For me, the starting point of choreography has always been the body and the idea of embodied abstraction. But I also understand choreography to be about writing the space between people.
To explain what I mean about writing the space between people, we can look to the etymology of the word “choreography.” “Choreography” is a fusion of two Greek concepts: chore, meaning choir or troupe, and grafein, meaning to write. So in this sense the etymology of choreography is a question of how to organize a multitude—how to organize time and space among a group of people.
This means there is a latent politics to dancing. By insisting that people undertake movements together—that people are organized together in time and space—I believe that choreographers pose acts with political potential.
What we see during these times of the pandemic is a peculiar kind of choreography. We are the multitude, carefully performing a choreography of sanitary procedures. In this choreography, we see distance between bodies, a lack of touch, rituals of entering and exiting that enforce separation. This choreography is specified even down to the costumes we wear—our masks. And just as a dancer knows that when they are performing they must commit to what’s at stake on the stage, we have taken on this choreography with care and urgency because we know that our participation is important. Nonetheless, I do find myself asking what the place of dance is in this current, daily choreography. Where did dancing go?
In this crisis we are suddenly confronted with mistrust of the body—the bodies of others and even our own bodies, the “houses” in which we live. We don’t know what’s happening inside ourselves, and so we depend on the knowledge of doctors, scientists, politicians. We worry about proximity to others, we worry about touch, we worry about being surrounded by a community, we worry about sharing breath. Unfortunately, these very things (proximity, touch, community, and breath) are all essential to the DNA of dance. This crisis hits not only our practice, but who we are. Dance is essentially sharing an experience. Dance is about community.
To return for a moment to the etymology of choreography. The chore in ancient contexts was not only a spectator to the events on stage, but more importantly, a commentator or a group who judged from an objective, third-person standpoint the troubles of the protagonists. The choir has a deeply critical function: it manages to see through the illusions of the great heroes or leaders.
I’m thinking about what we can see from this third-person standpoint in the choir, what illusions we see through. Can we see the more pertinent, underlying issues of this pandemic that continue to be ignored—namely, the way we have come to treat our bodies and the Earth? Although crucial in this instant, perhaps this mass choreography of the pandemic draws our focus away from the long-term issues on our hands. I also wonder, as artists, what other approaches can we see? After all, dancing is one of the most sustainable activities imaginable. It won’t run out, and it doesn’t necessarily require resources. Because it’s in you; everybody can dance.
“Essential” has become a daily word. We understand food and air as essential, we decide which shops are essential. I also believe that dance is essential. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche says that the affirmation of life must be realized through bodily practices that help bring out the creativity our senses and minds are capable of. Dance is a bodily practice, and he says that by engaging in practices like dance we gain the sensory awareness required to discern whether the values we create within society, and the movements we make out in the world, are good—for ourselves, and also for the Earth. That’s why he said, “I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his fine art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his ‘divine service.’”
Important questions to ask at the moment: Can we find a way to continue dancing under these circumstances? And can we find a way for dance to help in these times? I’ve been wondering about the healing aspect of dance. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was worshipped in the Asclepeion temples, the most celebrated of which was at Epidaurus. In their medicinal practices, these healing centers included spiritual healing and a focus on healthy lifestyle, diet, fitness, music, and theater. Health is so much more than medicine; it’s what we eat, it’s how we care for our bodies. It’s not only healing the body, but creating a healthy environment for it to thrive in.
In my early days of choreographing I was inspired by Meredith Monk, an artist who has spoken on the healing power of art, art as an antidote. She thinks that the healing lies not only in the dancing or singing—in the performing—but also in the making of art itself, and this is a process of interaction between what goes on inside the body and what’s outside the body. In the end, this interaction between the body’s internal and external space is all about air—breath.
In 2015, I was working on a piece called My Breathing Is My Dancing. This was part of a research on what I could consider my dancing and from whence I could generate movement. I thought about my breathing as my dancing, my walking as my dancing, and my talking as my dancing. Breath is literally and symbolically life. I would say that if choreography is about writing the space between people, it’s about how that space exists because of (and for) breath. This means that choreography is about looking at how space breathes.
Considering the place of dance in our world is important these days not only in terms of how to maintain it and keep it moving through all of the restrictions and cancellations, but also in terms of what we can learn from dance—the breath of dance, its capacity to be self-sufficient, and also the communal nature of dancing.
This brings me to the point I would like to round off with today.
At the opening of the current school year at P.A.R.T.S., I asked the students the following question: What the future will bring us? Especially to those of us who communicate in the world through the medium of dance? I really do believe that the most important thing is support. Let’s help each other; let’s inspire each other; let’s find a way to figure out how this situation can lead to new solutions and new ways of communicating. This takes a willingness to look at your internal compass and check with yourself—what’s going on with yourself, and with yourself in relation to the other.
The rules we are faced with now make it seem as though we are constantly dancing on shifting sand. As a community of people for whom dance, the performing arts, and all arts are important, we must consciously help each other by finding ways to manage that moving sand. It’s vital that we try, through elegant ways of respecting and sharing, to take care of the dancing and the world we dance in. Respecting it, but at the same time not letting us become static and passive.
I also said to the students that it’s important to keep a sense of humor. To keep in mind that we are dancers, and therefore we are flexible. Flexible and resilient. We are flexible in our bodies and in our minds.
Written with Tessa Hall