By All Possible Means
A Look at the Relationship Between Words and Movement
BY LIZ LERMAN
This article was originally published in Movement Research where it appeared in a special Fall/Winter 1994/95 issue devoted to the relationship between speech and movement.
Just recently, after a performance on the Ohio State Campus sponsored by the Wexner Center, several of the dancers from my company and I went to speak before a class of general education students. They had been required to see our concert as part of the survey course they were taking on dance and theater in the 20th century. We arrived at the classroom and began the discussion by asking them to tell us what they had connected to during the concert: which dances, which dancers, what moments, which movements, which images? The hands flew up and a quick series of answers portrayed an exciting, diverse, communal response to our work.
I wish the local dance critic, who had complained bitterly about our use of talking and dancing, had been there to listen. Because what this audience of some 60 twenty-year-olds liked, needed, responded to, was the relationship between the language and the dancing. Over and over, they spoke of integrating the two mediums and consequently enjoying the irony, the puns, the jokes, the spontaneity, the symbols and the metaphoric properties of the dancing...for them the combination was in the best sense challenging, satisfying, delightful and "new."
Having worked with text and movement since the early 70's, I am no longer surprised by the difference in the reception by that critic and by that group of students. The dance audiences I meet in senior centers, synagogues and churches, schools, prisons, in concert halls, college campus dance programs, artist colonies and conferences, are relieved, excited and profoundly affected by the dancing and talking. It is only among the most pure dance folks that the use of language brings suspicions. In fact, one way to define a dance purist is a person who wants to see only the movement.
I am at times myself sympathetic to this need. In fact my most private dance moments are almost always quiet. But at least for me, the demands of being an artist right now in history, seem to require we use every element within our power in order to make work which addresses our private visions and public realities. Language is one such element.
It may come as a surprise to people who have seen my work, but I did not always talk and dance. For me, beginning to study dance seriously at the age of five, meant entering a quiet world of intense physical training where talking was banned and even a certain kind of thinking was discouraged. But during the years of study, questions dogged my path... questions about the nature of dance as a performing art form and the structures in which it is experienced. Questions such as: "who are we dancing for? why are we dancing? who gets to do the dancing? why do some people watch and other people get to move? what are we dancing about? and why this movement instead of that one?" I consider my attempt to answer these questions as one of the driving forces in my work. And that drive took me down two sometimes distinct and sometimes overlapping paths of investigation. One path is the art of community engagement and the other is talking and dancing.
At some point in my reflection on these matters (and what dancer doesn't ask these over and over?) I decided that if we all danced, I mean literally, if everyone is dancing then the talking, the narrative line, the "aboutness" of dance would be unnecessary. After all, dancing, with its own form of communicating from moment to moment, is a comprehensible medium for those participating. It is just that when some people watch and some people dance the rules change....and that is where the specificity of language enters the scene.
This point is arguable for sure. I think that most of us in the dance/performance world think our audiences still connect with us in some visceral, tribal way. But I actually think this is no longer the case, except for audience members who took the same technique class that morning, or who have watched dance for years and years. I think that people are mostly so removed from physical learning that dance concerts are just too distant a form for most people to feel the kind of connection that those of us making dance seem to expect. Thus, there’s the emphasis in my own work on community and participation...and, yes, the use of language as a way into the physical memory, kinship, feeling and ultimately nonverbal, non-translatable experience that dance can sometime bring about.
So if I didn't always talk, what made me start? If every bit of my dance training was about silence, about pressing mysterious forms of communication into my muscles, then what started me on the dizzy path of language? What follows is a brief, made-today diary of the little moments of experience that have brought me to this place today, a place which recognizes the power of pure movement, the delight of language on its own terms, and the limitless possibilities of asserting that the two belong together, too.
1967: Merce Cunningham and John Cage at Brandeis University performing "How to Pass Kick Run and Fall." Cage is sitting at the side of the stage telling stories. The dancers are moving in a fast clipped abstract form that I had recently been studying at Bennington College, but as yet had not integrated into my midwest lyrical personal style. Suddenly, or rather during the course of the dance, my whole being woke up. I became alert, almost frantic with energy, and very determined to try dancing again. At the time I didn't have a clue as to why. Only later, in retrospect, was I able to see that the talking gave me a way into the movement vocabulary which even I, already seriously trained, could not link with. But the stories brought me to a total engagement with the theatrical event.
1970: Composition class at the University of Maryland with Ms. Betty Moehlencamp, doing Louis Horst's "Pre-Classic Form." I complete a little study, sit down to await the criticism. My teacher asks if everyone could hear me singing, sighing, breathing, being generally noisy under my breath? She means it as a sign of my connectedness to the movement. I am embarrassed.
1971: After teaching dance in high school for a year I decide to study theater over the summer at Arena Stage. My teacher is Robert Prosky. For the first two weeks all is fine. We are improvising with movement, and my only task is to try to not look like a dancer (something I am still struggling with). But one night we are asked to do a scene with language (I think skit is more appropriate...it is hot, it is summer and if feels like camp). After my meager attempt (perhaps I say two or three words) I sit down, shaking and sweating. Why am I so terrified to open my mouth? I repeat to myself that this is why I am a dancer, so that I don't have to talk...a mantra I hear repeated every time I teach voice and movement to dancers today. But even as I utter those words to myself I know that something more powerful is at stake. I just don't know what.
1971-72: I study for two summers with Twyla Tharp at American University. During the first summer there are only a about ten of us. We take a barre each morning, and each of us must take turns teaching it. We are in a huge cavern of a gymnasium. I notice how differently I perform the movement when it is my turn to teach and I am bellowing the counts.
1973: I am teaching many adults who are new to dance. I notice how much fun they have if I make them sing, or count aloud, or make sounds while they do simple combinations of difficult technical ideas such as plies. I also notice that they perform the movement better and that their countenances shine when they are being vocal as well as physical. This bears more watching and experimentation.
1974: I am a go-go dancer in New York trying to earn a living and continue my study. I am in the ugly bathroom of some bar getting ready for my turn on the "stage" and I see myself in the mirror and think about Martha Graham in "A Dancer's World" as she talks about the nature of art and what it means to be a performer. I laugh at the thought, at myself and at my condition. I think: how can I use this odd moment of connection with my history in a dance piece? I decide that I could "tell" itstraight...a monologue in the middle of some dancing number. And I do. New York City Winter is the first dance I make as a conscious adult choreographer, and I find it thrilling as a performer to be that direct with an audience. I tell them exactly what it is like to be a go-go dancer and I dance about other aspects of the experience. I dance about things I don't want to tell.
1975: My mother dies of cancer. I make my second dance as an adult, "Woman of the Clear Vision". It is about my mother's death. My friend, Toby Tate, composes the music. He says after watching the first version..."very nice, very powerful but no one will know it is about your mother" He is right. I decide to begin the piece with another brief monologue, except that this time I am dancing and talking at the same time. I like how it feels together.
1978: Ever my father's daughter and my brothers' sister, I decide to do a piece about sports and art. I read and read about sports fans, sports icons, about the guys. In the end I create 10 movement phrases and a three page script. I put them together randomly. Who’s on First? is a hit. I begin to notice others are talking and dancing too and wonder how many of us have taken the dictum that Cunningham and Cage handed down to us about separating the music and the movement. How many of us are using this method to explore the possibility of text?
1980: I make a piece to Peter Handke's play Self Accusation It alters my whole relationship to movement. In it, I take each word and make myself find a movement for it. Finally I have found a personal way to break the lyrical line. I am thrilled and live off the discovery for five years. I call this kind of choreographing with words “equivalents.” I use it heavily in senior centers as a way to get people to make up interesting movement quickly which they can “understand.”
1980-83: The knowledge I gain from the Handke piece makes it possible for me to do a series of dances I call Docudances. Here, I begin to use text that is information based. It is not about a story, or about me, or about the people dancing. It is facts, figures, government dialect. And clearly the dancing and the words team up for a new effect. I claim that it gives me a way to combine information and feeling, and cite the news and most art experiences as examples of how our culture continues to separate these phenomena.
1983-85: I work on a piece about Russian history. Here I discover the limits of non-fiction dancing and find my way back to art through personal story. The first version of the dance is really an animated text book covering only the most general of ideas and portraits. It is only after I begin weaving my Russian/Jewish grandfather's history into the bigger picture that I see why I am a choreographer and not just a very bad historian. It is when I tell his story and mine in the context of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire that the work begins to be fresh. In this full length piece I return to the idea of simply sitting and telling a story without always having to "dance" to the words. And I discover the fun of taking visual images from photographs and posters and describing the images in words while finding a movement subtext.
1985-89: I am teaching many workshops about words and movement. I see the strengths of different methods and I see the ensuing debates. The question of being literal comes up a lot. I argue that being literal is not the problem. Pretending and redundancy are the problems. Pretense gives interpretive movement a bad reputation and I press my students to be direct in communicating an idea. Often words help to find the specific movement, even if the language is dropped from the final version. And we often we discuss the problem of being redundant. I patiently explain that the words and the movement can do different things at the same time, and that one does not have to detract from the mystery of the other. This whole discussion begins to lead to other internal debates about context, about program notes, about how much you tell. There is an art to everything, I keep saying.
1990: I am tired of movement equivalents. I am tired of random selection of movement phrases with scripts. I begin to take notice of what is going on with my work in senior centers, in particular, the relationship of gesture to memory. I begin to see the most beautiful unique idiosyncratic movement coming out of these ancient people, if I ask the right questions. I translate this to company work along with some new approaches to emotional subtext. I am regenerated in the search for meaningful movement.
1991: I take a workshop at Alternate Roots where my friend and esteemed colleague Celeste Miller introduces me to the idea of details inside a story. This gives me a way to be quite literal without being redundant. It feels like information that will feed me for a very long time.
1992: I make a new dance, Anatomy of an Inside Story, in collaboration with the associate artistic director of the Dance Exchange, Kim Boyd. We use many different methods to find the movement for these intense family stories about growing up Black and female in this country. But finally I view the movement as not illustrative of the language at all, but rather as a motor that keeps the dancer going. There is no way that Kim could tell the stories without the dancing, and probably no way the audience could hear them either. The dancing is a kind of ever-present witness, soul, or just in the present experience for the dancer and the audience as she recounts a painful, sometimes glorious, funny past.
1992: We begin to work on The Good Jew? Our composer, Andy Teirstein gets us to chant as in my own Hebrew tradition (although I myself grew up hardly every singing). It is a revelation and takes the language to a new level of poetry.
1993: Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey and the Rock composes a new work for us called Safe House Still Looking. Again the singing. Again the sense that there is a whole new (although clearly ancient) way to work for the dancers. "Take the words out of my mouth," she says to us in rehearsal, and that is a very physical act.
1994: I am back at Ohio State, where I began this article. I have been looking at student work. The issue of talking and dancing is clearly on people's minds. There are comments that lead me to think that "if you can really dance or choreograph you wouldn't use voice." I try not to feel bad. One very talented young man comes up to me, having heard me speak earlier in the day. He says to me "You mean there are methods for how to put talking and dancing together? You mean you can teach it?" I smile. Yes, there are lots of approaches I can show you, and lots more you will discover. And maybe you will be of a generation where those who write about dance will grasp the importance of this form. They will grapple with you, about the abundant aesthetic questions this work raises, and they will delight in the opportunity to address the subject matter which you so ardently care to think and dance about. They will be glad to participate with you in exploring the juiciness and messiness and loveliness of tearing down artificial walls in order to see what's behind and what's in front of the walls and the people.