Dance is a subjective beast. Its the embodiment of the slippery line between movement, text, relationship, story, and life.
Recently I have been grappling with questions of how I am attracted to a performance or choreographer. What makes me lean forward in my theater seat and my hairs stand on end after the performers have taken a bow? Currently, I am working to create a choreographic thesis for my culminating project as a B.F.A. candidate in dance. I wrestle with how to stay objective in a work I’m deeply invested in.
For answers, I sat down with Leah Wilks and Jennifer Monson, M.F.A candidate in Dance at University of Illinois and Professor of Dance at University of Illinois respectively. Throughout the past year, I have had the opportunity to be a member of their rehearsal processes and the great pleasure of their gracious mentorship. I recently dialogued with them about their editing processes, decisions about how material works, and the helpfulness of colleagues' feedback.
For her, Leah said, editing is associated with production. She works backward from the date of the performance to figure out when she should begin on the editing process. She acknowledges that “the editing process for me often begins with figuring out what we’ve done, what we’ve made.” In previous works she has created, she has started editing at different times, but she prefers to have a few weeks before the show opens to go back to the beginning and discuss intention and the importance of the work with her cast.
Working in collaboration with her, I’ve witnessed her solidify her choreographic desire and share her thoughts generously with her cast. Upon nearing the date of the show, she comments that, “sometime around the editing process working with the design team[lights, costumes, sound] is also really useful in helping me articulate what I actually want because I have to verbalize it.”
In contrast, Jennifer admits that, “I don’t even know if I think about editing.” As a student of hers, I’ve come to know that Monson is driven by the investigation of movement: “the kind of research questions I’m asking dictate how material is developed…and how I make editing choices is really different dependent on what kind of research proposal I have.”
The editing process for Jennifer never ends. As a dancer in her work, Tuning the Turn, we shifted our relationship to the work, even when we were already in performance. She would come into the dressing room each night before the show and provide new suggestions of a way to think about the work. When I asked if continuously questioning herself was a common practice, she said, “I think the most subtle thing can shape your relationship to the material. The material is just the material and the dancing and relationship with everything else is what the work is.”
Monson discusses how a friend brought to attention a strong narrative emanating from her most recent project, Bend the Even, a duet made in collaboration with M.F.A. candidate in Dance, Mauriah Kraker. Jennifer’s intention was not to create a narrative, “so it really helped me to clarify what my goals were, what my intuitive habits were, that might produce something narrative even though that wasn’t what I was thinking about and we took all of that material and completely reordered it and then it became more clear to me the things we are doing in relation to another.”
Jennifer’s statement on how her friend’s comment affected her work, further intensified questions associated with dance critique that I have been tackling. What kind of commentary can I give as a viewer that is most beneficial to the dance maker? Is it useful to tell someone I like their work? Does acknowledging attraction to a work inform a choreographer the function their work holds for me, an audience member? I proposed my question to Jennifer and asked for her thoughts on the matter. “Well I think its hard to ignore one’s ego or the satisfaction of creating something that someone likes. But I think the people I bring in [to a rehearsal] aren’t looking to like something, so they are much more productive in their comments about their experiences of what happened, so its more the friction of what they saw, what they think I’m trying to do and what that produces that seems very generative.”
When I asked Leah if she finds it useful for someone to say they like her work, she enthusiastically said yes. She later clarified, “I don’t need to hear a mentor say they like it, but it certainly helps me hear them better if I feel they are invested in it in some way, or maybe they don't like it but are interested and sometimes when they say things they don’t like, its really useful for me to say I disagree, I actually like that. Sometimes the negative stuff can be really helpful because it makes me articulate what I actually want.”
My hesitation with simply saying you like a dance work, is that it feels empty and doesn’t give a specific opinion. Wilks echoed my thoughts by stating, “getting vague feedback drives me nuts and makes me doubt what I’m doing in a work.”
Eventually the work is in performance and the editing is in the hands of the dancers. Before the first show, Leah expressed her gratitude for her dancers and told them that the work was theirs now. She loosened her control of the dance and invited the dancers to surprise her. She reminded them that she would be there every night to give notes, encouragement, and things to think about, but it was up to them to make the piece what they wanted. Leah and Jennifer made me realize the editing process is never complete.
What keeps me invested in the swirl of moving bodies and brings me back to witness the ephemerality of performance?