Putting Space Between the Writer and the Dance

May 1, 2011

Call it procrastination, or “dance writer’s block,� but lately, in my attempts to write about dance, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about time.


When I sit down to review a performance, I often find myself contemplating the whole idea of deadlines (as my own inches closer) and whether or not they’re conducive to making sense of what just happened onstage.

On the one hand, time constraints are extremely useful, necessary. Thoughts inevitably crystallize under the pressure of having X hours to organize them; first impressions can’t be questioned; images are still immediate and raw. During my recent interview with Susan Rethorst, she said (in a part of the conversation that didn’t make it into print), “If I didn’t have deadlines, I probably would never have made anything.� I’m right there with her.

But at the same time, especially after seeing a really good show, the notion of “cranking out copy� in response to a work of art seems almost brash. The artist took two years to make this; why should I take only two hours to process it? My instinct, in these cases, is not to feverishly write, but to slow down: luxuriate in the memory of what I’ve seen, let it simmer for a few days. Amid all of life’s interruptions, what stays with me? I know what the work looks like up close, but how does it look and feel from a distance? And if art is meant to have a lasting effect, isn’t that just as important?

Furthermore (by now it’s late at night, and I resign myself to just going to bed and writing the next day), are there even adequate words for what I’ve been through? Good dance is good precisely because it’s ineffable. To pin it down in language is to risk fencing in a wonderfully unruly thing. Can I protect it from the confines of complete sentences for just a little longer?

(Of course, as I type this, I’m guilty of one of my own pet peeves: writers claiming that “words can’t describe.� You’re a writer. Find the words. That’s your job.)

So it is, pondering these questions, that I’ve been replaying in my mind two performances I saw in the past month: Juliette Mapp’s The Making of Americans at Dance Theater Workshop and Eiko and Koma’s Naked at Baryshnikov Arts Center. When I say these pieces resist being written about, I mean it as the highest compliment. (I’m reminded of Ohad Naharin’s “Advice to Critics� at the 2009 Dance Magazine Awards, “If you can describe what you are watching, you are probably watching bad choreography.�) I came away from both completely smitten with the work but reluctant to say anything, wanting to just let it be. Rather than fighting this train of thought, I decided, for once, to just follow it.

With The Making of Americans a couple of weeks behind me, what remains of it in my memory? Most vivid is the sound of Gertrude Stein’s text (from which the piece takes its name). I’ll be washing the dishes or waiting for the subway and its rhythm will come ricocheting back. I found a copy of the book and realized that the lines I so enjoyed hearing aloud are a lot more convoluted on the page:


Certainly very many are very often doing something, certainly very many are going on living for quite a long time . . . Certainly quite a number being living are feeling that existing is not anything. Certainly a very great number are feeling that being existing is something.

I’m grateful to Juliette Mapp for making this into such memorable music, breaking it up between the dancers—now two voices, now one, now four—as she told, in images and movement and words, “the history of a family and its progress.�



I continue to think about families on multiple levels: a family of dancers, a nuclear family, the generations of a family, the nation as a family,  the generations of a nation. I recall Juliette’s effortless transitions from the micro to the macro. I remember the micro coming into focus through a video (close-up, slow-motion, silent) of her seven dancers in the studio, picking up the gentle specificity of her gestures, like a hand sliding just so from under one breast to the back of the ribcage. I remember the macro engulfing me in the form of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, so loud my seat was vibrating, the dancers writhing to it on the floor, as if overtaken by the volume of our culture. (The Jackson family lived in Gary, Indiana, where Mapp’s family is from.)


I can’t shake the final, repetitive image: a video (by John Jesurun) that seems to be shot from the front seat of a car going under a bridge, the moment when the horizon disappears and everything goes dark. Looping over and over, it begins to resemble a pair of eyelids blinking closed, getting heavier, until one time they close and don’t open again.

When I think back on Naked, which I saw at the beginning of April, the walk to the theater seems somehow as prominent as the performance itself (a “living installation� that you could view for as long as you wished). I think this has to do with the contrast between the busyness of the city and the glacial pace of Eiko and Koma’s world. In a sixth-floor studio of BAC, up above densely packed Hell’s Kitchen, their nest-like enclosure feels like a refuge, tragic as their bodies may be. I remember darkness, feathers, soil, stillness, a soft rustling, a faint breeze (where was that coming from?), a damp scent. Eiko and Koma are lying in those feathers, that soil, stiffened, moving very slowly. Koma’s leg reaches over—this takes a long, long time—to touch Eiko’s; Eiko cranes her neck to look at the audience—or was that Koma, too? Either way, it’s startling, that glimpse of facial features that until now had been obscured.


I remember thinking: Where did this woman and this man come from? Are they dying or just born? How long have they been here? How long will they stay? And as I go through life, in the days and weeks to come—moving from one thing to the next to the next to the next—can time please always move this slowly?

—Siobhan Burke

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Photo: Juliette Mapp’s
The Making of Americans. By Julieta Cervantes. Coutesy Dance Theater Workshop.