by Susan Van Pelt Petry
When the pandemic of COVID19 really entered our American households, and the stay-at-home orders evolved, the degree of anxiety and bewilderment in me warranted action. As an artist, my instinct was to respond to this new era through making choreography that would attempt to encapsulate the emotions, traumas, and social upheavals stirred up by the pandemic. I set myself an assignment to make 19 (that number for obvious reasons) videos (because live performance was going to be impossible), each with a different angle, hook, and subject matter.
Back in March 2020, I brainstormed an initial list of 19 possible topics or themes, and for the film submitted here, it was “Just trying to dance in a small space” because dancers’ heartbreaking inability to move together in large studios is a visceral expression for all the people feeling cooped up. Made as part of this series of choreography on video called “19ChoreOVIDs” responding to the COVID-19 era, Breathing Room is a metaphorical choreographic poem that urges Intimacy with where one is, invites a recalibration of relationship to physical space, and is an enactment of how precarity can lead one to engagement.
The pandemic has put relationships to space in sharp relief – previous assumptions about the function and arrangement of homes have been upended by stay-at-home practices, home-schooling, increased eating-at-home, decreased entertaining of others, etc. If home had felt safe, lovely, personal, or even utopic before the pandemic, every corner of those spaces has now been challenged, and certainly if home was anything but safe, the pandemic has propelled new levels of trauma. Like the dancers’ beloved and sacred dance studios, homes, shops, places of business, have all had to face radical upsets, vacancies, frustrations, and re-definitions.
During this pandemic, dancers have gone to extraordinary lengths to adapt hallways, kitchens, bedrooms, and basements into dancing spaces, dealing with carpet burns, stunted jumps, unsatisfying swoops and leans and reaches. Families, friends, partners, and animals have had to get used to the rhythms and noises of dance practice – not normal in domestic spaces. In my half a bedroom space I wanted to push the limit of full-body dancing including jumps (don’t hit the fan), off-vertical leans and falls, and more importantly train the space into remembering its hosting of movement such that it could open its arms to me every day and become a new idea of a dance-space.
Making noises with jumping, brushing on the floor, and breathing has to be part of my adaptations and for a while I was shy to make my dancing noises in this otherwise every-day domain. Like workers trying to conduct meetings in dining rooms or tiny closets, the new normal has to consider the sticky human labor of movement, noise, voice, and emotion. Families, roommates, co-workers, and pets have had to allow, absorb, adapt to, and acknowledge the new inputs to how we work and live together. Breath, voice, noise, and other evidences of labor are now more intimately and intricately part of the new normal. When I heard Michael Wall’s piece titled “War Machine” I knew it would be the perfect music for this film. The use of breath in the strongly and strangely intimate rhythmic fashion was the frame I wanted to underscore the grit of our lives as we build new rooms for communities and productivity.
I found slow motion to be a compelling approach to underscore the sense of effort and the pushing through of confinement, and because of this the choreography itself needed to be designed in a way that fore-fronted sharpness, effort, precarity, asymmetry, gestural detail, no repeats, and jumps. Slow motion of slow movement, repetitive movement, or stable movement would frankly not be very compelling, so inside the languidness of the slow motion, I wanted there to be a palpable sense of drive, complexity, and danger. The movement tilts, falls, and establishes a precarious state and filmed in slow motion the minutia of detail is exaggerated in any given action with the sense that time is moving forward with purpose and intent. When we are called for strategies for survival, this choreography suggests the empowerment that can be felt by literally leaning over the edges of comfort and avoiding spinning wheels by advancing word, thought, idea, and action constantly forward, slowly but assuredly.
Breathing Room, with its composite of slow-motion dance, music of breath and rhythm, confinement of a small space, along with generous, full-out movement, ends up as an invitation into the apparent paradox of expansiveness within boundaries. It suggests how we might literally lean into challenges, obstacles, and fears in order to navigate to empowerment and engagement. Within the physical and psychic act of push and struggle, a notion of euphoria, beauty, and even utopia can be imagined. Perhaps there is a little piece of utopia in every struggle, or perhaps the actual fight through the struggle is utopic.
Susan Van Pelt Petry is a choreographer, solo performer, and arts advocate. In addition to her concert dance work, she has choreographed for operas, site specific projects, and film. She has been on faculty at many colleges and universities including Ohio University and The Ohio State University where she is currently Professor and former chair. Petry was the Artistic Director of The Van Pelt Dance Ensemble in Columbus. She has received eight Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards between 1987 and 2018, The Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Raymond J. Hanley Fellowship in 2013, and OhioDance’s award for Contributions to Dance Education in 2016. For more information, please visit her website.