As the Walker’s senior curator of Performing Arts, I have followed with great interest Danspace Project’s distinctive curatorial approach to building dance/research Platforms. These rich—and, at times, provocative—multi-week guest-curated structures mix dance presentations, discussions, and related events centered around a single curatorial inquiry and accompanied by a print catalogue. In a few short years, the Platform series has added such vitality and spirit, scholarship and debate to the dance scene of New York City, which despite its challenges, continues to be the urban nexus of movement art and critical discourse in the United States. Two longtime colleagues I respect greatly, Judy Hussie-Taylor (Danspace’s executive director and instigator of its Platform structure) and poet, critic, and now curator Claudia La Rocco, teamed up to create the ninth installment of the series, Platform 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, which ran from February 14 to March 28, 2015. La Rocco’s sources of inspiration for her Platform were the writings of Edwin Denby and the poet-as-critic tradition; the overlapping dance lineages of George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Judson Dance Theater; and the ways these traditions are relevant today. While I was so pleased to attend the kick-off event—a memorable evening of Denby-inspired readings, hosted by La Rocco and featuring a number of great poets (and a few dancers)—I was not able to return for the rest of the series. Instead, I got the next best thing: written reflections from this Platform’s writer–in-residence, Emmanuel Iduma, one of which we are lucky enough (thanks to Claudia and our friends at Danspace Project), to share with you below, in a post exclusive to the Walker website.
—Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts
. . . . .
I remember glancing repeatedly at Yvonne Rainer while she watched one of the Dance Dialogues at Danspace Project’s ongoing Platform. She had a notebook open on her lap, which she occasionally wrote in, leaving what seemed to me like giant scrawls. It struck me that each note-taking was preceded by a confirmatory nod. But since I could only see her through the corner of my eyes, her notes might have contradicted her gestures. I do not recall seeing her smile, although audience members were sometimes upbeat and sanguine—she might have, when I wasn’t watching. She seemed at once serious and dedicated to her seriousness. In her manner of observation, in the repeated nods and scribbling, she became one who scrutinized appearances within a stage or outside it.
I imagine from afar. I reflect on the workshops I have observed—Adrian Daching-Waring on Cunningham technique and composition, Kaitlyn Gilliland on Balanchine’s Serenade, and Emily Coates on Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A—aware of a distance created by non-participation. Amateurs (like me) could benefit from an opportunity to be taught a dance that would never be presented before a live audience. Yet I maintain a distance in order to write about what I observe. It’s a posture of criticality: but this could fail me. Is the mind put to work by the body? Are there insights I have missed by the stiffness of my muscle?
Each workshop, like a story without plot, could unfold as an occurrence with manifold motions. While Emily Coates taught hers, she said, “I’m going to talk you through the dance.” But the responses to this, during the course of three hours, were various attempts to subvert the difficulty and rigor of Trio A. I remember a black woman. When she spoke, her accent was as thick as mine. When there was a pause, I noticed she was dancing to something else, perhaps a song she recalled suddenly. She saw me looking, and then we smiled as if we had shared the same thoughts: the workshop brought to mind extraneous rhythms, other forms of grace.
One woman complained of dizziness. Coates responded, “It will start to get better as it gets into your body.” “Maybe,” the woman replied. Echoing Rainer, Coates emphasized a rigor of minds as well as bodies. In 1966, The Mind is a Muscle was the title of the series of dances Trio A was included in. “If you stare at anyone watching,” the dancers were told, “you are wrong. It is important to know where your gaze is at every moment.” As they progressed in learning the dance, they were asked to stand with their sides to the audience, and were taught moves that required gazing to the ceiling, towards clasped palms, and with closed eyes.
These motions, with certain variations, have been repeated since 1966 by dancers and non-dancers alike. There were up to 22 dancers being taught by Coates at St. Mark’s Church. They had been asked to sign waivers, following an instruction by Rainer, in order to control the proliferation of Trio A. On many occasions, we were told, she had the videos of the performance taken down from YouTube. In the intervening time between its first and subsequent iterations, certain motions might have been altered. The present form of the dance is one chiseled to specificity. New dancers would learn to add their individual flourishes, building on their instructor’s muscle memory. I am not inclined to believe Rainer gives a handful of people license to teach Trio A because of an overprotective instinct, nor from an obsession with a scrupulous performance. But a question: how does the passage of time affect the marriage of mind and muscle?
Each workshop in Platform 2015 wrestled with the evolution of the dance being taught. A performance, unlike a photograph, has a less tenuous relationship with its original. Those who argue, for instance, that today’s Serenade is infused with newer variations, hold on to a vision of how the ballet was performed before Balanchine’s death. Yet a performance is not a reproducible object. It has a being, and this suggests a movement toward mastery, as well as meaning. The three workshop tutors confessed to a renewed love for the dances they taught.
One of the first things Emily Coates said to the workshop class was: “I’m expecting.” A congratulatory cheer followed, her pregnancy already beginning to show. When Trio A required the dancer to lie with the belly on the floor, she simply sat, talking others through the motion. There was an unborn child in the room, feeling its mother teach a dance, dancing in the future.
Read more of Emmanuel Iduma’s reflections on Platform 2015 on Danspace Project’s Tumblr.