Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Letter to Trisha

Trisha Bown 1936 -2017

[The following was written to be read at a memorial at Danspace that I was unable to attend.]

Dear Trisha,

Eva agreed to read this for me as it seemed important to add my voice to those in St. Marks today. It’s been hard knowing how to write about you, even when, as a writer, I have dedicated more words to you than any other subject. That’s because nothing can quite encompass what you have meant to those of us who love you and your dancing and your dances. 

Forty years ago I joined your company, then all women, as you had given yourself permission once again to dive into dance-y dancing--complex, technically demanding yet released dancing. I think you said something like “each movement is like a life and death decision.” The rightness of it all did feel that way. And what astonished me then and ever since has been how the tuning and use of the body, on a sublimely refined scale and the simultaneous building of elegant structures co-existed for you always. 

You were the best cheerleader I ever had. We drove ourselves by your example and collapsed in laughter often. As in this quote of yours --“All of a person’s person arriving”—we showed up for you as fully as we ever could and reaped a reward of being one part of something we knew to be exquisite: formally, richly, deeply.

Many of us teach and I think each time we do we are planting seeds for how dancing may look into the future.  There’s no going back after the kind of freedom your movement can unleash. 

It feels important to say that many of us have also morphed in the work we do in the world. There’s one alum who’s been working with dolphins, others who are presenters or curators, bodyworkers or writers, or, as is the case for two alums, heads of Buddhist organizations!  The legacy we carry from taking part in your work is a particular kind of rigor and fearlessness. And also kindness in relating with those we work with. And for me and others, a continued appetite for being part of something grand. 

Thank you Trisha for all of it,
With love forever,

Photo: Marc Ginot, used on the announcements of memorials in Trisha's honor.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Disappearing Artist

[Written during a Contemplative Dance Practice retreat.]

The practices we are doing are about getting out of the way of what wants to arise. All those composers who said “it came through me, I received it, hearing it all” were talking about that. It’s a completely different model than the sonar-like soundings of an artist looking for confirmation.

To perform at all, there has to be some pleasure in being seen. In some cases it’s a need, the way one gets validation, or feels self-worth. What a minefield!

The audience could never substitute for what must be an internal job—understanding one’s worth on a deep level, having conviction that one belongs on this earth irrespective of applause or accomplishment. 

Addressing those needs in a saner way leaves room for truer and riskier art adventures. They are liberated then from fulfilling a role they should never have been expected to fill.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Teaching in Israel

At Shabbat Contact. Photo: Ed Shamis

From the moment I touched down in Tel Aviv, my interactions with people were intense, honest, probing and warm. To be included in the Israeli Contact Festival was both a surprise and a challenge. Having been away from it a long time, I considered what my relationship to contact improvisation is now, what it offers and what I have to offer people whose dancing practice is deeply felt and not so preoccupied with aesthetics. I was eager to continue developing my teaching of Contemplative Dance Practice.  What follows is a blow-by-blow account of the classes.

At "The Greenhouse," Day One - FEET ON THE GROUND

I am not accustomed to gyms with big numbers of dancers. And cold gyms, at that. The basketball players prefer the windows OPEN, so we come in to a cold floor, cold air…but eventually warm ourselves.

I explain that doing and re-doing is part of dancing. That just as bread is made from a recipe that might have been used on this very spot in Galilee 4,000 years ago, but still tastes fresh when you make it, so a dance task is new each time. Or that it is like combing the hair. We comb, and recomb. And getting different perspectives on one issue in dancing ultimately gives us a fuller picture. In the way that a collection of blind men’s descriptions of an elephant—one talks of a rough trunk, another of smooth tusk, etc.—different ways of considering the same dance issue fills out the picture.

We begin with a foot massage, in pairs. Pressing into the spaces between the bones. Pressing on the bones and releasing. It stimulates and opens so we can “get our feet on the ground” and “plant ourselves.” Building from the ground up means yielding to the floor. Opening the feet. 

We explore, bringing sensation to each foot as it is newly massaged. Then letting the exploration of the feet move the full body, a sweep of the foot engaging all the joints of the legs, the spine as it twists, the arms as they bear weight. We move into the middle level to warm ourselves, pushing against floor to rise in space. 

Making a circle around the outer edge of the room, we practice the classic peripheral vision exercise learned from Steve* and then three Qi gong exercises that sink and rise along with the breathing. I learned these from Eva K and practice them myself often. They center and create a good sense of the whole body, balanced. 

Then, how to walk? If we consider taking a step, if we take the first step toward taking a step, what happens? We walk slowly, and faster, going through the middle. I first experienced this with a big group  on tour with TBDC, with Stephen or someone else teaching. The lively zipping through others, using the hands to help navigate, is fun! If you move swiftly, there’s lots of sensory input, and you see the faces of the full group flash by. It’s a chance to connect with everyone.

We slow to do walking meditation, traditional style. The circle is huge. And someone points out that it’s hard to know if one’s own movement speeding up or slowing will affect the tempo of the whole.
A moment of indecision—with half an hour left shall I fill it full, or allow more space? The group giggles as I waiver and then choose to ask them to add an element: the slow spiraling into and out of the floor. Becoming more fluid, it’s about yielding into the floor in the same way that the feet yield. 

Then I ask them to dance for each other, using the elements of foot finding sensation, presence from the walking meditation and spiraling into and out of floor. Dance 8 minutes, talk 4 about what was experienced and seen.

Then a final circle with energy gathering from Qi Gong that I learned this year from Jano.


We began with a hand massage that echoed the foot massage of the day before. I taught this form, which was the Do-In I learned in France in the 80s, and then added the first of the wrist stretches I learned from Steve. Warming the hands before taking weight on them is helpful, feels good. 

We worked then with tipping to feel yielding and the beginnings of pushing. Playing between those two on all levels brings about mermaid movement, amphibian and reptile action.
With hands touching, we had weight-sharing pushing duets.

With partners we used a hand on the mover’s head to provide pressure. As they yielded, the partner did too, as they pushed the partner gave pressure. This connects feet to head very strongly.
The dancing became solo dancing, witnessed and then spoken about.

Introducing Contemplative Dance Practice in a short amount of time allowed touching on the framework and introducing sitting meditation. It became clear that many people have not much frame of reference for the Open Space part of the practice. Some haven’t practiced ways of relating in groups beyond contact. So I am inspired in the next class to give them tools to play with.


This class was really settled and felt as though everyone there had “clicked in” to the work. We started with some Qi Gong, standing. Arching and twisting the back in every direction and gathering the energy in between. The bird-like lung-large intestine meridians action with exhale fold, inhale lengthen into a starfish shape came next. We could rise a little, letting the heels lift off the floor. So we were moving from into center, folding, and out in all directions, reaching and extending.  

The next time was spent on a trio hands-on exercise for head, tail and all the limbs where we give a slight direction to head and tail first, allowing them to lengthen away from each other. It is so hard to communicate how delicate the touch wants to be for this. I talk about how a helium balloon will bound away if you give it too much oomph. Also that it’s more just a “thought” than a touch.  Then we do shoulders, pressing into front and back, each person on one side, so that the person’s shoulder blades widen away from each other. Finding space between the bones again. Then catching the energy of the arm by draping it, drawing outward and testing the weight of it, shaking a little at the fingertips. Then legs, pressing into buttocks and hip  folds and then moving the meat of the legs around the bones, tracing down the center front and back and finally grounding the feet again along toes and heels. 

Next: Duos with one giving these kinds of directions with the hands as the other dances, thinking about center and edge, moving between deep fold and big expansion.  And talking about it in between. And finally group dancing where you could give hands on to others during the dance.

Break. Rock garden. Rocks of three heights – sitting ,standing, lying down. Placement, direction, feeling the whole space. We start with three people entering one by one. And  then do the same, but add three with the direction to “make it more of whatever it is.” Finally we go to half the group at once, so  big numbers of dancers fill the space, and then, after witnessing their own configuration, change, rearranging in a new way, finding out how to “make it more of whatever it is.” You can really feel them sensing and looking and navigating. The space is awake!

Later as Ariye and I talk about this and the experience of the following Contemplative Dance Practice I am reminded that these simple practices are really lenses for seeing the workings of mind and body. That they are frames, much the way a Japanese lacquer table, black and perfectly shiny, will reveal the first tiny speck of dust.  

People seem more comfortable with the sitting meditation. It’s shorter. And possibly a few who had a really hard time with it didn’t return. The sense of the group is great. Expansive. Clear. And the explorations during Open Space do reflect the double kind of awareness we’ve been pointing to—feeling one’s own body fully and also relating to the wider space and all that’s happening in it.  

Evening -SHOWING
We created a choreography by consensus in response to the invitation to show something from the Intensive. People were interested in doing walking meditation and allowing others to join in. We hit on a sandwich structure with our group walking, then feathering out into the group rock garden practice, changing configurations three times, then dissolving back out into walking, at which point watchers were in invited in. This was announced before we began. And what happened was astonishing. It was as though the whole village of the Greenhouse walked along with us. Lior in her wheelchair, a toddler behind her Mom, and so many of the dancers, so densely packed together that we could barely step forward. This didn’t seem to be a problem for people. They appreciated how slowed down it became. Then gong. End.


Considering the idea that you focus on something, that you make it your object of meditation, and then you widen out, let it dissolve, forget it and just allow whatever is there to be. The group talked at the beginning about their questions and wishes.  Some wondered about incorporating the organs (my reply – in another series of classes), several commented on experiences in meditation. This combined with the many comments I heard at the workshop’s end gave me the feeling that the Intensive became a place for people to work through their own stuff, whether digesting and putting to use earlier work they had done or just making room for feeling and being. 

We began with a twenty minute evolution roll, traveling from one end of the gym to the other passing through yielding, navel radiation, pushing and reaching. I loved this: it reminded me of an image I had in a natural history book as a child. The tadpole swimming, then sprouting its legs, slipping up onto land, crawling and eventually hopping away. Some folks didn’t make it to homo sapien…we let them come to standing slowly.

Repeat of the lung-large intestine flying meridian which opens out all of space. Then we repeated Eva’s 3 Qi Gong pliĆ© and rise exercises

Working next in partners, one would go for a walk and the other would place him/herself in relationship, playing with distance and direction. Switch. This was “reading.” Then we did reading timing, the song of the partner’s movement, and being with it, precisely. Finally we combined duos to make quartets and three people followed one, reading timing and secondarily playing with space. This is a brand new exercise for me, and made for some wonderful ensemble work. 

Break. Contemplative Movement Practice with a longer amount of time for Open Space—30 minutes. The group worked well, but some were frustrated, not remembering the possibility we had laid out to do round robin-type tagging (the number limit for being in the space was 10, then I upped it to 15. With 30 dancers that involved some patience. 

Some intense energy arose, and along with that the question of what does and doesn’t belong within the container of the practice. I realized later that peoples’ difficulty with this particular aggressive moment was that the person came into others’ space. Not with touch, but with a clearly violent energy. It was rattling. It makes me think about discussing working with energy in the future. We did talk about not solidifying something, not deciding “this is what I am doing” and then holding on to it. That the practice involves allowing whatever we have to arise, dwell and cease.


Feet on the wall. I drew the anatomy of the leg bones, and described their function. This classic is always a revelation or a reminder. From the extended finish, with feet against the wall and heels tucked into the corner, we came to a stand gradually. Imagining each shift required in going from floor to upright, then doing them. Pausing to feel the new relationship of each cell to gravity. In standing we imagined taking a step. Then did, in stages. Slid into walking meditation. 

Then we let it go to do a walking warm up. And walking with a partner, changing often.
After a break we worked with finding an essential “it,” starting from open space and being attentive to what arises like a faint radio station that we tune into. We talked about arising , dwelling and ceasing and in particular how something ends. Then we transformed that practice of identifying and staying with an “it” into 10-9-8 practice. Everyone together, then in two groups, talking about what you saw your partner do.

Then Contemplative Dance Practice.


We thought about people’s questions regarding meditation and dance, and I suggested that they stay with the questions, and see what their research question might be if they don’t already have one. Read Suzuki Roshi on controlling one’s cow by giving it a big meadow. 

I spent quite a while drawing the head, ribcage and pelvis from above, and from the front, looking especially at their roundness and the places where there is joint movement. We did hands on rocking, on a supine partner, starting with the hips, reaching across and lifting so that gravity would allow the partner to rock back down. Path was hips to shoulder, and lifting from behind the shoulder. Then down the legs, moving the meat on the bones. Then lifting head from underneath just taking the weight, then turning. Shoulders and arms rolling finished it, with a final sweep—head, arms, legs. 

Taking that relaxed body, rocking into rolling. Rock, pause, feel each new stopping place and how the body settles into it, folding and unfolding arms and legs to create open surfaces.
Solo rolling of head, ribcage and pelvis in all levels, using push of hands to arise from watery sea creature to amphibian, to all fours, and finally to homo sapien. With Meg’s music.

Duets reading timing with one leading. Adding walking and running to make it simpler.
Trios reading space with one leader.
Then trios using both of the above, but “forgetting,” not controlling and allowing all that had happened so far to be present. This was really fun. Wonderful connections between dancers.

Walking meditation. Then walking meditation with entering the circle to find and “it” and leaving when it’s complete. A new experiment.

Contemplative Dance Practice, this time 20 minutes to sit and 30 for Open Space.


We started with the standing hands on similar last week, but lifting the leg and circling the knee, then replacing it. We traced as partners began to move, and after both people had experienced hands on, made it into duets with tracing

Then standing lung meridian action (the bird-like one) followed by Eva’s 3 Qi Gong exercises, all in the service of unifying the down and the expanded out and upward. 

Walking meditation in 3 parts – 5 minutes each first plain, next going in and out, and finally with only one time entering.

We took a long (“Israeli time”) lunch and afterward began by looking at Trisha’s Early Works DVD, noting how  the relationship to weight and tilt was connected to the beginnings of contact. That her work and contact arose in a parallel way, from the same roots. 

Then the transformations practice. I hadn’t realized how the heart of that is repetition. And how shifts are an important part of it. Perhaps important to develop the thinking about this.

Finally, we did 20 minutes of sitting, 10 of warm-up and  30 minutes Open Space in CDP. I realized watching that this practice completely eliminates the “what is happening now?” bardo of repeating something after the juice has left it or not knowing where to be in a transitional moment, because each moment is the thing that it is.

* Steve is Steve Paxton. I referred to all colleagues/teachers by first name in these notes. In addition to Steve, they are: Eva Karczag, Stephen Petronio and Jano Cohen. Eva and I worked together to develop our understanding of Shizuto Masunaga's  Meridians stretches, referred to here. Contemplative Dance Practice I learned from Barbara Dilley. There are references to  concepts from Body-Mind Centering as originated by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and to practices from Alexander technique which I studied with Lydia Yohay, Jano and several others.