Spirit and Bones: A Dance for the Ages
by Jean Schiffman
This appeared in the print version of the October 2018 SF/Arts Monthly insert in the New York Times
To create her latest world premiere for Sarah Bush Dance Project’s “Spirit and Bones,” award-winning Bay Area choreographer Sarah Bush took as one of her inspirations Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book “Women Who Run with the Wolves” and, well, ran with it.
“It contains ideas and language around the wild, instinctive nature of women,” says Bush, who is also a member of Dance Brigade. She has trained in ballet; modern, jazz and Afro-Caribbean dance; hip hop; and contact improvisation and has performed with and choreographed for a variety of companies.
As a choreographer whose work, as she describes it, is often “hopeful, uplifting, affirming,” she also found herself envisioning darker images, such as decay and aging associated with autumn, and she thought of bones, how beautifully they can heal and regenerate. That led her to the idea of spirit, which can connect us from generation to generation. She’d been reeling, too, from the disrespect of women that she’d been seeing on a national and global level. So, choosing 15 dancers, all women, she formed three distinct generational groups: 20s-30s, 40s-50s, 60s and above. As rehearsals commenced, she gave the dancers a recording of a heartbeat and asked them to create one-minute solos. Ultimately “Spirit and Bones” will comprise group dances, duets within and across age groups, transitions between groups that convey a sense of lineage, gestures that echo from group to group and a finale with all three groups onstage together.
Below are edited and interwoven excerpts from separate phone conversations with Bush and two of the “elders.”
Jazz dancer Priscilla Regalado began dancing at 19, choreographing and dancing for 30 years. Before retiring, she taught at American Conservatory Theater, University High School and in studios in the Bay Area. Joan Lazarus, who began ballet training at age five, is an award-winning dancer with companies nationwide as well as a university dance professor and local arts administrator.
Rehearsing with the middle group, my age group, the question was: What are we fiercely committed to now? What are we getting better at, what are we letting go? For the younger group: What is the world you want to live in? The elder group has wisdom and perspective.
Dancers just get better as they age. Last year I had the honor of working with Joan Lazarus and Sue Li Jue. The way Joan would prepare her body to go into the most simple of movements, the way she would present herself in space and performance—that only happens with time and knowing how to communicate emotion and intention through your face and fingertips. I don’t think we’re there yet when we’re younger.
The thing people in our age group were trained to do to be pro dancers, like interact with each other, focus, concentrate in the space, match energy: We have that stuff and it has nothing to do with age. To portray character, to look into one another’s eyes and not flinch and look away. The way I ask my body to enter the space—I still have that. There is nothing I can’t do anymore that I miss. Inside my body I can still remember what it feels like to jump, take chances, overextend, stay up in the air as long as I felt like it, but I don’t miss it. If I can’t do a triple pirouette, I can do things like speaking onstage, being more theatrical. What I’m doing now is very much under my command. I do miss that I don’t have the stamina. After an hour and a half I’m done.… [But] as a ballet dancer, your legs still look like ballet legs!
It took me a while to agree to do this. I haven’t performed in 15 years and I retired from teaching eight years ago. I wondered, is my body capable? My fear and anxiety was about hurting myself. I have two hip replacements, I had cortisone in my shoulders last week [a hereditary condition], my back is a mess [also hereditary]. This is what you get now—I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. …As you get older, you get rid of the fear of not being perfect. I wish I’d felt like this years ago.
Sarah asked us to think about our female teachers [as a basis for creating autobiographical solos]. I said to her, “Some teachers had a profound effect on me, but they were men.” She said, “Keep thinking about it.” I did, and I realized that the people who were actually able to make a difference in my career were men, but [from the women] I learned how and why I dance. But they were not in a position… to promote my career.
I ended up trying to trace…when I had these big aha! moments—who [was] the teacher who taught me to have vision, action? Taught me to move my hips, because in ballet you don’t do that? Who opened me up to new ways of dancing? It turned out to be a very important exercise.
It’s been half a century since I studied with my teachers. I remember when was studying with two of my teachers in my 20s, and I remember the day I felt like them: So this is what the movement feels like when it comes out of their bodies! It was an epiphany.
I fell in love with jazz as a teen. Music has always been my muse.…I took modern and ballet but I loved playing with rhythm and syncopation. I can still do some of that fast footwork but it’s not what [Sarah] wants in this piece. The music we’ve been given [for rehearsal] is more lyrical and slow. I’m fine to move with that. I’m trying to bring who I really am with movement into this piece regardless of music.
I make up everything in silence and go searching for music.
This is my first time to have an original score for a full work. Skip the Needle is an intergenerational, all-women super group. I talked to them about these three different generations. So the first piece, with the elders, is hand-held percussion, instruments that involve skin and bone rattles, actual bones. For the middle group, my “wolf pack,” they’re like warriors or tribes, fierce, so we added the musical element of metal—a drum kit, a strong sort of rock-funk downbeat that will hold them together and drive them forward, a unison force, a sonic beat. The younger group, there’s this idea of flight and hope, energy and aspiration, lifting, partnering, so we have added layers of instrumentation. There will be vocalizing too.
Sarah asked me to wrangle the older women. I decided to target five women who I’d give anything to dance with again, or for the first time. So I started haranguing them. I don’t know Richelle Donigan, I’ve never performed with Joanna Haigood. I haven’t danced with Anne Bluethenthal since 1986 or 1987. I’ve known Elvia Marta since Boston. It’s like Priscilla and I never stopped dancing together, and it’s been 20 years. It’s going to be the highlight of my entire dancing career to just be with them!
It took me quite a few years to stop grieving about not dancing anymore. I felt I was finally letting it go. Then Joan called!
People don’t talk about aging dancers, [we] just sort of disappear. It’s wonderful Sarah is trying to bridge those gaps. Your 20s and 30s are so different from your 40s and 50s, and really different [from your] 70s.
Once we stop performing… most women dancers become invisible. As if we’d died. This has given us an opportunity to surprise people and ourselves.
It’s going to be an interesting journey. I’m very excited.
Oct. 26 → 28
Taube Atrium Theater, Wilsey Center for Opera, War Memorial Opera Bldg., 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco