There was a time before the vocals, before the movement, when we were all silent. We stood—feet planted. Grounded, yet not immobile. Rooted, and yet present in the softness of our bodies—the bones, connective tissues, and nerves mirroring back to us the power of the present moment.
The week I spent moving with Moroccan dancer and choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen was beautiful and challenging. Our week together was spent in preparation for performing her piece, Corbeaux. Corbeaux, which translates to “crows” in English, is both living sculpture and rapturous performance. Marked by its uninhibited and spontaneous nature, Corbeaux facilitates the emergence of difference from universality, all the while providing space for release. Since it premiered in 2014, Corbeaux has toured the world with an intergenerational company made up of professional dancers from Marrakech in Ouizguen’s company and local women from the city in which the piece is performed. A singular gesture inspired Corbeaux’s score: the sharp thrusting of the head backwards, tilting toward the sky, accompanied by a guttural outcry—deep and resounding. From Marrakech to the Cour Carrée at the Louvre and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Corbeaux has offered an intimate engagement for dancers and audience-cum-witnesses alike. The piece does not draw upon “traditional” Morocaan movement forms, yet it does incorporate Mediterranean styles of dress and Moroccan-Senegalese ritual gestures, integrating the two into varying city landscapes across the globe.1
Each day, during our time with Ouizguen, we encountered new terrains of self, contoured by the affects, passions, and complicities that structured who we were and how our bodies showed up in the world. We expanded on approaches to contemporary performance which allowed individual dancers to harness the elasticity of choreography while still working from within the same movement repertoire—iteratively building the architecture of the piece as fluid and responsive. No two of us executed the movement in the same way, and our collective virtuosity curated a rich, multiplicitous performance. Throughout the week we spent together in rehearsal and performance, we taught each other new ways of moving, new methods of breathing, and of being fully in our bodies. Here, I offer a few reflections on this experience.
As both a dancer and performance scholar, I reflect on Corbeaux through a multiveiled lens. Since its inception, performance studies has developed critical modes of analysis as wildly diverse as the scholars and practitioners working within the field. Centering a variety of forms of cultural production, performance studies attends to ways of knowing and being that often highlight the resistance, dissident, and queer underpinnings of everyday life.2 The term performance has a wide range of application in the field. Performance is that which “subverts cultural norms… blurring the lines between action, performance and works of art” and is often marked as “avant-garde, cutting-edge and sometimes marginal.”3 In addition, the involvement of corporal and aesthetic risk in performance can mark it an elastic and oftentimes urgent art form.4 As articulated by Jose Esteban Munoz, the discipline concerns itself with the practices and pedagogies of everyday life. Through an explicitly interdisciplinary and internationalist focus, performance studies allows us to think about how our bodies move through the world, how our speech can gain significance and transform sociality, as well as the co-constitutive nature of gender, race and sexuality. Through a focus on the material—bodies, touch, movement, landscape—as well as the discursive—social practices, subjectivity, power relations—the field offers us tools for understanding dance, theater, protest, rituals, and how we “perform” ourselves in our everyday lives. Performance studies scholar Diana Taylor argues that the study of performance is an investigation of “a process, a praxis, an episteme, a mode of transmission, an accomplishment, and a means of intervening in the world.”5 Thus, this reflection is not just about describing Corbeaux, but, rather, attempting to answer what the performance and my experience in rehearsal did.
Throughout this writing, I engage performance as a space of duality. That is, I understandOuizguen’s performance, and our involvement as dancers, as marked by both rupture—a breaking down, splintering, or shatterings of performative tropes, expectations, and aesthetics—as well as coherence—a smooth, lucid joining of bodies, choreography, landscape, and sound. In this way, our performance breaks and binds, all in the same moment. We were untethered from our comforts and accustomed ways of moving, as we propelled ourselves into cohesion and collectivity—all the while resisting concreteness and inviting performers and spectators alike into a new, boundless territory.
Ouizguen’s residency at the Walker offered an unparalleled experience for Twin Cities dancers. Each day, our warm-ups were led by a different company member and offered up a new set of challenges. We stretched our levels of comfort, and in moments of frustration we were reminded to laugh. Joy, we were told, was an integral part of performative practice, and it was important not to take ourselves too seriously. Some days, we began by walking throughout the space—slowly at first, then with rapid, percussive steps. From here, we would begin a vocal warm up. We chanted breathy “HA” sounds and filled the space with deep belly laughs. Our echoing voices, though not always in sync, prepared the collective for moving and breathing together. Some days our warm-ups focused on the hips. We moved from their fluidity, making our movements wide, winding, and sensuous. And in other instances, warm-ups became all about the butt, rapid shakes and smooth gyrations. The dynamism of each day’s rehearsal—unique from the one before—pushed us closer together, and more deeply in tune with our bodies, voices, and capacities to take up space.
We are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, belly-to-back, heel-to-toe. I can feel the electricity generated from our bodies—our excitement, nerves and forward intentions. There was no rehearsal for this moment.
Ouizguen was insistent that there was no “rehearsal” for our piece. What she meant was rehearsal in the traditional sense of the word—the reworking and intentional staging of bodies and choreography and the “setting” or concretizing of their sequences. Inside the piece, we were working with a singular vocal movement, which, nevertheless, felt multiplicitous. The downward thrust of the head and neck, the responsive shoulders jostling forwards and backwards were as intense as ever and occupied a space between form and release. All the while, our eyes were closed. We relinquished sight as our anchor and instead enlivened our aural sensings. At certain points throughout the performance we had to just let go, and let the movements pull us from our roots—uncontrollably.
Each time we were inside of the piece the movement settled differently in our bodies. Even as we pulled from the same movement vocabulary—the tossing of the head backward and upwards and the resounding guttural yell—the choreography looked different on each body. Some days, five minutes of the vocal movement sequence felt like five hours. My feet ached, planted in their stance as my head, neck and shoulders moved swiftly—carrying the bulk of the movement. Other times, once the sequence came to a close—my whole body vibrating with intense heat—I’d feel as if I’d barely had enough time to get into the movement. To my surprise, Ouizguen would remark that we had been going for the full 20 minutes—the entire duration of the performance. How is it that so much time had passed, I’d ask myself, and yet I felt I’d just begun. On these days, time seemed to unstick from my body. In and through my movements, my grasp of the passage of time was slipperier and less affixed to the movement’s repetition. In this sense, the choreography moved us outside our dependence on time as the indicator of a performance’s progression. Conversely, the deepening of our pitches, increasingly labored breath, and throbbing legs became anchor points—alerting us to our movement through the sequence.
From beginning to end, Corbeaux left room for silence and for improvisation. For example, none of our entrances were set, and every time we ran Corbeaux, a different person began the piece. Each of us would have to sense non-verbal clues about who next would push out of the clump of bodies and begin the slow-paced, elongated walk to the central, circular formation. Though disparate and untimed, these entrances took us on new routes to similar stagings. The moment at which our soundings ceased were not systematized nor timed. Again, each of us—in relation to the partner we worked created our vocal rhythm with—had to locate the precise moment when our vocal sequence would come to an abrupt end. This could not have been prompted by any outside measure. Every time we moved through the piece, it felt new—as if rising out of the material conditions of that particular moment. As we performed, we depended less on gesture and more on intuition.
Our focus is deep. At times, I don’t know where I am. I can feel the tension of my neck—its sharp, poignant articulations. My head’s swift, yet weighted movements—in alignment with my flexing spine—send energy right to the tips of my toes.
During the performance we stood in a circle of sorts, fractured and oblong-shaped. Although our eyes were closed, I could sense my partner standing directly in front of me, less than two feet away, and the other performers to my left and my right. Their laboring breath and heaving voices piecing through the silence of the crowd gathered around us. We were outside, beneath trees and sprawled across grassy lawns. Each site—sculpture garden, suburban park, and city-center common—offered a different set of geographic challenges. Honking horns, speeding city buses, and the chatter of a pick-up game of basketball become the score. Though surrounded by our audience on all sides, I was rarely aware that I was being watched. We were not a spectacle, nor a performance. Rather, our gathering of dancing bodies invited other pedestrians to gather around us. Even across each site, traditional partitions of performer and audience dissipated leaving openings for each and every person to be touched by the movements and choreographic affects.
My partner’s breath was my foundation. As her head tossed back, mine plunged downwards. This skewed synchronicity—this back and forth, this giving and receiving—created varying frequencies of speed and intensity within the piece and became our rhythm. We were a flock, a coven. We were a container of movement traversing spaces of exhaustion and exhilaration. We were an incessant wave—a swaying, sharply contracting, group of wild women. We were loud, carrying high intensity with each passing second, releasing all with each and every guttural yell.
Release. Release. Release.
3 Uri McMillan, Embodied Avatars : Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 4.
4 Ibid., 7.
5 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 15.