Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Toby Brothers' response to Nannette Bertschy & Ann Moradian's movement video "downup," exhibited in Paris at Atelier Z:
DOWNUP is a visual poem querying perception from the tactile realm to the metaphysical. Through the relentless and curious gaze of the camera, the viewer is drowned in a world that slides from up to down, from sharp-edged to filmy fabric, from struggle with the stairs that constrain the body to a playful engagement with this same forbidding construction. Although it is tempting to see the woman as representative of contemporary female experience; of fighting to move forward when really she is trapped in an endless cycle of down/up, this piece contains much more than that kind of political response. The intimate connection between the camera and the surfaces, including the body at work and play on the stairs, drowns the viewer in images and movement, such that the body becomes something other than human, the banister becomes an elevated perch against which the body strains for transcendence.
As skin and fabric slide and sinew around the wood, our attention is drawn to the nautilus nature of the twisting space: always circling down and in towards itself. The tints of violet and bleached blue create an air of dream space or endless afternoon; a moment lost in interminable movement, contained within endless spirals.
The woman becomes the movement—becomes the space that winds her up and down. There are glimpses of collapse, then ascension that enfolds and doubles back upon itself. The final image and the bizarre laughter of the moving woman leave a sense of shifted spaces and relations…absorbed by the light and the colors and material of body and stairs, we may have glimpsed something otherworldly…or the uncompromising view of the mad whose surface does not stop at skin but melds with the light and platforms surrounding: pressing against exteriority and wondering: ‘where do I exist?’
Parisian Literary Salon Director
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
What follows is a response to "Mind's I," the movement video by Nannette Bertschy and Ann Moradian that was presented this summer in New York City at the World Dance Alliance World Congress and in November at Atelier Z as part of "le mois de la photo" in Paris:
"In Mind's I we are lulled into the beauty of the vibrant colors and textures, slowly seeing that there is a figure playing along, and through and between the tantalizing textures and planes. Reflections fold in on each other as the eye slides from what is to what is reflected until all we know is the edge where these meet. The collage quality of the piece can hold us in a fantastic textured space; but the images of constraint and expunging; of the figure breaking through the psychedelic hedges and vomitting up hearts does not allow a state of comfortable entertainment. Minds I winds and weaves its way between the buried dream space and the place where body meets space--and where touch becomes the raw space where our inner world confronts the sharp lived plane."
Parisian Literary Salon Director
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
"The Apache refused to be dealt with in any civilized manner. Whereas history proved to the Spaniard that all Indios could be reasonably subdued, and eventually civilized, the Apache was a frustrating enigma. When the Spaniards took Apaches as slaves, they retaliated by taking Spaniards as slaves! Unthinkable! When the Mexican soldiers used lances upon them, the Apaches adopted lances, using them with more imaginative cruelty than the soldiers..."
"Peace is a condition our souls can live with only if our souls and minds are free. Unless you will buy peace for your body with the most violent of war: murder of your soul."
"Watch for me on the Mountain"
A Novel of Geronimo and the Apache Nation
by Forrest Carter, 1978
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Experience frames perspective:
"Once," he said slowly, 'my father told me to run to a mountain. I ran for three days across the desert. My mouth was dry and cracking and my tongue swelled from thirst. I came upon a fresh spring of water falling over rocks in the mountain. I wanted to rush into the spring and gulp the water so that my mouth would quickly lose its thirst. But I did not. I lay down beside it. I touched my lips to the water and felt its coolness. I took a little sip of water and felt it roll in my mouth and my mind, and my spirit felt the sweetness. I did not measure the time. How long did I lie there? I do not know; maybe a season, maybe a moment; maybe ten seasons. But I did not measure it. It will be with my spirit always. And," Gokhlayeh (later named Geronimo) said, "I thought, a man might be born beside this spring and live his life here beside this spring and his spirit never know what mine now knows. Perhaps he would never let his spirit feel this, though he lived beside the spring a hundred years."
from "Watch for me on the Mountain" by Forrest Carter (the story of Geronimo and the Apache Nation)
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I was surprised the other day to discover that a friend of mine, who I regard as well-informed and highly educated, had never heard of the term Manifest Destiny, nor its relationship to the expansion of the United States, particularly in the 19th century. On refreshing my own memory and filling in some of the blanks, I could only marvel with sadness and regret at how ideas that begin as constructive can become destructive, sometimes without our even noticing that somewhere along the line we have crossed from idealistic and humane to monstrous.
What stories do we tell ourselves and our children? How do they reflect who we are and where we have come from, and how do they affect where we are headed?
The following information on Manifest Destiny comes from Wikipedia. It has been synthesized and pared-down with my own argument in view, of course!
Manifest Destiny was the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent, from "sea to shining sea." The era of territorial expansion from the end of the War of 1812 to the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861 has been called the "Age of Manifest Destiny." In his 1935 study of the subject, Albert Weinberg wrote that "the expansionism of the [1830s] arose as a defensive effort to forestall the encroachment of Europe in North America." Historian William E. Weeks has noted that three key themes were usually touched upon by advocates of Manifest Destiny:
1. the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
2. the mission to spread these institutions, redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
3. the destiny under God to accomplish this work.
But the foundational ideas underlying Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism were expressed much earlier. In Thomas Paine's Common Sense written in 1776, for example, he argues that the American Revolution provided an opportunity to create a new and better society. This echoes John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "City upon a Hill," in which he called for the establishment of a virtuous community that would be a shining example to the Old World. While many Americans agreed with Paine, not all Americans believed that it ought to expand. Whigs especially argued that the "mission" of the United States was only to serve as a virtuous example to the rest of the world. If the United States was successful as a shining "city on a hill," people in other countries would seek to establish their own democratic republics. Thomas Jefferson did not initially believe it necessary that the United States grow in size, since he predicted that other, similar republics would be founded in North America, forming what he called an "empire for liberty." With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the United States, Jefferson set the stage, however, for the continental expansion of the United States. Andrew Jackson described this expansion as "extending the area of freedom."
According to Reginald Stuart, "the compass of Manifest Destiny pointed west and southwest, not north, despite the use of the term 'continentalism'." In 1846 the Polk Administration moved to occupy a portion of Texas, which was also claimed by Mexico, which paved the way for the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. By the summer of 1847 there were calls for the annexation of "All Mexico," particularly among Eastern Democrats, who argued that bringing Mexico into the Union was the best way to ensure future peace in the region. This was a controversial proposition for two reasons:
1. Idealistic advocates of Manifest Destiny (like John L. O'Sullivan, who introduced the term) had always maintained that the laws of the United States should not be imposed on people against their will. The annexation of "All Mexico" would be a violation of this principle.
2. The annexation of Mexico would mean extending U.S. citizenship to millions of Mexicans. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who had approved of the annexation of Texas, was opposed to the annexation of Mexico, as well as the "mission" aspect of Manifest Destiny, for racial reasons. He made these views clear in a speech to Congress on January 4, 1848:
"[W]e have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race.... "
This debate brought to the forefront one of the contradictions of Manifest Destiny: racism was used to promote Manifest Destiny, but, as in the case of Calhoun and the resistance to the "All Mexico" movement, racism was also used to oppose Manifest Destiny. Conversely, proponents of annexation of "All Mexico" regarded it as an anti-slavery measure.
Manifest Destiny had "serious consequences" for Native Americans, since expansion implicitly meant the occupation and annexation of Native American land. The United States continued the European practice of recognizing only limited land rights of indigenous peoples. Through policy formulated by the Secretary of War, Henry Cox, the U.S. government sought to expand into the west through the legal purchase of Native American land in treaties. Indians were encouraged to sell their vast tribal lands and become "civilized", which meant (among other things) for Native American men to abandon hunting and become farmers, and for their society to reorganize around the family unit rather than the clan or tribe. The United States therefore acquired lands by treaty from Indian nations, usually under circumstances which suggest a lack of voluntary and knowing consent by the native signers. Advocates for these programs believed that the process of "settling" native tribes would greatly reduce the amount of land needed by the Native Americans, making more land available for homesteading by white Americans. According to Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson believed that whites and Native Americans would merge to create a single nation, but came later to believe that the natives should emigrate across the Mississippi River and maintain a separate society, an idea made possible by the Louisiana Purchase.
This expression of the idea of Manifest Destiny came to be known, in this context, as Indian Removal. Although some humanitarian advocates of "removal" believed that American Indians would be better off moving away from whites, an increasing number of Americans regarded the natives as nothing more than savages who stood in the way of American expansion. One of America's first historians, Francis Parkman, wrote that Indians were "destined to MELT AND VANISH before the advancing waves of Anglo-American power, which now rolled westward unchecked and unopposed." [Emphasis mine.]
German geographer Friedrich Ratzel visited North America beginning in 1873 and saw the effects of American Manifest Destiny. Ratzel promoted overseas colonies for Germany in Asia and Africa, but not an expansion into Slavic lands. Later German publicists used this as an argument for the right of the German race to expand within Europe. This notion was later incorporated into Nazi ideology, as Lebensraum.
I believe we give it many different names, perhaps in the hope that we will not recognize it when we see it. For myself, I am continually astounded by the fact that my cultural heritage as an "American" -- which argues for equality, democracy and freedom -- is founded on the "removal," actually the genocide, of an entire people. I was explaining to my son the other day what we learn in history class is the story told by those who remain, but it is only one perspective on the story -- never objective or complete, not always fair or honest.
Ideology is a framework which can contain and direct our energies constructively, but can also just as easily make us blind to our humanity.
Note on the image: American Progress by John Gast (circa 1872) - Columbia ('land of Columbus') leading "civilization" and its American settlers westward. She carries a school book, stringing telegraph wire as she advances, bringing not only light but also new forms of transportation. The Native Americans and wild animals flee into the darkness.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
I hadn't realized when I touched your hand,
or you touched mine, that I hold the hand of your mother,
the empty space your lover has left
embracing you like armor...
your cat's fur caressing my skin...
I hear a child crying and run with you
ahead of the rush of water
that mounts canyon walls...
What is this weaving when we meet,
when each of us carries already an entire universe?
Ann Moradian, 2009.
Written in response to "Reading the Body," an intensive weekend retreat journeying into literature through both the mind and body, conceived and conducted by Toby Brothers and Ann Moradian, and held in Bourgogne, France.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Award-winning director Anne Bogart of SITI (foreground) rehearses 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' with (from left) Chris Wells, Barney O'Hanlon and Karenjune Sanchez of the San Jose Repertory Theatre. Photography by Dixie Sheridan, 2004.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
"Being a warrior isn't about taking lives.
Being a warrior isn't about showing strength.
Being a warrior is not showing how much knowledge you have.
Being a warrior is learning how to cry.
Learning how to cry,
because when a man learns how to cry he is learning understanding.
He is learning how to understand,
because when a man cries then compassion starts to grow.
He is learning compassion.
Being compassionate, loving all children, respecting everybody, protecting your family."
Lakota Spiritual Leader, Nathan Chasing Horse
From the Lakota Wisdom Keepers.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Monday, May 24, 2010
Reflections on Performance: Paris Opera Ballet's "Homage à Jerome Robbins" at Palais Garnier, Paris - May 6, 2010
Life happened on the way to the theater so, suffice it to say, we arrived 45 minutes late. But life had been going on at the theater too, with a strike that held the curtain from going up on time. Surprisingly, we only missed the first piece of the Paris Opera Ballet's "Hommage à Jerome Robbins."
The dancers cast in Jerome Robbins' The Concert, choreographed in 1956 with music by Frederic Chopin, clearly love this dance, and not only do they shine brightly in it, but they make the work shine too. If you haven't seen it before, The Concert begins with the entrance of the pianist, in this case Vessela Pelovska, who strides elegantly across the entire breadth of the stage to reach the piano where she seats herself. Her pride (or arrogance?) and the adjustments she makes are so natural, simple and precise that, if you are the tiniest bit gullible, it might be only after she dusts the keys off, blowing up a cloud of dust, that you can be sure the dance well and truly began with her first step onto the stage. The dancers themselves enter next, in the role of the audience with their folding wooden chairs, so quietly and properly placed, or not; the fellow with the noisy newspaper who is oblivious to the chagrin of his neighbors; the Ballerina so enamored of the music that she ultimately embraces the piano, resting her head on it to listen: or another who enters, coming in close, to sit straddled in her chair with her head in her hands, listening to the music through the filter of her own personal torment; the overbearing wife and a disinterested husband... Humanity spreads out before us, ourselves in fact, with life happening through the entire concert.
Later in the work, the dancers take on the role of the performers, where we get a full palette of egos and ineptitudes, like the dancer who has to be seen, or the ones who don't know which leg they are supposed to be on or which direction they should be facing. If you have ever danced in any of the classics, or have seen them performed over the years, you can't help but recognize and laugh at the senseless flapping (yes, yes, "wafting") of arms that seem disconnected from their bodies, in time but not in touch with the music. These same arms are later covered with swaths of fabric that resemble flags flapping in an irregular wind more than the butterfly wings they surely represent, and we are graced with a bit where the Queen of the Willis never makes it through the archway of wafting arms but ends up instead stretched dead beneath them, not even halfway through. Wonderful parody, of course, but the most beautiful thing about the work is that rather than looking down upon these blighted beings with judgment or disdain, we recognize and love them. Life not only happened on the way to the theatre, it happened in the theatre. The Paris Opera Ballet's performance of The Concert honored Jerome Robbins in the best possible way -- it made the work sparkle, with each performer (including the musicians) bringing their joyous light to the work individually to create together a brilliant performance of a brilliant work.
choreography ; Jerome Robbins (1956)
music : Frederic Chopin (pieces for piano)
arrangement and orchestration : Clare Grundman
directed by Jean-Pierre Frohlich
rideau de scène d'auprès : Saul Steinberg
costumes : Irene Sharaff
lighting : Jennifer Tipton
The Pianist : Vessela Pelovska
A Man (with a scarf) : Julien Meyzindi
Two Young Ladies : Laurène Levy, Clara Delfino
The Ballerina : Dorothée Gilbert
An Angry Girl (with glasss) : Laure Muret
The Woman : Béatrice Martel
The Husband : Alessio Carbone
The Timid Student : Simon Valastro
The Controller : Eric Monin
A Man : Sébastien Bertaud
and Valentine Colasante, Amélie Lamoureux, Caroline Robert, Gwenaelle Vauthier, Lydie Vareilhes, Matthieu Botto, Vincent Cordier, Adrien Couvez, Axel Ibot, Daniel Stokes, Julien Cozette, Erwan le Roux
©Ann Moradian, 2010.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Friday, April 16, 2010
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Reflections on Performance: Aurélian Bory's "Sans Objet," presented by Théâtre de la Ville at Les Abbesses, Paris - March 6, 2010
Removed from this context and placed on a platform in a theatre with two men in black suits, the robot is without the objects it was created to manipulate (massive sheets of heavy metal come to mind). Detached in this way from its intended function, one could also say that it is without purpose as well. But one could not say that it is without personality. Or power.
In the beginning, the lights reveal (and create the exquisite illusion of) an immense shining sculpture. It's lines are fluid curves and arcs, in the way that fabric falls. And as it slowly moves, gracefully flowing and transforming from one shape to another like an enormous giant made of liquid mercury, there is a harsh and heavy sound that pops unexpectedly. And the lights play in almost every possible way with this moving form, revealing its beauty and grace through the gradations of shadow and color and light.
The revelation that what we are looking at is in fact an enormous black plastic material (that reminds me strongly of garbage can liners) draped over a giant machine is a shock that is delivered slowly. How could anyone see such beauty in a black plastic coated form? And how could we have overlooked for so long the beauty of how the light plays on its mundane-seeming surface?
Even when bared, the lighting still angles in on the thing in such a way that it is not revealed as a hideous or heartless mechanism at all, but rather as a creature of infinite sculptural beauty and possibility. It is only when one of the performers puts his head into the "head" or "mouth" or "hand" of the thing, and is manipulated through the surrounding space, that we might realize that this robot is essentially one great appendage. And the machine has found an object! Which doesn't deny the fact that great care, seeming almost like tenderness, is given to the manipulation of this new found object.
And then the two performers ride on the thing. A flying dragon is called to mind, or a slow and heavy circus ride. But it is not in service to these humans in any way -- they must adjust and adapt to it. And they do so with a simplicity and functionality that demands what seems to be inhuman and impossible strength. Riding a slow and giant arc through the air, they begin in one position (say, for example, the shape of a "Y," with two arms and the top of the head connecting to the robot's arm and the body creating the base of a "Y") and maintain it without the slightest visible shift as they float sideways, rotate, and transition upside down on the other side.
I wonder what it's name is. I can't imagine the creators and performers, nor its pilot, having spent so much time working so intimately with it that they haven't given it a name. Well, "It" begins to manipulate the planks that make its platform. As one of the men walks across, the robot shifts and slides the planks out from under his feet, and the humor is very welcome. As it is welcome in the section where the robot manipulates a large, shallow box in which the two men keep adjusting themselves to the changing gravity of the situation.
By the end the men have covered their heads in black plastic, and one of them pulls out another huge sheet of this black plastic, which is pulled across the entire stage like a curtain, hiding the machine and the men. And the light shining on it now, as it is thumped and banged on from behind, creates moving waves of amber light in the blackness of deep space. And the strikes come faster and smaller and more densely packed, like a meteor shower. And the light dances frantically in space. Not because the light is moving frantically, but because the surface it falls upon is. The light is, in fact, steady. And the music, everywhere enhancing the textures of the work, here gives it a quality of desperation and lawlessness that is frightening. And when light shines from behind it, hundreds of holes are revealed, like stars in the night sky.
And two lines are sliced vertically, and the two men walk through with their heads still covered in black -- and against the blackness of the space they seem headless. And they stand one on each side of the rectangular hole that has been formed, doorway-like, between those two vertical lines, like ancient hybrid creatures guarding an Egyptian tomb. And as the piece finishes, for me, it seems very much like a black hole in space, sucking in all.
I would like to reprint here the notes on the entire team of artists, because clearly the vision of this work was realized through their work together:
Conception, script and direction - Aurélion Bory
Music composition - Joan Cambon
Artistic Advisor - Pierre Rigal
Lighting - Arno Veyrat
Pilot and programmer for the robot - Tristan Baudoin
Scenery - Pierre Dequivre
Sound - Stéphane Ley
Costumes - Sylvie Marcucci
Prop Monitor - Fréderic Stoll
Patina/Sheen - Isadora de Ratuld
Masks - Guillermo Fernandez
Performed by Olivier Alenda, Olivier Boyer
©Ann Moradian, 2010.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Reflections on Performance: Thierry de Mey at the Maison de la Musique, Nanterre, France - January 30, 2010
The first piece was a dance film about 5 minutes long (from the early 80s) that was listed by the name "Dom svobode." A group of about 8 dancers connected by rope harnesses were dancing horizontally against what looks like the side of a cliff. The dancers don't show the effort that must be involved, but you still see the effect on the body of this shift in its relationship with gravity. It seems appropriate that Magritte's bowler hats stayed calmly on the men's heads even at a 90° angle. With such an obvious reference to Magritte's painting and in a work that is so suspended and air-dwelt, one would have thought we would see more sky and air. But the artists chose to accent the rock. We see gravel and dirt falling away under the dancers' feet, and hear it in the soundscape, which makes us feel it even more viscerally. This use of sound as music, or the music of sound, is satisfying, and strongly enhances the experience, transferring their vibrations into our own bodies. The film seemed to cut off abruptly at the end, and left me hanging, suspended, horizontally, a little too far off the ground. It was an interesting glance into a world not my own.
I believe that de Mey said, in his talk after the program, that the second piece, "Tippeke" was also from the 80s. It seems as if it were the result of an intimate collaboration between de Mey and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. I have only seen some of her group work for the stage and while I was not surprised by the power in her movement, I was not expecting the delicacy and fineness of expressive articulation she so fully embodied. The beauty of the madness of the body that does not fit together anymore with itself or with its mind, the body that cannot bear itself. It touches us, uncomfortably in all its sensuality, and I felt pity for her. Her story, Tippeke's story, was a simple one, of Tippeke moving through a beautiful autmn or winter wood, not wanting to go home, of the dog who does not want to bite her, of the stick that does not want to hit the dog, of the fire that does not wish to burn the stick, etc. No, no, they say. And the body does not fit itself, as if the inside of the body cannot find its place within its exterior frame, its exterior form. The sound of her feet in the branches and dirt, lovely, the sound of her voice, her breath speaking the words, the cello played live by Eric-Maria Couturier opening and closing the work with soundless gesture, the full soundscape of the score, again so organically integrated into the work that it enhances the experience viscerally yet after a single viewing leaves little trace that can be distinguished apart from the overall work and its impressiond. Fantastic that! The movement is seen and hidden between, behind and through the trees, but she travels far and while she seems a forest creature, she also hovers near the edges of highways, in fields and tunnels, like a lost deer. The beauty of the mist of her breath in the cold -- to see the breath as a dancer moves is a lovely thing... There is a moment of sensual satisfaction when the cat finally says "yes", oh yes, it does want to eat that mouse. And that "yes" changes the entire story thread to an affirmation, of violence and embrace, as the mouse eats the chord that ties the cow, etc. And we wonder what kind of home Tippeke is returning to. But she is returning. And it is her home.
Musiques des Tables (Table Music) was great. Three students from the Conservatoire de Reuil-Malmaison performed the work sitting in three black chairs behind three pine colored tables with microphones beneath them. Wearing black, the lighting focused our eyes on the whiteness of their moving hands, their faces and necks, and the tables, and this enhanced the sense of this being as much a dance as a work of music. The gesture of making sound, and the sound of gestures was marked. It was, indeed, as much a dance for hands as it was a musical work. (I couldn't help asking myself what would it be like if the three performers were not all white skinned? Their skin seemed to be choreographed into our experience of the work. But this is perhaps more a question I have in my own work just now... But it reflects how we think, and how we perceive as we view art. I wouldn't have noticed this question about race, or skin color, perhaps, if it weren't a question that I have already been sniffing at in my own universe.) The sounds they make with just their hands on those tables offer an amazing variety that I could not have imagined possible. And as much as de Mey seems to like, or have liked at the time he created the work, keeping away from the harmonic and rhythmic grooves that satisfy with their predictability and allow us to physically, internally, ride on them, he nevertheless gives us just enough of a fugue to leave us wanting more. It was great.
Light Music was the last work of the evening -- and the most recent work presented. It uses computer technology that seems to capture the light reflected on the actual body of the performer, Jean Geoffroy, and reflects it onto the large screen behind him. We see again the use of light on the white skin of the performer dressed in black, moving in an otherwise black box. The performer's body is mostly hidden and certainly de-emphasized in the darkness, so we focus on the gesture and movement his hands make and reflect, and on their patterns in space as projected on the screen. It is a conductor without an orchestra, and it is indeed a dance. Again the score we hear is so much a part of the work, a soundscape that it is hard to recall separate from the overall experience.
De Mey took questions and spoke with the audience afterward. I was glad for that. What touched me the most was the bright openess in his face -- like a child -- when a child had a question to ask. Not condescending, but sincerely open and listening for the mind that asks and seeks. I appreciated learning that part of his questioning and exploration is also focused on the use of tools that were originally intended for other uses -- in particular, for military use. I think it is clear in his work how much joy he takes in questioning everything -- the tools, the forms, their use, the edges between things and their definitions. What a wonderful, questioning mind, and what a beautiful use of it.
©Ann Moradian, 2010.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The World Dance Alliance Americas Congress -- "What Moves Us?"
May 28-31, 2009, University of Wisconsin/Madison, USA
"What moves us?" is an essential question for dance, and it has been a driving question for me. My response is a personal one and, naturally, limited. It is a response determined by my character and by my history -- not only my personal history, but also my cultural history. So it is useful for you to know that I began my career in ballet, but have been a modern dancer and a contemporary choreographer for most of my life. It is also useful for you to know that I was raised in the United States but have been living abroad for the past 13 years, first in India and now in Paris.
The first time I spoke about dance I was surprised by how powerful the process was. It was so powerful, in fact, that I quit dance afterwards. Putting ideas and thoughts about dance into words was not something I had much experience with, and the process allowed me to see my work within a larger context. I realized that I had been trying to share with the audience that undeniable wholeness and affirmation of life that hums when you dance; and I saw that I was asking my choreography to do something it was not structurally designed to do. I told myself "If you really want to share the experience of dancing, you get people to move and to dance, you don't ask them to sit in a chair and watch!" So I stopped.
What was it that had inspired me to dance in the first place? The music. Becoming the music. And I was deeply inspired by a teaching that integrated the beauty of classical ballet with the beauty of physics and Buddhism; an alignment, not only of the body but the mind and the soul, as well.* I came to study yoga with equal dedication for the same reason: the integrity, the wholeness, being fully present and alive, and embodying an ongoing process of constructive transformation.**
In addition to these two foundations, I also had the good fortune to study with Jim May, a brilliant artist who taught us to be willing to make mistakes, to dare to take risks in order to reclaim dance and bring it back to life. Dance dies so easily the moment we focus too strongly on the form and technique. This is not to say that form and technique are not important. It is to say that when the dance dies, the dance-er dies too, and the point is lost. There is a body with a mind, but no breath and no life -- an uninhabited body. It may move, but it doesn't move us.
What we do shapes us. When what we do is a physical practice, it shapes our bodies, of course, but it also shapes our minds. It shapes our ways of seeing and interacting with the world. It shapes our patterns and our personalities. We embody what we practice. In yoga it is said that thought and prana (the life force energy) flow together, and where one goes, the other follows. What we choose to think, where we focus our attention, and what we choose to do shape us, and we shape our world. So, what are we doing? And more important, what are we creating? And is it worth it? And if it isn't, what do we choose to change? What do we dare to change?
I stopped choreographing and performing when I realized that it was not the right medium if what I wanted to do was share the experience of dancing with others. But I stopped dancing then too. Maybe it was a way of embodying and fulfilling the explorations in risk-taking, in fall and recovery, that I had been exploring at the time on a body level. Certainly I was exhausted. What was clear was that my ballet teacher's questions and interests had changed; my yoga teacher had passed away; I had spent years integrating everything I could from their teaching and felt that I had moved forward as far as I could on my own. I felt like I had lost my way. We do not always realize how lucky we are when we find a teacher who shares our questions and has the ability to push us beyond our selves and our perceived limits. Being part of a community with similar interests or aims challenges me, but it also nourishes me. It moves me to care again. Isolation is numbing, and I can assure you that inertia weighs heavy, and is hard to get moving again.
So what moved me enough to begin to move again? One could say it was a teaching that was human and humane, but I suspect that even more than that, it was the children. My son was five when he started studying the martial arts with Philippe Nguyen . I would watch the children crawling across the floor like caterpillars or monkeys, or running and jumping and rolling. It seemed like they were playing, but I could see they were building their strength and agility, their courage and determination. But it was more than that. They were given time to figure things out on their own, to make mistakes, to pay attention and to learn from each other. I watched my son learn that something that seems impossible at first becomes possible with practice. And I watched how this changed his willingness to try new things outside of class too. I watched his resilience and his character develop. The focus was on the journey and the process of growing. Through the body, through the form, through the practice, the focus was on life. And as demanding as he was, Philippe always set the children up to succeed. When he asked if I wanted to try, I dived right in. Ballet gave me discipline, control, alignment, balance, an enormous awareness and knowledge of my body. Yoga helped to deepen this. It nourished my integrity and humanity, and it extended my awareness of the relationship between my body, and my being out into the world. Nguyen sensei's teaching has felt like a natural continuation of my studies.
I am delighted, and terrified, to learn about being with others through a physical practice. I am moved by what I discover, and by people's willingness to change and grow. I am moved by my own willingness to change and grow. I am moved by integrity and creativity. I open to curiosity. I turn from judgement and the imposition of ideas. I am moved by the journey, and by our courage. I am moved by everything, really. But do I move toward stasis, certitude, forms of death, or do I move toward discovery and transformation, toward life? And maybe it isn't the "what" that moves us that is key, but rather the "who" we are as we meet the "what." Do we perceive what we encounter as a mountain to climb, a boulder to cling to or a rock to throw? When we meet another, do we meet them as we might meet a wall, a window, or a doorway? Can we meet the other as a "who?" and what does this mean? These are some of the questions I have now. And the questions move me forward.
I had a lot of trouble writing this paper when I began because I was evading what I really wanted to say. I was avoiding the word "love" (in the same way that part of me would like to avoid, or wants to laugh when I hear myself saying, "relax inside the nostrils." It can sound absurd or... empty or just so 'out there." But for me that is what it really boils down to. Do I choose fear or love? Living in India, I discovered what I believe to be the basis for ahimsa (non-injury). I discovered that everything I do, every sound I utter, every thought that passes through my mind, is generated, at its root, either by fear or what I would call 'love.' And I can choose. Love moves me into the world, toward others, toward life; and anything with fear at its root leads to violence in one form or another, no matter how it might appear at first glance.
What moves me toward life is a love of life itself. To know life by living it, through the dance of life, through the changing rhythms of breath and blood, through the heat that turns moisture into sweat, through the feel of the air on my skin. This dance moves me. And love of exquisite beauty moves me -- and as much as I love the beauty of form, the beauty that moves me is neither formal nor decorative. It is simply being there, honest and real. And you can see it. In a performer on stage sometimes, I've been enthralled, not by their technique or accomplishment, but by their presence, their being. I see this same beauty in my students often when I am teaching. It can stun me. Sometimes it is almost unbearable. And yet, I see it again and again. It is not so unusual. BKS Iyengar, one of India's great yoga masters, said 'when you are fully in the body, the soul appears.' I think this is the beauty that moves me.
In dance we have given ourselves permission to learn from other forms and cultures. We are allowed to explore and evolve. The form does not limit us, unless we allow it to. And this seems appropriate for dance because it acknowledges dance as something living, breathing -- 'moving,' if you will, like we do through life. And when dance meets something "other," and we allow our selves and our work to be challenged, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves what to keep, what to change, and what to let go of.
Cultures carry ideas within them. Powerful ideas. These ideas shape our behavior and our relationships, our patterns. Wherever we go, we bring with us our ideas, and our ways of seeing and being in the world. Whatever and whoever we meet will challenge these. And we change. And they change. Even by resisting change, we have changed. And the world changes. Living abroad, I have spent a lot of time looking at my culture from different perspectives. My journey through dance from classical and modern dance to contemporary choreography, through yoga and now a martial art, through different cultures, leaving and returning to dance, this journey creates my perception today.
When I add all of this together, it seems to me that the ideas of "independence" and "individuality" resonate powerfully in the 'USian' mind. Being from the US, this matters to me. I think that where I come from we do not generally see or define ourselves in relation to others and the world, that we tend to see ourselves as "independent from," rather than "in relation to." And I see this as a form of violence, a way of ignoring or denying the existence of the other, be it a person, a nation or an ecosystem. It moves toward destruction and death. This is a part of my cultural history that I carry with me.
Relationship. Questions and explorations about relationship are moving me today. I continue to question the relationship between our selves and our practices, between the work we create and the evolution of our cultures, and the relationships between our cultures and the larger world. I am fascinated by how what we choose to do on a body level changes not only our bodies and our ways of moving in the world, but also how we see and interact with the world.
In yoga the focus seems to be strongly on one's relationship to the universe. When we dance, we dance in relation to others, or course. But in the classical and modern techniques that I know, you "carry your own weight." Always. In my martial arts practice, the one thing I have been deeply disturbed by is something in the technique that feels like a shift of my own solidity -- my center. Rather than each of us carrying our own centers with us as we move together, the center shifts to become the center created by the two of us. There is a level of trust, a willngness to depend on the other that I struggle with. It seems to go against everything that has been ingrained in me, both physically and culturally.
This struggle, to find, experience, acknowledge this inter-dependence moves me. I begin to recognize, from time to time, that "I" only exist in relation to "other;" I am part of "we," and no matter what stories we may tell ourselves, we were never independent and we are not now. Through the technique and how he taught it, Philippe refused to let us forget our relation to each other. We touch, and we move each other. We affect each other and the world around us -- each of us. We are interdependent. And it is experiencing this on a body level, through movement, that moves me toward life once again.
* Finis Jhung
©Ann Moradian, 2009.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
December 15-21, 2001, Shri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, India
It can be rather intimidating for a dancer to talk about dance. It isn't that there is someone better to do it, but we do not always have a lot of practice at it. I have spent most of my life exploring dance experientially, not linguistically. Words can seem limiting and limited.
Words are a tool used and understood by only a certain portion of the brain. They are unable to embrace or define the experience of being -- being is all embracing. Words confine our experience within borders that do not really exist. While language helps us to communicate and exchange ideas, it also encourages a sense of understanding, a sense of knowledge and control that is misleading. Wallowing in this illusion of understanding, we restrict our experience and our understanding, confining it to that small realm in the brain that interprets linguistic symbols. Words remove us from immersion in experience, setting us outside looking in. Words are, in fact, a form of abstraction. Through language and its symbols we cut our selves off from the experience of being -- an abstraction of being, if you will.
You might think that introducing this idea of the "abstraction of being" is a rather convoluted way to begin a discussion on choreography. But its opposite -- a very deep need to experience existence fully -- has been a primary motivator in my life and in my choices to date. This includes, naturally, the choices I make in dance and in choreography.
ABSTRACTION IN DANCE
I've been asked to speak here about abstraction in dance. My response may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you. You see, upon consideration, it seems to me that all presentational dance is abstract. We place 'dancing' and presentational dance under one linguistic label called "dance." I would like to clarify a distinction I perceive between dancing and presentational dance. They are substantially different.
I have found that dancing, the experience of dancing, amplifies and intensifies the experience of being. Dancing focuses the attention of the dancer inward and outward simultaneously, uniting numerous aspects of our existence consciously in the moment. It is an 'attending.' It is impossible while dancing not to attend to the physical body and its relationships with space and time, breath, energy, thought, feeling, sensation.
Presentational dance, however, is a formal sort of beast, no matter how personal or casual it might appear. Presentational dance is not simply inspiration or expression embodied. It is choreographed -- a series of choices. By choosing, we are drawing boundaries: deleting, extracting, directing the viewer's attention and informing it. At the very least, we frame the work, somewhat like a photograph. In the process of framing the work, we have made choices about what will be seen and what will remain hidden. In other words, we abstract ("draw from, separate")*
Yet Ben Hahn, in his book "The Shape of Content," states that it is content that determines the form. He says, "Form could not possibly exist without a content of some kind... If the content of a work of art is only the paint itself, so be it; it has that much content." According to the dictionary, "content" is "what is contained... the substance." Hahn is discussing visual art, but it seems applicable to dance as well. Even more so, perhaps, because the content of dance -- at the very least -- is not only the human body but also the human being. In my experience, the dancer (body and being) assuredly influences, restricts and contributes to the form a dance takes. If all presentational dance is abstract and has content, then we are really discussing degrees of abstraction. What we decide to label "Abstract" will naturally be determined by our subjective perceptions.
As we create a dance, our choices are strongly influenced by our relation to the layers and layers of context that are formed by our history, culture and society (the history of dance itself, schools of thought in religion, philosophy, the sciences, and by our values, metaphors, icons, etc.). These layers are like the undercoat of a painting which creates the landscape we spring from, rest upon, reject, explore, amend, allude to or reference. In other words, presentational dance -- choreography -- is not only an abstraction of experience but also an abstraction of the experience of a particular artist in relation to a particular conglomerate of contexts -- and it is full of content.
By making choices we create boundaries that, unavoidably, contain substance. Yet these boundaries simultaneously set us outside -- abstracting our selves from the experience of being. Another way of saying this might be to say that we astract elements from the vast "What Is" to create a sense of something concrete, yet in the process of creating this concrete something, we simultaneously remove our selves from the greater experience of "What Is"... (A bit of a paradox which I believe has been well addressed by your country's philosophers.)
A CHOREOGRAPHIC JOURNEY
When I first began choreographing professionally (in 1982), I felt a need to "control" the work -- to ensure that the audience "understood" what I was "trying to say." Since that time I have come to believe that this is essentially impossible. I have heard so many people in dance say that "dance is a universal language." I recognize the comfort this idea brings, and I admit that there are certain physical expressions of human emotion that seem to be shared across cultures. But dance is not a universal language. There are so many layers springing from the context in which the dance is born or created that we don't even recognize when we are using a sort of "short hand" which references and alludes to a vast communal consciousness that is not "universal," not even global. What is a clearly defined, even 'literal' dance to one group of people can be experienced as purely abstract movement to another.
I remember the first time I welcomed the empty space rather than wrestling against it. I had set out to create a piece that would only be completed by the viewers' perceiving the dance through the filters of their lives, memories and experiences. It required a structure, of course, empty space, and images and moments that resonated strongly enough to call upon the reservoir of information that each one carried within them. In 1995, after my company (Perspectives In Motion) premiered that particular work, a young dancer approached Anna Sokolow (whose work had also premiered that evening) and asked her if she had 'enjoyed the show.' This tiny little woman bristled up, greatly affronted, and said to her "We are not here to enjoy! We are here to think and feel!" I think she summarized the viewpoint quite well. ("Entertainment" is, of course, something else -- but that would be another discussion.)
The "content" of my work is both the human experience and the human being. I was surprised when I was asked to speak about abstraction as if my work were abstract. Now I see that it is. I was stunned when one of my dancers told me that my work was hard, that no one else had ever demanded of them what I asked. Until then I hadn't realized that the content of my work requires not just the body, mind and heart of my dancers, but also their soul, and mine. Whether I create something that is perceived as abstract or clearly defined -- literal even -- is not really a question for me. I attempt to create each work appropriate unto itself. I try to provide structure, metaphors, textures -- a visceral residue of existence within a particular frame -- and enough empty space to invite the viewer to create his or her own experience and interpretation of the work -- which may or may not be the same as mine.
One of the things I have loved about choreography is the empty space. Not all empty space and not just any empty space, but that empty space between resonant movement or images which allows the viewer to experience the work, to sense its energies, textures, movements, its interconnectedness -- its life. That empty space which invokes not just an emotional, empathetic or sympathetic experience of being, but that calls upon the full spectrum of our possibilities as sentient beings (mind, heart, body, soul) -- to engage as much of our being as we possibly can. It is from here that we begin to enter the dance, co-creating the work through the filter of our own experience and consciousness.
I'd like to use the example of Vesper, probably considered to be one of my more abstract works, as a way to illustrate abstraction through the use of this empty space. Essentially and quite simply, Vesper is a dance about sitting in a chair. Given the movement vocabulary of the dance, the chair might be interpreted as a metaphor for rest, confinement, surrender, death. Ultimately, the significance of the chair, its "meaning," will depend upon the viewer's perception of it.
(Deirdre Smith & Joan Mullen in "Vesper)
The basic structure of the dance is quite simple, with a linear, dramatic development. The dancer begins sitting in the chair. She becomes conscious of the chair and leaves it to move out into the space. Her attention is divided between the experience of her environment and her awareness of the chair, which seems to be alive. The dance concludes as the dancer returns to sit in the chair. This structure itself gives clues to the possible "meaning" of the dance. Additional metaphor can be found in the spatial patterns,(such as the movement from the far corner of the stage the the opposite forward corner -- alluding to a progression or journey. The title, also, offers clues to my choreographic intention: vespers are devotional songs sung at dusk, alluding to a concern with the sacred and with the coming of night.
The chair, the personification of the chair, the music and the costumes join together to remove the dance from a real landscape and place it in a surreal environment. The chair is a curious, angular sculpture of string and wood, resembling a harp or kite perhaps. One of the dancers creates an ongoing sequence of moving sculptural images with it, and because the two are always intertwined, we understand that this dancer and the chair are one. And because this personified chair has a will and a relentless connection with the other dancer, and she with it, we may ask ourselves what this relationship could be.
(Deirdre Smith & Joan Mullen in "Vesper")
The music is a soundscape, with no recognizeable rhythm or melody. It seems to distort time, creating a warped and disturbing environment. The costumes are simple unitards that have been designed with the same angles and webbing as the chair. They subtly de-personify the dancers. Sitting, or rather not sitting in a chair in this surreal environment re-contextualizes the act of sitting. We are left with a sense of intense feeling, an intimate relationship and yet, we don't really have the feeling that the dancers are "characters." I would venture to say, from my own point of view, that this "duet" would be better described as a trio, but it is actually a solo. For me, Vesper takes place in a psychological landscape. But each viewer will have his or her own ideas about it. This kind of empty space allows for one dance to be experienced as many different dances. Some people in our New York audience refer to this dance as "the lesbian chair dance." I don't see it that way, but they do. I hope that that dance is also an interesting one!
In my work, I am asking the viewers to experience the work through themselves as fully engaged human beings. This demands that the viewer actively think and feel. I am inviting the viewer to experience the dance through the lens of his or her own life experience. Some people are uncomfortable with this -- and this is also exciting. For even then, one important question remains: "Why do I feel this way in response to this work?" As I see it, if we ignore this question, then the value of the work is lost. "Your willingness to explore is the dance."**
My choices are a direct response to the context I exist within. There seems to be a sort of 'chemistry' between my unique evolution of life experiences, a particular grouping of socio-cultural environments, and my self, to the point I have been able to realize or actualize that self thus far on my journey.
As a young girl, I was very passionate about my dancing. Every possible moment of my day was filled with dance, dance and dance. By the time I was 18, I had made a conscious choice: I began to define myself as a human being who danced, not as a "a Dancer." I shifted my focus from dance to life, and I told myself, clearly, "My life is the work of art I am creating, and dance is just a part of it."
I remember being frustrated by the lack of an "object" (like you have with painting or sculpture) and the difficulty of surviving in such an ephemeral field. A Polish installation artist reminded me that we choose our mediums for a reason. And when I thought about that, I found it was true. I chose dance because for me it expresses the essence of life -- fully experiential, demanding every possible milligram of me -- gone in the moment of its making.
In my choreography, it seems that I am exploring the possibility of extending this aspect of dance that I love so deeply to the audience. This seems to me to require a certain use of the empty space through which the viewer may enter and experience themselves as living, fully sentient beings. That empty space which invites us to journey through the dance into a space in our own being where not only our conscious mind, empathy and emotions are engaged, but also our visceral senses and subconscious memory.
So, my view at this moment in time is that presentational dance is unavoidably full of content, abstract and contextually determined. The content, the substance of the dance, removes us from experience as it creates a sense of clarity and definition. The abstractions, the empty space between the known and the unknown, invites us to enter this space, sending us circling back into our selves to rediscover, or at least remember, the experience of being.
Our work expresses our values in relation to the context of our lives. The only value I am convinced of in dance -- that I embrace without a shadow of a doubt -- is the experience of dancing. As I put these thoughts together (in these limiting and limited words), I begin to realize that I am seeking to change the relationship between the viewer and presentational dance -- to invite the viewer to share an experience in being -- consciously, deeply. My work is occasionally referred to as Abstract Expressionism, but I suspect that some other label may better embace the values inherent in the work.
Right now, in this very moment, Indian artists are creating Indian Contemporary Dance, with varying degrees of abstraction and content. And they are creating this new form of dance in direct relation and response to this unique, beautiful and perplexing culture, its evolution and history. It is a journey, and an experience. May you live every moment of your journey.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The University of Chicago Press, 1958
Maxine Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar
Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2001
Ben Shan, The Shape of Content
Harvard University Press, 1957, 1985
*Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language
Simon and Schuster, 1984
**Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton, Emmanuel's Book (I & II)
Bantam Books, 1989
©Ann Moradian, 2001.
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