Back in May, I was sitting in my office at the University of Maryland College Park talking with my friend and fellow dancer Elizabeth Barton. We had recently finished our first choreographic collaboration, a piece called Altared that had premiered at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Eager to get to work on our next project, we brainstormed ideas for a new work for New Street Dance Group’s FringeArts performance in the fall. I told Liz about our tentative theme for the concert, which was inspired by our collaboration with a string quartet. We had decided to play with the theme of “string”: being strung out, strung along, entangled, tied up, etc. Liz considered this theme for a moment, and a rather brilliant idea was born.
I consider myself a “recovering ballerinas,” having devoted much of my youth to the pursuit of a career in ballet, and Liz has also studied ballet intensely. I personally have a very complex relationship with ballet. I love it, I think it is incredibly beautiful, and I’m not-so-secretly jealous of anyone who finds success within the field. However, I hate what ballet does to some women, or at least what it did to me for a while. I felt silenced as a ballerina, as though my authentic artistic voice was less important than how high I could grande battment and how well I followed the choreographer’s instructions precisely. Maybe this is why I like collaborating with the cast to create movement that feels right for them, and incorporating spoke word in so much of my choreography! I also felt uncomfortable in my own body when I studied ballet, as it did not conform to the accepted standard of balletic beauty. I’ve got muscle, I’ve got curves, and as hard as I tried, I could not change that. Ballet often holds its practitioners to a standard femininity that after a while I just couldn’t maintain: I simply wasn’t silent, small, and slyph-like.
(This doesn’t mean that there are not some really excellent ballet instructors and choreographers who are changing this everyday. I wouldn’t have lasted as long in the field if I hadn’t had the experience of working with compassionate, open minded but demanding teachers like Trinette Singleton, who pushed and encouraged me to grow as a ballet artist in spite of my physical limitations. I also teach a lot of ballet, and I hope to be one of those people who continues to push for reforms and make changes within the field.)
Anyway, back to that day in May, when Liz and I were brainstorming in the office. When I brought up the theme of strings, she thought of the ribbons of a pointe shoe, and how we might use them to bind us physically to an object or even to one another. I was struck by the larger meaning: the ribbon could serve as a metaphor for the many things that bind us in our personal and professional lives. As she and I struggled with and against the ribbon, we would exploring what I see as a complex relationship to constraint: the ways in which our physical and perceived limitations both hold us back and at the same time keep us feeling safe and secure. As much as I felt limited by ballet as a teenager, I was more comfortable at the barre than I was in most situations in my life. Ballet, unlike most of adolescence, was a haven in which the rules and ideals were clearly defined, and even though I knew I could not easily live up to them, in pursuing them I felt safe. I could not wait to get into the studio to start exploring all of this through movement!
There are times when choreography is really hard, and this was one of those times. First, there were a number of logistical issues to think through: What kind of ribbon would we use? How could we tie it so that it was both binding but allowed us space and slack to work against? What would we constrain ourselves to? Who would tie us up, and how? Then, there were the narrative considerations: How would this read to the audience? What unintended stories might they tell themselves if they saw two bound, relatively young women dragged on stage? (Having recently seen about 100 different versions of Rite of Spring during it’s 100th anniversary, we were especially aware of this!). Would the story be most effective if we both broke free by then? Or would that be cliche? How long should each arc take – should we follow with the patterns of the music or go with what felt natural from a movement perspective? Finally, there was the actual process of movement creation. Choreographing a dance is not just coming up with steps that look cool and fit together nicely! The movement we chose was based in ballet vocabulary, as ballet itself seemed to be a character in the piece. However, we knew our personal characters were not perfect ballerinas, so we wanted to alter movement so it was not as recognizable as classical ballet steps might be to the audience. We came up with the metaphor of a broken doll as a way to manipulate the movement vocabulary. We added broken wrists and elbows, torsos that flop occasionally, feet that turn in and out, and movement that doesn’t always quite flow. Characterizing ourselves as broken dolls inspired me to play with my focus; my eyes wanted to shift creepily and blink dramatically, like a toy coming to life in a scary movement.
The final element we added to the piece was a chorus of other dancers. These dancers are representative of the “outside world” that lay just beyond the constraints of the ribbon. The chorus is free to move in a quirky, lively, and entirely individual fashion, running and jumping across the stage to represent the freedom we hoped to find somehow.
Will Liz and I find that freedom for ourselves? Will we be forced to live in our limitations? Or will we voluntarily cling tightly to the security of our constraints? To find out, come to ChORDED Motion on Saturday, September 14 at 3pm at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. (Order tickets online at http://fringearts.ticketleap.com/chorded-motion/ or purchase in cash at the door!). We look forward to seeing you there!