A Reflection on Johannesburg's Dance Umbrella Festival 2016
I am sitting here in my sweaty, wet dance clothes, having doused myself in Icey Hot and feeling like every muscle in my body is made out of jell-o, and my mind is wandering like mad around ideas of process and product.
Have you ever stood in first-position plié attempting to vibrate your entire body for 25 minutes straight? And then combined that with intricate and fast torso movements? And then went on to dance vigorously for an additional hour doing sequences with long leg extensions, precarious balances, advanced floor work, and ever-changing spinal undulations?
Then you have never experienced the sheer joy and pain of Gregory Maqoma's dance class.
This was my third master class I have taken as part of the Dance Umbrella festival, my third day in a row being asked to push the physical limits of my body and commit wholly to full physical expression- so yeah, I'm pretty freakin sore. But my mind is teaming with thoughts, feelings, ideas, and inspiration from these vastly diverse encounters.
For example, I saw "Terra Chã", an evening-length dance work by a Portuguese-based choreographer, Nelia Pinheiro, two nights ago. And with all due respect, I kind of hated it. Yes, I know the word "hate" is kind of harsh, but #SorryNotSorry, I'm a picky dance viewer. And I have so little tolerance for dance shows that could've expressed what they wanted to express in 10 minutes total time, but insist on dragging out for an entire hour instead. Yes I can appreciate the intense physical investigation, the stamina of the dancers, and the commitment to really develop fully one plain idea... but damn. I just get so bored. The whole time I was watching the show I had Susan Foster's voice playing like a broken record in my head, "every dance is too long, every dance is too long, every dance is too long...". And why must the partnering work be so gendered? Why did 85% of the women's movement consist of being picked up by the male dancers? Why were the two dancers of color playing such auxiliary roles, literally there to just "assist" the other dancers? And what did the melodramatic crushing of the watermelon at the end of the show signify? Why must dance be so cryptic sometimes?
So this particular product, I was clearly not a huge fan of. But the very next day (yesterday), I got the chance to take Nelia Pinheiro's master class, and the two experiences could not have been more opposite.
Nelia Pinheiro was an inviting and engaging dance teacher, and her movement process consisted almost entirely of improvisation and partner work- training our bodies to truly listen to one another, seeing movement as speaking and expressing, rather than "dancing", breaking our instinct to create aesthetically interesting movement- motivated by external criteria- and encouraging us to initiate our movement from an internal place, emphasizing our skeleton and bones. It was one of the more delicious dance classes I have taken in a long time, and it allowed me to access a new and exciting movement language within myself and to really experience a movement dialogue with each of the different partners I got to dance with. And then, at the end of class, when I found out that day was Nelia's 50th birthday, I damn near lost it- the woman didn't look older than 38 years old! I left wanting to be her when I grew up.
This morning I woke up excited to take master class again, because I knew Gregory Maqoma was teaching it. My first encounter with his work was at REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles back in 2007, when I was a bright-eyed, green sophmore in college. I don't even remember much about his work, but I remember how it made me feel- alive, ignited, moved, inspired. Getting the chance to connect with him and his company was one of the prospects I was most looking forward to in planning this trip to South Africa. And finally, this morning I got to meet him and take class from him.
Let's just say the man is a freak of nature. The insanely liquid and articulate quality of his torso, the rich rhythms and grooves he plays with, his long and strong limbs that seem to grow forever in all directions, and his ability to seamless flow in and out, in between and through all these seemingly disparate elements... I fell in love all over again.
But I also struggled like a fish out of water, because as juicy and rhythmic as Gregory's class was, it was also incredibly technical and required the ability to balance for long periods of time on one leg and to have these long sweeping extensions that I simply lack. As much as I like to think I am a great of a dancer, and as true as that can be/as much as I can shine in some contexts, I really can crash and burn in others.
There's a curious thing that happens to professional dancers when they take dance class, particularly from teachers or choreographers who they are not used to working with. Either we love it, and it affirms for us our years of training and proves that we truly are doing what we're meant to do in this world, or we feel absolutely inadequate and it makes us question our very careers and like maybe we should consider becoming an accountant after all.
I experienced both of these extremes in the last 48 hours.
Nelia Pinheiro's "product", the dance show that I felt incredibly critical of and did not enjoy, ended up entailing a "process" that deeply spoke to and resonated with me, whereas Gregory Maqoma's work, which I have been a huge fan of for years and years, actually ended up fitting very strangely in my body and making me feel like a struggling dancer.
Obviously there's always room to grow and so much to learn from experiences that make us feel crazy at first (sometimes that very feeling is the indicator for the area we need to work on). But as a mover of so many different languages- modern and contemporary dance, Afro-Latin and urban/street dances- I struggle with this search for "where do I fit in?".
What choreographers can I work with, what companies will embrace all aspects of me, what schools and programs will be worth me training at, what kind of process do I want to employ that allows me to draw from all these diverse worlds, what kind of work am I interested in creating and is there anyone out there doing something similar?
The "jack of all trades, master of none" feeling is definitely one that I am constantly struggling with, and the antidote seems to be more and more that I need to focus on developing my own artistic voice, rather than trying to make myself fit into others'. But at the moment, I am somewhere in between- emerging as a choreographer, and meanwhile, trying to learn as much as I can from elders and mentors.
Learner and creator, mover and thinker, process and product.