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  • Nicole (Johnson) Williams

34. a necessity for intuitive play

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

Over the two-week spring break at my school, I went into the studio three times each week to warm up with a ballet barre and center, then choreograph and rehearse the solo for my Artistic Experience. During this two-week span, I realized I had become much more critical of the appearance of my body on camera and the way it looked doing the movement. I ran the piece numerous times, back-to-back (and even changed the clothes I was wearing between runs so that the movement might look better on my body), wanting to refine what I was seeing on the video. I began to notice how “out of shape” I was and became very aware of the fact that this movement was choreographed to suit the aesthetic possibilities of a different dancer; a younger dancer. As hard as I pushed to lengthen the lines, center the turns, define the stance, and organize the steps…. I became increasingly more critical of the natural movement of my own body and what it was trying to say.

One day, after having a good warm up class and lots of studio time to myself, I began to run the solo. After each take, I would watch the recording while I paced the room to calm my heart rate. In each video, I stumbled in a balance, forgot a transition, fell completely out of a turn, missed the music cue… After re-recording so many times, I joked with myself that I’d splice together all the parts I liked to make one perfect take. After regaining my breath, I set up the camera for another take (at a different angle that might be more flattering). Less than half-way through the piece, I stubbed my toe on a gap in the Marley and ripped off half of my toenail, ouch. Thankfully, there was no blood, but I like to think it was the Universe telling me to give it a rest. Once I left the studio that day, my schedule filled up and it was a few weeks before I was able to get back in to record a final take.

So, it sat.

Finally, in the gap between my honors ballet class and my company rehearsal (which is very jazzy this term), I decided to just start playing with the solo movement in my body again. To my surprise, that mark through was the absolute best run I had recorded yet. I decided to throw on the dress, focus the camera, and try it once more for a usable video. This time, there was breath. This time, I committed to the structure of the movement, which is supported by all the intentional connections I’ve made throughout this process, I leaned into stretching out the shapes that called for that elongation, but I left room for softness, indirectness, looseness, and intuitive creation. I think I finally got the shot.

In this experiment, I’ve realized the value of intuitive play within this piece. This allowance of improvised movement saves room for direct communication (with the piece/its intent/myself). In my studies this year, I’ve noticed that intuitive play is one of the primary missing factors when comparing jazz and ballet; Black and white. In my class, we’ve looked at the historical journey of ballet, from before King Louis XIV to Michaela Mabinty DePrince. We’ve studied the way our bodies (when liberated from a mind-body hierarchy) operate physiologically, and the connections between what we know, how we’re taught, and what we do. In building this critical curriculum for my ballet class, the function of ballet movement in my body has been questioned. Similarly, in building a critical curriculum for my jazz class, the ideals of jazz movement in my body have been affirmed. Using a contemporary jazz lens called the Diasporic Encounter Method, I understand jazz dance to be foundationally derived from Black realities that result in expressive body movements that share aesthetic pillars of polyrhythm, musicality, weight-shift, off-axis movement, a sense of groove, and intuitive play (Haley, 2022). And although this solo is not choreographed in the jazz dance technique, many of the same movement principles still apply. This scholarly understanding of what it means to “dance” has unlocked an internal allowance for the validation of “we’ll see how it feels when I do it, and it might be different every time.” Unconsciously, I felt that my choreography assignment would only be valid if I were able to assign every step, record it legibly, and be able to replicate it in the future. I began to assign the steps that I imagined would tell the story most accurately. Sometimes (especially in the second iteration of this solo over the summer), I added a jump or a turn as a filler step, just to have something there. When I reached into my toolbox to find the filler, the tools most accessible to me were the ones with names/structures/prescription/rules. But now, in this third iteration of the piece, I can stretch past those tools that lie on the surface, and reach for those with a deeper, more vulnerable connection. Those which require more commitment, presence, and submission to the process of dancing/communicating with the piece every single time.

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