Barefootblogger: thoughts on dance

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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Editing while Maintaining (and Revealing) the Soul of a Piece

I am finally in the process of editing my concert of last fall, my first full evening of work. It was a long time coming and so has been this editing process.

This is a learning experience on many levels and is proving to be an unexpected gift. I am seeing my work in new ways, with new eyes. I am up close and personal with it in a way that I’ve never allowed myself to experience before. What do I mean by that…? I think I mean that when I usually view my work it in some ways is with that wince that we all experience when we hear our voices on our answering machines. Do I really sound like that? Ouch! And yet there is this weird fascination, once we get past our lack of objectivity.

One is probably never truly objective about one’s work and that’s probably a blessing. But in a way, given that I am only now, in March, editing work performed in September, I have a certain distance, a certain ability to stomach it.

So there we are, my amazing editor and me, sitting in the half-darkness of his crowded and technology covered studio. I am inches away from two different screens. One depicts what he’s doing, the final versions of what we are editing. The other screen is controlled by me and shows side-by-side images of my dances: one close-up and on an angle and one centered and wide. The recordings are from two different nights and therein lies the game we play: synching dance to dance, movement to movement, moment to moment, breath to breath.

Though endlessly frustrating and TIME CONSUMING, there is a certain beauty about this process and I find that I am touched in a way that is hard to express…

I am, I think, foremost moved by the earnest performances of the dancers. It’s true: they rallied for me. The five performances over the weekend of September 8-11 were without dysfunction. Seeing them all again now, on screens repeating moments again and again, I say a silent acknowledgement of thanks to each of them.

I am made aware of the true art of editing. It is viscerally satisfying to achieve a good edit, to take a passage from a piece and make it larger than life, to bring the audience with you, on a journey. I am editing to reveal what is fundamental about any given piece, not to preserve the choreography. This was a brick wall I traversed, with the help of my editor. After all, what’s the use of working with him if not to let him do what he does best? The choreography is safely preserved in my wide-shots. I am here to tell a bigger story.

I make choices like: showing Stephanie in the corner, smaller than anything, to offer context and express her vulnerability; like a cross-fade on myself, just as my head peers through my arms, creating intimacy and expressing shyness; and like sacrificing the group section in order to focus on the tense muscularity of a certain couple of dancers, creating depth of stage-picture as we watch the sinews at work.

In short, I am sold on this process, this experience of editing; I wouldn’t have missed it. It is the ultimate taking of responsibility of and for one’s work. The choreographic process continues and deepens and defies mediums. There, indeed, ain’t nothing like the real thing. But when live is not available, this, I’m coming to discover, can satisfy.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


My grandpa called the other night to say goodbye. After 98 years he is ready to go. What does this have to do with dance? Everything…

As far back as I can remember in my life as a dancer Grandpa has always been respectful and inquisitive about the fact that I danced. I would sit in the backseat of my grandparent’s car and answer question after question about the specifics of my after school life: how many hours, how many pointe shoes, why I did it at all. I could tell he was attempting to make it concrete for himself. It was the furthest thing from his experience. Maybe that’s why he took it and me seriously: he had no preconceived negative notions.

When I started choreographing he really perked up. Though he had always been proud of me, somehow the fact that I was making my own dances made even more concrete sense to him. I suspect he finally felt as though I had a future beyond my dancing years; he could stop worrying. (Little did he know how choreographers rely on “soft money” and the funding whims of the grant bestowing community!)

At 5’ 2 1/4” tall I have always wondered why I am not taller. My mother is 5’6” and my father is about 6’ tall. Grandpa was 6’2” or something close to that. I guess I got my height from Grandma who also was 5’2”. Grandpa was sort of massive in a slim kind of way, akin to Jimmy Stewart and in more ways than one. He always maintained a sense of humor about himself and life in general. Even during last week’s phone call he cracked a joke, something about us expecting him to live another 100 years. Indeed, no. Let him continue to live in our collective memories and in this reflection.

So he was this tall man against my short womanhood. His last plane trip was to attend my wedding in the summer of 2000. Slightly shrunken, he still maintained a sense of his former magnitude. It was not long after that that he lost the first of his legs. He handled the entire enterprise with strength and grace. I’m sure he had been proud of his stature; it must have played a part in how he self-identified. Within two years he lost his other leg and officially became “shorter” than me.

My mom was broken up about this. Initially I think she thought he thought he was but a shadow of his former self. Perhaps this is true. He never let on though. He maintained his erect posture and worked up the strength to sling his body from bed to wheelchair and back again. This is the constitution I’ve inherited.

Around the time that he lost his second leg I was commissioned by James Sewell Ballet to choreograph a new work that became “Witness”. Inspired by Grandpa I made a solo that evolves into a duet that lies at the heart of the piece. There is a red chair center stage and a woman (initially Peggy Seipp-Roy and later, me) draped across it on her knees. For the duration of that section she never is upright. All of her movements and posturing are floor-bound, on or around the chair, in relationship to it in some way. It is her support, her point of reference, her security blanket. At the end of the section her partner takes the chair away and the image we are left with is the woman balancing on her knees.

Grandpa saw this piece on video. I didn’t tell him that he inspired that particular section. Maybe he got it, maybe not. The point is that I shared it with him at all. Even though, as I imagine, my creating and performing life remained somewhat of a mystery to him (even after all the questions), he valued my work unconditionally. That he “got” it will never be the point.

I think this issue will ring true for a lot of dancers. Most of us probably feel like the black sheep of our families. It is depressing and exhausting to perpetually feel misunderstood about what to us is vital and elementary. So it’s all the more special that I never felt put upon by answering Grandpa’s questions. They were so sincerely asked and reflected upon that I began to see that it was my duty to my form to share as specifically and generously as I could. Dance needs to welcome the outside in.

As I age, I negotiate my ever-changing body and it’s daily inconsistencies. What’s going on with my lower back and do I need an MRI? I am 35 after all and wonder for the first time about my body’s ability to keep on keeping on. At this moment, after having several good-back days in a row I choose to put my energy and faith into Grandpa’s example. I will remain erect and graceful about whatever the situation reveals. I will determinedly do the necessary work to stay on top this insinuating physical insult.

I carry in my head and in my heart the words he expressed to me last week. I am keeping them to myself but here’s what I can share: as he spoke I felt buoyed by his words, knowing that he was speaking truth. I know with a greater degree of assuredness that I am on the right path for my life and that I will always identify as a dancer in some way. I read between the lines of his words and determine that I will continue to choreograph, to educate and now, to write. By strengthening these others I will protect and support the practicing dancer in me.

Grandpa is still with us but I may never speak with him again. I am so glad for the fact that, as gracefully as ever, he has come to terms with his own death. The rest of us are given this window of time in which to come to terms with it too. Soon the red chair will be taken away and he will be safely balancing, solo. Blackout: new section begins.