photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Time, the radical

Time is one of the few most important elements of choreography.
I want to write a bit about two of my projects, in which I have focused on aspects of time.

The solo I danced at the Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley this past weekend is a finale of a 50 min dance piece "Raja", that premiered in Helsinki, Finland in November 2007. In "Raja" tempo is the defining aspect of the piece.
Initially my intuition directed me to try out the movements really slowly. It felt good, but I also wanted to see what it looked like. Sanna From, who was rehearsing "Raja" with me, was my guinea pig. I found slowing down focused viewer attention to the movement. I didn't want the choreography to flow away, I really wanted it to be observed. Immediately the movement qualities became highlighted.
Slow performance demanded a deep concentration that produced stillness, the stillness further enhanced the audience's focus. In this case slowness produced a meditative state that enveloped the dancers and the audience alike (based on audience response).

Slow also has an aspect that is more radical. That's because we don't really like slow. Things should happen fast and snappy, anybody slow is clumsy or dimwitted. Slow performers will fall out of the big competition that is life, fast people simply achieve more. Of course we know that more is not better, so people have the slow food -movement, alternative education, sabbaticals. These are for and by the deviants, the activists, the radicals. How about normal people?
A friend once told me how she had stuffed cotton balls into her nostrils in order to sound like she had the flu - so she could be convincing when she notified the office. She is a high achiever, but she needs a day or two of slow to achieve that high performance. After her confession we were both embarrassed, because no matter how much we like slow times, we definitely do dislike slow times. During high unemployment the difference between one person's busy and another person's slow becomes amplified.

Past summer I composed a new piece called "Things" at the Garage in San Francisco. In "Things" I am connecting the ideals of tempo and achievement to the ideas of a person and a thing. A person would do, produce, perform, leave traces, move. A thing would do none of these things. What if a person would be stripped of doing, producing, performing, leaving traces, moving? How would we look at that person, and how would we value her/him?
Duration and the rhythm of performance became focus of "Things". The person on stage is first in fast movement, stopping suddenly. On several occasions she is on hiatus for lengths of time. An unnatural and at times uncomfortable slow rhythm of performance feels necessary to bring over the point.
I think I wasn't radical enough with the timing, not sedate enough in the performance. I'm looking forward to putting up a next version of "Things" so I can create, and give myself and the audience the chance to investigate, that physical reality.

My chosen channel of creativity is dance, and western theatrical dance is the tradition that I have grown into. If there ever was a world where high achievement and top performance is demanded for simple survival, it is the tradition of western theatrical dance. Although I identify with the margin that is in continuous revolt against values of traditions past, the hardcore where the revolt is wholly followed through is tiny. I hold no pure convictions myself. So I am composing for an ambiguous audience that has conflicting expectations. I know I have to transgress the limits one of my own comfort zones here, concerning the dark side of pace and achievement. And my mean of transgression will be performance timing.

I'm posting a couple of related links I have enjoyed.

Stefan Sagmeister on time off

Linton Kwesi Johnson: More time

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pilot 55

The 55th Pilot Project at ODC will show on the weekend of November 21 and 22. Ara Glenn-Johansen is making a piece with four dancers, me one of them.

Several weeks ago we started looking for material through Grotowsky's plastiques-method. I enjoy oscillating between movement and imagery, so there were many happy and fun-filled moments for me. All the four of us are very different movers, performers and bodies, and I think that accounts for much of the interesting moments as well. We accompany and compliment each other on the floor. The next phase has been to carve the selected material into a choreography.

Seeing the process from the viewpoint of a dancer has so far been educational and liberating for me. Dancing is fun! I get to concentrate on one performance instead of the whole. At the same time I must remember to ask if Ara wants to hear my possible ideas about the piece. This crew has had good talks.

Last couple of weeks Ara has been working on a solo with me as well. I generated the material in one of the sessions, and Ara has guided me towards a set dance. I am happy and nervous at the same time.
This is a great chance for me to work with four lovely and talented people: Ara, Dominique, Em, and Jean. Come and see us @ ODC on Sat Nov 21 & Sun Nov 22!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Curving eyes closed

This morning, lying on the dance studio floor with my head in the hands of a colleague, a thought drifted from my body to my head. There are things your head "knows", and your body "knows", until they connect, and you finally understand the thing.

My fellow dancer lifted my head so that my neck made a large curve, and I ended up facing my own toes. Except  that my eyes were closed, and I didn't see the actual toes. Instead I felt every moment on the long journey. How the movement went on and on and on was a revelation. It felt like my body was smiling.
I realized I would not have experienced that had my eyes been open. With your eyes open every movement compares to the scale of your whole body in a different way as with your eyes closed. You see the world around you - and the world is big. How your neck curves is but a sigh in the universe, to put it nicely.

But what an important sigh it is: for the smile in me, and for the understanding of a human body.
The experiences we have "eyes closed" are revelations until our eyes are opened and we see how small they really were. How good that realization is, to put things in perspective. I also thought how valuable those moments of blind understanding are. For a moment we ride a big rolling surf, and the smile swells up in us. Those moments recharge us as creative, caring beings. The experiences we have with our blind body also prime us to understanding complicated concepts because thoughts want to connect to stuff that really happened to us.

Now I'm thinking about that pair of hands, and the person who was directing my head so gently. She did so much: held me, directed me, moved me. I kept my eyes closed and followed. I got to be the audience to my own movement, and the one who experiences at the same time. All I had to do was to concentrate and to release. How much longer the curve was thanks to her, is impossible to say. I guess a lot.

Thank you to Kira Kirsch who taught the class at Studio Gracia, and to Sam who worked with me, and commented on the same curve when we talked afterwards!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

About Things

Have you ever stopped in your tracks and noticed you have no idea what you are doing, and why?

While writing a series of essays on the Uncanny in relation to live arts for my MFA thesis, I came across a column by the Dutch poet and writer Remco Campert. It is a beautiful and simple text about the experience of standing in a room, certain you came with a purpose, but having no idea what that purpose was. You stand and look around, hoping the mundane objects in the room will help bring back your memory and explain your deeds.  It is in vain, for the objects are mute, they will not speak to you. At that moment, Campert writes, you realize you are every bit as purposeless as any item on your desk. You did have a reason, if only you could remember it.

I embarked on a quest to create a dance performance about this shared experience—this uncanny place, that resides between our normal existence and death. This is the link that binds temporary memory loss to death and the Uncanny: in both states we all are rendered unproductive and motionless.
What do we go through when and after we notice our reasons and explanation have suddenly disappeared? First, the sudden moment of realization—next the immediate stillness.
“Things” opens with a person happily doing her thing. She does not yet know that she is to embark on a journey.

In this piece I have tried to find movement that resonates with the process of searching—in place of quickly moving past the search phase and honing the sequence into a shiny, fast, unerring performance. Instead I wanted to respect movement in its creative and intellectual capacity. Remco Campert writes about the possible solution to a momentary memory loss: you need to retrace your steps and you go, walk, to where you started. This is a beautiful example of how physical our intellectual processes are.

The challenge for me as choreographer has been to let the person and her movement on stage be bewildered, confused, graceless. That is in stark opposition to what I unconsciously expect a dancer to be.
Another challenge has been the incorporation of stillness into movement and presence. Here, again, I am on ever continuing journey. I have presented this piece twice this past August, and have been rehearsing it for a few months. It has been, and still is, a fascinating path into deeper understanding of the choreography. Every time I dance this piece I understand more the movements and their placement in space. I believe that resonates when I perform "Things".

Tomorrow, on Sunday September 13, I will show the middle part of "Things" in 2nd Sundays at Counterpulse. That is the heart of the piece, where memory loss hits the person seen on stage.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

2nd Sundays

This Sunday - September 13 at 2 pm - I will participate in the 2nd Sundays, which seems already to be a tradition in San Francisco. Counterpulse and Dancers' Group together produce this monthly event, where audience and choreographers meet in a discussion.
Every second Sunday of the month three choreographers get the chance to show up to 10 minutes of material. The demonstrations are followed by a moderated discussion.
The best part is, that the choreographers are expected to prepare the discussion as well as the showing! So I have thought of specific questions to pose to the audience. That way I have to think about what I want to accomplish with my choreography. And I will get live feedback from an actual audience. This is a great opportunity for professional growth, of course.
The piece I will be introducing is "Things", my current project that premiered at the Garage at 975Howard Street on August 26.

Something new

One way of thinking about life is to see it as a balance between new experiences and familiar routines. In my experience I need both. The routines are there to create stability. Through routines I am able to maintain skill, stamina, the rhythm of day and night, and a role in the community. Through new experiences I get fresh impulses, am blown off balance, am forced out of my comfort zone. That is necessary for further learning and a growing understanding of life and the world.
Some new experiences are small and present only a tiny amount of risk, like tasting a new flavor of ice cream. Some experiences are big. They can be hard lessons. Or they can simply offer you life altering changes.
I am getting there at last: I have begun a new experience today, when I attended the first session of a teaching workshop, the Art of Teaching, lead by Janice Garrett here in San Francisco. I did not anticipate to be so enthusiastic about this. This is not what I planned to write about in my first blog.
I am really looking forward to experimenting in the lab-part of the workshop. It seems a fantastic thing to one day be able to create a safe and inspiring situation for other people to gather and process information. I know I have a long way ahead of me, but  Ms. Garrett definitely is a role model there.
It is impossible to say, if this new experience will change the course of my future. But I am sure new knowledge opens up new possibilities.