Heart Connection: a letter to Maria Nurmela
Dear Maria Nurmela, I watched the piece Closer to the Wild Heart, which you choreographed and performed, at this year’s KoresponDance festival in Žďár nad Sázavou. To my surprising delight… Usually it takes more than a committed dancer, an exalted human, to hold my interest. But I spent every minute glued to your every move. What happened there? I write here to try and pry open that question. To touch on some of the ways your piece spilled over from the stage, and gather thoughts that hopefully also speak to you.
I bumbled into the piece late (as usual) and swiftly grabbed a blanket in exchange for my ticket from a woman by the entrance. I rushed through strange grounds, my feet afraid of the dark; a man emerged to block the path in technician’s attire: ”It’s full!”, but I have a ticket, I protested, slipping past further down, as he muttered “…you’re not gonna see anything”.
Next, I saw the darkness. And a large patio contoured by an ample cellar with arched ceiling. Toward the back, a mass of people crowded, moths to light. Some indeed gave up and ascended back as I hardened my resolve. My feet understood why in casual conversation this stage had been referred to as a “cave”; then I understood why I was carrying a blanket. It was biting cold, safeguarding secrets from the heat wave sealed off above; I sneaked in and mixed within the mass, settling for a line of sight between two heads, and froze on the spot to partake in the ritual.
When you first stepped in this medieval cellar, were you moved by its heavy walls? Was the challenge of creating intimacy within a vast crevasse exciting? Did it feel like a stage, or was there more to it?
The atmosphere was infectious. Why did I enjoy this work? This helps form an answer: the heap of enthused festival attendees, committed to offering their attention at your altar several feet under the earth, senses heightened. Church-like, yes.
Art is often tasked with fulfilling a spiritual void in our secular societies, and I sympathise with that view: the theatre and the museum are places where collective belief becomes tangible. And for you, how does the church compare?
In such places, life moves toward a common shared attention. They grab and draw you in, you singular and plural. That’s the point. And it is so precious to me, Maria. Where else can one experience common focus? To go and weave my attention into another's is a specific type of high, a stretching of my self and the ways we can feel. We are here to make ourselves available for the energies you summon, and this is our celebration. Here together with every whisper and every shift in weight from our bodies, intensified by your every whisper and shift of weight.
“...at the core of the earth” , I recited, as the cave supported your moves to enchant my body, and my body in turn connected with a certain longing for sublimity, sublimation. “Is this poetry? Maybe this is what poetry ought to be”, it occurred to me, as I considered what I sensed yet failed to associate. With pleasure, I quieted down the attempts to create a narrative or work out a concept. The aesthetic as religion, sure.
A breeze on stage. A swinging lamp, a roaring sound taking over the cave, and you, against the light. A figure teetering on the edge, scarcely giving sway to gravity. I saw you about to fall, and I felt your core. Strength. Strength that morphs and falters. I saw a grounded person able to reclaim their centre through bouts of exasperation, power, melancholy. These different states were mediated by light: your black silhouette set against a disorientating bath of red (you gesture grandeur), the wash of yellow light laying bare that fluid creature into a brittle human structure, exposed, tired, despondent and flattened against the wall (you are trapped), and then that final flood where all movement comes to a stop and the scene goes charcoal black, embraced by silence; reality sets back its dimensions (you, again a dancer at the end of a performance, while my gut sinks as the tension relaxes into abyss). Above all I saw a determined body, who knew to persevere through these motions.
Maria, I never know if when I look at a performer I should be seeing the image of an idea, or if it is fair to say that what is on display reflects your own intimacy. If you are calm and strong, or if those are simply the qualities you have honed to present.
Talking to a friend, a lyrical singer, she attested to her craft as one of “fake til you make it”, meaning the ability to propose emotional states to an audience without necessarily experiencing them onstage. Most dance that attracts me opposes this representational paradigm through the somatic investment of the performer, who lives through certain states of being even when they do not carry an obvious index of outward expression. Perhaps my interest in your performance is the confusion of these two modes: a vibration that goes beyond the design of your body onstage, an experience you are trying to capture but not quite represent.
If you ask me, though, I would risk saying what I witnessed touches on your own life beyond performativity. This is not about artistic research or speculation. I see you: Maria. Your dancing speaks to life, unmediated. It is a raw feeling, inextricably tied to your body, and which cannot be reduced to pleasure. How do you cope, being both material and artisan?
I imagine you practising in the studio, a body debating itself, seeking and pursuing a wisp of instinct. I imagine you testing the amount of tension in your muscles, lowering your core, knees active, twirling your ankles to stand on the inside edge of one foot, outside edge of the other, and contorting your torso accordingly; grounded, looking at your own hands: higher, for balance, stretched, and back to the centre as the feet turn on their insides, precariously, then one hand closed and the other splayed, sliding across the air, quick steps forward with a rigid spine and frantic energy, interrupted. I imagine you measuring your gestures among deep breaths, single-mindedly pursuing a movement born of need.
And then you measure yourself in the mirror. Or against a recorded image? In any case, decisions need to be made. Does the closed hand belong to a moment of transition, a single light on stage? How to feed the breeze? If you wear a long dress, does that enhance the dancing silhouette while deflecting the focus on physical appearance? What movements need detail and which will blur into the red field at the beginning of the performance? Maybe it is all much more instinctive. Ah, to be a fly…
I mentioned that this is not typically a performance I would enjoy. You could say that I am suspicious of dance for its own sake. What can a dancer on stage do? Can movement offer friction toward the usual modes of enjoyment, of desire (and this is why pleasure is not enough)? Religion as a device for pacification. Yet as contemporary art and I both obsess with processes and practices, I start to crave singular moments of charged expression. I’m not sure what was at stake, but my senses translated the interplay of sound, light and body into an uneasy edge of danger, as if the set-up could collapse with the slightest disturbance. The passion of the saints. An affirmation of emotional bonds.
At one point, a white lamp illuminated your chest. You danced around it, standing on the same spot but trembling in and out of its reach. With each circle back into the light, I asked myself if you were trying to highlight your heart. We were there, together, at the core of the earth, hearing our whispers swirl in the cold draft as you carefully drew them out.
Perhaps this is what is important in the work of the dancer, and in the work of the audience supporting the dancer. We tune into a space where words fail not to grasp the dancing itself, but to model the emotional range that becomes accessible through our shared commitment. Generated and imprinted through attention; movement to material, unmediated. Such things happen deep within, no blemishes visible on the skin as flesh aches and agitates.
The medieval-cave-cellar-stage allowed us to escape common life with perhaps more assertiveness than the usual black box. But at some point my body wanders back into the heat wave, and I ask myself about the uses of poetry. What we just felt there, can that ferment and bubble up into a lasting trace of how we move and act in the world? Can those most intimate and difficult movements scratch at the surface?
I realise I might have missed “the point” of your performance - and this time I choose not to limit myself in that pursuit. Sharing in your presence and that of the audience brought me back to questions close to my own core. And that is always reason to celebrate, Maria.
Thank you for a lovely time,
Editorial note: This text is written as part of an international writing workshop entitled Writing About Dance (On Body And Mobility). The workshop was a collaboration between Taneční aktuality and Performing Criticism Globally, kindly supported by EEA Grants, and the resulting texts were written in response to productions at this festival.
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