Eliza is bright and so open to the world, I often find myself wanting to reach into the back of her head and climb into her mind, swimming through her adolescent glory to better understand passion, dance, and our ability to share what we see with others. I have known her only for a brief period of time. When she was young, perhaps mid-elementary school years, I assisted her jazz teacher and ran around doing jazz squares and kick-ball-chain's with what I remember as a very serious child. I didn't re-meet her until this school year. She is junior at Springfield High School and frequents the Dance Factory (where I teach modern) every day where she just picked up ballet only a couple of years ago. She is fearless in my modern class and a quirky, innovative improviser.
However, I have learned the most about Eliza through an independent study she designed this year at the high school. I serve as her adviser, but mostly work alongside her, as we explore modern dance history though the choreographers who made it. Together we read, watch clips, and talk. Eliza makes her own choreographic studies in response to, inspired by, or as visions of possibility based on our meandering strolls through the lives and work of these rebel rousers. I, in turn, am given the opportunity to see the past as something fresh, to rediscover what has led to my own evolution as a dance-maker, and to grow as a teacher and student beside one who has an innate gift for both.
Here I share her first writing assignment from earlier this school year: "What do you see when you watch dance?" Keep posted for clips of her choreography. Thoughts?
by Eliza Pennell
I see the basis for life when I watch dance: I see motion. Dance shows me anything under the sun, anything in life. I see myself, and I recognize people I know. I see betrayal, sexual tension, and exhilaration. I see the monotonous comfort of a physics lesson. I see no rules and I see broken rules. I see fairies and soccer games. I see memories: my favorite place to lie in the grass, my favorite childhood movie, my friend's funeral for her hamster. I see hope and sadness. I see fun. I see familiar motions, magnified and transformed into something beautiful---walking, kicking, turning away, nodding, stretching, falling. Dance can tell me a story; it can show me an image. It can persuade me.
When I watch dance, I see the power of the performer. I see adrenaline, thrill and strength; I see the superhuman quality performers possess while they're onstage. I see sinuous limbs and taut muscles. I see careless precision and careful recklessness. I see the mask that is sometimes necessary for performers to hide behind. I also see performers shedding those masks, becoming more themselves onstage than they are backstage. I see what art means to artists; I see the things they can't say but need to release somehow. I see myself. I see the responsibility that comes with creating and showing art, but I also see the freedom of it. I see my own responsibility and freedom as an aspiring artist.
When I watch dance, I see my future. Sometimes I see success, but sometimes I see failure. Sometimes I see myself soaring like an eagle across a brightly lit stage; other times, I see myself crying over broken toenails and broken dreams. Dance shows me my own passion, but it also shows me the risk that comes with that passion, the fear that passion won't be enough.
When I watch dance, I see everything in opposition. I see honesty and truth. I see lies. I see conformity along with rebellion. I see freedom; I see entrapment. I see uniformity and individuality. I see fluidity and rigidity. I see an illustration of failure only with the success of a choreographer and dancer. I see chaos only with the precision and order of a well-planned piece of choreography. I see that sometimes a pause, a moment of stillness, is the most powerful, resonating movement in a dance. I see that dance requires decision---but is only meaningful with intuition. I see how complex dance can be, yet how simple and natural it's always been.
There's something else I see when I watch dance---but I don't really know how to see it. I don't know what it looks like. Does it even look like anything? Everything? It's a sense of fullness, as though my body is simply to small to contain everything swirling around inside of me. I can see the wonder of life, the beauty of the human body. Most importantly, I see the inherent creativity and passion the human race is graced with. I see the emotional trigger one small motion of one small person on one small stage can produce. This trigger could make me cry; it could make me smile. I see the magic with which art brings about change in a person---or even change in the world. I see a gap in the dancer, a space that's usually occupied by a filter between the mind and body. I see the glory of not having to think, of simply moving. I see movement when I watch dance; I therefore see life. I see a celebration of life. I see the pride in being an artist, in being someone who strives to better themselves.
Sometimes when I watch dance, I don't know what I'm seeing. But in any case, I'm seeing.