(Since I'm about 8 months backed up on blogging (oops) I'm going to slowly post about dance stuff from this past spring - starting with an opportunity out of my usual bunhead realm...)
The only constant of the creative process is uniqueness – it’s always a one of a kind experience of time meeting artistry meeting innovation. But in today’s busy world creativity is often stifled by lack of funding, space, and opportunity. One of the most luxurious gigs I had this spring was working with contemporary choreographer Oren Barnoy in Dance Theater Workshop’s Studio Series – luxurious not in fancy costumes and great stages, but in prolific freedom to explore movement itself.
The Studio Series offers selected downtown artists a 100-hour residency and commission, culminating in a studio showing and wine discussion. Oren was chosen after presenting a successful solo at The Kitchen last fall, and numerous earlier works after graduating from CalArts.
Last year I received an email from him after my NY Times article came out, asking if I might be interested in working with him. When we met for a brief rehearsal at Joyce Soho we immediately connected over our love of dance. We spoke of arts writing, our vastly different backgrounds, and the NY dance scene. I was on my way to surgery and unable to continue at the time, but towards the end of December I got another email. A residency at DTW? I’m in!
What followed was 6 months of intensely physical rehearsals. We spent hours getting grounded in deep lunges, challenging movement intentions, toying with qualities, and freeing inhibition.
Being the bunhead that I am, I was tentative as to why a modern choreographer would want to create on me. He kept saying that I “have something honest” and though that was enough in theory, I pushed extremely hard to adapt to new ways of moving. Ballet comes on autopilot for my body, and I know from years of doing it how to improve, how to prepare, and how to play. With Oren’s movement I had to re-learn how to just stand up. I had no experience with truly feeling the floor or not making positions.
It was a long process.
The best part of the Studio Series is that we had that time to take. Oren would come in with a brief phrase – largely gestural – and we’d spend 2 hours growing the movement from marking to falling down in defeat. We’d do the same thing over and over again. He’d offer different ideas of qualities – bring awareness to certain body parts, intentionally feeling certain emotions, or simply thinking about my to-do list while moving.
Artistically speaking, this was the most intriguing and challenging part of it for me. I’d be given an abstract direction verbally and within seconds I had to manifest it through my body. I’m a thinker, but the way we worked through things I had to just do what was asked and see what happened instead of analyzing too much. The results were sometimes fascinating, always amusing.
Oren also developed a really keen sense of reading me. I guess that happens when you spend so much time one on one in a studio. He said once that I have a very strong mind and that as I’m dancing if I shift my attention or focus even slightly it’s very evident through the movement. When I’m in rehearsal I’m constantly only focused on the moment – so I thought. But after he said that I worked on finding new ways of redirecting my energy and intentions, something I had never been asked to do before. I found it to be almost a form of acting without physically changing anything necessarily. I would talk to myself, reminding myself to “let go” or “keep pushing” whatever the movement called for. It’s a hard process to explain in words, to myself and to others.
Oren was so wonderful to work with. He had unending patience for me and my multiple efforts to shake off ballet-land, and he always let me work where my body was at (ie. when we first started my foot was still not 100% strong post-surgery). And yet he pushed me to a new artistic level and challenged my endurance. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to learn from him.
To make a long story short, 6 months of sore hips culminated in a 15-minute marathon “work-in-progress” that was shown in June at DTW. A 15-minute non-stop solo that builds, and builds…and builds in energy. As we got down to the wire rehearsals were much more about running the piece several times in a row to build up the stamina and to determine exactly how much warm up was enough without killing me dead before the real run. These rehearsals = exhausting. With ballet, I know my limits. I know how to pace myself. I know what I need to eat to have the right energy. I know how to draw from inside to fake it if I didn’t sleep enough the night before (Lord knows I’ve done that a million times.)
With this foreign movement and way of working, it had to be a new effort of trial and error.
In the week leading up to the final showing we did 3 runs a day every single day, PLUS I was rehearsing for another show the same weekend, working my regular 30 hours at my desk job, and planning my escape to Europe the following week. By the time Friday came, I was r-e-a-d-y. I got to the studio way early as they were setting up the chairs for the audience. Oren and I worked through the piece lightly a few times to get ready and then cleared the room so people could come in.
I gave everything.
Every time I finish a full-out 100% run of the piece I want to throw up at the end. Seriously. It’s the most physically grueling dance I’ve ever had to push through – only comparable to dancing mega cardio in a huge Santa fat suit at Radio City. My face burns and my throat feels clogged. My legs might give out at any second. I have to mentally force myself to breathe and to cling to consciousness. The applause came as I literally hit the wall to end the piece, and it sounds hazy after the blasting base. I bow, hyper-aware of my balance so I don’t tumble to the floor. It’s over!
Once that moment of sickness passed it was such a delight to see the audience with their wine waiting for the post-show discussion. And what a feeling of accomplishment – that must be the rush marathon runners experience. That wasn’t the first time I had gotten through the work like that, but it was the first with others watching.
In the conversations afterward we spoke about the rehearsal process, of Oren’s ideas and intentions, and of what the audience experienced. The only feedback I had gotten for 6 months was from the choreographer himself, so it was interesting for both of us to hear how others interpreted it. It was nice to see some important faces from downtown dance whom I had never met before.
As I packed up to leave later, former Village Voice dance critic Elizabeth Zimmer thanked me for my performance and said she enjoyed it. Wow! I appreciated her acknowledgement. She left me with these words: “It will be interesting to see where this goes…”
TALK BACK: What was your most phsyically exhausting dance experience? How did you prepare?