Surviving the Dark Periods

There’s a moment in Jenifer Ringer’s book, Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet,  when she is so desperate that she contemplates suicide. She’s tried again and again to solve her eating disorder, which led to losing her job at New York City Ballet, and she feels like an utter failure. What saved her, in that dark moment, is the awareness of the pain her death would bring to her parents and sister. Needless to say, one of the reasons to read her terrific book is to learn how she pulled herself out of that abyss.


I know, from the suicide attempts of people close to me—both successful and blessedly unsuccessful—that what goes out the window in those darkest moments is any thought of one’s loved ones. (Or, in temporary twisted thinking, the notion might be, “They’d be better off without me.”) Every thought crowding around the person is simply, and only, about how to release themselves from a life that has become unbearable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman

In Michael Feingold’s recent column in Theater Mania, he comes to a similar conclusion. Prompted by the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, he is trying to understand the addictive personality. He contrasts that type of person with artist in the theater who have lasted a long time, giving the example of the 90-year-old lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Of course, addiction is complicated and an overdose such as Hoffman’s may be accidental. But in general, Feingold sees that, at the other end of the tunnel, there needs to be some feeling that you matter to those close to you. If there is a secret to survival, he says, it is “the simple awareness of others’ concerns.” Sadly, that awareness is sometimes beyond the reach of someone who’s been pulled into a downward spiral.

Depression has long been a hazard for artists. I found this in Tchaikovsky’s letters, from 1876:



“Sometimes for hours, days, weekends, months, everything looks black; it seems that you are abandoned by everyone, left alone, and no one loves you. But I explain my state of despondency, my weakness and sensitivity, by my bachelor state and absolute lack of self-denial. To tell the truth, I live following my vocation as well as I can, but without being of any use to individual people. If I should disappear from the face of the earth today, maybe Russian music would lose something—but surely no one would be made unhappy. In short, I live the egoistic life of a bachelor. I work for myself, think only of myself, aspire only for my own welfare. This is very convenient, but it is dry, narrow, and deadly.”

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Faye Driscoll’s Manic Energy Transforms Danspace

Talk about breaking the fourth wall—Faye Driscoll broke all the walls and the floor last weekend! And she’ll do it again this weekend.

Her piece Thank You for Coming starts with five dancers smashing body parts against each other—fingers crunching a cheek, a knee poking into a neck. There is something childlike in they way they disregard, and yet take pleasure in, the flesh of the person next to them—or on top of them. This is happening on a low platform in the middle of the St. Mark’s Church sanctuary. Tethered to each other in a sensual hell/heaven, they reach out to us beseechingly. Should we help them? Will they pull us under? Will we get stuck in the same frantic playground they are mired in?

Thank You for Coming, Faye Driscoll sliding under the platform, photo by Aram Jibilian

Thank You for Coming, Faye Driscoll sliding under the platform, photo by Aram Jibilian

At some point Faye Driscoll entered the space and slipped under the platform. I thought she would thump on the surface from below. But no. While the five dancers connected in one long, writhing line and rolled down into the audience like a wave washing up on a shore, Driscoll pushed apart the platform from below, breaking it up into segments—that turned out to be separate benches. The floor that was solid enough to withstand lurches, falls, and tackling embraces is now being deconstructed before our eyes. Where do the benches go? They become our new seats—as Driscoll carries each one to the sidelines. Meanwhile that writhing line of humans is slithering out of their T-shirts and shorts into other clothes (shades of Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest) with the help of the audience members they landed on.

Rolling off the platform, photo by Aram Jibilian

Rolling off the platform into the audience, photo by Aram Jibilian

In their fancier clothes (visual design by Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin), the dancers now go through manic stop-action motion to effusively greet or skeptically avoid someone. They sustain this hyper—even spastic—mode with superhuman energy for a long time, yet it somehow goes with the mellow guitar played by Michael Kiley.

The space is again turned inside out by a crazy, snaking, bulging intersection of nearly naked dancers and elastic tubing that eventually resolves into, of all things, a maypole dance. Again, Driscoll herself is the subverter and guide, asking people to hold ropes or tubing. And suddenly, the contradictory feelings melt away, the dancers forget their struggle, and an innocent maypole dance ensues, each round gathering more audience members, who by this time are utterly charmed.

Because the dancers were so close to us, because they were so legible in their expressions of contradictory feelings, because the physicality veered toward and away from sexuality, and because you didn’t know what you would be called upon to do, this was the most engaging performance I’ve seen in a long time. With all its anarchy and purpose, it was like the Living Theater of the Sixties.

Thank You for Coming continues this week, March 11 and 13–15. I think it’s sold out, but check out the Danspace website. 

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Harkness Festival: Kyle Abraham & David Dorfman

Lightbulb Theory, photo by Julie Lemberger

Lightbulb Theory, photo by Julie Lemberger

For the second half of the Harkness Festival, Doug Varone has chosen signature works by two of our most risk-taking choreographers: Kyle Abraham and David Dorfman. While Abraham’s Radio Show (March 14–16) gives us a beguiling rendition of gender fluidity, Dorfman’s Lightbulb Theory (March 21–23) revels in his sly, self-effacing humor and all-out, rough-and-tumble partnering. (To get a glimpse of his sense of humor—and doom—see his Choreography in Focus.)  At the 92nd Street Y. For tickets, click here.



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When Is Gaga Like Trisha Brown?

Trisha Brown's Water Motor, photo by Lois Greenfield

Trisha Brown’s Water Motor, photo by Lois Greenfield

In his latest last gaga session in the U.S., Ohad Naharin emphasized what I will call the three E’s: effort, echo, and engine. I’ve heard him say the first one often, as in “Connect to effort,” or “Connect pleasure to effort.” But this time, at the Mark Morris Dance Center last month, he talked more about the echoes in the movement—allowing the movement to start from one place and be felt in another place in the body. Feeling the echoes is a special pleasure and gives you a sense of connectedness. It’s so different from the ballet aesthetic of keeping your center stable and stretching your limbs away from your spine.

Ohad Naharin teaching a gaga session

Ohad Naharin teaching a gaga session, photo by Gadi Dagon. Photo of Trisha Brown by Lois Greenfield.

Ohad asks you to “listen to your engine.” I don’t think he means literally to listen to your motor revving up. I think he means be conscious of where your energy starts from. Where is the source of your energy? He emphasizes that the engine may be far from the part that is moving, so he also says, “Listen to the faraway engine.”

He uses the verb “collapse” but he doesn’t want you to collapse down and just drop that part of the body. So he said, “Don’t collapse into air, collapse into water.”

That’s when I thought of Trisha Brown’s ground-breaking solo Water Motor from 1978. Watching the film of this piece, you can see that she is collapsing into water! Gaga is an approach to improvisation, and Water Motor was Trisha’s daring attempt to take the wildness of improvisation and slot it into choreography. She wanted that solo to look as though it were improvised.

Trisha was a brilliant, sly, patient, impulsive, unpredictable improviser. She could evade your eye, like Giselle as a Wili slips through Albrecht’s grasp. She could be dancing with you eye-to-eye and suddenly drop to the floor. Collapse. Or, in Water Motor, she would collapse a hip that would spur a shoulder to lift that would cause a knee to swivel.

Maybe I’m seeing a connection because I watched Trisha make that solo, a little piece of it every day for months in 1977, when I was part of her company. Below is a YouTube clip of Trisha dancing Water Motor, preceded by Trisha and me showing the phrase called Solo Olos from Line Up, which we made with Trisha the year before.

And by the way, my body felt great the day after that gaga class! So you might want to know that MMDC will host another gaga intensive in August.


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Why Are Some Traditions Valued More Than Others?

Beach Birds by Merce Cunningham

Beach Birds by Merce Cunningham

There are longer traditions and there are shorter traditions. But most dance or art comes out of some kind of tradition, even if it feels like it’s breaking with tradition. In fact, as Bill T. Jones said at a recent talk, “Our tradition was to kill your Buddha,” meaning break the rules of whatever authority you perceive.

But even that is a tradition.

It’s been the tradition of modern dance to find your own way. Every choreographer had to break away from whoever came before. Graham broke with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn; Cunningham broke from Graham. The whole generation of Judson Dance Theater explored pedestrian movement that Cunningham wouldn’t go near. And then it exploded out into postmodern dance from there.

Chapel/Chapter by Bill T. Jones

Chapel/Chapter by Bill T. Jones

But the ballet tradition is so strong, the virtuosity so visible, that we tend to put more faith in it than other traditions. I’ve been reminded of this general preference from written reviews, conversations, and public talks. There is simply more weight to the longer tradition of ballet and the more obvious virtuosity of ballet.

Lerman-Hiking Small

This is why Liz Lerman titled her book  Hiking the Horizontal. She didn’t agree with the hierarchy of certain theaters and certain forms of dance being considered the top. Wanting to put all types of dance on a level playing field, she calls her approach “hiking the horizontal.” She’s particularly interested in how to make dances for different populations. Curiosity drives her to research what’s on the horizon.

I love ballet and am thankful to Dance Magazine for giving me the opportunity to re-enter the ballet world, which I was very passionate about while I was growing up—before I became a (post)modern dancer.

I just wish people would have fewer assumptions about ballet and realize that every genre of dance makes a unique contribution.

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