What to Take, What to Leave: A Conversation with DanceNotes

Jess Goldschmidt

At the end of each slim, beautiful volume in its inaugural chaplet series, the publishing collective DanceNotes (a collaboration between writers/teachers/artists Sam Creely and Pia Sazani) offers a seemingly self-negating mission statement. Dance, the paragraph admits, has a historically unsuccessful relationship with written documentation.” From Rudolf Labans abstracted and overwrought Labanotation” to more recent efforts by iconic companies to preserve the legacies of their founders, dance is littered with fraught attempts at codification through language.

Yet DanceNotes is uninterested in writing that aims to freeze lived experience. The mission statement continues: If notation is an instrument for comprehension, preservation, and iteration, DanceNotes is an experiment in notation dedicated to refractory, malleable, and plural knowledges, and to re-contextualized genealogies of movement.” This is writing that broadens, challenges, celebrates, or collapses the long-lamented gap between body and text.

I met Creely and Sazani in grad school, and have followed their individual and collective work greedily since then. DanceNotes—which released its first triptych of chaplets beginning in 2019, with a second printing this year—occupies a singular niche in the small press ecosystem, serving as a provocation for writers, performers, and hybrid artists to experiment with the possibilities of embodied knowledge and articulation. So it seemed appropriate that, in addition to a heavily gestural Zoom interview, we navigated this interview over the fluid archive of Google Doc. Creely and Sazani responded now individually, now in a collective voice, and always with the crystalline wordplay and joy for the process that typifies their work together.

JG: Tell me about your first performance together. What, if anything, does it have in common with your ongoing collaboration?

Pia Sazani: In January of 2019, we were invited to do a short performance at The Mortuary in Los Angeles. At the time, we were taking a class on ekphrastic poetry, and had been working on short, formal responses to dance. We were drawn to Anne Teresa de Keersmaekers work because of the linguistic nature of her dances—she works with a limited vocabulary of discrete gestures, something of an alphabet—and decided to notate the first two minutes of her dance film Come Out” at three different scales: the isolated gesture, the movement phrase, and the entire piece. For the performance, we recited the notation live over a projection of the De Keersmaeker video (an experience that confirmed our suspicion of the humor/absurdity/functional futility of dance notation projects). It was in preparing the script for this show that we made plans to publish it as a chapbook.

Actually, though, the performance at The Mortuary wasnt our first performance together: we were both dancers in Point Fuga, a piece by Dany Naierman about architecture built for and occupied by algorithmic machines. 

Sam Creely: Pia, its funny to hear you describe our three steps as the isolated gesture, the movement phrase, and the entire piece.” It is certainly that, I agree, but I also tend to think of Throat Draw Come Out With It as a waltz toward analysis, where part two introduces interiority, the subject, the lyrical I”, and only from there can we approach part three, which incorporates research and attempts something like literary criticism. Close reading our way into a research practice helped us figure out what notation was, what it could and could not do, and, much later, how we might use it as a starting point to conceptualize a publishing project.

I am also thrilled that youve brought up Poing Fuga because I think a certain aspect of DanceNotes was informed by Danys rehearsal process. Ahead of each rehearsal, he would send us a variety of texts that addressed the themes of the performance, and we would spend a good long time discussing them as a way of warming up. Then, when it came time to learn, or collectively devise, choreography, we had these ideas moving around with us. I like to joke that DanceNotes is here to undo the Cartesian split (you know, once and for all!). We try to resist any easy ideological divide that, on one side, frames notation, transcription, lexicography as purely violent and mechanical––and on the other, privileges movement and poetry as ethereal, solely capable of expressing the inexpressible. We want to thread these things against and through each other, and pull tightly.

How do you watch dance? What do you find yourself looking at or for?

PS: I have a go-to method for reading a dance where I watch for a repetition of gestures (or sounds, or rhythms) that begin to accrue meaning. It is the development of a vocabulary that the dancers/choreographers are teaching me how to read from the start. As the gestures gather this meaning, they can be recirculated in new and varied contexts as the dance continues, which are the exciting moments of dance for me—when I feel I have been brought into a language, into a conversation.

SC: Now and again, I see dancers comment on what they are doing while they are doing it. They may do this consciously or unconsciously. It may be a defiant wrist that comments. It may be a prop, or it may be some disorderly interplay between dancer and prop. Whatever it may be, when it surfaces, it strikes me as a style of critique.

One example of embodying and commenting on a performance simultaneously is Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America: a transformative inhabitation of a character, but one that's glitching constantly, holding something back, letting the smile fade in the same moment that it's forming. Rather than cleanse the performance of the distance between the character's politics and her own, she pronounces it. This happens without any sort of direct address, and registers as a kind of notation in real time. To me, at any rate; I would love to read a dance note on this.

Another, more explicitly dancerly example that is also a major urtext for our project is Bill T. Jonessolo performance Floating the Tongue.” Jones vocally annotates his own movements live as he repeats the same sequence, each time shifting the notational strategy: once in silence, once in detailed choreographic vocabulary, once in a freely associative inner monologue where speech and movement remain intact and separable, once with similar free association but where speech and movement influence each other in real time, and so on. As the iterations proliferate, distinguishing between gesture and notation, score and referent, body and text becomes impossible, particularly as Jones moves in and out of coherent articulation.

I love that, the deep intertwining of physical and verbal articulation. So many dance referents already for this work; any written texts you consider as foundational inspirations for the DanceNotes worldview?

Well were big process queens, and were also teachers, so from the beginning of DanceNotes, weve been exchanging sources and thinking about the pedagogy of the movement workshop and what that might look like as part of a publishing process. As COVID hit, as we moved to different cities, and as we co-taught a class on dance notation over Zoom in the Summer of 2021, all of that took new shape, and we began staging, with various collaborators (including some DanceNote authors, present and future), a series of experimental workshops that were also part seminar. We always started with a syllabus tailored to a particular projects research questions—and along the way we developed a method of interpretation, collaboration, and publication. To see this method applied to such a range of formal and aesthetic approaches has been one of our great joys in this project.

Before arriving at dance notation specifically, we were following the work of publishers committed to the textual life of performance—Three Hole Press, Wendys Subway, Ugly Duckling Presses Emergency Playscripts, among others. The latters Costume en Face, a record of Tatsumi Hijikatas Butoh notation kept by dancer Moe Yamamoto, is very near and dear to us. We love Sylvan Oswalds work. And we certainly think of Barbara Brownings Im Trying to Reach You as a DanceNote novel.

How do you know a DanceNote when you see it? (See: the collaboratorsbrilliant Instagram presence, @isitadancenote”)

A DanceNote is always in conversation with something else. There is a palpable mediation, more layers than we know what to do with. There is a referent and a reference, but maybe not where you expect them to be. Often, the word translation” can be used, but if translation were exegetic, side-eyed, wobbling just under the surface.

We also think a lot about forgery, copy—the ways we learn, inherited gestures, and their relation to queerness. Early in the project, we were compelled by the peculiar work of reduction of various attempts at universalizing a system of dance notation (Laban, Feuillet, Eshkol-Wachman, Kahn, Butoh). How does compression clear the way for totality?” these systems seem to be asking. If dance notation (the longstanding practice) is about preserving totally comprehensible articulation, a DanceNote (our twist) is animated by the failure of this project.

I cant remember the first time I heard the term text” applied to a performance that wasnt a play, that had no extant language, but I know it left an impact. What first opened up the possibility for you of reading” live bodies and their meanings in motion?

PS: The expansion of text” or reading” as a metaphor for perceiving, understanding, or interpreting was early for me—and preceded my interest in performance and performance studies. I was working as an oral historian in Lompoc, my hometown, and listening to an interview where a man described his cousin returning to their family ranch after training as a geologist. He said his cousin read the landscape like a book,” and could describe the rocks below the surface. That the earth and landscape could be a text for reading was very appealing to me—poetically, or when thinking about non-human agency. So early on as I became interested in dance, I experienced it as something to read. I suppose this sheds light on my habit of reading dance as language, or as morphemes.

SC: While working as an assistant stage manager in college I became preoccupied with stage directions, specifically the verb tense they conventionally adopted. I had had a version of this thought before with regard to the persistence of the past tense in fiction for describing action (obviously, there is plenty of fiction that uses other tenses), but the relentless present indicative of the stage direction differently consumed me. All of this came to the fore when I noticed how the stage manager I was working under notated his script: he would handwrite a stage direction over the stage direction that was already printed on the page. This sent me down a research spiral about when, historically, playwrights would write their own stage directions versus when they (the directions you would read in the published version of the play) were written by the stage manager of the original production. Either way, the present indicative tense seemed impossible: as long as the playwright had written the direction, it remained speculative; if it was the stage manager, the action would need to have already been blocked during rehearsal. This seemed to suggest that somehow, somewhere, the concept of the play was floating out there, abstractly, always occurring. I began to narrate all action this way as an inner monologue: Sam crosses to the sink and washes the ladle by hand. To confirm reality but also to suspend it.

How do you like to move your bodies: when youre writing, when youre editing, and also just in general?

Were pretty stationary people. We sit in chairs. Sam, in fact, often wishes they didnt have a body. Pia really likes to lie about. Theres a lot of head-holding, while we write. This whole answer might be about how heavy the head is, and how the body has to arrange itself to deal with its weight.

Im fascinated by this last phrase in the DanceNotes statement of purpose, mostly because I dont think I understand it: re-contextualized genealogies of movement.” Will you tell me about it? Or maybe, tell me how you wrote this statement together?

We know its not a given that a project like this would be devoted to disciplinarity (it could be expected, for instance, that what wed want is a clean break from form or tradition) but we are actually very interested in situating ourselves in relation to intellectual debates. One of us teaches at an art and design school; the other teaches at a high school; we have taught high school, undergraduate, and graduate classes together in the past. So we are both attached to pedagogy and collaboration and the mechanics of staging a critical intervention as part of an extended conversation.

Disciplinarily, DanceNotes operates at a juncture of performance studies and documentary poetics, one that recognizes origins of the documentary impulse in colonial and homophobic traditions. Pursuing the registration of traces (why we leave them, what shapes the historical moment of their emergence, and the challenges of writing either from or toward the archive while contending with its indexical sorrows and absurdities), documentary poetry, as a genre, has developed an ethical concern with the ways documents mediate the lives of the subjects they encounter. Contemporary performance theories trace a parallel critique about the transcription of bodies occurring at the expense of ephemeral knowledge.

Another way to say this could be that the conventions we are trying to engage carry a lot of anxiety about abstraction! And rightfully so: dance notation has been used to taxonomize movement, making bodies legible to institutions of power. By bringing together these particular traditions in this particular way, our gambit is not a wholesale rejection of abstraction (as if that were possible). Rather, we are curious about how gesture and language use abstraction to negotiate a works proximity to context. Thats why we say we lean into” the shortcomings of movement notation. Thats also why, when we say notation can negotiate a works proximity to context,” we do not mean that everything must be said, or that nothing may remain unsaid. Otherwise, what we would have is not contextualized writing or contextualized performance, but context alone. Notation may come down to deciding what to leave behind and what to take with you.

Im gonna quote you to yourselves (I know, Im sorry) but this line from your co-authored Throat Draw Come Out With It reads for me like something of a mission statement: “— or how to reach back through — what brightness — false distance between body and movement”

Is it the distances between bodies and their movements that troubles you? Between bodies and words? Between words and other bodies?

The reference here is to Daniel Hamm, one of the Harlem Six, and the testimony he gave during an interview with civil rights activist Truman Nelson––which became the source material for Steve Reichs song Come Out”––which became the music for Anne Teresa De Keersmaekers dance Come Out.” So when we wrote this, we were troubled by the distance, both real and fabricated, between Hamms testimony—that he had to open [his] bruise up” to give evidence of police brutality in order to receive medical treatment—and the movement of De Keersmaekers dancers. We are wondering: what exactly is being performed, or being asked to be performed, in the repetition of this phrase, this instant—by De Keersmaeker, by Reich, by Nelson? How can we read this dance in a way that will sustain attention to the afterlife of Hamms gesture?

All three of these works are, at times, writing ekphrastically: Yuxin Zhao (Three Forms of Exhaustion) relives an anime murder; you write with Anne Teresa De Keersmaekers interpretation of Steve Reich; and Gabrielle Civil (Wild Beauty: What happens if we take out time?) writes around and inside of a performance collaboration/ritual.

Whats the difference between notes on and notes towards?

A refrain of ours is that the ontology of the dance note is a convergence of record and script. A record of something that has happened and a script for something that has yet to happen. We are excited by the ways ekphrasis has been recuperated for poets, in the last ten years or so, as a minoritarian aesthetic, a way of insisting that description is never neutral, impartial, or disembodied. All of our authors engage in this, but the writing is also double-cast as a sort of chaperone to future interpretation. So when Gabrielle Civil, in Wild Beauty takes notes on a collaborative process of, well, a preparation for a preparation for a performance that then gets delayed––she is doing that work of description from a subjective, partial, embodied place, of conducting our attention toward this and not that, of sly critique––but she is also offering a prompt and a pedagogy. The writing is an aftershock and a premonition, but it never quite gets to be an endpoint. As editors, we tend to pare things off or move them around before they start to solidify. Theres something about keeping that energy awake in the midpoint, between, as you put it, notes on and notes toward,” that we hope might suffuse observation, notation, and interpretation and how they work in relation to performance and poetry.

What is it about three: three chaplets, three parts to two of them? Rising action, climax, denouement? Breath, hold breath, exhale?

PS: Sam once wrote me a postcard every day for two months with a different triad on the back. For example, ice, hands, physics, or, the container, the contained, the horses running by looking back. And we like to think the etymology of the term chaplet”—a notation for prayer—encodes a nod toward the Trinity. But formally: three suggests a series. Two is a binary, but with three you have space (as in area, three dimensional area), a true plurality of directions. It's much like Thirdness, as conceptualized by pragmatist Charles Peirce: once you have more than two, you have movement, reaction, refraction—infinitely. 

SC: Pia is a Peircean, which I have always admired. In Peirce's system of semiotics, the count of three is where mediation begins. We love threes, but we are also open to publishing in other numbers. For instance, we are currently planning four chaplets for our second series.

Whats the next phase you envision for DanceNotes?

Series 2! The next set of chaplets will launch late in 2024. We are in conversation with the authors now, so will resist the urge to name them just yet. But be on the lookout for an announcement.

Pia Sazani is a teacher, writer, and artist. Writing and making between poetry, performance text, and science fiction, her work investigates queer timescales, fragile languages of indoctrination, and the entanglement of meaning and matter. Her work has been published by Wolfman Books, rivulet, and Vallum.

Sam Creely is a Toronto-based writer, editor, bookmaker, and educator. Their work engages anticolonial and queer methodologies, turning syntax against institutional systems of logic or sense. Their research in early modern textile history pursues questions about the implications of trade language in English lexical semantics and morphology.