By Emily Johnson
Commissioned by Movement Research Performance Journal
It feels fragile and whole at once. There is a place I would lay down and to my right was a window. The curtain the first thing I looked to in the morning. And when I would lay there I felt full and fragile And peaceful though I don’t know if it was actually peaceful. But I remember it as peace. Like floating, supported. Yes, like floating. And to recall it now brings a full, fragile feeling to my chest. The wind would shift the curtain forward, toward us, and back.
And when I give up and sit facing the sliding glass doors so I can see a peek of the gulf through the sea grape leaves because I have basically given up, Deborah Hay rides by on her bicycle, wearing her black beret and pastel pink scarf. I think to myself, THIS is home (working). THIS gives me joy.
Weeks ago I was sitting in my backyard reading about a poem Denise Levertov wrote called In Obedience. It’s an elegy for her father and in it she tells of doing a wild solitary dance among the fireflies in a New England garden one night, while my father lay dying, in London.’ She writes that it was a joyful dance and also a dance of love and mourning. Later she learned that just before her father died, he got up out of his bed in London to dance the Hasidic dance of praise. Both dancing in their grief, not with or for one another, they were connected across their physical distance by the passing of this story and the writing of her poem. Denise Levertov wrote an essay about myth and the place of myth in poems in the book The Poet in the World and she looks at her and her father’s dancing as the seed of a possible legend - full with the dimensions of myth - because, even though I think she recognizes the coincidence, some day wouldn’t it be possible that one of their ancestors passes on this story - this story in which the ones telling it come from people who dance in mourning, who dance joyfully at the time of death?
The poet is in New England and her father is in London. One of them is dying. They are both dancing. I see the space between these two places as a place itself. It is the place where their energies connected, where this story, this myth, this family legend was made. It’s not spiritual or metaphysical. It’s a place. This place of energy and future story was rooted by the actual places of dancing. The ground held the bodies which held the dancing and the story, the poem, the myth moved from there, uncontained.
It is difficult not to report what happened. What is or is not, did or did not happen/come to mind as I danced. But here is one thing: I did a whole bunch of things and also some nothing and then at the end when I stood facing the door, my arm moved up to my chest, my weight shifted forward. That is when what was true began and ended. Quickly. I am also reminded that it is good to just be in the performance, not performing, but doing. When I try to stop myself from reporting, I say the word BLUE.
I think about place, how it holds us. How the actual, physical ground holds us - and everything we make, up. For me, noticing is a start and a constant. I try to notice where I am. And then, there is a rooting that happens, a connecting between where I physically am and everywhere I have ever been. Memories come. New stories are made. I recognize the little bit of ground I am on as specific and unique and connected to every single other bit of ground in the world. Know where you are and who you are with. Or, at the very least, pay attention. To me, this is the most important part of dancemaking and living.
The noticing comes in many forms: walking, remembering, taking a deep breath, talking with someone, listening, even just paying attention to how I feel facing one direction or another. It means that the place I am is inherently essential to the dance being made. But it also means this place can be anywhere. Or rather, I can be any place. The short dance made up during my walk back from the ocean along a highway in Maine is different than the dance made in the Blackbox Studio at MANCC which is different than the dance I do at Studio 206 or in my living room in Minneapolis or in a hotel room anywhere - not only because the moment is different - but because I just saw that sea, smelled that dirt from that fallen down tree, felt that particular mix of sun and wind. And while what I make isn’t about any of these things (sea, dirt, trees, sun, wind…), it doesn’t ignore them either.
There is the long life and history of each place and there is the moment now: the land as it is, the sounds, smells. Us. And I try to notice how what is outside of me connects or does not connect with what I think and sense. The discord of colonization that moves through the land I live on, the violence and beauty my own body remembers, the stories I know and everything I don’t know yet, it is all part of the noticing. It creates an internal conversation. And this leads me to conversation with place and with the people who have and who are currently building, shifting, destroying, loving, living in and on, with or against this place.
Paying attention becomes a process of knowing and feeling what is unique about a place, what makes it thrive and also what is unjust and violent, disturbed.
Digging, with our plastic shovels into the sand down at the clam-digging beach. Just little digs here and there. The heft of it. The sound wet and gritty. I realize now that you can feel the pressure of the ocean by digging into that compact, wet sand. You heave a little bit of that pressure up as the sand goes flying in front of you. The beach is rippled. I remember feeling the compact ripples under my rubber boots and feeling just a little bit bad that my weight flattened them as I walked. Riding in the back of the blue Chevy down the beach. Crammed into the back of that pick-up with relatives and buckets. The wind and my striped knit hat. Trying to lift that enormously heavy bucket full of clams. Totally failing. The sound when dad or mom or grandma dumped the bucket out into the stream. Clricndkcjckjdflksdfcckrlrk. Watching my toes in the tide pools. Being with everyone, but being at the same time, alone.
When Aretha Aoki and I were first rehearsing Niicugni, we were at Vermont Performance Lab and we went outside to work. We danced three-minute rounds for each other. In one round we imagined ourselves in the place we were born. We tried to physically manifest our cells to the place of our birth, whatever we knew or didn’t know about it. We tried to truly believe we were there. In another round we imagined ourselves in the place we consider ourselves from. The next in the place we call home now. And the last in the place we were right then: a grassy bit of gravel parking lot outside The Grange. The imagining tuned us to the actual ground. And it made me think of how that bit of ground I was standing and dancing on was connected across the parking lot to the yard on the other side of the highway. It made me wonder how what I was dancing was connected - by physical extension, not only to the ground I was touching but also to every bit - bit by bit across the earth. It made me think that it was possible, in a way, to truly feel connected to any place on earth by connecting to the ground we are on. And the internal feeling and thus the dancing was drastically different in each round - affected by these places we each individually knew to varying extent in our physically lived lives. Of course, imagination is the power here and by letting our bodies and our emotions converse with the task of trying to be in these different places we had accessed something that influenced our movement deeply. We hadn’t moved our bodies anywhere and so immediately, the layers of connection and simultaneous disconnection to the places we were thinking of were evident, were felt, were danced.
Unknown. A huge hole opening up. The foot dance that connects us to ground and sky is also a lateral line through all of space.
When I begin, it is not a choice. It is my body moving, but it’s more than my body moving. I think my cells decide to begin. They move my bones, my hip, my arms, my chest. All dimensions, every sphere of every cell, every facing of every edge of muscle, bone, bone, blood are facing “front” in each moment. By ‘front’ I mean equality. Every direction is equal. It does not feel like floating because I feel weight move into the ground, I feel sturdiness offered to me from the ground. But I don’t feel attached to the ground or the floor. The proximity to floating is that anything is possible, I could dive my head through my legs and all the way back up, my hip can be as articulate as a million fingers moving. This occurs in a few seconds of time and then the no choice and choice begin to converse. As long as I can give equality to choice and no choice I continue. By choice and no choice I mean letting the cells and blood move, following their free will while simultaneously creating context for the movement. It is an incredible concentration and the moment there is a fissure, the moment I think of the email I need to send or that I am hungry, the equality breaks. What takes over is a search for movement which feels like digging through corroded car parts, getting thick oil and rust on my hands, like I’m searching for a feather in there amongst an array of metal, plastic, fluid. Not that what I search for is delicate. The searching stops me because it feels gross. My body becomes more solid, more important. And the body dancing is not the important thing. An arm moving around, even in a most precise articulation is not the thing to notice. It is an outcome of a process through thinking, feeling, sensing, deciding. What is important to notice is my own process of thinking, feeling, sensing, deciding as I contemplate, through movement or watching, an arm/a body moving around. Sometimes I don’t notice this as I see dance. Sometimes it is days later; I am weeding the garden, doing an administrative task, taking a shower, at the grocery store…and suddenly I notice what it was that I was thinking, feeling, sensing, deciding those few days back. This is important conversation with my own body, with the art I witnessed or made, with the bodies and histories at work in that art, with the mingling between their body histories and mine.
Because it is not about the moment of dancing, but it is what settles or is conjured in the days after dancing, after watching it, after doing it. The ground holds the bodies which holds the dancing and the watching. And what emerges from that exchange - the stories, images, thoughts - moves from there, uncontained.
I am enjoying letting nothing be stillness or movement. I am enjoying catching myself when I am searching for something.
‘Silent Story’ is one of those things that comes up in rehearsal, gets named, and becomes something we do, something we know as a process. It formed as Aretha Aoki, Krista Langberg, Ain Gordon, and I rehearsed, making SHORE. For us, it became a discipline.
The instructions for silent story include amongst other things: conjure a future joy and let nothing exist.
Is it an impossible task? To conjure a future joy? Here is what happens: sometimes I remember joyful things. One time I remembered my five-year-old birthday party when my cousins and I had tissue paper flowers in our hair. Once, I felt so much joy flood through me that I wondered if at that moment I was connected to all the joy in the world. Often I feel nothing. No joy at all. And a huge well of nothingness opens up.
What is celebration in the body? What does joy feel like in the muscles? What is that rooting process - from feeling so centered and joyful that it spreads out from you and connects you to others and the world? What is beyond celebration? What is it to understand celebration? To let celebration exist in the body, expand, exude, unfold, sparkle, connect. Let the pleasure of celebration live. Let it remain an individual experience but let it connect to other joy in the world.
There was a particular month in 2012. I stood still for that entire month. Of course, I went to the grocery store, I hiked in the mountains, I even rode a motorcycle. I was not in completeness or in daily life, still. But in the studio, which I went to daily I was pretty much standing still. I had never acted this way before - I had never shifted time to create - into time to take care, to notice, to stand until moved to move. There was an extraordinary amount of standing.
With no words at all.
No words in this story again, but an image of how my brain looks at movement from the outside while I am doing it. An image of my mind curving around itself to watch from outside and also from inside. And my heart having the same curve. A sliver of joy appeared.
For the last year and a half my collaborators and I have been making SHORE, which is a project made equally of story, volunteerism, performance, and feast. At the start of the performance of SHORE people gather outside, find a place to sit or stand; people talk, wonder what is happening, look at the sky, feel the temperature of the evening. There is no distraction from the task of gathering until the dance begins and then it begins in a subtle way with a group of dancers shifting weight from one foot to the next almost standing still, but not quite. The choir accumulates and we hear sound build. One of our scribes wrote “The running of the choir sounds like bees and the audience is constantly shifting, looking, exchanging glances, moving heads.” This is part of the paying attention and giving room to pay attention and in it we find space and time to notice the ground we are sitting on, the people we are sitting near. Paying attention to place is paying attention to everywhere - like paying attention to joy. It starts internally, but then you can’t help but notice it. And yes, this dance is the places it was made from, but it is here right now. It’s a start. It’s an opportunity. Through recognizing, creating time, giving space for gathering we let place be place in the wholeness and entirety of all its complexities and subtleties. We get to know it. We get to know each other. From here we begin. And maybe this beginning can be full of joy, and maybe this joy can move from here, uncontained.