The Self Zooms Through: Susan Rethorst’s Art & the Body’s Mind
I think of a hand slowly turning, fingers and wrist and arm held just so, as the palm unfurls in a presentational arc. I think of a chin ducking down, the shoulders and torso following in a quicksilver undulation that manages, somehow, to be both funny and sad—to mean, even as it does, and is.
I think of all the minute, inscrutable gestures, steps and stillnesses that make up a Susan Rethorst dance, all of the moments—not to mention the micro-spaces within and between those moments—that resist our lazy attempts at labeling, and thus dismissing: “Oh, I know what that is. I know what that’s all about.”
There is a security in labeling, one that robs us of fully experiencing. And it is false, anyway; of course we cannot ever know, not fully. But we can steal glances. We can press up against another, shiver at the power and promise of such fleeting proximity.
“That glimpse into an interior life—that’s what comes to your viewers when you follow your own work, what comes of making it yours,” Rethorst writes in “Don’t take my word for it,” the penultimate essay in her recent collection “A Choreographic Mind: Autobiographical Writings.” “That glimpse is to me one of life’s most profound gifts.”
Art is uniquely positioned to grant such a gift. If it’s really firing on all cylinders, and if you are as well when you happen upon it, the glimpse goes both ways, bringing you face to face with yourself, too. “WHAMO,” as Rethorst writes in “Dailiness,” the opening essay. There you are.
Susan Rethorst doesn’t make dances about things. Not as far as I can tell. By this I mean, there isn’t any point in going in with an idea of looking for the right ideas and themes, understanding her agenda, or “getting” it in general. So you can relax about all of that.
Sometime last summer, I was walking with my friend Yve from Abrons Art Center to a bar several blocks south of the theater. As we cut through one of those anonymous-looking, manicured apartment complexes that sit all over the city, Yve pointed up at the marquee, and there it was:
208-210-212 EAST BROADWAY
I took a picture.
Well, I couldn’t help it. 208 East Broadway!
It was the dance equivalent of a “Sex and the City” devotee stumbling across Carrie Bradshaw’s stoop (forgive the comparison, SR). I’d never been inside. But I knew this place.
I’d seen its contents on several occasions, in disparate locales: the handsome, clean-lined furniture; the floor lamp, if I remember right, casting a low haze; the plush upholstery and cushions. The choreographer’s belongings, now become the set, her address now the title of her dance: “208 East Broadway.”
And, of course, the women, their bodies arranging and rearranging themselves and each other, a moving feast of positions and spatial relationships. Not just what they do, but how, and when, and in juxtaposition to what and where. Women and wood, agency and object. I think of the closing lines from the August Kleinzahler poem, “Aubade on East 12th Street”:
raised hip and thigh
well-tooled as a rounded baluster
on a lathe of shadow and light.
And this in turn makes me think of a woman, a dancer, lying on her side, on one hip, her bent arm supporting her head. She is lying on Susan Rethorst’s table. And then I think of two other women, lying underneath a couch, which has been divested of its cushions. They are on their backs, their legs raised up through the blonde wood frame, individually and together forming the most marvelously just right curves and angles. These are straightforward things. And they are mysterious.
An aubade is a morning love song, often between parting lovers and often, as here, sung by a man to a sleeping woman. The women don’t exactly sleep in “208 East Broadway”; they are more like lucid dreamers, here and there saying something, or singing a line, but mostly doing the saying without making a sound. They are untroubled by men, by the male gaze; or, if they are troubled, they keep it to themselves. Their bodies form lines and corners, just so.
I thought of their just-so-ness (not to be confused with what Rethorst calls “just-this-ness,” though the two concepts are certainly related) when reading the title essay in her book. She talks of spatial maps, and of an “insomnia pastime” of hers, undertaken at her loft near the Hudson River. (The Hudson, East 12th Street, 208 East Broadway…another map.) She writes:
“The street was perpendicular to the river and my bed was parallel to the river, placed north-south, with my head to the north. When I couldn’t sleep, I would picture my friends in bed all over the city. Knowing their homes and where in their homes their beds were, knowing the streets of the city and its grid, I could lay them all out in relation to me—the river, their streets, the compass and each other, a map of more or less right angled sleepers.”
So many hips and thighs, raised or no. How simple. How perfectly just-so.
I am reading “A Choreographic Mind” in a coffee shop in Bergen, Norway. It is cold outside; I am drinking an almost-bitter hot chocolate. I am feeling far from home, and comforted by Rethorst’s discussion of the different aesthetics between Europeans and Americans, all of the submerged, unspoken but deeply felt differences. She is talking about dance, this American choreographer. But she is also talking about other things. You can take her narrow meaning, or you can plunge into the wider ones surrounding it; in this, it’s not so different from sinking into her dances. I keep wanting to say, if Susan Rethorst hadn’t become a choreographer, she would have become a writer. But this is a silly either/or: obviously, she became both. Lucky us.
She also became, at a very tender age, an inveterate watcher of people. Here, in this café, I keep interrupting myself to look at the woman sitting in the corner. How her palm cups her white mug, how her lips almost disappear below the nubbly edge of the soft blue turtleneck sweater she is snuggled into.
Reading this book makes me pay attention to movement, to postures and their adjustments—the way I notice colors upon exiting a hue-drenched Pedro Almodóvar film: the luscious red of those tomatoes, the luscious red of those lips.
“Pleasure and rigor are not mutually exclusive,” Rethorst writes.
Yes. So many of her sentences solicit this sort of response: Yes. The way that her dances delight in the ineffable thingness of bodies, her writing delights in the thingness of words, how they signify but are also gloriously, improbably themselves. Sense and sensibility. Plainspoken, unapologetic, highly personal smarts out the whazoo. The connection between her choreographic and writing selves is so clear, so strong—what a relief to encounter, especially in a time when so many artists seem to have swallowed, wholesale, the notion that they must exude a certain by-the-books intellectualism on the page, so as to buttress, to justify, their art.
Rethorst is after another, truer sort of rigor: a sustained search of and for the self, leading to a space in which one feels confident enough to say not that or that, but this. As Rethorst writes, and as her dances so finely embody, it is a singular thing to arrive in this space—as an artist, an audience member, a human being. We do ourselves a grave disservice when we discount it.
“Painting can show us what is real by stimulating a kind of looking, a kind of awareness. This occurs when the road signs disappear. When the thinking and conceptual ego mind so desperate to ‘understand’ is defeated—then we begin to experience the image. Then we start to see. When there are no time limits and no soundtracks we start to see. When there are no headphones to tell us what to think or when to move to the next painting, then we see. Paintings live in time as an invitation to consciousness, and thus exist as a collaboration between painter and viewer.”
So writes the painter Chris Martin, in his terrifically good essay “Buddhism, Landscape, and the Absolute Truth about Abstract Painting.” He’s a New York artist, like Rethorst is (well, was—once a New Yorker, always, as they say, but now Philadelphia has lured her away. Lucky Philly.) Reading her book, I kept wondering if they knew each other, or had crossed paths. Regardless, they’re in the same artistic universe. Substitute “dance” for “painting” and you might be reading her, not him. The essential transaction is the same. There’s no wrong way to look—as long as you actually let yourself look. This, a lot of the time, is easier said than done.
Sometimes when I think of a Susan Rethorst dance, I see a body part in isolation, or an anonymous body. But often I am thinking of particular dancers, in whom her choreography tends to find its most powerful expression: artists like Vicky Shick or Jodi Melnick, whose bodies think so finely that the smallest adjustment carries heft and holds presence.
Like Rethorst, Shick and Melnick are choreographers who are also dancers. They are contemporary exemplars of a long, rich tradition of choreography; one that is heavily female, and tethered to an approach to dance that is based on the doing of it—that doesn’t seek a hard line, or a hard hierarchy, between craft and concept. That the two art forms (the dancing and the choreographing) are on equal terms in their work matters a great deal.
These may seem like obvious things to say—yes, yes, dances are made up of dancing, and yes, yes, this art form is dominated, in terms of sheer numbers, by female practitioners. But of course it isn’t that simple. Men in the minority here, still get the majority (of the money, the accolades, the attention, the positions of power). That good old glass escalator keeps on running.
And we’ve long since moved away from a time when choreography and dance were synonymous—when dances were necessarily made up of dancing. The rise of theory and academia within the dance world, the looming interest of the more culturally respected visual art world: these are, though fraught and problematic, healthy insertions. Change is good, change is necessary, and all that. “Dance right now (still, again, always) is full of re-definings, searches for new terms, new ways,” Rethorst writes. Yes. Good. Art forms, like artists, should stay agile, open to possibilities both within and without.
And yet. Dance (those who make it, anyway) is often so eager to toss itself out with the bathwater. “The ‘baby’ in this instance,” Rethorst writes on that same page, “is the ability of the body to think and the knowledge this thinking engenders and reveals to the cognitive mind.”
The thinking body: you see it in every moment of a Susan Rethorst dance. It’s astounding, really: how the smallest glance or gesture can come so laden with aliveness—with knowledge that can only be accessed in the body, and which exists prior to conceptual "invention." This, I think, is what makes her matter-of-fact works so bracing: the thinking body, in all its everyday and mysterious glory. There isn’t anything else like it.
And so this through-the-body tradition, made up mostly of women, is worth paying attention to. Not as a reactionary or anti-intellectual statement, but as a reminder of what dance can do, on its own.
“That glimpse into an interior life—that’s what comes to your viewers when you follow your own work, what comes of making it yours. That glimpse is to me one of life’s most profound gifts.”
This is what a Susan Rethorst dance can give you. Choosing to lean in, to stay present, stay awake, and really look—that’s what you can give it. WHAMO. A matching gift.
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