A Stumble on Dance Footage

Why performance footage doesn’t match up with how it feels to dance.

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You know those digital tablets where you have to sign your name, maybe at a counter, or to receive a package at your front door? The last time I used one was when I opened a bank account in Berlin; I signed my name on that small dark screen about five times. At the end of the appointment, the agent handed me a printed packet with all of my information, including all of those digital signatures. Each one looked different, and not at all what I had pictured while I was writing it.

When I see videos of myself dancing, it’s really hard not to perceive the recording in the same way I view those digital signatures. Just like the signatures, the result goes against reason: I know how to sign my name, and it looks the same every time. I have an idea of what I want to communicate, and how I want the result to look. It’s the same with dancing. So then why isn’t the footage true to the performance experience? A single thing separates dance from the other visual arts: it is a passing moment – a three-dimensional, living, breathing, expression. The way I dance is my signature.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately learning how to articulate what it’s like to watch other people dancing. That’s because after all of these years, I am still a die-hard ballet enthusiast. Of watching footage of myself dancing, I can only say it’s less than enjoyable. Sound self-deprecating? I don’t know another dancer who feels much differently. To try to explain the divide, I offer a glimpse into what it feels like to dance. I think it is this sensation that separates the experience of live performance from the film’s dull aftermath.

When I stand at the barre, feeling my body forming the positions that I’ve painstakingly trained it to make, a tingling sense of weightlessness creeps into the back of my spine, right between my shoulder blades. It’s a freedom that comes from years of developing my own extreme body control. I feel the familiar alertness trickle across my shoulders and down the backs of my arms, raising the hairs as it moves. Energy radiates out of my fingertips. The same energy extends out of the top of my head, through the center of my body, down through my feet into the floor, and in front of and behind me, radiating in all directions.

Of course I don’t stay at the barre, but that’s where I collect the energy and organize how to use it. Then, in the center of the room, I face the challenge of letting go. This can be hard for me; there are so many details that I’m working on all the time, and I’m afraid that if I don’t think about everything constantly, my movements will come out looking like that dreaded digital signature: pure chaos. Releasing into the movements, though – really giving in – usually helps me let the energy do its job.

The energy has a mind of its own – if I gave it complete control, I’d whirl off-course. But over time I’ve learned to harness the energy by channeling it through the music that I hear. Dancers from different schools have different relationships to the music, but my background taught me to anticipate just enough to be able show what the music is doing. If not, it would look like I’m dragging behind, or just not listening – the most inconsiderate of offenses. But that’s just my opinion.

I play a game of catch and release: throw the energy in a direction, let the music carry it through. The game takes practice, but it’s fun and there’s always something new to try. There are so many possibilities, even within the structure of choreography with set counts. And nobody can say that the expression isn’t mine if the choreography is someone else’s. It’s my body, my signature, my expression.

The greatest moment for me (and I’m sure you’ve heard it before) is the first performance after a rehearsal period. So much about the long process has been about figuring things out: fitting with the others, building strength and endurance, pushing past aches and pains. I like to think of this phase as gathering our collective energy. In the performance, though, we let go. When we’ve prepared for it, the weightlessness creeps in, picks us up from underneath our shoulder blades, and carries us through. The experience has exactly that other-worldly quality; how else do you explain why a half hour onstage feels both like ten seconds and ten years at the same time?

When I look back at the footage, there will probably be some moments that I enjoy (mixed in with the cringe-worthy ones). Mostly, the positive moments will trigger the memory of what it felt like to dance those parts: The complete stillness before the music began; running onstage from the wing at full speed, feeling the air parting around me; the inhale I took before falling backward, trusting that someone would catch me before I hit the ground. The live audience will have experienced all of these moments with me. They may not have been able to see the energy spurting out of me, but they’ll know that something was there. And they’ll know what my real signature looks like, or at least the energy-charged gestures that produced it.

You can’t capture that kind of energy on film. Well, I haven’t seen it done yet. I’m happy to have the chance to play around with words, even if in this case, they construct something that seems more like fantasy than reality. But the dance is meant to lift the viewer away from reality, at least for the duration of the performance. And if words can help in the process, then I’ll keep trying.

(photo by Eric Koyama)

 

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