- Carving Space
Blood on the floor. This striking image, set in a New York dance studio, launches the second essay in Renée E. D'Aoust's memoir Body of a Dancer, which chronicles a grueling and sometimes exhilarating two years in the career of a modern dancer. Having ceased ballet at age 16 when she realized she would never be a star, D'Aoust returned to dance seriously in 1993 at the age of 25 on a scholarship to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, known as "Martha's House of Pelvic Truth." Already saddled with a back injury when she arrives, D'Aoust struggles with the physical and psychological pain inflicted by this punishing art form. Memoirs reveal secrets, and here D'Aoust violates this injunction to dancers: "Don't tell anyone about the aches and pains." While studying at the Graham school, eventually, as she says, a "self-loathing of my body ran though everything I did: dance, work, sex."
The memoir—a collection of essays, some of which have appeared elsewhere—is at its best when it communicates the physicality of dance: the brutal toll on dancers' bodies, the animal pleasures of movement, the electric connection between performer and audience. Here, for instance, D'Aoust precisely depicts the foundational movement of Graham technique, the contraction, which "hollows out the abdomen so that it looks like a sail filled with air." In another compelling image, D'Aoust captures how, when a dancer warms up and cools down repeatedly, "the contraction and release of the muscles causes all the major ones to freeze like a package of peas that has taken the wrong shape."
D'Aoust experiments somewhat with style through lists and subtitles. In the devastating essay "Theatrical Release," for instance, which tells of a gifted fellow dancer who commits suicide, D'Aoust divides sections using right justified sentences and fragments with line breaks. Several of the subtitles convey the look and feel of a dancer's movement, as here: "She danced like a boxer: fast in, quick out / always going back for more. Her feet intricate." The line break conjures the image of a dancer who darts back and forth, then pauses; the consonance in the ending fragment evokes precise footwork. In another example, the line break literally creates on the page the "space" described: "Her whole life an effort to carve space / by shaping the negative air around her." I would have liked even more poetic language and stylistic play throughout the volume to help represent the bodily and evanescent art of dance, so difficult to render in language.
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The collection includes several memorable sketches of fellow dancers, such as Mara, the Argentinean whose voluptuous breasts boggle the other dancers; they bind theirs in sports bras to form "one full baguette of boob." Another dancer, Ted, a former Lutheran minister, embraces an ecstatic aesthetic akin to that of Isadora Duncan, the foremother of modern dance. When the spirit moves him, he unrolls a portable dance floor and dances on sidewalks to the bewilderment of passers-by. As he choreographs a dance that his mother will see, he considers dancing nude—for "the integrity of the piece," he says. But another dancer argues, "Your flopping wang does not belong in your mother's face."
The essays are skillfully linked using quotations, many from famous dancers, which serve as epigraphs to individual essays as well as transitions between them. The repetition of key images and words also weaves the collection together. The essay that centers on Ted's "holy" dance, for example, nicely leads into "Island Rose": D'Aoust recounts how her body finally felt "whole" the summer she spent performing at Martha's Vineyard, which enabled her to leave professional dance behind.
In the excellent essay that follows, a tension between feeling "whole" and sensing an inner "hole" surfaces when D'Aoust attends a Graham company performance ten years later. On the one hand, she feels fat, jealous, and that she's lost her guts, creating...