Years ago, after a breakup, I observed that the weird rough edges within myself--all of the hanging questions and unfinished lessons, emotional scars and unwanted reflexes acquired in less healthy times--would not work themselves out fully until I found myself again in a similar context. Being alone and introspective was good, even essential, but only when I re-entered the world of relationships would I be able to feel all the demons rise to the surface. Once they came out to play in a new encounter, I would be able to see them as they were, and I could single them out for eradication. Until then, I realised, I wouldn't really know who I was in a partnership; the best I could do would be to work on all of the day-to-day rough patches and get to know myself.
In dance, I feel there's something similar. Or maybe it's just that my approach to life has a pattern. I always feel like the real moments of learning about performance are extraordinarily fleeting, maybe five or six minutes of going out into a particular environment that has been crafted by all the participants to create specific experiences for everyone involved. While I think there's clearly great value in rehearsal, the repetition in a studio doesn't get to the nuances of what it feels to perform. To get at that stuff, I feel that one needs to be in that rarified space, get a feel for its contours and observe how sensations bounce around within it.
I'm a largely improvisational dancer, and so I may be especially sensitive to all of this. I don't take a lot of comfort in a routine; in fact, I sometimes find choreography distracting in performance, because my memory and muscles have a tendency to surprise me, and I'd rather integrate that into the flow than find myself outside the program. Even when I'm learning choreography, I often feel like I'm chasing after a train as it accelerates away from the platform. Sometimes my body gets it, but I don't feel or really know where I'm going next. I'm sure a lot of this is down to practice, and nailing down a way to drop into choreography is perpetually on my dance to-do list. So far, though, dance just feels like it's made of something different to me.
Rather than coming from a place of familiar combinations and common language, I feel dance at a nearly molecular level. I teased apart the movements I learned from my teachers through a lot of obsessive self-observation, expanding and experimenting with the nuances of my own musculature.; it's not for nothing that these are called isolations. I actually think of the movements I do, when I think about them, in this way: pinpointing anatomical impetus and chasing it down connection points to transfer energy through cascading contraction and relaxation. I do these things over and over again, until the movements that are in my body are mine, as reflexive as my own use of language. It's not that I don't want to learn combinations and choreography, it's just that I'm a weirdo and I get hung up on the details. To borrow the analogy of not being able to see the forest for the trees, if choreography is a marked trail through the woods, then I find myself admiring bark patterns and climbing up into the canopy to see what the view's like up there.
My days of being frustrated with this are mostly past me. I think I've largely succeeded in making peace with the fact that I approach dance in my way, and that while it's greatly expanded my interior universe and interaction with the world around me, it also makes me difficult to work with and slow to pick up things that are second nature for other dancers. I aspire to develop these other skills; in the meantime, I enjoy learning what I learn and absorbing it in my sloth-like way. As a teacher, I enjoyed developing choreographic ideas and sharing them with a group, working with the symphonic arrangement that simplicity can build to with many people working together. But, when I dance alone, I tend to slip into that natural language, feel a moment and encounter that strange interaction between myself and the music of the world around me.
Performance sometimes feels like a cocoon I can only enter for a few minutes at a time. The transformation is gradual, the conditions and test very brief. I try to access that transcendent space to let dance happen, and I can't be on the outside at the same time to assess whether my interpretation of what's transpiring gets through to the audience. It's a strange art form; there's no thing to hold outside of time, to turn in the light and get a finite sense about. Video flattens it. The animal bits of us can feel the strange sensations of another person's poise, and similarly primal parts of our busy brains can be held hostage by a suspension of physics and animation of intent. In each of those dances, I breathe into that expanded space, feel the presence of the people around me, and try to be open to that big mystery before the song ends.