The Making of This: Part I
Or: on writing text for K.J. Holmes’s “This is Where We Are (or take arms against a sea of troubles).”
Performed at The Chocolate Factory, L.I.C NY, March 9-12, 2011
Performed by: Jodi Bender, Keith Biesack, K.J. Holmes, Marin Sander-Holzman, Kathy Westwater, Devika Wickremesinghe.
Music performed by: Doug MacKenzie, David Moss and Charlie Rauh. Lighting and projection design by Tom Ontiveros.
Last summer dance artist K.J. Holmes invited me to work with her on a piece she’d been commissioned to make for The Chocolate Factory, a performance space in Queens. What follows is a description of the process of writing the text that would become part of the sound score for this dance.
August: K.J. sent me a package of writings she’d done during, before, and after early rehearsals for the piece. The writings included language about the natural world, about the theme of “uncertainty” and “doubt,” and about the trauma of the BP oil spill. It also included fragments from Hamlet and the following two lines from Peter Gizzi:
"The dark is close to doubt and therefore close to the sun."
"The sun touches deeper than thought" (K.J. saw this as a lighting cue.)
I was struck by the coincidence of K.J. reading Peter, a good friend and a poet I love and turn to frequently for inspiration (light) and affirmation of the values of doubt. Peter’s poem “The Panic that Can Still Come Upon Me” entered into my thinking then. The poem makes ample use of contingency: “If today and today I am calling aloud” it begins. I knew then I’d write something in response.
K.J. told me over the phone that she wanted some material written by me and some that would be sourced from elsewhere, so I went to Hamlet, taking every third word from each of his speeches, and forming these into more or less coherent sentences.
Also included in the package were two DVDs. One was a video of a performance at the Judson Church from the preceding spring. The dance was an early rendition of what was to come. I watched it, but could find no language there. Instead I found a quality: brokenness, striving, falling, questioning: “if.”
The other DVD was a film that K.J. had made some time ago. I couldn’t get it to run. Instead I saw a still image of her face and, in the background, a military helicopter. What I heard was Glenn Gould playing the opening to Bach’s “Sinfonia No. 15 in B minor” over and over, interrupting himself each time to comment on the take. Looping then, repetition, false starts: this would be part of “This.”
From these disparate elements I began to write. Here are some pieces of what came in that first stage:
If the bed were to hold us for longer
If gathering for an event
If the deadline were firm
If the breath were
If the body of a friend were to stay still
Stay still long enough to be seen
If holding someone’s hand were to keep me
Keep me from getting in my car
If the river pushes against ice
Pushes it and that way moves it
Moves it and that way dissolves it
If the ice, dissolving, falls inward
Falls into itself as if sugar
As if sugar in a bowl
The river’s movement is downwards
If that’s how you want to think about it
Lately, I’ve been questioning
what the future manages
I do this always with a sense of a deadline
A dinner party makes a
It’s colder today than yesterday
I sent the writing off to K.J. and waited to see what to do next. She wrote back, excited and optimistic.
October: My husband and I were in New York for a week, book ended by two readings in the city. On Tuesday I met K.J. and her group of dancers at the North West entrance to Central Park. The rehearsal would happen in the park from 3-6 in the afternoon. We began to walk silently toward the space K.J. had chosen for the rehearsal. It was an utterly gorgeous fall day. We climbed enormous boulders from which little kids in school uniforms were leaping to the grass. We passed a group of acrobats practicing flips and spirals in the air. The leaves were golden and deep red, falling.
On arriving to the area behind the band shell, an empty rectangle of space where one could imagine horses practicing dressage, the dancers dropped their bags and coats and began to improvise. I wandered around with my notebook and a camera, recording what I saw. Their movements were pedestrian, purposeful, driven. Bricks and branches were dragged into the space, used as props or sets. They climbed a wall, climbed on each other, ran, fell, leapt. In the past, I would have been one of them.
Now I was their scribe. I liked the freedom writing gave me. It felt freer than movement had when I was a dancer. Moving, I was confined to the limits of my body. Writing, I could go anywhere, choose anything, choose to remove myself from the others, or to engage through description. This is a bit of what I wrote:
Stall me. You seem to want to. Maybe I've been an interruption.
One walks in
One stays out
One takes off her jacket
One climbs on top
One lies down
One changes her clothes
One takes a picture
Many lift off
One is late
One is calling
Draws a line
Another crosses it
Some will be running
Against a tight blue sky
One will leave
Most are on feet
One is happy, most hurrying
If one takes her hair out, another backwards running
If one blows a match out, helicopters and sparrows
Two days later, I met K.J. and two of the dancers in a studio. Not content to allow me to stay in my writerly distance, K.J. asked me to move with the dancers. I’d been there before, a decade ago. It was remarkably easy to become like them again. Nonetheless, I was grateful when I stepped out of the space and back into the notebook. What writing allows: a kind of privacy, and timing that you can determine entirely independently of others. What dancing requires: direct interaction with these others, timing that must be in some way aligned with the other bodies, if even only for the sake of safety, peripheral vision, softened boundaries. Writing can have those qualities too, but it doesn’t have to.