Call & Response
+ On Dance & Performance
The Conundrum That Is: Writing
Today I watched a young boy show his brother that old trick where
you disconnect the upper part of one finger, sliding it off and then
on again. I think it's most often done with the thumb and usually
by old uncles teasing young nieces and nephews, but today it was
a little kid, sharing his talent with his older brother—and it
was his pointer finger. It was a simple action and the kid must have
done it 500 times, but I couldn't take my eyes off it.
I do alot of watching as a choreographer, and I'm usually watching
dancers and actors in settings that are understood to be working
settings—areas and spaces meant for experimenting with movement
and ideas and the combination of the two. I learn how movement affects
my interest by watching people move, so I pay attention to the most
simple actions. In a studio, this can be someone picking up a water
bottle because they are thirsty. Today, it was this boy on the bus.
Perhaps I am swayed because I am in New York City, the North American
capital of 'people watching' where subways, sidewalks, delis, parks,
studios and salons are filled with people doing their business or
doing their tricks. All of these places are open for watching and
learning and it makes me feel rich.
Last night I watched a crowd, packed to the gills at a music club
in Harlem. I watched people in this crowd adoring where they were,
fleshy and at home—whether they were actually near home or 140
more away. I spend a lot of my life watching amazing, life altering
performances and I understand that though written and oral languages
are developed, groomed and codified, there are often no words suitable
to describe such experiences or such performances. We see this at
times of disaster: "There are no words...only shock...," or,
at times of great joy, "There are no words to describe it, when
she was placed on my chest, my daughter, I just...."
Sometimes, having no words is the best description possible.
And this is a conundrum that exists in the act of writing about
performance—that words do not suffice in describing a form that
finds power in the immediate moment. There are critics, historians,
academics and people like me, just interested in performance and
in writing about it, but none of us can use words to adequately describe
experience because experience is personal. We cannot, with words,
give something meaning that already inherently has meaning. We
cannot interpret because there is no language available to interpret
experience and meaning. We CAN write what we saw, what we heard...
The music last night brimmed with light. Light emanated from the
sounds, from the obviously rehearsed, "come in on the 1, 2,
3...BAM," to the soul rocketing improvisations the band equally
shared. By "emanating light" I mean a force that helps you see better.
By "see" I mean understand the nature of humans: we want to be
happy, we want to be rocked, we want to smile because we cannot help
it, we want our bodies to move, effortlessly and in some sort of
rhythm that falls in sync with the human beings around us, connecting
us to something larger than ourselves.
Keyboard, drums, guitar, bass, sax, flute, talking drum and voice
supplied the light, sound and glory from which we emerged from
that club happy. The occasional vocal outbursts from the audience,
the claps, the "uhs," the head shakes, the reflexes that
pull the abdominals in toward the spine so that the pelvis shifts
back and the torso shifts forward, the "that's what I'm TALKING
that I heard (I swear) after every song, supplied the energy, the
food that made this performance great.
I saw a man try to dance with a woman. She did not respond. He held
her hands. She looked away. This made me feel sad. I saw this same
man try to dance with another woman. She agreed. It was a horrible
dance: all arms, all mis-stepped, all led by this man, who enjoyed
the hell out of every damn minute of it. She did too. This made me
feel happy. I saw a woman, alone. She held a beer in her right hand.
seemed displeased, like she'd just had an argument, but her hips
and her head moved, in time, her body overcoming her state of mind.
I saw a woman on another woman's lap and they both moved, easily,
but not much, their focus forward, on the people who were playing.
I saw the people I was with relax, lean back in a chair, look at
each other and smile. I saw a man, every once in a while and in his
own sense of
time, jolt his head down toward the floor with an action so singular,
so perfect, it seemed natural, as if his neck were as expressive
as his hands. And the hands! Up in the air, near cheeks, fingers
delicately exploring the air around lips like when you're overcome
with a taste that makes you bring your hands to your mouth.
And, I didn't just watch. I was there, body moving, and head too,
finding some timing in relation to what I was hearing, but not necessarily
in relation to anyone else as we were all on our own. My neck hurt
because I had to crane it around the person directly in front of
me. I was amazed at the technical ability of the musicians. I was
astounded by their improvisational courage. Sometimes I did not think
I moved enough to express my gratitude—my gratitude to the musicians,
my gratitude to the crowd, my gratitude to people who stepped across
the street to get there, my gratitude to people who traveled hours.
Like me. It took two hours to get home.
On the way home, alone, on the journey of late-night weekends that
is NYC transit, I thought about how I watch to learn the codes of
"acting correctly" in a place, how I tighten my senses, or loosen
them, how what we experience in life prepares us not for life,
but for further experiences. How performance (whether staged or accidental,
whether a complicated dance or a simple action) is an experience
that bridges history—it is experienced, and it lingers, and it
finds a place of meaning in our daily lives.
I thought about being away from home. Not only on a subway platform
away from my "home away from home" (which is currently a couch in
a friend's apartment), and not only away from my home in my own city,
where my things and my loved ones reside, but away from my ancestral
home, where the codes of my actions must have taken root, if not
in me directly, then in those who bore me, over generations. And,
because I compulsively think about dancing and how it affects our
lives, I also thought about that. I thought about learning to dance.
I had just seen music that I could, in no practical way, relate to—I
could never, ever aspire to do what they did. I can't even correctly
name their instruments without help and this made me think about
people who tell me that they don't understand dance because they
can't relate to it, they can't put words to it.
And then I saw a spider.
I noticed that the spider spoke a very different language from me,
a language I did not understand directly. I noticed how differently
the spider moved from me and the one other person waiting at 2 a.m.
for the F train. I imagined the spider teaching me and this other
person a dance. I expect we would not get the moves right. Would
we not get the particular moves of the spider right because we do
not have 8 legs and therefore cannot physically do the moves? Or
would it be because our minds cannot comprehend how to move like
that because our bodies do not know anything about having 8 legs?
We are almost always forced to name things, to have a name for the
things we encounter in life. I could call the brothers on the train
my "pedestrian performance" for the day, I could name their actions:
sweet, familial, proud, funny; I could call the music at the club
"jazz" and my encounter with the spider "insight", but by naming
I am claiming. I am taking the brothers' experience and making it
mine when it is not mine to take. I am putting the impression of
the word "jazz" into your mind, which, rather than bring you closer
to the music I heard last night, actually sends you farther away
because of your own experiences with the word "jazz." I am putting
alot of weight on that little spider by connecting myself to it and
giving it such power when maybe, it was just crawling to it's web.
The conundrum of writing about performance continues because we
are so compelled to name things. There is no current, accepted name
for the kind of performances contemporary artists (of all disciplines)
are making. Words cannot keep up. We come up with the words well
after the physical moment of creation has passed. We name things
modern, postmodern, avant garde, experimental, jazz, etc., but once
these names are created, they no longer fit. They tie history to
current performances when, sometimes, current performances just need
to live a little, on their own.
We name things because we cannot get out of the habit of tracing
linear lines through history. How often have I read things like, "this
kind of experimentation in performance started in the '60's," or "this
piece is important because it marks a shift in the choreographer's
way of working," or " X kind of work is an offshoot of
X kind of work." I see this most often in writing about dance
and music—two forms that move fast in this world. I could have
talked about the historical context of jazz and Harlem and the influence
of the particular club I was at. History, certainly, is important.
Knowing where you come from and why is essential, and thanking and
giving reference to those who came before, who plowed the way to
where we are now is vital. But those artists at the club last night
were there in flesh and blood for that one night, playing and creating
music that will never be heard in that particular way again, and
for that they deserve the credit of their night, not an explanation
of how and why they got there.
The study, rehearsal and creation of live performance requires strength
in multiple body systems and memory, access to imagination and commitment
to unknown elements. It is an intellectual and physical field and
artists are constantly working and creating new ways to work. Because
of this, boundaries are broken open—not because they are there
to break open, but because artists find them in their search and
break them open as they practice.
Writing about performance has to take all of this into account,
has to match the courage of the performance makers, has to be a forum
other than the forum of performance itself, to help give current
and future context to something that is constantly evolving. Why
should we worry about naming every step of the process or understanding
every moment? Why only give weight to performance we understand through
a historical lineage? Why the need to put meaning into words, when
meaning already exists? Why not just watch and listen and participate,
allowing ourselves to be rocked, or bored, or captivated?
We should all talk and write about performance, but in a way that
does not claim or assert knowledge, that does not oversimplify and
generalize experience. After all, light can emanate from the sounds
of musicians playing in Harlem and a small boy can captivate imagination
with the movement of his pointer finger. Surely, someone will learn
to dance like a spider one day and once one person knows what it
is like to dance with 8 limbs, we all gain knowledge. When this happens,
I want to have the freedom to simply experience it. I want to simply
watch that person dance like a spider. I don't think there will be
words suitable to describe what it will be like.