Struggle, Shannon Gillen, and “A Colored Image of the Sun”
Friday night, I went to Triskelion’s Aldous theatre to see Shannon Gillen’s “A Colored Image of the Sun.” Seeing the performance prompted me to post a piece I began writing after taking her class a couple of months ago…
In November, I took a class with Shannon Gillen at DNA. During the class she mentioned an article about the different ways Eastern vs. Western cultures approach struggle in education. She spoke about how in many eastern cultures, struggle is prized and rewarded as a process of growth, whereas in the West it is generally discouraged and seen as a sign of weakness (The full article can be read here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning). Ms. Gillen leads a demanding class on both a physical and intellectual level, her combinations tend to demand strength and cardio while incorporating complex, specific movements that don’t always follow “traditional” logic. As the combination took shape, she encouraged us to lean into the discomfort of struggle. On this particular afternoon, I struggled. As is my tendency, rather than leaning into the experience, I got annoyed with myself and pushed against it.
Experience seems to be a big part of Gillen’s work. Perhaps this is a strange and redundant thing to say if we consider that all art develops out of experience, however, in Gillen’s work, there is a greater awareness given to experience. In addition to the BFA Gillen has from Julliard, Gillen studied Meisner Acting at the Maggie Flanigan studio. Meisner technique aims to create performances grounded in emotional reactions rather than rehearsed “scenes.” From such a vantage point, the art of performance is experience, always new, always raw.
Gillen’s emphasis on experience was evident in the subject matter tackled in “A Colored Image of the Sun.” In her program notes she describes the piece as a conversation regarding a woman’s experience during her coming into child bearing years. After the recent election, with many politicians high-profile comments about women’s bodies and reproductive rights, it was refreshing to watch a more personal and introspective examination of reproduction. Gillen’s choreography was dynamic and bold, her dancers committed, but for me one of the greatest pleasures of this production was the intimacy. The subject matter, location, and composition all converged to create a performance in which I felt I was peering into something intensely personal, something that one might expect to find in the pages of a diary rather than on stage. That isn’t to say that the dancing wasn’t spectacular, it was, rather the presentation seemed as much about the dancers experiences as the audiences. I didn’t feel I was being shown something, instead I was treated to the thrill of voyeurism, that I was watching something happen.
The performing arts are often given the role of portraying stories. This ‘job’ is often ridden with show, pomp, and pizazz. Even in stories that touch on intimate themes, there is often a sense of presentation, of, “This is what I’m trying to tell you.” I felt none of that in Gillen’s work, and its absence excited me.
Watching Gillen’s performance last night brought me back to that idea of the experience of struggle that she spoke of in class months earlier. In “A Colored Image of the Sun”, struggle was among the experiences I saw her dancers undergo onstage. In fact, the moments of struggle were some of the most powerful moments in the piece. Struggle is not generally encouraged in our society. In the West, Struggle is often disregarded as a sign of weakness… A sign that we aren’t good enough. I for one have struggled against struggle my entire life, always looking enviously towards those to whom things seemed to come naturally. Watching struggle unfold before me, I was struck by the unique beauty of this experience.
Last summer, during a workshop Shannon Gillen gave at MIP she talked about experience as a gift, that which colors our life and makes it bearable. She said that even in the worst experiences, one should be thankful for having the chance to touch the depths of human emotion. At the time, this idea seemed at once beautiful and insane. It is easy to accept that life is made interesting by it’s highs and lows, quite another to embrace your experience after f**king up a combination every which way possible and leaving a class feeling like a total hack… So, to bring this post full circle now, on that day, back in November, I didn’t lean into the experience, I resented it, and myself for experiencing it. Watching “A Colored Image of the Sun,” I was reminded that despite whatever reactions we have to our experiences, despite whatever cultural trappings make us label them, they are beautiful in that they are essential and part of what makes us human.
For more information about Shannon Gillen, check our her website: http://www.shannongillen.com/