"Numeromancy" and the power of patterns

When I returned to AXIS for this year's Choreo-Lab, I was not nearly as nervous about my ability to create work, guide dancers, and structure my time as I had been my first time. One of the things I had learned last year was that the time I've spent "not making dance" - teaching, facilitating, administrating people in various roles - has actually been incredibly helpful, since dance is made on people, and I have been working on my people and communications skills. I was nervous, though, about committing more deeply to working with numbers, patterns, and math. Would it feel alive? Would it feel at all? Would it be clinical and detached, inscrutable?

My work in the past has usually started with a question and a feeling, both - often "what does it mean to...?" What does it mean to be two bodies and one body at the same time? How do physical barriers change the dynamic of a relationship? How are relationships formed or broken? I didn't do any of that here, at least not knowingly (more on that later). Last year, I started with the challenge of working in 5/4 time and finding the ways that could inform choreography. This year, I went a lot deeper into numbers, and I was not sure what would happen.

I was working with the AXIS Company dancers this year, which was lovely! I gave them a lot of exploratory tasks to try out, both alone and in groups - figuring out how to move with a certain number of body parts, or in particular basic shapes, or with word association. We played with repetition and levels, and did a lot of group awareness games around quantities: accumulations, or rules that a certain number of people must be doing a certain action at any given time. We were kind of all over the place. (I worried also about whether I wasn't giving enough guidance or grounding to my dancers - but my fellow choreographer and our AXIS mentors reminded me that it's the dancers' actual job to do whatever it is we do that day, whether they know why I am doing it or not; that I didn't need to expose ideas before I was ready; that the dancers could and should trust my instruction, professionally, and I can trust them, and it'd be fine. It was. I did still provide some context as we went, as I was able, since it makes it easier to follow instructions, but I stopped worrying about it as much.)

Eventually it did come together. We kept some accumulation scores - the first section of the video here, a sound pattern score, a counting game, and then a tricky bit of math. The math process is one I had used last year, that I particularly like: a way to create chaos and resolve it organically. It's done by a reductive process. First, we as a group made a certain quantity of gestures - 9 in this case (the same number as our counting game). Everyone knows what each base gesture is: E, for example, was to raise one leg at a 90-degree angle. Each dancer then puts the 9 movements in whatever order they like to form a sequence of a particular length - in this case, 8 bars of 6/8. I also gave them some constraints on levels and direction of travel so they would be more varied. Then they choose 2 movements to cut, and trim the phrase to 6 bars. Cut 2 again, 4 bars. 2 again, 2 bars. I chose 3 motions that were not allowed to be cut out, so that everyone would end with the same 3 things - initially in different orders, then the phrase is repeated with a shared order.

This is hard to follow, so here's an example! We did this with sticky notes and big paper.

(Image description: Three dancers on the studio floor, each with a big sheet of white paper and sticky notes with letters on them being arranged in rows. An unattended sheet with sticky notes and a drawn grid is to the front next to my notebook and still more sticky notes.)

Let's say I make my phrase C D F I H A B E G. The restricted gestures are C, E, G and will end in that order. Each time I reduce the bars, I cut out two gestures, leaving the rest in the same order.
C D F I H A B G E : 8 bars.
C - F I H - B G E : 6 bars, I cut out D and A. I'll smooth the transitions from C to F and H to B as needed.
C - F - - - B G E : 4 bars, I cut out I and H. I keep my C-F transition but need to make F flow into B now.
C - - - - - - G E : 2 bars, I'm on my final 3. C goes directly to G.
C E G : everyone does this sequence in 2 bars.

Someone else might have made their first sequence A G F I H B D C E, which would look totally different! But after 16 bars, we'll still be on C E G together.

This is what happens in the final part of the video and I love it. The initial phrases are so chaotic, but slowly the shared pieces emerge until suddenly it clicks into unison. Last year, we took the unison into a canon and back to a unison again; I might have done that here if I had had time. This still feels like a partial draft of a piece, but for 7 rehearsals to go from nothing to something it's exciting! 

At that point that that came together, the accumulation and sound accumulation games were really getting strong, and the piece started to have a shape. I was still worried it didn't have a soul. But I had committed to pattern, so I went all-out; I decided to trust the human brain's instinct to find meaning in pattern, and took that as soul enough. We got to work with a real lighting designer, Del, who built some of my number sequences into their lighting cues, and had the genius idea of making geometry on the floor with tape (since we didn't have the ability to make much geometry with light in the space). We raided AXIS' costume closet and I found solid saturated colors (my weakness) that would suggest additional relationship layers: 2 blue, 2 purple, 1 orange, 1 yellow - so there were quantitative and qualitative (complementary color) connections. I thought of numbers stations for the initial audio in a flash of inspiration and I think it really helped clinch things: covert, unclear meaning, layered with superstition and secrets, as well as sounding proper spooky. Then the title, "Numeromancy": number-magic. (My fellow choreographer Neve's work as also an invocation, but a folklore/textual one!)

So I put my pattern-pieces together, and I hoped.

I was so relieved in the talkback session to hear that it worked. People recounted their emotional experiences before I even asked. They picked up on patterns that resonated with them, and built their experience out from there. And even in my haze of anxiety, I found it spellbinding to watch. I also got to hear, in the talkback, about the dancers' experience - and how they did indeed go from confusion to comprehension, as the pattern of the process itself became clear.

It wasn't until that final day that I was able to understand consciously for myself that pattern is a deeply meaningful place to me personally. I wrote about it in my self-debrief the next day.

(Image description: handwriting on an unlined notebook page, transcription to follow)

"I love patterns. I need structure. I stim on little somatic patterns constantly. I get caught in loops and trapped in/fascinated by visual and tactile and haptic patterns. I see the connections between disparate things, and draw out meaning."

I pretty much structure my life around patterns, from tiny to large, and see them everywhere, for better or for worse. So as it turns out, the piece had a soul from the start.

That debrief went on with: "I really enjoyed letting that part of my brain be open & easy running the show (literally!)." I didn't have to push it back for being too nerdy or too abstract or too cold or too overwhelming or not artsy enough. And it felt really good, at least once I was over the threshold of fear!

As always, the biggest lesson I learn in dancemaking is to trust myself, and trust the process. 

(image by Misako Akimoto - description - low-level shot across a black box theater, with the 6 AXIS dancers in various dynamic shapes at different levels. On the right Raul in blue is in his chair, on the left is Janpi in yellow on the ground in front of their empty wheelchair. At the very front is Yuko in a purple dress, one leg lifted, hands in a framing shape in front of her eyes. Bradford is on the floor in navy. AJ is hidden behind Bradford, legs in the air. Lani is at the back in rust orange doing an arabesque.)


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