i learned to speak in dance

Dance was pretty much not just the first thing I was really good at, but really the first thing I was good at, at all. But while my peers went to ballet school and dreamed of pointe shoes and being in The Nutcracker, I wound up at The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance as soon as I was old enough for them to let me in.

I don’t recall whose idea this was — mine or my parents’ — but looking back on it, it seems about, among other things, how much I wasn’t made for the world of ballet. I was not P&G, I did not have long hair, I was terribly fragile but not at all delicate.

Martha Graham’s dance probably taught me more about being a woman than anything else I have ever done. It taught me more than Hewitt, where I mostly felt inadequate at performing my gender; and more than my parents, who were shocked and confused when I took it upon myself to shave my legs because that’s what all the other girls were doing.

But the things Graham dance taught me were weird. Weird for an eleven-year-old anyway. Because they were about sex and death and ritual and a life spent on the ground. Sometimes, when I think about how I’m too serious, or don’t get teasing, or do all this scholarship about sex and gender and mourning and death, or felt so proud of the way I endured the relationship disasters of my 20s, I think, this is all Graham’s fault for teaching me that a girl’s fate is grief and vengefulness.

I don’t mind, really, but it’s a funny legacy to carry around in my body. It’s something I’ve lived with longer than almost anything else about me, after all.

Graham is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. She would have been 117 today. She died when I was 18, at college and unable to pursue dance because of health problems and needing to have the financial support of my family to attend school. I remember coming home to go to the celebration of her life and her work at City Center. I remember thinking I should have been up there. I remember thinking I would never be able to iron my hair straight enough to be a “little Martha,” and so maybe nothing was so different from ballet in the end after all.

But I speak the way I speak as much because of her as because of all the speech therapy I had growing up. And it’s such a funny, funny thing to see the way I move, and the way I hurt, dancing, spritely, in my web browser.

Other lives. We are always in some way leaving them.

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The brutality of being chosen

One of my creative associates (who may have words with me at that particular phrasing in the name of identity plausible deniability) has a discussion piece up on Friends of the Text today about the premise of being chosen within texts and the idea of being chosen by texts. Thematically relevant to the stuff that interests me? You bet.

But also, of course, thematically relevant to my life. It’s easy to say, I think, and Balaka says as much in the piece, that everyone wants to be chosen. It is, she notes, like winning in the passive voice. But I wonder. Do boys want to be chosen as much as girls? Is the chosen part of the narrative what makes Harry Potter and Star Wars exciting to the male segments of their audiences? Do men have a Pygmalion narrative in their fantasies, one in which they are the transformed and not the transformer? Are women more socialized to this idea of being chosen? Is that why Twilight flies off the shelves? What’s it like, I wonder, to grow up, wanting to choose. Who is that person? And how are they formed? Were they once waiting to get chosen and finally got sick of not having magic powers or not becoming a star just for sitting at the table in the window of some diner?

It’s a sticky, nasty, uncomfortable question. At least for me. Because it touches, potentially, not just on ideas of gender, but also on ideas of dominance and submission and of leadership. It speaks to the troubling idea that chosen just means, “you’re good enough to be transmuted into gold.” It’s not just that you’re nothing without being chosen, it’s the suggestion that you’re nothing without acquiescing to the consequences of being chosen, and they are legion.

For me, this whole chosen business also speaks to ideas I have about the directorial imagination and my fears about whether I have enough of one. And it speaks to the doubt I have about the idea that the best thing anyone can do for themselves is get over that fantasy of being chosen, even though I know that waiting isn’t how to do life, poetic, rigorous, and narratively enticing though it may sometimes be.

Of course, I work in industries that largely are about “winning in the passive voice.” I write something, and then someone snatches it out of a pile of slush and publishes it. Sure, sometimes I get asked for things up front, and sure, I have to write things (which is an active endeavor) before waiting for them to get chosen, but “winning in the passive voice” is definitely the right description of the experience of it. At least for me.

Acting can be even more bizarre in that regard. You get a call; someone likes how you look; can you come in now and show us what you can do? It’s “winning in the passive voice” before there’s even a chance of winning in the active voice, and trust me, when they say you’ve got it, and it’s a contract, it doesn’t, in that moment, feel like you did anything, other than get plucked out of a crowd. A week later, you might recall how damn hard you worked for that opportunity, but the first flush of reaction is, at least for me, and I suspect for many other performers is “They picked me! Me!” Chosen.

“Winning in the passive voice.” It implies all of the benefits and none of the hard work of this success thing, doesn’t it? Seems snazzy. But there’s a real brutality that underlies it, one of clay in the kiln, and the insidious possibility that it might have actually been a certain peculiar and shifting inadequacy that brought you to attention. To be fair, I grew up as a dancer, and being chosen meant being told how you were wrong and being pressed harder and further into shapes to which you did not yet conform. But I suspect, regardless of background, that for a lot of people, it is this idea of brutality that appeals.

To return us to matters of the text and this idea of being chosen by the text, it makes me think about the work I’ve done regarding death and mourning. Or, at least, the tangential experience I’ve had in having done that work of seeing a lot of anger and distress from audiences in which beloved characters do die. Does this speak, I wonder, to this idea of being chosen by the text, and then finding out — for those who have had negative reactions to these fictional deaths — that this was really not what you signed up in that moment where you felt the text chose you. Conversely, for those of us who have felt vastly satisfied in those losses, is it because of the relief of encountering the expected brutality in our selection by the text?

And it’s not just on death that texts can brutalize us. Look at Bella in Twilight and look at our reactions. Is not the inspired longing for that type of impossibility a brutality of the text? Is not what Bella experiences in the face of the love she endures another brutality of the text, this one intradiegetic, instead of extradiegetic?

What, ultimately, do these narratives of being chosen suggest to us about the ethics of favor and brutality in our relationships with texts and in texts’ relationships with us? And how much choice do we have about those relationships, when the narratives themselves are, at base, about not having choice, and the supposedly great good fortune of that condition? Nobody ever asked Harry Potter if he wanted to save the world.

Thinky thoughts are a double thumbs up. Please make sure to give Balaka’s post some love too, especially if your reactions are more about her work than my little digression/extrapolation here. I would also particularly love to hear here from men on the subject of Pygmalion narratives and anyone who feels they are instinctively wired towards being the one who chooses.

Black Swan

Black Swan was one of those films I didn’t really want to see, but felt obligated to because of the reception its getting. But as someone who isn’t a horror fan, is/was a dancer and has sex with women, it seemed like a recipe for stuff I don’t care about getting it wrong.

Having seen it today, I’m still pretty ambivalent about it — in fact, I am grateful for how little it spoke to me personally — but I can say this: it didn’t get it wrong. At all.

The necessary full disclosure before I continue this is as follows: I was never a ballet dancer. I was never training to be a ballet dancer, although I did study ballet and do pointe work. My main focus was modern dance, particularly Martha Graham technique, and I was one of those people whose technique and athleticism were not perfect, but oh, I could make you watch me.

Black Swan is a horror film in the tradition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It’s about what’s real, external, supernatural horror, and what is a product of the mind. It’s a style of narrative that I understand both the appeal and horror of, but that has little interest for me. Everything I do is about the fine, fine line between fiction and non-fiction and to me what is interesting about liminal spaces isn’t confusion but overlap.

However, Black Swan is also a narrative about ambition, fear, mentorship, the rivalries of women, and what it means to be a dancer, a ballet dancer. And on those points, it nails the story its striving to tell.

The super, super weird thing about being a dancer is that you spend every, single second of the day making your body capable of extraordinary acts of beauty. It becomes a machine in serve to your art. And yet, it is never, ever yours. It is the dance’s, the teacher’s, the choreographer’s, the company’s, the director’s, and that of every single person who pushes you to do what it is a single hair from impossible.

Black Swan gets to that lack of self-ownership fast, and it’s not pleasant to watch. Because Black Swan isn’t about the beauty of submission or the (arguably) necessary brutalization of self in pursuit of high artistic success. It’s about abuse, debasement and the desire to disappear, not just into the work, but from the world. If you give up everything for the work, do you even exist without it?

The film is smart, stunningly so. As Nina seems to be slowly overtaken by the black swan, her skin ripples with goosebumps eager, it seems, to disgorge feathers. If you’ve ever been around a dancer as thin and spare as a ballerina must be, you know their flesh prickles like this easily at the cold — it’s damn hard to stay warm with virtually no body fat. The damage to legs, to feet; the issues of perfection versus desire; the self-abuse in the form of substances, sex, self-injury, and starvation; the acceptance of cycles of abuse, claiming, and disregard from others — if you’ve ever danced the way I danced, you’ve seen that stuff if you haven’t been involved in it yourself.

But here’s the thing — I don’t want to say that every dancer goes through this. I really, really don’t. And perhaps that’s why I’m so surprised that this film is such a success: why aren’t people angrier about this picture? Not of dancers, but of women? Can’t we have powerful female sexuality without it being the end of the world? Or mentors who use instead of elevate? Or women who are not starving, metaphorically or literally for love? Isn’t there any story of female ambition that isn’t about brutal, destructive, grade-school style rivalry? I get that good stories are all about anguish and extremes, but until stories about ambitious women have a narrative other than hate and self-hate, ambitious women are going to have to keep paying prices above and beyond the already terrible prices that the singular, monomaniacal focus that certain types of achievement nearly always require.

I liked this movie well enough. It showed and said true things and was well made. But one of those things is that achievement tends to cost women double. For me, that’s hard to watch.

But perhaps hardest for me to watch was the moment Nina locked herself in the bathroom to call her mother to tell her she’d gotten the part, and she’s whispering and sobbing because everything is different now. As someone who is still a performer and wants and wants and wants, I’ve pre-lived my own such moments in my head a million times. It was dead on. And even having gotten to the end of the film and being damn familiar with its truths, I’m writing this still wanting, still knowing, exactly what I’ll sound like the next time I get chosen.

I do a lot of stuff, in part, because “all I’ve ever wanted” is an idea that terrifies me, even if it’s an emotion I at least often think I feel. If it doesn’t already terrify you, Black Swan will probably fix that.