For the longest time I’ve been thinking about writing a book based on my experience with choreography and my perceptions of the creative process. Since the age of 20 I have spent a lot of time contemplating dance and questioning it. I’ve grappled with questions around what it offers us and what I could accomplish inside of a choreographic practice. I have tried to give shape to a book for a few years, diligently attempting to categorize the information I have amassed to create an organizational system for what I “know.” Last November, I finally set apart a whole week for writing. It was time to sew together a million little ideas I’d started. I left town and scheduled a daily seven-hour writing block in my hotel room thinking to myself, “This is it, time to bang out an outline and then a book will follow with ease.” As you may have guessed, this was a huge failure, replete with extra-long procrastination baths and marathon staring-out-the window-sessions unrivaled in the history of human avoidance. Although I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do, what did happen in that week was that I came to terms with the fact that what I “know” is in a state of flux—forever. Particularly since my thinking has been modeled on the open, capricious structures unearthed through my choreographic practice, it became clear that any attempt to concretize ideas in a book would quickly descend into a pit of ricocheting contradictions.
But that’s a good thing.
For many, a book is the perfect vehicle for delivering information, but since I am engaged in an ongoing dialogue with many contrasting ideas and have no desire to arrive at a final summation, the thought of writing a blog instead of a book became very desirable. An ideology of multiplicity drives my aesthetic. Fluid meaning is created through the co-existence and continual recontextualiation of all the components in my dances. My point of view is connected to so many others and must necessarily exist in active dialogue with them. It shifts often, relative to transitions in my own philosophy of practice and the socio-political, cultural energy of a given moment.
So consider this a blook.
I have taught extensively and held workshops all over the world, raising these questions about the nature of choreography with many people in their local dance communities. I cannot express enough the true power of these experiences. This blog is an extension of that practice. There is an amazing community of people comprised of my friends, my colleagues, my students, our audience and many other brilliant minds that have fueled my knowing through 25 years of making dances. I hope to continue to benefit from this confluence of populations here. In a future post I will talk about the importance of teaching and mentoring in my artistic progression. For now, I would like to sincerely thank the many students who ever cocked their heads and furrowed their brows asking me with these postures to better my articulations. Thanks to our post-performance audiences who were interested enough to stay. These areas of sharing have been an anchor throughout my career and I am grateful to all who have shown interest in what I talk about and offer the gift of gentle friction against which my ideas can be shaped.
On June 23-26 at Dance Theater Workshop we will present a return engagement of Wrought Iron Fog, the last work I created with my company. I thought it would be a good moment to launch this blog as a parallel experience and a forum for information sharing, where people can dialogue around the ideas engaged in the work. In this first post I will share some of what I was working on in this dance. Nothing I write will necessarily be “visible” in the work, but I think it may be interesting to witness the progression of ideas and actions taken that brought us to the final product.
WROUGHT IRON FOG
In Rochester, New York near where I was raised, we used to visit the George Eastman House, the mansion of the founder of Kodak. After his death it had been made into a museum of photography as well. This magical palace of privilege was encrusted with amazingly detailed wrought ironwork, inside and out. It was both decorative and functional. Vast gates and window enclosures were molded from it. They were covered with botanical motifs, providing romantic flourish around the building and blurring the line between function and form. Sometimes the ironwork seemed to imitate the elegant espalier that covered the exterior of the house and other times the intransigent posturing of a security force. I remember being transfixed by it. It launched a lifelong love of the form, versions of which I have been fortunate enough to witness across the globe. As a very young person I remember how the shape of leaves rendered in iron proposed a circular irresolvability that was like a high-pitched sound for my psyche. Leaves, normally soft and colorful, were black and solid here. The mind can understand why this is so, but as a child I found the embodied impact transcendent. I search for this feeling continually in my work. It created a template for the coexistence of the abstract and the figurative that are still layered in my work.
In addition, this extraordinary ironwork was unsigned and existed as background to the exhibits on offer. The exhibits would be presented in the parlor, dining room or some other part of the former living quarters, all accented with wrought iron. Behind an exhibit of Muybridge’s notebooks for example, you would feel the presence of the ironwork ringing out. I love how strongly it resonated as an entity detached from the personality of its maker. Later, I researched it and learned of course that there was an actual person behind all of this anonymous beauty. A very well known Polish immigrant artist named Samuel Yellin, who was a major figure in early twentieth-century American design, created it. The wrought ironwork and many other decorative forms that I have witnessed through my travels epitomize the presence I would like to emulate in my art. So many times while walking in a new city, some finial or other decorative element comes into my vision and I am struck with the force of its qualities—my brain reshuffled for a moment. Due to their mundane placement in our lives and the lack of easily locatable signature, these artworks erase their maker to a degree, yet are nonetheless authored into being. In the current art and performance scene where actual endeavors in art are frequently replaced by displays of exhibitionism and clever stances on culture that position the artist as innovator, I look to artisans to anchor myself as I work.
I no longer create my works in adherence to a good/bad paradigm. I have become very interested in seeing what the dances can become through a process of witnessing as opposed to employing choreographic technique of any sort. I am not trying to make the dances good or to create a choreographic pronouncement of something I know. It has become much more interesting for me to make work as a method for processing a constellation of ideas and to create a rigorous choreographic rendering of their particular coexistence.
During the making of Hi Everybody, which I created in 2000, I developed a word to help me understand this concept. The word is everything-ness. In the title, Everybody is interchangeable with everything. In that work I co-mingled material that I created as a response to 23 specific human injustices, weaving these together into a convoluted system of interrelatedness. The weave quickly took on its own properties, obliterating any remains of content. Efforts to order the singular elements in a coherent manner were undermined by the emergence of a new structure whose properties were heretofore unknown to me. Anytime I attempt to privilege a subject matter in my work I am shown through the process that the experience of perception in dance is defined by erasure and multiple points of view. The possibility of moving towards a singularity of meaning resides more in the purview of language. The fog of everything-ness always alights on my dances. It comes to teach. It comes to remind me again and again that there is no denotative potential in a choreographic endeavor. This form does something to language that is quite inimitable. It disengages from the rules of language and simultaneously resituates them as reference.
Although I normally prefer to search for my titles in the poetic space between language and dance, each sullied by the presence of the other, in Wrought Iron Fog I used a more structural approach. In this dance I was looking at the co-existence of fixed states and constant change as an omnipresent coupling in dance. The coexistence of wrought iron and fog to some degree replicates the initial questions for this work: how is something in a state of finality affected by the ephemeral and the temporal? Although wrought iron and fog could easily coexist in the physical world, in this juxtaposition they are either oxymoronic or poetic or both. I am forcing these opposites next to each other, hoping the audience begins a process of negotiating the difference before the work begins. This choreographic use of language is generative for me.
As in all the work I have made in the past ten years, I started this one by focusing on an assumed fundamental tenet of dance and turning that into an action in my process. I do not use these tenets as thematic elements but as constructs to launch the process, continuing my investigation into the potentialities of this form. In some instances, as in this one, the element I focus on is also a metaphor for a current world issue and I engage my making as an alternative way of processing this subject matter. Presently, I am hyperaware of the polar views on global issues that have brought us to a stasis in our evolution as human beings. The astoundingly dogmatic stances that shape our world right now have been repetitive throughout history. They have brought me to define a working aesthetic realm I call post-opinon. I am not interested in any one person’s opinion of anything, least of all my own. We all know the available opinions about any subject and the resulting lines of division. But we do not know how to blend difference without the annihilation of “other.” Nor do we know how to engage complexity, with its gifts of diffusion, as a tool for knowing. Since the politics of a dance are more apparent in the process of its making than in its surface representational imagery, I used Wrought Iron Fog to further detach from belief systems so that I could better see the nature of systems.
To focus on these thoughts and bring them into the realm of choreographic action, I attempted to integrate improvisational techniques with the more calculated aspects of my work, in equal measure. I was fogging the iron. I dissolved these two oppositional elements by folding them into each other. To begin, I used a technique I call mentioning, delivering source material by dancing quickly in front of the dancers and asking them to record or assimilate what they had seen and to develop it further on their bodies. Sometimes I would suggest an issue or a problem and they would make material as a way of pondering that. Other times I would dance for an extended period and they could come in and out of watching, culling movement information from the clips of dancing that they happened to see and adding these to their construction. Through these techniques, each dancer created a file of movement, which took the form of a very long solo phrase. Concurrently, I choreographed a fixed, complicated and highly inorganic phrase of movement (although you wouldn’t know it by watching these genius movers) to be performed in unison. We then created varying improvisational situations inside of which they could rearrange their material as it was being performed, improvising in and out of its inclusion in the fixed material and restructuring the material on every take.
All of the dancers had different ideas of what was happening and a complex nexus of initiations and results began to arise. For a while, these morphing monster dances would take almost 80 minutes to run and created an indistinguishable flow of elements. Although these were unwieldy and boring to watch initially, I learned so much about the depth of my interest in what I call the fog and how it can become a tool. Simply by observing, not trying to craft anything into excellence, I recalibrated the hierarchy of qualities often valued in the critical evaluation of dance. By embracing the ineffable as an editorial tool, an element like boredom becomes a quality rather than a problem. It doesn’t necessarily need to be thrown out. It just needs to find its context. Once again, I had to work slowly through process to reaffirm my commitment to the hidden lessons embedded in ambiguous structures.
This initial period of development was very fruitful and would not have been possible without the depth of endeavor that the performers who work with me so generously and patiently commit to. But as is always the case a vaster framework made itself evident as I worked. Somewhere in the middle of the process, an unanalyzable framework enters like a fever or a mystic presence and I am struck by it. It contains a much larger scope than the schematic operations I initiated. I always come to this moment where the first carvings of choreographic ideas become stultified and lay inert for a week or two. At that point I am forced to question beyond what I have ideated to see what I am truly endeavoring. I have to know to what degree I am just creating a chorographic pictogram of the polemic I am analyzing. Multiple, coexisting layers of reference that I have set into motion act upon each other in the process. At a certain point alchemy occurs, creating an enormous network of potential readings. Once the structure of that network seems stabilized, or better, self-determined, I can begin to look at the ethereal as an estimable quantity. I wake up from a necessarily dreamy jaunt through the transitory and begin to see what flavor of cogency this dance will adopt.
For me, the fog is whatever emanates from a dance that isn’t visual or aural or referential or immersed in “aboutness.” It is the total of these. As I let go of the subconscious desire to name things and to categorize—a process often mistaken for choreography—I slowly allow the specificity of the temporal ride I’ve been on to come to the fore and be enough. It is the grammar eating the nouns. Whether infusing it with my stories or not, I am aswim in the dance. This is different from how I reside in the rest of my day but sheds light on how that could be. All of this is an approximation of consciousness. My dances mirror qualities of thought and presence. It has become more important for me to create dances that are temporal cul-de-sacs rather than episodic theatrical events moving forward in time towards resolution. Anyone who has participated in my class will have heard me say that I want to be the nurse of my dance rather than its surgeon. I cannot fix the dance or make it excellent, I can only observe it into being. In so doing I have to release my mind and ignite the machinery of inclusiveness. These are the seeds of liberation from self-expression towards which I hope to move more and more. I am trying to completely detach from causal modalities to find what I refer to as unviable structures.
At the end of Wrought Iron Fog there is a long unison phrase, which looks quite unwieldy if I assess it using the history of dance as a value system. But I don’t. This is a message from the process. The unison element is a problem in the dance as well as one of its major components. It is the wrought iron attempting to exert its finality. I kept trying to push it underwater but it was too buoyant. Finally it told me to place it on the end of the dance as an extra, as a growth almost, not as a resolution. It wears the clothing of order but its presence is that of a mistake. Like the inescapable transparency that takes over the visage of the elderly, no calculated image can cover the truth of time passing. Endings are less conclusive than we hope for.
I have reached the beginning of a new kind of working. I now wait until the very last moment to edit my works because I keep learning that any input I enact based on some notion of craft should be an alarm in my process. I must look upon all actions taken to “edit” the dance as suspect and interrogate their purpose. Usually, hidden deep inside, there is some notion of the causal. I question why I would favor causality over the free rush of forward movement that seems in my experience to be the philosophical center of this form. Many of these ideas are unresolved for me. I am so happy that dance exists as a container for imperfect situations.
Like a flying bridge or a book of fiction with no story, unviable structures become absurdities or commentaries, in certain forms. Yet in dance, the most Byzantine, open-ended structure can simply be the product of a system that contains an incalculable amount of elements. It makes itself visible. The fact that it exists validates it. This way of seeing can teach us how to embrace complexity and harness it. It raises questions for artists about our assumed role as aesthetic ameliorators. I have always found the central drama in the activity of dancemaking to be the futility of solidifying something. It’s like setting up a house of cards in a hurricane and then walking ten feet back to get a better look only to find it is gone. I have nonetheless committed myself to this project and continue to glean information from it. I would like to thank my good friend time for providing me with the infinite amount of forward motion necessary to see what I can see through process and for helping me locate an entirely different ethos inside of which to live and work.
Thank you to Suzanne Carbonnaeu and Amy Smith for their generosity and the astuteness of their observations in helping me shape my writing. Photo #1 Ryutaro Mishima; Photo #2 Julieta Cervantes
Some of the posts I have begun for the near future focus on:
• A love letter to the performers who have worked with me from 1983 until now
• How choreographing changed my mind about choreography
• Marginalization, Abstraction and the Closet
• Teaching, Mentoring and Making
• What film taught me about choreography
• The redefinition of crescendo by the Wooster Group
• An interview with James Baker who has composed the music for almost all of my works.
So come on back!