By Anvita Pandit

It’s a breezy October day. Bright sunlight spills down the old granite staircase in front of us. Behind us and across the street is the golden dome of the Massachusetts statehouse, perched on top of the hill overlooking Boston Commons. Everyone is outside. Our group of dancers studies the staircase. We have a mission. We are about to take a piece of public space, and apply a special kind of magic to it, the magic of a spectacle. In preparation for this one of us is vigorously sweeping the stairs with a broom that we borrowed from the dance studio.

Waterfalls is a group performance piece. It involves rolling, sliding and crawling down staircases. For the performers, it starts with a three-hour intensive workshop in which dancers and other movers learn to move together as a body of water through a series of practices developed by Wendy Jehlen, Artistic Director of ANIKAYA Dance Theater. The movement draws from the diverse international movement practices of Butoh, Parkour, Contact Improvisation and Deep Listening. Out of the four, I have two years experience in Contact and a couple years of fascination with Parkour. Contact Improvisation teaches you to sense where your dance partner’s center of mass is going, and how to make a connection to them – your hand to their shoulder, your shoulder to their back – and assist where they might go. The parkour aspect of the dance, the reason it’s on a public staircase, is to shift the viewer’s perspective. Sure, you can walk down a staircase. But what if you tried something else?

Wendy gestures to us to come together, and we tighten into a huddle around her. A Boston Duck Tour bus passes by and a crowd of tourists scan our circle questioningly from over the top of the railing. I’m feeling just a little bite of nerves. I haven’t done anything quite like this before. Salsa dancing on New York City piers, yes, but that’s not so unexpected. There are quite a lot of people here, and we are about to look very odd. But I’m excited. I hope people will enjoy the performance. I would love it if I stumbled into something like this.

Wendy preps us. “Remember, move as slowly as possible. However slowly you’re already moving, move even slower than that. And do not stop moving.”  

We hold hands for a few seconds and take a deep breath together. Then we start to mill around at the top of the stairs. Milling is to move like a school of fish, tightly packed, but gentle. Our gaze softens, so that we are looking solely at the stairs, or at the other dancers, and everything else is allowed to fade into the background. Then a dancer initiates the starting move – softly pushing another dancer down to the top stair. From there, everyone starts the slow-motion falling flow of water. 

I think of two things as the Waterfall begins.

One, presence.

Part of the reason for moving slowly is so that you can improvise and change direction at any second. I put my hands to the top stair, crawl down on my hands and feet for two stairs until I’m wholly over the staircase, then tuck to the side and start a forward roll. It’s a little scary, even though we’ve already practiced it at the studio. Keep moving, I think. Slower. Others are moving around me, coming down the sides of the stairs. Where is space opening up? Can I support someone else’s motion? There is no timed choreography. As a dancer, my task is to understand the full range of motion that I can reach on this staircase, and eventually get to the bottom. Improvising feels like problem-solving. How can I roll backwards given this height of stair tread? Maybe if I scoot my shoulders back, then I’ll have enough support once my legs swing over my head. And so on. The overall effect of a large group of dancers doing this at once is a sense of controlled power.

I’m a little stuck near the top of my backwards roll. I’m teetering. Someone comes closer and helps stabilize me with their arm, and I keep going.

Two, I think of sacredness.

This dance feels like movement meditation: slowing down and at the same time expanding the awareness. Like a six-year-old picking up a pinecone, expanding the awareness pushes you to notice every tiny detail, and be stunned by the simple things. Subtle shifts in muscle tone which change how smoothly you roll.

Footage from Waterfalls in Boston; Somerville; Bamako, Mali and Washington, DC

There’s only so much you can talk about dance, so I’ll leave it there.

At the bottom of the stairs, I realize I moved so slowly that some people have gone up and down twice in the time it took for me to get down. I stand up slowly, and join the group of dancers milling at the bottom of the stairs. A few more people are still coming down. I spot someone getting help on their backward roll. I want this moment to last longer. I want the coordination on the staircase to turn into coordination more broadly, for us to all start to breathe together in unison, or turn to look up at the statehouse at once, or drop to the ground. Presence is interesting. There is a way in which attention onto a moment can stretch it apart, opening up a space for more and more emotion, more perspectives. It’s a slowing-down that has lingered with me in the few days since the performance.

The milling slows into a huddle, the kind of liquid huddle where a person shifting their weight at one side of the circle transfers a wave to the other side. Then we disperse.

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