Monday, August 25, 2014

In the Studio with Tara Cheyenne

So today I began a very exciting project--working on a short dance-theatre piece with Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. The catch--and very much terra incognita for yours truly--is that Tara is building the work on me and my oh so not at all flexible body.

It all started with an email from my SFU colleague Dara Culhane, who invited me to participate in a fall "Imaginings Project" sponsored by the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (of which we are both affiliates--though Dara's disciplinary bona fides are certainly much stronger than mine). The theme of this particular "Imaginings Project" is "Laughing Matters: Humour, Imagination and Political Possibilities." Twelve of us have been invited "to explore humour as a form of imaginative ethnographic practice" in our respective fields, thinking self-reflexively about how comedy, satire and parody might offer a different lens through which to envision our social theory and practice, research methodology, fieldwork and its transcription/translation, etc. And we were given lots of creative license in terms of the form through which we take up such questions: a creative text; images; audio or video works.

Given that my current research is on dance-theatre, and given that Tara is one of the funniest dance-theatre makers I know, I thought it would be great to collaborate on a short video in which she taught me to dance and talk at the same time. That, in and of itself, would be hilarious, I knew. But there were some larger political issues I was also interested in exploring--not the least of which is that humour in dance (when it is allowed) is, as with virtually all comedy, so intensely gendered. Stick a man in a tutu (like the famous Trocks of Monte Carlo), or have him parody Martha Graham (like Richard Move), and it's gut-splitting (though, to be fair to Move, his mimicking of Graham very much oscillates between deliberate send-up--as when Move-as-Martha attempts to learn from Yvonne Rainer her famous "Trio A"--and very sincere homage--as in his reenactment of the iconic solo "Lamentation"). As is the case in other performance modes, women in dance are given far less room (quite literally) to be funny; one sees this, for example, when classic burlesque morphs into striptease--the eroticized dancing female body cannot also be bawdy (something Joanna Mansbridge writes perceptively about in her work on burlesque, including in a book on Women and Comedy that I've co-edited).

As I talked over these and other issues with Tara earlier this month, I also realized that the project would inevitably become something of an autoethnography, particularly in terms of working through some of the complex feelings (including the very unfunny feeling of shame) that would inevitably accrue around my own body when I explicitly put it on display and made it move to set choreography, no matter how basic the steps might be. If Tara is the expert informant in terms of her facility in moving and telling a story in a virtuosically side-splitting way (the metaphor seems appropriate), what would it mean for me, as a decidedly non-virtuosic mover (who nevertheless loves dance), to use humour as means to absorb into my own body some of her training and kinesthetic knowledge? And how might we think of our ethnographic experiments in the studio contributing to a larger discourse around a comedic pedagogy of the body that could be equally useful in analyses of concert dance and social dance?

Okay, so this post is way more theoretical and egg-headed than I meant it to be. Without going into too much detail about what we played with and at in the studio (because I want the finished video to be a surprise, even if it fails utterly in its intent), suffice it to say that I was stunned at what we accomplished in 2.5 hours. Tara is such an amazing teacher, quickly intuiting from our warm-up and early bits of improv that behind my demure exterior there's a showy diva at heart (the reference to the Rockettes probably tipped my hand). Having thus discovered my intuitive way of moving, and using one of my current favourite tunes, she was then able to come up with some simple choreography that I not only felt capable of mastering, but that also didn't feel alien or unnatural. Ditto her methods for finding the threads of a narrative: a series of questions about what makes me happy and what I like to complain about very quickly morphed into the start of a comic monologue that again felt unforced because it came from daily life.

I suppose this is altogether unsurprising for a professionally trained dance or theatre artist (like Tara Harris, who was also with us in the studio capturing everything on digital video). But as someone who mostly thinks about these things rather than does them, the process was revelatory.

I look forward to the next session. And stay tuned for news about the video's posting.


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