All Dances Are Too Long

VATSALA KUMAR I am a rising senior double major in Dance and English Literature, in the Business Institutions Program and the Musical Theatre Choreography Module. I'm using this grant to do research on choreographic memoirs, so that I can write about them as a literary genre for my senior honors thesis in English Literature. The crossover between dance and literature has always compelled me, and I can't wait to spend this summer reading about dance! Vatsala was funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Grant program in Northwestern's Office of Undergraduate Research.  It provides a living expense stipend for students to explore independent research and/or creative projects.

Dramaturgy, Colored Bodies, Cultural Hybridity, and Katherine Profeta

Thursday, August 18 and Friday, August 19 – “Dramaturgy in Motion” by Katherine Profeta

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On Friday, I went for a run and then to Metropolis Coffee Company in Edgewater (they have Hoosier Mama quiche so…) before having a wonderful flat tire journey with Meg (but now I know how to change a tire!). On Saturday I went to Cafe Jumping Bean (a little bit more of a restaurant than a cafe, and Obama’s been there so you know it’s worth it) and then went to La Catrina Cafe (really great tea and a nice atmosphere).

Katherine Profeta was Ralph Lemon’s dramaturg, and this book is about her experiences with him and also about dramaturgy and dance in general. First and foremost, it was awesome to get to read about those experiences from her point of view.

She starts by going through a history of dramaturgy, which is really important if you’re like me and are completely ignorant of dramaturgy and its origins. Her five chapters work through five “potential registers of the dance dramaturg’s engagement in the working process”–text and language, research, the dramaturg as the “advocate for the audience,” the art of attending to the movement, and interculturalism in performance (22-23).

One thing that Profeta is keenly aware of, which I appreciate, is her experience as a white woman and how that affects her dramaturgy. She acknowledges that she can’t separate her experiences from the way she looks at Lemon’s work, and that that is potentially problematic because of the nature and content of Lemon’s work. At one point, she notes how transferring the actions of a white body onto a collection of mostly black bodies completely alters their nature, and how a white body is considered “neutral” but a black body will always have other underlying meaning attached to it.

Profeta’s last chapter is all about interculturalism in performance, which is a really intriguing notion. Essentially, Lemon wanted to incorporate elements of other cultures into his dances, and part of Profeta’s job as dramaturg was helping him to figure out how to do that in a way that was not appropriative, but also not imitative. They had to walk a line of incorporating elements that allowed for the original culture to exist without being erased, but not so many elements that it turned into a mythological version of that culture. These notions, I think, are much more widely applicable than just in dance–they apply to all forms of art, and I think some even reach into our daily lives.

Gestures, Long Dances, and Doris Humphrey

Wednesday, August 17 – “The Art of Making Dances” by Doris Humphrey

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I actually read this one at Eva’s Cafe on Wednesday (it’s a super quick read), so no new coffee shops for this post.

This book is pretty much a staple in any choreography class; Humphrey was one of the (if not the) first to write a book on how to choreograph. Some of her notions are, naturally, suspect, but it’s a useful handbook anyway.

One thing that was really interesting (that I actually hadn’t read before) was Humphrey’s notion of four types of gestures: social, functional, ritual, and emotional. As someone who’s very interested by gesturally-focused pieces (rather than big sweeping full body movements), reading about these different gestural ideas gave me a new way of thinking about creating dances (which is always good!).

The most well-known part of this book (and where the title of this blog originates) is her checklist for dances, which is as follows:
Symmetry is lifeless
Two-dimensional design is lifeless
The eye is faster than the ear
Movement looks slower and weaker on the stage
All dances are too long
A good ending is forty per cent of the dance
Monotony is fatal; look for contrasts
Don’t be a slave to, or a mutilator of, the music
Listen to qualified advice; don’t be arrogant
Don’t intellectualize; motivate movement
Don’t leave the ending to the end

While some of these can generally be universally agreed upon (listen to advice, don’t leave the ending to the end, etc.), there are others that even I would contest (I think symmetry can be useful in some instances; I think that intellectualizing can be useful if that serves your purpose, etc). But there’s honestly not a whole lot for me to react to in this book, so I’ll leave it at that.

Geography, Tree, Charley Patton, and Ralph Lemon

Saturday, August 13 to Wednesday, August 17 – “Geography,” “Tree,” and “Come Home Charley Patton” by Ralph Lemon

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On Saturday, I spent the morning at Asado Coffee Company (a small place, but really good coffee) and the afternoon at Emerald City (bigger and cozier, but a little bit crowded so not great for working if you need quiet). On Monday, I went for a run in the morning and then read at Deering for the rest of the day. On Tuesday, I spent the morning at Heritage Outpost (one of my favorites, very minimal and clean-cut) and the afternoon at Kitchen Sink (yummy bagels, otherwise nothing special but definitely not bad). On Wednesday, I went to Elaine’s Coffee Call in the morning (smallish and attached to a hotel) and Eva’s Cafe in the afternoon (another favorite, really big and cozy).

These three books are a trilogy by Ralph Lemon, which is why they’re lumped into one post. They are each about a different piece of his, and consist of letters and journal entries and anecdotes from the time he was creating the piece.

“Geography” was the quickest read and the least actual reading (it involved a lot of pictures and things like that). One recurring theme in all of these books that started in “Geography” was the notion of what it’s like to be black in America versus what it’s like to be black in Africa. He also repeatedly deals with the issue of what it means to be a black dance artist, as well as the notion of text in dance (and of having a script for a dance performance). My favorite part of “Geography,” however, is a drawing of a sink that says, “When I was puking in this sink I was in the same position that I pray in.”

“Tree” is possibly the most aesthetically beautiful book I’ve ever owned. It’s still a great deal about race, but in “Tree” Lemon travels to India a few times and tells anecdotes of his time there. One of the most striking things to me was the question of what it means to be black in India–some South Indians are dark enough that they could be mistaken for being black, but for some reason Lemon is consistently set apart. This is something I feel, too, when I’m in India–I’m not sure if it’s because of the way I dress or talk or act, but I definitely feel very “other” despite my skin tone fitting in, and I sense that I am “other” in the minds of the people around me.

In “Come Home Charley Patton,” Lemon travels through racially significant locations in the southern United States. This was probably my favorite of the three books; it involved a bit more of a storyline than the other two and it was easier to follow, which may be part of it. The most exciting part of this book, for me (although this was in the others) was Darrell Jones. Darrell came to Northwestern to choreograph a piece that I was in for Danceworks in 2015, and reading about him in this book (and seeing pictures of him) was really incredible–it just highlighted how insular the dance world really is. I wish I had known when Darrell came, because I would have loved to ask him about his experiences working with Lemon.

Horizontals, The Nuremberg Trials, Accidental Feminism, and Liz Lerman

Friday, August 12 – “Hiking the Horizontal” by Liz Lerman

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I spent Friday morning dealing with the always-lovely SOFO, and then I worked out before treating myself to a milkshake and laying on my absurdly soft carpet to read “Hiking the Horizontal.” I read it this past quarter for an independent study, but it never hurts to re-read.

The notion behind the title may be my favorite part of this book. Lerman starts her introduction by talking about how there’s often this conception of art as existing on a vertical spectrum–“low art” at the bottom, and “high art” at the top. The goal seems to be to reach the top, and the art at the top is supposed to be inherently more valuable than the art at the bottom. Lerman, however, argues that we should think about art as existing on a horizontal spectrum–no art is ranked higher than any other art, but they’re just different types of art that all have the same value. We can even turn the line into a circle, and explore all the different parts of it.

Lerman also talks about being an accidental feminist, or her dances having “quiet feminism” (12). She talks about how she did not set out to create a feminist work, but she is proud of the fact that people read that in her work–that she created a work that “made it okay for dance to be sexy as well as about ideas” (12). In contrast with some of the former choreographers who seemed to be adamantly against being called feminists, this was a refreshing change.

I will leave you with one last, really long quote.
A really intriguing thing that Liz Lerman writes about is when she was commissioned to create a piece about the Nuremberg trials. She writes a letter to the woman who commissioned her and asks why she thinks a dance about the Nuremberg trials will be useful, to which the woman replies:
“These are my hopes: that a dance would reach people who seldom think about mass atrocities–students, lawyers–with the chance to be drawn in emotionally and intellectually, with the pacing that can allow people to absorb or begin to absorb the incomprehensible scales of atrocity, the limits of legal responses but also the dignity in the effort to frame and respond to atrocities through law. For those who think about these matters often . . . the chance to imagine images and voices about these things, and to have a shared experience with others who seldom attend these issues, would be a gift. The central problematics rather than more information would be a valuable focus. And rather than the typical academic discussion that implies the capacity of logic, empiricism, and argument to contain, resolve or manage an issue, the dance might give people experience dwelling with the problematics” (Lerman 88).

Zombies, The Third Person, Intelligent Dancers, and Katherine Dunham

Monday, August 8 to Thursday, August 11 – “Island Possessed” and “A Touch of Innocence” by Katherine Dunham and “Kaiso!” (a collection of writings)

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I’m putting all of Dunham together because the posts would never end if I didn’t.
On Monday, I had work in the morning and it was a wild day, so I stayed at home with my tea and read “Island Possessed.” On Tuesday, I worked out in the morning and spent the afternoon at Kafein. On Wednesday, I spent the morning at La Colombe (another favorite, really great coffee and tons of working space/a great atmosphere) before going to Nando’s (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) for lunch. On Thursday, I worked out some more before going to Sol Cafe in the afternoon (decent coffee, great atmosphere).

I read “Island Possessed” first, and I’m not entirely sure why I did that. “Island Possessed” is a recollection of Dunham’s time studying in Haiti, and starting with this was sort of a weird way to toss myself into her life. Fortunately, from classes and studying her before, I had a general sense of her life so I wasn’t totally thrown off.
“Island Possessed” was a weird one. Dunham considered some really important and interesting issues, like how class and race issues translate internationally, being accepted into new communities, different types of being black, etc. One thing that came back in “Kaiso!” was the notion of research versus experience, and the idea of researching by experiencing–something relatively unheard of in Dunham’s time, from my understanding. But the part I remember most is her discussion of zombies, which she (and apparently the community she was in in Haiti) took very seriously. I don’t really have a lot to expand on that or say about it, but suffice it to say it was bizarre.

“A Touch of Innocence” was SUPER intriguing to my literary side because, although it was a memoir of Dunham’s youth and a collection of anecdotes about it, IT WAS WRITTEN IN THE THIRD PERSON. Dunham refers to herself as “Katherine Dunham” or “the girl,” and it’s written as a novel. It blew my mind. I have so many questions about it. I want to read more about it. I’m sure another of these posts will have to do with that. It was crazy.
“A Touch of Innocence” also continued the trend I’ve seen so far of choreographers of color recounting childhood abuse or struggle; Dunham was physically abused and sexually assaulted by her father multiple times throughout her childhood. Reading about this was harrowing, for multiple reasons–the content, of course, but also the fact that it was in the third person made it feel removed, which was a bizarre way of seeing it.

“Kaiso!” was a MONSTER of a book. It was a huge collection of writings by and about Katherine Dunham, so it naturally covered a lot of area. One recurring theme that I really appreciated was the idea of intelligent dancers. Dunham was HIGHLY educated, more so than any other choreographer I’ve read about thus far. As a result, she believed strongly that dancers should understand and appreciate the history of the dance they’re doing, and that dancers should be educated outside the realm of dance. As a Northwestern student, where the dance program is alllllll about being an intelligent dancer, I appreciated this a lot.
There were tons of other really important and intriguing elements–form versus function, police brutality, screen dance, biorhythms–but I won’t bore you with them just yet. But who knows, maybe they’ll prove relevant later, or even in my eventual thesis!

Immigration, Lows, and Jose Limon

Sunday, August 7 – “An Unfinished Memoir” by Jose Limon

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On Sunday, I spent the morning at Osmium Coffee Bar (one of my favorites thus far; lots of work space and a great atmosphere) and the afternoon at Bittersweet Cafe (less of a coffee shop and more of a cafe where you’d stop for lunch).

I’m gonna be totally honest, after “How To Do Things With Dance,” I’m finding it really hard to get back into memoirs and be really captivated by them. Limon is no exception, but there were a few things that stood out to me anyway.

The first of these is low points. Limon writes about his abusive father, which is hard but important to read. This is interesting to me because it seems like all of the choreographers of color that I’ve read thus far have recounted stories of abusive parents or rough childhoods, where the white choreographers didn’t have the same sorts of stories. This makes some sense, of course, because of the socioeconomic status that goes along with being a person of color, but is still noteworthy.

Limon also talks about how World War II instigated a low point in his life when the Nazis occupied France. He was “born and reared a Francophile,” so it hit close to home for him. WWII also affected him because of immigration policy–when Congress required all aliens living in the United States to register and give them relevant information, he realized “with a jolt” that he was an alien. This stood out to me because it reflects the status of so many refugees and immigrants today, especially those who have lived here their whole lives–America is home to them, and the notion that they be deported or sent to a place they’ve never known would be just as shocking.

In addition, Limon’s autobiography is, obviously, unfinished. As a result, it stopped in sort of an odd spot, and didn’t have the same sense of overall understanding or cohesion as the other autobiographies I’ve read. I can’t help but wonder how it would have read if he had had the time to finish.

Social Change and Postwar Modern Dance

Friday, August 5 – “How To Do Things With Dance” by Rebekah Kowal

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On Friday I started off by getting lunch at Mariano’s with the lovely Cami, and then I headed to Stan’s Donuts (in Labriola Chicago) on Michigan Avenue (amazing donuts; maybe not the best spot for doing actual work). Then I headed to Julius Meinl (not a huge one, but still a lovely place).

This book is my favorite that I’ve read thus far. It was a really awesome intersection between dance and social change, which, pertinent to my quarter-life crisis, is right up my alley. I emailed my professor after finishing it to ask for similar books, and I’m meeting with her on Monday to get a whole other bibliography of books and articles in this vein, so I’m really excited about that.

There were a lot of really exciting and intriguing things about this book. Each chapter focused on a different choreographer and the social movement to which their work contributed (with the overarching thesis being that movement and dance are a catalyst for social and cultural change).

One thing that Kowal discussed at length when she was considering Katherine Dunham was the separation between race and the self. That is to say: when a white dancer is creating, it is assumed and understood that the work is representative of or comes out of their own individual self and being, and we relate it to them as a person. A white body can create without racial implications. When a person of color creates work, however, there’s a tension between the racial implications–since a colored body can’t create without racial implications–and the artist being themself.

Another tension that Kowal touches on is the difference between originality and authenticity, with relation to culturally-based works (again, Dunham)–what constitutes an original work that is still authentic/can this be created? To be “authentic” does it have to be a direct reproduction of the movement coming out of the culture it claims to represent? Or is there room for authenticity?

Kowal also talks about dance, especially modern dance, as being a universal language that permeates national borders and is able to create social and cultural change because of this. I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced by this; I’ve read plenty of accounts of people being shocked by modern dance or people not being interested in modern dance. But it’s definitely worth considering.

Essentially, I loved this book so much because it had to do with the real-world effects of these choreographers’ works in the time periods in which they were living. Which, obviously, isn’t a totally untouched topic, but is something that I don’t get to read about when I’m just reading the choreographers’ accounts of their lives.

Multiple Selves, Isolation, NEA, and Paul Taylor

Wednesday, August 3 and Thursday, August 4 – “Private Domain” by Paul Taylor

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On Wednesday, I spent the morning at Common Cup (not my favorite atmosphere or coffee, but the people who work there are all super, super kind and it seems to be a really great thing for the community to have) and the afternoon at Ellipsis Coffeehouse (one of my favorites thus far; a really lovely space and perfect music) before performing in a drag show at Berlin Nightclub (!!! SO FUN). Today, I went to Other Brother Coffeehouse (not a ton of working room, but good coffee) and Cupitol (far fancier than I was prepared for, but I like it a lot).

Paul Taylor. Where to begin. “Private Domain” is, to say the least, comprehensive. He goes in to so much detail about his life and his travels; he repeats himself quite a bit as well. But he’s so funny–this is one of the only books where I’ve found myself consistently smiling and laughing at the way it was written; Taylor is hilarious.

As far as technical matters go, the two weird things Taylor does in this book are (1) leaving out “I” as a subject of sentences (so they start with the word “Am”) and (2) switching into present tense whenever he feels like it (which, honestly, a lot of choreographers have done so far. I definitely want to track that more closely).

Taylor talks a lot about the notion of multiple selves, the most prominent of which is “thin and elderly George H. Tacet, Ph.D.” who remains with Taylor throughout his life, and whom Taylor credits as being a costume designer and things like that when he doesn’t want to credit himself. In the book, Taylor has a lot of imaginary conversations with Tacet, to the point that I honestly had to go back and make sure I was correct in remembering Tacet as an imaginary friend and not a real person. It’s very odd.

In addition (and maybe in relation to that), Taylor discusses the notion of isolation a lot. This is interesting because he has a roommate for most of his life, and has a company that he often describes as being a “family,” but isolation and solitude are recurring themes nonetheless.

Taylor is also one of the few choreographers thus far who doesn’t delve deeply into sex/sexuality/relationships. He touches on them, but briefly and gently, such that I still have a lot of questions and a lot of curiosity about them. This is especially bizarre considering the detail with which he explains other aspects of his life.

Finally, and the most exciting to me, is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Pertinent to my quarter-life crisis, I’ve been paying closer attention to social issues and policy relationships in the books, and the NEA has been brought up in quite a few of them thus far. Taylor also recounts being caught in the middle of revolts and tension-filled countries, and applying for the CIA three times (he figured since he was traveling anyway he was in a prime position to be a spy). I’m not entirely sure what I would write about (maybe tracking the “success” of NEA initiatives as recounted by the choreographers themselves?), but the NEA as an organization that has been written about over and over again by these choreographers is exciting to me.

Vignettes, Race, NEA, Bill T. Jones, and Alvin Ailey

Wednesday, July 27 – “Story/Time” by Bill T. Jones
Monday, August 1 and Tuesday, August 2 – “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey

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On Wednesday, I helped out with Striding Lion in the morning and spent the afternoon at Bourgeois Pig in Lincoln Park (I love the atmosphere, but the coffee is just eh). On Monday and Tuesday, I just stayed in Evanston/at home; I had a lot of miscellaneous things to do so I figured it would be easiest not to travel.

I’m combining these two books into one post because I honestly don’t have a lot to say about “Story/Time.” It was really beautiful, but a super quick read and nothing mind-blowing. It had a lot of little vignettes that were super poignant, but a lot of them had appeared in Jones’s autobiography already.

“Revelations,” on the other hand, was incredible. Ailey writes really candidly about race and sexuality, and it opened up a lot of ideas I’d seen with Bill T. Jones and other choreographers more fully and completely. Ailey also talks very explicitly about his cocaine use, which caught me a little off-guard but was really intriguing.

The biggest thing in “Revelations” that came as a shock to me wasn’t even about Ailey, though–it was a small note he made about Robert Joffrey. As it turns out, Joffrey’s real name was Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan, and he was half Pashtun and half Italian. In the incredibly white world of dance–especially ballet–this is super, super important. And it’s something I feel that no one really knows or talks about, which is intriguing to me. I honestly feel like I could write my entire thesis on this. It also opens up a lot of questions about the false black vs. white dichotomy in dance (something that Jones and Ailey both talk about a lot is struggling as black dancers), and where other races fit into that equation. There is already such little Pashtun representation in America; the fact that the founder of one of the biggest ballet companies that’s still around today was half Pashtun is so important.

A couple other notable things: Ailey is super self-aware. He repeatedly says things like, “This stayed with me for the rest of my life,” or “This is where X in X dance came from.” The ability to make those connections in one’s own life is super impressive; often it takes an outside look in.
The criminal versus the artistic. This is part of the racial element, but Ailey talks about making a conscious choice to forgo the criminal in favor of the artistic, which is really interesting because it seems that often people don’t feel as though they have a choice.

I like Ailey a lot, but honestly the Joffrey revelation (heh, see what I did there?) sort of overshadowed the rest of the book, unfortunately for Ailey. I’m definitely going to have to take a deeper look at Joffrey and maybe tack a few more books/readings onto the end of these eight weeks.

Race, Sexuality, Quarter-Life Crises, and Bill T. Jones

Tuesday, July 26 – “Last Night on Earth” by Bill T. Jones

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I’m gonna start this post off with a huge disclaimer: it is going to be very self-focused and personal. I also haven’t yet finished the book, but I wanted to write this post while I had the time and was in the right mindset. So here we go–

I started off today with a meeting with Professor Breen, who is lovely and endlessly helpful. I then sat on the lakefill and read for a bit, before heading up to SPAC to work out and then back home. I showered and ate lunch and now I’m writing these posts before day two of the DNC (!!!).

Honestly, I love Bill T. Jones. Granted, I haven’t gotten to the end of the book yet, but so far this book is truly beautiful. Jones writes in a manner that’s very different from any other memoir or autobiography I’ve read thus far; it almost reads like a novel. His writing is stunning, and I’d highly recommend this book to everyone, dancer or not.

Jones writes really candidly and poetically about the ways that his race and sexuality affected him and his experiences growing up. It’s often easy to forget how recent Jim Crow was, but it was not that long ago. Jones was around for that, and he’s still alive today. Some of the anecdotes and stories he tells about his race and sexuality are really beautiful and heartbreaking, which I think is sort of in everything Jones creates.

The one thing that’s super interesting to me is the notion of rituals. Tharp mentions rituals a lot in “The Creative Habit,” and Jones has already used the word four times in the book. That relationship is something I think I would love to investigate further, especially in terms of how rituals relate to race.

However, over this past weekend, I’ve been having a quarter-life crisis, and I don’t know what I want to investigate anymore. My plan has pretty much always been secondary English education; I recently also started thinking about higher education policy and management studies and other things like that. But I was pretty solidly invested in English education, and my plan was just to apply to a bunch of grad programs in anything that could possibly interest me and see what I got into and what I wanted to do. It’s always been very straightforward. But, as my sister-in-law put it, when I started college and made this plan, I didn’t think I’d be seeing videos of black people get shot by the police every other day.

See, social justice has been a pretty big theme this summer for me. It’s gotten to the point where people have started equating me with social justice, and they reach out to me for advice/answers/thoughts when they’re not sure about things, or to thank me for being outspoken. (I just want to make clear that I am, by NO means, an authority on all things social justice. I’m happy to educate when I can and I’m happy to investigate when I don’t have an answer. I’m still learning). And while going to workshops and sit-ins and marches and posting articles on Facebook and having conversations with people is all fine and dandy, I can’t help but feel like I have an obligation to do more. I am so fortunate to attend Northwestern, and I have the opportunity to use my brain to actually make concrete change in the world, so I feel like that’s something I should do.
I don’t know what this exactly looks like just yet. It might be working at a nonprofit; it might be policy writing. It might be public policy; it might be law school. I’m still investigating and researching and exploring my options and interests, but this path feels more right to me.

I still think that dance and art are so important, and if that’s the way that you want to express your thoughts or change the world, then that’s really great and really important. Those voices need to exist, and art needs to be created. I’m not entirely sure that it’s right for me anymore, though. But Jones is one of those important art-makers, and I’m really excited to explore the links between his work and society, and the through lines that connect his life and art to policy and concrete change. Who knows, maybe my entire thesis will be on race and dance.

I’ll keep you posted on this crisis. I’ll probably buy a sports car tomorrow.