I’m thirteen, and I just want to figure out how to jump a little higher but still dig my heels into the ground. “Just be,” one teacher says. “Let it happen.”
I’m fifteen, trying to do four pirouettes, and my neck is getting a little tense. “Don’t try; sing the music in your head,” says another teacher.
I must’ve gotten a thousand versions of the same correction: Don’t try. Just relax. Every time I wanted to scream. Try, but don’t try. The sarcastic voice in my head, which came to visit me at a young age, wanted to point out, “If you just release all of your limbs, you’re going to end up in a happy puddle on the floor, not doing a four pirouettes.” It’s another one of those contradictory ideas in dance that’s kind of a lie, and kind of the truest thing you’ve ever heard. I mean, to tell the God’s honest truth, if I actually just let my body do exactly what it wanted, I’d be slumped on my green couch, eating pancakes and watching bad TV.
All my feelings on trying-but-not-trying came flooding back a few weeks ago as TRDance rehearsed Erick Hawkins’s New Moon, led by artistic director Todd Rosenlieb and co-répétiteur Laura Pettibone Wright, both of whom were members of Hawkins’s company. “Let the movement do itself,” said Laura, as my fellow dancers and I moved across the floor. Hawkins, the modern-dance icon who choreographed New Moon in 1989, created a technique around concepts of authenticity in movement. In a Hawkins-technique class, you work on initiating the movement of the body from your center rather than placing your limbs in space in an artificial way.
“In the western world we have a Puritan kind of feeling that if you’re not working hard, you aren’t doing very much,” Hawkins said in a 1986 interview. “We still don’t see that there is something that comes from the grace of God—a kind of effortlessness. When the body is truly effortless, then it’s closer to the ideal way the body can move according to nature.”
This kind of effortlessness may come naturally to Zen Buddhists, but they don’t have to jump on count six.
Todd and Laura, of course, are steeped in Hawkins’s technique and traditions. Toward the beginning of rehearsals for New Moon, Laura reminded the company that part of letting the movement do itself is experiencing the reality of the world around you as you dance. When we swing our feet up to touch our fingers, we’re supposed to actually feel our own toes. As our arms curve in S shapes, instead of just putting them in the shape of an S, we are swinging from the center of our body and letting our limbs toss into the shape, feeling the air on our skin. The effortlessness comes from experiencing the world as it happens, from riding the physics of the movement.
Hawkins always insisted on live music for his choreography, and on Friday in rehearsal, the New Moon ensemble, led by conductor Jeff Phelps, reminded me that it is easier to let go and authentically experience the dance when the music is live and you don’t quite know what to expect. The impetus to swing our limbs from our center and let the movement happen in an authentic way now comes not from recorded music and rigid counting, but from the musicians across the room. You have to wait for the triangle to ring out from the percussionist’s hand and let it send you onto the stage. The arc of the violinist’s arm is what leads you to the downward curve of your motion. When I watch the archival videos of Todd and Laura dancing New Moon with Hawkins’s company, there’s something mesmerizing about the power that the company gives to seemingly simple movements, and I believe this power comes from “Let the movement do itself.” From “Just be.” From “Don’t try.”
Another famous Hawkins work is a piece called Here and Now With Watchers, and the title of the piece has always struck me as a short poem about the contradiction of trying to be utterly real and true while still being in the middle of a show: however authentically you get to the S-curve of your arms, you have to get there by the first count of the second measure.
So at this weekend’s 10th anniversary performance, hundreds of audience members will share this contradiction with us: they will watch as we try to not try—as we reach for authenticity and truth while they gaze at us through the proscenium. We’ll don billowy harem pants, false eyelashes, red lipstick. We’ll surrender to the effortless movement of our bodies. We’ll be present in the moment. Hopefully we’ll remember to jump on count six. We’ll try to not try.
Come see us dance! Todd Rosenlieb Dance will present the first performances of its 10th anniversary season on November 13 and 14 at 7:00 p.m. at the Roper Theater at 340 Granby Street in Norfolk. A 10th Anniversary Gala event at Work/Release on Granby Street will follow the show on Saturday evening. For gala tickets call 626-3262. For advance tickets to the show, go to tccropercenter.org.