The Sensation is the Image

Writings on Dance 1996English
Writings on Dance No. 14 (Summer 1995-96).

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I never decided to dance. I started very young, at seven years old to make dances, touring. I had a very interesting teacher, a neighbourhood teacher. I started very early in a very innocent way. It was such an intuitive thing, a very unselfconscious habit, even though, as I worked through different stages within the activity of dancing and performing, of making things, I had to withdraw a number of times. But I started very young in this creative world, performing and making dances. And when I was eleven I entered Juilliard, the conservatory for dance in NY, in the children’s division, which meant that every Saturday, from the time I was eleven to sixteen, I studied ballet and Graham and music theory and composition. I had a Saturday life. I never had a daily practice in dance. It continues to this day. This was very formative in terms of how I view what I do as a dancer. I have never really shifted out this experience of not always dancing. There is always more going on in my life than just the practice.


I decided I wanted to continue to choreograph and didn’t want to go to a conservatory to continue the technical training. I’d never really understood anything about training the body from those classes. There was no information. I would just go to a class and would go through a sequence, whoever’s style it was. And that was it. But I was very lucky at Juilliard in that they had a lot of music accompanists who were amazing. They would improvise and there were some extraordinary musicians. I would love to spend the day at Juilliard because of the pianists. I could just dance because there was always music. Nobody seemed to bother me very much. And this is sort of the essence of a lot of things. The pattern from my training is that i was left alone. Nobody told me how to do things better or what i was working on. I remained happily ignorant of what the whole ritual was about So when I was sixteen and was ready to go to colege, I chose to go to Bennington College which was the only place where people choreographed at that time. I went there for a year and a half and didn’t like it and I quit.


In terms of looking at other art forms for inspiration, I found music, film and a kind of theater that was happening at the time --- Open Theater, NY. They were exploring movement and sound, not just language and text. When I quit college, I joined a mime troupe and did children’s theater. I knew nothing about mime. I studied a little Decroux, but it was really right into the frying pan. However, the work of the Open Theatre really intrigued me, in relation to this much more personal movement which I was naturally inclined to. I didn’t have much interest in the styles of moving that I saw in dance. If i remember back to when I was a kid and notice what appealed to me, it was the work of Alwin Nikolais. This was in 1958 to 1963. I was seeing Martha Graham, though not Cunningham yet. But the dances I loved were by Alwin Nikolais. I wasn’t interested in his tricks the psychedelic stuff with the moving cloth. But in the midst of all this amazingly wild, abstract, synaesthetic environment, there was always a solo. And the solo was so detailed and so quirky. No one else in the dance world had any of these very bizarre little movements. That really appealed to me and was very inspiring.


I had to teach in order to make a living but I had no idea what to teach. I didn’t have the vaguest notion what a technique class was, and I was hired to teach technique. That is when I started organizing what I was thinking about. I could only teach ‘teaching’ because that was what I needed to learn about. So my technique classes were based on the belief that everybody was ready to dance, that there was nothing wrong with your physical instrument. After I left Juilliard, when I went to technique classes at Bennington I felt such a lack of dancing in classes. In a way I had been in a hole and I turned to face that hole and I saw it was empty of dancing. So I tried to construct situations where people danced and taught each other. Many different ways of moving would be transmitted. I wasn’t the only one offering the movement to be taught and I didn’t have a method of teaching yet. It was very improvisatory. For two years it was teaching learning and learning teaching. I was bringing people to their habits and asking them to dance from wherever they were at. Dancing didn’t require two arms. There were no requirements to be able to dance. But after a couple of years I realized there was something built into what I was doing that perhaps was encouraging people towards long term injuries. It suddenly occurred to me that I needed to know more about anatomy. I wanted to know how the BODY learned things.


In my performing work at that time I was making large pieces for many people in big environments, and doing lots of improvised work. I started working a lot with musicians, improvising as a dancer, and as a musician. Then I worked in Daniel Nagrin’s company, The Workgroup, in NYC. He was an interesting man. He had been with Helen Tamiris in the 40s. She was a choreographer and he was her main dancer. They were very involved with social politics of the time, with a very humanist, almost socialist politics. In 1970, he was about 53 and he decided he wanted to make an improvisation company. He approached his ideal of people taking individiual responsibility within a group mind and offering who they were. His improvisational forms were inspired by the Open Theater, based on theatre forms—encounters, emotional material based on or discovering conflict. People, instead of speaking, danced their way through these encounters. In the group he assembled, everybody had a different training. There was no physical training that we shared, so the movement languages were very varied. The work I had been doing before was based on musical forms. As a musician myself, I was familiar with basic forms of music...unison, canon, and singing, working with tuning the ear, tuning to each other, listening. But Daniel’s work was more about emotion, very psychological and very exploratory and unformulated in a  lot of ways. He was 55 and the rest of us seven people were between the ages of twenty and twenty-eight. There was this huge age difference which eventually became a problem in the quesiton of leadership and vision. It was quite interesting. I lasted there for almost a year.


The significance of that experience for me was that I realized that I couldn’t function in improvisational collaboration where there was a leader, where there wasn’t an exchange on an equal basis in an improvisational format. I submitted myself to a similar experience once again about ten years later with a similar result. It helped me understand what I valued in improvisaiton. A year after leaving Daniel’s company I quit performing. For the first time I really stopped dancing. Everything was telling me that I had to stop. I was twenty-four and I stopped for maybe two years. To begin again I knew I had to make a commitment as an adult to something I had done unquestioningly since childhood.


When I quit I found a video camera and I started videoing. It was my life raft. I started to video everything in sight. I got involved starting a community television station up in Vermont, videoing pig slaughters and local politics, whatever there was to do; stories, theatre, people working, people painting fences, everything. But I suffered so much for not dancing. I was surprised at how much I suffered. I didn’t remove myself from the field. I was also videoing dance a lot. I remember going on a tour with Steve Paxton, a contact Improvisation tour, as the videomaker.... that was painful. I really pulled back. I had to be on the other side of dancing for the first time, and look at it, and say: what is this thing, this dancing? One thing I discovered was that emotionally I really suffered from not having that way to express myself.




I made some significant discoveries about my dancing by seeing how I saw by using the camera. I also discovered by not dancing how dance functioned in my life. I became completely consumed with seeing, how I composed my vision. I discovered that I didn’t see visually, I saw kinaesthetically and from that came the whole next part for me which I have been working on ever since, the connection between my senses and my movement. I found that I organized the feedback that I got from the physical patterns of my seeing – the feeling from the muscles that move the eyeballs, the action of the lens, the sensation of changing focus from far to near; the myriad muscles around the eye, the pressure on the eyeballs to change the shape of the lens; the movement of my head and spine. I was very active in the eyes. Moreso than my legs. It was such a big sensation for me. I began to feel that such feedback guided my choices more than visual feedback from light and I began to explore this with the different senses. I noticed that actual visual light reflection was not the most dominant feedback that I chose from the environment.


From experimenting with this experience with many people, I have observed that each of us has a rather special connection tot our senses, and that some of us are stronger in one sense than in another, in terms of how much information we choose from the environment. A painter can paint by looking at form and color or they can paint kinaesthetically. They can, for example, be more sensitive to the feedback that they get from making their mark and feeling the texture of the paint. I organize what i see more from one sense than another. However all my senses support each other, nothing is in isolation, lost, but certain ones are stronger than others due to personal experience etc.


When I put a camera to my head, I wasn’t doing it like a robot, where my brain was on a tripod. I put it to my head and i was struck with how i moved my head following my interest through this frame. It reflected my way of relating to my body and the environment. I work with the medium of video through my kinaesthetic sense. In dancing, working without the camera, I find that when I shift into vision, just looking at light and form, I don’t have any desire to move. I reach an absolutely still point. It doesn’t activate my desire to interact. It is like this soft open place and I don’t need to move. However, when I am actively looking through my environment with all my senses and I see something that attracts me, then it’s a stimulus to move.


I also became absolutely enchanted with the idea that the eyes are almost constantly performing a double function – a communicative function and a receptive function. So as I speak with you and I am moving my eyes about, I’m sometimes shifting them to help me access my thoughts, and sometimes shifting them to let you know that I am speaking with you . Now I am speaking and now I am listening. All that signalling, all that eye language that we use so automatically, we have learned. We are experts at this language...but we don’t usually have to attend to it, nor do we disintegrate it often consciously to learn a little bit more about its function. This double activity of communicating and receiving is so intricate, so visible, in the action of the eyes; moreso than when I am posturally telling you things with my whole body. No movement seems as critical, in terms of this ability to communicate as the the eyes’ movement.


So I was very consumed with looking at the dancing while a whole other level of me was falling apart. During those two years I knew I was loosening the bonds of certain movement habits that were there. Through resting, not doing, I knew I was letting them drop away. That was one very good way to do it. Just to stop reminding my body of these movement habits, which I had no use for in my daily life. Those stylized movements atrophied and disappeared in those two years. That was nice. It was self-selecting. Living in the countryside since ’66, there is a lot to do physically. After two years, I started dancing again and I felt I would start from the beginning. As a child I had never taken a beginning class. I was always thrown into the intermediate or advanced class. So this was my chance to be a beginner.




I am very involved in collaborations with other artists. I’m interested in developing forms to use in beginning a collaboration, simple forms which reveal where my visions, images of theatre, interconnect with somebody else’s in order to begin a dialogue.........


One score I have been developing for initiating dialogue is based on a single or sustained image....




When I talk about desire I am thinking about how we interact with the environment. Perception theory and the behavior of animals and human beings acting in the environment indicate that upon perceiving something we may simply want to approach or withdraw from it..... A lot of my gathering of information about the process of sensing and expression and its relation to action is gathered through the teaching situation. With a group of people to provide comparisons, we can start to identify a kind of personal hierarchy, a balance of which of our senses reach out into the enviroment and which ones are more engaged in looking at or supporting the internal environment, and how shifting between the two can bring us into action.


There is this connection between the act of perception and action that I am most interested in and I have been constructing scores for groups to engage in this exporation. This is a variation on the other score. Everyone looks into a defined space and waits until they imagine themselves somewhere in this space, and then they go there with their eyes closed, and wait. They navigate to that spot without visual information. Then everyone takes in the whole scene again and when someone else has a feel for herself being somewhere in the space, they also navigate there blind. Then the two people wait, blind, and make a simultaneous action. After this, the watchers on the outside have a number of words that they can use as tools to adjust the action. It might be to ‘repeat’ the action, or to ‘end’ it. Maybe just those two words. These explorations are ways of changing one’s perspective, ways to discover what your patterns of looking are, what your desires of moving are.


If I ask you how you imagine yourself moving, for example, what happens? Do you see a visual picture, do you feel movement in your joints? For myself, I hear my movements. When I imagine myself moving or dancing. I don’t see myself as a visual imagine in the space. It comes to me as a shift in density as if the space was filled with substance and densities that I perceive changing. This is the way I imagine myself moving. I think it is closer to the sense of hearing than it is to any other sense.


I am concerned with how an image gets built through the actions of a group of people and with how long it takes for an image to become visible. Internally I feel in my body a moment in which an image crystallises, when enough of the elements I choose from my environment move into a sensible relationship with one another. It is a tiny place where one can act with clarity. This doesn’t mean that I know what action I’m going to make, it is just that the action is ready to happen. One of the practices that I engage in is to recognize that moment when I am ready to make an action and then I shift its direction. For example, if you hand me a glass, when I feel I am organized in my arm to reach for it, I can shift the action into another direction on any level, whether it is to lower that arm to support the reach of my other arm, to relax in my stomach, to speed up or slow down my response. In the moment of feeling my body organizing itself to take the glass, I can shift that intention into another system in my body. I take that martialling, organizing movement before it becomes inhibited. People, when they first try this, often inhibit the action. However, something has to organize first, before an action is made. Actions just don’t blurt out of nowhere. This is an example of a practice, to look at those moments and become more aware of that shift into action. It is quite extraordinary when I watch someone do this. The action of reaching for the glass exists but as soon as it’s organized you become aware that there are also other possible actions existing simultaneously. I am interested in making this choice-making visible. And I believe that these subliminal actions can be absolutely felt. This practice shows the body’s mind at mwork, making choices out of a universe of possibilities. After all these years of dancing and watching dancing, I feel the need to manifest more clearly the activity of the intelligent body in dialogue with itself and the environment.




If I go to see a performance, an occasion for me, I am usually first the anthropologist. I am taking in as much as there is in the room—the architecture, the behavior of the audience, everything that is there. And then if I’m lucky, something happens that shifts my attention to something that is prepared, and I like that experience when I am shifted from that overall looking to something specific. I like to see a tiny dot and fill in the space around it, to see what accumulates. But there is no image without my participation. As a viewer what I feel in myself first is desire. There is my desire to make meaning from the moment. So I am constantly shifting from one sense to another in constant dialogue with my senses to construct my experience of the performance. In this synaesthetic way there is a constant shifting of which sense seems to be most prominent and which ones seem to be supporting, corroborating, in order to help make a complete image. The image is in me.


These moments of crystallization or organization accumulate for me in relation to time. I think it is very individual how it adds up and what elements one responds to in order to organize something. I see it as a constellation of experiences that make meaning. I take a very particular route to synthesize my experience, to organize. I automatically organize whether I’m aware of it or not and that organization is the narrative experience for me. Sometimes there is something in the performance that draws me into a curioosity about the maker’s narrative more than mine, when something calls and directs my focus.


At a certian point in my life, it seemed appropriate for my own survival to be more alert in more directions through more senses than usual. First, the experience of growing up in NYC and becoming habituated to a kind of alertness to that kind of danger. Then, living in the country, isolated, in the woods, with wildlife. To experience how to survive, to adapt to a new environment—that seemed to ask me to extend my senses in more directions than any one environment can give instructions for. When I go to the theater I try to figure out what instructions are embedded in the work because I am curious about the maker, what he or she is offering, how he or she is teaching me to see what is on the stage. I think it is necessary now with so many different ways of seeing, for the maker to provide me with those clues.  If i feel this awareness is lacking, I’m not as interested.




Very recently I built a dance studio which has started a whole other evolution in my life. Before this, I was dealing with not having studio space and not having access to people to collaborate with, except when I was on the road. So for years I was making quick performances, which were very unsatisfying. It took four years to build a space, and it was completed about three years ago. I have been working very differently since it has been finished. I have been taking my time with long collaborations.


I love theater and I have been looking at activities in daily life that bring me to this experience. I’m interested in the way in which the production of images connects people with their senses more consciously. I want to stimulate the awareness of the viewer that she/he is engaged in the same process as the performers, in the improvisational process of composing experience. And I have been trying to make that clear in the structure of the performances. I have been starting the performances with a gorup of people creating a sustained single image and then introducing spoken directions. The directions are tools for editing the image, for example: reverse, repeat, end, etc. Whe an image becomes visible in the space, the desire to compose is activated. Certain actions, for example can make you uncomfortable, they don’t resolve satisfyingly to you. There is an accumulation through time of how much dissatisfaction and how much satisfaction you feel with the unfolding of meaning. You want it to feel right. You want to be able to organize something from what you are seeing. I want to make more visible the activity of making meaning, of making decisions. A performance must work on other levels of course without having to be aware of that process. However, to survive in this world it seems very important that people wake up. We have had to cut off so much. More and more. We’ve become habituated to being passive.


I am interested in movement. I am interested in communication, movement as meaning, and this guides me to investigate how movement is perceived. We take it in through our eyes, and project back out through our experience. Are you looking at it just as forms and colors moving in front of you? Which sense you approach it with produces a particular experience. My focus at this time is on manifesting the activity of the imagination. Performing is a lifelong habit for me. Of course, I have had terrible battles with performance. I have stopped performing entirely at times and I haven’t wanted to perform things at certain stages. I have had the usual struggle of being in front of people. I have given some terrible performances and know it. I don’t like display. I am very shy of displaying a personal skill. I don’t care to watch that in others. Something else must be operating. So I have to ask a lot of questions of myself to be able to show something. I have to know what my activity is. My work is not political in the sense of displaying slogans. It is to be seen with the imagination and I think it has to incorporate these values that I have talked about.




In the last year I have somehow decided that I am in a process of making something that will take about ten years to work out. I am finding ways to manifest this idea about flexibility of perception. I have found this to be most important to my survival in adjusting to this world. I want to manifest in front of an audience this process of flexing your perspective, so that as a viewer you are always moving. You are seeing from the outside, from the inside. You are seeing from the ceiling, from having just walked in the door, from having just walked out of the space. I am interested in making that flexibility into a meaningful experience.


English is my second language, dance is my first. In a sense I didn’t learn to speak until after I was nineteen. I was very slow to learn to separate the meaning of words from all the other activities involved in speaking. Our cultural training in organizing meaning is not flexible enough. We need to practice the flexing. Travelling to other cultures puts a demand on our senses. As you cross a border, you have to be flexible enough to open your senses, you have to figure out the cultural signals, learn how to cross the street. It is always fascinating to go to a new place, to flex new muscles, to learn how to shape your communication, reshape it and wait and listen and feel.


I am intrigued with dancers who are working the the details of movement as their major focus. I find this to be rare. My study is simple in that it connects to my life at every moment. I can practice flexing all day long. This feeds into my making of theater.


Contact Improvisation came in the middle of my development and it was absolutely crucial. Contact was an extraordinary exploration for me in learning about weight, and my first inkling that the technique of moving could be interesting. There have been other very influential moments of change in my life. When I stopped dancing and I started doing video I was learning something new for the first time since I was a child. And I let the tool teach me. That experience of learning something new was really powerful for me, for I could examine how I learned. Another influence was my readings on perception by J.J. Gibson who proposed the ecology of perception, and described the dialogue of the senses. And then there was my experience of working Bonnie Banbridge Cohen with brain-injured infants. Watching the babies, I could see the relationship between their movement and their desire, their perception and their action, which directly informed my experience as a performer and maker of imagery. At present, I have done two years of my current work and I feel it is going to take another eight and I am very relaxed about it. I am learning about the work through teaching and performing these scores. I know what my work is right now. I feel very relaxed.