Monday, January 2, 2012

making it up

A little while ago, two of my writer friends, Monica Byrne and Kat Howard, asked me for advice about making up dances. Monica was feeling inspired by a piece of music. Kat was staring down the conviction that Shan and I had latched onto, slowly and in pieces, that having Kat (who is a fencer, but not a dancer) give us the bones of some movement for our project would be interesting, refreshing, and important for the whole idea of collaboration.

I can't say that I have much expertise to offer.

This project that I am bumbling through (madly, happily, blindly) with Kat and Shan is the first thing I've seriously tried to choreograph. I've improvised before. I've had the opportunity to work with choreographers who offer the challenge and respect of both tempered freedom and actual collaboration. But I've never been in the position of generating movement and beating it into a coherent whole. I've never had to build all the pieces of a dance and line them up and see they fall against each other so that they not only ring the bell of idea and emotion, but also carry someone across the landscape of it.

And to have such opportunity and support and brilliant workmates on the first time out... If I look at it too closely, the responsibility of it all makes me feel like the floor will vanish at any moment and I'll be standing on black, empty space.

So, I don't have a vast and comforting history to draw on, but in the course of this first and wonderful project, I have made some movement up. And these are some of the things I thought about.

1. The physical awfulness of grief.
I wanted to make a phrase that contained the physical reaction to loss. A year ago, my grandpa died. My physical reaction to that was so particular and peculiar and vivid that, when I think about it now, there's the factual memory (or, as factual as memory can be) and then there's the other one, all blown-out sensation, strange, high-contrast images, and terrible dreams. The feeling that I'd held my breath too long. The dream where all my bones had turned to compressed dust and were merely awaiting the disturbance that would cause their shape to fall away. How stiff the tops of my shoulders and the sides of my ribcage were, as if my whole body were filled with balloons that had been blown to squealing capacity.

2. Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, terrible television commercials, and semaphore.
Neil Gaiman casually linked to this video and introduced me to the wonderful brilliance of Laurel and Hardy dance routines. Shan and I fell down the rabbit hole of YouTube, and watched videos of L&H, Chaplin, and Keaton to excess. Such finely executed, earnestly played physical comedy is a joy. It tells the audience something, compels attention, and elicits effortless emotional response. It's like a story in mute, shining miniature. And then we saw, I think, a terrible television commercial that showed one person helplessly wilting away from another, and somehow the two things seemed to go together in both of our heads and we wanted to make a duet that ran on shrinking violets, pratfalls, and slapstick. When we started putting it together, other things found their way in: stupid mermaids, crazed folkdancers, and semaphore.

3. Personal tics.
I became obsessed with one sentence in the piece of text that Kat originally sent us for the project. "The first thing you notice about being dead is that you can still see the stars." And it made me wonder. I think that the first thing a person notices about anything is an interesting tic of personality. I wanted to know the identity of  the first things whose absence would strike us. I asked everyone to write lists of small, very specific things that they like and dislike. "I like the feeling of stepping on the gas pedal when you speed." "I don't like the smears on public windows." "I like the way you can see a person's pupil dilate after they blink when you're close enough to notice." (that last is mine... sometimes I'm impressed with my own creepiness.) And then we literally just made up gestures to match the sentences. Two hands chopping down from either side of the head. Rubbing the underside of the throat from left to right on an imaginary pane of glass. Cupping one hand over an eye and drawing it up like a weird jellyfish creature before slapping it down again.

Carson's solo is actually her likes and dislikes, strung together and built up to a full, exaggerated extreme.

4. Movement.
All the images and ideas and shiny, compelling treasures are important to me. They're important in the same way that the collage of disparate images that sit in my head when I'm writing a story are. They're the keys to telling something that will hopefully be true, the little knives that slice inside the workaday statement like, "Oh, yes, it hurts when someone dies," so the skin can be flensed and turned tender side out. But they just sit there, dull and laden with quirk, if there isn't some momentum behind them. I think that the movement itself has to be trusted, to some extent. That you have to follow the impulse that starts up in you when you hear a piece of music, or catch yourself thinking about the way a New Orleans funeral band marches. It might start out as the saddest step-touch in the world, to a sousaphone dirge, but the... I don't think the right word is joy... maybe, pleasure? the pleasure of work and of something coming together... comes from chasing after the little desires and convictions. The way my heels come together makes me want to fall on my face, which makes me want to swing my legs around and slam them on the floor which makes me want to... what?

5. Revision. And do-overs. And many more drafts than one. Also, serendipity.
This has been one of my favorite things. We go in with the bones of an idea, and our dancers take them on. At first, they're relatively faithful. They execute the choreography. But then they fill out their own images, whether they're physical geometry or more fanciful, and things bend. They become completely unrecognizable. And we watch each other and see that it might work to have an explosion, like a magnesium flare, here. Or that this phrase needs to be less jumbled, more stripped. And sometimes really weird, great things happen. Like when we asked Sarah to make a bit of movement based on the idea of flip books. Just a tiny thing that would fill maybe eight counts. And she came up with this gorgeous, three-minute long solo that looks like a sequence of Muybridge photos brought to life.


Ali Trotta said...

Megan, reading this was a pleasure -- because it is beautiful, and it made me think.

Thank you for sharing this!!

Megan Kurashige said...

Aw, thank you for reading, Ali!

Writing it made me think about how making stuff up works in my head... It was an interesting exercise.