Last week, Mel and I took a short journey from Sullivant Hall to explore the Oval. I was interested in this space for several reasons. First, the design of the space offers interesting movement possibilities by way of pathways, lots of space to move, and architectural design, and second, it seems to be a place of meaning for OSU students, a literal series of pathways that connect one building from the next, and connecting people as they move through those buildings. The Oval is a true “place” for the OSU community. But why? What it is it about a series of sidewalks that offers a sense of place or belonging to the people who walk them?
As this project has progressed, questions about this idea “belonging” have continued to emerge for me in thinking about the dancing experience outside of the studio. I’m not so concerned with the audience or viewer’s opinion of whether dance belongs on their path to the library, but I am interested if dancers can maintain the sense of safety or belonging that they experience in the studio when they step outside. Here’s a little of what we experienced:
It was a nice day outside, so at first Mel and I felt relaxed and invigorated by the sun, wind, and smells on the Oval. Quickly, we realized that this space is really very far from anything resembling a natural setting. Highly designed and organized for traffic flow, the grass and the trees of the Oval seem planted primarily to reinforce walking patterns on the sidewalk. The purpose of that space is passage, not to stop and look and smell or hear and see what’s going on. If there are benches, they’re set far away from the path, seeming to indicate that stopping to socialize is also not appropriate to that space. The carefully trimmed grass is also dotted with plastic bottles and an occasional piece of paper, evidence of the people who walk through the Oval every day without regard for where their trash ends up.
In watching Mel improvise, I found myself thinking about what this space would look like if humans hadn’t landscaped it. It would probably be covered with trees, thick with brush, full of creatures. While there are birds, there’s very little observable wildlife. My initial happiness at being outdoors was diminished when I realized how far removed from nature I actually was.
- Being Seen
When talking with Mel about what she had experienced during her explanation, she said:”People are walking, walking to do something. People are laughing because they’re enjoying what they’re doing. And then some people stop and ask, ‘What’s going’ on?,” which is really rewarding because they’re becoming aware of what I’m doing.”
I’m curious about how and why being seen in this way feels rewarding. For Mel, and I think for myself, it’s knowing that taking this time to engage in a space in an unusual way offers news ways of human interaction. In a space that has a such a clear function as a thruway, even just being still catches the attention of passersby. Mel kept coming back to stillness as a theme throughout her exploration.
In recent months, I keep being reminded of how important, and really how radical it is to be still in a world that is too busy moving. When we slow down, we not only have time to notice what’s going on in our external world, but we experience an opportunity to deal with our inner world as well. For me, this is one the main points of doing this project. I’m interested in taking the self-reflection that dancers are constantly doing in the studio and practicing that self-reflection when we’re in everyday spaces on our way to work, sitting on the bus, buying groceries, etc.
Why? Why is important that we walk down the sidewalk with intention, unplugged from our iphones and eyes open? Because those plastic bottles that people are tossing onto the ground are going to end up in our bodies some day by way of the landfill and then the ocean and then the fish we eat. Because everyday, somewhere in the US, a white woman walking down the street at night tenses up when she sees a Black man approaching her. Racial bias lives inside of our bodies, quietly, sometimes almost unoticeably and beneath our attention. It’s important that we take time to practice being still and noticing our reactions to our surroundings because what we do, feel, and think when we aren’t paying attention is a significant cause of harm in the world.
3. Belonging As a Noun
I had asked Mel to notice her own sense of belonging (or not belonging) while she improvised. As a senior BFA student about to graduate, the question was actually quite loaded. In some ways, she felt like she did belong on the Oval, as a dancer, improvising on a Sunday afternoon, but in other ways, she also felt like this place was no longer hers. The passageway of the Oval wasn’t taking here where she needed to go anymore. The wind blowing across the lawn held a certain nostalgia to it.
Afterwards, Mel told me that she was playing around with what belonging meant and felt like in her body. To her, it seemed the most accurate not as a verb, but as a noun, a state of being completely in the here and now.
This seems to be a significant reminder that places don’t actually have intrinsic meaning in the physical, material world. The assemblage of dirt, grass, trees, buildings, and people don’t create “place.” People’s minds create place. And people create senses of place because of shared experience, reflection, memories, and more. More significantly, a sense of place takes time to develop and depends on where a person is at in life. Mel’s relationship to the campus at OSU is vastly different than mine. I’m older than Mel, I’ve been a lot of places, and I’ve only been at OSU for about 8 months.
But, because Mel and I spent our Sunday afternoon exploring, noticing, and discussing our experiences in the Oval, my relationship to that place has changed. I now have a memory of a young woman talking about growing up, nostalgia, and change that will shape my experience every time I walk through the Oval. I’ve cemented it even further in my mind by writing it down now.
The stories we tell ourselves and each other define how we live in the world. What’s important to me as a choreographer is that I allow these stories to be a part of the work we do, not necessarily in the content of the work, but that I recognize these stories in the people I work with. For me, it’s actually an issue of representation.
A common story that exists in the dance world is the idea that we can/need to leave our lives at the door when we enter the studio. Sometimes, that’s a welcome reprieve, a sanctuary from the world. However, it also sets up a context where dancers are not viewed as whole human beings. They’re viewed as bodies that can be manipulated for artistic purposes, their labor offered up as fodder for the choreographer or director to play with. The story lines of their lives are cut off from the story lines of their bodies.
Engaging with place as a starting point for choreographic output allows context, stories, and memories to emerge. When we reenter the studio after improvising in a new space, the studio is no longer empty, but filled with bodies full of color, sounds, textures, memories, stories, and more. That is why I’m interested in place. That is where I want to start my choreographic process from.
You’ll see elements of Mel’s improvisation in the final work. More to come, but check out a snippit here!