Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wendy Perron: Capturing Movement in Words

Dancer/dance journalist Wendy Perron
(photo by Cliff Roles)

Wendy Perron: 
Capturing Movement in Words

by Melanie Greene

You can’t beat a book.

I know you’re reading this from a computer screen or smartphone, and I thank you, but nothing beats the tangibility of a good ol' fashioned book. Flipping the pages of progress…feeling the weight of the words…supporting the contents bound within a strong spine, the center, the glue holding everything together.

We read books and scan blogs, websites, brochures, social sites, reviews, journals--and talk to people--because we are curious about what’s going on in the world. In the dance world, there are several go-to sources of information, and one of those knowledgeable sources is Wendy Perron.

I recently sat down with Wendy Perron on a rainy day on the Upper West Side. It was the day before Thanksgiving, with people intent on last-minute grocery shopping. Perron and I sat in a cozy restaurant, talking about her book and life as the movie-like scene scrolled by the large glass windows.

Although Perron spends a lot of her time writing these days, she did not know, early on, that she would become the writer in her family. Before finding her voice on paper, she found it through movement as a dancer.

Perron's new book,
Through the Eyes of a Dancer: Selected Writings
Wesleyan University Press

Over the years, Perron's extensive participation in the dance community--as a performer, critic, editor and educator--has made her a valuable source of knowledge on contemporary dance. Her eloquent writings capture the imagination of movement through words in her new book Through the Eyes of a Dancer.

The book surveys Perron’s writings—dance reviews, feature stories, essays, and blog posts—spanning from the 1960s to the present. It offers dancers, dancemakers, and dance enthusiasts a living history of the art. Huffington Post writer Jennifer Edwards comments that Perron’s book “flows like a choreographic retrospective. The reader has an opportunity to witness both the writer, and the work, evolve.”

Scanning its pages, readers are invited to take an intimate look into dance culture’s continuous influence over artistic, political, and social movements.


Since I had never met Perron, our meeting was a blind date so to speak. In these situations, I always feel, one's face takes on a distinct look of anticipation--a cocktail of anxiety and excitement sprinkled with the illusion of composure. There's an unspoken protocol of what to do if you are the first to arrive, an insecure voice that wonders "What if they don’t show up?" or "What if I got the date wrong?"

I arrived shortly before Perron as the restaurant opened for lunch. The first women to arrive after me shared my look of uncertainty, but I was sure I would recognize Perron once I saw her. I imagined her with those wild tendrils of hair she described in her book.

I was carefully negotiating glances between my phone and the hazy rain outside when Perron arrived, warmly bundled up, small grocery bags in hand. She had stopped in a grocery store to pick up the last ingredients for cranberry sauce for a Thanksgiving repast.

“I am always in charge of the cranberry sauce," she said. "People know it’s what I bring."

After unbundling and settling in, we ordered lunch, and I asked Perron how she was feeling.

“In general, I wish I could sleep more than two hours at a time,” she responded. “I’ve just traveled from Japan. Traveling changes my sleep patterns.”

Perron had just returned from Japan to judge the Youth America Grand Prix competition. In her Dance Magazine blog entry My Week in Japan, Courtesy YAGP, she details the competition and dedication of the young artists she met during her stay.

“I’ve always wanted to travel to Japan,” Perron stated. “I tasted this plum wine there and brought it back for Thanksgiving.” Coaxing pleasant feelings of nostalgia, the taste of this wine reminded her of the thoughtful designs of Japanese gardens and the beautiful architecture.


Back in the US, Perron remains in the thick of the New York dance scene. Witnessing and participating in the transformation of dance criticism and reviewing over the past 40 years, she has seen dance writings repurposed to accommodate evolving technologies and the need for instant information.

More blogs, social media outlets, and self-produced videos are popping up to cover what was once tackled by expert writers and critics. Magazine and newspaper reviews have become obsolete. As the needs and expectations of the dance world change, so must the ways we write and talk about dance.

“This does not mean that respect is lost for traditional critics and those who have been around a long time. Publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post still wield so much power,” Perron offered. Perron has been writing a dance blog as part of DanceMagazine.com for over 6 ½ years.

Today, information is just a click away. To reach the largest audience, dance writing must appear on the Internet and be user friendly. While many sites still support longform articles, others—like Twitter—prefer it short and sweet. Perron's blog posts and articles serve the in-depth reader, while her Twitter feed offers audiences quick links back to substantial information.

“There is something interesting about the challenge of saying something in 140 characters,” she says of tweeting. Within this new medium, you must choose your words carefully, saying just enough to entice the reader to want to know more.

“I see so much and there are people in New York and the world who don’t get to see what I see, so I like to be able to say something about it,” she says. Twitter challenges her to say it creatively and quickly.

Perron today, at right, with Olsi Gjeci
in Vicky Shick's Everything You See
(photo © 2013 Anjolo Toro)


Whether you write serious criticism, lively reviews, blog posts or tweets, the new digital media can offer space for your purpose: assessing dancemakers' aesthetic choices, uncovering the history of a dance form or its cultural relevance, examining how the art fits into the current political climate, and more.

“Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the writer,” Perron said. “The role is to respond honestly with your whole self on many different levels—not just thumbs up or down.”

“It is our responsibility to provide context…to say what the roots are…how [these artists] emerged, and what they have done before,” Perron added.

It’s important to open one’s eyes to the present and not become, as Perron would say, trapped by one's past.  Even in repertory companies, dance works will change. Things will not look and feel as they did five years ago. We have to be open to that evolution. 

The night of our meeting, Perron was going to see Chéri, a dance-theater piece by choreographer Martha Clarke, starring Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo. “I like to see incredible performers challenged with something new," she said.

She also talked about how she continues to be excited about the fusion of forms in dance.

“Some people don’t like that word, fusion,” she said. “I’m not sure why.”

This sentiment possibly stems from conversations Perron has had with artists like Akram Khan, a British choreographer of Bangladeshi descent. His work combines contemporary dance elements and kathak, a form of classical Indian dance. In a 2008 blog post entitled Excited. Touched. Stimulated. Taken aback. Revved up. Honored., Perron wrote, “Khan likes the word confusion better than fusion, and to allow different stories to overlap or intersect. Somehow a lightness and a heaviness at the same time. A western-ness and an eastern-ness at the same time.”

“He is exciting to see," Perron told me, as we continued our conversation. "I can see both aspects of style and form so strongly” in Khan's East/West fusion.


I asked Perron if she had a daily meditation practice or ritual approach to writing.

“My practice of writing is very haphazard, but I do have a daily movement practice,” she said. “I do exercises in the morning in my bed and in the afternoon. These exercises help to center myself in my body. I still see myself as a dancer first.”

Although she considers her writing approach haphazard, she likes to start writing early. Write a few sentences, then write a few more and print it out.

“I also show it to my husband. He’s extremely helpful,” Perron added. “Once I print it out, I lie down on my back and mark it up with a pencil.”

Perron attributes the effectiveness of this practice to the fact that “when I lie down, it’s closer to my heart, and I want to make sure it’s coming from my heart and not in there for just [arbitrary] reasons. If there is something I don’t feel strongly about, maybe I’ll take it out.”

A lot of her daily exercises and writing postures, she said, derived from her chronic back problems. Lying down helps relieve the stress on her back. This gesture, to me, speaks to the wealth of information that our bodies hold, how we exist in our bodies. We function as a result of the choices we make. If we listen, our bodies will inform new choices in movement and on paper.


“It never occurred to me to write a book,” Perron confessed, “but as you get older, you think about what you leave behind.”

Perron with Harry Sheppard,
students at Bennington College in the 1960s
(photo by Josef Wittman)

Whether intentional or by a marvelous accident, Through the Eyes of a Dancer became a way for Perron to reconnect with herself. Her writings propelled her back to memories of dancing with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, spending time in SoHo, and teaching at Bennington College, the Vermont liberal arts college that attracted Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman, all pioneering legends of American modern dance.

We get a glimpse of Perron's dancing/writing ritual: how she would stay up late Thursday, stalling to work on final details until around midnight. After a pint of Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream and a dose of procrastination, she would resolve that “there was nothing else to do but sit down and write the damn thing.”

She remembers dancing and choreographing a lot in the 1980s. “When I did more writing, I danced less, and when there was more dance, there was less writing.”

Perron talked me through her process of scanning old documents and articles into a machine as she prepared to write Through the Eyes of a Dancer. Like magic, her past would travel into her technological present in the form of Word documents.

“The scanner enabled me to edit my writings from 40 years ago. It was an interesting project for me because of the time travel aspect.” Something about words and digital documents provides something close to permanence for a famously ephemeral art form.

Parallel to preserving her writing, Perron once started a project to transfer 1970s dance works from their old, unstable formats on VHS and beta tapes to DVD. However DVD proved equally unstable. Discs would become corrupt and, just like that “all those years went up in smoke," she said. "There are tons of video, but there is nothing stable. I couldn’t save the choreography, but I could save the writing.”

Dance happens and then it’s gone. Recorded artifacts are not the same as live performance, and this, partly, drew Perron to writing which presented its own distinct challenge.

“How do you write about something that disappears?”


After lunch, I mentioned to Perron that I was looking for yarn store, and she kindly walked me to one that she’d passed only hours before. As we said our goodbyes, she left me with a thought that will guide my own intentions as a writer.

“Writing should lead the reader. I don’t want it to just be information. I want it to make a statement of some kind.”

A statement can come in the form of insight, approval, objection, or total rejection. Some notable statements appear in two of Perron's Dance Magazine blog posts--Blogging about the Process of Choreography—Ugh! and Is There a Blackout on Black Swan’s Dancing? In each of these posts, she ignited heated dialogues that drew a range of reactions in the dance community, from outrage to satisfaction.

Perron is a strong advocate for the arts and artists. Through the Eyes of a Dancer provides rich insight into dance within an historical framework. Moreover, it captures the essence and virtue of living a life through both movement and words.

Wendy Perron danced with the Trisha Brown Company in the 1970s and has performed with many other New York City choreographers. Her own group, the Wendy Perron Dance Company, appeared at the Lincoln Center Festival, the Joyce Theater, Danspace Project and other venues in the US and abroad from 1983 to 1997. She was one of eight choreographers profiled in the documentary film Retracing Steps: American Dance Since Postmodernism. She has taught at many colleges including Bennington and Princeton, and was associate director of Jacob’s Pillow in the early ’90s. In addition to contributing to Dance Magazine as editor in chief for almost 10 years, she has written for The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Ballet Review. In 2011 she was inducted into the New York Foundation for the Arts’ Hall of Fame, and she still performs occasionally with Vicky Shick and Dancers. She was artistic adviser to the Fall for Dance festival and has adjudicated for Youth America Grand Prix, the American College Dance Festival, and New York Live Arts. Her new book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer (Wesleyan University Press), is a selection of her essays, memoirs, and reviews spanning 40 years. Read more about it here.

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