Writings: Danspace Project’s PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets

Danspace Project’s PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, the ninth installment of Danspace Project’s guest-curated Platform series, was held over February 14-March 28. Guest curated by poet and writer Claudia La Rocco, the Platform considered the writings of Edwin Denby and the poet-as-critic tradition; the overlapping dance lineages of George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and the Judson Dance Theater; and how these traditions are relevant today. In conjunction with the series, Danspace Project asked several artists, writers, and practitioners from our community to respond to Platform events. Emmanuel Iduma, the Platform’s Writer in Residence, offered weekly reflections in writings that originally appeared on Danspace Project’s Tumblr. Below is a collection of three of these responses.

Born and raised in Nigeria, Danspace’s Platform 2015 Writer in Residence Emmanuel Iduma is a writer of fiction & art criticism.


Bouchra Ouizguen’s Madame Plaza © Hibou Photography

Dance Gravities

Fingers inclined skyward remind me of a certain woman who attends church services without fail. In the course of our singing I notice how her hands move to depict the words. Her wrists control gravity. Her palms are cupped like a bowl filled with raisins, or clenched like orange roses. I imagine this as the vernacular of a translator who gives gestures to unhearing worshippers. Yet she faces the altar where melody blends. She sits in the second row. I don’t think she’s deaf. I don’t think she’s dumb. Is there an invisible addressee?

Has she ever been deaf? I resolve to speak with her about this. I imagine her as the recipient of a miracle. For years after her birth she stumbled in the mire of speechlessness until a moment of divine intervention. Have her hands acquired reflexive use in the time following her healing?

This is what I want to ask her.

Then show her screenshots.

Then read her a poem.

My gift is poor, my voice is not loud,
And yet I live – and on this earth
My being has meaning for someone;
My distant heir shall find it
In my verses; how do I know? My soul
And his shall find a common bond,
As I have found a friend in my generation,
I will find a reader in posterity.

A prisoner stood face to face with his captor. Their conversation ended as follows: “How can you be a prisoner when we have no record of you? Do you think we don’t keep records? We have no record of you. So you must be a free man.” [2]

History takes its own prisoners. There are prisoners who can only become free once they manage to discredit the memory of an event they witnessed. Yet they won’t. The memory of seeing a transcendental ballet could be tagged to your memory like a leech.

A man in Kaitlyn Gilliland’s Serenade workshop said: “I saw it first in 1978.” A woman sitting behind him: “I saw it first 45 years ago.” Then they wondered aloud about the preservation of Mr. Balanchine’s work. They sounded suspicious of a post-Balanchine NYCB (they kept calling him “mister.”) They might have come to the workshop as gatekeepers of a repertoire. Who knows?

The word prisoner is a harsh one. Yet one of the most graceful photographs of Nelson Mandela is one where he poses as a prisoner. If history claims you unyieldingly, let no one think you gave in without a fight.

Gilliland tells us that the most iconic moments in Serenade are the most precarious. Precarious is formed from Latin precari, to pray. People sometimes pray when things are held in balance—impending doom, possible devastation, looming failure. I have seen footages of ballerinas held up by their waists. For the uninitiated the movement upward is glorious. At that instant, however, ballerinas might tell us they feel something like the fear of crashing. Yet we have seen gravity fail when people are plunged skyward.

Ian Douglas

Sara Mearns & Rashaun Mitchell, Sterling Hyltin & Jodi Melnick by Ian Douglas

Dance Adjectives

The adjectives were tentative. I rolled them in my mind. Writing coaches have told me the fewer adjectives the better. As a word-class, they said, adjectives are dependent on other words for their functionality; yet while I watched there was a steady rush of modifiers, incisive and free. To describe my experience I could say: the dance was very frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorting, twisting, collaborative, joyous, chancy, energetic. Is this because a dance relies on the speed of passing time?

The indentations in passing time are valuable. At the beginning, I remember, while Claudia La Rocco gave her opening remarks, Jodi Melnick lay on the floor. She had gathered herself in a pose and her body was unmoving, only the blinking of her eyes and the rise and fall of her diaphragm. People walked in while she lay there; some checked their watches when they saw her. Had the performance began? A body had been incised in the middle of the room, a calming image.

Yet I had to labor toward calm. When I saw Melnick’s body on the floor, my mind made frightening associations. Even now I am not clear why I fought persisting gloom, or whether the afterimage I conjured was from a story or a photograph—but it was there, bodies piled on bodies, bodies expelled in the dark, felled by hunger or the harsh desert wind, waiting for the end to come. Days later, still confounded, I found a poem by Yvonne Rainer, “1977.” [3]

I dreamed of bodies burning at the edges
When I awoke my belly was cold as an abandoned stove
The streets were cleared, trees bent
The air so still, as though just inhaled
When next I noticed it was spring

The dance progressed. During “sleepwalker session with multiple deaths”, when Sterling Hyltin coached Jodi Melnick on how to make certain moves, or when Rashaun Mitchell folded himself in and out of chairs, there were intermittent sniggers. Sometimes a lone audience member would snigger, sometimes many audience members at once. I enjoyed the lone sniggers, someone finding funny what others didn’t; each person having an experience independent of, but in consortium with others. The chairs, four in all, proved capable of will: when you thought Mitchell had freed himself from them, they entangled him yet again. I didn’t think it was an entanglement that meant restraint. Instead, a frenulum: a connecting fold of membrane serving to support or restrain a part, just like the tongue.

Watching their “8 unfinished dances,” when the dancers walked about the room with the confidence of property owners, I thought the best moments were those when their gestures would become similar, one arched elbow imitating the other, or feet strutting at the same time. These dances, without middles or ends, seemed almost like the gyrating fits of fraternal worshippers; spread-out on a rostrum, hoping to reach ecstasy through enthusiasm and fervor. And also, as the room glowed in blue and red, reverberating with a tune by Azealia Banks, Mitchell’s brief frenetic solo served as a tribute to street dance, subway stunts, every unregulated graceful display.

I hadn’t known, at the time of listening to the dancers read, that the words were James Waring’s. “And Waring is being talked about again,” David Vaughan wrote in his essay in the Platform catalogue. He died in his early fifties, was in a sense peripatetic (a “dancer, choreographer, teacher, director, visual artist, designer, writer, and sometime composer.”) The sound I remember from the reading of his play and texts was a bellow from the hereafter, clear and reassuring, the convincing voice of a teacher. Vaughan wrote: “It may be said that Waring changed the life of anyone who came into his orbit. He told you what dance concerts and art shows to go to…” What reading Waring taught, in addition, was posthumous labor. Even in death, one’s work wasn’t done. [4]

Ian Douglas

Pam Tanowitz Dance by Ian Douglas

Dance in Progress

Watching Pam Tanowitz make a dance

It is truly a revelatory act: until you feel the kick of completion, like the formation of sinews in the womb, there can be no understanding.

Meanings coagulate; a juxtaposition of disparate gestures.

The dancers know they possess the potential to alter the course of the dance. But they seem protective of their agency, with reverence to the leader who stands unassumingly before them, attentive.

No one seems ashamed of failing. In the course of their open rehearsal, they could fail, but this isn’t a thing to be embarrassed about. Perhaps perfection has its dose of uncertainty, and of dialogue tainted with pauses.

How do choreographers know it is time to stop? She knows the possibilities are infinite. Her greatest task will be to bring things to a pause, then introduce to the viewer an uncertainty; hence wonder.


Each dancer was asked to bring a movement. Hence: the material is of many origins, rich with detours.

She watches the dancers individually—understanding, as if with one glance, the limits, tendencies, idiosyncrasies, potentials of each body. She listens for their instincts, obeys them, but adds some flourish.

While asking them to move their hips repeatedly, she says: I know you’ll ask me how many times, but I don’t know.

Right legs incline upwards. Some legs reach higher than others. It could be that some of the dancers are skilled ballet dancers, or possess the spectacular intuition of gymnasts, and it could be that some aren’t as skilled. But it makes for a glamorous sight: the unevenness of similar gestures.

A young girl checks some speakers for sound. She signals to a man arched over a console. He is her father, if I have guessed correctly. Maybe Pam Tanowitz is her mother. My other guess is that something unique will emerge out of this marriage of making a dance while making music.

She says: I have to fix that. Does she see reparable gestures as one would see pixelated images?

The musician watches with his eye, but his ears are doing all the work.

It is wonderful to see people come and go. What new task do I give my eye?


The sound of counting as she teaches a new sequence was one of clicking, as her tongue repeatedly hits the roof of her mouth.

Like tap dancing, the foot touches the ground and produces a rhythmic sound. Unlike tap dancing the foot is sometimes held in a pause.

The dancers occasionally fling their socks towards the edge of the room, out of the dance space. Their warmed feet now dance bare. Imagine: the music is a ripple across the ocean, waves formed by dancing bodies.

When one of the dancers comes near me, her breath is loud and hot, as one who puffs out energy.

After each break, the dancers regroup. In the manner they assemble, the dance seems to carry a recalibrated meaning, to possess a fresh vision.

There are moments I fail to glimpse during the rehearsal, which when they unfold afterward in one of the showings, take me by surprise.


* * * * * * * *



[1] An 1828 poem by Yevgeny Baratynsky
[2] Coetzee, J. 1982. Waiting for the Barbarians. United States: Penguin Group (USA), 144

[3] Yvonne Rainer, “1977” in Poems by Yvonne Rainer (United States: Bandlands Unlimited, 2012), p. 9.
[4] David Vaughan, “James Waring,” in Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets (Danspace Project Platform 2015), p. 170-173

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