisted in terrifying her dancers, and so many Graham teachers continue this legacy of the pedagogy of fear. In our mediated age though, one does not need to yell, ridicule, or hit in order to intimidate. Eye contact alone is enough to send a fellow human into the void of the present moment; the realization of personal, ethical, responsibility. Here we are.

During the Excavation I fell into eyes that I have looked into through tears and laughter, toil and success. The next moment I would find myself drowning in the deep pools of eyes of someone I had never met. It was all an invitation into the infinite, breath taking possibilities of actually being together without judgment, or agenda.

The intimacy is terrifying.
When was the last time you spent four waking hours without looking at your phone?

Across the room I see Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch and Kim Jones frozen, forehead-to-forehead. They are dancers of my generation, women I have known through triumph and transition. Their gesture radiates love. I feel it tap into a newly blossoming space in me. One that is learning that the more one loves, the more love one has to give. I hear my mother’s voice, “It is the most radical thing we can do in our culture: to cast our heart net as wide as possible.” I am pulled into a new dance in which the sediment of all our digging leads to gratitude for what we share through time and space, without language and without shame. We who know each other, and we who are strangers, all caught up in this dance between stillness and momentum. The love is there. Even through the history of drama and power plays, it is ours to invite.

I hear the long curtain that divides the studio space from the entryway, opening. People begin to speak. Judgments are the first things they articulate. Reactions are the second. I long for the un-coded, judgment-free space/time that has just concluded, but time is money in NYC and someone else has the studio. We have to get out.  There is no closure, no resolution. The void of possibility spills from the art space into the street. Some people drop it, others drink it, I gone on into several sleepless nights before I am able to stop trying to make sense of it.

To actobserve, ponder, and take note of the sediment that remains. To excavate how action becomes dance, how observation enables attunement with one’s environment, to evoke spirits, ancestors, or gods, and through them to sanctify our interactions.  What of this is still possible? Does any of it actually require an audience? As I dance into the next chapter of my life I will remember; “Do not worry, be shameless.
Photo: Lauren Neuman

Daly, Ann. “Classical Ballet: A Discourse of Difference.” Meaning in Motion New Cultural Studies of Dance. Ed. Jane C Desmond. Durham: Duke University Press. 1997. 111-120.

Manning, Susan. “The Female Dancer and the Male Gaze.” Meaning in Motion New Cultural Studies of Dance. Ed. Jane C Desmond. Durham: Duke University Press. 1997. 153-166.

Merrill, Robert. “Introduction.” Ethics/Aesthetics Post-Modern Positions. Ed Robert Merrill. Washinton DC: Maisonneuve Press. 1988. Vii-xiii.

Rothschild, Babette. The Body Remembers, The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: W.W.Norton & Company. 2000

…Funny, my fear was always that I was doing too much, yet these critics seem to feel that not enough happened… another infinite void; the space between artist and critic…