Recently, a good friend and I attended an unusual dance performance entitled “WEAVE.” The choreographer, Rosy Simas, Native American of the Seneca, Heron Clan, worked with a handful of mostly Native dancers to give us an intense exploration of movement drawn from some depths inside the dancers. In the program notes, composed by the poet Heid Erdrich, we were told about how Ms. Simas had asked her performers to “dig within themselves” as they listened to the music provided rather than having her prescribe what they were to execute on stage. So, instead of providing them with the template for the performance, she drew them into the creation as well as the enactment of that performance. Similarly, the “music” they danced to was not what we usually think of when we hear that word. What provided the frame for the dancers were sounds–waves breaking against rocks, crickets chirping in a woods, water lapping on some imagined lake short, the primordial beats I imagined accompanied the creation of the world. Erdrich invited the audience to LISTEN, just as Simas had instructed her performers.
The result was extraordinary. The dancers moved so slowly as to make me wonder if we’d simply come to the end of something. Finally, I relaxed and stopped waiting for “something to happen.” I sank into the moment and began really to listen to the sound effects, to let them penetrate past my cortex and move toward my heart. Then I began watching expressions on the faces of the dancers. Our seats were second row center, so at times we could almost touch a dancer. But they were on a different plane; we didn’t exist as they moved fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, torsos, legs, feet . Their faces became at times luminescent, as if they were channeling something much older and more significant that they or we could ever hope to be. And, though there were pairings and threesomes, there was only one moment when two dancers actually touched. Yet I felt they were entirely connected with each other. We are learning these days from serious arborists that trees actually can communicate through root systems. As I watched intently as the dancers “spoke” to each other without physical contact, I thought about those old trees.
As we talked about what we’d just witnessed, my friend pointed out that all that repetition had taken us to a meditative place rather than to a cognitive one. And that place demanded something other than concentration or created something other than drama. We wondered it not having any plot line had erased or at least muted the audience’s more familiar intellectual concentration on what we were watching. Meditation depends on internal focus, erasing ideas that can clutter our brain and keep us “busy.” I thought of an ancient form of prayer my church often has the congregation do–taize prayer where we just chant the same few words or phrases over and over. As this happens, I am able to give myself to the practice so that a remarkable thing occurs. I feel like the words actually enter my body or that I meld with them in the sound space we all make as we chant. Then I pictured Allen Ginsberg, cross-legged and eyes closed, intoning sounds, sometimes under the influence of various drugs but still connecting with something that wasn’t logic or ratiocination.
Before the formal part of the performance began, as we were milling about in the lobby, my friend directed my attention to hands we saw being raised a ways off from where we stood. Eventually, the owner of those hands came into view, and we watched as several performers moved slowly and sinuously to the sound of those crickets who would reappear once we were all seated and the lights had been dimmed. Very slowly the dancers moved among us toward the admittance doors. Once they entered, we were allowed to follow and take our seats. At the end of the program, those same dancers left the stage as slowly as they had gone to it and danced upon it. We all sat, craning our necks to watch as they measured their exit. Only then did we know to applaud as the exhausted dancers dashed onto the stage to receive our standing ovation. My friend remarked later that having them in the lobby before suggested another way in which the choreographer was expanding our definition of what makes up a performance. So having them exit formally once again stretched the confines of the evening beyond the familiarly designated “space” of the proscenium stage.
I am deeply grateful to Rosy Simas and her powerful group of dancers. They have opened new doors in my thinking about dance as a cultural expression. And they have given me a glimpse into a space not governed by formal rules, a space shaped simply but profoundly by asking all of us–dancers, choreographer, and audience members–to slow way down, go way inside, listen carefully, and see what we find.