Intro: Sean Dorsey, the first acclaimed transgender contemporary dance choreographer in the US, created a trilogy of full-length dance-theater works based on the oral history interviews he conducted. Then, how did Sean turn narratives into dances? What’s his creative process? The answer is in this blog post.
When I was reading about Sean Dorsey for the workshop, all I had in my mind was: “How did this happen? How? From narratives to this?”
As a singer myself, I understand that I need to research a ton of background information for the song I am going to perform, then digest and internalize them, incorporate my own understanding, and practice hard before I finally step up to the stage. The preparation process is so that I can embody the song. To me, it is more an intellectual effort than an emotional effort.
However, I did not understand, in Sean’s work, how melodies and movements floated out between the lines of narrative? Is there a formula? Does Sean set up a chart matching certain keywords with certain notes and then arrange them all together? Does he test out how different people would interpret one single move differently? Has he checked to see whether audiences can get what he wants to convey? In short, what’s the logic and what are the rules guiding his creative process?
I am obsessed with the logic within his creative process because I constantly worry about whether my own oral history work will be recognized and accepted by my future audience. After being in school for so many years, I have learned to suppress my subjectivity, and I am rewarded by a great academic record for doing that. I was taught to always go after objectivity, or your work would not make sense to the common public, and people will question its validity and credibility. Therefore, I developed this fear of being too attached to materials (in our oral history case, narrators’ narratives) and not being able to maintain so-called “objectivity."
If I am simply chatting with friends on a bench in Central Park, I can just “be in the stories.” However, when collecting stories became a formal academic practice, I realized that I had been unintentionally keeping myself distant from the narratives, and seeking to analyze them in a “scientific” or ”quantitative” way. I always felt that probably I should do something to the transcripts so that I can run a regression in STATA (a general-purpose statistical software package)…which is super cool and powerful, but in my gut I know that’s not what I want. I am a dreamer, an artist, a whimsical kid who sneaked out from her summer camp dorm alone just to watch twinkling stars from the basin of pine-covered mountains in Sofikos, Greece, and 10 years later this kid is still stuffed with romance and would sing along Amsterdam Ave in a pouring November night at 11:37 pm, and believe she is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
So I got stuck. I’ve always wanted to use my interviews as the raw materials of creative works, such as fiction, or even songs and plays. Nevertheless, I didn’t dare trust my artistic intuition, emotions, feelings. What if people consider me as not serious? What if people think my work is nonsense? What if I mess up? And I did not know how to deal with such intuitions and turn them into ACTUAL work. I even thought about giving up: since this world prefers giving credits to rationality and dismiss intuition, and I need to survive in this world, probably I’d conform. For the sake of universal acceptance, I’d better run a regression.
Therefore I asked Sean, how did your magic happen? During his talk, Sean explained that he would immerse himself within the recordings, sit with it, and then co-create the music with musicians. With the music, he and his family of dancers would BE with the music and co-create the movement. However, this answer was not enough for me. Sean explained his creative process in steps: A (narratives) → B (music) → C (dance), but I wanted to know the “how” within “→”. So I asked him after the event. This is such an abstract idea that I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question but, as an artist, Sean got what I meant immediately. He said: “We just sit with it (narratives), we feel, and things emerge, we feel it. The musicians would play a melody and we would be like, this feels right, or not……” WOW. “So it is…… intuition?” I asked. “YES! Exactly” Sean confirmed, with an exciting smile.
Then we chatted about my fear of trusting intuition and my concerns about universal acceptance. I said I want to compose music in a proper way but I suck at music theory so I just hum to my voice memos, and this makes me feel insecure. For instance, I created this piece after I visited the Heavenly Bodies exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of art last year. I was just BEING there, lost myself in front of this figure lying in a coffin in a wedding gown. At least this is how I interpreted. The background music, the costumes, the Medieval hall itself—altogether some magic happened and I was astonished her beauty, dignity, and holiness. After I back went back home, I immediately pull up the exhibition’s background music Time Lapse by Michael Nyman ) from Youtube and sang along with it. Just followed my intuition.
Jean Paul Gaultier
ENSEMBLE, spring/summer 1994
Ivory cotton tulle and silk satin, white cotton lace, silver metal, brown leather
I never shared this piece with anyone because I never believed in it. I thought following intuition is not the right way to do it. However, Sean said that’s how creation should work. He encouraged me to experiment, take risks, walk into the materials, free myself there, trust my talent, and let my intuition lead me to where I will be. “Once you put your heart in your work and let yourself be vulnerable, your specific things can become universal.” What a golden guide for creativity. This piece of advice can apply to any creative use of oral history—from narratives to songs, plays, paintings…
In short, FOLLOW YOUR GUT.
And I will.
I will be brave to let it be. I will not run a regression.
Tianrui Yu is a current OHMA student who loves to sing. She hopes to combine oral history with performance art one day. This semester she is exploring the stories behind common daily objects that embody family spirits.