the art of bodies in motion

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.