The Body, Part I: A Passion Observed

Woman watches a stage full of eccentricly collected performers saturated in power, expression, individuality, character, and grace.

Instead of seeing each detail, woman feels her way through the action, the story, the statement.  The experience transcends vision, permeates the body, infects the core, stops and starts the beating heart.

Unable to speak, tears brimming, woman witnesses the creator take the stage and command his dancers to proceed, recede, bow, and exit.  The show is over.  The impression made, is not.

Eleven or so months later, woman watches the creator’s intensity as he feels his way through the exerpt of this powerful work as he is recognized with one of the nation’s highest artistic award, the Kennedy Center Honor.  As soon as the movement begins, tears start streaming down her face.  She immediately re-enters the “place” she was in when watching this moment of this piece live, but this time there are pregnancy hormones to contend with, accounting for her tear soaked shirt.  The man is Bill T. Jones. The woman, of course, is me. The piece was Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray. 

I first considered calling this piece, “The One” but I thought that might not sit that well with my husband, although he is fully aware and supportive of my feelings for Bill T. Jones.  So maybe, “The Other One.”  Or, “The First One” since I did discover Bill T. before Scott D.  Nah,…better to preserve feelings and marital bliss.  (Honey, you’re the real deal.)

Bill T. Jones changed my life.  I had appreciated his work upon introduction through a 20th century dance history course.  But it was watching the PBS Bill Moyers documentary about Still/Here in a Senior Seminar class that really rocked my dance existence.   Bill T. Jones scared me in the most exciting and positive way.  His work spoke to me aesthetically, but more importantly demonstrated the power of physical, non-verbal communication and the responsibility of the dance artist to guide others through this process.  I became very aware of my comfort in pretty, visually interesting but “safe in meaning” movement.

Still/Here, Jones’ work referencing terminal illness, struck/strikes a personal chord for me.  My mother passed away at the age of 48; when I was 13.  She had severe asthma and emphysema and in the years she was ill, I remember the frustration she could not verbally express. Language simply didn’t cover it.  While her body would not have been helpful, she was winded after walking from one end of our small ranch-styled house to the other, I can’t help but think structured movement in a contained way, may have offered some form of emotional relief.

As an adult, I realize that dance may not have served as an outlet for her, but it certainly did for me.  I have always easily recognized that dance has been my constant.  In a life full of change and multiple directions, dance has always been there.

As a dancer, I am familiar with muscle memory and the ability of the body to recall movement.  After researching the role of the body in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (and the success of using structured movement experiences to alleviate the physical symptoms of PTSD) I also understand the ability of the body to recall emotion.  Having these two elements present themselves through two bodies over the same experience, was striking to me.  In watching the Kennedy Center Honors, I had an emotional recall response while watching Bill T. Jones have a physical recall response to the performance of his dancers.  Once again, I am reminded of the power of dance.  I am aware of the prism that dance provides: opportunities to see, to feel, to consider, to live.

In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook of NPR’s On Point, Bill T. Jones discusses briefly the state of our current union, citing his feeling that we are in “an undeclared civil war” with no clear boundaries or sides.  I agree.  Often in the last few weeks/months, I have felt the world has lost its mind.  Much of what my husband and I count on- in our community, in our careers, and in our consciences- seems under attack.  Our perceived road to stability never felt fully paved, but feels more and more like a dirt road filling with potholes.  Maybe those pregnancy hormones are getting to me again, but this is certainly an interesting and sometimes disconcerting time to live.

Ironically, in some ways, this brings me back to my constant:  dance.  For the first time, perhaps ever, dance has not been the first constant in my life.  Over the last two years as my career has suffered some bullets, as programs or hours have been re-organized offering a sense of instability and related anxiety.  But, in hearing Bill T. Jones express in words how our current world relates to the dance he created about our world’s past, I am comforted if not encouraged.  He articulated physically and verbally, my emotion.  He found the language I was seeking. It explains my response when seeing the work live, and again on TV.  Once again, the power of dance prevails.  This time, however, it didn’t have to be my physical body in control in order to make peace.  It was done through bodies I’ve never met but understand on an intrinsic level.  Bill T. Jones continues to change my perspective and thus change my life.