Megan Nicely Reviews Rewriting Dance

Rewriting Dance  

November 6-8, 2015

San Francisco

By Megan V. Nicely


If choreography is the writing of dance, then what does its rewriting entail? Hope Mohr’s ambitious 2015 Bridge Project Rewriting Dance took on this question. The weekend of performances, lectures, and workshops put spoken language in conversation with dance’s creative practices to reveal how our patterns of thought are continually activated through our behavior and sense-making. Language is not just spoken, it is also written on the body, as Jeanette Winterson so poetically puts it. The journey to discover the many ways that language marks us can catalyze an undoing of the self—an inquiry that requires acts of reorganization in order to write us anew. Rewriting Dance posed these possibilities to San Francisco’s dance community by opening spaces for examination and reconsideration of habitual flows. Like past Bridge Projects, Rewriting Dance spanned not just dance generations, but also geography, disciplines, and modes of engagement. Even if familiar thought and movement patterns remained ultimately unedited, just reading them again, as we did this weekend, gave them new purpose.

The events began Friday night with New York choreographer Jeanine Durning’s piece inging. This work, which Durning inaugurated in 2010, is a performed practice of what she calls “nonstopping,” or continuing amidst questions, doubts, and limitations as a way to remain present to the moment. In the 45 minutes of unscripted nonstop talking that the audience shared with Durning, the contents of her thoughts or a portion thereof (for there are always too many to articulate) filled the room as she moved through the scattering of chairs that held audience members. Stories and associations unfolded, at times humorous, at other poignant. Direct and vulnerable, Durning’s approach to speech worked to harness the audience’s attention toward her. However, ultimately she directed the focus toward the larger container that held us all there. As we sat in the silence of the piece’s conclusion, first before the applause but more profoundly afterward, Durning made us accountable for our individual thoughts in relation to the collective. Unsure if or when to break the silence, we were for a moment suspended in an interval between what live performance can offer and how we might sustain this kind of connection with both ourselves and others after the performance has concluded.

Durning’s workshops on Saturday and Sunday further elucidated nonstopping as commitment by highlighting participants’ parameters and constitution for creativity. The first day alternated practice sessions of nonstop speaking, moving, and writing as a way to exercise and hone in on “what you are working on.” These practice sessions revealed that this question was layered, and that the truth-value of one’s answer was somewhat suspect.  By asking, “What is transmissible about your own practice?” Durning brought our attention to patterns unfolding in our work and encouraged us to continually revise our answer to the question toward further specificity so as to continue practicing. Noting that language’s benefit is that it makes concrete, while its downside is that it fixes things, Durning’s workshop began to show how dancers might use language in service of their creative practice so that language neither resolves what we are doing, nor needs to be relegated to a place outside dance. Language then becomes a tool that is not separate from dance thinking, but instead a way to have a dialogue with ourselves: thinking happens through doing. Rewriting in this case counters capitalist, product-driven models for dance by refocusing attention on how we continue to show up as artists to our artistry in ways that serve us rather than the market.

Saturday evening, titled Reorganizing Ourselves, broadened the theme of thought articulation as a method for rewriting. The lectures by choreographer Deborah Hay and philosopher Alva Noë were both somewhat scripted, yet might also be considered performative in that they engaged audiences on a phenomenological level as the speaker’s thinking unfolded to themselves with the audience as witness. Hay’s talk chronicled her path of inquiry since the 1970s, and how the phrase “a continuity of discontinuity” (rather than “a continuity of continuity” or “a discontinuity of continuity”) best describes her research. Hay’s process of asking unanswerable “what if” questions to her body the teacher, whose zillion cells work to subvert singular coherence, was punctuated by diagrams, embodied speech, and her gestural articulations. A video of Durning’s adaptation of Hay’s score No Time To Fly played in the background. These elements worked together to exemplify the kind reorganizing and rewriting Hay is suggesting. As she puts it in her newest book Using the Sky, “The rigor is for the dancer to persistently renew his/her questions rather than to conform to the dance’s guidelines” (32). Noë’s lecture on creativity was a bit more collegiate in tone. A self-proclaimed nondancer “bored by art,” he nonetheless asserted the value of boredom as a mode or attention, a point similarly made by Jacques Rancière (see The Emancipated Spectator). Important to the weekend’s theme was Noë’s assertion that philosophy begins in conversation, and that dialogue is what choreography and philosophy share—each disrupt the continuity of continuity by questioning. The process of conversation is a kind of thinking that brings things into focus, noted Noë, which resonated with Durning’s practice of nonstopping. Ultimately, as Noë pointed out, it is not that we are choreographed by society, but instead that choreography and philosophy are dialogic processes that write us to ourselves. Each is a radical process of reorganizing, as the weekend continued to reinforce. The evening concluded with audience questions solicited not for answer, but for listening. Here is where the actual performance occurred that night—in the collective questions that may eventually rewrite a future trajectory for the Bay Area dance community.

The weekend’s final evening of performance, Talk the Walk, was a diverse collection of Bay Area artists’ ways of using language in practice and performance. I was one of the artists alongside Maureen Whiting, Gerald Casel, Hope Mohr, Lauren Simpson & Jenny Stulberg, and Maurya Kerr. The short works (many were excerpts) varied in their use of language, but the explicit calling out of this element made the evening cohere and cut through the silence of unspoken questions that too often linger around dance and its processes. At the same time, by providing a focus, the evening successfully respected the nonverbal space that surrounds both dance and language. Whiting chose to speak after her piece, yet the work itself already told stories though its performance. Casel’s use of language was in the form of choreographic structures of Bay Area luminaries in the context of colonization. Mohr’s work revealed a nonlinear logic of humor, urgency, and commitment whose linkages worked between performed text, song, and movement. My own piece attempted to move breath through language and thought via the use of projections triggered by wearable technology. Simpson & Stulberg projected their text as both descriptor and visual backdrop to frame the slippages between words and movement, and to show what language cannot temporally capture. Finally, Kerr’s text appeared on small slips of paper placed on audience chairs. Her duet employed visceral and relentless repetition, perhaps suggesting that ultimately we cannot escape some language patterns.

Rewriting Dance provided rich territory for reflection, creation, and articulation beyond the Bay Area’s signature identity politics and personal expression. By bringing in voices outside the local dance community (Durning from New York, Hay from Austin, and Noë a philosophy professor at UC Berkeley), and by providing spaces for local voices to speak with them, the weekend created a much needed platform for engaging collectively in questions around practice and performance. Throughout the many activities, rewriting dance came to indicate a move not beyond language, but rather further into language and the discourses already happening in the bodies of artists and audiences here. The more we articulate and reveal writing’s patterns, the more we can shape our practices toward specific purpose so that we can continue, both individually and collectively. 


MEGAN NICELY is an artist/scholar working between release-style dance and Japanese butoh. She holds an MFA in dance from Mills, a PhD in performance studies from NYU, and teaches at University of San Francisco, whose program focuses on the arts and social change.