Each year, the fourth-year dancers put together Senior Dance Production, the final showcase for the entire class. Eve Jacobs was one of seven seniors to choreograph for this year’s production, which took place at the end of April. The other choreographers were Alexander Anderson, Taylor Drury, Bynh Ho, Robert Moore, Nicholas Ranauro, and Kyle Scheurich.
As I sit down to write this article about a dance piece I am making, I am reminded of something that Merce Cunningham once wrote: “Talking about dance is like trying to pin jelly to a wall.” It’s a perfect image—dance and jelly share a delightful ambiguity, while words have a certain hardness and definition, like a wall. Perhaps it’s difficult to talk about dance because dancers don’t talk, at least not while they are dancing. A dancer’s intrigue lives in her silence and a dance’s beauty often lies in its incompatibility with words. If we can agree that a picture is worth a thousand words, then a dance is worth an amount of words that no one would want to mess with.
Nevertheless, that is what I am messing with at the moment. For Senior Dance Production, I have decided to braid together three interests: dance, words, and theater. Senior Pro is the culmination of a yearlong creative and educational process focused on launching the fourth-year dancers into the professional world. We conceptualize, fund-raise, choreograph, dance, and collaborate with lighting and costume designers.
The piece I am working on, for nine dancers and four empty picture frames, is inspired largely by the writings of Gertrude Stein. In September I came across a recording of Stein reading her 1924 poem “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” I became hooked on her uncanny, unexpected use of words, relentless repetition, and ideas that are at once specific, absurd, obvious, and brilliant. Some sentences are a feat to read out loud and I dare you to do so right now:
Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.
This sentence about shutters shutting stuck with me. I saw it as a puzzle that might not fit together but one that I could make sense of for myself. How does a queen shut and open like a shutter? What makes a queen? I decided that, royalty aside, a queen is a powerful woman who, like a shutter, shuts and opens, and makes quick decisions that could change at any moment. My piece is divided into chapters, and Queens became the title of Chapter One, which displays situations in which the women’s choices dictate the men’s activities.
Reading aloud from Stein’s work informed my choreographic process early on. The movement, situations, and characters featured in my piece are all answers to questions I had about the text. What happens if the part about shutters is a heated argument between lovers? How sharp and accusatory is the word “shutter,” not by definition, but phonetically? By asking these questions, and looking to the dancers’ imaginations for answers, a text that was at first circuitous began to sparkle with meaning. The following passage from the poem, for example, is divided among three women who imagine themselves as giddy friends at a party, playfully competing for Napoleon’s attention. They speak to each other, supplementing their lines with a movement pattern in which each word has a corresponding gesture:
If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him. Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it. If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him.
If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.
Going into this process, I hypothesized that if I invited dancers to use their voices and to approach this “dance piece” as an actor might approach a play, with an active mind and a sensitive body, they all would drop into their own theatrical ability. It took some time for them to get comfortable with blending speaking voices and dancing bodies, but it happened. I had the privilege of watching my cast, comprised of third- and fourth-year dancers, who are my peers and close friends, explore an element of their artistry that may have been dormant. I found that no one had to learn to act, but that doing the movement, completing the tasks, and incorporating the text in the context of the piece was automatic theater. Gemma Freitas, one cast member, told me that “using text and voice has brought so many more dimensions to the piece. It has forced me to tap into other parts of my brain, which has been thrilling! It’s been challenging but in the best way possible and has allowed me to see how much more I have to offer as an all-around performer.”
Comments like these enhance my love of choreographing something new. If I can explore my own creativity while offering a space for others to do the same, then I feel that the hours in the studio have been well spent. For me, choreographing is not a solitary act of creation. It’s a dialogue, an agreement, a search for understanding. A painter needs brushes, and a poet needs a pen, but a choreographer needs other people, dancers, to understand the idea before it is anything.
Special thanks to Jeffery Duffy, Gemma Freitas, John Harnage, Troy Herring, Alex Jones, Niall Lessard, Evan Schwarz, Amelia Sturt-Dilley, and Leslie Williams for their incredible understanding and for letting me peek into their imaginations.