This is part of a series of monthly blog posts–penned by Bill T. Jones–designed to provide further insight into his creative process, inspirations and more.
“While everything changes, everything remains the same as well…”
As I entered the lobby of New York Live Arts on a recent hot July afternoon, I observed for the second time in a week a group of young people in animated conversation much like the one I had observed the day before. In the midst of this group was the Emmy-nominated actress, Uzo Aduba, known for her role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in the Netflix original television series Orange Is the New Black (2013–present). Uzo and I have been acquainted since I choreographed her in Will Power’s The Seven at New York Theater Workshop some years ago. Uzo enthusiastically introduced me to two of the young actors- Caleb Grandoit and Charlie Jackson, who had just participated in a master class she had led on the Live Arts’ stage for Opening Act’s yearly workshop.
Everyone was quite excited by a work Caleb had just shown that, in his words, chronicled the journey from slavery through the Civil Rights movement to our present moment of protest around issues of police brutality and racism.
At one point I asked Caleb if he was saying in his piece that things had changed and he answered that no, he didn’t think things were that different…
His answer was so stark that I do hope that we have a further opportunity to delve into what is meant by “things have not changed!”
Caleb Grandoit, myself, Uzo Aduba and Charlie Jackson
Cobble Hill Opening Movement from Opening Act NY on Vimeo.
The above encounter came in the wake of having just returned from the American Dance Festival (ADF) in Durham, NC, where, as always, questions of tradition, innovation and creativity are stirred up.
“Now… Now, Now, Now, Now! If you calm down you will find that all the work and details are in your body. Replace the mental chatter with something else.
Sometimes, I just say ‘Now’ to give myself something else to do so as not to give in to anxiety. Calm down and do the most with what you have!”
- Angie Hauser* teaching Intermediate Technique Class –ADF July2015
Now? Rather than fixating on Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center that night, or allowing the paralysis of memory with all its ghosts and long ago events to shut out the present, I decided to go where the new dancers were. So I dropped into Angie Hauser’s intermediate technique class. The class spent the first 40 minutes on the floor. The participants were instructed to roll across the floor “as if each cell in your body was oriented down into the floor. Allow your body to be totally splayed as if growing tentacles for suction, pulling and pushing as one hungry body part is replaced by another fighting inertia.” The exercise encouraged a deeply inner-focused exploration.
This first sortie across the floor was belly down. They were then told to start another on their backs. “Everything is engaged!” Angie said as the class took on the aspect of one of those military training exercises designed to crawl under barbed wire.
“Figure it out as you go!”
The next traverse of the room started in a crouched sitting position. Angie demonstrated expertly one foot pushing along the floor in the desired direction as the entire body stayed engaged, roiling tentacle-like, clinging, repulsing. Each dancer was encouraged to evolve from the crouch to the back to the belly before returning to the opening position.
The accompanist, Adam Crawley, used a laptop to generate a heavy, beat-driven atmospheric cacophony that seemed, at first, at odds with the inner focus demanded by Angie, but perhaps actually encouraged it. Does this generation, constantly assaulted by sounds, images and stimulation, find its “still-point” in this way?
At this point Angie was saying something to the effect, “Getting from your knee to your soft belly is your problem to solve. Practice it over and over. Sometimes a pointed foot gets in the way of what you’re trying to do. Interrogate the use of your foot. Explore the palate of your feet. What does the moment call for?”
Angie’s style of teaching would not have been alien to those of us at the American Dance Asylum under the leadership of Lois Welk or Jill Becker. The American Dance Asylum was a collective of dancers and choreographers (aspiring!) that Arnie Zane and I were members of in Binghamton, NY, back in the 1970s. Some of us would sometimes parody “traditional” technical training that relied on existing forms (ballet, jazz, Graham, etc.). We adopted an attitude that resulted in a practice that insisted that technique is anything one does every day that provides one with the skill needed to perform one’s work. If your work demanded that you pick your nose, you should pick your nose every day and investigate nose picking as a practice!
Watching this class, which asked young dancers to go inside themselves first and to approach training as a highly internal and individualistic pursuit, I asked the question, “does the work performed inform the training or is it the opposite?” I don’t know who the young dancers were, so I am going out on a limb here, suggesting, “These are the children of an individuated, democratic, non-hierarchical ethos in pursuit of… What?”
“We hold these truths…”
Each era has its own set of assumptions, values and expectations that its “innovators” subscribe to. What is the art that comes from this era’s perceived truths? I recall with pleasure and mild uneasiness hearing legendary director of ADF, Charles Reinhart, say in an interview that of an era much besotted with Eastern philosophy, “There is too much Tai-chi onstage these days!”
One of our goals at New York Live Arts is to identify the most potent expressions and give them a platform.
Curiously enough, when Angie’s class stood up following its long floor session, it began a series of standing exercises: pliés, tendus, legs, feet, spine; exercises that would not have been alien to Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon or a young Merce Cunningham. Was this a choice of the teacher or was it a pragmatic requirement of the Festival that the young dancers should have the widest exposure, offering the best preparation for the “brave new world” and its burgeoning choreographing population in search of something deep, resonant and durable?
Angie Hauser with Chris Aiken at Bates Dance Festival 2014. Photo by Arthur Fink.
The next afternoon at ADF, I dropped in on an exciting panel entitled “Dancing on the African Continent”. The panelists were Gregory Maqoma (South African choreographer), Ivy Birch (moderator), Chuck Davis (Choreographer, founder of Dance Africa whom this year’s ADF was dedicated to), DD Kodolakina (dance critic from Togo). It was a lively, amicable exchange – warm and moving for several reasons.
Certain moments stand out:
- Chuck Davis, irrepressible as always, when making his framing comments commanded us all to our feet to find “the pulse, the rhythm” exhorting us to chant “Dancers united will bring peace to the world!”
- French speaking DD shared through his translator that he feels a bit isolated, as he is one of a handful of professional dance-writers working on the continent. He went on to say that he relished being at ADF as he could see many forms of dance there as opposed to the steady diet of French choreographers dominating the dance world in his country.
- However, it was Gregory Maqoma’s comments and the ensuing discussion around the notion of tradition that resonates most as I look back at the event. Gregory told us that because dance was such a part of his world growing up in South Africa it was barely understood as a profession! Growing up near a hostel for migrant workers from across Southern Africa, he was thrilled to see their display of traditional dances.
Gregory declared that he uses tradition to aggressively reframe and reference questions of power, history, identity and the future – all questions relevant to his countrymen. His ultimate purpose, however, is to bring joy!
- DD Kodolakina responded that Africa’s creators are questioning themselves about the future and the now. Dance in Africa is no longer traditional. He feels that African creators are preoccupied with getting their work “out of Africa” (in several senses of the word, I believe…). He feels they must, as a result, evolve, lest the very traditions we were discussing die.
And then there was Bjorn’s and my first visit to Fire Island. “Your first time?!!!” People said with disbelief. “How is that possible?” I had never given it much thought, but I suppose it was because my identification with Gay culture has always been a wary one. I was of the belief that one should be suspicious of any tradition that came with prescribed rituals and geography. Arnie Zane and I declared we were not interested in living in any “ghetto” be it religious, racial, sexual or artistic.
Following the crush of passengers disembarking the ferry at The Pines, I was bombarded with feelings and questions. Why was I so filled with excitement and anticipation? Was it the hoards of buff, shirtless gods and their admirers, the beauty of the place, the promise of unbridled pleasure, of security, of inclusion?
It could have been simply that here was an institution, a tradition, that was built on the need for safe-haven and that I was coming “home” just as wider acceptance of “expanded sexualities and genders” could be making it all irrelevant…
You like movies: Check Finding Vivian Maier on Showtime!
*Angie Hauser is a Bessie award winning dancer and choreographer. Her dancing life is marked by two long-time collaborations – she has created dances with Bebe Miller since 2000 and with Chris Aiken since 2003. These collaborations have yielded years of making, performing, and thinking about dance with a family of brilliant dancers, musicians, writers and artists. Hauser is deeply influenced by Miller and Aiken, as well as other collaborators, who currently include Jennifer Nugent, Darrell Jones, Paul Matteson, Omar Carrum and Claudia Lavista and musician Mike Vargas. She is an Assistant Professor at Smith College.