Illusion of Lightness

April 9, 2012 § 3 Comments

Guest post by Anna Marie.

Dancer Daniel Kirk

I will begin by saying that I am not a dancer or gymnast or any other kind of accomplished artist besides a musician. However I want to share some insights I’ve learned from taking dance class, playing the piano, and listening to artists talk about something we all need to learn how to do: be grounded. And stop grasping, physically and emotionally.

Dancers and gymnasts often strive to achieve beauty through a perception of weightlessness. They strive to appear to defy gravity. Gymnasts play with it, throwing themselves high into the air, performing physical feats up into space that awe viewers. I think of dance as a continuum of weight and weightlessness, moments when something is dragging you down and moments when you are the embodiment of grace, a bird flying. This contrast is illustrated beautifully in this video below. The man is weight; the woman, weightlessness. (Although this is animated with added effects, it was choreographed and performed by dancers for the artist to copy, and the movements are honest-to-real dance)

In college I took classes in Alexander Technique from Dr. Toni Poll-Sorenson, dance professor and Alexander Technician. (Check out her practice here.)

 “The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the  way nature intended. An Alexander Technique teacher helps you to identify and lose the harmful habits you have built up over a lifetime of stress and learn to move more freely.”
-from alexandertechnique.com

Many artists seek out this therapy, and this class was where I heard conversations about the difficulties each discipline faces. We addressed the issue of reaching our achievements. For dancers and gymnasts to reach their goal of defying gravity, often they resort to the most intuitive solution – gathering their bodies upward, trying to reach up to the sky in their movements, grasping at the idea of getting off of the floor. Toni stressed that this gathering oneself upward is self-defeating and can give you destructive bodily habits. The only way to create an illusion of weightlessness and flight is to be absolutely connected to the floor, grounded deeply, to submit to gravity, not fight it. When grounded deeply, one can gain the balance and strength necessary to make the jump or achieve the stance that will make you appear as floating lightness, unencumbered by the laws of gravity.

The need to be grounded manifested itself in my experience as a pianist as well. During one class, I played a piece for Toni and my peers. With particularly vigorous passages, I would desperately gather my shoulders upward and forward to get the power I needed into the keys. Toni suggested I start again and try driving my heels into the ground while I play. When I did this, my legs suddenly felt like they were tree trunks, solid and grounded with roots as deep as I am tall, connecting me to the seemingly unmovable mass of the earth. This released my upper body, and I felt like branches swaying, unburdened and flexible, but at no loss of power. I felt I physically had more power to create a larger sound without striving upward to do it. It was as though all the power from the muscles of my legs, back, shoulders and arms were being channeled through my weightless fingertips to the keys, creating more sound and more endurance for quick passages. I was streamlined, playing from my whole body, rather than my hands and forearms taking the brunt of the work. Toni and the class noted that the sound changed noticeably, that it had a deeper bass quality to it.

Other ways to create lightness are to either create a piece that seems weightless, or to create a moment when the viewer can feel transported, as though they were being transformed into weightlessness through their experience of the art. Stick sculptor Patrick Dougherty achieves both of these.

(View more of his sculptures here.)

We learn that stick sculptures need to be physically grounded. They need to be structurally sound before they can look like they could be easily blown over. We learn also that the artist needs to be grounded in technique, design, and hard work in order to create a transcendent experience: something that looks very simple that transports viewers to another place.

Dougherty describes the effect this way, “The mark of a good sculpture is that… people walk up and say ‘yeah I could do this.’ I don’t mind that illusion. I think it adds to the vulnerability and personability of the piece.”

I admire him for preferring that people don’t know the extent of work that goes into it. If they knew, it would take away from their experience of whimsicality. In a way, that is the test of an artist: his or her willingness to stop grasping at being admired and sacrifice the persona of being a genius in exchange for an outcome that truly is genius.

A nod to those who have spent the hours, days, or years stripping down their visions in order to rebuild them again, from the ground up.

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