As Winifred Haun prepares for her upcoming shared show at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, (with performances by Winifred Haun & Dancers, Leopold Group, Ayako Kato, Kanopy Dance, and Peter Sparling, September 27th, and 28th at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts), yours truly, as a dancer in Haun's company have had a unique experience being thrown into the thick of things.
The journey for me, began when I emailed Wini after her audition, letting her know that I appreciated her audition process and that I loved her work (See "Winifred Haun's Uplifting Audition Experience"). I'm not sure what I expected to come from this email but what I eventually got was a place in her company, an opportunity to strengthen the professionalism and responsibility of my dancing, and the one thing that has brought me closest to fulfilling my dreams of becoming a "professional" dancer (though I'm not sure what exactly that means anymore, more on that later): a company contract.
It all started when Wini graciously invited me to begin coming to rehearsals as an apprentice. I stood in the back mostly, not really knowing what I was learning, what context it had come from, or where it was going. Knowing that I wanted to be involved with the work, however, I stuck with it, continued to show up to rehearsals, and committed to being a part of this group, to the largest extent possible.
As rehearsals moved along, I was forced to draw from my past as a classically trained dancer in ways I had not done since before college. My education at Columbia, while providing me with countless skills necessary for my current place in the dance community, perhaps stripped away my previously acute ability to learn and perfect a codified technique quickly and precisely. As the work became more and more developed, and my place within it became larger (and continues to grow), I realized that Wini's (and thus, Graham's) style is something that I probably would have been a lot better at a few years ago. I felt frustrated as I drew upon what I knew was supposed to be there: a background in precise lines, predetermined shapes, specific placement of the body, all coming together to create the Graham aesthetic. While I can improvise and contact improvise circles around many, my experience in taking on technical movements is burried long into the past. As I struggled along, I took comfort in Wini's corrections, her gentle encouragement and her invitation to join the Graham based modern classes that she teaches.
On the day that Wini told us we'd be learning Lamentation, a historic 80 year old dance by Martha Graham, at first I felt overwhelmed, excited, and honored. I've performed Balancine work for years and have always loved the feeling of performing such historic pieces of dance. When I used to perform Balanchine's Serenade, I'd pretend that Mr. B himself was sitting in front of me, watching. It filled me with such excitement to imagine all of the great names that had performed the exact steps and worn the exact costumes before me. For some reason, I felt that I was cementing myself in American dance history. When Deborah Goodman (former Martha Graham School Student) came to rehearsal and began to list all of the dancers who had done the piece, all of the times Martha had performed the dance herself, the sense of honor weighed heavy as I began to feel self conscious about my ability to perform this particular dance.
As we began to learn Lamentation, I recall a few things: First, as Deb described the absolute grief of the dance, I felt incredibly connected to the feelings. I tapped many of the hardest parts of my life, when grief has ripped my insides out. It was easy to know what emotions to use (though not necessarily pleasant). The idea of this dance, as Deb interpreted to us comforted me. In a way, I felt that I was not alone in grief. I felt that at least Graham would understand some of my most heart wrenching, knee dropping moments (I mean, she did choreograph this iconic dance about these things after all, right?), and so in a way, I placed her right in the room, right next to Mr. B with me.
Learning Lamentation was frustrating, uncomfortable and scary. I knew I wasn't executing the Graham technique correctly and felt a huge amount of guilt at the fact that my body didn't seem to know the technique. Though the frustration continues to exist with my experiences with Graham, I've learned that maybe Lamentation is about more than simply making the same shapes with my body that Graham made. I may not look exactly the way I'm supposed to, but Lamentation is everybody's dance. It's the dance that we all do when overcome with grief. It's the dance we've all done, and it's the dance that we all understand about sadness and loss.
As we continue in the same vain on a variation of Lamentation by Lizzie Leopold, the depth that the dance is capable of taking, shows itself in every rehearsal. Lizzie's idea of grief is not much at all like Graham's but it does share in the legacy Graham made by initiating Lamentation. It seeks to be a groundbreaking moment in modern dance, a little blip on the radar, but it achieves much more than that by simply accessing true human emotion in a way that performer, choreographer, and audience member can all share.
To me, Winifred's piece Don't Linger Too Long also shares some similar sentiments to Graham's Lamentation. While not as focused on grief, it explores the subtle, and sometimes uncomfortable relationships within a family. Dysfunction, chaos, forgotten members, but ever-pervading love pull hardest in this experience. I've had an interesting experience with "Don't Linger" as I was originally an understudy but am now part of the cast. I've had a bittersweet experience learning the parts that used to be performed by other dancers. It has been a challenge to step into someone else's shoes, into a piece that is developed and chaotic in its own way. The pace for learning has been quicker than I've worked recently but has pushed me in a stronger direction. I'm thankful for the opportunity and especially grateful that Wini not only allows, but often encourages a strong sense of individuality within this piece, offering me the chance to draw on the lessons I learned from Lamentation, and filter my emotion into a strong performance.
For tickets to see these, and other performances, all in honor of Martha Graham, click here.
Vision, Faith & Desire: dancemakers inspired by Martha Graham will take place Friday, September 27 at 7:30pm and Saturday, September 28 at 7:30pm at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts (1016 N. Dearborn).