“Dances are Ghosts”
February 20, 2015
– It’s what DD Dorvillier says. Jenn Joy asks, in response, “Can we imagine a movement then from the spectral to the image?” (1)
A room is often filled with ghosts. A room full of dancers, dance enthusiasts, poet-critics, and poets. They offer their bodies and voices as mediations, between the living and the dead, between the dead and their ghosts. How do you dance history? How does a living body carry the ghosts of bodies before it?
People who Edwin Denby taught to see find it hard to imagine him as absent. They keep hearing his voice. He had told you, one of his young friends, to focus on Suzanne Farrell’s neck while you’re at Lincoln Center together. You do not forget a thing like that. You remember it each time you look at the upper half of a dancer’s body. Denby takes on a new body in each neck you see.
In one translation, “specter” becomes “double,” qareen in Arabic. There are many Merce Cunningham doubles—at least six of them are in the workshop led by Silas Riener. Say you are one of these doubles, and you’re being taught Canfield (1969), and you’re being asked to tilt, curve, arch, and twist. It’s doubling of a curious sort, because, well, “something makes you conscious of all the ways you might fail”—the exact words of Adrian Danchig-Waring in the course of the workshop. You hadn’t met Cunningham, and all you now hear are stories told and retold, written and erased and rewritten, and you watch, keenly and rapturously, the movement of a dancer he had trained. But qareen is an interesting concept because it means that a person is born with an analogous figure, and both of them live separate lives, converging only at death. Now you dance Cunningham’s life, even in his death.
“Dances are ghosts. You don’t have to believe in them. You learn a dance and it resists your believing in it. You can dance badly, but the dance doesn’t dance badly.” – the full quote from Dorvillier.
On Saturday, when the PLATFORM Catalogue was launched, Megan Metcalf says, “Dance allows me to see ghosts.” On Saturday also, Will Rawls asks, “How do you find the ghosts – or invent them?”
Can we imagine a movement from the spectral to the image? It’s the sort of question I might ask you, supposing you’re Silas Riener. On a table you have placed up to a dozen dice. Some are 6-sided, some are 12-sided, Cunningham’s choreographic toolbox. He would role a die to determine the movement of an arm, then roll it again to determine what step accompanies the chosen gesture. Yet each step, once decided, is encoded into the body—and if, like Silas, you worked with Cunningham in the last five years of his company, you inherit the movement of the dancer you replace, and all the dancers before then. This is how dance is a time machine, a repository of retrievable gestures. And yet, a reframing of the question: how do you move from the image to the specter?
Histories dissipate and fizzle. Denby’s poetry hasn’t been given nearly as much critical attention as his dance criticism. And, well, there is no cover picture of his first novel Scream in a Cave on Amazon, where it is only available from “third-party sellers.” When Mimi Gross read from it on Wednesday, she didn’t mention the 1972 title, but spoke instead of a title from the 1930s, Mrs. W’s Last Sandwich.
Maybe images are unreliable? Maybe the videos of Cunningham’s dances I saw are half-truths, a showcase that partly depicts the rigor of their making. Imagine throwing dice to determine each move in a dance piece. This rigor is hard to depict—the body bears its strains. Yve Laris Cohen, on Saturday, talks about the trauma in his body from years of dancing ballet. He still works out of, and in response to, this trauma.
I am strangely comforted by the knowledge that many ghosted histories make traffic in this archive, but also outside of it.
– Emmanuel Iduma, in response to A Reading for Edwin Denby (2/11); Silas Riener’s workshop Complexity, Chance and Indeterminacy in the Choreographic Structures of Merce Cunningham (2/13); and Conversations Without Walls (2/14).