Here’s something I don’t usually say: I majored in theatre. Normally, I opt for the also-true: I studied playwriting. But, really, the first gives a more complete picture. Like all the other playwrights, directors, designers, and stage managers in our program, I took classes in acting, in movement, in voice. I took stage combat where I learned to pretend to fight with a rapier and dagger. I took stage makeup where I learned to give myself realistic-looking wounds and bruises using latex and pancake makeup. I was no good at any of this. Worst of all was anything that involved me moving my still-awkward, recently post-adolescent body across a stage. The problem, according to the acting faculty, was that my brain got in the way.
At one point, I remember worrying myself into near-paralysis trying to remember whether it was natural to walk with arms and legs in opposition (right arm with left leg) or in tandem (right with right). Flummoxed, I wrongly opted for the later and went across the stage like some kind of retarded marionette.
This total incapacity for movement when I think anyone else is watching is my point of entry into Renée D’Aoust’s new book Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press). Unlike me, D’Aoust (pronounced “Dao”), who trained at the elite Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, is competent of mind and body. Her book is a series of essays that chronicles her immersion in New York’s strange world of modern dance.
To call this a memoir is reductive. It is a history of modern dance, a critique of Martha Graham, a rendering of the world of dance both inside and outside the studio. It is a memoir too, of course—D’Aoust’s own journey into and, eventually, out of the physically and emotionally arduous world of Graham’s modern gives the book its larger structure—but it is more than that. D’Aoust is not enough of a prima donna, it seems, to limit herself to the traditional constraints of memoir. Instead, a testament to her generosity as a writer, she spends much of her own memoir in the wings, ceding center stage to often tragic, often beautiful, always frank and fleshy renderings of the lives of the dancers around her.
In an essay called “Daniela Can Fly,” an Argentinian dancer leaps from the fifth floor window of her apartment. Leaps, not jumps. Flies, really, as the title suggests. D’Aoust goes out of her way to clarify that this is not a cry for help, hardly even a suicide attempt. It is an insane extension of the insane rigors of the dance. We see Daniela again later in the book, out of the wheelchair and back in the studio. This isn’t romanticized.
None of the people are romanticized. Ted, the subject of a later essay, “Holy Feet,” left Lutheran ministry in the Midwest to study modern in New York City. D’Aoust takes us with him on his new mission to bring modern to the masses. He could be, D’Aoust says, Lear’s fool, “the wisest one around,” and, like much of the book, Ted is comical in ways that subvert trope. The closest D’Aoust comes to lionizing a dancer is Liz, who, in “Theatrical Release,” succeeds where Daniela has failed. She uses a rope. It is a chilling moment, Greek tragedy to Ted’s Shakespearean comedy. The eulogy for Liz is deftly interwoven with the narrative of D’Aoust’s work alongside her and others in the well-known Kevin Wynn Collection, a professional high point for D’Aoust.
What makes this stylistic range possible is that D’Aoust approaches it all with a clear, steady gaze. Her prose is straightforward, even as it reaches toward lyricism. She avoids the clichés about dance and dancers, often going out of her way to unmake them. The second essay in the book, “Graham Crackers” begins with a line of dancers jumping across a crusted patch of dried blood on the floor.
Spilled blood,” D’Aoust writes, “is a regular occurrence in a Graham class. Since modern dancers dance barefoot, often the skin tears or burns from the pressure of contact with the floor. If there’s blood, Kristi gets the rubbing alcohol and paper towel and wipes the floor. She never uses gloves.”
D’Aoust studied at the Graham Center during the early 90s, “at the beginning of AIDS.” This is in the mix too.
Writing about dance, D’Aoust must render the physical movements with precision and clarity on the page. And she does, as in this moment, from “Theatrical Release”:
I had to drop to my knees at the same moment Stef kicked over my head; if our timing was off, Stef would kick me in the head or, worse, the neck. I waited as long as possible to duck, daring Stef to kick too soon, and Stef smiled, her legs so long, so powerful, she controlled me with her limbs. After I ducked, I reached both arms overhead. Stef pulled hard, while I jumped, from a crouch up into her arms.”
And, from “Island Rose”:
I brought my right leg down, made a quick turn while curving my arms overhead in Fifth position, took a step, and repositioned myself solidly into the same stretched, tilted shape. Every cell of my being reached through and beyond my arms, my legs, the theatre walls. All else was appendage. The center was the whole.”
The writing feels kinesthetic, beginning in D’Aoust’s own physical memory of the movement—in the deep places of the body, the spine and the gut—and expanding out toward the lyrical.
By the end of the book, D’Aoust has left Graham. She has left professional dance altogether, but her rift with Graham feels more pointed. In “Dream of the Minotaur,” she returns years later to see a performance by the Graham Company. She remarks that she is shocked by the ugliness and angularity of it all, by the lack of flight.
Modern now has too much irony, or maybe just cynicism, but it is especially hard to think where so much head-banging and meta-commentary can go but down into the dirt and into more earthbound movement.”
She is longing for ballet, of course, where she began as a dancer, long before New York and the Graham Center. But she is also longing for a version of modern made more in the image of Isadora Duncan than of Graham.
D’Aoust’s prose—and her book—exists between these poles. There is Graham in her language: bodily and plainspoken. There is Duncan in her scope: lyrical and large. A book about modern dance should inhabit this very pull between gravity and flight, between grit and grace. It is the beauty and problem of the form, and D’Aoust stands at the intersection taking the better impulses from both.
For those of us who do well to lurch across the stage, it is a particular pleasure to see all of this through D’Aoust’s eyes, to experience it through her physical memory. It is an exercise in physical and literary grace, an affirmation of the possibility of beauty in an age of irony.
*Full disclosure: Besides being a fantastic writer, D’Aoust is a colleague and a friend.