On Midsummer Humidity and Shifting Modes

By Sarah Marks Mininsohn (HPI '17)

Since completing HPI, Shreshth Khilani ('17) and I have been working on various iterations of Table on Table on Table, a project that combines radio podcast and dance into a multi-dimensional story experience. After a whirlwind of rehearsing for SoLow Fest in my hot, woody West Philly attic, suddenly it’s the middle of July, and the performances are over. I find myself suspended in the new and slower pace of post-performance life and midsummer heat waves. In the spirit of pools and waves, of indulging in the slow weight of watery humidity, I’d like to focus on the fluidity and floating. I want to reflect on where I followed watery feelings, my pleasure and my intuition in the project, and how I can take these lessons with me as I shift modes.

I want to begin with Shavon Norris, a beloved HPI faculty member. I entered Leah Stein’s Art Room for Shavon’s showing, which was part of Leah’s May Studio Works Series. The room was coated, from floor to ceiling, in Shavon. The walls were adorned in her drawings and paintings, and chalkboards were laden with Star Trek and Prince. Throughout her performance, she swam through memories, ranting, and raving, swirling between characters and moments of past and present. Memories bubbled to the surface and crashed, breaking and opening way for new ones. She did not separate her words from her movement, nor did she draw lines between performer and audience, joy and loneliness, science fiction and religion. All components flowed together to form a whirlpool of honest, embodied, Shavon.

The fluid feeling of this showing reflected much of what Shavon taught in her HPI class called “Mindful Making.” Each Tuesday afternoon, she would enter the Rear Studio and refresh the space with her fierce energy. She would generally begin class by checking in on her feelings after teaching a classroom of young humans. Sometimes she was bubbling with energy, other days she felt frustrated or frazzled. Either way, she would allow her emotions into the room, making it okay for us to do the same. Each class, she would feed us new tools for locating pleasure, honesty, and intuition in artmaking. Looking back at my written notes from her class, I found one from late September that said:

You don’t always need facts to back up intuition.
Practice intuition muscle so it doesn’t stop working.

A few lines down, I had written: 

Water lingers, gets into everything.
Right now there’s a lot of water in the world.
Oozing emotion and water.

A few weeks after Shavon’s performance, I had the opportunity to chat with her on a bench in Rittenhouse Square. It was a hot afternoon, and people strolled by slowly in a hot afternoon kind of way. We caught up on her day and mine, and her work and mine. Throughout our conversation, I was reminded of the fluid intuition she encouraged throughout HPI. I asked how, in the context of her project, does she remain so honestly Shavon and still allow for openness and not knowing what she wants. She replied that she focuses on the feelings she wants to feel rather than the things she wants to have. The universe works in twisting turning ways and won’t always give us what we want to have. But, we can set ourselves up in the universe to have options for feeling.

She said that she has no idea what she wants her final piece to look like. However, she knows how she wants to feel. She wants to feel proud. She wants to feel both witnessed and witnessing. She wants to feel like the center of attention.

This acknowledgement of desired feelings keeps her honest, and allows for openness, the ability to flow and adapt in many aspects of her work. In her current project, she has opened herself to working in different performance spaces that she wouldn’t have thought she’d want to work in, because she knows how to make them her own. By infiltrating the walls with Prince and deciding to perform in close proximity to her audience, she made Leah Stein’s studio “Shavon.” Throughout her performance, she takes inspiration from unique combination of bodies in the space, allowing new ways of feeling pride, connection, and pleasure to arise. Because she has tools for affirming herself and her feelings in many different settings among many different audiences, she can indulge in openness, in flotation, in watery intuition.

Shavon said that throughout her rehearsal process she would try to rehearse in a studio, the setting that had been scripted as the proper rehearsal setting. A few times after attempting to move in a studio and sitting against the wall doing nothing, she allowed herself to turn around and leave. She wanted to be in a space that inspired her, a space that was more “Shavon.” Sometimes her most inspiring rehearsals took place in a steaming hot shower.

In this spirit, I want to reflect on intuition in my own practice, in following feelings in the fluid, often confusing and frustrating state of not knowing what the a piece of art will become. Sometimes we stuck it out in Table on Table on Table rehearsals, allowing the unknown to take us somewhere, even if we knew that nothing we came up with would make it into the final showing. Other times, when the hot attic felt limited and overwhelming, I said, “let’s go drink ice water and eat fruit.”

Table on Table on Table flowed between podcast, theater, and dance, between worlds of the auditory and the kinetic. In rehearsals, Shreshth and I negotiated murky questions of logistics and power dynamics, questions that may lack a single correct answer. How do we approach working with a splintery, historic attic that stores heat like a sauna? In a story surrounding issues of queerness and immigration, what does it mean to embody characters that we don’t share experiences with? The process was messy. Wooden floors squeaked. Sweaty bodies slid off of one another. Sweaty bodies took pleasure in cold juicy watermelon and then sweat and slid some more.  

Now that my evenings are free of rehearsals and tech runs, my practice of intuition takes a slower pace. I’m reassessing how I spend my days and treat my body. I’m taking time to indulge, whether by attending more dance technique classes, or jumping into a cool swimming pool, or lying in front of a fan doing nothing. David wrote in the Quiet Circus blog, in relation to his artmaking lessons learned from Eiko, “being brave is not a matter of being powerful.” As I practice listening to watery intuition I realize that I can’t exercise complete control, but I can give myself options. Water works in twisting, turning, and surprising ways, and maybe part of being brave is not trying to contain water with my bare hands, but letting myself float in it. My body is comprised of mostly water, a luxurious, inspiring substance.

[photo by Sarah Marks Mininsohn from Glen Onoko Falls, PA]