Paul is lying on the couch talking to someone on the phone and he’s telling them that he’s reading The Odyssey and it reads like a blockbuster movie, and I interrupt from the kitchen to ask which movie, but he doesn’t hear me because
the radio is on.
I am a choreographer by trade, and it’s an unusual profession: to make and sell dances. The material, the stuff of dance, is the body, and turning that into something transactional has always struck me as contradictory, because when people first danced, it was essentially a community in physical agreement executing poeticized, ritual actions
in a circle.
But even still, it always feels very natural when I am choreographing, as organic as a leaf growing on a tree, and I specifically use this metaphor because it is the most natural thing I can think of. I have this belief, which may be more like a religion, that like plants we are fundamentally generative, and our generativity includes making things, so this leaf metaphor seems to accurately describe our liveness, plus
some metaphors are more real than the people you see walking down the street.
I didn’t come up with that line, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote it, but when I heard it, I immediately put it on a Post-it so I would never forget it, because from the perspective of the surface, the exterior form, it’s a formidable statement and deserves a bit of fanfare, or
a dramatic sound cue.
Paul says to the person on the phone that The Odyssey is almost like scripture, a kind of theology, but he adds that ultimately it doesn’t have the resonance and strangeness of the Hebrew Bible. He says it’s ultimately more like a kind of ethical instruction manual, a way to live, like it teaches you to welcome strangers with gifts and bathe their feet, things like that. At this point I wonder if it’s Jack on the phone because this sounds like something they like to talk about. Jack is our son, and it turns out yeah, I hear Jack’s deep voice respond, but I can’t hear what he is saying because it’s a merciless day in August and
the AC is turned on high.
I walk outside and see a young blond man in a stretchy gray tracksuit walking his dog while loudly talking about his body on the phone, and then he slows down to peer into his screen,
And in this pause, which he and I now must share because we pedestrians share these intersections of time and space, I wonder: what would be the equivalent to this experience in ancient Greece, and Menelaus floats through my mind. I imagine big blond Menelaus arriving, with some fanfare, into the agora of Sparta with his entourage, his body oblivious to the other ancient Greeks’ bodies, who are going about their business of buying and selling,
Then, still in our pause, I change my mind because from a spatial perspective Menelaus of the big blond hair is not really like the blond dog walker on the phone. The dog walker is oblivious to the space around him, but Menelaus is like a movie star as he enters the agora with big steps and large-scale gestures, highly aware of his use of space though not at all aware of the others in their space, which for me brings up the choreographic term kinesphere. Menelaus has a large kinesphere, he takes up a lot of space, but the dog walker has a small kinesphere,
a bubble of tiny actions.
I bring this up later with Paul, this idea of an ancient Greek equivalent to the blond man on the phone. I am thinking that from a personal use of space he’s actually more like Heracles than Menelaus. Yes, Paul says, you mean Heracles in the Euripides play when he is partying outside of King Admetos’s palace while meanwhile inside the palace the king is grieving the death of his wife, a death which the king himself is responsible for, but it takes the king most of the play to face what he did. Yeah, I say, the dog walker is actually a lot like Heracles, blind,
from a spatial perspective.
Choreographing dances makes you feel comfortable with an author because you literally put your body inside of their words, and because I have made dances for some of the 2,500-year-old plays by the Great Tragedians, I nurse a shred of dance authority, a fun delusion that I have a sense of what life was like in ancient Greece. And though mine is most likely a concept of an ancient Greece that is both flawed and hilarious, it is
The day is nonhierarchically composed of light and weight, motion, space, shape, time, and sound—and narrative is just one of many tools we can use to describe it. But because of an obsession with linear storytelling, rather than looking at what else is going on in the text, which may be imagistic, spatial, durational, or rhythmic, the focus remains on the swagger of the story at the expense of the pleasure of these hardworking nonlinear elements. So I ask Paul about the non-narrative elements in The Odyssey, and he says well, there is quite a bit of imagery, and that Homer repeats particular images. How often, I ask him, it’s uncountable, he says, like the dawn is consistently rosy-fingered and the sea is always wine dark. So I look this up, and learn that this imagery is not considered adjectival; instead, these are formal syllabic structures doing some heavy lifting, but also in their reiteration the epithets become fundamental to the essence of the noun. And even though I haven’t officially read the book, these 3,000-year-old images feel oddly familiar and flat to me,
so I’m like yeah, yeah,
but then Paul tells me about a part when Odysseus and his entourage tie themselves under the bellies of sheep, and I become alert to this image for its strangeness, its impossibility. And then he describes the music in the story, the deathly intoxicating siren song, and the harp that made Odysseus inconsolably weep, and I try to compose these sounds in my mind. And he says that some of the music was so intense and seductive that Odysseus had to put wax in his ears to resist it, and this allows me to reimagine Cage’s radical
framing of silence.
And really, I say to Paul, our lives don’t operate in a neat cause-and-effect narrative structure, the way we neatly pretzel our lives into these neat linear stories and then neatly defend ourselves against anything that defies our highly constructed neat narrative, and a telltale sign of this construct is that the story neatly holds
a single meaning.
On the radio I hear someone talking about how everyone has a story, accompanied by a warm, cloying sound cue, as if having a story implies both some kind of moral key to who we are personally, and a key to achieving the greater good collectively. And setting aside my issue with the unearned emotionality of the sound cue, I don’t think there is a reducible, uncontradictory story. Or I haven’t personally found one yet, though
I have been looking.
Paul is lying on the couch talking on the phone to Jack, and he’s saying that when Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca and sees that his home is full of greedy suitors partying in his house, seated at his table, with his Penelope, drinking his wine— which makes him especially mad, the wine part—rather than getting all swashbuckle-y, Homer plays with Odysseus’s love of deception, secret alliances, and disguise, by having Athena
transform his form.
From a tonal standpoint, it’s like a Trisha Brown dance. Athena simply turns Odysseus into a beggar, as needed, so he can sneak in unnoticed, because I guess it’s assumed that beggars are invisible and have a small kinesphere. In contrast to the overall swagger of the story, I don’t think there would be a splashy sound cue for this beggar transformation, I think the transformation would be done in complete
I’m in the park walking and it’s humid and hot, and I see a dog leaping in my peripheral vision, and I stop to watch a girl throw a stick to the dog, and the dog catches the stick in his mouth, and over and over they dance this duet, a perfect and pathetic duality between them, a game of
synchronicity, agreement, and practice.
But at some point, they stop because it all needs to break, because along with duality, nature includes rupture, change, and error in its dance, and so their loop breaks down, and maybe the loop ends because of the humidity, too. They stop playing, and the girl, still holding the stick—
she just stands there.
We move like nature, we curve and spiral and rotate like shells and cats and snakes, we lunge and dive and bob like wind and lions and waves, we crawl and duck and jump like frogs and drops of water and crabs, we gather and float and pause like leaves and butterflies and oceans. And we stand around. We stand around a lot.
We just stand there.
Annie-B Parson is a choreographer and a cofounder of the OBIE and Bessie Award–winning Big Dance Theater. She has choreographed for David Byrne, St. Vincent, David Bowie, Lorde, Laurie Anderson, Esperanza Spalding, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others.
This excerpt is adapted from Parson’s forthcoming book The Choreography of Everyday Life, to be published by Verso Books on October 11, 2022.
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