Last night the winds were howling fiercely through the rocks behind my house. It was the first time the desert environment actually seemed hostile. Granted, I say this with a full belly from inside my well lit, well heated home. But just imagine! What if I hadn’t been able to distract myself from these spooky sounds with the soothing voice of Ira Glass and his cast of This American Life characters?
I woke up this morning to my first high-desert snowstorm, unlike anything I’ve seen before. Having lived through four east coast winters, I thought I knew snow. This is certainly not the case. Somehow the sky is still bright and clear in places, though the clouds are covering the sun. The snow isn’t sticking, but continues to fall in large flakes, often moving quickly in several directions at once.
The surfaces of the rocks and plants are wet, and the moisture is diffusing the otherwise harsh desert sun, so colors out here are really popping today. The reds of the bushes and rocks brighten in contrast with the greens of the yuccas and Joshua Trees (thanks all you Wesleyan film nerds for my second-hand color theory education).
I’m bundled up with plenty of blankets, music, journals and books. On today’s playlist: Arthur Russell’s World of Echo and Harry Partch’s Cloud Chamber Music. On today’s reading list: Joshua Tree National Park Geology and Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Should be an interesting mind-warp.
I’ve already encountered a few hikers and Search & Rescue people walking by the LHRS. When people ask me what I’m doing here, I usually let them know that I’m the current Artist-In-Residence, living in the park for the next month. They usually ask what my medium is, to which I respond, “Dance, I’m a choreographer.”
The following conversation inevitably occurs:
“Oh,” says the person with a blank stare, “Wait, so you’re dancing out here? I don’t get it. I was expecting you to be a photographer or painter or something.”
“Yep, well, I’m choreographing a piece to be performed among the rocks.” I always follow that one with a big, reassuring smile.
“Oh.” There’s usually a long pause and puzzled face here, after which the person either says, “Good luck,” and abandons the conversation, or continues with something like, “Well, what are you planning to do?”
(I like the second response better.)
I go into a brief explanation of the project, something like, “We’re researching the elements and processes of geological change, here in the park, as they relate to our bodies and to movement.” And of course, I throw in a mention of the performance on March 19th & 20th at the Indian Cove Amphitheatre.
For me there is nothing more challenging and invigorating than one of these conversations. I would not be surprised if someone were puzzled by the concept of dancing in a spaceship (ooh!), or creating a piece using just remote-controlled cars. But, dancing outdoors? It seems like nothing could be more intuitive! And in terms of introducing this choreographic practice to the Western concert dance tradition… well, Isadora, I thought you had that one covered ages ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isadora_Duncan & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbhECiz2TtY&feature=related).
So, why is this concept so perplexing? First of all, there are social, political, geographic and economic realities that cannot be ignored. Cultural literacy is rarely emphasized in our current public education system. Art histories, especially the vital voice of dance, are underrepresented in discussions of our society’s past and present. Advocates of dance and creative movement education have voiced concerns about the limited (and limiting) nature of physical education in the schools. There is even less exposure to experimental movements in the creative arts in rural areas, where a dance student might only be able to find classes in ballet or competitive cheer. These are genuine concerns, which deserve a more lengthy discussion than I can provide here.
For now, the “why” is not as relevant as the “what” of the situation. The fact remains that for many people (though, of course not all), dancing in a national park seems very strange. My time here is so limited that all I can hope to do is give people a taste of the unfamiliar. Hopefully this work can serve as a small introduction to the vast world of site-specific dance, and to all the questions and considerations of space, time, energy and history that accompany this form.