this is where my memory goes static:

writing excerpt and experience by Iris Ridley

I am onstage, mid performance, stuck in time. It is the first weekend of August 2019, mid-morning and the sticky heat hums outside the Schaeffer Theater. The stage is proscenium-style, crafted to section off everything in performance from the outside world, to cast in darkness the shadows of society, even as choreography hints at these very social processes. I sit downstage left, intimately close to the stage’s threshold, the thin barrier of space between me and a handful of fellow interns, dancers, my best friend who’s visiting from college, and three judges: renowned dance artists and teaching faculty for the professional training program. Today is the New Works Showcase, a daytime Saturday performance in which twelve students, their names chosen from a randomized hat picking process, present works created from scratch during the last three weeks of the festival. This works-in-progress show is an integral element within the wider ritual process of the program, taking place every year since the festival’s founding in 1984. On this day I am performing in my friend (and fellow intern) Lindsey’s piece, with six other dancers, Emerald, Phoebe, Natalie, Jessica, Libby, and Kaya, all of us in our early twenties. Lindsey has fittingly named this piece “this is where my memory goes static.” We have had roughly four hours of rehearsal together to make this 5 minute dance, which is a small sketch to inspire her future thesis work. “This is where my memory goes static” is loosely about dissociation. Lindsey explains to us that she is interested in abstractly exploring the sensation of being in a kind of fugue state where you don’t notice time is passing, you feel lethargic and apathetic, you are disconnected and detached from your mind and body, almost as if dismembered. This loose theme is grounded in and inspired by some of Lindsey’s own experiences (although she doesn’t talk about them directly), but the movement comes from us all; a few phrases are her own choreography, but most come from improvisatory exploration with later becomes set material. During our first rehearsal we develop our “billow phrase,” which eventually becomes the focal point in this piece about lack-of-focus: we clump together, in contact with one another via hand to shoulder, pausing to breathe together before scattering, set off on our own energetic journeys, like neurons firing frantically around an overactive brain. We use our own choreographed solo movement, a series of varying falls and reaches and lurches, to bring us off-center. Our paths sometimes intersect; sometimes we miss each other. We explore weaving in and out of group spatial arrangements, surprised by spontaneous moments of collective pause, sudden rhythmical shifts (“ba-dum” is how we describe one moment; a “collective sneeze” is another). Towards the end of the piece, there is a “geriatric rolling sequence” where three of us, as slowly as possibly, wriggle and fold ourselves horizontally across the stage from right to left. After this sequence, I am supposed to stop, lying in a fetal position, unmoving, while fast and furious sweeping movements take the other dancers diagonally across the stage from both left and right. I am meant to count in my head, keeping my own sense of time despite the almost monotonous droning techno and string based score in the background, waiting for a moment when I see one of the dancers out of the corner of my eye, so I know to sit up, make a tiny shift towards doing this really slow solo of lots of little gestures which will work to ‘show’ dissociation. I’ve felt most nervous about this solo from the beginning; all along I’ve been unable to wrap my head around the order and been unable to imagine myself performing it onstage. All I have to do is stand up, stir the air with my fist, unfurl my fingers, raise my arms above my head, fall backwards, get back up again, then reverse the sequence. But suddenly, in that moment on stage, I can’t do any of it. I can’t tell which point in the music we’re at, can’t see the dancer’s motion out of the corner of my eye, can’t see anything but a blank in front of me. Soon I realize that the music has ended, and it feels like 50 years have passed. I stand up, stir the space with my fist, feeling a fizzling panic awaken in my body. What just happened? I fucked up completely, I think. I go off stage immediately running to apologize to Lindsey, red-faced and bewildered. “Don’t worry”, she said, “it was so compelling.” When the judges comment on the piece, all three say that they saw the mood and feeling of the piece erupt in “the character of the still dancer in the corner at the end:” “I wanted her to stay still longer,” one judge says. I am so surprised by this lapse, and even more surprised that it was interpreted as completely intentional and evocative. I am shocked that I simultaneously went “off-script” and, subconsciously ended up paradoxically embodying the spirit of that script. For about two weeks after the performance, and still today, I’m overwhelmed by thinking about this moment as some kind of error, feeling embarrassed to have transgressed the rules. It’s only after thinking about it for some time that I begin to take comfort in what happened. It wouldn’t have transpired if the very dissociation the piece expressed hadn’t arisen in my body during the process and the performance, if I had not felt consumed and transformed by the subject matter, if I had not been transported into a sphere of overwhelming ekstasis, held suspended in and out of time, in and out of my body.

In spontaneous moments such as the emergent “mistake” in the performance described above, there is unpredictability, humanness, aliveness, an effervescent affect. I certainly felt ekstasis in this moment, though I only realized this after the fact: I was hypnotized by my own body frozen in space, by the mood of the piece, by everything both outside of and inside of my being. With this anecdote I also aim to show how ekstasis differs from ecstasy; ekstasis does not just describe joy as ecstasy does, rather, is evocative of heightened embodied sensation and presence in general, rather than a specific mood or emotional response. This performance “mistake” keeps nagging at me because it was such a surprising moment of oh yes, this is what dance does. This is how it makes me feel. It arrests and seizes instants, suspends time, and produces affects we cannot anticipate until they happen. Performances are liminal entities, existing viscerally, only in the here-and-now; they are thus full of subjunctive potential not yet realized. Even as they are meticulously planned and rehearsed, there always exists the thrill of the unknown.