Dance : Work : Learn : Teach : Write

Robin Wharton is an editor for and contributor to Hybrid Pedagogy. As well since 2005, she has been a collaborator on the <emma> project. Her interests include medieval and early modern law and literature, critical legal studies, and the Digital Humanities. In this piece, Robin reflects on her experience as a dancer, and how our creativity can be one of our most reliable and powerful collaborators.

Dance : Work : Learn : Teach : Write

by Robin Wharton

Prelude

In a former life I was a dancer. A former life, or a previous era: BGS (Before Grad School). This is how I used to think of the countless hours I spent studying ballet in New York and Seattle, and performing with a university-affiliated company as an undergraduate in New Orleans. My dream life ached with what I misinterpreted as nostalgia for that lost age, grief over my dead self. Then, after a long hiatus, during which I got married, started a family, and completed a dissertation, among other things, I started taking dance classes again. And I realized what I thought had died had not even—not really—been dormant.

Act I

Discovering when you are eighteen years old that the brass ring you’ve spent most of your life pursuing has lost its shine is a difficult thing. Upon high school graduation, I made a hard decision to attend college rather than find a place with a professional ballet company. Having moved away from home at sixteen—from Dallas to New York—in order to study at a better school, and from New York to Seattle in order to study at a school where I felt I would be emotionally and physically healthier, I had a hard time coming to grips with the fact the kind of career I had ahead of me as a ballet dancer—one where I would play minor roles in minor companies—just wasn’t going to provide sufficient compensation (intellectual, artistic, or financial) to justify the sacrifices (educational, emotional, and physical) it would require.

So I quit. I set my sights on Tulane University in New Orleans. I joined the crew team and a sorority, and I made new friends. And then, almost in spite of myself, I made my way back into the dance studio during Spring semester of my first year. From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump into Newcomb Dance Company, where I re-encountered the sheer joy of music paired with movement and re-connected my other selves—writer, scholar, sister, daughter—with my dancing self. In my new, unexpected role as an amateur performer I found that, instead of a jealous god demanding constant sacrifice, dance could be a wellspring of creative energy. I became a better, more well-rounded dancer, and—now an English major—I became a better writer.

Act II

My membership in Newcomb Dance of course came to an end with college graduation, though not before it provided me with what still stands out as one of the most intellectually and artistically rewarding experiences of my career thus far. Perhaps the most important opportunity afforded student dancers by university-affiliated companies like Newcomb Dance is the chance to work with resident choreographers in the creation of original pieces. Further, at Tulane, the addition of any piece to the repertoire—whether it was an original piece or an existing piece set on the company for the first time—involved stage and costume design, often by graduate students from the theater department. Participating actively in the inherently interdisciplinary and collaborative process through which performance art is generated, I sowed the first seeds of what has become my ongoing professional obsession with the social, economic, legal, and ethical regulation of creative labor.

During my senior year, at least a year before I acquired my first email account and more than a decade before I would author my first Google doc, I caught an initial glimpse of how digital technology might transform and enrich the creative process by facilitating collaboration. Alice Pascal Escher invited me to be part of the piece she would be choreographing to a digital score being simultaneously composed by Paul Richard Schierhorn, a professor in the theater department. Now, I grew up fascinated by stories of Petipa’s collaboration with Tchaikovsky, Balanchine’s with Stravinsky, and Cunningham’s with Cage. To be given a chance not only to observe the collaboration between choreographer and composer in real time, but to originate one of the roles in the piece that evolved from it was, quite literally, a dream come true. No, Newcomb Quad was not Lincoln Center, but Alice was (and still is) a gifted teacher, choreographer, and mentor, and by this point I had come to understand that the processes, the relationships, and the labor from which dance is made matter regardless of the scale (or stage) on which they take place.

While the introduction of digital technology wasn’t an essential condition of the collaboration, it certainly made it more feasible for two artists working at a relatively small school with limited time and financial resources. Each rehearsal, Alice introduced us to a new installment of the musical score, sometimes only 32 or 64 counts, sometimes a whole section lasting a few minutes. She integrated scaffolded collaboration into her choreographic process, so as dancers we contributed ideas and content as well as bodies. Paul, the composer, attended rehearsals on occasion. As the date of the Spring concert approached and we moved our rehearsals from studio to theater, the costume and set designers from the theater department’s graduate program began to attend rehearsals as well, as they worked to clothe our movements and light the stage around us. Quite fittingly, I think, the piece was titled simply, Work (3 Shifts). It wasn’t the only piece I performed in the concert that final year, but it was certainly the one from which I learned the most about collaboration and the creative process.

Act III

After college, I moved on to law school, and from there to a federal clerkship, and then to a job as an intellectual property attorney. Through it all, although my “real” work occasionally necessitated a break from dancing, I was never absent from the studio for more than six months at a stretch. Then came graduate school, marriage, family, the dissertation, and by the time I thought to look around for what was missing, more than six years had passed since I’d taken a class. I had strange, haunting, recurring dreams in which I suddenly found my middle-aged self transported back to the studios and stages I frequented as a teenager, where I was given a second shot at realizing a desire long-deferred. Rather than thinking of myself as someone who was also a dancer, I began to think of myself as someone who used to dance.

A little over a year ago, I started taking classes again, and in becoming a student in the studio once more, I discovered just how much studio practice and pedagogy had continued to inform my work. Left unattended, my dancer self hadn’t died off, as I’d thought. Rather, it had evolved—hybridized, if you will—and interbred with those other selves—teacher, scholar, writer, wife, mother—I had been more active in cultivating. My desire for collaborative processes had led me into digital humanities work and new media scholarship. The studios and stages where so many hours of my formative studies took place had provided the physical and conceptual models after which I design my writing and literature classrooms. With eerily Freudian timing, the strange dreams receded as conscious awareness surfaced.

Coda

In writing my way through this piece, I have come to understand that, like dancing, some kinds of writing can demand more than we are willing or able to give. Just as all female dancers do not wear tutus and pointe shoes (indeed, some occasionally wear nothing at all), all writers are not writers of novels or scholarly monographs. If you find yourself thinking, “I really hate writing,” you might consider whether it’s actually the writing itself you hate, or whether it’s the form or process that’s really at issue. Digital technology and new media spawn new modes and forms of writing at an exponential rate. Digital writing reveals we are not–and never have been–limited to models that have been invented for us; we always have the option of inventing new ones. We may not write as others do; we are nonetheless, writers.

  • http://twitter.com/dogtrax KevinHodgson

    Thanks for the wonderful post.
    I was thinking of the “hybridized” lives that so many of us lead — how we pull in strands of digital worlds and non-digital worlds as way to engage ourselves in life, and in our identity. And your point of digital tools opening up the doors of potential re-invention is intriguing, although I wonder if folks do that thoughtfully or just stumble into something new. And does it matter?
    Sincerely,
    Kevin