Photo by Camille Wheeler
At one point during the post-show talk back Peggy Lamb leaned in to me. “Talk about our process,” she whispered. You know, really, yes, it’s a fair call: I tend to wish a dance piece to stand on its own and learn how it landed in spite of process, in spite of the part which we performers perhaps have most insight. So in the spirit of integration, I’d like to reflect here on some of the making of Ninetet. The working process in a Body Shift project is multi-dimensional, and – independently of the reception and experiences of audience and dancers in the performance itself- it is worth exposing.
One thing that came up early on in our process was a return to a group exercise introduced by our 2014 guest artist Nina Martin. I remember“Flocking” from a workshop I took over 20 years ago, and recall finding myself rebelling against it then. Unison felt too much of a representation of togetherness. I wanted the feeling, yet not the picture. Since that time, I (not surprisingly) have had another encounter with unison exercises, in a group that had also already been working together a long time. “In some ways, if you can’t do it [unison movement] well, it might be you’re not dancing with one another at all,” said the director. “Hopefully, it’s what we are doing [with those with whom we’re dancing] at all times.” Underscored again was the metaphor, and also the singularity of this way of moving. How much attention, how much relinquishment must we practice so that we are doing the same thing at the same time? So here we were, looking for the Flock. Some members of our group of nine had been experimenting since Nina’s November workshop. It was tricky – whose chair had what turning radius? What distance was safe when dealing with bare feet and 600 pounds of power chair? We kept working this latest iteration and used it at the start of the dance. What speed could we all share, determined by no one person in particular? How much effort or discomfort were we interested in dealing with? We were excited by what we saw and felt. Admittedly by opening the performance with this we employed an old trick, that of building into the piece itself a kind of tuning that pre-show circumstances rarely allow. Two values we bring to this project are that of ensemble and autonomy; in this section, and echoed in the finale, we practiced a strong ensemble.
Dancers in this group really appreciate the rigor of Ensemble Thinking, a new language for Body Shift that we found was making us more adept at inscribing and shaping the space. Over the years we have consistently adopted and invented improvisation as technique and as choreographic strategy. Our brief introduction to Ensemble Thinking gave us a lot of food for thought, so we used our precious rehearsal time (five sessions) to keep pushing our skill at creating and exploiting opportunities in open space. One beauty of the unplanned approach is the forming and the fulfilling of a personal image of what-can-be. We have talked in Body Shift at times of our individual differences in the interplay of movement and kinesthetic image in the body. As a dance-maker I have often selected silence so that this very music of our bodies is revealed. Looking at composition through the lens of Ensemble Thinking, we composed as a group through the central passages of Ninetet and hopefully, through Flocking, primed us all to catch more of the slow stuff and the quick stuff, the middling stuff. How quickly our eyeballs scan a scene, how naturally our eyes and ears pick up on variations: watching and attending is itself a dance.
One aspect of this project has been finding meeting points for dancers with different kinds of bodies, with all players respectfully engaging their own interest, pleasure, feedback. The space must be safe, and in my view, considerably devolve the traditional role of the choreographer to the individual. In directing the group I wanted to be planting seeds for solo and group strategy, and redirecting when things got repetitive. Tuning Scores and Ensemble Thinking routinely divide a working group into movers and watchers, taking roles “in” and “out” of the dance, and we have grown interested in the ways dance reveals quite dramatically our angles, our personalities. It is interesting how the design of a process also has impacts on a piece in performance.
Late decisions in this short-but-sharp rehearsal period included beginning outdoors on the sidewalk, viewed through the bank of south-facing windows of the YMCA. I nixed an early idea for a sort of deconstructed celebratory ending, preferring to echo elements from the opening. The day of our last rehearsal while eating a taco at Cherrywood Coffeehouse, I Shazamed an appealing song playing on the radio, Amnesiac Olympics by Blockhead. It seemed familiar (apparently it came out in 2004) and had a swell and drive. Music can be very useful in focusing attention, an announcement that something is beginning, something is happening, and this track was asking to be used. A softer version, a sort of coda of the opener, was a track in my own collection, Glue of the World by Fourtet. All the same, much of our message, if there is one, is in the measuring and meaning of the volumes of space and time that our bodies occupy and announce, a kind of music that obviates continuous accompaniment. Adding to this consideration of sound, in our first session (where we wound up sitting in a conference room due to scheduling mix-ups), we acknowledged the sound of our voices around the oval table, their unique resonances independent even of the words themselves. We noticed how powerful it was to listen to one another’s stories that day. Why not ensure this carried some way into the final dance too?
This is a personal overview of the lead up to our 20-minute performance on May 2, 2015. From the post-show feedback we heard many positive responses a few of which I can remember or have collected:
I felt we the audience were a part of the piece. The fact you were using your names when calling leant a biographical tone to the dance, I felt some idea of the person. The piece was sculptural, and mysterious. The use of the patterns of light in the atrium was beautiful. I liked when you got in the window. I wondered about the silence, I never thought about dance without music. I appreciated the layers in the middle part. I liked that you came in under the stairs and I couldn’t really see you, but then what I saw first was three pairs of feet.
Photo by Camille Wheeler