Imprinting and Returning to – my experience of learning ‘Trio A’

At some point in the last year, I had a sense that learning Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 solo, Trio A, needed to be a part of my artistic research and practice. I’m not really sure how I came to this decision. Perhaps it was the fact that it appeared physically accessible to me, or the fact that, having a clear means of learning it ‘correctly’ via the handful of official transmitters, made it possible to learn the dance in a way that honoured Rainer’s original work and her rightful ownership of it.

The decision jarred with the other practices I had been learning through my mentors, notably working with Rosalind Crisp with her practice of ‘choreographic improvisation’, and more recently working with the UK based dance maker Amy Voris, devising through a slow accumulation of material over time. Both these approaches to self-choreography* involve improvisation as the primary format. ‘Are you sure Trio A fits in here?’ was the question put to me by my academic supervisor. I could see her point, but does it follow that all self-choreography must be improvised? Or that all ‘set’ choreography is somehow not ‘selfed’ enough?

Listening to Sara Wookey (one of Rainer’s ‘transmitters’) describe the process of what she calls ‘holding the dance in her body’, you get the immediate sense of a work that is in a constant process of coming into being. The live-ness of its transmission allows it to remain ‘slippery’, to use Wookey’s words. I think it was this very slipperiness, this idea of a work constantly being brought into being, that drew me to learning it. That, and the fact that it’s such an important piece of work in the postmodern dance lineage that learning it, embodying it, is like tasting history, biting into a chunk of it and feeling its textures and flavours.

After some emails backwards and forwards, an opportunity came about for me to learn Trio A from Sara via an online workshop organised in collaboration with SITI company in New York. The sessions were spread over two weeks, meeting daily from 6-8pm UK time via zoom. There were 9 other participants, including Barney O’Hanlon from SITI company who led daily warm ups, and Melina Bielefelt who expertly co-ordinated and hosted the workshop. People joined from across several time zones in one of the ironic achievements of a pandemic that has introduced the term ‘social distancing’ into our language: to bring together a bunch of people on opposite sides of the globe.

Even with this convenience of just opening your laptop, it’s funny to think how hard it is to make the space in one’s life and diary. At first I thought I’d have to turn the opportunity down. May was super busy. I had just started working with Amy, perhaps I should focus on that? I’d have to shift or cancel all my evening teaching, which is not an easy thing to do when you’re a freelancer in a pandemic. And then there was the small matter of getting married on the second Tuesday of the workshop. Could I really get married in the morning and learn Trio A in the evening?

Yes you can, and I did.

I’m not writing this to give a full academic account of Trio A or my understanding of it. The resonances are still too new to be really known. But I want to note, right now, whilst the ‘all’ of the experience is still present to me, the things that carried my attention whilst I learnt this dance.

As my learning of Trio A overlapped with my work with Amy, I couldn’t help oscillating these two practices inside myself. I found that one rubbed against the other, making their edges both more distinct and more porous. For clarity I’d like to briefly describe the process that I had begun with Amy, before explaining how this came to resonate with my learning of Trio A.

In my practice with Amy before the start of my Trio A experience, we had begun a process of: opening into moving, recalling, or what Amy describes as ‘harvesting’ (after Nancy Starks-Smith), and then returning to material in order to ‘deepen’ understanding of it. The three step process, is the core of Amy’s accumulating choreographic process, which draws on the framework of Authentic Movement. After a period of moving, or waiting for movement to arise, we sit down to remember what happened, recalling shape, feel, texture, image, thought or anything that arose in the experience of those moments. Amy responds to my recollections with her own observations and reflections, before inviting me to return to whatever might be calling. Amy describes this process as follows:

‘The process of harvesting writings and drawings cultivates sensitivity and clarity toward the embodied memory of moving which, in turn, gives rise to certain verbal and visual markers that serve to simultaneously reflect, project and in a sense thus ‘re-invent’ that experience.‘ – Amy Voris, 2018

Amy clarifies that ‘returning’ remains open, it is not a closing down of possibilities, but a honing in on a potential area of interest, so that something can grow from there. I struggled with the idea. Surely the point of improvisation is that it cannot be returned to, in a way? I wondered whether I could actually return to something after the event. Surely the spontaneity requires me to let it go?

A snapshot of my ‘Harvesting’ notes from 13th May 2021

With this question sitting on the shelf of my mind, I started learning Trio A. It’s been a long time since I learnt set material, I wondered if I was going to struggle to remember. It turns out that the ability to learn movements is still there, (once I worked out the zoom mirroring thing). Sara reminded us of the labelling of corners 1,2,3 and 4 and I chuckled at the memory of learning this in my Cecchetti Ballet theory (I think it was followed by walls 5, 6, 7 and 8). I had completely forgotten all of that! But another curious experience was the feel of the process of memorising, or is it the process of embodying? Learning?

Each day we recalled the previous days’ section and added on a new bit of material. And each day I was aware that the new stuff was in a different place in my body-mind to the material we had learned previously. I suppose this was the difference between short and long term memory. Although a few days difference probably doesn’t quite count as ‘long term’ enough. I wondered: perhaps I didn’t really ‘know’ the material until I had returned to it? Perhaps there’s something about learning that starts off as being superficial, or unconscious copying, until it is re-learned, re-encountered?

I found that when I returned to the new material on the next day, I was experiencing it through this half known feeling, and that made me aware of what aspects of the material I had not consciously learned. It’s like an initial imprint that doesn’t quite sink into the sand deep enough to be sustained, so that when the day’s weather passes over it, what remains is just the points of contact that were most assured, most present, most known? I cannot find the right word. So when I return to the imprint a day later, I can feel what’s missing, what’s smudgy, and then I re-imprint, placing footprint over footprint, carefully noticing what I missed and being interested in finding ways to make those movements more acknowledged, more known. Sara encouraged us to find ways to annotate the dance for ourselves, which I began with the drawings below. On subsequent days I found myself adding more information to the initial drawings, using different coloured pens to indicate the new information and creating a way of tracking my own learning, that mirrored my practice with Amy.

A snapshot of my notes from my learning of Trio A with Sara Wookey, May 2021

If I bring that realisation back to my work with Amy, I notice that in some sense, there is a similar process at play. I’m relieved by the thought that returning-to might not lead to a dilution of the original, but is, instead, a more conscious kind of knowing. It’s as though the space/time provided by re-encountering, gives enough perspective for the material to be approached through new eyes. Perhaps where the two diverge is that with each re-encounter with Trio A there’s a deliberate attempt to re-imprint a specific shape, whereas in Amy’s practice, it’s inherent slipperiness is the very means by which material emerges: the imprint is allowed to shift, to stretch and compress as it’s honed over time.

Either way, the deepening of the imprint remains a constant quest, a ‘never arriving’.

I had a strong sense of this idea of ‘carrying the torch’ throughout these two weeks. Both Sara and Barney described their lineages, their love for their mentors and their desire to share their work in as undiluted a form as possible. It made me think of Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of consciousness that he describes in ‘I am a Strange Loop’ (2007). Born out of his grief on the death of his wife, Hofstadter, a physicist and cognitive scientist who famously wrote ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: the eternal golden braid’ (1979), wonders whether our consciousness is really so solely located in our physical bodies. Instead he posits the thinking that perhaps consciousness is more like a resonance that is at its most undiluted in a person’s being, but which, through communication, can be embodied, in a less pure sense, by someone else.

It is no wonder that we naturally assign consciousness to the living. It has to move, to resonate, for it to be present, in much the same way that a dance needs to be danced for it to be present. I find it interesting that Rainer states that the 1978 filming of her performing Trio A, (which is available on You Tube), is not an accurate record of the dance. Rainer’s insistence on the transmission of the dance through people with whom she has had direct contact, also seems to echo this ‘liveness’ or ‘lived’ process. And surely within that decision is the realisation that, as with any live process, it becomes open to dilution. All of which problematizes the idea of Trio A as a set choreography, or what it means for choreography to be truly ‘set’. The way I imagine it is as a work that is always trying to be asserted. If Rainer’s original performance is like a tightly closed fist around the work (which can never be a complete vacuum), then subsequent learners offer increasingly looser holds around it, until it eventually is just about contained within a space. I find it interesting that Rainer describes the process of re-asserting the work as a ‘tune-up’, a re-tightening of the grip, re-enclosing of the gaps around it. And, as with Voris’ process, each returning involves a deepening of the performer’s relationship to it, so that conscious re-imprinting engages a different level of knowing and learning.

What I found most encouraging, and most interesting about the workshop, was that it was itself a holding of space, a container for people to meet within. The point of focus was clearly delineated, but around that there was this emergent process of diverse practices, knowledges and experiences that was forming into its own locus. The group emails, which at the start of the workshop mainly contained links that contextualised Trio A and Rainer’s work, started to shift into notes that recorded all the diverse responses and the webs of ideas that people brought up in discussions or daily check ins. I have to say it’s both incredibly liberating, and heart warming, to be able to plug into a wider field and find a new sort of belonging. I want to make space for that going forwards.

A phrase that recurred in my mind as I went through the workshop came from one of my first sessions with Amy, where I wondered what to do with the busy-ness of my mind as I moved. Amy responded that ‘it was all welcome’ which seemed to capture the democracy inherent in the learning of Trio A too. It seemed to suggest that all of this is present, (the fear of losing income, getting married, the anxiety of meeting new people, the alternating practices) and all of this is welcome, just as long as you stick to the dance.

*In carving out this field that I describe as self-choreography, my intention is not to hold rigidly to the delineations of improvised versus set material, but instead to locate ‘choreography’ within a wide range along that spectrum.