The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

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MAR 2018 Issue
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They Say it is Heaven

Cynthia Oliver's Virago-Man Dem, residency at MANCC, 2017. Photo: Chris Cameron


I always start lying down.

The floor is my space for contemplation. Maybe it is simply the place where I cannot fall any further beneath the seeming weight of the task.

I am exhausted before I begin.

What lays before me always seems impossible. How to make something out of air? Out of a thought? A contemplation. A desperate desire to connect, rearrange, reconsider, and ultimately shift my own and perhaps others’ thinking. To move.

The choices are endless. I have to drum up my belief. I am forever asking,

Why do I do this to myself?

Why am I so compelled?

But I am always. Each time I swear I will never do it again. And then again, here I am.

So I sit

on the floor.

and wait

for inspiration.


I think of my friend, the painter Barbara Bash, telling me of the Buddhist principle of the empty page, space, room as “heaven”; the making of the line, the mark, the movement, the word as “earth”; and the work, the manifestation, as “man.” Or something to that effect. This Buddhist idea reminds me that this moment of possibility is bliss. I need to live in it, relish and surrender to it.

And wait.

But I know too it is also troubled, infuriating, filled with unknowing and doubt. I don’t know if I can do this again. But let me lie here and dream for a moment. Let me get away from the rush of need to do and relish the want to do. What do I want to do here? Years of questions, ideas, observations, recollection, imaginings come down to a moment. The first stroke of the brush, the pen, movement of the body is always a revelation. And yet it is also not so precious as all that. I just need to make something, get it started, because altering everything is also a part of the process —except for those moments when the movement lets me know it is absolutely right. Those moments are rare. But they do come. And they are clear and adamant. And that clarity demands its own space and I am relieved by it.

But that first day always feels like a wash.

All I do is lie there.

And dream.

The next day I make space for movement. I gotta get up off my ass and make something. If the well still feels dry, I ramp it up. I blast a tune (Teddy Pendergrass? Earth, Wind & Fire? Mary J? Bob? Muta? Midnite?) or recall a series of gestures. Create a physical conversation. Put them in a certain or random order. Reorder them. Change the phrasing, the intention, the dynamic and keep slowly building from there. A guttural sound might come. (Pull it up from the pussy as Laurie Carlos says.) A song. A phrase. Or word. All are indications that this movement manifested is connected to something larger, smaller, equal in might, breath, breadth, weight, force, need, want, pressure, surrender.

It is there waiting. I just have to, at first, be still enough to hear/feel/see it.

Then move quickly enough to catch it.


Cynthia Oliver

CYNTHIA OLIVER is an award-winning choreographer, performing artist, and scholar. Her choreographies excavate the complicated nature of contemporary blackness in Afro-Caribbean and African American cultural production. She is Professor of dance at the University of Illinois, where she is also Associate Vice Chancellor for Research in the Humanities, Arts and Related Fields. Her choreographic work Virago-Man Dem premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in October 2017.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

All Issues