Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 36, December 2013)

Kirsten Kaschock
A Poetics of Choreographic Failure

The word cleave is cleft in two. To cleave means “to divide,” and to cleave means “to hold fast to.” There is nothing split that does not want to reassemble. Yet. You can never go whole again.

I split early. One could blame the stars for my twinned, intertwining nature, but my June birth only reinforces my belief that the year begins when things begin dying and ends when they are full of green. The North American scholastic calendar has become after decades of habit a bodily truth, and my birthday inaugurates the limbo after the year ends but before another emerges. They call the pregnant time summer. Simmer. A time for gathered ingredients to mingle and influence one another—a time of allowance.

In June 2012, I went back to the dance school where I’d been trained. I have always regretted that word. It rhymes in both meaning and sound with chained—a cognate of the French word chainée (a series of tight-footed ballet turns, as if the body were bound and then spun like a top along a track). The town in which I was trained is called Enola; the same railroad town was the unachieved target of the Confederate Army when it was halted at Gettysburg. Enola (a girl’s name) is also the first half of the moniker of the plane (Enola Gay) which, accompanied by the planes The Great Artiste and Necessary Evil, dropped the atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on Hiroshima on the 6th of August, 1945, killing 80,000 persons instantly. Read backwards Enola is alone. Words are a web, and their connections move them miraculously across time and space to link art, childhood, and atrocity; this felt movement is much of what has encouraged me, occasionally and sporadically, to attempt translating poetry into dance.

The school where I was trained is no longer the same school. I studied ballet on the third floor of an old junior high with a row of windows on its western side: I took barre in a long room, measuring myself against sunset and sunset-mirror. Now, they dance three blocks down, beneath the vaulted ceilings of a converted church, lit by shafts of light knifing through stained glass. Time passes, and we move beneath different compass-needles of the sublime.

I asked to come. I offered free classes and a piece of choreography in exchange for time to workshop with students on movement that would eventually become part of the research for my dissertation in dance. (Yes, it exists.) Together, I wanted us to make movement about things I could not speak directly. I wanted to press my unsayable into expression.

I worked with six dancers for six hours on each of five days: luxury of time, luxury of talent. I had just turned forty—they were less than half that. How to get them to dance around my inarticulate flickering, to lithely give it shadow? It was barely possible. “This piece is about the things we hate and how not to hate them.” I said. I clarified. “How to try not to.” Again. “In ourselves.” I offered modest examples: acne, self-doubt, unwanted weight, envy, braces. Examples from so long ago. This very morning.

They wanted me to show them outsides. How it was supposed to. Look, angle, spacing, count. I kept saying, “Like you’re speaking.” “Each gesture has a meaning—that’s what gives it force and shape and time.” I told them. “Talk in your head as you move.” “Always be saying.” Saying, I said, was the only part I cared for. I saw in their faces they were trying to please me. Me, and the mirror. That silver pool is one of several tools used to split the self—and others—into surface and soul. Choreography is another.

But what was I ventriloquizing? They didn’t know. I didn’t or couldn’t tell them. I wanted to impart intentionality without specifying content. They had trouble keeping a word in mind for every gesture (even their own words): that wasn’t how they did this. That was my how. I explained I did not want to make them Echo to my Narcissus. I wanted to give them a different how to try. An option. They got that, and it got better. It got good but not consistent. Some movements spoke: their bodies spoke them. Whether they did this with or without inner speech, I can’t know. So the movements spoke but were not threaded. We achieved words, but not sentences; syllables—but no line.

Black Mountain Poet Charles Olson (of whose dancing style Merce Cunningham once referred to as “something like a light walrus”) discusses the tensions that create poetry as existing between syllable/head/ear and line/heart/breath. In this way he slightly shifts and re-inscribes Cartesian duality—the dreaded body/mind split—within the framework of the body itself. In dance this same distinction might be drawn between gesture (articulated and discrete) and flow (the connective/transitional energy that draws gestures into coherent movement phrases). I felt the choreography I had created with the students relied too much on gesture; it had too little breath.

I said the content didn’t matter, but it did. I lied, but not on purpose. Now, I think the whole project was an attempt at “I hold fast to me.” But how could their bodies say such a thing before they’ve lived fracture? I did not ask them to articulate their brokenness. The adolescence I lived in the town now theirs had been one synonymous with sharded. But I did not ask them to dwell in that if theirs was. I did not ask them—was theirs?

I asked them to write. It was an assignment. “Translate one phrase of our work into language.” The imagery scrawled on scraps the next morning (in one case typed) was animalistic or physical or emotional—things like cat-feet, reverse cry, pretty vomit, face-check, three-legged bird, and heart stretching. Things we’d spoken of. Echoes.

I never told them the reason for the making. I do not know if I knew it then—other than to move from (out of and also away from) horror. Poet Clark Coolidge writes, “I have the sensation that the most honest man in the world is the artist when he is saying I don’t know. At such moments he knows that, to the questions that truly interest him (sic), only the work will give answers, which usually turn out further questions.” The June work helped me ask myself whether I wanted my hybrid-piece to come out of horror, transform horror, or dwell in horror (that it would involve horror is my particular given).

This was the first of the moving parts of my study. And all the gestures we made were made pretty by the end, and in the end corralled into a terrible unison. Terrible (causing dread but also, simply bad) because the work wasn’t consistently saying, terrible because I made them a piece when I needed us to wander longer in the dark. Terrible because angels are.

In the end, I could not ask them to descend from that once-church into the space from where my saying comes: cleft-place, split-self, lack-between. I needed more time. Always—they, we—I feel we need to live more in order to repeat ourselves and others less. This failure to wholly communicate with my would-be collaborators was the first act of my poein. Mine became a process of almosts: its striving a failing sort of beauty, the only kind I intimately know.