PLIE, TENDU, DEGAGE: 3 MEDITATIONS ON DANCE
It’s like the closest art there is to sex, Meg says as we leave New York City Center, walking north towards Central Park on New Year’s Eve. Southward, a big mess of folks stand gathered in Times Square. Police on every corner, guns huge, lines long and near-stagnant. The humming chatter of things.
We’ve just seen Alvin Ailey perform their year-end dance show. Three acts. The first two comprised a compilation of the year’s best. The last was Ailey’s signature piece: Revelations. The show marked the first dance performance I’d ever seen. I bought the tickets for my girlfriend, who spent over a decade of her life, nearly two, dancing. We sat in the balcony overlooking stage right, next to a woman from the Bronx who had been coming to this exact performance for over a decade. The whole show she clapped along with the rhythm of the songs, often standing to applaud before the act ended, often moaning, muttering, shouting to herself. She was a joy. After the first intermission, she pulled out her phone to show us a letter from Obama.
I’d been writing to Obama every month for years, she said. He finally wrote me back.
I stared at the phone as the lights flickered to signal the start of the second act.
Thank you for your service, Obama wrote. It’s because of people like you…
Plie literally means bent and signals the beginning of a dancer’s exercises at the barre. In my bedroom a month before the show, Meg sits laughing on my bed as I awkwardly attempt to plie, holding my bookshelf as a makeshift barre. Slowly, she says, as my knees bend outwardly, my legs, ass, everything uncomfortable. How?
She is sitting there cross-legged in the soft light and I am standing barefoot on the wooden floor and we are both laughing and I am sweating just the slightest and I begin having one of those moments having to do with why or how, the whole how-did-I-end-up-here problem of the mind. Outside, a cat howls and the moon is a faint trickle of light hop-scotching from drop to fallen drop on the damp ground. I have a dozen proof copies of my first poetry book on my desk, and I hate the way they look – how white the pages are, my own writing, the words. I wonder, while half-crouched, body twisted and sore, if this is what it will be like forever – this want, this lack, this almost there, this not enough, this so close.
Is this still second nature to you, I say, and she answers, of course. And I think of how beautiful that is, to have this state of pliancy, this act of bending, feel so close to home that it becomes part of the self. Younger, my bending was bowing. As an altar server for years, I bowed before the pouring, the blessing, the eating. It was all to acknowledge supplication. I bent before my father’s belt. I bent to make the blessing mean a little more, because I felt I could be nothing but only a little less than others. But here, I look to Meg and realize her bending was meant to achieve perfection. How beautiful.
Bent nose. Bent body kneeling before bed. Bent body kneeling over bed. Bent bad. Bent good. Bent nail angling under the weight of bent frame. Bent to crooked. Bent back to right. Bent wrong. Bent elbow tilting up the bottle. Bent ball, Bucky Dent. Bent sent to heaven. Bent the verb. Bent the adjective. Bent the noun. Bent letter leaning toward the other to make a word. Language, a series of bends, loops, twirls. Bend, not break. Bend to make the breaking bearable. Bend and hope. Bend and pray. Bend, only to bend the other way. Bend like wheat, like grass, not like twig, like limb or bone. Bend knees. Bend disease. Bend the car around the bend. Bend until the love, the goal, the hope is just around the bend. And then bend again.
I smile. What do you mean? And Meg talks about the way in which the mind and the body are related, how most dancers are control freaks, obsessed with the way in which their bodies are enacting themselves within the various spaces they inhabit at a given time.
We walk out of the lantern-speckled dark of Central Park into a bodega on the West Side and I buy beer and outside it seems the city has cuddled into sleep in that hour or two before the ball drops. I hold her hand and then don’t, look at her face and then away. During the show, I sat mesmerized as the dancers contorted their limber frames, how they made the uncontrolled, controlled. What I mean is: have you ever fallen before? Fallen down? Fallen in love? That moment of falling – that time when you suffer because of sheer gravity and gravity alone, or the force of feeling and that alone – is often so anxiety-producing because you are out of the equation. You can only prepare yourself for the inevitable, the failure of it. You extend your hands to brace your fall. You sign a pre-nup. You pull away into yourself.
But dancers? While watching, you realize that each fall is predetermined, choreographed. But that doesn’t make the falling less profound. I sat in the theater, struck each time one of their frames went from tall and statuesque to suspended in midair to curled on the ground to something else – some bent leg, some twirl, some leap and sweet move of grace. I could not avert my eyes.
I try to tell this to Meg but cannot find the words. And that, maybe that, is what I’m trying to say. That, as art, language fails – too many degrees separated from the actual incident. Separated by time, by medium, by the space between paper and pen. It can only get at the truth through words, sound. It’s beautiful. It’s beyond me. But it’s failure. I know it and you do too. But dance. The language of the body. Limbs, and their absence. Twirls, and their stilling. If you make me feel through some language of limb and breath, rhythm and stillness, the body, the body, the body – then I can feel it in me, and my body reacts. My foot taps. My mouth widens. My eyes shed water.
The woman next to us. The way her knees lifted with excitement at each vaulting pirouette, each leap and jump, each pointed toe. The way her body bent forward, inching off the chair. The bend of my neck to look at her. The slight bend of her head sideways as she offered me her phone. How she bent her cheek almost next to mine to read along with me. The bend of her finger, pointing at the signature. The bend of her body into this essay, how I miss her, how I know she was the last one to leave the theater, the door bending behind her back.
Back in that bedroom, I tendu easily, or so I think. It feels easy – the movement of my leg away from my body, my toe pointed downward, in preparation for the next step. Then Meg says your hips, keep them still. And I try again. And my hips again. And again. And my hips. Frustrated, I say how?
We are very rarely cognizant of our bodies. Growing up a competitive runner, I considered it the simplest of all sports – simply put on shoes and run away from your house and then come back. Over the years, after competing in college and then later in marathons, I learned the various ways to alter footfall and shorten my stride, match my inhales and exhales to the correct landing of my feet, in order to avoid cramping up on certain sides of my body. It took a long time, but I moved from someone who could run 6 miles at 6 minute pace to someone who could run 26 at the same pace, due almost solely to the learned knowledge of the body, knowing how to use my breath to lower my heart rate, to drop my jaw in order to relax my shoulders – all things connected, functioning as a whole.
As a writer, this knowledge of the body affects all words. How to write the body? How to write space? How to write the body in space? Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the ways I can hold a cigarette, my fingers like wrenches, little mechanics. I watch other people stand outside bars and smoke, either leaned up against a wall or hunched over or gesturing wildly, entirely aware or unaware of their performance.
And that’s it – performance. That’s what I think of in that bedroom with Meg. One of the simple facts of life is that living is performing, whether we accept this or not. Perform, from the Old French parfornir – “to carry out, to finish, to accomplish.” To simply be, in the in-between between birth and death. It’s a performance we are aware of at times and not. A performance we layer with other performances. I try to think about my hips. I try to forget about them entirely. Either way it’s hard.
Tendu literally means “stretched.” One of the performances on New Year’s Eve is Johan Inger’s Walking Mad, a spellbinding production that begins without music. Just a wall and a woman. You can hear the stage creak under her as she dances, still full of rhythm, however silent. She careens into the wall. Her red dress ripples. The catch of the audience’s breath – it nearly echoes. She runs near full speed into it before stopping, throwing herself upon it. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It is, perhaps, one of the most honest. Without music, I don’t need to stretch my mind, to make the necessary leap that most fictive art requires of us, to say I know this isn’t real, but I still believe. For some reason, the silence narrows the divide between truth and fiction. To dance without music. To dance to no music. In a room of one’s own. Between walls. The collective mirror of the audience’s glassy eyes.
I think about those few minutes of the performance as the night goes on, after we spill out onto the streets, after Meg and I walk quietly through Central Park, past streetlights and sirens, after we buy beer and after we go up to see her friends, after the ball drops and after we hail a cab and after we order a 2 AM pizza from Domino’s and after sleeping and even after waking. I think about them because I know what a good poem can do for a soul. A good story, a good essay. I know how a painting can make a body freeze. I know the dazzling dizzying that comes after a beautiful movie. I know joy and sadness. Loss, and its cousin grief. And I long for my art to mean something, to make it, too. In those minutes, though, with the woman and the wall and noiseless rhythm, I realized the stretch of language, the ever-widening length of it. Because I have a body, however different, and because you have a body, however different, it’s the body’s language that articulates the most. It’s the held hand, or the head in hands. It’s the leap of joy. The knees of grief. It’s the mouth that holds the voice that holds the feathers that give flight to sound. It’s in the body first, all tied up in the world, before it’s ever on the page.
Stretched truth. Stretched meaning. Stretched fact or fiction, call it life. Stretched guilt, a childhood spent feeling like lesser-than was a sort of better-than. Stretched hair tie that doesn’t work anymore. Stretched out, stressed out. Stretched muscles, sore. Stretched news. Stretched sentence, phrase, belief, tweet, idea – that’s a stretch – and you, called out. Stretch one. Stretch two. Stretch three. Stretch the skin from your body. Stretch awake. Stretch in dreams. Stretch yourself back to believing in the impossible.
Tendu, so close to tender, almost tenderness. It’s what I feel when Meg laughs and gets out of bed to adjust my toes. How it must be to practice something for so long, and to live it, and yet, not to be the best. To be one of the best, always. But not the best. This is why ache and love are sisters. Why they exist at once in life, which is forever a moment of stretching and being stretched. Here I am, in this room, and here she is, watching someone so clumsily and awkwardly attempt her second nature. What we give each other, I think. What we take away.
At the end of Inger’s Walking Mad, the wall comes down, and the dancers dance upon it. Perhaps to show their ability to make use of the world, their inability to be governed by it. Perhaps play, perhaps craziness. Whatever the reason, I feel the story. I feel it in the room then and I feel it in this room now. The need for it. The want. To bring down this wall, and the next. Just to show you I can. Just to show you we can live in a room after this one, and before, too.
Disengage. Set free. Leave. Forgive. Never look back. Look back. Lot’s wife. Orpheus. Fear. Freefall. Loving. Never loving again. Pillar of salt. Banishment. Disembodied, disemboweled, disembarked. Divorce.
In the room, Meg watches as I attempt to degage, that movement of basic barre exercises. And it is a movement. One leg to the front of my body, or behind it, or to side. One leg disengaging from the other. Meg knows my past. My parents split when I was young, and I tend, because of this and how I processed it or still do, to fear love and crave it at the same time. I make grand promises for forever and then say let’s hope we make it till tomorrow. Many children of divorcees spend their lives drifting in the aftermath of that near-epic failure, disbelieving in love. On the other end, many children also push back against it, making promises that they won’t fall victim to the same mistakes of their parents. Growing up and attending meetings for children of alcoholics, most of whom were children of broken marriages, I found myself in rooms with kids who did both. Some, only 11, 12, 13 years old, promised in those basements that they would stay in love with the first person they fell in love with, that they would never disengage. And who were we, at 11, 12, and 13, to tell them not to? You learn your love early.
We could not be more different when it comes to love, Meg and I. I pry her history out of her and she reads my old love poems on the internet. But through this small act of awkward dance I feel infinitely closer to her than I have before. Maybe that’s what she means, when she says it’s the closest thing to sex. I move through the plié, the tendu, the degage, and I sense I’m living her history – all those mornings she had as a little girl in a room full of mirrors, and the obsessive teacher, the long wooden barre.
It’s experiential, she says. I talk about and share it with so few people, but I think it influences every aspect of me.
I look at her from across the room, caught from the side by the one light I have. It’s so hard. Not just these combinations of seemingly simple poses that must be added up and practiced consistently for years just to be, quite simply, even basically good at a thing. Not just what it takes to be good at anything. But love. Love is hard. Not because it’s not easy. Because it is. It’s so easy. And that makes it hard, too. Because through it all, there is the degage, that humming anxiety in the back of your mind that it’ll be forever or it won’t. Who teaches you how to deal with that?
In the Pina Bausch’s Cafe Muller, there is a scene where a woman in a loose-fitting white gown is assembled into the arms of a suited man. Literally. First she begins in his arms, then he drops her. Then she clutches him. Then a man comes and disassembles them, limb by limb, from each other while they kiss. Then the man puts the woman in the man’s arms. And she is immediately dropped. And she clutches again. Embraces. Is disassembled. Picked up. Dropped. Embraced. Disassembled. Picked up. Dropped. Embraceddisassembledpickedupdropped.
It happens faster and faster and as I watch, my heartbeat quickens and then I cry and I have no idea why but the tears come running down my cheeks and it’s early in the morning and still dark and by that I mean late at night and definitely dark and the white glow from the computer screen lights up my fingertips and the rest of the room, this room, is just a faint dark blur.
The scene hurts because of the absence of words. Only the dull thud of the woman’s body against the stage. Her harsh breath as she rises up to be embraced. How the essence of it all – its quickness, the outside force, the dissonance of dropping someone only to embrace them again – captures the human condition. Because what is any of this without the thought of losing it?
Degage literally means to “set free.” That night, as we leave the theater and walk through the city, something like 50, 60 blocks, there is so much at stake outside of our bodies. A new year. Political upheaval. Paranoia. Fear. Misinformation. The loss of freedom. The restrictions placed on liberty, equality, funding for groups that practice the beautiful, necessary, and bold. We walk, and I think of this, because I think we are now thinking of this always. People crowd into bars, finish off their meals in restaurants. Even a mile away, the ever-present din of the Times Square crowd follows. People are here, drunk or not drunk or somewhere in between. There are so many of them. It never ceases to overwhelm me.
In the final act of the show, the company performed Ailey’s Revelations, a beautiful, gospel-like inspiration. In one moment, these two bodies intertwined in the spotlight in the middle of the stage, engaged in these moments of pushing against and coming back toward one another. They grip, hold, let go. One falls into the other. They look like the specters that haunt dreams, the ones who run fleetingly through a scene as you chase them, who come to represent so much. At the end of this specific performance, the bodies come back together again, and one of them balances on the other’s thigh as she lifts her leg into the air, and they stay like that – precarious but solidly one, beautiful but made to break – as the lights dim. And for a split second, that moment before clapping, it seems as if they will stay like that forever.
And I think of this moment as I walk with Meg. And I think: it begins with our bodies. Our lives do. Our politics do. This city does. And it ends with them, too. Our bodies matter. And I’m becoming conscious of how beautiful it is to have an art that begins and ends with the body, too. An art that flows through the body, that shows our limitations and exploits them. Because yes, we are souls. Yes, we are stardust and universe and the twirling grip of the so many that came before. But this, all of this, is enacted through the body. The body’s appearance, its movements – however awkward, its way of identifying itself, its love of itself, its hate, its love, its love, its love. There is so much in us, so much pouring out. I hold Meg’s hand. I don’t say any of this to her. I don’t know how.