improvising to films (part 2): perception as a practice of patience

It’s been a week since the performance at Sidewalk Tzara/Outpost 186. There is a wee review in the Boston Phoenix, written by Marcia B.Siegel, who apparently enjoyed the show very much, even if she hardly mentions the presence of the live body in an evening primarily dedicated to films. (Which is curious to me, and raises interesting questions about presence. I would have thought that the live body trumps the virtual body in impact and power any day, especially when those bodies are dancing mere inches from the audience. Of course, as soon as I write that sentence, I question it, knowing how mesmerized our culture is by all things digital and flickering. But that’s a topic for another post…)

I titled this post a week ago, the night before the performance, as a kind of bookmark, a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back to where I had left off…I had wanted to get at the experience of both creating an improvisational structure/approach to working with August 2009, a minimalist film by George Manupelli, and the experience of actually performing with it.

August 2009, (which had its public premier at Sidewalk Tzara) runs 18 minutes and is comprised almost entirely of a fixed frame, single shot of a summer thunder-storm in decrescendo, filmed from the deck in Manupelli’s backyard. Bookended by the sound of a typewriter striking each letter of a blunt and brief breakup note, the film unfolds at a rate that tests the patience of most viewers, and offers the opportunity to pay attention to change, narrative, emotion and time in some new and perhaps uncomfortable ways.

I had wanted to write about dancing with the idea of dancing with this film, and how odd that was, that day in the studio, before the performance, not having the film with us, just our memory of it, and some notes about its structure and the poetic effect of that structure. “Perception as a practice of patience” was the phrase that came to mind, as a way to describe the way the film unfolds in time

The simple score of trading solos that didn’t work for the first film, likewise, didn’t work here. (Perhaps a good reminder of the difference between the conceptual and the experiential, or the classic, “sounded good in theory” syndrome!) We worked with several variations and finally landed on one that seemed promising: a unison score, in which the role of “leader” is traded back and forth, and each mover can choose at any time to enter or exit. In the studio, the score felt interesting, spacious, and rich with potential, even in its simplicity. In the performance, however, I found it impossible to stay pure with it, and found myself breaking, or at least bending, the “rules.” But in my defense, let me say that in doing so, I felt like I was answering to a higher (compositional) authority. I fear that sounds flaky. Let me explain:

In the very act of performing, I experienced that kind of meeting the moment/material in a new eye opening way that brings those sudden, though sometimes subtle, understandings I suspect most artists long for. There I was, in the space, in the moment, with Jen, and the film, and the rain…and the audience, close enough to touch us. I felt the unfolding of time, felt the unfolding of form as we moved, making choices based on the score. And then I felt the tug of the necessary. The choices that wanted to be made, even if making them meant taking a detour from the score.

Performing is an alchemical process. Webster defines alchemy in part as “a power or process of transforming something common into something special,” andan inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.”  The act of performing, and all of the rituals that surround it (preparing, rehearsing, practicing, making all manners of decisions about how to frame the work to be performed, what to say about it beforehand, how to advertise it, present it, etc) serve to sharpen the focus, not only on the work performed, but the makers of that work. Fellow artist/performer/maker of things Karinne Keithley says it beautifully: “Performances are always my most fruitful rehearsals…” Through performing I find the most potent and useful information about what it is I’m making, what it is I’m doing, and the poetic effect of my choices.

I often wonder why I have chosen (and keep choosing) this dance-making and performing life. (Oddly enough, I usually wonder this in the handful of moments before stepping out on stage, and the wondering comes in the form of the only half-joking adrenaline-filled thought, “Just WHO exactly thought doing this was in ANY way a good idea??”) It’s certainly not for the money, or the fame. It’s not even for the pleasure of creating something and sending it off into the world, though that is deeply satisfying. I think it’s because through moving and making, I come to understand my experience in this life. It’s how I interact with, and make sense of, the world around me.

On this side of the performance, after a week has passed, and the information and insights are settling, I think of the title of this post. I notice how the words themselves seem to be dancing their way into a new arrangement, pointing the way to the beginnings of a deeper understanding…and so I let them reorganize themselves and step back to let what I do show me what I need to know. And I watch the subtle transformation as “Perception as a Practice of Patience” becomes “Performance as a Practice of Perception.”