Monday, May 16, 2011

Tunics in the Garden

Sunday’s Umlauf performance was pure joy. The weather was perfect, the audience engaged, and the girls flew through the garden with wings of fire.  Thanks to Sheila Fox, Umlauf Director of Education, and Curator Nelie Plourde for making the event possible. Thanks as well to the parents, faculty and staff at The Girls’ School of Austin who came out in support of the dancers.

My original concept for the event was part workshop and part performance. There are so many Umlauf sculptures that indicate different elements of Duncan technique. I wanted to start with a full tour through the garden, teaching some of those elements in relationship to the individual works of art. As a performer/ educator I am interested in blurring the boundary between spectator and performer. I really do believe that one can appreciate and experience Duncan’s work more fully when watching from a somatically sympathetic state. Given the sunny Austin day, and the fact that I was already asking the girls to focus for about a 45-minute program, I abandoned the full tour idea and kept only the initial movement concept.

After wrangling the girls into costume, I asked everyone to meet under the terrace near the entrance to the garden at the “Spirit of Flight.” I began by teaching a basic Duncan arm lift and leading into Duncan’s universal gesture. I find it helpful to give people some context regarding Duncan’s technique, so they understand the movement palate within which the dancers are creating.

The movement starts deep inside the torso—it is related to breath but also to an impulse-to-action, in response to a feeling. The body opens and closes, it unfolds and folds, in response to positive and negative stimuli. I want something and I open and go towards it—I change my mind and fold in and back away. This practices teaches dancers to listen to and understand their innermost impulses. It is not only a path and practice for self-expression, it is also a pathway to self-knowledge.

Of course, I don’t wax this philosophically when teaching the young girls, but then again, with them, I don’t need to. They are not yet encumbered by the tension of self-censorship. In teaching children, Duncan noted, “It is only necessary to say to them: ‘Listen to the music with your soul. Now, while you are listening, do you not feel an inner self awakening deep within you—that it is by its strength that your head is lifted, that your arms are raised, that you are walking slowly toward the light?’” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance).

Dancer Yelena Konetchy at Umlauf
I try to step out of the way as a teacher in this work—some days, I just put the music on and watch them dance. I guide them and make suggestions, but I am also facilitating a space for them to breath and explore. There is something beautiful in their unfiltered ability to listen and respond. In that space exits a powerful self-knowledge and a connection to larger forces that move the earth.  And in Austin, TX, there is no more beautiful space for experiencing and dancing this work than the grounds of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden.