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As part of the process for MASCCHAOS, I shared one-hour improvisations via Zoom with 29 women and nonbinary artists from across the US. 

As compensation, they received a small fee, funded by the Links Hall CoMISSION residency stipend, and a personal letter, weeks or months later, reflecting on our time together and how our web of virtual collaboration shaped the developing video project.

This is a compilation of those letters, now addressed to "you," and accompanied by the watchful photographic stewardship of the collaborators who inspired it. These musings are shared with permission. Feel free to hover over each artist's photo to see more about them and to find links to their  work. 

Allie Pfeffer
Photo by Zoe Litaker
Kaleigh Dent is a recent graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, receiving her BFA in Dance. She is currently dancing with Joel Hall Dancers, Identity Performing Arts, and LOUD BODIES. She is the Founder/Artistic Director of Rivet Dance Company and teaches in various studios in the Chicagoland area. 
Photo by Tosha Pointer, Golden Lyt Photography
Madeline Mellinger
 
Photo by Wilder Troxell

Jessica Autumn Ziegler is a Chicago native and current senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is pursuing her BFA in Dance. She is a James Scholar in The College of Fine and Applied Arts, and by the time she graduates, Ziegler will have completed a 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Certification Program under the direction of Linda Lehovec. 

Kara Brody is a native of Detroit, Michigan and received her BFA in dance from Wayne State University. She relocated to Chicago working with companies Lucky Plush Productions, Khecari and The Cambrians, and has worked with artists Erin Kilmurray, Amanda Maraist, Ayako Kato, Kevin Iega Jeff, Shannon Alvis, and Alice Klock. Brody guest teaches at University of Chicago frequently and has been on faculty at Virtual Dance Lab, Visceral Dance, Dovetail Studios, The Cambrians’ Winter and Summer intensives, Lucky Plush Productions, Brighton Dance Festival, and The Actors Gymnasium. This past year, she has guest taught at Northwestern University & Rutgers University and performed with Danceable Projects | Erick Montes and Jodie Randolph Dance.

Photo by Michelle Reid

Caitlin Rae is a dancer, choreographer, and a two-time graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She currently holds a Bachelor of Science in Human Development & Family Studies and a Master in Social Work, along with a graduate minor in Dance.  She has trained intensively with Abby Zbikowski, Kaitlin Fox, and Jessie Young.  Additionally, she left her mark on the UIUC Department of Dance by working hand in hand with Dance at Illinois to ensure that all dance buildings are welcoming to anyone who desires to know the freedom and joy of movement.

Maddie Hopfield is a Philadelphia-based dancer, writer, and performer. She is currently creating a solo on Julia Bryck as a Get What You Need artist in residence, interrogating white feminism, shame, and the most recent season of the Bachelor.

Photo by Izzy Yeung.

Mary Kate Ford, on the web.

Photo by Natalie Fiol

SCHEREEYA is a Pittsburgh-based, UK-bloomed, NC-bred artist, writer, and performer. Her work is informed by trauma blooming into joy. Follow her sci-fi novel progress at patreon.com/schereeya

Amanda Maraist is a movement deviser, improviser and performer from the Texas Gulf Coast. She has most recently performed in Chicago with Khecari and Ayako Kato / Art Union Humanscape. She participates in several other collaborative processes with movers, musicians and artists; imagining the body as a sloppy archive and aiming to incite coincidence in performance. Through authentic movement practices and meticulously rendered improvisational scores, she welcomes unwieldy processes with a DIY demeanor. On the web.

Photo by Ash Dye.

Anna Sapozhnikov is a teacher, choreographer, and performer with roots based in Chicagoland. She is currently Assistant Head of Program Administration and Engagement in the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois. As an educator, Anna is proud to have started the dance program at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, where she was on faculty from 2008 to 2019. Her teaching credits also include the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the Youth Performing Arts High School in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as the Louisville Ballet School. Anna received her BFA and MFA in dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Anna is the founder and artistic director of MOYAMO DANCE as well as codirector of the duet collective she shares with Erika Randall, Sweetie Pie Productions. Her choreography has been produced in various venues throughout New York, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, and West Virginia. 

Photo by Ross Gordon

Haley Van Patten​ is from Petoskey, Michigan, and grew up training at the Crooked Tree Arts Center School of Ballet. For two years, Van Patten attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a BFA in dance. While there, she performed at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, dancing in a work by Ohad Naharin, as well as a self-choreographed solo. Van Patten presented her choreographic work at the Midwest RADFest’s Youth Performance in 2018, and again in 2020 and 2021 in the form of screendances. This year, Van Patten has enjoyed delving into her own creative processes as well as teaching and working with the CTAC School of Ballet on their new endeavors.

Photo by Benjamin Cheney.

Lauren Queen is a performing artist currently working in the non-profit field. While unsure of what the future of performance will look like for her, she continues to use her passion for art to guide her through this human experiment called life.

 

Photo by RJ Lewis

When is the last time we shared a space?

 

I feel still very connected to you. You connect me to a place that I have left due to circumstance rather than desire. I have such respect and admiration for your place in the universe and for who you are. 

 

I will admit it makes me a little nervous…what if I don’t offer you anything “new”, what if what if what if…

 

To share some time with you feels like such a privilege. My nervousness gives me permission to be a little chatty, a little silly.

 

I have a distinct memory of writing you this letter, and yet, as I scrub through my email and documents, I see no such confirmation that we ever reconnected.

 

You ask me if I use my body differently sitting and dancing with you. 

 

I told you that I landed on trusting myself (which has been a theme in my Tarot readings recently so actually our time together was prophetic?) I’m going to remind myself that I can trust myself to move through today. It’s okay that I’ve taken the hour to write this letter to you, it’s not a waste of space/time/energy. It’s a pause in movement to be sure but, as you say it’s as important or maybe even more important than getting up and wriggling around.

 

What are we doing? 

 

Here we are in our Zoom world, a kind of fake-intimacy…even with people to whom we feel so close there is a certain degree of removal that happens in this mediated state. The split attention of being beholden to both a screen and a partner (and an internet connection) is so destabilizing. It’s like trusting yourself and constantly being affirmed that your trust was misplaced. 

 

Somehow I didn’t set this recording to side-by-side view, so I only ever see one of us at a time. Our shared time is now caught in this oddly-timed swappage of you OR I in frame at any given moment—dependent totally on who has brushed their hand across some benign surface and triggered Zoom’s auto-Speaker view. For now, that’s me, as I sniffle and sing, and now it’s you, as your chair raises you higher in your frame. 

 

We talk about how the mediation of Zoom is so dominant, how distant the feeling of being intentionally witnessed is, and how intimidating the occupation of space is. 

 

Video is part of our ontology, part of our existence. You very graciously don’t mock me for forgetting to tilt my camera down as I stand to wiggle. You are left to ponder my floating body—sailing on unseen feet.

 

You mention that in the last year that you feel a dissonance with your body, yet, dropping out of the virtusphere into the physical material of our bodies grounds us back in who we really are. In the fuzzy edges of Zoom-land, where we can’t quite tell if people are moving or waiting, we transcend ourselves and create some collective consciousness, an attention to what is between us. It condenses space in a remarkable way, you note, that we can connect across continent and time zone, and still there are those reminders of the areality of it all, the frozen frames, the lips out of sync with sound, the bifurcated attention to the screen and surroundings, the clinking of a spoon against a teacup.

 

Eventually we talk about the lag, which I’ve only grown to notice more. The fickleness of the internet space disrupts our sense of time. How do we know that the pop stars we’re seeing on the VMA’s didn’t pre-record their performance? Or did they just pre-record their singing and the performance is live—like JLo at the inauguration? Or did they pre-record half of the performance and perform the other half live like Jimmy Fallon at the Macy’s Parade. 

 

“When are we?” is a new question these days, it doesn’t have one answer, we are now and later and in the past all at once.

 

You laugh through an admission of resentment toward the way that the pandemic has tainted our experience of the world. How it has changed our relationship to relationships (personal and proximal) and to ourselves as performers. 

 

We trained our attentions and our proprioception in three dimensions, in proximity to others. We dealt in sweat and heaving breaths, in closeness and touch.

 

Now, who do we see, who do we speak to, who sees us, what purpose does our dancing body and personage serve in this new world? We’ll never know, I’m sure. 

 

But it feels striking too to notice someone’s mouth, when I haven’t seen a mouth in person for months now.

 

You smile—it’s a smile that makes me smile.

 

It makes me wonder when you’ll read this.

 

It makes me wonder what you’re doing right now hundreds of miles away.

 

It makes me wonder when I’ll see you in person next.

 

I want to see you again in person.

 

It makes me want to dance with you again. 

 

There is a comfort in seeing the past again. 

 

I’m smiling watching your walk. I remember it fondly, and remember the day when I saw you walking, and I knew exactly who was walking just from your walk. 

 

We mirror one another. I’m drawn in particular to the parallels of our studio spaces, these faux-wood floors with their beige horizontality. Our darkly-clad bodies occupy another parallel, hair, pinned back in low-pony, sleeves, rolled—ready to work. Somehow, still with (or perhaps at cause of) all these parallels, our attentions to the reality of our bifurcated times necessitate the slippages of three-to two-dimension translations. 

 

As we move through our mirroring duet, there is something so familiar about the way you shift your body: a certain body-half from pelvis to shoulder, an extension of the elbows in shape that I recognize. It’s comforting to recognize someone’s shift of weight. It’s intimate in a totally caring way, to have seen someone and their body so deeply as to know the particularities of their elbow.

 

There’s an assuredness to your carriage that I can’t quite mirror. It’s a support under the wings of the back, or a wealth of space under the arm pits, and there’s a levity to our rhythm that culminates in some rock and roll boyband duet played on invisible instruments and danced by background dancers. 

 

Then, a moment of freeze.

 

You remind me in our stillnesses to accept the nons, the uns, the questions, and the slippages.

 

Then, the time of speeding to catch up, the arduous repetition of arms, up and down, exchanges an exhaustion of energy for a heightened attention. We flap our arms, flying nowhere, only to sustain the legacy of the other person’s dance, without knowing who began the dance in the first place. This self-sustaining system is broken by the interjection of that third entity, the camera(s).

 

I feel like I can see the fascia flexing and gliding around your muscles glowing and connecting to one another as you spiral, stretch, slice, or bop through space.

 

I feel the elongation of your muscles in extension and the retraction through flexion. There’s nothing that feels thrown away or accidental. Somehow you’re in every cubic inch of your body all at once now and in the next moment and in the previous three moments. I can see the nerves firing and attention around each extremity and joint.

 

We mirror each other rhythmically, specifically, with such delicate attention to each other. Even the hallucinogenic distance and size displacement of Zoom can’t totally overwhelm our tuning to the micromovements of fingers, the distinction between an elbow leading and a hand pushing, or the gentle crease of a side bend unfolding into an erect spine. Our hands click through an echo before the timer rings. “That was five minutes? Shit!”

 

I feel so fortunate to be witnessing this dance. You remind me that the intangible sense of liveness and the tenderness of being witnessed can be cultivated even in these restricted times. We share more than our physicalities. This virtual space feels ripe with a generosity that is untraceable in origin. It flows through time and across the air from each of us into each other. I’m sitting alone in my new apartment cherishing the memory of this feeling. It’s permission, it’s a distinctly unfronted performance, and it’s maintaining ourselves through this occasionally desolate time with the sparkling possibility of mutual trust. 

 

We let this be a study in diva-ship, which brings a smile and a heavy nose breath to our witness. There’s something mutually permissive about reveling in the (almost) self-involved-ness of this task. Yet, there is something totally not self-involved about sharing our dances. We have a responsibility to one another, to ourselves, to our memories of our source material, to the weight and rhythms of each other, even over a distance. Maybe that’s what the Zoom performance is missing, there is a certain amount of labor and commitment required to going out, travelling to a venue, and seeing a friend/colleague/stranger dance. Maybe we feel the communal obligation to that connection, to upholding the relationship of witness and performer.

 

You remind me, even within this binary, that the spectrum of “performance” isn’t quite so clear. The moments of slippage between performance, presence, acknowledging the surroundings and other performers…they blow in and out of each performers’ consciousness.

 

It makes me think about the different attentions of watching/witnessing in a “passive” state and watching witnessing in an active state…and then here I am watching you and I watching the things around us… or watching you watch me or watching me watch you.

 

You are exceptional.

 

You swirl and churn and explode and unfold. Your revolution comes in waves of threading and looking, or spiraling. You say this is a phrase you’ve learned. The elasticity of funding, of moving from maximum to minimum. Elasticity is reality for better or worse, and if we can harness that power, to return to our vibrating, available state, to adapt to new conditions, to maintain our sense of self in the face of new pressures exerted from the outside….

 

You move through some minute, glued to the floor and twitching in your extremities. Your hands blur in the Zoom compression and your breath shakes in concentration.

 

Your vibrations together feel like a wave, amplifying and receding as we share the responsibility of witnessing and being witnessed.

 

You pop up, I pop up, you bend and I twist. Your sternum softens and head pours off of your spine and sloshes around your kinesphere like a gyroscope.

 

I dream that this dance were a sea anemone, a bad jazzercise routine, a silent disco.

 

The state of the goal tends toward chaos.

 

You mention the idea of a “state” as being quite different than just a “goal.” That somehow the state is a microslice of the moment. Is that state a sedimented place from which we depart or a location at which we arrive? Is it really as stable as we imagine, or is it the appearance of stability that allows it to be read more easily? And then…it’s singular, grammatically, which seems to pigeon hole it into a unique, uniform entity. What is the state of my trust today? What is the state of my gender today? What is the state of the internet today? Can these things all be Zoom would say: “unstable connection”s?

 

We move in tandem for a moment, confounding our improvisations. Our separated space and distinct times align for a hiccup of parallelism. 

 

You roll seamlessly through your wood floor, a clear connection from head to toe. There is something exploratory in your weight shifting from hands to feet, from feet to feet, from heel to toe. It reminds me of a cat’s walk, actually, each moment is a dynamic re-approach to efficiency, silence. You freeze again for a moment, and I fully believe that you are just on your leg. When the video resumes, you’re testing that leg for in-fact where it will support you. Big horse steps over puddles on the grounds lead you to hip swivels and arm tosses as you find out how far your base of support will let you play. 

 

You take your socks off and I know we’re in for it now. Your limbs swing, your plie deepens, your walk bounces. I see you looking back and forth to the screen for some affirmation, I’m sorry I never give it, but you soldier on through your magical vocabulary.

 

The one of you glitters through a winding, braiding, weaving, swirling solo to where I almost feel that I can see your blood flowing through your extremities into your head, through your heart…it pools in your sacrum as you move into the floor and drains down toward the earth as you move through a downward dog-esque shape. You pause for a moment, perhaps to consider the real speed of your blood, the juxtaposition against my overcaffeinated self is stark. Your upper thoracic spine curves as you sit into a deep knee bend, my fingers flutter along my torso as I try to remember that I’m more than bones clanking around. With the shadows in my space, there are three of me limber/lumbering around against my white walls. The curtain in your space provides an almost stage for your one-minute solo, a calm, sea green replacing the traditional harsh red. The blood red heart pulsing through your movement.

 

In each of your jigs, I see echoes of work that I’ve seen you perform, yet each one has been digested and reincarnated for a totally new fleeting moment. It’s an ode to how you became who you are, and it’s a kaleidoscope of the dances you’ve yet to make. The precious dregs of every moment of your dance life steep into artistry in every moment of your dance performance.

 

The state of the direction tends toward complex. 

 

I’ve taken a liking to this version of this score. Complexity. Letting complexity live. Letting all the many complexities of my body occur at once. You remind me of the Vitruvian person, our bodies radiate away from the solar plexus in millions of directions at once, nonlinearly. There is a swirling current of air for us to catch and twist and slip in and away from. Like cosmic wind, invisibly charging our skin, infusing through the internet and across distance. My dance is your dance is our dance, slipping temporally away until its end.

 

You spill into the floor, bisected asymmetrically by a shaft of light. I cannot deduce whether the light is from a long horizontal window or a tall vertical window, and I like that I will not know. It feels tied to the impossible complexity of moving one body part. I see your heel rotate in a circle, but now I wonder was that actually your hips opening and closing? Again, I will never know. 

 

I watch you dancing to a song that I now know, and I am struck by how accurate your rhythmic imagining of your memory of some listen is. It’s a magical temporal rift in our time together, to have knowledge now of a song only you knew before, it’s a shared entity, a common point of inflection, a splash of pop sparkle in the gossamer of an expanding dance nest.

 

Subdivision takes what is already present as material to reinvestigate. I wonder how that sense of subdivision is connected to my need to connect with people to share this material. To connect with you and share this material and ask you to share it back to me. How are we subdividing ourselves by sharing these moments together. How are we expanding ourselves, leaving ourselves whole and reaching through time and space to engage in this hour together. Probably both of those things are happening. 

 

These are not our dances, they are all of our dances.

 

You bop and shake and twist and jump through some imaginative melody and I’m driven to recall our many nights spent shaking it out to so many good and bad pop songs with so many good and (odd) people in so many good and odd places. This carries some different energy, though. Here we are, abstracted from the conditions of our usual joy attempting to recreate some semblance of that energy and succeeding, more than not.

 

And my movement is inflected by you. You swirl and churn through the sequence with a confidence that doesn’t betray its newness or novelty. You speak about the shapes as though they’ve been with you for eons. Your hands flip delicately. For a moment, you forget. The time of the sequence drops, and a quick smile glints into your eyes—"One second” you gesture—and then it’s back, the electrical flux of what we created together re-enters your limbs and to carry your joints to a glittering finish. Head turns back, forward, to the camera. We smile and affirm some conclusion, and the dance is left to the ether, or the Zoomsphere.

 

The state of the awareness tends toward the future…what a grandiose task.

 

Your proximity to this work is particularly resonant, for me. MASCCHAOS. My proximity to masculinity--a constant plague to me—and yet indelibly present, from (when?) forever? When I set out to create this work, I knew my goal was to turn back and look at what I was trying to run away from, but maybe, you remind me, it’s not what I am running away from but what I am running towards. Your mascness reminds me that it is not masc that I seek to evade, but men, menhood, manspreading, mansplaining, manipulating, manufacturing… 

 

I once read that trans time is reflexive…expansive…a constant negation of a “was” and a move toward a “will be” occurring simultaneously in the now. 

 

I feel like I have shifted my attention for the genesis of this work away from “setting” material. Maybe this is tied to the fact that my last piece of “set” material was just lost to the ether? I’m somehow neurotically archiving this work’s process. 

 

I really feel like I never actually felt loss over the work itself. I never felt sad over the absence of the work. Somehow it felt inevitable or karmic or cosmic.

 

What I will never finish grieving, though, is this feeling of responsibility for the labor of 20-something people that was ostensibly erased—understandably so, in the service of mitigating the spread of the pandemic. I spent so much energy attending to, tracing, and cultivating our collective attention toward each other’s work in the room, but failed to plan for proper record, acknowledgement, archive…

 

And so, now, we spend our time together. You and I share our embodiment for a given day. We share our thoughts on the world. We move through a beginning, a middle, and an end, not unlike each microcosmic score and, even still, each movement. We find some relief from the interminable question mark of pandemic time in the familiar falseness of a narrative arc. We conclude our hour, I say thank you and pay you for our time, and one month (or so) later, you receive another acknowledgement in the form of this letter. 

 

The state of the consumption tends toward determined.

 

I know that, for me, this practice places me in chronic reflection at best, and doubt at worst. I feel it when I am leading these sessions: “What could I possibly offer you that you can’t offer yourself?” That’s maybe not it though. It’s not about yours or my scarcity, it’s about the profound opportunity to be with, to connect across universes…”What will we find together? Can I free up your responsibility to think about your body long enough for you to dream something new?”

 

I’ve been navigating these questions throughout this process, internalized shame, some self-assuredness that I must not have anything of value to contribute to the field…and yet, I continue to work in this way. I insert this here not to elicit sympathy, but to confront the network of shame, to unveil it and its choreographic web, to move past it to something else.

 

Our time together plays out, making me wonder, even further, about this feeling of honesty, of responsibility, of a shared experience of dancing in a pandemic. How much of the field’s movement has been about maintaining a sense of the rhythm of the before time. How much have we tried to preserve and fill out our time, our attention, with the sensation of what felt like a continuation. 

 

So is abandonment something else? 

 

We lose the moments of unknown in favor of new moments of unknown landmarked by new moments of knowing. We preserve the moments that we ourselves have deemed important and honored the improvisational passage between them. Maybe this complication is generous, allowing for a more complex and nonlinear approach to “summary.” It’s a summary and a continuation at once. All of my knowledge from the last time is present with me for the next time, some to be harnessed and some to be laid to rest.

 

We accumulate new moves. We accrue them forward through time and remember them like they are precious memories. 

 

But we also forget them, in the moment, and I have forgotten them now. They echo like an aroma that you can’t quite identify, or like the voice of a person you haven’t seen in a few years. Deeply familiar, but new and finding new context. 

 

Each new iteration, each new move is inflected by the last one, by our new understandings of ourselves, our understanding of the rhythm of the moment, from inside to outside and vice versa. 

 

I’m left, for now, having moved so far past who I was that I have lapped it. I stare it in the back and wait for it to turn around.

Halie Bahr is a dance artist and educator currently living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her creative practice stems from the collision of trauma and disjointed narratives, using stream-of-conscious practices and generative play to create communal change. Halie presents dances across the country and has performed internationally. She is currently an MFA candidate and teaches both within the School of Dance at the University of Utah and through the University Prison Education Project, which offers academic courses to incarcerated students in the Utah State Prison.

Photo by E'lise Jumes