Exploring the Choreography of Everyday Life

This story was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Duke Magazine. Explore the rest of the issue.

As Courtney Liu ’13 walks away from the Ark on a cool and cloudy fall day, she considers the class in which she has just participated. She had been asked to sink into the floor of the Ark, the smooth gray floor on which over the years thousands of the best dancers in the world had moved. To sink even through that floor, into the earth beneath. She had been asked to stack her vertebrae one on another, to attune her skin to changes in temperature, and then to perceive warmth and light as if it exerted gravity, and to move toward it.

She had done snail eyes, in which she was to ask her senses to coalesce, to turn away from the light, and then to reach, stretching out like snail eyes, toward the darkness, after which she was to connect with it. With a few other graduate students, teachers, and visitors—Liu is part of the first cohort of graduate students in the brand-new Duke M.F.A. in dance—she had moved in the Ark: twirled, hopped, crept, rolled, writhed, and bent, gracefully. Liu is, after all, a classically trained ballet dancer. She has danced professionally as a member of the company of Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. She has toured Europe in Swan Lake. She has danced with the Rockettes.

She had enjoyed the class, Liu says as she thoughtfully walks behind the buildings that line the East Campus quad. “But I’m not sure that it’s dance.”

MFA director Michael Klien directs his work “Parliament.” All photos by Chris Hildreth for Duke Magazine.

Given that M.F.A. director Michael Klien, associate professor of the practice of dance, who teaches the class, talks less about kicks and pirouettes than about encoding reality, perhaps that’s a fair point. The title of the M.F.A. in which Liu is enrolled is, after all, “The Master of Fine Arts in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis,” which does not instantly radiate, say, the boot-scoot boogie. Klien and the M.F.A. fit into a movement in dance called social choreography; the program’s website expresses its principles when it says the degree is “dedicated to embodied knowledge and practice-led movement discourses,” and “endorses dance as a politically, socially, and spiritually transformative force in society.”

Okay, so that’s dance? Then what’s the electric slide? Which is to ask, what is dance, anyway? How does it move from place to place? What is its job?

These are far from rhetorical questions. They’re at the foundation of not just the new M.F.A. but also of dance itself, and the students engage them willingly. Liu’s wondering about whether Klien’s exercise was dance or not was not passing judgment—she wasn’t looking scornfully at the exercises she had participated in, wasn’t dismissing them. She was thinking aloud. She has danced at some of the highest levels of her profession, and the approach the M.F.A. takes is challenging her assumptions.

“There are so many expectations about what the body has to look like,” Klien had said of traditional dance culture during the class they just finished. For example, “the pointed foot is so important” in ballet, modern dance, and almost all dance disciplines. Then he paused: “I’ve never had anybody telling me why the pointed foot is better than the nonpointed foot.”

Good point, though that’s only a tiny specific, and in fact it’s the type of question Liu herself has raised in her own practice. But the questions the program asks are more foundational. Klien’s demand in the exercise—that Liu and the other dancers find their own movements, express themselves through motion, embody their emotions—differed strongly from Liu’s background. “You do what you’re told,” is how she describes her life as a professional dancer. “You’re a paintbrush of the choreographer.” You’re following directions, which underscores the importance of the technical skill of the dancer but raises the same issues about dance that Klien raises. “Even if teachers don’t want it to be this way,” Liu says, traditional “dance class ends up being a lot less creative than dancing at a wedding.” She enjoyed the creative challenge of Klien’s exercise, but it still felt like “the skill part was missing.”

Duke Dance Program Website

In the sparkling sunlight of the lobby of the Rubenstein Arts Center, Klien folds his six-and-a-half-foot frame into one of the somewhat comfortable chairs and settles down to talk about what dance has as its job and how the new program at Duke is perfectly placed to examine that. Skill is important, but dance is a lot more than technical skill.

“Dance is a social technology,” Klien says. “That is the core principle of dance.”

Dance is physicality—dance is motion, whether choreographed or not. Klien, from Austria, notes that when he moved to the United States he needed to consider even a new way of standing. In Europe, people tend to stand statically, on two feet; in the United States, he observes, people are more likely to stand primarily on one leg or another, to cock their hips, shifting weight, moving around. That’s dance. The way we arrange ourselves in a group is dance; the way we do or do not invade one another’s kinosphere—the space your body takes up, the length of your reach—is dance.

As he says, dance encodes reality. “For example, how we think about gender, about production, about the relation of the individual to the collective.”

All of these are encoded in our gaits, in our postures, in our ways of moving. It’s not even encoded, he says: “It’s literally merging,” changing constantly. It’s foundational human expression and movement, going back to fundamental behaviors like animal movement and birdsong, but we’ve lost track of it. Every aspect of our existence is affected by our physicality. We’re animals, embodied beings who exist in physical space, but “we’ve developed this very profound blind spot,” Klien says, “that pretends we’re not.” His practice of dance, his decades of choreography, express those relationships through movement.

“My work is to strip back the initial social agreements that are very ancient,” he says, addressing everything from how far apart we stand to “the way we sit on normative furniture heights.” Academia and modern life treat us as if our bodies “just carry the head from one meeting to the next.”

As the title of the M.F.A. program states, he’s against that notion of disembodied intellect. Embodiment, full experience of the body and all its complicated relations, is the core of his practice. Klien arrives at Duke in the middle of a life full of study and practice, having received his degrees in dance in England and Scotland and choreographed for companies all over the world, commonly developing improvisational pieces with dancers. “I’m very interested in the thinking body and what the body can think to, this notion of what a body can do. Not in theory or on paper, but what a body can really do.”

Klien’s work with the students runs the gamut from pure move-by-move choreography to less organized, more organic movements like those in Liu’s class, always challenging perceptions. If your body expresses your reality, what does that tell you? A culture that spends our time in automobiles and behind desks, sitting passively or staring at screens even as we walk, we demonstrate our culture with our gaits, with our posture. “Every era moves differently,” he says; if we could see how our grandparents moved it would look odd to us, as ours would to coming generations. He sees our current moment as a mess: Neoliberal capitalism has begun collapsing, the climate is in crisis, we’re all at each other’s throats. But that raises a dance question: “How should we move? In response to everything going to pot? What are the strategies we should take?” He sees movement as part of the solution. “If we start moving differently, everything else will give.”

He’s not alone. Lecturing fellow of cultural anthropology Katya Weselowski shares the sentiment. “One of the things when I teach medical anthropology, we really begin with the body,” she says. She quotes French sociologist Marcel Mauss as claiming in “Techniques of the Body” that he “could tell a Frenchman by the way he walks down the street.” As a dorm mom to aspiring dancers, she felt the same way: “I used to be able to see from a distance if someone was a ballet student.” A certain erectness of carriage, a placement of foot or leg, and it was obvious who was who. “The way they would walk” gave them away, she says. Her own research has focused on capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian combination of dance, game, and combat vital to the culture in Brazilian favelas. She became interested in the dance as ritual and symbolic behavior and then became interested in the body itself. “The body is not just a biological entity; it’s a cultural entity,” she says. “And the way we move is culturally learned.”

That works both ways, according to Sarah Wilbur, assistant professor of the practice in dance. A dance performer and a researcher into topics ranging from the relationship funding has to performance and the way dance is perceived, she says that being in dance “is a gateway to larger discussions about the body’s motions and interactions.” The body, as it moves through space, not only represents our culture; it creates it.

“We are making the world every day when we go out and move through it,” she says. “Your movement makes the world.”

An example she gives is the pose American World Cup soccer player Megan Rapinoe struck after her goal against France in the 2019 quarterfinals. Rapinoe stood, opened her arms wide, and blithely smiled, in a gesture that was instantly memed—and copied on the streets. “There’s a new gesture where women are opening their arms and standing,” Wilbur says. “It doesn’t take long for gestures to become viral.”

And going back to Klien’s point, a woman who stands like that is going to be a different woman from one who walks or stands in culturally standard ways for women. Klien also points out the image of the dancer atop the bronze bull statue created by AdBusters for the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. That dancer is not just making a cultural statement—she’s making culture. “Dance,” Klien says, “encodes a lot of our reality into movement relations.” Our bodies are not only cultural entities that make the world through movements: They encode reality.

This gives dance a greater context. Dance isn’t just the conga line at a wedding, what those people do on Dancing With the Stars, a thin woman in a black leotard doing “A Dance to Spring” in a Jules Feiffer cartoon. It’s how you stand when you talk to your boss, it’s your eleven-year-old playing Fortnite, learning the game’s avatars’ dance moves (“emotes,” they’re called within the game), and dancing them himself in the living room. And then seeing, say, the Floss at the next wedding, or performed by a running back as part of a touchdown celebration. Dance moves through the culture, creates the culture, is the culture.

A “Parliament” takes place in the Von Der Heyden theatre as part of a story on the Duke Dance MFA in Duke Magazine.

The first cohort of M.F.A. students brings with it an openness to this understanding. Eight students, all women, most women of color, come from a variety of backgrounds—and all, like Liu, are looking at more than just performance choreography. Ayan Felix says her understanding of dance has been expanded even in her first term. As a practicing dancer in Houston, she was constrained to “two avenues: concert dance, or commercialized dance.” Even dance programs that address public issues usually limit themselves “to community service or some kind of children’s program.”

At Duke, instead, “this program is asking important questions, like how do we want artists to respond to the world? And what can that really mean for the future: of the dance, and the dancer being responsible for the world?” As an undergraduate, she studied science, and “especially coming from a neuroscience background, I like to think my creative process is still fairly within the get-a-hypothesis, test-the-hypothesis scientific method.” She came to the program with an interest in physical spaces for African-American creative people to comfortably come together, a type of space she’d found in Houston. In Durham she’s found herself thinking about the legacy of highways like Highway 147 on the Black community and how difficult it is for people without cars to move around. “I’m really thinking about how we transport bodies to places of comfort,” she says, and she expects her research to address that issue.

Duke Dance Program Website

Courtney Liu is having a similar experience. A psychology major as a Duke undergraduate, she danced here and even developed a program for Durham children who had been exposed to domestic violence to use dance as a way to process their emotions. “Especially with something like violence,” she said, “dance seems like an interesting counter to that in that it’s physical: It allows us to get a physicality in a different way.” She loves the M.F.A. program’s focus on that embodiment, on “potentially showing people a different way of moving in the world generally. That’s what dance does: It explores these things.” While working as a touring dancer, she came to ponder questions about dancer’s bodies and began independently interviewing dancers about body image in ballet, and what a dancer was supposed to look like. Then she attended her fifth Duke reunion and was inspired to think about research of her own.

“I was on tour, and I didn’t have these intellectual outlets,” she recalls, so she got started. First she volunteered with refugees, but once she found some space in her schedule, she started interviewing fellow dancers. “In the year after my reunion, I’ve done thirty interviews with professional dancers,” she says. When she saw the Duke M.F.A. announced, it felt like time to head back to Duke. “It is really the only interdisciplinary M.F.A. [in dance] in the country,” she says.

Duke dance MFA student Ayan Felix poses under highway 147.

Exactly, says Scott Lindroth, then Duke vice provost for the arts (now returned to the music department): The new M.F.A. perfectly expresses how Duke’s interdisciplinary reputation no longer applies just to more research-oriented fields. “You think about bigger questions,” he says. When arts were their own “self-enclosed entity, they “tended to keep us isolated.” But that interdisciplinary approach “does affect how the arts are positioned in a research university,” he says. “How is it legible or not to someone who is not in the field?” And Lindroth sees the M.F.A., with its focus on praxis—that is, application of understanding—rather than simple practice, as “a way of differentiating what we do with dance versus what other schools do.”

Klien talks about academia treating people as though their bodies are merely transportation units for their brains. The focus on embodiment turns the body itself into “a tool to understand the social contract, to understand individual freedom and how we form these relations and how those relations change.”

Events during 2019 demonstrated that focus. They included “The Dancing Species: Human Bodily Movement and the Fate of the Earth,” for example, in which dancer and scholar Kimerer LaMothe addressed the way humans use dance to create relationships, among themselves and with nature. Israeli dancer and scientist Asaf Bachrach came, too, and at a presentation in the Ark called “Improvising Science: Research as Practice,” he explained that he thinks of dance “as a research protocol; thinking of dance as a tool rather than as an object, which is not a trivial distinction.” He spoke about using science to study the way dancers improvise but also using improvisation as a model for understanding and doing science: dancing through science, you might say. An Ark full of undergraduate students, mostly science majors taking a dance course, listened raptly.

Barbara Dickinson, professor emerita of dance and for eighteen years director of the Duke dance program, finds the new direction of the program “interesting and also mind-bending.” When Klien was hired in 2017, he still had performances scheduled in Europe, so he visited and used Skype as she cotaught with him a course called “Dancing States of Mind: The self—social and political practice of dance.”

“Just trying to twist my head around understanding that way of movement” was a challenge, she says, but “I found it also incredibly inspiring and interesting.” She’s quick to point out that Duke dancers, M.F.A. or otherwise, don’t have to follow Klien’s lead. All styles of dance are taught, and dancers pursue any direction their interests and research lead them. But research is fundamental: “We want people who are trying to make a difference in the world and have already thought of projects as part of their application.”

Says Lindroth, “It’s a signature M.F.A. that kind of stands for what Duke’s trying to do.” Half the credits come from dance, and half from virtually anywhere else in the university, taking Duke’s interdisciplinary approach as foundational. Yes, dance, but applied to what else? Klien echoes that thought: “This whole thing should stew,” he says. “It’s a research university. There must be a good reason for it to be here.”

A “Parliament” takes place in the Von Der Heyden theatre as part of a story on the Duke Dance MFA in Duke Magazine.

A good example of the combination of Duke’s multidisciplinary approach and the practice of embodiment championed by Klien takes place right back in the Ark, as Susan Webb, a practicing psychiatrist and a student in the M.F.A. program, leads a group of premedical students in the Reimagining Medicine program, which encourages students heading toward health fields to think about suffering, healing, and the body in ways often overlooked in traditional medical training. For a workshop called “The Everyday Choreography of the Healer,” Webb greets the students at the door, giving them a history of the Ark, “a hallowed hall where many great acts of embodiment have occurred.” She invites them (sans shoes; Ark rules) to enter “silently, as a meditative act.”

Lest they fall into their habits of using their bodies as little more than transportation units for their brains, she says, “I invite you to enter as a mammal.” She encourages them to wander the space, and they do. They run, walk, open doors, try the window shade cords. On student stops halfway up the stairs, moving his feet along the ridges of a stair tread. Eventually they gather on cushions around a carpet, and she explains that their class will be “an experiment in choreography, not in the traditional sense.” She walks them through an exercise not dissimilar from Klein’s practice of sensory focus, urging them to release their gaze, “so you’re scanning the absolute gaze of the dancer…also the absolute gaze of the animal in the world.”

She asks them what choreography is, then explains that it’s not just a series of movements distilled to a pattern. The students sitting in a circle, Webb standing beside the circle, is choreography. “Choreography is ducks on a duck pond. Choreography is the cafeteria lady, and how she stands. It’s the constellation of movement, of stillness, of inanimate objects, of movement.” She has them get up and she leads them through a series of movements, asking them to move, then to read pieces of writing they’ve brought, then to run, and then to meditate. What she has planned to be a one-after-another series turns into a mixed, somewhat cacophonous mix of overlapping reading, running, and hula-hooping.

“This is an example,” she tells them afterwards, “of cocreative reality.” They’ve learned to be responsive to one another, to create a reality that works for them in the moment and place they are in.

After they’ve left the Ark, she explains. “I chose not to use the word ‘dance.’ I specifically did not invite them here to dance, yet no one could argue there was no dancing happening.” She’s thrilled with how the exercise went and how it fits into her own practice. Several decades older than most of her cohort, Webb danced throughout her life but never made it her exclusive focus. Then as she sought to find an alternative in her practice to what she perceived as the talkiness and stasis of psychoanalysis and the seeming sterility of psychopharmacology, she returned to dance, “to find a way to get people off psychotropic medicine and into their bodies.”

She became, she says, “an embodied psychiatrist,” then stops, delighted. “I’ve never called myself that before this minute, but it’s accurate.” Her e-mail signature reads, “If you just set people in motion, they’ll heal themselves.” Movement is already in use in healing (for Parkinson’s patients, for example), “and I’m interested in cultivating a movement method for health.” She also expects her research to engage the kind of movement she was teaching the premeds. “The doctor-patient relationship, the vulnerability of the healer, the other side of the equation. I’m interested in using art as a way into that.”

And as a result of her time in the program, she already feels changed in her practice. “He is presenting choreography in the most open, metaphysical kind of way,” she says of Klien. “Opening our minds to everything is choreography.” An assignment to look for patterns everywhere got her to focus on a group of geese she regularly sees. “That’s essentially choreography. There’s more dancing, there’s more patterns, there’s more choreography. I’m aware of any given life as choreography.”

Duke Dance Program Website

The Ark, another midday class. A group of M.F.A. students (including Liu and Webb), Klien, and an observer all stretch, move, prepare for class. As they warm up, Klien discusses a methodology he wants them to practice, and he refers to his reading decades previously Philosophy in the Flesh, a book by linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. “Our cognition is principally embodied,” Klien says. “Even linguistic” understanding is based on “an unconscious metaphorical system.” He notes how when we say something is hard to do, a dancer can embody that sense of something being hard: physically weighty, or durable, or immovable.

“My notion,” he tells them, “was can that be reverse engineered?” Can they make the dance create the experience? He has them think of a person they know, and through their movement create a conceptual shape in their kinosphere that represents that person. “That person is not in your head,” he says. “You have an embodied interaction with that person. Our cognition, according to Lakoff, has a shape. “Let’s unfold that kinetic sculpture.” They are to use their motions to express whether that shape is hard or soft, square, round, spiky, anything. Is the shape large or small, static or dynamic, approachable or repellent? He guides them through perception of the surface and the inside of the shape.

“I refer to that as a choreographic cell,” he says. “And you let them have their own life. It might be a fluffy ball of love but might turn into a spiky square—without you having control.” The understanding comes through the embodiment of that relationship. “When I started” the choreography for the exercise, decades ago, Klien says, “this was a real rational construction.” Now it’s far more experiential.

“You are your pattern,” he says. “It makes the universe more beautiful. Eventually, everybody’s on the dance floor with you.” Webb responds almost immediately: “Because everybody already is.” Every circle is a dance; every stride is a dance. Every pattern, every relationship is a dance, and dance is a way to understand.

A visitor nods, and notes that they’re on the same path: trying to figure out what dance is.

Courtney Crumpler, an M.F.A. student who spent six previous years in Brazil dancing as a street performer, not uncommonly on stilts, laughs.

“When you figure it out,” she asks, “will you tell us?”

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