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ADF 4: 'Just Try It' -- Rehearsal with Leah Cox

07/24/2013 04:29 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2013
  • Lightsey Darst National Endowment for the Arts 2007 Literature Fellow

Today I'm sitting in on a rehearsal for Bill T. Jones's Love Re-Defined. It's five minutes till time and students run in circles, run in place, shake their muscles, lie on their backs and shake their legs. We're in ADF's new Broad Street Studios -- gorgeous light-filled rooms with a view of oaks, so distractingly green and lovely that it takes me a long time to figure out what this room is missing: a mirror. We're in the land of modern dance here.

Leah Cox, education director for Jones's company, leads the rehearsal. Still, sitting and looking at her notes, she looks small: a bag of bones in a crush of bright cloth, pale as paper, with a frizzy nimbus of peach fuzz for hair. When she gets up, though, she gets big: taller than any of the men, quick and loose-limbed, with a condor wingspan. And her energy's big too -- more than ample to set this room buzzing. Throughout rehearsal, she uses her voice as almost a meditation aid, a metronome, sometimes talking constantly while the students move. You'll hear a lot of her in this dispatch; you might try reading standing up, letting her words hypnotize you too.

"I know what you can do. I'm interested in you moving beyond that," she says. "I want you to be able to access all of you that I see sitting inside you." She asks the students for a walk-through, but not a mark (a low-energy version in which movement is merely indicated). For the lifts, she tells the students, "Don't mark them, but just dance the thing as if that were the movement." The same for absent people -- she wants the absence danced through. "Let's reinvent.

A run-through begins. This dance is lovely, dreamy, and hard; it calls for balletic technique (feet matter) and a sense of swing. Everything suspends, nothing ends: one action overlays another, exit covered by entrance, downstage played off against upstage. This means the students have to take and yield the stage, with the yielding part of the dance as well ("no such thing as transitions," Cox says), and they have to breathe in time, with awareness, to make that suspension real. "Keep dancing bigger than this room, bigger than this room," Cox says.

The students don't manage too well; they can do the steps, but I don't get any emphasis from them. Only one dancer looks like he's alive in the moment, awake and making decisions. The rest seem off-balance, which leads me to think that a balance problem is really a failure of motivation. It's not that you fall: you fall out of the dance.

"Keep being powerful," Cox intones to one dancer who's holding the stage with his back to us. "Big power, big power, big power, you're still alive, big power." What could make you look at someone's back? The scene's winding down but he has to keep the audience with him, watching. His lungs fill. You try it: hold an auditorium's attention in your shoulder blades. "Keep fighting death to the end," Cox says. "Heartfelt, real, physical, physical. In your center, you're still very much alive. We can feel it in your back space. You're still speaking to us." And now he is.

The run over, Cox has the students walk around the room. Little dances flare up and decay as she talks to them about aggression, space, cooperation, play. "How can I be in space with another body?" she asks. "How are we giving people space to dance?" She joins the students, ebbing and flowing with them. "I'm okay enough that I can allow you to enter my world and I can move with you." She connects this responsiveness to politics, to the world. "What if we don't have distinct bodies, but only relationships? What if the default is movement? What if I don't have to stop and think? What if I can move and think? What if I can move and think? What if I can move and think?" She pushes at their range of response. "Nicely done, I can feel that," she says. At other times frustration flares. It reminds me (and the students too, I suppose) of Cox's dual role: she's their teacher, but she also represents the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

Some students make knots; others circle around. One young man has very caring arms. Some have to look for entrances, and some are always on the inside. Some are waiting for this be over, and some are just fine, finding enough in it. At their best, the students are like a school of fish, flickering, shoaling. This is a four-hour rehearsal, and there's about thirty minutes of this walk-dancing. No one could watch this for long, except that it's fascinating -- one of those exercises that reveals what's going on, where dance is happening and where it isn't.
"How might you be resisting what I'm asking?" Cox says. That is the question of education, isn't it? One guy always bears with him a little bubble of space -- personal space he won't yield. Of course there could be plenty of good reasons to resist. I like how Cox lays bare the dilemma of learning, the leap involved; she makes me uncomfortable, or, to put it another way, she moves me. "Just let me guide you, but you have to let me. Just have the experience."

She settles the students down, does a daddy-long-legs and folds up, gets small again. Now it's their turn; they need to apply this. She calls for another run-through. "We are going to find ways to dance the entire dance," she says. She cuts off a dancer offering an excuse, a reason something didn't work. "Just try it."

And they do: the dance becomes not arbitrary but mercurial, full of magic, desire, sudden and lovely whims, breathing stillness and propulsive dance. The students are paying attention now.

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