I first saw Jessica Sand dancing at a rehearsal of Lydia Johnson Dance. It was just a studio setting and Jessica was wearing practice clothes. She spoke to me so clearly that evening thru her dancing that I've never forgotten it. In fact, though she doesn't know this, it was largely because of Jessica that I began connecting with several of the dance companies in New York City beyond the universally known organizations like NYC Ballet, ABT, Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey: I wanted to see if there were other dancers in Our City that I would want to watch and know. And there are: dozens of them.
In the months since that first encounter. Kokyat and I have watched and photographed Jessica many times both with Lydia's troupe and with tompricedance, another company Jessica dances with. Earlier this year after a rehearsal she mentioned to us that she was going to Poland. I didn't really give it much thought until I began to read her Facebook statuses from Poland and realized that she was there doing something pretty extraordinary.
I have asked her to tell the story, and here it is:
"Ruth St. Denis described dance as a “communication between body and soul, to express what is too deep to find for words.” I've always appreciated this aspect of dance, and have felt grateful for movement’s ability to express thoughts and feelings more honestly than our limited vocabulary allows. Recently I had an opportunity to explore this aspect of dance in a completely new way, and gained a new appreciation for dance as a language.
This past September I worked as teacher and choreographer in collaboration with artist Anna Gaskell on her new project, UNTITLED BALLET, an experimental film centered around the children of the Special School of Podgorki (SOSW) in Poland. [Note: Podgorki is a tiny town not far from the Baltic Sea]. Anna and I had been introduced to the school unexpectedly a year ago while we were in the village for a friend's wedding and were struck by its unique atmosphere. Not only are the school grounds (previously used as Communist party headquarters) nestled magically into the rural Polish landscape, they more importantly offer an environment of inclusion and acceptance to students whose needs range from general education to mild learning disorders, Downs syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders. There are roughly 50 students from ages eight to 21, and those whose homes are too far to commute every day are able to board throughout the week. The SOSW's unique and beautiful world in the midst of rural Poland seemed in many ways parallel to the scenarios of so many Romantic ballets, in which characters are torn between the often tragic reality of their lives and the supernatural, idyllic worlds of the second acts. Essentially, this was the focus behind UNTITLED BALLET: to guide the students in creating their own unique interpretation of a dream ballet.
We spent two weeks in Podgorki - the first to teach, rehearse, and plan and the second week to film. On my first days of teaching we separated the thirty-some students who chose to participate into groups based on gender and age, and focused the classes not on technique but on creating movement. The first day, many of the students were hesitant to join in. They were self conscious: the older students and the boys, especially, seemed unsure of what to make of us. Most of them would participate when given the opportunity to follow something that was shown to them, but very few were willing to create movement individually. We wanted to establish the most comfortable and accessible situation possible for them, but had several obstacles. First, for many if not all of the students, this was their first exposure to dance as art, and to have someone asking them to dance with isolated parts of their bodies, move like an animal, mirror each other's movements, or improvise just based on the music seemed to be a completely alien concept. Not only that, but the person asking them to do all of these things was a stranger and had to explain these exercises through a translator. We were incredibly lucky to have our friend Marta Zylinska, who grew up in Podgorki, with us as line producer and translator. But as the only person there able to translate, and with a long list of responsibilities, she wasn’t always available. Those times without Marta were intimidating at first, but in many ways it was a gift—stripped of our ability to speak with words, the students and I were immediately pushed into a unique intimacy that came from our desire to communicate in our own language of gesture, pantomime, and example.
By the second half of my first week teaching, the students’ attitudes had changed. The girls’ enthusiasm was suddenly overwhelming and the boys’ willingness to explore movement improved dramatically. For the purposes of the film, we had created a series of “challenges” for small groups of the less-challenged children to work on together: move with your arms linked, with your heads connected, as if you’re in a room with a very low ceiling, etc. These assignments were designed not only with images Anna knew she wanted to include in the film in mind, they also made the idea of creating movement more accessible to the students by giving them a starting point to work from. It was so exciting to see them open up, to trust themselves and one another and to share their unique physical voices with those around them, and it only got better with each passing day that we worked and moved together.
Those students whose issues made it difficult to work with a group we worked with one on one (with the help of teachers and aids from the school), playing mirroring games and improvising alongside them. It was often with these students, whose abilities to communicate verbally were so greatly challenged, that the most rewarding and honest communication was achieved through movement. Agnieszka for example, a girl with Downs syndrome, could mirror another person with an intent and accuracy so complete it was as though they were sharing the same thoughts. And Jarek, a boy whose Aspergers syndrome makes it difficult to relate to those around him, one day allowed my mirroring him to become our own form of communication. I joined him as he rhythmically slapped the wall and eventually added in a lean, which he gradually adopted. He would alter the rhythm and I would do the same in response, adding in a change of direction, which he would then add as well. There might not have been a lot being said, but the fact that I was allowed to be in his space and to be part of this give and take - this conversation of movement - was rare and exciting in itself.
By the time we began filming in our second week there, we had come from having a group of children who were shy and reluctant to move to one that would argue over who’s turn it was to next stand up and improvise in front of the others. We would turn on music — a mix collected from different eras, composers, and genres — and they were encouraged to respond in whichever way they were most compelled. These moments, more than anything else in my experience in Poland, are what I believe will always stay with me. Rarely in my lifetime as a dancer or audience member have I witnessed such clear communication through dance. Whether it was joyous or sad, extroverted or contemplative, these young dancers redefined for me why we move. Anita, who seemed shy and retiring in most aspects of her school life, blossomed when she danced and moved with a combination of enthusiasm, vulnerability, and sincerity that was truly touching. Angelika, a talented girl and a natural dancer, always chose to dance with one of her more challenged classmates, and many times brought us to tears with her generous and heartfelt movement. Kamil and Sebastian, two boys who were obviously just itching to move but were afraid of being teased by their older male classmates, ended up with a featured spot in the film that makes me catch my breath whenever I see it. There were so many occasions during my time with this developmentally diverse group of students that my expectations were completely turned on their side and I had to reevaluate my definitions of what made a dancer, and what made dance great.
Another quote that I’ve always loved is one from Martha Graham: 'There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.' I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to witness these children’s expression of that unique vitality, and to have been able to be a part of the process that helped them to discover it. I went as a teacher, but learned so very much from my students."
This is one of my favorites among Kokyat's many images of Jessica Sand.