on listening and artistic mentorship

This year, I’m lucky to be participating in Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange Across Borders (“CHIME Across Borders”), a cross-national program of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company that arranges for choreographer-mentors of renown to work in San Francisco with three local dance-makers over the course of one year.  Past Borders Chairs have included David Gordon, Ralph Lemon, Elizabeth Streb, and Tere O’Connor. The 2014 Borders Chair—my mentor—is Dana Reitz.  Following are some reflections on my experience thus far with Dana.

I entered the Borders process craving a mentor who would challenge me about how I work.  I often ask another mentor of mine to push me.  She always responds: “Why do you want to be pushed?” In the past, I’ve found this question puzzling. Doesn’t everyone want to be pushed? Lately however, I wonder if push is the wrong verb.  Can you really push someone to be a better artist?

Dana Reitz creates a spacious environment for creative practice. Her prompts for making are minimal. She does not intervene unless asked. At the end of the first week of mentorship, I was disappointed in her lack of intervention.  Her hands-off approach seemed at odds with what I know to be part of the goal of CHIME:  to subvert the isolation so endemic to the field.  I said as much to Dana. She responded, “I’m not here to fix your work. I’m here to help you find it.” This philosophy evoked the year I spent living in a Buddhist monastery.  The practice teacher was available if you needed guidance, but would not seek out your engagement.  Thus, for the most part that monastic year, it was me and my cushion. For hours at a time.  That year was both frustrating and illuminating.  I spent a lot of time listening. On the surface, not much happened. But underneath were seismic shifts.

I frequently seek out feedback from choreographic colleagues. I’m a firm believer in the riches of collaborative practice.  Indeed recently, Dana noted my tendency to seek out the wisdom of others. She encouraged me instead to turn within. “You have so much intelligence,” she said. “Use it.”  On another occasion, she urged me to “Give in to the fact that you’re legitimate.”  By consistently directing me to listen within, Dana has helped me respond more intuitively to the dance as it unfolds, and as a result, to more skillfully shape the results.

Dana has clarified for me the similarities between choreographic listening and listening to the self.  More than any other choreographic mentor or teacher I’ve known, Dana connects the choreographic experience to the experience of dancing.  “What does it mean physically to you?” she might say, in the context of a conceptual conversation.  She poses questions that are equally trenchant for dancers and choreographers:  “How does your movement extend out into space?” “How are you part of the room?” “Listen to the entirety of the situation.”

Dana’s emphasis on listening echoes the responsive approach of choreographer Susan Rethorst, who stresses receptivity instead of will.  Similarly, Dana talks about “not controlling the end result, but being present to the process” and “instead of predeciding, you can observe.”  Dana has encouraged me to “find form instead of using form as a principle.”  Her emphasis on listening has been a helpful tool in dismantling habits of will that obstruct intuition. At its best, choreographic thinking is not legislation, but listening.  Makes me wonder about Andre Lepecki’s definition of choreography as a “system of command.”

Listening does not preclude point of view. In fact, the more I listen within, the stronger my artistic point of view becomes.  Dana’s mantra is “get more of what you want.”  Well, what do I want?  Asked over and over again, the effect of this question is to root creative practice in desire.  Dana encourages me to “make from a place of need, not should.”  What do I need? What feels necessary? How does my desire interact with formal considerations like time and space? What comes first, the desire or the formal concerns?

Along with urging us to “get what we want,” Dana frequently asks how we might be sabotaging our own desires.  Indeed, I have deep (choreographic) habits of withholding and disruption.  I build withholding and disruption into my process and into my dances.  Dana has challenged me to define the purpose of disruption in my work. Do you want to disrupt the dancers or the audience?  she asked.  “The audience,” I answered. “You need to let the dancers know.”  Of course.  And yet I hadn’t.  Working with lighting in the theater, I wanted to use blackouts as a disruptive device.  Dana questioned me about the function of the blackouts. Was I using them to erase a scene? To refresh the audience’s seeing? To effectuate a change of scenery? “Disruption is not a good enough word because it can mean so many things,” she said.  Which left me with a lot to think about, including my suspicion that I have a stronger desire to alienate my audience than Dana does, and my wondering about the source and function of that particular desire.

One day Dana told me to “apply the same exactitude you apply to language to movement.” I am a merciless editor of language. But with dancers, I frequently censor The Editor for the sake of massaging interpersonal relationships. With Dana’s encouragement, however, I’m learning how to be increasingly clear in my demands of dancers.  Going forward, I’m excited about practicing exactitude in combination with responsiveness.

Dana is one of those artists who are extremely sensitive to time.  She has encouraged us to “wake up to time” and to “solve problems in terms of time instead of space.”  I resist prioritizing time as a choreographic consideration. I think this default setting is linked to the fact that I am a language person.  In the words of Henri Bergson, “language…always translates movement and duration in terms of space.” Bergson also wrote “the more consciousness is intellectualized, the more matter is spatialized.”  I wonder how awareness of time relates to the integration of the writing self and the embodied self.

My friend poet Brenda Hillman recently spoke to me about her writing practice. “I write into the freedom,” she said. It is only through the act of writing—lots of it—that she finds her poems.  Good choreographers are not slaves to received wisdom. They walk into the room ready to listen to what’s present.  They choreograph into the freedom.  Can that skill be taught? Maybe. Here is a cushion: Sit.