Storyboard Dances


Earlier today I read an article in The New Yorker  about the street dancer, Storyboard P. and watched several online videos of his dancing. I was moved and deeply impressed by his astonishing virtuosity. He “pops and locks” in break dancing style but also has created his own vocabulary of extreme and precise isolations that he actually describes as a series of “charley horses” and that have the look of stop-frame animation. He and other “flex” dancers sometimes refer to their moves as “animations.”  He also uses moves from other forms of street dancing like “juking,” which mimics ballet en pointe foot work.

But more than his technical proficiency – which is more than enough to put him in his own category, it was the rawness of the impulse-life behind his movements that captured me. Strange to tell, I, a 68 year old Jew recognized the place from which this 23 year old African American found his intense physical expressivity.

It’s a place I’ve visited as an actor at certain special times, usually improvising without words, mostly on my own but at times with a partner, connecting to story or character that carries intense emotion, in a pre-verbal way. By “place” I mean an inner condition, a state of awareness that’s free of the controlling, dominating power of discursive, discriminating, utilitarian, hierarchical thought-language or judgmental self-talk;  free of any desire to please anyone or accomplish anything other than “tracking” the pure energy of the physical impulses – those minute desires to move this or that limb, make this or that sound, run, fall, shake or be still.

Perhaps this condition, not unlike states of mindful but non-discriminating awareness that can arise in Buddhist meditation, has something to do with giving oneself over to a distributed intelligence that’s different from the more familiar kind neo-cortex-associated intelligence.

For a while now, neuroscientists, plant biologists, computer scientists, information theorists have been talking about “hive mind” “swarming”  “distributed networks”  as a way to explain seemingly “intelligent” behavior among plants, animals, insects and computers.  Migrating birds, schools of fish, bees and ants, trees and sagebrush all partake of this phenomenon.

Perhaps humans do as well. When I watch Storyboard dance, it’s as if I’m seeing him deconstruct his body into an aggregation of nerves, muscles, tendons, cells and impulses that dance, argue and fight with each other, that support, block, push and pull each other, that coalesce for a moment and come apart again.

Watching him dance, I am reminded of both scientific and mythopoeic accounts of the origin of the cosmos. God contracting God’s essence to make a space for the created universe to exist. Energies so compelling they bend light and pull it into their dark core. Primordial beings giving birth to time and space.

This notion of a performer fragmenting herself into multiple presences isn’t new. It exists in some forms of South Asian narrative dance like Kathakali in which the dancer’s hand gestures, eye and torso movements, footwork and voice each have their own specific role in telling the story, whether it be to convey a mood or emotion, embody a character, evoke a landscape or change the point of view.  In the West, solo performers – mimes, storytellers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, performance artists, monologists – have split themselves  into many parts for centuries, playing multiple characters simultaneously.

But Storyboard’s performances, almost always improvised in the moment, would be difficult to parse in conventional dramatic terms. He might use narrative, but because he’s working so close to the bone – literally – we become witnesses to a shamanic journey rather than listeners to a story. Storyboard, though a dancer, achieves the Artaudian ideal of the actor who “signals through the flames”  that consume his identity, who reveals what remains after ego, social conditioning and self-will are burned away before our astonished eyes.

The Gift. A Pebble. A Shirt.

Years ago, my wife told me to read The Gift by Lewis Hyde. When I did, I felt that Hyde was telling me about the world in an entirely new way, the way of the gift. It has been years since I’ve picked the book up and I’m sure there is much I misremember. But Hyde’s central vision of a “gift economy” in which art has a particular role has never left me. I visited Hyde’s website and found out that his current work in progress is a book on the Creative Commons, which is a notion I’ve been pondering myself [See a previous post here: Originality is Overrated].

The associative path that led me to Lewis just now was an idea that has visited me several times over the last few years. I was hardly the first to have had it. I found versions of it in the writings of ecologist and entomologist E. O. Wilson and the visionary Thomas Berry, among others. But it’s Nobel laureate in medicine, George Wald, who articulates it most clearly:

Surely this is a great part of our dignity…that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight–all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be.

Forget for a moment any claims of uniqueness attributed to the human species. I’m talking about humans only because I’ve been one for 63 years and thus can claim, at least theoretically, some knowledge of human experience. And in my experience, when I give the gift of my attention to the sky or the ocean, to a tree, flower or fish, to another human or a red-tailed hawk or a cat, I am soon aware of an impulse to praise.

Could the evolution of this capacity to attend to and praise the natural world be a strategy of life itself, used to balance all the aggression against life that humans are so capable of?

Attention. Gift. Praise. Love. Give attention. Give praise, Give love. Praise the gift. Praise the world. Praise love. Love the gift of attention and praise. I have noticed that often, for me, the most affecting expression of these human activities is a form called the object poem. It has been practiced by Neruda, Bly, Hirschfield, among many others. Here is one by the Polish master, Zbigniew Herbert.

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardor and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Now here’s another associative leap. A few weeks ago, I took a workshop given by the choreographer, teacher and – I would add – philosopher, Mary Overlie. Mary’s best known contribution to the fields of dance and theatre practice and training is often attributed to someone else. I mean The Six Viewpoints. Known as, simply, Viewpoints, it is often assumed to be the invention of Anne Bogart, well-known avant-garde director. Viewpoints has overtaken Stanislavski’s and Grotowski’s methods of training for the actor in some quarters. I was introduced to some exercises third hand that I was told were Viewpoints. But in Mary’s workshop I discovered that, in her original formulation, The Six Viewpoints are not exercises, though many exercises and experiments have been and will continue to be developed as ways to explore them. Bogart and Overlie worked together at some point, though I know none of the details, and would welcome a comment from anyone who knows the story. Bogart altered Mary’s six Viewpoints and presented them in well-attended training sessions that she and members of her Siti Company taught. I sense some tension around the complex issues of ownership and intellectual property though Mary said very little about it.

Mary’s Six Viewpoints are: Space, Shape, Time, Movement (the flow of impulses within the body) Emotion (presence rather than illustrations of feeling sad, glad, mad …) and Story (also thought of as logic). She spoke of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as one of her conceptual influences, particularly his idea of Qualities. For Mary, the Viewpoints are the performer’s materials and she led us through a series of explorations of each one. In these exercises I began to understand where the forms that I had been told were Viewpoints had come from. Perhaps the one most commonly used is what Mary calls Stopping and Walking. A group of any size begins walking in the space. They are instructed to simply walk – adding nothing, no attempts to “express” or “invent” anything – and to stop and to walk again on their own timing – while noticing, paying attention to the particular viewpoint that is being explored. If it’s Space, then you notice the constant changes to the nature of the space created by the group as it moves or is still. Bogart, as I understand it, added more Viewpoints such as topography (the patterns of movement on the floor).

But here’s the connection I want to make. Mary sees her work as being informed by Post Modernism and its primary tool of deconstruction. As she spoke, it became obvious to me that I had been using these terms for a long time without knowing their real meanings.

Where Classicism and Modernism both assume a vertical hierarchy of values, Post Modernism lies the vertical down on the ground and looks at the world horizontally. On the horizontal, there is no hierarchy. Nothing is more worthy of attention than anything else. I take this as another way of articulating what the Buddhists call Beginners’ Mind.

It’s a state of not knowing and it requires courage to enter. You’re not given a map though maybe you get a compass, or the tools with which to make a compass.

Deconstruction then, is a way of exploring on the horizontal. It has nothing to do with destruction. Mary said: “To deconstruct a shirt, you use a very sharp razor to carefully take the seams apart. You don’t just rip it up. You take it apart to see how it was made and you put it back together.”

So here’s another poem, one by Robert Pinsky, close in form to an object poem and a perfect embodiment of deconstruction.

The Shirt

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes–

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers–

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

I’ll leave off without trying to wrap these associations up. Any attempt at suggesting I know what this all adds up to would be a pose.

Please share any thoughts this give rise to by clicking the comments button below. I’ll be teaching two workshops soon, a three hour, “The Creative Moment” and a weekend intensive on theatre-making. Click here for more.