On 7 December 2009 I had dinner with Scott deLahunta in Amsterdam. During the meal we discussed many things including a research project he was embarking on with The Forsythe Company and Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance. How I understood the project at the time was that it had to do with investigating and illuminating creative practices by dance practitioners in particular choreographers. I thought it would be terrific if he came to Seattle and spoke to the creative community here about his work; so, I invited him to come in the spring of 2011.
Later I received from him a statement about what his talk in Seattle would be (quoted in part here):“Choreographers are publishing a growing collection of self-determined reflections on dance practice in a variety of formats. Often working in collaboration with researchers, editors and designers, these heterogeneous publication projects make use of text, moving image and more open-ended digital tools and platforms. These projects point towards the artist’s role in creating unique resources for the study of choreography and suggest new ways of thinking about notating and preserving dance.” What struck me was “self-determined reflections on dance practice” in particular ‘reflections’.
If you have been reading my blog regularly the content appears to be shifting towards that very thing –reflecting, contemplating why I make the choices I make; questioning if what seems like intuition is really some pre-conceived but unconscious set of values, beliefs, and principles that govern my decision making (maybe that is intuition). Wondering if something akin to Plato’s Theory of Forms – my ‘form of dance’, a blueprint of perfection that guides my dance making is at work in my process. But then again those choices might derive from something more mundane, based in experience and personal history rather than metaphysic. I suspect the latter.
I came to dance from a theater background. All through high school I had focused on classical music but by the time I was 18 my attention had begun to shift to the theater. So when I attended college in the late 60’s and early 70’s at Tufts University, I studied drama. Those years shaped not only how I processed and interacted with theatrical experiences but also how I appreciated and assessed those encounters as well. Reading and studying the great dramatists of Western culture and mid-century American and British mainstream and experimental playwright help determined how I made sense of my world.
I was especially drawn to the dystopic tinged visions in Shakespeare’s tragedies and the Jacobean revenge plays; the dark sexuality of Wedekind, German expressionism, and Genet; the ill-expressed sexuality and deep tragic sadness of Tennessee Williams; and the formality, wit and veneer of civility that sought to conceal the cruelty of the privileged in the ‘hard’ comedies from the Restoration period (it felt like the world of privileged education I was living in). The worlds of those plays made sense to me and seem to mirror the one I was living in – a world of assassinations (Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy), war (Viet Nam and The Cold War), race riots, sexual revolution, political scandal (Watergate), and my own personal rage at being exiled from my black community into a world of white privilege. In general the time was a dismantling of the Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver utopian vision of post WWII America that I had consumed from television and the media, and personally a time of disillusionment with my family’s dreams of an integrated, if not post racial, America. Combined with biology, adolescence, I needed the world to make sense and the theater gave me a way to organize and create meaning from the chaos and turbulence around and in me. Michael Upchurch of The Seattle Times recently described my work as, “Feral and formal, carnal and courtly… psychosexual tour-de-force.” This seems to me to be an almost perfect description of how I distilled, absorbed, and internalized the dramatic worlds that captured my attention and interests early in life.
My work has a kind of narrative impulse in it that I think can be traced back to my study of dramatic history, theory and literature at Tufts. This impulse seems an accurate way to describe the force that propels my choreographic works, giving them forward momentum, intent, as well as their structural logic. Maybe another way to say it is I ‘make story’. Everything is a story, at the micro and macro level of my dancemaking. Give me a collection of actions, activities, events, and people, actually, anything and I will relate them to each other as story. ‘Storying’ is one of my primary organizing principals. When I people watch, for example, I don’t just look at the people passing by in a passive way but I wonder what each person’s story is. I speculate about whom they are and generate little narratives about them in which they are the central character and what their relationship is to those walking with them or near them. It’s how I play.
This notion of play is central to the literary theater, as the scripts themselves are referred to as ‘plays’. Actors are encouraged in their explorations ‘to play’. For those who train actors, it is thought to be one of the keys to gaining spontaneity and freedom in expression. The British actor Mark Rylance put it this way “When I was a young actor I used to bang my head against doors like a sledgehammer until they would open. Now, I just play.” When my godson Jesse was seven or eight he said to his father one day that he didn’t want to be a man because men did not know how to play. It caused me pause. After that I watched him playing with his assortment of mismatched action figures and unidentifiable objects, engaging for hours in self-absorbed and self-fulfilling play until he was exhausted. What Jesse was doing was ‘storying’, making little narratives with his figures. So, I took a lesson from him and promised myself that I would introduce more play into the process of my dancemaking. Thus for me dancemaking is play and ‘storying’
I have a choreographic tool, or rather a method that I call ‘intentional progressions’ that guides my choices when I work (play) and helps me to figure out how to stick it all together. It usually involves me asking myself – why? Why would they cross the stage or raise an arm or leg? Why lift her up or fall to the floor? It might be likened to the through line that an actor discovers that motivates his/her actions and behavior through the course of a play. How these ‘intentional progressions’ work is a direct response to the ‘why’ and is conscious and deliberate. The answer to the ‘why’ is emotional, reasoned, or psychologically logical.
However, I feel often that there is something that is not conscious that is at work. I sometimes described it as ‘the next right thing to do’ that I just do without thinking, as if I have an inner dramaturg watching and noticing. While I am generating movement or actions these two dynamics, conscious (‘intentional progressions’) and unconscious (‘the next right thing to do’), guide how moments, movement event, or activity moves from one to the next, or connect to each other. Then I watch what I have done and something else occurs, which I not quite sure how to describe – I have what I’m going to call neurological micro- responses – that my mind translates as little narratives while I watch.
Often I am unconscious of this in the moment(s) that it happens but later I realize what has happened. Perhaps it is a neurological equivalent to a kinesthetic response; but instead of my body responding as a spontaneous reaction to a motion that occurs outside of itself, my brain response spontaneously to what I see by ‘storying’. The effect is a little hallucinogenic.
I have neuro-stories cascading, tumbling, sliding, ricocheting, bumping into, and crashing against and around in my mind. Quieter ones drowned out by intruding louder ones. Like music, sometime dense, layered and harmonic at other times contrapuntally dashing along parallel paths. They can interlock, like Indonesian gamelan melodies, creating new tunes from the interconnectivity. They digress, to be lost in the journey as they stream away from their source and origin. Sometimes they violently collide and shatter then either evaporate or coalesce into new and different accounts. They are sheer and vaporous or disjointed and dislocated and only suggest for a fraction of second their tale. –In other words, I ‘trip’ when I watch.
When Tommy Defrantz read my description of what happens in my mind when I watch he suggested that what I was describing might be akin to synesthesia. This is a defined as, “a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” …. Simply, for example… “with color-graphemic synesthesia, numbers or letters are perceived as inherently colored; or visual motion- sound synesthesia involves hearing sounds in response to visual motion and flicker.” (Wikipedia). Then I read this from a color-graphemic synesthesia synesthete, “In elementary school I remember knowing how to spell the word ‘priority’ [with an “i” rather than an “e”] because … an ‘e’ was out of place in that word because e’s were yellow and didn’t fit.” — It was the “didn’t fit” that struck me (an ah ha moment!)… When I watch while I am creating, my mind is ‘storying’ and I unconsciously look for what does not fit in the story (looking for the yellow ‘e’) or what the next right thing is that will fit (my inner dramaturg at work).
My immersion in dramatic history, theory and literature at such a critical time in my emotional and social development is I believe one of the sources of my work’s sensibility. It is why kinetic ideas and pure abstraction are often not enough for me, why I want dance to engage me not only through kinetic ideas but also with big human themes. But the decision making during the generative process seems also to be governed not only by an impulse ‘to story’ but also by a kind of pseudo – synesthesia internal function that allows me to see what does not fit.
The kind of dance I desire to see and to create pairs a kinetic punch with mind engaging rigor leading to big themes or questions; dance that can express love, death, obsession, joy, fate, desire, revenge, hate, war and peace, the whole range of human’s being on stage. I want more than the allure and enchantment of abstraction, I want a dance that wakes me screaming out of my dreams.