Monday, November 2, 2009

I am

I am a dancer.

I am a teacher.

I am an artist.

As a dancer I have learned where my body ends and the world begins. I have learned about limitations as well as the unlimited potential of the effects of my dancing. I have learned that I can make people laugh, cry, or feel ecstasy through my dance. I have learned that I can mobilize people through dance. I can create alternate realities through my dancing. I can ignite love between two people through dance. As a dancer I have become a fuller human being. As a dancer I continue to grow and expand into deeper, farther-reaching potentialities. I continue to evolve, spin, roll, creep, and seep into the interstices of this thing called dance.

As a teacher I have learned where my experiences end and my students’ begin. I have seen that the process of teaching is a two way street, that as much as I give to my students I receive from them equal amounts of knowledge and nourishment. I have realized that I have so much more to learn. I have come to understand and admire my own teachers even more. I have come to the crossroads of contradiction and bivouacked through to create new roads. I have broken rules that my teachers said should never be broken and yet I have carried on the traditions with reverence and respect. As a teacher I am an ever evolving, revolving creator.

As an artist I have been given a gift. I have been given the freedom to push past the boundaries and delineations of our isolated arts fields. I can invert the floor and dance on the side of a building. I can create dances on a computer screen. I can draw dances in the sand. I can inscribe my experiences in the wind and never worry about the ethereality of the result. I can write the unending story of dance without an audience. I can dance in the middle of the grocery store. And I can sit in my living room and create an entire world without moving a muscle.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Deep Sea Dive

A story by Lisa and Mark Thomas

Bathtime to bed story

In this story I have to play 3 different characters, the boss, a kraken, and a vampire squid. Mark is submarine captain John and his mate deep sea diver Bob. John and bob are on a mission and need orders from their boss, they pass the secret gates and enter the sea cave special hideout. John asked the boss to make sure to track bob while he goes on his deep sea research diving expeditions.

The boss: yes, I will watch him and monitor his travels but remember to be gentle with the deep sea life and don’t bring them up to the land level because they are too delicate and fragile and wouldn’t last a day even at higher water levels.

John: ok, yes sir, I will certainly tell Bob.

Boss: why is that you wish to go down deep in the sea?

John: because bob wants to study the vampire squid, vampyrteuthis infernalis, the Vampire Squid from Hell.

Boss: remember to only study these creatures at the ConShelf underwater labs and not bring them up any higher.

John and bob take off on their journey. Bob happened upon a Kraken hanging out quietly in the mid ocean.

Bob: Excuse me, Mister Kraken, could you please point me in the direction of where the vampire squid lives.

Kraken: well… why do you want to know?

Bob: I would like to study him.

Kraken: what are you studying him for?

Bob: I just want one suction cup from his tentacle.

Kraken: well, how exactly do you plan to extract that suction cup from his person?

Bob: I don’t know, what do you think?

Kraken: well,,, you could ask him for one, something like “excuse me mr. vampire squid I don’t mean to bother you or anything but do you think I could have a suction cup to study, maybe you might have one that fell off yesterday that you don’t need anymore?”, and maybe he will give you one.

Bob: Ok, I’ll try that thanks!

Off Bob swims, deeper and deeper into the depths when he happens to bump into something in the deep darkness of the ocean deep. And it proceeds to squirt some weird stuff that glows for 10 minutes (mark’s part).

V. Squid: EEEEEeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhhh!!! Wha-wha, whaaaaat do you want???

Bob: (in a mean voice) I have come to get a suction cup!!!

V Squid: stuttering how do you mean to get that sucker??

Bob: Oh, uh, can I please have a sucker?

V. Squid: Well, I…uh….don’t know

Bob: The Kraken told me that you might have an extra one you’re not using??

V. Squid: Well, I suppose I have one that’s a little loose on one of my back arms. Why do you want it?

Bob: I just want to study it.

V Squid: for what purposes exactly? Do you want to find a cure for some disease? Like find some medicinal something or what, is it study in the name of science, or historical research. Are you a marine biologist?

Bob: yes, I am a biologist and I want to study it in my laboratory.

V. Squid: but for what purposes do you want to study my spare sucker?

Bob: well… I want it to give to the Amazing Kraken!

V. Squid: What?! What would that old kraken want with one of my old shriveled up suckers??

Bob: (stammering) well…, he, uh, collects them.

V.Squid: ok , well if you say so, here wait, let me pull it off, uhn uhn, urghgh , ouch! Alright here ya go.

Bob: thanks so much!!

Bob swims back up to the kraken and says, “Oh Great Amazing Kraken I have brought you this sucker from the elusive vampire squid!”

Kraken: What!? I didn’t say I wanted one of his suckers! Why would I want some nasty old vampire squid sucker that was falling off anyway??

Bob: well… you have a collection of suckers.

Kraken: What?! I don’t have a sucker collection!! Where did you hear that? Who told you that?

Bob: oh well, I guess I makeded that up (mark exact quote)

Kraken: Maybe you should take it to your boss up in the under sea cave.

Bob: alright thanks!

Bob and John return in their submersible to their headquarters and Bob tells the boss all about what he saw.

Bob: Well would you like to see the movie I made of the deep sea life?

Boss: yes, yes I would love to

He watches and says<,” Wow that is quite amazing you are really talented, do you realize that you may have footage here that no one on earth has ever seen or filmed before??

Bob: Yes, I am a biologist and I study the sea, I work with Gilly (Gilly is a real Humboldt squid specialist that mark learned about from his National Geographic squid dvd that he got from his grandma and granddaddy).

Boss: Wow! you actually worked with Professor Gilly?

Bob: yes I was with him when he tagged and measured all the red devil squids. I study squids, octopuses, vampire squids and cuttlefish.

Boss: wow that is really impressive!

Bob: and even the red devil!

Boss: you must have the most incredible stories.

Bob: Yes, I have 5 stories.

Bob: (he holds up his thumb) Story number 1: One nite I went out after a morning evening and went deep under the dark water. I brushed up against something and it then blew a bunch of stuff on me that glowed for 10 mintues. And it had ear-like fins and 2 eyes that went like this (he shows his eyes slowly closing like the V. Squid’s photophores).

Story #2: I was swimming at nite one nite and I was deep down in the dark and I saw a little light that seemed to be dangling from a string. I went close up to it and thought it was so pretty. AND then huge teeth closed down on me and I was inside his tummy. Then when I turned the light on in his belly I saw lots of little things with white wings, mouths on their heads and teeth on their tongues (real sea angels).

Story #3: I went diving in the deep sea another time and I saw this strange creature with tentacles on it’s head (piglet squid) and I think it was talking to me, it said something like, “squlslu sdlfi j jmwh osdfiumritjw” which translated means, “hey, do you know where the bathroom is down here?” (that is almost an exact quote, give or take a pronoun)

Story #4: I was diving and I saw this very strange looking fish that was swimming very very fast and had this weird fin around the front of his body and went like this (he motions his hands in an undulating fashion) I thought it might be a squid or an octopus but it wasn’t, it wasn’t an angler fish or a gulper eel, it was a cuttlefish!

Story #5: One time I was scuba diving and I saw a fast moving thing and it squirted a cloud of ink right at me. It was a red devil squid.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gazing into the face of Terpsichore

Gazing into the Face of Terpsichore

By Lisa A. Thomas

We often hear about the classical Muse Terpsichore, the one who delights in the dance, the mother of the Sirens, Greek counterpart to the more serious Saraswati of Indian lore. She is an elusive deity, one who only appears in rare and quite unpredictable instances. Perhaps we glimpse her during the ecstasy of a child dancing, in a thumping nightclub, at a music concert and even sometimes onstage at a dance concert. But very rarely does the slippery goddess show up in the tedium of day to day dance training, when the “sport” of what we do behind the walls of our studios renders Terpsichore useless. I suspect she pales at what she finds there and flies away as fast as she can.

As a dance educator for the past 25 years only rarely have I glimpsed the Muse in her purest most delighted manifestation. Discipline, tradition and self-control predominate our highest levels of dance training. This is certainly the case where I teach: a pre-professional performing arts high school in a small rural town in Virginia. Our students partake of a daily regimen of technique classes ranging from Ballet, Pointe, Variations, Horton-based Modern, Pas de Deux, and Jazz as well as a full course of academics. All of these technique classes require a dedicated practice and constant monitoring of development and progress in order to succeed in one of the most competitive fields in society. More often than not Terpsichore evades us here and in the midst of tears and frustration due to injuries, casting, competitiveness, and self-doubt, we begin to wonder if she will ever grace us with her presence.

However the one classroom where the Muse seems to visit and stay with us for the entire period is in our Improvisation class. At the beginning of the year, all the new students enter this class with trepidation and apprehension. I can hear their panicked thoughts “Oh, God please don’t make me just DANCE, without any structure!” So I give them a thin structure, a safety rope to hold onto until they feel secure enough to allow the Muse to enter through them. And sure enough it happens, every year I watch, with tears in my eyes, these gorgeous forms exploring this new terrain with such fearlessness and commitment and this is when my faith in the elusive magic of what we are all doing here enters into the space and I gaze directly into the face of Terpsichore. These young bodies who had previously been constricted, bound and tight begin to uncoil like ferns and release into movements of such beauty, grace, and articulation that anyone who happens to enter the classroom invariably remarks with tears in their eyes as well, “What is going on here? I have never seen them move like this!! It’s beautiful!” It’s Dance, I reply.

In a field where growth and development are crucial my Improvisation class can seem like a wrench thrown into the works. My students work diligently and tirelessly to stretch, strengthen, and lengthen their bodies into that mold of the classical ballet dancer. They are consistently given images and concepts that dictate the norms of most classically based technical training. Then comes my class where I ask them to throw out all of their training, all their preconceived ideas of what it means to dance. I have three hard rules for my Improv class: 1. 100% commitment while dancing, never are you allowed to come out of the performance of what you are doing. 2. No judging, yourself nor others. 3. Do not look in the mirror. I encourage them to discard all of their known vernaculars, I tell them I don’t want to see ballet, modern, and jazz or hip-hop moves that they saw on “So You Think You Can Dance” last night. I demand that they find their own voice and innovate new ways of moving. In doing this I start by giving them a tool box and telling them that they will have to fill this toolbox with ideas, tricks, and methods that they will then be able to bring to their regular training. I am usually met with a lot of blank stares or confused looks and then as I guide them through very simple exercises I see them begin to loosen up, the longer I have them go the more they release into their own movement. We explore qualities, space, time and anatomy, some of which is informed by Laban. We explore each other’s bodies and learn how to manipulate and support each other. I attempt to take them backwards through time when movement was a delight, a discovery and a rush. As long as they are getting direction they seem to be fine. Eventually throughout the year I slowly begin to withdraw the safety rope until the studies become longer and longer and that’s when Terpsichore enters the space.

When I was a young dancer I abhorred Improvisation. Just to hear the word gave me a flash of nausea. I was forced to improvise my way through undergraduate college life and hated every moment of it. That is not to say I hated going to clubs or dancing with my friends in their living rooms but it was this touchy feely sort of institutional Improvisation that I disdained so much, it smacked of stinky, hairy men and women in loose fitting clothes rolling around on each other while exhaling audibly. I craved “serious” training and for me this was anything but that. Later when I was dancing for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble we had the honor of working with Dianne McIntyre for a year on a project that she had spent her life’s work on. She is, in my opinion, the Improvisation Queen. She channels Terpsichore on a daily basis and it was through my work with her and the other dancers that I made breakthroughs that would forever change the way I looked at Improvisation and dance in general. She gave me my first toolbox that I continue to use to this day. She was highly demanding and could see the potential in all of us and knew how to draw it out of us. We worked with live musicians and learned what Jazz musicians do when they improvise. We played until we thought we might all keel over from exhaustion and it was in these relentless hours that I slammed up against walls within myself that I knew either needed to be surmounted or I had to give up. I remember we were at Jacob’s Pillow getting ready to perform a concert where we were to premier McIntyre’s piece Too Much in Love. We were rehearsing in the small studio next to the barn, I was dancing with Gary Lewis and Michael Medcalf in a section that was particularly grueling, Dianne was yelling directives at us when suddenly I entered into an alternate space, I couldn’t hear her anymore, I could only see and feel Gary and Michael as I sensed this force that carried my body into impossible positions. I was no longer dancing of my own accord; I had somehow been carried away by something. Afterwards Gary and I sat outside in the shade of the trees, huffing and puffing and staring at each other in silence, not quite understanding what had happened. I am still not quite sure what happened that day but the intensity of its force and the pervasiveness of its presence leads me to believe that it was none other than Terpsichore herself.

I carry these moments into my classroom today and I take the lessons that worked for me, the incredible time I spent with people like Dianne McIntyre, Cleo Parker Robinson and Marceline Freeman and I transmit them to my students. I know that the power I experienced that day at Jacob’s Pillow is real and I know because I have seen my students’ journey through it. As part of my Improvisation class I have implemented a culminating lesson that they are asked to participate in as their final project. Several years ago I conceived of a human sculpture exhibit where my dancers are posing as slowly moving statuary in art galleries, museums, and event spaces. It has evolved into an event called Living Sculpture: Bodies Transforming Space. This event has become the final “exam” for my class. Usually the exhibit lasts two hours and the dancers are permitted to enter and exit the space whenever they feel the need. My only requirement is that they stay fully committed to their performance the entire time they are on the floor. One of the first times we did this event was at a small multi-media space belonging to my friend and collaborator Beth Deel called the Water Heater in Roanoke, VA as part of the 40/40 Arts Festival. I didn’t know what to expect, but when audience members began milling into the gallery, the dancers transformed into magical creatures. I was awestruck. I felt like an alchemist who throws elements into a pot and waits to see what happens and when the mixture reduces down and the shining nugget of gold lies there in the pot I feel shock, as if this wasn’t what I was trying to get at all along. The exhibit is structured the same as an art exhibit, viewers are encouraged to walk through the space, come and go as they please, talk, converse, and interact if desired. I have now done six of these events at different spaces and consistently I am blown away. The dancers always stay out on the floor for the entire two hours performing at full tilt. When I conclude the event they are always effusive, ecstatic and exclaiming that it didn’t feel like it was two full hours. That’s what happens when Terpsichore visits us, we lose all sense of time, space and effort.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Last night I was telling Mark a bedtime story, he is still only interested in stories that have a scary part. So I tell him about a scary dream I had when I was 5 years old. When I told him that the story was about me when I was 5 years old Mark says "I wish I could see you when you were 5 years old now."