Ann Carlson1995

November 2015 - Ann Carlson – Rehearsal: The Symphonic Body
"How much can you see in these gestures that are the trace of a life?"
Had the good fortune to sit in on a rehearsal of Ann Carlson’s “The Symphonic Body,” three weeks before the performance. Here, some sights and thoughts. – Irene Borger, writer, dance ethnologist, director, Herb Alpert Award in the Arts
Alert ease/focus:
-- Everyone, yes, everyone, seems delighted to be here, both attentive and relaxed; different ages, mostly young-ish, they break into applause when Ann introduces them to someone joining the rehearsal for the first time. There’s an ease in their alertness; is it serious play, or playful seriousness? Both. Part of Ann’s gift: setting the tone and holding the space in this way.
The Pleasures of Watching: 
-- Watching “The Symphonic Body” is like decoding a puzzle. Five minutes into it I wonder: improvisation or entirely scored? A combination? How much is Ann – who is signaling to the performers like a maestro -- relying on her in-the-moment perceptions to alter the score? Is this like composer Butch Morris’ conduction? [Morris created a way of working with a lexicon of directives that make possible an exchange between composer/conductor and instrumentalists in real time.]
-- Ann’s signals – her vocabulary of conducting – are part of the dance. A two-handed gesture, like a clamshell opening, equals “Go!” Everyone freezes when she goes Cah Cah like a crazy loud crow. Now she slices the air pointing to someone and nods; then, using both hands, she makes the shape that men (and comedians) used to indicate a curvy woman. (What could that mean?)
-- There’s a grammar and a language and everyone here has become fluent. They know their part. They can read her signs. (How long did they take to learn these cues…not to mention their own parts?) As a rehearsal viewer I’m hearing “back-stage” verbal instructions that won’t be performed on stage. Someone is doing something Ann calls “part echo and part portrait.” (Does “echo” mean picking up someone else’s movement? And what’s a “shadow” or a “grab?”) “You can accumulate something you remember from another rehearsal,” Ann says. Like someone listening to a foreign tongue, I begin to recognize some gestures and postures. It’s fun, like a game: how much can you see in these gestures that are the trace of a life?
-- How much Ann sees! Alert and responsive to more than sixty people seated on chairs set out in a half-moon shape, well, like an orchestra, she seems to be able at once to focus the whole group and each person’s details. She conducts.
What are they doing? 
Sometimes people move in unison, then soloist after soloist breaks into their own riffs at different speeds; they might perform them for various lengths of time. There’s a Shaker beauty, a simplicity; this is dance performed without affectation or embroidery. You can exhale.
Some gestures are mimetic: one man in the back looks like he’s about to dive into a pool. Another man appears to be playing a brass instrument. Someone is waving over and over while one woman is repeatedly running in place like a cartoon rabbit. I’m in love with another woman’s turning so slowly and gazing upward like an astronomer in reverie. (She turns out to actually be an astronomer!!)
Even though this work is made from people’s habitual daily motions, much of what you see looks abstract. (I have no idea the derivation of a woman’s hands held wide apart in front of her, one up and one down, as if she’s carrying a large and unwieldy canvas. You see the carved space she frames instead.) 
Space is a good word here. There’s scads of room for an audience member’s emotional and mental reactions, and the inevitable associations that arise – and surely arise differently for everyone. Why is it so moving to see people simply stand and sit down? Why, at one moment, do I imagine they are citizens standing up and taking part in our broken world? How it is possible that the simple action of turning and staring into the distance feels witty? Why – when every single person in the room simultaneously leans over and touches the person next to them – does the only man who doesn’t move throughout the entire symphony (he looks like he’s meditating) feel like a mourner? 
Sound + speech: 
As in classical music, this piece has what Ann refers to as different movements. One section is filled with speech and laughter. Words rise and repeat. “ “OK, honey.” “I mean nobody is dying.” “Hey, Michael.”  “It's gone.” “I don't get it.” “Who's up there?” “OK, I think we're going to need to stop now.” 
The mass of people talking sounds like an audience at intermission, like a party, like they’re great friends, like the tower of Babel, like the opening of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Are they having real conversations or are they “performing talking” as in the market scene of Carmen? 
Ann interjects, “Let your portrait – the movement made just for them out of their own lives - take over the verbalization. Let your talking fade out.” It’s haunting when the talking subsides, the sound vanishing; a beautiful shifting out of speech into collective silence and then stillness.
Individuals + Communitas: 
Ann is opening her arms, “just stay,” she says. Then: “Choose your four favorite movements out of your portrait.” She jumps up and down like confetti. “You can change the time. Do what feels good.”
Ah, so choice is a part of it. Not surprising: Ann trusts people, encourages their own creativity. An unusual circumstance: everyone has a part without hierarchy. Right here in this hierarchical institution! This is a democracy, a community of individual bodies in play. 
You hold your breath as they all slowly reach over and simply look at the person next to them. Attentively, easily. Communitas.
Excuse me if I quote from Wikipedia here.
“Communitas is a Latin noun commonly referring either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community. It also has special significance as a loanword in cultural anthropology and the social sciences. Victor Turner, who defined the anthropological usage of communitas, was interested in the interplay between what he called social 'structure' and 'antistructure'; Liminality and Communitas are both components of antistructure.
Communitas refers to an unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal allowing them to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together. This term is used to distinguish the modality of social relationship from an area of common living. There is more than one distinction between structure and communitas. The most familiar is the difference of secular and sacred. Every social position has something sacred about it. This sacred component is acquired during rites of passages, through the changing of positions. Part of this sacredness is achieved through the transient humility learned in these phases, this allows people to reach a higher position.”