Using Dance Wisdom to Find Our Way Back to Our Body

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Somewhere in mid-April, outside my apartment, beyond my neighborhood, I started taking up space again in the larger world. It’s a strange feeling to make room after a year inside. Sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying. Always weird.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we are not just walking around without masks, we are learning how to re-enter our bodies. It’s wild outside—meaning the joyous, frustrating combination of New York City and lifted restrictions—but it’s time to hold on to everything that’s still slow.

The pandemic, devastating in many ways, was also a chance to explore the value of the body and everyday life, refocusing your eyes, realizing, as dance critic Edwin Denby wrote: “Everyday life is wonderfully filled with things to see. Not just the movements of people, but the objects around them.” “The shape of the rooms they live in, the decorations the architects have put around windows and doors, the weird way buildings end up in midair.”

In his 1954 essay “Dance, Buildings, and People in the Streets” (which is also the title of a later volume of writing), Denby explores the art and act of seeing, both in performance and in everyday life dance. During the pandemic, I thought a lot about Denby’s reminder to stop looking at the details of everyday life. People slowed down. And just as you can examine the world, you can examine your body.

As vaccines increased, the world changed, not what it is or what it will be. There were dances to be watched in person again this spring; I wondered if it was time to get unlimited MetroCards until May. Some of them were great – like members of the club world performing at the Guggenheim in “Ephrat Asherie’s UnderScored,” part of the Works & Process series. Some of it was forgettable. But most of it seemed right for now: ceremonies in nature, a participatory installation at MoMA, an intimate studio show. In different ways, they all reflected the time we were in—a place in between, on the edge, that wouldn’t last forever. (Tobacco.)

Watching performances is no longer just about the dance itself, it’s a window into where we stand—perhaps a way to pause the world for a second. What does watching and acting in space mean for both dance and life? How does how you feel affect how you see? What should be protected from the pandemic and what can dance teach us about it?

Dance sprouts around us; it’s purposeful, it’s serious, it’s curative, it’s infringing, it’s inclusive, and it’s pretty loose. While theaters haven’t fully opened their doors, choreography has spread to rooftops, parks, studios, cemeteries, and museums.

Procession, performances with an established cast are also everywhere. Why now? Of course, they are practical – they are kept outdoors, do not require excessive choreographic structure. And they feel good for this intermediate time: not exactly shows, but events that are created in the moment. And how they come out – that is, how they look and, more importantly, how they feel – depends on who comes out.

recently 2021 River to River Festival, along with Movement Research, presented three regiments led by Miguel Gutierrez, Okwui Okpokwasili, and the Glorious Blacks. What does it mean to live in our bodies – and in the city – as individuals and as a group? “Coming out of the pandemic and entering this new world was almost like reopening the doors of possibility,” said Lili Chopra, Director of Arts Programs at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. “A participatory moment you do together but can take with you.”

A procession led by Gutierrez at Teardrop Park in lower Manhattan was all about thinking about the terrain we walked on; it was also about slowing down and seeing. Before we started walking, at Gutierrez’s instruction, we performed a movement in which our outstretched arms tossed the air back and forth.

According to him, action can evoke many things; It can be a calling gesture or involve the idea of ​​making a call. It can be about moving or banishing energy. He spoke of the waving as a gesture of reawakening: “Healing,” he chanted, “is not a field of forgetting.”

The gesture was grounding and soothing at a time when many people seem to have thrown the past year and a half out of their minds. It also echoed: as they walked into the park, a pair of kids in a high-rise apartment were seen waving their arms in the same meditative slow motion; they were behind a window but their attention – they watched, copied, moved with us – made the procession important before it really started.

Acting collectively has a hypnotic effect, especially after so much solitude. This idea of ​​unity was at the center of the Global Water Dances 2021, held at Locomotive Lawn in Riverside Park South in June, which uses movement to highlight the cause of clean and safe water. Martha Eddy, dance instructor and one of the event’s coordinators, helped direct a dance in which participants, dancers and spectators waved with their bodies.

“You are starting to feel harmony,” Eddy said about the liberating power of working with others. “And we are building a kind of collective bubbling that both feels the anxiety and unleashes the joy of what humanity can create.”

But bubbling, I found, isn’t just about large groups; It’s not even about being outside. In one-on-one show series, dance artist Kay Ottinger She performed a solo from Melanie Maar as part of a larger project she started with three mentors. Each one goes through an exercise or a piece. For Maar’s solo, Ottinger swirled his body with a thick string of wooden beads wrapped around his waist. Rocking back and forth as she swung around her hips for 20 minutes transformed what was a filthy studio in Judson Church and the air within it.

There is something invaluable about live performance: the energetic exchange between a dancing body and a still and mindful one. Mirror neurons—how a brain cell responds to an action, either when it’s done or simply watched—are loaded. Ottinger and that’s what I felt inside. A participatory “Embodied Senses” Artwork by Chicago-based artist Amanda Williams. Trained as an architect, Williams values ​​space; part of it was one of my favorite experiences with bodies in space – and just me body in space – last year.

For “Embodied Sensations,” presented in the large atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, Williams teamed up with Anna Martine Whitehead, a performance artist from Chicago; The spectator’s task was to follow movement instructions in the middle of a maze of stacked furniture such as benches and chairs that had been removed from parts of the museum due to social distancing protocols.

Each performance included four prompts that the audience performed twice for 30 minutes. One of mine was “Take three full minutes to do absolutely whatever you want in this space”. Another contained a more direct instruction: “Imagine a black hole at the center of this space. Move to the edge of the black hole and practice resisting its pull.”

If the pandemic has increased our awareness of our bodies, “Embodied Sensations” was a way to discover who had the freedom to act and why. One instruction, in part, states, “Imagine yourself as a walking goalpost or a moving target. Decide if you want to be caught or not.”

Williams said in an interview: “I can imagine what my brother’s response would be, what my 7-year-old son’s response would be, what my white upper middle class friend from Cornell would respond. It was incredible to see these people performing at the time.”

But even when the instructions were less loaded, their execution had layers of meaning. In the first round, I felt like I was following the instructions; the second time, I just made them and it had a relaxing effect. I was in space, wearing a mask, and could breathe. Deeply.

Meanwhile, some moments from the pandemic experience echoed: “Choose any field”, one read. “Close your eyes, listen and smell carefully for about 2 minutes. Choose a new place with your eyes closed. Focus on how you feel for a minute. Repeat even if you are bored or tired.”

Haven’t we all been bored and tired in the last year and a half? Are we alone with our emotions? We looked inside, at the body, with no room for great movement. And for those of us who usually watch a lot of live performances, we needed to pay attention to the larger world – examining aspects in nature, the choreography of everyday life. Both were gifts. Now, there is little shortage of dance events and here are two: Coffee Tables BedStuy, annual arts event, July 24; On August 7, Dance ChurchA guided improv class from Seattle takes a tour break in New York.

Or borrow from Williams as a reentry experiment. Close your eyes. Focus on how you feel. And then repeat. Think about how your body stays in the air, not just buildings. It’s all about the pleasure in between.

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