Monday, October 25, 2010

Body Shift

The legacy of Isadora Duncan’s dance is broad as well as deep—she not only created a movement technique that organizes the body according to specific movement patterns, but she also widened the landscape of who can call themselves a dancer.  Duncan challenged the notion that dancers must learn codified steps and instead emphasized approaching dance from a perspective of inquiry and creativity. In justifying her desire to establish a school, Duncan stated, “the dance is the most natural and beautiful aid to the development of the growing child in constant movement” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). Although Duncan took only children as her students, she identified individual human expression through gesture as source material for dance movement.  Duncan certainly would have been thrilled to see the wide range of creative exploration evident in this weekend’s Body Shift workshop, organized by Forklift Danceworks and VSA Texas.

Eiffel Tower
Saturday morning I attended a session facilitated by Michele Owens, a longtime dance educator, a modern dance guru for kids, and director of Wings, a dance company featuring differently-able bodies. I first met Michele a few years ago when she attended a Duncan dance workshop I taught at Dance Discovery in Austin. About a year later, I had the opportunity to assist her when she led a workshop for incarcerated women in Lockhart, Texas, through an organization called Truth Be Told. Saturday morning was the first time I experienced Michele’s work with mixed ability dancers, and she created a space for exploration that beautifully and seamlessly integrated a diverse group of bodies and enabled wheelchairs to become jungle gyms and sighted and visually-impaired dancers to sculpt one another in space.

Sculpting in Pairs
The creativity and risk-taking was stunning, as dancers allowed themselves to learn from and make adjustments for each others' differences in perception.  I had the opportunity to work with an intuitive and beautiful dancer named Nicole. Michele picked Nicole to demonstrate a sculpting exercise, and in watching her work, I did not initially realize that she was blind (also evidence of the amazing assumptions we make, even in mixed-ability settings!).  In sculpting me, Nicole made an immediate shift to the shape of my torso, rather than starting with arms and legs (as many people start this exercise from the extremities). Working from the torso first makes more sense, from a touch perspective, as one would certainly begin molding a form from the center of the form if working with clay.  Partnering with Nicole in this simple and familiar activity opened up a surprising new realm of creative possibility!  (And I’m sure Duncan would have appreciated the reminder to focus on moving first from the torso, the solar plexus, as center).

No matter how “able” our bodies are, there are limits to our ability to perceive. That is what makes us human. What a fantastic opportunity Body Shift offered for dancers to create in collaboration with other dancers who perceive and who inhabit space in different ways. The notion “dancer” so often implies one who has garnered a virtuosic mastery of the body, and this definition assumes a kind of perfection of the body and a symmetry or ambidextrous capability. It assumes a knowledge of the body that is somehow complete. But how much more interesting it is to not know? To be surprised by someone else’s discovery! To perceive a limit, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to discover a new pathway, a way around or through or under? This process of exploration and experimentation is a foundation of modern dance, and an important legacy of Duncan. And I thank the Body Shift organizers for facilitating such an exciting space of discovery.

(And, on a personal note, I also honor my Dad in this post—he was the first wheelchair user I ever danced with, and his vocal observations from a different perspective had a profound effect on many lives).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Forest Breathing in Nutley, New Jersey

Forest Breathing in Nutley, NJ
I have no idea what Isadora Duncan would have thought of Florence Fleming Noyes. Actually, she would likely have been critical, as she was of most of her so-called “imitators.” In Duncan’s day, the popularity of rhythmic or aesthetic or Greek or natural dance schools abounded (much, in my opinion, the way yoga studios populate our contemporary cultural and spiritual landscapes—but that is the subject for another post).  Nevertheless, I have no hard evidence that Duncan knew about the Noyes School. I do know that Florence Fleming Noyes saw Duncan dance—but only after she had begun to develop her own ideas. I also know that mutual artistic relationships existed, with personalities including Percy MacKaye (son of Delsarte protégé Steele MacKaye) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin. In fact, Noyes dancers mythologize her retort to Rodin’s assertion that Noyes had the most perfect left arm in the world (she wanted to know what was wrong with the right one)—surely Duncan would have appreciated that kind of quick-witted response to the sculptor whose studio she fled in fear after dancing for him clad only in her under-slip in her virginal youth.

At the Noyes School Pavalon
Portland, CT
While it’s fun to make suppositions about how Duncan would have responded to the work of her contemporaries, I certainly can’t put words in her mouth. I can however, speak to my own experiences as an Isadora Duncan dancer encountering Florence Fleming Noyes’ work. I was first introduced to Noyes Rhythm in an Isadora Duncan dance class in New York City. Linda Rapuano, the current president of the board of the Noyes Rhythm Foundation, handed me a brochure describing the immersive summer experience at Shepherd’s Nine in Portland, Connecticut. It was another year before I made it up there, but my first week at the Noyes School was absolute bliss. That week, I promised myself that I would return for a full month the following summer. Long story short (or, more likely, to be continued), I’m writing this post from JFK airport, en route to Austin after my first full weekend of meetings as the new Secretary of the Noyes Rhythm Foundation Board. I suppose this means I’m in for the long haul!

Forest Breathing with Fall Leaves
In the Noyes Rhythm practice, there exist a range of technique exercises, usually repeatable movement patterns describing different patterns of energetic flow through the body. A common teacher training practice is to ask teachers what their favorite technique is, or which techniques they feel are most foundational to the Noyes work. Recently, I have been thinking about the technique called “Forest Breathing.” It is a simple exercise, coordinating breath and movement, and it is usually taught by emphasizing the relationship of the individual practitioner to the group as a whole.  Practitioners envision themselves breathing with their whole beings and connected to one another the way a forest of trees is connected by its web of roots deep inside the earth. To my pleasure (and certainly a salute to synchronicity), we explored “Forest Breathing” as part of our opening Noyes Rhythm work before sitting down for the long hours of discussing board business!

Noyes Dancer (historic)
You have to love an organization that opens its board meetings with a centering movement practice, and you certainly have to appreciate a treasurer who encourages you to visualize runes in preparation for understanding finances and budgets! I am both thrilled and honored to be part of the body managing the organic growth and evolution of this organization, as we witness the unfoldment of the Noyes Rhythm work into a second century of practice.

Austinites, stay tuned for possible Noyes Rhythm sharings in the Austin area—and, you should know I’m not the only Noyes Rhythm tunic in Texas! A longtime teacher of the Noyes work (Arline Terrell) currently resides in San Antonio and is active with her dance practice there!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Veggie Friendly

Salute to Mr. Natural
You may or may not know, but Isadora Duncan was an “on again, off again” vegetarian for most of her life. Duncan biographer Peter Kurth supposes that the Duncans first decided to eat veggie after a cross-Atlantic trip from New York to London on a cattle boat. In her ever-endearing talent for romanticizing difficulties, Duncan writes of the experience in My Life, “Altogether it was a very happy time, in spite of the hardships, and only the bellowings and moanings of the poor cattle in the hold depressed us.” Of course, Isadora’s brother Raymond spearheaded many of the family’s more austere moral commitments, and he maintained the disciplines of both vegetarianism and alternative dress (tunics and sandals) for the duration of his life.

Duncan, on the other hand, was more emotive in her decision-making, and although she was inconsistent in her commitment to vegetarian eating over the course of her life, she did express strong opinions about the moral verity of eating a no-meat diet.  Expanding on Bernard Shaw’s analogy between killing animals and war, Duncan writes, “as long as men torture and slay animals and eat their flesh we shall have war. I think all sane, thinking people must be of this opinion…. Sometimes during the war, when I heard the cries of the wounded I thought of the cries of the animals in the slaughter-house, and I felt that, as we torture these poor defenseless creatures, so the gods torture us.” Having lived in Europe during the First World War, and even donating Bellevue, the site of her school in France, for use as a hospital, Duncan’s experience of the violent consequences of war was first-hand. She goes on to say, “While we are ourselves the living graves of murdered animals, how can we expect any ideal conditions on the earth?” (Duncan, My Life).

Running to Kerbey on the weekend!
Duncan may not have realized it, but she was advocating the application of the yogic principle ahimsa, nonviolence, to relations between both people and animals and among people. The notion of ahimsa underscores the commitment to vegetarian eating for many yogis, and just as Austin is an abundantly yoga-friendly town, it is also a veggie-friendly town.  This is important for a city whose culture centers on casual dining and a “foodie” fascination in addition to the live music scene.  And while there are many veggie restaurants worth mentioning in town, two of my favorites, both for the quality and range of choices and for the reasonable prices, are Mr. Natural (pictured above and also mentioned in last week’s post) and, of course, Kerbey Lane, whose menu features local produce (as well as non-veggie options for the inconsistent among you!). 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tunics in Tverskaya…or close by, at least!

Isadora Duncan envisioned a natural kinship between Russia and the United States, based on their revolutionary heritage. She could not understand why Americans did not embrace the Bolshevik Revolution as an act of the people similar to the American revolt against the monarchy in Britain. From a political perspective, Duncan’s position may have been quite naïve, but philosophically she was arguing for equality and freedom for all people, rooted in a transformation of human consciousness.

Silk Scarf in Red Square
“Place your hands as I do on your heart, listen to your soul, and all of you will know how to dance as well as I or my pupils do ” she said. “There is the true revolution. Let the peoples place their hands in this way on their hearts, and in listening to their souls they will know how to conduct themselves” (Isadora Speaks, ed. Franklin Rosemont—by the way, Austinites, Rosemont’s niece Genevieve Yellin is the owner of Sundara Yoga Therapy, where I teach yoga on Monday and Wednesday evenings in northwest Austin).

This radical notion, that meditating on our hearts enables us to engage with the world from a compassionate perspective, was joyfully present during the Free Poetry and Free Dance: Embodied Sense in Motion conference this weekend, hosted by Moscow State University. Scholars and artists from throughout Russia, England, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the United States defined, questioned, and refined the notion of freedom in poetry and dance through scholarship, workshops, and performances. Duncan, who also insisted, “The day when Russia and America understand each other will mark the dawn of a new epoch for humanity” (Isadora Speaks, ed. Rosemont), would have been elated.

"Time Pieces" from Moscow concert
Monday morning, before I boarded an Atlanta-bound plane from Moscow, my friend Petr said to me, “Meg, you always have adventures in Moscow.” How true! So, for this post, I’m departing from my usual style to share a bit about my experiences this week (in other words, this post is long!).

Sunday, a week ago, I flew out of Austin with the instructions to pick up my bags, pass through customs, and wait—they weren’t sure who, but hopefully someone would be there to meet me. How excited I was to come out of the security area on Monday morning and see Irina Zenkevich, a dancer with Inessa Kulagina’s Alekseeva’s Gymnastics group, with whom I performed at Chersonesos in Crimea in 2007. She shuttled me through a corridor to a new train connecting Sheremetyevo International Airport to the Moscow city center. And the train! Sleek, modern, chic, as Irina said, with special room for baggage and station announcements in both Russian and English. This was a very different experience from when I visited Moscow in 2008 and had to cram my suitcase into an already over-full bus for a traffic-jammed ride to the nearest metro station. This was also a quite different reception from the one Duncan received when she emigrated to Russia in 1921 to establish a state-supported school, and no one met her at the train station, not fully believing that she was serious about moving to Moscow.
Irina at Chersonesos, 2007
Coming out of the train station in the city center, Irina negotiated for a taxi to take us to Petr and Tania’s apartment, where I spent the week.  Seeming very Moscow, the vehicle had a standard transmission and a cracked windshield with a sophisticated GPS on the dashboard and a pleasantly jovial driver. We arrived at Petr’s and settled down in the kitchen for tea, fresh cooked vegetables from a family garden, and sweets. After a quick shower, I followed Petr into the city for a philosophy lecture where we met his girlfriend Tania (who, by the way, is a very interesting experimental and documentary filmmaker—check out her work on Vimeo). 
Rehearsal at Prometheus Studio
near Smolenskaya
Tuesday, I negotiated my own way into the city, taking the minibus to the metro and finding my way to the tourist office to register my visa. Then I met with Cheryl Growden-Piana and Fiorenza Bucciarell, the musicians with whom I would be collaborating for the performance part of the conference. Cheryl, the clarinet player, is Petr’s Feldenkrais student, who proposed a musical performance of clarinet and piano with projected images (her Italian friend Fiorenza is both the pianist and the painter) as part of the conference program. They were interested in working with a dancer, and when everything fell into place for my trip, Petr suggested they contact me. Cheryl emailed the music files (Victor Babin’s “Hillendale Waltzes,” Robert Muczynski’s “Time Pieces,” and “L’ètude nuè agreablement,” a piece by contemporary Italian composer Roberto Tagliamacco, a friend of Fiorenza and Cheryl’s). Tuesday was our first rehearsal, and while I had made some basic choreographic choices concerning use of space and type of movement vocabulary, I realized Tuesday that I wanted to develop the movement further—thus began an intense but creatively generative week!
Lecture for psychology students,
Moscow State University
Wednesday, in addition to rehearsals, I gave two different presentations about Conspire Theatre, the Austin theatre company founded by Kat Craft through which I teach dance and theatre to women at the Travis County jail. Students in Aida Ailamazian’s Moscow State University psychology class were particularly engaged, and we even played a raucous round of Zip, Zap, Boing! The seminar organized by Victoria Arkhanguelskaya sparked interesting discussion about the cultural differences between Russian and American systems of incarceration, and I’ve promised to contribute an article to a journal edited by Victoria. 
Both sessions were exciting reunions with friends—Natalia Fedunina, a Heptachor dancer and psychologist, came to translate for Victoria’s seminar, and Aida is not only a psychology professor at Moscow State University, but also the director of Heptachor and one of the conference organizers. The aspect of my relationship with these Russian dancers that I love the most is how our mutual interests overlap in many contexts. To me, this is evidence of dance into life—we share not only movement practices with similar histories, but also a desire to heal, transform, and inspire others through all aspects of our work, as artists, teachers, and scholars.
Thursday, theoretically a day off, I finalized my choreographic choices and rehearsed on my own, and I also caught up with some old friends. Moscow, like Austin, is a city with piquing interest in various mind/body/spirit practices, and I enjoyed a great vegetarian lunch with my friend Alex at Jagannath, a cafeteria-style Indian buffet (Austinites, picture Mr. Natural with Indian food).
Cheryl and Fiorenza
Friday morning the conference began, with a warm introduction from the university and a great first paper session. I was only able to hear the first two presentations, but I was very excited by Elena Yushkova’s research situating Duncan’s writings within the context of literary history and by Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux’s interpretation of an excerpt from a Homeric hymn in ancient Greek. Then it was off to the theatre for rehearsals before returning to hear the last of the day’s papers and the first of the weekend’s performances. 
The Friday evening performances were varied and engaging, and opened with musical offerings by university students. Vincent Barras shared his soundpoetry work, structured compositions exploring a range of dynamic vocal sounds, and Max Rotschild and Julia Idlis performed a collage-like dialogue between poetry and jazz themes improvised on electric guitar. After the performance, I caught up with my friends Natasha and Sveta over coffee, brainstorming projects for the future over cappuccinos with heart-shaped dollops of foam.
Tagliamaccco piece, from concert
Saturday was a whirlwind—off to the theatre for tech rehearsal in the morning, then back to the conference for my paper presentation exploring freedom and community in the work of Florence Fleming Noyes, a Duncan contemporary who I will talk about more fully in a future post! Then, scooting back to the theatre for quick warm-ups before the concert started. The performance space, PROET_FABRIKA, was a black-box dance space in an old factory-turned visual art and performance venue, and located just outside of the third ring in Moscow (if you’re not familiar with Moscow city planning, there are three concentric circular streets that define the center of the city).
Four groups shared work, including Inessa Kulagina’s Alekseeva’s Gymnastics group and Heptachor (two groups I performed with in Crimea in 2007). Both groups are influenced by Duncan; the Alekseeva group dances work passed down from Ella Ivanova Rabenek (Ellen Tells), a former student in the Elizabeth Duncan school in Germany who taught dance for MXAT (Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre School), and Heptachor continues the work of Stefanida Rudneva, the early-twentieth-century founder of the original Heptachor group, consisting of seven women from St. Petersburg who were inspired by Duncan’s first performances there. The full house enthusiastically received the dances, erupting into rhythmic clapping after Heptachor’s enactment of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The local television arts station gave the concert generous coverage—even coming into the dressing room to record interviews before the performance.
Teaching at Prometheus Studio
For our part, the concert was a moving experience. I danced the whole suite of “Hillendale Waltzes”, two parts of the “Time Pieces,” and we ended with the composition by Tagliamacco. Each element of the performance—the music, the movement, the projection, and the costumes (yes, I dressed Cheryl and Fiorenza in silk tunics!)—was mutually supportive, a serendipitous success! Winchester scholar Charlotte Purkis remarked that she thought Cheryl, Fiorenza and I had come as a group—when, in fact, we had only met on Tuesday. I have great hopes that we will find a way to perform this program again! Italy? Austin?
Sunday, I taught classes in both Isadora Duncan dance and Noyes Rhythm and I participated in Steve Batts’ contact improv workshop and a Butoh class led by St. Petersburg artists from Odd Dance Theatre, Natalia Ahestovskaya and Grigory Glazunov. Sunday evening, the conference wound down with a warm dinner at Sisters Grimm, complete with toasts and well wishes for the travelers. After the dinner, I wandered around the city with my friends Alex and Sveta, ducking into the Bulgakov museum and having coffee in a café before heading to Natasha’s for the night. Sveta, Natasha, and I stayed up way too late, drinking tea, reminiscing, and singing while Sveta played guitar. After just a few hours of sleep, Natasha and I headed off to the train station, waving goodbye and promising to keep in better touch.
Universal Gesture, in Red Square
Thank you again, to the conference organizers, especially Irina Sirotkina, who is not only a beautiful mover in her own right, but is also an amazing coordinator, translator, and dance writer, as well as Aida Ailamazian, Semina Maria, and Tatiana Venediktiva. Thanks, as well, to Ekaterina Tashkeeva and Julia Idlis, who not only helped with translation but also contributed their own scholarship and artwork to the conference. Also, thanks to my wonderful Moscow friends, especially Petr and Natasha, who generously hosted me in their homes, and to my newest artistic collaborators Cheryl and Fiorenza. And, many thanks to everyone who helped support my trip through Austin’s Dance Umbrella—I wouldn’t have made it without your support!
Next week—a much shorter and more local post…