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.
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 act, observe, 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 act, observe, 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.”
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…