Countdown to Ignition

A repost from the 127th St Dance Company blog


       Saturday. Bastille Day. Seven days to the show. Studio ‘H’ on the fourth floor of the Center House. For those of you who have never been to the fourth floor of the Center House, it looks like a subway service tunnel. Or a forgotten hallway at Costco, bricked up to keep the ghosts inside. Beautiful things happen here. We open the velvet curtains and Cajun music fills the open windows from the stage outside. Sliding accordions and a gravel voice singing about the good-old-boy-life. No one cares. We joke about it a little then the 127th team goes to work.
Today is the quartet. Dana, Gabrielle, Annie and Katt with Rochelle giving instruction. The company in full will rehearse through the week, taking only one day off to rest. They run it over and over. A beautiful piece where one dancer is surrounded by the three, who move on and off stage like specters haunting her. She dances alternately free then guarded, proportionate to the nearness or distance of the three.
By the third or fourth run through I am crying, hiding my face because the one dancer is me, in the cobwebbed back-halls of the mind. Being hunted by the ghosts of thought and memory. Not the good thoughts, no, nor the happy memories. The good thoughts never come to comfort us of their own free will. The failures, the disappointments, the harsh words spoken unjustly, the hurts given and received out of ignorance or malice. These are the thoughts that come and go as they please. Our daily companions, our ghosts. Sometimes we are good, sometimes we are lights against the coming darkness. Sometimes we are torn down by the weight of our own being.

Monday. Five days to the show. Return to studio ‘H’. Today they will run through the entire rep. It is quiet outside. I sit under the windows, the somewhat summer breeze on my neck and the salt smell of the ocean.
The dancers prepare. Stretch and stow their gear, chatting about body types. Their medium. They start showing off their bruises. Laughing and smiling, they are proud of them: big powder burn bruises. They begin. Five days to the show to do list:
1) Arch the back
2) Elevate the head
3) Keep your chin up
4) Timing on the jumps
5) Watch the kicks (Julian almost caught one…)
6) Maintain center stage
7) Buoyancy in the last shape of the drum piece
8) Breathe, eat, sleep like a stone
9) Rinse and repeat
The dancers know what to do. The choreographers know what they want. Time to tighten the screws. Hit the highs and lift the lows. It takes a village and this work is their baby.
For all its emotional content and focus on physical expression, much of dance is in the numbers. I saw finger snapping for the first time today, counting the pace of a walk across the stage. One two three four, one two three four. Although they talk about counts often, watching 127th Street rehearse, it is easy to forget the one two three fours. They pick up new moves after one showing. Instruction is taken without hesitation or complaint, integrated and rehearsal moves forward. I wish I could memorize verse so quickly and accurately. Point of fact: every instance where they worked the counts today, the dancers got it the first time through. I never saw them go over the counts on the same sequence twice. It amazes me every time.
There are so many elements to align: the many dancers, their positions, their shapes on the stage. All those arms and legs, each with correct and incorrect positions. The dancers get direction like, “Your reach has to come from a place of resistance, not a place of force.” “I want the feeling like you are going to jump right off the stage. But you won’t.” That gets a laugh. And my favorite, “Drop your heart and pick it up again.” Dana holding a pose on her toes for so long she asks, “Am I still up here?”
Dinner hour comes and goes. Cocktail hour too. They work straight through. This is what it’s all about, pushing through dinner to get one phrase. Sometimes it helps to feel the hunger. There is joy here. There are few rushes Mountain Dew doesn’t market that match the rush of creation when you are getting it right. When the elements fall into place and there is a sense of the inevitable and the new coming together at once. Crackers, peanuts, bottled water: a dancer’s work-time fare. When they get a moment the dancers grab a bite and come back to the floor chewing. Through it all they smile, they play off one another to maintain focus, balance and synchronicity. It is a beautiful thing to see. One of the few times I regret my craft is a solitary one.
It is five days to the show. Emotions run high. This is a good thing. Difficult but useful. The dancers must embody each piece. Take experience from their off stage lives and use it to give an ‘intuitive emotional life’ to their art. The choreographers ask, “What is bringing you into this piece?” In the months preceding the show the dancers have endured two deaths, stitches, trouble at home at the day job and this is just what they talk about. There is more (life off stage continues to swirl like autumn leaves in a storm wind) but I don’t pry. They are dancers, it comes through their bodies when they move: those ghosts that haunt the dark hallways of the heart and mind. Universal yet appearing with infinite variation. The ten-thousand little things ancient Chinese poets claimed comprised our lives. It never ends, this battle for sovereignty of the body and soul. The story of the dancer and the three ghosts lives within us all. Stand tall. Turn into it, own it and know that you are loved. Be the dancer and the ghost, the flower and the fist. Say, “Yes, this is the energy I bring with me everyplace. How are you?” Anything less, let’s be honest, would be a bit dull. As Bukowski once wrote,

some people never go crazy
what truly horrible lives they must lead

Knock em dead ladies and gentlemen of 127th. I believe in you.

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