Photo © 2009. Nannette Bertschy & Ann Moradian.

looking at the world and challenging our assumptions, definitions and creation of it through the lense of the body, movement, the arts and science.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Returning to Dance: What Moves Us?

a paper presented by Ann Moradian at
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
**Eric Beeler

©Ann Moradian, 2009.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

ABSTRACTION: The Empty Space

a paper presented by Ann Moradian for The 21st Natya Kala Conference -- "Choreography: The Art of Making Dances"
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.


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.)


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.