by Stephanie Cumming
The topic of the dancer as author is one that I relate to but often find very difficult to express succinctly in words. When asked to describe the process of creating/re-creating myself on stage in various characters, voices and physicalities I usually end up giving an answer to the effect of "uhhh ... it just sort of happens." But upon reflecting on the topic, I discovered that my ability as a dancer to create is directly connected to that million-dollar question of "Why do I dance at all?"
In the earlier years of my career I spent a lot of time feeling under challenged, frustrated and misunderstood. The picture that I had of my dancing self in my mind wasn't actually rooted in reality. It was when I started working with Chris Haring that I realized I had been working in a way that stifled my creativity. The concept of layering had never even occurred to me. To put myself under a microscope to be observed was a disconcerting idea. Chris looked at me and picked out the things that he found strange which also happened to be things that I found normal about myself. In my mind I'm one of the most normal people I know. In his I was and still am a bit of a mystery.
The traditional role of the dancer is often considered to be purely complimentary. The dancer complements the choreographer. The choreographer is the creative brain and the dancer is the compliant body. There is no question of authorship because the roles are clear. It's when the dancer becomes an author as well that these traditional boundaries disappear. The playing field becomes more level. The hierarchy fades away because it's apparent that the need for one another is mutual. This is definitely true of liquid loft but in our case it's a love triangle consisting of a choreographer, a musician and a dancer. In order to create I have to work with people who are inspiring. It used to bother me that choreographers are considered to be at the top of the creative food chain and that in order to be taken seriously as a creative force the dancer has to eventually become a choreographer as well. On the one hand I have little desire to be a choreographer but yet the need to have some control over what it is that I perform. The dancer is more powerful than commonly thought. For me being a dancer is so much more than merely dancing. Everything is dance. Dance is simply being.
So why do I dance? One word: transformation. Whether that transformation is on a grand scale or barely visible, there has to be an experience. Something has to change and I need to go through a process and come out on the other side. A shift occurs in my focus and suddenly I see the world through different eyes. Subtlety and nuance are key. There is sometimes the tendency with dancers/performers to overshoot themselves and in an attempt to be weird, freaky, cool or simply über-unique they lose the fineness that reminds the observer that they are, in fact, simply human.
To be able to channel one's emotions, memories, etc. into a figure who somehow reminds people of themselves is a big wish of mine. Creating and performing solely to impress is bound to cause distance and to fail. In order to touch a nerve there must be some shred of vulnerability, some glimpse of what is flawed about the dancer. Once I shed my I'm-such-a-lovely-dancer shell an entirely new space opened up where virtually anything was possible. You would be hard-pressed to embarrass me at this point. Life is embarrassing and awkward. And it's in the awkwardness where I find beauty. This is a major source of inspiration for me. If I spent all my time trying to be perfect I'm afraid I would become very uninteresting.
You could say that I have a rather short attention span and can easily get bored. Although I prefer working with a choreographer rather than on my own, I'm not incredibly keen on taking direction that doesn't somehow give me space for personal interpretation or connect to me as a personality. By that I mean only I know how to search within myself, how to scan my history. People are the products of a lifetime of input. Whether that be memories, stories, bizarre encounters, songs, movies, cultural norms, cultural references or everyday observations. It's all about referencing, making quick connections. How can I create a world out of a glass of milk, a smell or the crazy person sitting next to me on the subway?
One has to measure their reactions to life in general in order to deconstruct and reassemble reality. I don't think there is any such thing as a one-dimensional person. People have many sides. Some of which are more dominant, others that are there but only come out when they're provoked, and then there are the sides that you never even knew you had. People have often commented on my acting ability to which I always respond that I'm not an actress. I'm simply being myself in a way that I can get away with on stage but not in day-to-day life. All of the characters that I have performed onstage have simply been various exaggerated incarnations of myself.
I am my own material.