How the Body Remembers (On the Body’s Performance of Trauma as Ekphrasis)

delivered at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference
Toronto, ON
2 May 2015

Slide 1:
“How the Body Remembers” is not just a creative project but is, I guess like all my creative projects, a question I’m trying to answer for myself–this time about how our physical bodies perform traumas. The question came up after years of taking dance classes in which my body seemed hesitant to do what I attempted/was instructed and more than that, what I felt. I struggle(d) with tight hips, epaulement, what I began to realize over time was more than “two left feet.”

I’d watched Alvin Ailey’s Revelations in one of my early modern dance classes and became fairly fascinated, I guess, with the performance. Of course, there is the movement, but moreso there’s what the movements represent. As an adult I’ve studied other dance forms and yoga too and come back to Ailey’s work as in them I encounter the source of my issue: how do I connect my body [movements] and my mind.

Finally, I had my answer after one African dance class—and if you know anything about African dance, technicality means nothing without feeling–my teacher teased me about the stiffness of my hips.  My answer:

It is a learned ability to disconnect from trauma. As a teen my mother called me “aloof” to describe the behavior that I performed off the stage and out of the studio.

Slide 2:
Revelations is choreographer and dancer, Alvin Ailey’s opus—on both counts. It was staged for the first time in 1960 at Jacob’s Pillow and its goal is to mimic the African American experience including its tragedies and triumphs: “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always grateful,” Ailey says. Though it wasn’t originally, over the years, it has become a triptych of three movements: Pilgrim of Sorrow, Take Me To the Water, and Move Members Move.

Slide 3:
So when I began my ekphrasis on Ailey’s choreography, it was a conversation with my own body and its choreography/performance of trauma.

The body is its own ekphrasis because it is a performance. It is capturing the essence of the object/original as Plato’s rhetorical definition says ekphrasis is. And “how the body remembers” its trauma is this performance.

Slides 4 & 5:
So I present in the poems an answer to my own question. Perhaps that’s what ekphrasis is always doing—the writer trying to make sense of the performance.

[Present poems].

Slide 6:
The discussion is extended by interrogating my answers (the poems: The Quickening and How the Body Remembers). Do they capture the essence of the object/original? That question is broached in the visual art. This ultimately led me back to the first question—how are the body and its trauma connected? Ekphrasis.

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