The Dance Studio as Writer’s Studio1From”The I or ...continue

by Renée E. D’Aoust
Photo by Inka Probst

Photo by Inka Probst

        The dance studio contains the sacred quartet of a dancer’s life: the mirror, the teacher, the self, the music. In the writer’s studio this might be mapped to the page, the editor, the self, the reader. In this set-up the audience (and by extension the reader) is present but unseen.
        I’m approaching this reflection in terms of external observation, the eye, and internal observation, the I. Additionally, I am using my own transitions from dancer to nonfiction writer to dance critic/book reviewer to help me share some of my thoughts.
        Let’s start with the mirror. The mirror always lies. For now, tell the mirror to go away. Or more politely cover it with a scarf.
        Let’s move immediately to the dance teacher. The teacher, if she is a very good teacher, is often the reliable eye—the seer, the oracle—for the dancer. Why? Because what you see in the mirror may or may not be an accurate reflection of what you are doing as a dancer. Also note that the relationship between teacher and dancer is not so different from that between trusted editor and writer.
        So we have the dancer, the I—the writer. I am myself, but within this “I,” as anyone who meditates realizes, I am also observing myself. How do we access this embodied awareness of self without transitioning to observation? Because when we transition to observation, we set up a distance between what we experience and what we say we experience.
        Now when I moved from dancing on stage to sitting in an audience and watching someone else dance, I first experienced what I was watching onstage from inside my body. That was okay, because I was writing personal essays about dance, based on my own history, and if I’m writing creative nonfiction about dancing, describing choreography I myself have performed, this interiority works quite well.
        But when I started to write dance reviews, I could only write about what it would feel like to dance that choreography. If I wanted a creative essay which shared more than personal experience, the embodied “I” might be too restrictive to allow for inclusion of broader material. Moreover, when I was writing as a critic, the embodied experiential perspective often didn’t work at all.
        Here’s an example: I had the opportunity to write a dance review of a solo from Meredith Monk’s piece, Education of the Girlchild. As I watched, I could feel the physical control needed to move as slowly as a woman aging before our eyes. I felt the contraction in the abdomen, felt the crease lines fold in at the sides of the eyes, felt the physical gap and gasp between thought and movement. After Monk’s performance, I had notes dealing with how it would feel to perform this particular choreography, but I had nothing about the piece’s structure, nothing about its set or the costume. I couldn’t even remember the music. That’s saying a lot: Meredith Monk had just been awarded a National Medal of Arts from President Obama because of her unique voice, musical compositions, and choreography. Yet I was so connected to my experience of Monk performing these movements that afterward I had no access to external observations, even, you might say, to other observations of being. Sadly, my writing reflected a very narrow way to experience art. I realized that allegiance to one sense is not enough. Therefore, it is essential to develop the skill of using different perspectives in writing so that when we have to choose a perspective, we have the skills to make that choice.
        As writers, we do not want to be so embodied in our own “I” that we lose track of what is happening around us. The process of learning how to write dance criticism taught me this. Or rather, writing some really inarticulate and garbled dance criticism for a number of years taught me this. Luckily, I had several generous and kind editors who helped me pose the question: Am I fully aware of seeing clearly when I focus only on the self?
        To describe a dance performance as a critic often involves the four skills cited below, which I find especially helpful as I move between dance criticism and book reviews on one hand and personal essay and memoir on the other. Here I am indebted to Sally Banes’ book Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism. In her chapter “On Your Fingertips: Writing Dance Criticism,” Banes notes that the great dance critic Edwin Denby created three “complex operations that a critic can perform:” description, interpretation, and evaluation. To these stragies Banes adds what she calls “contextual understanding.” She writes: “For the critic’s job is to complete the work in the reader’s understanding, to unfold the work in an extended time and space after the performance, and to enrich the experience of the work. This may be done, of course, even for those who have not seen the work.”
        Remember, readers of creative nonfiction have not experienced what you are sharing firsthand. Yet the perspective from which to write might derive quite readily from what it is that you want to write. To be a good dance critic, however, demands a different strategy: for example, the dance critic must employ narrative distance when writing a review. Therefore, all writers should perform acts of literary citizenship, such as writing book reviews. Practiced often, they provide us with the skills to move between writing the self and writing at a distance from the self. If I simply evaluate a dance performance or a book, I am writing what Banes calls “criticism at its crudest.” More fascinating is the gap between my contextual explanation of something I observed or read—say, in a dance or book review—and my contextual explanation of something I lived.
        This insight works also as we find our way into creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir. If I write in an evaluative mode about my experiences, I am relating the story as a person writing a quick entry for TripAdvisor (something I love to do, by the way, my name there is “Mallarda”) rather than as a fully realized person who employs description, interpretation, and context.
        As we think of narrative distance and choices, let’s not forget, however, the power of you to punch through or break away from expectations created by writing only from the first-person point of view. Before dance criticism, before book reviews, I was writing creative nonfiction, working on my book of interlacing essays, Body of a Dancer. One essay, “Graham Crackers,” employed the use of the second person, and the you allowed me to observe all dancers with whom I had trained in the Martha Graham studio. In this essay, the you is inclusive, and punitive. It includes their experience and my observation. But let’s be careful: the you can be deadly boring, too, if it is devoid of scene and sense.
        In the dance studio, dancers are taught to see not just with their eyes, but also with their bodies. It’s common to have a teacher speak of seeing with one’s back, that there are small eyes all over a dancer’s back. Thus, moving in space, dancers avoid hitting someone they cannot see, someone who is right behind them. This felt sense is often taught to young dancers as a sense of seeing the other person behind them, seeing a person they cannot really observe with their eyes, because they physically do not see with their back. What if we used this directive in creative nonfiction? What if we could see the past with our backs? What if we had eyes looking backward?
        When we are unbound from embodied experience, and not so intimately attached to the self, we begin to write the nuance of things. It’s this place where we find true perspective—not just our perspective or the reader’s perspective—but the particular perspective this particular story needs at this particular time.
        In creative nonfiction, the perspective—or distance—I choose will mean different ways in which I perform the various functions I previously mentioned. Sometimes I use the problem of perspective to shake myself up, especially when I’m in the stuck LP mode of these questions: “How do I tell this story? How, and why, and why now?” Instead I move to whatever perspective I need to access the story in descriptive, interpretive, evaluative, and contextual terms. Oh! And here’s my punk move for this talk, because I want to include a quotation from Patti Smith. She strengthens our writing muscles when she sings, “People have the power.” Power to the people to decide. You have the power to decide your perspective.
        So far, I’ve left music and the mirror (and the audience/reader) off in a corner. When I stopped dancing, I took down all the mirrors in my house and covered those I couldn’t take down with scarves. I wanted to discover if I could relate to myself without the betrayal of that mirrored reflection. When you stare deeply into a mirror every day of your life, for years, doing pliés, you develop a distorted interpretation of how you look, and it becomes necessary to break off the affair. But now I have mirrors in my house again because I think of the mirror as the writer’s page.
        On the page we do not find betrayal or false interpretation but the body itself. What does the body—that page—tell us that we refuse to see?

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1. From”The I or the Eye”: Panel at the NonfictioNOW Conference, Flagstaff, AZ, Oct. 2015.