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Emily Johnson
Photo by Cameron Wittig Emily Johnson, Choreographer


Call & Response + On Dance & Performance
The Conundrum That Is: Writing
About Performance


March-April, 2008

Today I watched a young boy show his brother that old trick where you disconnect the upper part of one finger, sliding it off and then on again. I think it's most often done with the thumb and usually by old uncles teasing young nieces and nephews, but today it was a little kid, sharing his talent with his older brother—and it was his pointer finger. It was a simple action and the kid must have done it 500 times, but I couldn't take my eyes off it.

I do alot of watching as a choreographer, and I'm usually watching dancers and actors in settings that are understood to be working settings—areas and spaces meant for experimenting with movement and ideas and the combination of the two. I learn how movement affects my interest by watching people move, so I pay attention to the most simple actions. In a studio, this can be someone picking up a water bottle because they are thirsty. Today, it was this boy on the bus.

Perhaps I am swayed because I am in New York City, the North American capital of 'people watching' where subways, sidewalks, delis, parks, studios and salons are filled with people doing their business or doing their tricks. All of these places are open for watching and learning and it makes me feel rich.

Last night I watched a crowd, packed to the gills at a music club in Harlem. I watched people in this crowd adoring where they were, fleshy and at home—whether they were actually near home or 140 blocks or
more away. I spend a lot of my life watching amazing, life altering performances and I understand that though written and oral languages are developed, groomed and codified, there are often no words suitable to describe such experiences or such performances. We see this at times of disaster: "There are no words...only shock...," or, at times of great joy, "There are no words to describe it, when she was placed on my chest, my daughter, I just...."

Sometimes, having no words is the best description possible.

And this is a conundrum that exists in the act of writing about performance—that words do not suffice in describing a form that finds power in the immediate moment. There are critics, historians, academics and people like me, just interested in performance and in writing about it, but none of us can use words to adequately describe experience because experience is personal. We cannot, with words, give something meaning that already inherently has meaning. We cannot interpret because there is no language available to interpret experience and meaning. We CAN write what we saw, what we heard...

The music last night brimmed with light. Light emanated from the sounds, from the obviously rehearsed, "come in on the 1, 2, 3...BAM," to the soul rocketing improvisations the band equally shared. By "emanating light" I mean a force that helps you see better. By "see" I mean understand the nature of humans: we want to be happy, we want to be rocked, we want to smile because we cannot help it, we want our bodies to move, effortlessly and in some sort of rhythm that falls in sync with the human beings around us, connecting us to something larger than ourselves.

Keyboard, drums, guitar, bass, sax, flute, talking drum and voice supplied the light, sound and glory from which we emerged from that club happy. The occasional vocal outbursts from the audience, the claps, the "uhs," the head shakes, the reflexes that pull the abdominals in toward the spine so that the pelvis shifts back and the torso shifts forward, the "that's what I'm TALKING about" that I heard (I swear) after every song, supplied the energy, the food that made this performance great.

I saw a man try to dance with a woman. She did not respond. He held her hands. She looked away. This made me feel sad. I saw this same man try to dance with another woman. She agreed. It was a horrible dance: all arms, all mis-stepped, all led by this man, who enjoyed the hell out of every damn minute of it. She did too. This made me feel happy. I saw a woman, alone. She held a beer in her right hand. Her face
seemed displeased, like she'd just had an argument, but her hips and her head moved, in time, her body overcoming her state of mind. I saw a woman on another woman's lap and they both moved, easily, but not much, their focus forward, on the people who were playing. I saw the people I was with relax, lean back in a chair, look at each other and smile. I saw a man, every once in a while and in his own sense of
time, jolt his head down toward the floor with an action so singular, so perfect, it seemed natural, as if his neck were as expressive as his hands. And the hands! Up in the air, near cheeks, fingers delicately exploring the air around lips like when you're overcome with a taste that makes you bring your hands to your mouth.

And, I didn't just watch. I was there, body moving, and head too, finding some timing in relation to what I was hearing, but not necessarily in relation to anyone else as we were all on our own. My neck hurt because I had to crane it around the person directly in front of me. I was amazed at the technical ability of the musicians. I was astounded by their improvisational courage. Sometimes I did not think I moved enough to express my gratitude—my gratitude to the musicians, my gratitude to the crowd, my gratitude to people who stepped across the street to get there, my gratitude to people who traveled hours. Like me. It took two hours to get home.

On the way home, alone, on the journey of late-night weekends that is NYC transit, I thought about how I watch to learn the codes of "acting correctly" in a place, how I tighten my senses, or loosen them, how what we experience in life prepares us not for life, but for further experiences. How performance (whether staged or accidental, whether a complicated dance or a simple action) is an experience that bridges history—it is experienced, and it lingers, and it finds a place of meaning in our daily lives.

I thought about being away from home. Not only on a subway platform away from my "home away from home" (which is currently a couch in a friend's apartment), and not only away from my home in my own city, where my things and my loved ones reside, but away from my ancestral home, where the codes of my actions must have taken root, if not in me directly, then in those who bore me, over generations. And, because I compulsively think about dancing and how it affects our lives, I also thought about that. I thought about learning to dance. I had just seen music that I could, in no practical way, relate to—I could never, ever aspire to do what they did. I can't even correctly name their instruments without help and this made me think about people who tell me that they don't understand dance because they can't relate to it, they can't put words to it.

And then I saw a spider.

I noticed that the spider spoke a very different language from me, a language I did not understand directly. I noticed how differently the spider moved from me and the one other person waiting at 2 a.m. for the F train. I imagined the spider teaching me and this other person a dance. I expect we would not get the moves right. Would we not get the particular moves of the spider right because we do not have 8 legs and therefore cannot physically do the moves? Or would it be because our minds cannot comprehend how to move like that because our bodies do not know anything about having 8 legs?

We are almost always forced to name things, to have a name for the things we encounter in life. I could call the brothers on the train my "pedestrian performance" for the day, I could name their actions: sweet, familial, proud, funny; I could call the music at the club "jazz" and my encounter with the spider "insight", but by naming I am claiming. I am taking the brothers' experience and making it mine when it is not mine to take. I am putting the impression of the word "jazz" into your mind, which, rather than bring you closer to the music I heard last night, actually sends you farther away because of your own experiences with the word "jazz." I am putting alot of weight on that little spider by connecting myself to it and giving it such power when maybe, it was just crawling to it's web.

The conundrum of writing about performance continues because we are so compelled to name things. There is no current, accepted name for the kind of performances contemporary artists (of all disciplines) are making. Words cannot keep up. We come up with the words well after the physical moment of creation has passed. We name things modern, postmodern, avant garde, experimental, jazz, etc., but once these names are created, they no longer fit. They tie history to current performances when, sometimes, current performances just need to live a little, on their own.

We name things because we cannot get out of the habit of tracing linear lines through history. How often have I read things like, "this kind of experimentation in performance started in the '60's," or "this piece is important because it marks a shift in the choreographer's way of working," or " X kind of work is an offshoot of X kind of work." I see this most often in writing about dance and music—two forms that move fast in this world. I could have talked about the historical context of jazz and Harlem and the influence of the particular club I was at. History, certainly, is important. Knowing where you come from and why is essential, and thanking and giving reference to those who came before, who plowed the way to where we are now is vital. But those artists at the club last night were there in flesh and blood for that one night, playing and creating music that will never be heard in that particular way again, and for that they deserve the credit of their night, not an explanation of how and why they got there.

The study, rehearsal and creation of live performance requires strength in multiple body systems and memory, access to imagination and commitment to unknown elements. It is an intellectual and physical field and artists are constantly working and creating new ways to work. Because of this, boundaries are broken open—not because they are there to break open, but because artists find them in their search and break them open as they practice.

Writing about performance has to take all of this into account, has to match the courage of the performance makers, has to be a forum other than the forum of performance itself, to help give current and future context to something that is constantly evolving. Why should we worry about naming every step of the process or understanding every moment? Why only give weight to performance we understand through a historical lineage? Why the need to put meaning into words, when meaning already exists? Why not just watch and listen and participate, allowing ourselves to be rocked, or bored, or captivated?

We should all talk and write about performance, but in a way that does not claim or assert knowledge, that does not oversimplify and generalize experience. After all, light can emanate from the sounds of musicians playing in Harlem and a small boy can captivate imagination with the movement of his pointer finger. Surely, someone will learn to dance like a spider one day and once one person knows what it is like to dance with 8 limbs, we all gain knowledge. When this happens, I want to have the freedom to simply experience it. I want to simply watch that person dance like a spider. I don't think there will be any
words suitable to describe what it will be like.


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