Last week, I participated in the Taking Place residency here in Columbus. Organized by soon-to-be MFA candidate and Columbus dancer/choreographer/mover & shaker Nicole Garlando, the festival brought together five artists for a two-week period to develop new work on local dancers. The choreographers: KJ Holmes (NYC), Peter Kyle (NYC), Coco Loupe (Baton Rouge), Bebe Miller (Columbus), Claire Porter (NYC). The final performance also featured work selected through adjudication by Nicole, Kent DeSpain, and Shannon Drake.
First of all: wow. I figured much of my growth this summer sans-summer dance festival (like Bates) would come from me reading, writing, and working with my stellar cast. Taking Place was a true surprise gift from Nicole Garlando to all of the dancers in town.
I worked with Bebe and Claire. Bebe held four workshop sessions in late June to play with ideas regarding “watching watching.” It’s the thing we do as dancers when we watch video to learn material. In the course of making dances, Bebe noticed the kind of physical attention and focus present in dancers when they were looking at a screen to pick up facing, direction change, and detail. And, even early on in those workshops, it was completely captivating to watch people watching with their whole body, and attempting to not just be like the person on the screen, but actually embody that person fully. In our case, the person on the screen was Bebe. When Bebe left town, the very wonderful choreographer Rashana Smith directed the project in consultation with Bebe.
So, during the performance, we watched recorded video of Bebe improvising, and we mirrored what she did. There were moments in which the space changed and we moved a laptop computer to a new place. There were moments I paused the video and we just watched a still screen. There were improvisational moments in which dancers could call “stop,” “go,” “me,” or “okay.” “Me” gave the caller a solo, “okay” invited the other dancers to begin moving again. And all the while, Bebe danced on a screen. There were trios and duets.
I loved dancing this thing. It is the only experience I’ve had where the rehearsal was exactly like the performance. Our attention was devoted to a screen, and our task was to do exactly what was on the screen while managing the other spatial and improvisational elements. We did not have to transmit this experience to an audience, just have it. It felt refreshing to lose that responsibility. And in fact, it made me question what our responsibility is as a dancer in any work. Maybe really having the experience, rather than showing an audience you are having it, is compelling enough.
I’ve seen Claire Porter’s work Happen Chance a couple of times and I’ve always been charmed and amazed by Claire’s ability to weave words and movement into something mysterious and coherent. (“Mysterious and coherent” is what I’m aiming for in my own work, as it turns out.) I took her workshop, and then participated in the process of creating Beside Myself Deciding with four other dancers. Claire works FAST. During our first four-hour rehearsal, we generated movement and text from questions about how we make decisions. During our second rehearsal the next day, Claire came in with the structure of the dance, and scripts for each of us, and we started stumbling through the dance, scripts in hand. Incredibly, by the end of that rehearsal, we could perform it (in a stop-and-start way) without our scripts. And these weren’t just quick phrases, these were full stories each of us told as we moved. The next day, we just kept running the show until it was cleaner, and Claire gave us more coaching on delivery, and altered certain words or phrases to make them clearer (example: changing “Mike” to “Michael,” changing “my collaborator” to “my producer”, etc). There were small changes, but I do believe its the changes like that, the ones that lead toward full legibility, that allow an audience to stay with a piece from start to finish.
The more we did it, the easier it got, and the more play we found in the language and the movement. By the last performance, the four other performers and I were really relating to each other and dancing with each other. I think the pressure cooker of only have four days to build a dance makes dancers just commit to their choices fully, rather than making those commitments later in a process when things are more known. I loved it.
I’ve taken elements of both Claire’s and Bebe’s processes into my independent study work. Bebe’s “watching watching” very quickly began to change how I was watching the three-dimensional dancers in the room with me, and how I wanted them to watch each other. I took structures from Claire’s workshop into my rehearsal and tried them with my dancers. Claire talks about “tricking” yourself into finding meaningful content, about almost making a wide circle away from it to get back to it as a way to bring out deeper detail. It just makes me think about how our brains hold so much…isn’t it sort of fun to meander a bit and pick up things along the way before you arrive at the endpoint?