"The Waves" by Virginia Woolf is my current choreographic proposition. Decided to zoom into Rhoda. I am not like her. I know this. But something about the way her thoughts are formulated, the things she notices. I feel that we have an understanding.
Things I may know about Rhoda (Subject to change):
She is mostly water, then earth. She has a little air to her, and almost no fire whatsoever, save for the dry heat of the desert.
She might be an orphan, and I don’t know how this got past me before. Another character says “Rhoda has no father.” And as she is falling asleep, she imagines her aunt coming to fetch her. No mention of mother.
She likes to be alone. Or rather, she is often “left alone.”
No good at math.
Not particularly interested in meaning.
The space between the shoulders is important to her.
She is mostly white. She likes the white petals best.
She needs to reassure herself by touching hard, solid things- the rail at the end of the bed for instance.
She folds her frock and chemise at the end of they day..
She thinks of death often, even as a child. She throws a twig into the basin to save a “drowning sailor” and one of her desert marchers “will die in the desert).
Anyway, I took the Rhoda Action Compendium and used chance operations to decide the order and then I just got to it, got to the making of the dance. My intuition right now is not good. It feels like faulty logic. So, I let Rhoda and Virginia and a roll of the die get me started. I do believe that, to a degree, the movement material is not so important. It is what I decide to do with it that really determines the choreography. The solo form, oh dear, it is difficult. Tomorrow I will look at the second section. I did a lot of reading and recording today, but maybe got in three minutes of dancing. I watch the video back and realize that most things should really take longer to set in. I listened to Beethoven’s late String Quartets, especially Opus 30 in B flat major, one of the pieces VW was listening to when she wrote The Waves. A bleary first impression but I will continue to listen.
Woolf often repeats the same word within a paragraph and then not again for a great deal of time. I am thinking now of FIBRE, BONFIRE, PLUME. I believe there are others. Also I am curious if the interludes serve as sort of an image bank for the proceeding chapter. I noticed the blue thumbprint from the introductory section return. Also, fibres. Others too, I think. It is worth a second look, for sure.
Early this evening, I walked to town with Barry, Anne and Giovanna. We floated in the sea for half an hour. I felt the salt water raise me up and relieve me of gravity, a welcome salty sensation. My eyes and skin feel dry and tight now. The water was warm, the sky was soft and blue. I floated on my back most of the time, sometimes doing an exaggerated made-up stroke, doing some backflips, seeing how far down the sand went.
Tonight, as the sun was setting (Barry taught me the Italian name for sunset, “Between the mountains” but my mouth has forgotten how to say it), the sky was this incredibly hazy pink, and the sun was a fluorescent deep orangey red pink. It stood out against the soft sky like a sticker. Just now, I caught, from my balcony, the finale of some fireworks that were being lit in a neighboring town on the sea. Mostly red, very beautiful, and very low in the sky.
There is a two kilometer promenade at the edge of the sea- all soft teal and brick. The sunrise was soft and blurry, and lit the clouds up with a pink shiver. We walked, stopped for a cappuccino and returned- a two hour excursion in all, and now I feel warm and ready to move. My mind feels a bit blank today. I don’t know what I want to work on, save that I know have five-ish minutes of material to work with. I have a vision of the beginning of the dance- hands filled with water and slowly the water falls away from the hands, and the water is allowed to fully evaporate from the skin before the dance moves on.
Maybe today I will revisit and begin to specify what I made yesterday. The Rhoda actions from part one, scrambled. I think there is a logic in it. A logic of writing, sailing, marching, and interrupting. The next section, which I have begun to look at, cursorily, is more sensuous, more a dance. I think it will be easier for me to work with it. “Even my body now lets the light through.” Something about her spine soft as melting wax. It is a suggestion, not a script. I will move away from the script.
I am finding music to be problematic. I have been listening to the Beethoven late quartets, but having a bit of difficulty connecting them to The Waves. I am listening all the same.
Walked down into the gardens and watched for little green lizards and long brown snakes who shared the path. A cicada began sounding- first slowly, so I was unsure whether it was an insect or bird, and then regularly, relentlessly, loudly. I sat on a bench on some dry grass and looked at the sea- surfaced with boats and swimmers, and the pine trees, leaning away from their cliffs, out to the sea.
I started thinking about my grandparents, and their cicadas, their oeuvre. I recall rolling down the windows of their car and listening for the particularity of one cicada's sound. We would park the car, and then seek it out, individually, specifically, with intense focus. We would drive around the southwest like this for hours, stopping occasionally at some native american jewelry market or Mesa Verde national park, tucked into a cliff. At the time, I found it fascinating, being a part of their work. they, in their matching tee shirts and their penchant for canned deli meat and mustard sandwiches from a cooler. Sometimes pickles, too. Every night we would stay at a hotel, to which I was not accustomed. I would accompany papa on his morning walk. Once I got back to the hotel before he did and opened the door. My grandmother was standing there with her back towards me, naked, drying her hair- part of some degas painting. I remember noticing that her body looked like a young woman's body- we were both embarrassed, and I think I left quickly. Another day, we went to mexico, and the tortillas were incredible. I picked out a white dress with grey and black accents at a street market. That night, I took a shower, and I could not find my conditioner, so I used only shampoo and it left my hair tangled. I clipped it into a barrette and put on my new dress so that we could go to dinner to meet one of their former students. We walked through an orange grove to get there. There were oranges on the trees. I remember wanting to pick one, but I don't remember if I did or not.
After we caught the cicadas, we would put them in the cooler- to cool them down so they would stop moving. Then they would do some tests and measurements, and then we would put them in styrofoam cups and hold a heat lamp over them. Gradually, as they thawed, they started moving. As they got hotter, they moved more and more frantically until at last they expired. My grandfather would then stick a thin-needled thermometer into the body and record the internal temperature at which it died. I remember that it was clinical and smart- but also torturous, morbid, and exciting. The next year I visited them in Texas and they showed me their drawers and drawers of cicada corpses, carefully labeled by species, sex, location and date with little pins. Then we went and looked at the Texas wildflowers.
Meeting some resistance in the studio. I now have, sort of, two little sections worked out, but just movement, not really structure. The first is more adherent, and the second a bit more removed, since I was working with the idea of suggestions- what does the text suggest? What does the character suggest? I'm pulling this one character out, and by character I do mean texture, voice, melody, quality, and not necessarily PERSON. Anyway, I think maybe it might start to fall apart….in a good way, more potential for layers, improvisation. I have also gathered some sounds- rain on the beach in Capolungo…a few older women talking on the shore. I have this idea of having a READING RESIDENCY, where all I do is read, and become something better in the process.
Apparently VW visited Lerici, a town in Liguria in 1933. She wrote: “A windy little town. High houses, Mediterranean, painted in pink and yellow, full of sea spray. Is there a word that describes the fullness of the sea?”
I am discovering more possibilities outside than inside, I have to say. I have been working on this rectangular, relatively flat landing of grass, with some large agaves and a couple of benches, overlooking the sea, and full of cicada sounds. The sounds of the waves are close, and the sun warms me, lubricates my muscles and my mind. Yesterday, I saw a man rowing on the sea, and I began working with the elliptical movements of my arms, and the variations there. I also found a possibility of moving, on my knees, my feet first, and then letting the knees follow, all the while seeing and being seen. The sound of dry grass crackling under me as I dance is also exciting. There is a railing there, separating me from the rocks far below, that I sometimes fall towards or catch myself on when I am improvising. I have been recording some of the improvisations, then learning them, not verbatim as I believe Neil does, but by sifting through them for “moments of being” as the case may be. This is a tedious task, but I believe my movement has more force when I am improvising, letting the thoughts fall as they appear. When I try to compose, slowly, in the studio, often it is too calculated, slow moving, predicatable. It lacks a rush, a force.
I am beginning to think more of these characters, these strains, these threads, these textures. Of course, first of all I have Woolf and her words and my devotion to her. But then I have Rhoda, which I have lifted out of all that and laid separate. And I also have myself, my habits, my history, my experience. And in that experience, I have other threads I may or may not follow- I have the thread of my grandparents, the cicada experts. I also have the sounds- the bells, the cicadas, the waves themselves, which become more and more important as we go on.
The environment, this glorious one specifically, rather than a distraction, has become a texture too, a CONDITION for working. I need to enter into it, literally. Sweating in the sun, letting the regular irregular threes of the cicadas seep in, and the constant rush of the train takes me, uproots me, lets me wander. Rhoda too has a scene on the train on the first day of the summer holidays, where she sees silence closing over her past, behind her as she moves forward. Yes, there is something about not having a home, something that makes it difficult for me to sleep.
Anyway, I am interested in the SPECIFIC PLACE in which I am making this thing, in which I will continue to make it, rather than the nebulous, sterile SPACE of the studio.
I am noticing that often the first quick improvisation of the day is best- even if it is just thirty seconds, a shock , a jaunt.
I am working with three sections at the moment, which correspond to rhoda’s three sections in the text. The first relies on methodology, action, chance, words. The second is more a SUGGESTION- what does the text suggest, not word for word, but in general poetic concepts. The third is more intuitive I think, following these threads. Letting the text background the other characters, hold them, more sweeping, faster, less self-conscious.
Interesting that the bird Rhoda repeats in the third section is swallow, as if it is a threat to engulf her and render her invisible, as she often desires. To disappear, and indeed at the end she does.
I want traces of the novel all through the dance, but there is also this object thing. It is inspired by Rhoda’s talismans and amulets, guarding against disaster, a nod to her dingle where she can lay out her treasures. Mine are snail shells, peach pits, fortune tellers folded out of paper and black pepper (the shock of sensation, interruption).
Rhoda’s uncertaintly. A poetics of the uncertain, a strength, a fluidity, and unfixed quality. Her understanding is provisional. She even changes her mind: “I hate all the details of the individual life.” But, do you?
The sort of FORMAL REFRAINS laced through the book. The door opens, the tiger leaps. The swallow dips her wings. I have no face. Oh, to whom? The veil dropping down. The ships rocking. The square set upon the oblong and vice versa.
Reducing the novel to fifteen pages of information, because the whole thing is too much.
When I was nine years old, my family lost our home and all our belongings in a fire. I remember my mother’s attempts to salvage her burnt photos; gingerly peeling their melted edges away from each other and then wiping them with a damp cloth to remove the ash. Most of the images were inadvertently removed along with the soot, leaving behind a series of vague, chafed slips of paper which had previously held two-dimensional reminders of instants in our lives. Only many years later did I notice that the event of the house fire coincided with my devotion to classical ballet—I withdrew from my recreational jazz and tap classes in favor of a rigorous training program which restored purpose to the lattice of temporary bedrooms and meaningless objects that had been thrown over life as I knew it.
From a very young age, I believed that sensation was more important than appearance—that the feeling of a memory was more important than a photograph of it, that the sensual immediacy of each ballet step was more valuable than its cosmetic geometry. Rather than experiencing ballet as a set of positions or fixed sequences, I adored its invitation to move: to always be unfolding, changing, becoming. I understood, too, that becoming was not a linear process: that burning down was just as much a becoming as building up, that wiping a photo clean was just as much a becoming as allowing it to develop in a dark room.
The fire’s interruption has subtly shaped my perception and my work for over twenty years. Throughout those years, dance has been a consistent model for understanding impermanence, ownership, and contradiction. The concurrent threads of catastrophe and movement coded in me an ethics of recognizing potential without expectation, and not assuming an event has fixed meaning. As a choreographer, I have bred in myself both a capacity for detachment, and a deep regard for histories: my own, my family’s, and the broader context of dance-making in which I situate myself.
My work leans toward the more formal edge of the post-modern spectrum. Ballet’s central tenets, as I understand them, are opposition, verticality, rhythm, and relationship to gravity (be it acknowledgment of weight or suspension of it). These precepts are an undercurrent for my work, manifesting in ways that may not appear explicitly classical. Returning to the ballet value system allows me to renew and reanimate specific and familiar material. It is an epistemological investigation which pulls back the curtain on the inherent knowledge of the ballet form rather than its mechanics.
Aside from my consideration of ballet, I am extremely impressed by the force and vision of literature, and much of my recent work exists at the interface of dance and literary theory. I have spent the past three years researching and relating to modernist writer Virginia Woolf’s novels which are, for me, choreographic propositions as well as dramaturgical resources. Allowing what Woolf calls “the porous body” to rise to the surface of a particularly disembodied field of scholarly engagement, I aim to contribute a choreographic perspective to the existing discourse on Woolf. This Woolf research has emerged as a new voice in my work, joining with the two I heard previously: my early experience of impermanence, and the impact of balletic logic.
The basement of my home in Illinois, built on the same foundation as the one we lost so many years ago, still smells like smoke. I remember the house when it was a burned out skeleton before demolition. The façade of the exterior had been torn off, but the burnt grid of incomplete walls and caved in floors still told the story of the rooms it used to hold. Some of the house’s strongest beams were so unfazed by the event that the new house was built around them. I can identify analogous beams in my choreography which have become clear over the past decade, and which continue to be built up and bared again through my research, practice and performance.
As a child, I remember creating origami “fortune tellers.” What began as a square of paper- blank and even, was repeatedly and exactingly folded in on itself until a neat structure rose up: a four-petaled flower that opened and shut if you moved your fingers just so underneath the paper. My sisters and I would fold a fortune teller into existence whenever a big decision was to be made. The person who needed help deciding chose a number written on the outside layer, then a color on the inside layer, and finally one of eight paper flaps was lifted to reveal the fated choice. Slightly more sensual and less mathematical than Merce Cunningham’s dice, it was my childhood surrender to a mechanism outside myself. I would play with them until the sharp folds wore through the paper, then start with a blank sheet of paper again.
Begin by beginning. For me, curiosity and consideration fall short of action in the early stages. Make one decision. Make another. With each successive decision, some possibilities become highly unlikely, and others come to the surface. Slowly, deliberately, the dance begins to differentiate itself from potential at large, and it begins to look like one specified possibility: one way of being in the world. Neil Greenberg calls this gradual limiting of possibilities “positive censorship.” Anne Bogart calls decision a “violent act.” A single decision, she says, “destroys every other possible choice.” When I am in the studio, I begin. I make something quickly. I hold off on making snap-judgements about its value.
If I do not immediately like something, I require myself to make three choreographic decisions about it before I let it go entirely.
Decisions don’t accumulate, layer after layer, like coats of paint. A dance is more like the live investigation of an archaeologist’s dig site. Deeper and deeper you go, brushing away the non-dance (decision by decision) as you get closer to the center. The word “decision” itself means to cut off or cut away. Decisions, though limiting, give your process creative traction. Decisions force you to narrow in on your questions.
Do not ask a question if you assume you already know the answer. Assuming the answer is not helpful, and often leads to cosmetic decisions.
I have found that the most useful choreographic decisions are made when I am alert to the present potential of my dance, rather than the potential I imagine or prepare for outside of rehearsals. George Balanchine, misogyny aside, was particularly attuned to this throughout the making of “Serenade” in 1934. He and the dancers were rehearsing the ballet when one ballerina slipped and fell as she exited. Balanchine asked her to keep the fall, so the story goes, and it is now an iconic moment in the ballet. You have to be ready to let go of what you thought you wanted and surrender to what it is becoming.
To choreograph is to make decisions about with what is immediately before you. Sometimes, the trickiest part about making a dance is seeing what is actually there, rather than seeing what you want to see or imagining what you would like it to be. And yet, on the flip side of that idea is a recurring question: what else, besides this, might this dance become? Choreographically, most decisions are reversible (though not entirely eraseable). I try as many what-ifs as I can manage. A decision that feels small or incongruent in the moment can turn into something integral as the form and the logic of the dance emerge.
Always try the dumbest option first (In my experience, the dumb option will nag at me until I try it. May as well get it out of the way. Occasionally, the dumbest option is excellent).
It is worth noting that decision fatigue is real. At some point I will either stop making decisions altogether or I will begin making decisions I later regret. I am currently in the midst of working with a dancer with whom I have a close candid relationship. I will often offer her prompts (“let the bones evaporate from your body”), upon which she makes her own choices. As the director of the dance, I attempt to intuit what belongs to the dance and what doesn’t. Occasionally, the dancer will make a choice that feels cosmetic or mired in habit, and I ask her “Can you make a different choice?” More often than not, the agreement is implicit and unstated as she searches for another possibility. Once, however, she was physically and mentally fatigued by the process. When I asked her if she could make a different choice, she simply said “No.” We laughed about it, but the moment stayed.
Decisions are not answers to questions, but they are responses. I want to enter my work with equal parts inquiry and decision. They play off each other, and yet, in my own work, questioning can give way to hazy and blurry work that cannot withstand more decisions. Decisive work leads to a “rigorously porous” model of working. The decisive work can withstand more questions without caving and becoming something different. How many decisions can you make about this emerging dance before it falls apart?
 Neil Greenberg also refers to choreography as “the set of decisions that are made that influence what the audience experiences.”
 I have also studied extensively with Bogart’s theatre group, SITI company. The company makes decisions (and languages these decisions) through the lens of the “viewpoints”: Tempo, Duration, Kinesthetic Response, Repetition, Shape, Gesture, Architecture, Spatial Relationship and Topography.
 Perhaps this is a leftover from childhood. My father: Even if you don’t like what’s on your plate, you have to have at least three bites of it. My mother: Before you go out to play, you must pick up three things in your room and put them away. A little refrain strung through my life.
 Rather than a linear progression from point A to point B on some shared flat plane, I think of a dance as progressing from point A to point A to point A to point A….the dance becomes more and more itself, rather than transforming into something else entirely. I sometimes think of a treasure map. You can follow it from point A to point B, but you have to know how to dig once you get to the buried treasure. I am embarrassed by this metaphor, but I am deciding to include it anyway.
 From the latin word decidere: “de”=off, “caedere” = to cut. Other words that share in this cutting: precise (cut short), concise (cut away, cut up), incise (cut into).
 I wrote this exact sentence in a notebook in January 2015 around the time I was taking a workshop with Peter Schmitz and Andrea Olsen. I cannot remember if I made this discovery during one of our improvisations, or if one of them said the words out loud. Regardless, it is something I often come back to in my making.
 A question I remember having divined from the work of William Forsythe. Defining what something IS is far less interesting than wondering what else it might become.
 Or you could take a page from Emily Dickinson’s book. Occasionally, one of the words in her poems is marked with a “+” in her manuscripts. In footnotes, she offers several alternatives, some of which drastically change the meanings of the poems. Since her work was published posthumously, however, we as readers are left to speculate on which choices she might have made, had she been alive to make them.
 One of my priorities, as a choreographer, is creating the conditions in which a dancer can pursue her own work, rather than simply executing mine.
 Another catchword I found in a notebook. This time, from my notes on a workshop with Sarah Michelson.
particular location- a desert or expanse of beach | the tension of “re-organizing anatomy” | patterns (in movement and topography) | retreat | hidden and difficult tasks | outside forces at work | multiple attempts at the same thing | gathering and parting, repeated motifs | segmenting the parts of the body, isolating, attending to… | texture of air or space | lulling, entrancing | wing span broad strokes | eyes leading eyes | continuous diminishing | “wilderness” of the watcher, the space to move into one’s own “wilderness” | arrival, with a question mark (?) | shifts of tension in fingers and hands | something happening to you, versus more direct agency | inaudible breathing | the quality of attention had a sense of being able to go on forever | Not exposing logic, opacity. | what is my relationship to “virtuosity?” efficiency? efficacy? Working out my relationship with ballet in a way that is NOT generic.