Liberating the body (With some help from your friends)

          This post summarizes my final project for Bebe Miller’s HTL: Choreography course on dance in the 1980s-90s. Check out the video below and keep reading to find out how I made it!

        Throughout the semester we have been studying the various ways in which choreographers made their work within a given period of time.  When viewed broadly across the span of dance making in the 20th century, these processes begin to illuminate wide-ranging themes and trends.  In the 80s, particularly, we started to see a shift towards interrupting the path of known movement vocabulary. As Wendy Perron mentioned when she visited our class in October, there was an interest in “splitting the unit of assumed movement.” Additionally, she commented on the trend of “allowing many selves” to be present in choreography, and in the 90s, a greater sense of cultural explorations/collisions and artistic collaboration began to emerge in dance making processes.

            Keeping these ideas in mind, I began to develop a solo work for my final project. The idea of a solo had been haunting me throughout most of the semester, despite the fact that I had begun my first semester of graduate school with a distinct desire to choreograph with other people and avoid performing myself. The alignment of many of my courses’ goals, and the basic fact of not knowing very many people yet, meant that I kept finding myself in the studio working on material meant for me alone. When it came time to choose a final project topic for this class, it occurred to me that it would be the perfect opportunity to make the solo that I had been avoiding. But how to begin?

Through some of my courses and studio time, I had generated quite a bit of movement that I had been attempting to put together in a meaningful way. In every iteration, it felt uninspired and lacked a context in which to ground myself. When I am choreographing with a group of people, I always love the element of problem solving at play, but when working solo, I often forget to use the tools that I know well and rely on regularly in those group processes. Inspired by descriptions of Ralph Lemon’s, Stephen Petronio’s, and Susan Rethorst’s processes in this course, I decided to take my solo through a rigorous, three-step process and find out what would happen to it.

My first step began with Ralph Lemon’s notions of dismantling dance, and in some instances, the body inside that dance. Katherine Profeta’s description in Dramaturgy in Motion of Lemon attempting to learn West African dance had stuck with me. The idea was that in Lemon’s creation process of Geography, he had attempted to learn West African dance, ultimately failed at it, but from the failed translation still emerged an interesting for way Ralph to dance as himself, and in conversation with the West African dancers in his work (Profeta 143).  I decided to replicate this process for the first step of my solo progression.

            Jazelynn Goudy, a fellow 1st year MFA student at OSU, agreed to help me with this process. From my experiences in our improvisation class together, I knew that Jazelynn and I typically leaned towards very different movement qualities. I tend toward distal initiation, ease, and spatial movement patterns. Jazelynn leans into rhythmic patterns, effort, and core initiations. I asked Jazelynn to improvise for me based on a simple idea of pleasure: follow ideas that feel good. She danced for about a minute, I recorded it, and then I asked for a few words to describe her experience. “Flight” and “polyrhythm” were her suggestions. From this experience, I created a three-minute study in which I attempted to dance Jazelynn, but as myself.

            It is, of course, impossible to dance anyone but yourself, but going through this task, while challenging, felt liberating in that it gave me some room to escape from my own preferences. The beginning was the hardest; trying to change my orientation to weight felt insurmountable, but as I began to find a rhythm that made sense to me, it came quite easily. I realized how trapped we can be in terms of our own habits and how we define our dancing. The most surprising part was that Jazelynn’s movement qualities actually were not that foreign to me: I recognized training in my body that I once learned, but had forgotten in pursuit of other goals. Certain movements may not feel like home to us, but that does not mean we should wipe them from our palettes.

            In Stephen Petronio’s book, “Confessions of a Motion Addict,” he describes his choreographic process for Walk-in as using cut and paste methods familiar to writing, as well as film and photo editing (Petronio 136). For step two of my solo revamp process, I decided to use this method to combine elements of my “Jazelynn study” with some of my original solo phrase work. With an intention to avoid inserting complete phrases altogether, instead taking a single arm movement, a turn, or a rhythmic pattern, I began to develop a cohesive string of material. The process actually started to evolve quite quickly, even linearly, which is unusual for someone who normally makes bits and pieces and then connects them together.  I found places to lean into my habits, and then places to disrupt them with what I gained from Jazelyn and with a continuation of arbitrarily timed cut and paste techniques. I rehearsed this until I felt comfortable with the material and had gained a sense of its internal logic and timing, and then I offered it up to the direction of others.

            I first learned about Susan Rethorst’s Wrecking© from a workshop I did with Susan Marshall’s company on non-traditional (ie. non-hierarchical) methods of choreography. The basic idea is that at some point in a creative process, you invite someone else to come “choreograph” your dance for you. This person has free rein to change the dance as they see fit. Of course, you can later change it back if you desire, but the idea is to step away from the deep attachment that often develops to what you are making so that you can, one, see it more clearly, and two, see what you did not even know what possible through the creative hand of someone else. Reading Rehorst’s A Choreographic Mind reminded me of this wonderful choreographic tool.

            For this Wrecking© process, I asked participants of my Choreographic Workshop class, Josh Anderson and Gina Hoch-Stall, as well as the professor, Mitchell Rose, to do with my dance what they would. Mitchell suggested I vocally articulate my rhythm, Josh recommended I turn around and walk downstage every time I turn my back to the audience, and Gina proposed that I could not repeat anything. For a dancer who often avoids looking at the audience, does not often use voice and dance together, and typically loves repetition, this was quite a challenge. Instead of a five-minute dance, I now had a one minute dance with lots of gibberish and pacing back and forth. In the end, the suggestions from my peers did not convince me to alter much of the original composition of my solo, but as I returned to my more familiar structure, their insight did dramatically affect my performance. I knew I needed to see the audience more. I knew I needed to really know why I was repeating something. And I knew that I needed to pay attention to my internal rhythm and project it out into the audience.

            From the outset of the project, my goal in these explorations was to expand my own notions of what was possible in my body. I was curious about what it might mean to escape from my own style, from the ingrained physical habits that come from years of dancing, and even from the pitfalls of my own desires and preferences.  By opening up a solo process to the physical and mental capacities of other bodies, I ended up finding new voice within myself.  The funny, maybe even hopeful, thing about letting go of a certain amount of control in a creative process, is that rarely, if ever, is something lost. There is only gain. In my final performance this week, while some of the movement material is actually disorienting, I never felt lost or unconnected to the movement I/we had created. I did not feel that I was performing Jazelynn or hiding under the guiding hand of Gina or Josh’s feedback. I felt that I was performing me. I have long felt that dance is a uniquely social art form, even more so than a great deal of visual art and music. This project was an important reminder that even solo performances are the result of community efforts. We cannot erase the years of training we have had with multitudes of teachers. We cannot rid our bodies of the memories of dances learned before we were who we are now. To pretend that in the present moment we are alone, or that we need to work alone, only diminishes our experience and limits the parts of ourselves that we can share with others.

Works Cited

Perron, Wendy. Through the Eyes of a Dancer. Wesleyan UP, 2013.

Petronio, Stephen. Confessions of a Motion Addict. Self-published, 2013.

Profeta, Katherine. Dramaturgy in Motion: At Work on Dance and Movement Performance. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Rethorst, Susan. A Choreographic Mind: Autobodygraphical Writings. Theatre Acedemy Helsinki, 2015.

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