On Lisa Dancing

profile of an improviser

Contact Quarterly 1987English
Contact Quarterly Vol. 12 No. 2 (Spring/Summer, 1987): 30.

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First thing you notice is her eyes. She can spin out her gaze like line from a fly-fisher's reel, our focus the hook at its end. She can stretch her vision like a limb, let it swing, lean and pivot on it, take hold of something. She can look in our direction and stop her focus midway, as if a tree were between us. And the next moment send her eyes flying across the space, with her body in tow.

Even when she's hardly moving, there's so much going on that the only way to keep up with her is to let her remind you that seeing is not a relationship with an external world, but with yourself. There is no external world. What you see flying across the room is thought. And when she moves, you see the thought that moves this woman through the thought of space. It almost makes you squirm to feel your focus held so intimately within hers.

How does she do it? With a tiny impulse she projects an enormous sweeping gesture that never, happens. Because you thought it was going to happen, you see it; then you see that she hasn't moved. With the skill of a Chaplin, she will prime you for pathos, and just as you begin pouring it out, you notice she is cavorting in a rather awkward, obscene and brilliant dance. You want to laugh, but you're still carrying your last emotion. Your expectations are weighing you down. Unloading, you dive back in and find a major clue in the timing between the shifts in her focus and the movements of her body. You see her perception as thought, and a split second later see its impact through her body in movement, ideas being completed as feelings. (In her "blind" work, in which she has been exploring learning movement with eyes closed, we see her "seeing" through her ears, skin, nose and perhaps other senses. Here she makes it crystal clear that every movement is determined by her perceptions, or designed to clarify them.)

At this point we are pulled into the sparking space of awareness of one's own awareness in which, as Lisa says, "It's all you, right?" ln fact, one of Lisa's trade­marks is the nerve-synapse suddenness of her sequences. Although her movement invention is prolific, (and inimitable, though aspects of her style have cropped up in many new dancers) it is not the movements that we are asked to focus on. It is in the moment before and after each impulse where we are intent on discovering how the synapse works and what the code is.

Rarely will she follow momentum through to its natural resolution or decay but allows each change in her perception caused by the movement to alter its course. As she drops her head toward the floor, she may suddenly reverse direction in response to the startling loss of her horizon the wood grain flooding her screen. Like the tribesmen of the rainforest who, never having seen a large clearing, read distant animals as close range miniatures, she registers the surprises of an unconditioned perception. This makes her appear as a mind that has Just dropped into a body and is finding out how it all works. For this she needs feedback through the consequences of her every move, and perhaps this is what also gives us the feeling that she is never dancing alone. She is dancing a duet with the entire contents of her consciousness.

Within minutes we feel the spirit of her work, but it is as challenging to actually read her dancing as it is James Joyce's Ulysses. Both artists take consciousness as their content, and in order to anastomose across the many levels of its structure, they must work with a multi-faceted mind. Joyce was often originally misunderstood as writing stream of consciousness while in a subconscious state; and Lisa can be similarly misinterpreted by one who thinks she is simply doing the next thing that comes along. But closer examination reveals distinct, unbroken threads of sensory perception, reactions, personal and cultural memory, imagery ranging from archetypal and hallucinogenic, to geographical and anatomical, and the dialogue of self­questioning and self-discovery. Lisa has the added challenge of weaving these elements into a multi-dimensional tapestry-with rhythm, cadence and echo-on the spot. Imagine that Ulysses was never put on paper, and that you had one crack at understanding what Joyce was doing by heating it read aloud.

The way time is shaped in both artists work has a lot of connections to experimental musical forms. Joyce, trained and admired as a singer, composed language as music, and was the first writer to illustrate the natural tendencies of human consciousness to break down language into its phonetic and rhythmic elements, rearranging them in the processes of intellectual and emotional digestion. Lisa's unique orchestration of consciousness also draws on her musical background. Something of a prodigy on the classical guitar, she was asked to teach it when quite young, and for a while considered, like Joyce, a musical career. Identifying with the inspiration at the source of pre-industrial tribal music, she was the first dancer l ever saw who used such songs not as an exotically primitive element but with the projection that she was of the people who sang them. In 1975, while teaching video to dancers at Bennington College, she taped the entire ethnomusical library and has studied and used it ever since, constantly adding to it. Seen as a rebel in Daniel Nagrin's performance group for bringing her voice into improvisations, she has continued to develop her own technique of vocal improvisation. In performance, she uses her voice at times to find an evocative image which carries through in movement; conjuring yearning, haunting, and funny characters; dismantling language into burping hoots and reedy chords, or following one phrase into a timeless primal clearing. It may be her experiences in this territory that endow her non-vocal dancing with an almost tragic muteness, holding an epic that cannot be told.

And cannot be danced. We are moved by a woman willing to dance the undanceable; to stand in the form pointing "There" beyond it. In this we see our own willing struggle with the limits of the senses, when what we really, want lies beyond them. To Walter de la Mare who said, "Language is the banging on a cracked kettle for bears to dance to, when all the while we long to move the stars to tears," l would show Lisa dancing. It is precisely the inadequacy of the medium to be what it indicates, that moves us when she dances. She leaves us with what we thought we saw, and the reality of that, despite the failure of the senses to prove what we have felt. 

Perhaps this is the answer to a question l have had for ten years. Why did Lisa stop her experimental work in environmental performance in 1975 after the success of The Green Dream, in which she and Cathy Weis orchestrated a vast surreal epic performed simultaneously throughout a transformed Victorian mansion? Did the centerpiece of that epic-a large mirror jig-saw puzzle painted with Michelangelo's God touching Adam, which the viewer-participants helped put back together-foretell a restructuring of her own ideas about the creative act? Did questions arise which led her away from performing, into video as a medium of examining perception, then as a performance tool, and back into performing in a new way? Did she decide that making environments, or using sets no matter how evocative, only reinforced the illusion of an outside world? That it was more to the point to perform seeing than to make things to be seen? Did she, like Joyce, reject the promise of an epic requiring "external" adventures and redefine it as the adventures of a mind discovering its own language? Whatever the answers are, Lisa Nelson is an epic dancer who has become, for many of us, the paradigm of improvisation; the moreso against the backdrop of a dance scene that is increasingly geared to spectacle.

I would love to see the return of the mustachioed figure in the Hawaiian shirt from PA RT (with Steve Paxton, to Robert Ashley's Private Parts) who, like one of Chaplin's characters, seems to have become a classic now permanently living in the hearts of hundreds of us who watched (and not always with dry eyes) her/his? development. Who but Lisa could throw open her arms as if to keep the stars from falling, shift her gaze to become a conductor about to start up the orchestra, and move her fingers to become a villager reading a newspaper, all in one breath? Who else could give you the feeling of falling down in rush hour in Grand Central Station, then drop you in the wilderness howling at the moon? Now that she has built her own studio on a mountainside in the North­East Kingdom of Vermont, who knows what she'll come out with. She has always been a rebel against the predictable, lighting up things that lie in shadow, the only true meaning of the avant-garde.

Why do I want to see her on an opera house stage making the million dollar sets disappear, evaporating the mountains, holding the reins of the elements? Why do I want for her what she doesn’t want for herself? I think we only get one every now and then, and sometimes not anyone, and she is one.