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Riga, Latvia

Dispatch 3 from New Dance in the New Venue, The Writing Moving Network (WMN): Lab 1

by Will Rawls


And then suddenly it was over. After four days of writing, talking and dancing about dance, I’m back in Riga, Latvia getting on a plane in two days. The others have landed in Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Sofia or Berlin, reunited with their choreographies, curations, children, cats or studies. There is much that was said and shared. We had a second sauna night and even tried to have a party of some sort. But most of the beer was left undrunk because we were all exhausted from a dense program. Inta tirelessly ushered us along so we didn’t have much time to wonder unless it was in the schedule. And then there was lots of wondering, thinking further about this being with. Now I’m doing the dance of separation—what else did we talk about? What didn’t we talk about? What could be said next time? What follows are a few observations along these lines.

Yesterday morning, Elina Gaitjukevica led our daily, pre-breakfast physical practice. We started on our backs with legs and arms in the air, rotating them in our sockets and flexing our joints which in turn engaged our core muscles. She then got us off our backs and onto all fours and gradually to standing, shifting weight back and forth on our feet. The language she was using to direct us started out in an anatomical mode but was slowly infiltrated by images from nature—wind, water etc. It struck me again that much of what we know about the anatomy is mediated through medical textbooks, incorporated as science, embodied as sensation then re-externalized as knowledge and practice. But it’s hard to get on your feet without nature. I don’t think I’ve taken a single dance class in the last 10 years that didn’t somehow use the imagistic and metaphoric language of nature to take the dancing further than it could go with anatomical knowledge. By the end of the class, Elina was leading us through an “automatic dancing” exercise in which we left our analytic brains as far behind as possible and responded automatically to all visual stimulus with movement. I was a knot of wood, a window pane, a light beam. One of the cohort was saying she tried to dance the window handle and then the white of the window handle. This automation and material transference has me thinking that dancers are also cyborgs, composites of organic and inorganic matter—cyborgs, but not in the electronic sense. Well, there is bio-electricity, but I mean cyborg in some other sense. And who is in the driver’s seat? Who has the remote control? Karlis would say it is God (see previous posts from Radi). But yeah, if the mind is a muscle and we are what we think and we think what we do and do what we think, then, with all these fields of knowledge coursing through us—all these drivers—perhaps dancers are a species of medium that hasn’t found a category yet? Or rather, hasn’t found enough categories yet? Dance is voracious and so flexible—it has an appetite for almost any body, any situation. Which is why it’s so scary at times. It eats us alive. But maybe it’s also a strategy for longevity, because if you can take a class like Elina’s every day, and release certain tensions and stresses then perhaps you might just live longer.

And what is a core? It’s possible to locate what we call core muscles—a process that Annemari Autere has devoted years to doing. I hope her BodyBody Logic work can find a place or moment in New York. She manages to think through the verticality of the ballet body but via the language of red muscle fiber and fascia—this ever shifting ocean of movement beneath the skin. She speaks about fascia as if it were conscious with its own impulses of which direction to move—it’s like an absorptive mobile container within the body that is also structural. But below and beyond this fascia we have what is constantly called the core, which is a highly conditional and layered term. The core is as much a qualitative and affective idea as it is anatomical. Another example might be the solar plexus—there is a specific place in the body where one can point to “the solar plexus” but it’s not an actual mass of skin, tissue or fiber. It’s an energetic field or an intention that was also a driving force in the development of 20th century modern dance (see Isadora Duncan). Intention is another word that feels unlocatable and yet carries so much weight in dancing. In our discussions of what a GOOD dance artist is, we came across the subject of intention, presence, authenticity and honesty over and over again. Some of these are terms that I don’t put much faith in as tools for evaluating—especially honesty and authenticity—though I can’t say that they don’t sometimes apply. And somehow, if you are being authentic to yourself while performing, then, in order to be this you, this authenticity  is also categorically inauthentic to whomever is watching, in order for them to be them. But I’d say that absence, artifice, avoidance and deception are also part of our bodies and lives, parts to accept and acknowledge, parts to move from and through. I don’t see the point in being an honest dancer. Hardworking? Yes. GOOD? No. Which is why we have these discussions.

For our final philosophical lecture, Max Ryynanen discussed a history of art criticism via its development in conjunction with the rise of museum culture and a consolidation of an “art world”. His intellect is as flexible as they come and he left openings in his lectures to allow other kinds of thinking to come through. One day, after discussing The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Ranciere, he suggested that we actually not talk about the lecture and instead go out and enjoy the sunshine. He was in the driver’s seat but seemed also ready to be a passenger to other phenomena. His stye of lecture—how he performs being a lecturer—brings up this desire to dig into what other kinds of criticism would be GOOD to discuss. Linguistic and analytic criticism is crucial in a sense, but maybe it is time to start dancing our lectures…. Sure, the lecture performance has already been done, but I think it’s usually performed as a critique of too-much-dancing or as a critique of other content. It still risks privileging the word over the body in my opinion. Which isn’t wrong, but I remain curious how dance can continue to introduce itself into verbal discourse without bringing its own linguistic frame to the party. Yes, the body always exists in language somehow (we tend to read bodies linguistically as we watch them move in front of our eyes (even if we are also processing these bodies sympathetically in our own bodies))…the image I have in mind is not of a body contained by language, but rather interfacing with it. Slipping in and out of it. Many people have written about this and have done a better job that I do here. But it bears repeating.

Yesterday we spent our second day at the Saldus Music and Art School. Annemari Autere and Taisija Frolova organized a performance with the students. The students drew pictures and then created gestures from the lines. Oddly, the thought of cyborgs comes to mind again. Cyborgs that had spilled out of this impressive piece of architecture into the parking lot—happy, cheerful cyborgs disarticulating parts of their bodies to transmit information or an idea that originated in other parts of their bodies—heads and hands. I wonder what their parents thought. Randomly, this quote that Richard Colton sent to me has been going through my head. I cite it verbatim from his email—

Written, in 1920 by Havelock Ellis (a rather unique biography, and worth a read (!) appears here  From Ellis’ book ‘The Dance of Life”:
Dancing and building are the two primary and essential arts. The art of dancing stands at the source of all the arts that express themselves first in the human person.  The art of building, or architecture, is the beginning of all the arts that lie outside the person; and in the end they unite.  Music, acting, poetry proceed in the one mighty stream; sculpture, painting, all the arts of design, in the other.  There is no primary art outside these two arts, for their origin is far earlier than man himself.  It is even possible that, in earlier than human times, dancing and architecture may have been the result of the same impulse. The nest of birds is the chief early form of building, and Edmund Selous has suggested (Zoologist, December 1901) that the nest may first have arisen as an accidental result of the ecstatic sexual dance of birds.

Also on the performance program were The Two Elenas in our group (Elena Jacinta and Elena Angelova), who performed Jacinta’s choreography exploring the intersection of text and body. Riga-based writer and producer, Linda Krumina, served as an interpreter for the audience made up of the art school students and some of their parents. It was another moment when the lingua franca of contemporary dance (English) seemed like a barrier from rather than a bond with the public. Elena’s work displayed signs that read “Observer”, “Dancer” “Choreographer” and “Interpreter” and she announces from the stage her intention to find a blending of these ideas. Throughout the performance, they kept flipping the signs over to reveal another word on the back as the role of dancer and observer jumped around from performer to performer. It felt inconclusive but interesting—I’m curious how she will continue to navigate the frontality of the theater and the flatness of the paper signs. Perhaps there are other dimensions and perspectives that can open up with these simple gestures and tools. Moa Sahlin performed new material for a solo which involved wearing a homemade cloud on her head—a metaphor for the technoligized body (iCloud…me cloud). And throughout the piece her body kept downloading various scraps of pop dance material in a glitchy, haphasard way. Her intention seemed to meander on purpose—perhaps it was a hesitation about waving her pantless crotch at the audience of children. But each time she did that they seemed to love it. And there was a wry humor throughout. Moa and my conversation from three nights earlier also came back while watching her dance—about performing the experience and pervasiveness of whiteness in Sweden. It gave this white cloud and its all-access pass to black pop music a more sinister lining.

luciana achugar also facilitated a performance with some of us, using her practice of being “in pleasure” as a guiding tool. I quote her directly here:

“A practice of being in pleasure and giving our bodies a voice. A practice of growing a new body, as one would grow a plant; a utopian body; a sensational body; a connected body; an anarchic body; a body full/filled with pleasure, with love and with magic…with a brain that melted down to the flesh, the bones, the guts, the skin … and with eyes that see without naming, they see without knowing.”

We were a group of writers and dancers and this practice of being in pleasure in the theater with the students took on an insane asylum quality. We rubbed, hopped, banged and scooted throughout the space. It was erotic and clumsy and clownish. It was strange and awkward and relaxing. “I liked that you were acting like crazy people,” said Sophie, the daughter of Christina (the manager of Hotel Radi). And, on the whole, the rest of the audience, kids and parents alike, seemed to love it, or at least think it was high comedy. Before we started practicing pleasure I was certain we would offend or freak some people out, which was my own limited thinking about the context. There had been much talk about the exciting, nascent scene of contemporary dance in Latvia but humping the theater itself didn’t seem like it had quite arrived yet as a “thing” to do. But my discomfort was also about the other kinds of core experiences that I thought would also emerge and crystallize as “things” during this performance. Certain things hadn’t been discussed much yet during the retreat except on an individual basis—race, gender and sexuality. It is the first time that I have spent days around dancers and dance writers and not had a conversation about queerness, desire, race and class and how these phenomena affect all of our lives, place us in relation to each other and to the world. In my context, we speak about race and gender as constitutive of desire and disgust, authenticity and affect, performance and voyeurism, visibility and repression, power and erasure. They can be strategies or confinements. Or both. They are also fundamental bodily experiences that seemed quite absent when spending so much time thinking and talking about dance and writing. Every act of performance has high stakes. Do we reinforce norms and repressions or question them? WMN is organized to work through just these kinds of questions for this specific context. It’s about exposure for all of us.

luciana’s practice of being in pleasure is a means to move through identity into a more fluid and almost reproductive relationship with identity. You keep giving birth to new pleasures, new core experiences. But after not discussing things that are so foundational to my own identity, it felt impossible to jump into an emancipatory dance practice without out first thinking a lot about being black and gay in this context. It didn’t end up being the only experience in my dance of pleasure, but it was part of it and it was necessary thinking. And it remains necessary for the time being, whether you are dancing in Saldus or New York City. How is your difference playing a role here? It also leads me to think about the dominant culture of folk dance that exists in Latvia and how this is a battle that the choreographers face here. How to work around this and develop their own community of artists, in a sense, responding to one ethnic dance with the emergence of others.

When we were leaving the school last night, to head back for our final communal dinner, I stopped one of the teachers to thank her. She had been playing Erykah Badu’s live album on her computer in the office which served as our green room. It is one of my favorite albums and made me feel at home. She laughed, did a little “I love Erykah” fist pump, shook her head in a complicated way and said, “All day the kids were looking and asking me, ‘Will the black man dance?'” Somehow, it was a relief to hear this.

The Dress Code



Saldus, Latvia

Dispatch 2 from New Dance in the New Venue, The Writing Moving Network (WMN): Lab 1

by Will Rawls

Untitled, artist unknown

Untitled, artist unknown

Last night we packed into the sauna here on campus. The conversation turned from dancer-critic Evelin Lagle’s new residency space in Estonia to the gendered practices of sauna usage. Traditionally, in Latvia, men entered the sauna first when the heat is most intense, women entered afterwards when things had cooled down a bit. We sat there sweating, in various states of undress, bodies melting and unsexy, steeped in our brew of familiarity and strangeness. When the heat became too much we ran 200 feet down to the lake. It was the thing to do. It’s funny when you are trying to follow suit and pretend that someone else’s body habits are your own—this is typical dance retreat practice, the growing pain at the beginning of any shared physical practice, the authentic discomfort that confirms your efforts. Though the sun had set over the lake there was still a faint glow at 10:30pm and constellations were glinting in the eastern sky. I was astounded by the remainder of light at that hour but Anne-Liis Maripuu and Madli Pesti, both theater scholars from Estonia (studying in Berlin and curating in Tallin respectively), were wistful at the encroaching darkness. June is when the light is the most unearthly and enduring here. We jumped in. As we bobbed away from the dock, Sesselja Magnusdottir, dance critic and Director of the Reykjavik Academie, kept doing roll call, making sure no one had slipped beneath the surface of the water unnoticed. She laughed at her own maternal instincts. I counted four shooting stars. After a floating in silence for a few moments, Inta Balode quipped, “I didn’t have to organize this giant project. I could have just come here to swim in the lake.” But then after another silence, “I wouldn’t have found this place if it weren’t for the project.”


foreground: Sesselja Magnusdottir, Sofie Luise Moenster background: Moa Sahlin, Annemari Autere, Inta Balode

foreground: Sesselja Magnusdottir, Sofie Luise Moenster background: Moa Sahlin, Annemari Autere, Inta Balode

Earlier today we had a discussion about what a GOOD dance artist might be. Another impossible question that happily led to more varied responses than yesterday’s talk of GOOD dance critics. Madli Pesti placed a certain value on dance artists who know what’s going on in dance beyond their own personal explorations and who also have a sense of what’s happening societally. It’s an argument for dance that is relevant beyond the considerations of form. Something I can also get behind. I would also add that making opportunities for other dancers is part of being a GOOD dance artist—that could mean administratively or choreographically. Sofie Luise Moenster, a writer and producer working in Copenhagen, brought up perhaps my favorite example of circumnavigating the economic dread that plagues freelance dancers. There is a group of dancers and performers called Fan Club who self-organized to apply for funding to then commission their favorite choreographers to come and work for them. Philosopher Max Ryynanen spoke about the value of a dance embodying its physical and architectural context—this seemed somehow related to one of his personal projects, a micro-gallery. He has bought a mini suitcase and will travel with it, presenting videos and objects in it as a way to restage, in a minor key, the oversized exhibition practices of certain galleries he’s come across in Helsinki. His goal is to collect a number of these micro-gallery projects initiated by others—some take the form of a large hat or a handbag—and mount a retrospective of these in Riga, Latvia, where he says the first artist to explore the micro-gallery idea walked around with a trench coat, flashing his art objects. Moa Sahlin offered permaculture farming as a model for working choreographically that thinks generations ahead. Sesselja Magnusdottir spoke this morning about dancers whose kinesthetic awareness is a central subject of the work. Then tonight at dinner, after a number of dance workshops and an improvised performance, Sesselja also said that working with her own body is producing new language for writing about dance. So the critics and dancers can be in it together. luciana achugar put forth a deep love of the form as constitutive of a GOOD dance artist—that and the fact that dance has the ability to connect us to something ancestral or perhaps even pre-cellular, something that roots into the realm of magic and a relationship to the natural. Although she wasn’t swimming with us the previous night, she then said, “We’re made of stars.” Speaking of nature, as I write this I can’t help noticing that the German shepherd who usually sleeps by the kitchen isn’t in sight. But while walking across the lawn to my room, I heard her outside, barking in the dark, probably keeping some nameless evil at bay (this thought is courtesy of Karlis, see previous post).

German shepherd, Radi mascot

German shepherd, Radi mascot

Tonight it’s too cold to swim so we’re drinking indoors after dinner. We spent the afternoon in Saldus, a fifteen minute drive away from Radi, through a thick forest and along a brief stretch of highway. Our destination was the Saldus Music and Art School, which won a national design award for the MADE architectural firm in 2012. The director of the school gave us a tour of the facilities—incidentally she is also the architect of the main building here at the Radi hotel, where I’m writing this. The art school is stunning and seems like a space ship that had landed comfortably in town. The new building draws the eye but doesn’t scream for attention despite is exterior walls of blonde wood clad in thick translucent glass—it is set back from the road and stands no taller than its neighbors. As we walked the school halls, passing portraits of various women copied from Old Masters works, choreographer Elina Gaitjukevica, split off from our group to lead a dance workshop with the students, all around the age of ten. We passed by the dance studio on our way to the main auditorium. I noticed that the girls were all standing up, ready to dance and boldly curious about the strangers peering in through the glass, while the two boys in the class slumped stubbornly in the corner. Elina hovered over them encouragingly. They sank lower.

entrance, Saldus Music and Art School

entrance, Saldus Music and Art School

At 7pm we watched a performance in the art school auditorium, Korpuss, a solo by choreographer Elina Lutce in collaboration with artist Krista Dzudzilo. Lutce ceremoniously enters the stage costumed in a perfect replica of an Elizabeth I dress, fastened head to toe in buckles, chiffon, crinoline and lace. She begins to flinch and shake and quiver, amplifying her discomfort in the gauzy prison. From the moment she wiggles her way out of the stiff collar the trajectory is set—she will spend the next forty minutes removing the dress piece by piece. With each sartorial liberation she is able to dance a little more—mostly in an improvised release dance style, a style that feels like a familiar support when a contemporary dancer is in doubt about what kind of dance to inject into a piece. The performance ends with her standing in a neutral toned camisole top and biker shorts, quivering and seemingly vulnerable, looking out at the audience, perhaps to implicate us in her discomfort. But it is the same performance of discomfort that coursed through her body when it was underneath all that fabric at the start. The WMN group was split about whether this work was feminist or not. I wondered if it actually went anywhere. To me it seemed an overwrought representation of freedom, safe and systematic. The incredible, period details of the dress overpowered the kinesthetic possibilities of the dance and perhaps privileged the beauty of the dress over its dismantling. After dinner, art critic and curator Valts Mikelsons said that it’s important to consider the piece within the context of Latvian dance in which this gesture has a feminist impact beyond its choreographic limitations. And the dance did have a certain formal restraint and focus, the navigation of the sculpture of the dress step by step. My question then is, Is the representation of a feminist act truly feminist or not? And for whom? Mikelson’s comment was a useful takeaway in that it made this time and place more crucial for understanding what contemporary dance can do within a specific context,  and what questions it can raise, regardless of whether the gesture remains ambivalent. I still feel ambivalent about how to evaluate the show and its codes of conduct. Anne-Liis Maripuu put it succinctly in the parking lot of the school while we waited for our bus back to camp, “Isn’t this ambivalence exactly the stuff off life?”

student work, Saldus Music and Art School

student work, Saldus Music and Art School


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