Together with Erin Donahue, I edited the Fall 2014 Congress on Research in Dance Conference Proceedings. I am excited to share that they are now available online!
Click this link to see a note from Helen Thomas:
CORD Conference Proceedings Fall 2014
This is the story that wants to be written. It will not escape me, despite all attempts to re-embody another memory. So therefore I must question why these readings have birthed this recollection. What does post-modernism have to do with a childhood memory?
It is dark outside, and I am siting in the backyard of The James Geddy House in Colonial Williamsburg. I am eight years old and alone, waiting for the rest of the cast to arrive. A mixture of fear and freedom washes over me and in my waiting I feel alive. This place is both exotic and comforting, a strange juxtaposition of sensations. A few hours later I am in the midst of yet another performance of Christmastide at Home, a series of short plays scattered throughout the historic area. Audiences walk from place to place, stumbling across enactments of families celebrating the holidays. I am Nancy Geddy, a spirited child who will not follow the appropriate decorum expected of a young lady. I am suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to improvise my lines. I can not, will not say the exact thing again. So I play, remaining in the scene, but responding in a way that feels unrehearsed; I am no longer acting.
This is my postmodern break, the beginnings of my very own NO manifesto. No to Broadway, National Tours, and repertory companies, no to long stints of the same performance. Since Christmastide at Home, I have never performed the same work more than a handful of times. To this day, I have the same impulse as the early post-modern choreographers of the sixties, let me perform the “one-night-stand” (Banes xxvii).
This radical no changed my relationship to my work as a historical interpreter. I began to see the interconnectedness between my life and the life of an eighteenth century child. I was no longer acting. In that moment, I not only embraced the spontaneity and liveness of improvisation, but I also experienced the difference between representing and presenting. I dropped Nancy Geddy as a character, the scene as a fictional situation, and instead followed my impulses in the moment. In other words, I ceased to view the work as a theatrical drama but as an extension of life.
Karen Nelson said that in order “to learn contact improvisation, you have to go through the invention of it.” As I read Banes’ introductions I realize that in many ways my progression as an artist has mirrored the trajectory she has outlined. The history of postmodernism resides in my body. I have rebelled against the specified, technical vocabulary of ballet, an art form I trained in for years. My transition from ballet to modern dance was ironically the work of Merce Cunningham in a class taught by Brenda Daniels at ADF. Over time the weird postmodern dance I saw that summer began to call to me as I became disillusioned with virtuosic dancing. I was sick of doing and seeing arabesques in all their many forms. I began to seek out performance opportunities in nontraditional venues, where I danced in my own clothes and was pushed to reconsider what dance could be. My current solo work in many ways reflects the spiritual and healing function that many artists sought in the seventies as I make sense of my mother’s cancer diagnosis. Yet, in all my many memories dancing, that cold December night when I was eight years old sticks out the most. It was my departure point into postmodernism because my approach to art making shifted, I began a process of questioning, a reconsidering of how and why things are as they are.
This paper is a postmodern act; a written dialogue with my lived experience in order to make sense of the term. Like the artists of the eighties, I have used my story to consider the complexity of contemporary dance. My meditation on postmodernism is driven by a memory I could not shake, a defining moment in my career, a radical No and a slide into a new way of thinking.
Written in response to:
Charles Jencks, "The Postmodern Agenda," in Jencks ed., The Post-Modern Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992) 10-39.
Sally Banes, "Introduction: Sources of Postmodern Dance" and "Introduction to the Wesleyan Paperback Edition," Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance(Wesleyan UP, 1987) 1-19 and xiii-xxxix.
The following is a response to readings from Susan Leigh Foster's Dances that Describe Themselves: the Improvised Choreography of Richard Bull.
As I am reading I am transported back to this summer to The Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation. I am listening to dance artist Jimena Paz discuss the nature of improvisation in performance. Across the circle from me, someone asks her, “As an improvisational artist was it difficult performing in the choreographed repertory of Stephen Petronio?” Jimena seems shocked, almost confused by the question and answers that she does not distinguish between the performance of improvisation and choreography. I am both surprised and reassured by her answer. Artists at the festival have approached improvisation and choreography as separate endeavors, an either/or engagement of different skillsets that are perceived as being disparate, independent undertakings. As the readings and this memory rub up against each other I cannot help but wonder, could improvisation be a way of thinking, a way of engaging the self in movement no matter the specificity of the container? In other words is it possible that improvisation and choreography are not separate / different states of doing and being?
This memory shaped my perception of the reading and forced me to reconsider the ways in which I define the terms improvisation and choreography. I often consider these terms as being on opposite ends of a spectrum with the level of preordained specificity separating the extremes. Choreography is associated with constraints while improvisation has a connotation of agency and freedom. I have realized that these terms do not need to describe separate experiences, but rather can denote an approach instead of a form. In this way of thinking, improvisation and choreography are not either/or approaches where one set of skills and techniques is emphasized or valued over another. Instead, it is possible to perform both tasks at once by shifting one’s thinking.
Susan Leigh Foster’s term “improvising choreography” is the perfect phrase to define this approach. Using these terms together to describe a singular process frames an entirely new method where improvisation and choreography do not sit on opposite ends of the spectrum, but rather combines “form and deliberateness” with “brilliance and spontaneity”(109). While Foster used this term to describe processes where dancers were composing the choreography in the moment, I believe her term could be applicable to any process or performance where both form and liveness are equally valued.
For example, I have worked with artists who consistently perform the same movement with specific timing, spacing, dynamics, and shapes. In this case, improvising choreographing could describe a process in which these prescribed movement patterns are approached with an improvisational attitude, a way of relating to the set material, finding malleability, resilience, and alertness within the specific framework. This requires that a performer recognizes and believes that exact repetition is impossible as nothing is ever exactly the same. Instead, improvising choreography acknowledges the need to attend to the evolving, ever changing world through an improvisational sensibility. When I am approach movement through this lens, I can be open, responsive, curious, and playful, willing to relate and adapt to the world around me. Instead of acting as though I own the choreography and am in charge of my body, I can move in relation with it, responding to its subtleties (239).
Improvising choreography can thus be seen as a way of thinking. As Foster writes, it “constructs an experience of body investigating and probing playfully its own physical and semantic potential. The thoughtful, thinking, creative body engages in action” (243). I believe that this engagement is possible in a multitude of constructs and constraints. I do not have to think of my performances of improvisation and choreography as being distinct practices, but can approach all movement with both the discipline and clarity of form and the openness of spontaneous decision-making.
This is a blog of processes. Through the sharing of media and writing I am following my impulses, teasing out and unpacking, translating, solidifying, and making concrete my investigations into something that can be shared.