Dancing with Sophie Taeuber-Arp
……….I’m thinking of all the ways the body unfurls in the first light of spring. Small ways, incrementally: fingers budding open; hands splayed, not clenched; the jaw no longer taut against winter’s strife. Not quite dance, but movement, an unwitnessed motion unmistakable in its care. Like a bear pawing sleep encrusted eyes, the first pang of hunger breaking hibernation. A small way, a small paw, a small, swift motion, taking us out of the hollow nonetheless.
……….But Sophie, as the body curls outwards, a convex line, a concave motion, muscle once woven tight as bindweed slackened, flowing, flowering into release – Sophie, as I begin again, I’m reminded of those bodies never to wake. No stirrings, but grief. Bodies caught in a wintry hold, a vicious grip; a griping, groping, grasping death. No motion, no language, just the gnashing sounds of all who remain, grieving their silence. Their stillness.
……….Sophie, what I mean to ask is this: how can we dance again, when many are no longer moving, no longer responding to the sound of light, to a lighter touch, to revivifying rhythms happening over there but calling us, calling us, calling us…
……….…. How did you learn to dance in the rubble of war? How did you dance despite Europe’s groaning trenches? What wild and circular motions drew your body outwards, ablaze in its own life, when all around you was the gaping dark, the stiffening and stifling of motion? Tell me, Sophie; teach me to dance.
……….Are we ever out of motion? Do we ever stop moving? Isn’t death one more rotation into other lights, other bodies, other spheres? I am not spiritual – not in a religious sense – but if there’s one rule sewn into the very fabric of my life, my works, my movements; one motif keeping time, one thread pulling all into order, it is this: we do not stop moving; we never fully end; we revolve again and again.
……….You ask me how I could dance when war blared its ugliness all around. How could I not? How could I not dance, fingers contriving tapestries and tapestries turning spindles; circles returning me to a centred impetus to create our way out of the encircling destruction.
……….Even grief demands you must go on; do not believe its stillness. There is subtle motion, enough to seize on, bringing us backwards facing past. I, therefore, had to dance, and I will teach you to do so too.
……….This morning, seeing your postscript on the envelope, the elegant slope of your signature, I almost did a little dance. A marionette jerking into action at the pull of your hand. Thank you for this candid and reanimating response; I’m grateful.
……….Before your letter arrived, I was looking at your early gouaches from 1917: Elementary Forms in Vertical Horizontal Composition. In the gallery, a few weeks ago, I had stood staring at them for some time, my nose twitching from the freshly painted walls, my eyes wet from the fumes. Perhaps the contrasting colours had a synesthetic effect, a kinetic pull; these glowing ‘Compositions’ having an alchemical reaction. But then, even then, I saw the revolutions you mention in your work. Modular shapes going roguishly organic, straining at their geometric grids, growing, vibrating into darker tonalities, lighter shades: a breathing, painted thing, a structured rhythmic pattern harmoniously threatening to break through their own staves. These shapes evolve, then revolve back into their earlier forms; a kind of valve-like vacillation – or symbiotic syncopation?
……….I do not mean to overcomplicate the matter, but staring at your compositions in this dimly lit space, they seemed to move, lift off the page, hover, expand, slowly groove – do you use the jazz word groove? – to their own beat, their own time, so that the gallery was a stage of moving colour, its cavernous interior contracted down to a diorama of shifting shapes and sounds: flickering reds exhaling ochres; milky yellows stretched like a drum skin, a solemn carmine sun baldly burning its centre; a convex field of fern yielding to navy waters; a pink iris grazing a strip of aubergine.
……….Turning over the pages of your book, looking at those same ‘Compositions’ (the faded flatness of its plates cannot halt this movement), I’m reminded that all such studies are full of dance, full of carefully choreographed steps, revealing your rapid eye-to-hand coordination, your swift instinctual decisions. So that, you are dancing on the page, albeit gently, quietly, letting the waves of your brush and pen proliferate out after the shape is complete. The inheritance of a dancer: their former gesture a permanent echo – no longer heard or seen, but felt by all who witness it. A true revolution between artist and viewer; dancer and spectator: a curve, a line, made by a figure imparted through the air from one to the other, so that, truly, two bodies are in motion through the reciprocity of seeing.
……….I have gone on too much. Please excuse my excitement – your letter has conjured these movements into my head, before my eyes; harmonies that won’t be stopped regardless of the thrashing noise of war, the false machines of politics. Here, a dance of life, anti-war, anti-strife, anti-rationality: vertical horizontal forms dissembling and assembling in front of us; not up or down, but all around, a dancing, fleeting, meeting thing; score and movement at once. Maybe I’m closer to the first step?
……….With affectionate gratitude,
……….‘A dancing, fleeting, meeting thing; score and movement at once.’ Yes, there is some truth in this. Though you’re forgetting the compositions became hangings, other works of art, other ‘things’ with which to furnish homes as well as galleries; things to touch as well as glean. Score and movement at once, no barriers, no barring definitions, a defiant fluidity between thought and study and its material concretization. Tapestries were made from these elementary studies, without one out-valuing the other. A pas de deux between fine art and what is termed ‘applied’; a dancing amalgam shimmying (never waltzing) its way from the exhibition space into the home – which takes me back to the question in your letter, about jazz slang and ‘groove’, and my accepting the task of teaching you to dance.
……….You’re already finding your feet; your groove, not so much. But groove is an interesting word, is it not? Carpenters make grooves in wood, sculptors in marble and clay; a tunnel, a trench, a grave are all grooves of a kind and this here exchange of ours is a groove we’re beginning to habitually and playfully participate in. Another kind of groove; another type of dance.
……….Your letter reminded me of a piece made not long after the making of Elementary Forms. Head, of which there are several, is a groove and required grooves of a kind too. It is this with which you lead your previous letter. It is all head – and the head cannot dance alone, remember – not really. For it is the heaviest part of the body, it leads and is led, it is the key to balance and direction, though continually going against both in the world of men. I created Head at a time when all world leaders had lost them, when the nonsense of social classifications and political bifurcations and artistic demarcations needed to be called out, exposed, held up, mocked, responded to by the nonsense of the imagination. Enter Dada, enter Head. My work was nonsensically and wonderfully hybrid: a portrait, a sculpture, an object, a prop, an ornament, a statement. A wooden bust; a 3D painting, an assemblage, crafted of glass and paint and string, but still insisting ‘I’m art, art, art’.
……….The war had severed the body from the head. How to piece them together again? How to give back man his prized epistemic part, historically revered, though unbalanced throughout? Feminize it, play with it, make it a flashbulb, a Van de Graaf, a hat stand, a phrenology head gone wrong – or right. A narrow white isosceles trapezoid nose juts out from a modular face; a hint of an eye, a sprig of hair, a coiling earring; neither orator, senator or philosopher, this is the disembodied head I prize; this is a composite of my knowledge at the time – and she makes me laugh.
……….All the other Heads, particularly the Dada Tête, were evolutions of the first, but I revolve and return in my mind to this one each time.
……….We start with the head, for sure, especially when spinning – spot your place – but the body must follow. Remember.
……….You’re absolutely right: my letter was all head and not enough body – not enough heart. With Head you’ve given me a place to return, a simplified form with which to orientate myself and reconfigure my own. Spinning in word and deed will be easier now. I shall spot your work before bringing my own head back round.
……….I am typical of my age to an extent: I, too, have become a mere head and shoulders, hovering on screens, limbless on the virtual stage of life. I’m not sure how to bring the body back into view, back into action, to give it the spotlight.
……….I take my cue from your marionettes, made for the production of King Stag whilst you were in Zurich. It’s as if they were cut from the same block of wood as Head, but with a slightly different tool, a sharper blade, a sharper intent. Despite their strings, these are no puppets. In the gallery, I swear one winked at me and another stuck out its tongue. I stood waiting for them to smash the vitrine glass, impishly jump out, cavort on the shards, strut or march along the edges of other cabinets, in turn liberating your wood sculptures, bags and lace. But no, they stared out, obeying the curatorial rules of logic despite representing the drives and forces behind Freudian psychoanalysis.
……….They are all body – not all Id, I do not mean it in this sense; rather, their heads are no bigger than other body parts; they are not ruled by one main organ or form; they are multiple modules put together with ambidextrous joints. They are holistically realised and controlled; they are beautifully crafted and uniformly expressive – they are dancers.
……….And yet they have only “danced” twice and have been carefully kept in storage by the Museum für Gestaltung, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Zurich, all this time. I shall have to dance for them. And I did, a little, this morning, groove pending: I flexed each joint in my toes, hands, opening up my arms from wrist to elbow to upper arm and shoulder, letting the eyes of my chest as they say in Yoga look out and around.
……….I am unfurling, bobbing along like Clarissa, King Deramo, Angela and the whole host of other personalities you designed – a flex, a twist, the snap of a joint, each limb undulating, grooving into being. A dance.
……….I enjoyed your encounter with my marionettes – I fancied they spoke too and secretly I cannot abide vitrines. The puppets were always active works of art, ready to move and be moved. Thinking about the processes used to craft them, of which several people were involved, I’m reminded of another important aspect of dance, one which is just as true of life as it is of art: collaboration. Dancing in the light of your own glory is one thing, but to dance as one body, that is quite another. It requires more strength, more focus, more discipline, more vision to move as an ensemble and create one living breathing line together. Laban believed that and, despite his major flaws, I’m forever grateful he taught us to know the body of others as intimately as our own; to understand the importance of the ligament, the phrase, the pace, the tone and timbre of steps, the shade and colour of movement, so that, piece by piece, we could form one abstracted whole.
……….Let me go further; let me relate one sublime summer’s evening where the power of the ensemble came to me. Sonia and I had been dancing in the garden of____. Music from their gramophone poured onto the lawn, drifted above the swaying tops of trees and across the neighbouring yards and fields. Sonia had drunk too much, which was unusual for her – she was the one who kept time perfectly. She stumbled a little as I held her hands, conscious of the warmth of her fingers, the red dregs of wine flecking her white chemise like perfect glass beads.
……….The soberer of the two, I was aware of everything; Sonia, however, was awash with the moment, swaying against the tempo and smiling foolishly to her own. We began laughing, twirling around and around until we were out of breath and the music, like the dark expanse of sky, rushed ahead of us, laying open to our sight the contrasting colours of things. We collapsed in two sun chairs and I remembered thinking how beautiful her dark hair looked against the deepening blue, how exquisite the mauve embroidery appeared against the yellow skirt she had insisted on wearing, against Robert’s request for her to relinquish the flamboyant outfit for the evening. I remember thinking how the greens from the trees met the browns of their bark; how the red begonias bordering the lawn hung lush and heavy in the sinking humidity, their petals tumbling full and loose onto the hard grey paving. I remember thinking, ‘this is a night where all things come together, where colours escape their unusual sequences and prismatically embrace’, refracting into purer essences which flitted and floated before my eyes. Next to me Sonia had drifted into a light sleep, her muscles relaxing, the faint rise and fall of her breathing keeping time for the symphonic vision of forms and shades all around us. It all worked and flowed and resounded together, these sights and their related sensations; the outer world collaborated – not conspired – grooved into and off each other, coalescing, converging into a dynamic variegated whole, of which I was both a part and apart.
……….Hans’ paintings draped the tables, a basket of pears collected by Emmy shone in the evening half-light, their green-golden glint another contrast to the wicker’s dun brown. These unmoored sights lifted and twisted in my mind’s eye, an ever-turning world crafted together, collated by me in this moment, but everywhere evidence of other hands and bodies and eyes; other impulses, sensations and tastes; other choices, decisions and intentions aflame before me, spinning anew, turning into tomorrow’s dress design or carpet or wall hanging or sleeve or gouache painting. These are the skeins we unknowingly weave together, the individual actions of others combining to a communal scene. I am a collaborator first and foremost, whether I acknowledge it or not; my artist’s name conceals a whole host of bodies; an ensemble, a corps, a troupe, who carry the dance.
……….On the precipice of another war, a different group effort whose choreographies would leak blood across Europe, Asia and Africa, I savoured this jig we had created together, this prismatic moment, a nacreous feeling, as the dying light slowly sloped in on itself and stillness settled until dawn.
……….Thank you for sharing that moment with me – I am with you in that garden. You are right: we are all collaborators, all part of an ensemble, whether we choose to realise it or not. But we are not taught like this; individualism, the solo genius, the one who crosses the finishing line or stands triumphantly atop a mountain first, are still the prized visions by which we strive, judge and measure ourselves. To realise we’re part of a grand ensemble requires us to relinquish our obsession with principal roles and parts – but I digress.
……….I want to thank you for your letters and your work, which capture this sense of collaboration you talk of and encourage us to dance beyond any type of notation. I keep thinking back to the monochrome photograph of you, mid-motion, masked, head-to-toe in what appears to be cardboard and foil, and other materials obfuscating where face and hands and limbs should be, twisting you into a moving marionette, a flashing body of a body, wrapped in someone else’s words, someone else’s design, but the thrashing electric movement all yours, emotion distilled and elucidated into a living, breathing choreography all your own. The crackle of the mic, of Ball’s voice reflecting and bouncing off your cumbersome armour, while underneath you manoeuvre language, negotiate it into a new sensation and usher it into different spaces between the taped seams of your costume, Arp’s design, Ball’s bombastic blasting of ears and minds and mores in the Cabaret Voltaire.
……….And as you thrash around, rising from the rank and clamour of war, going on elsewhere yet rumbling beneath the feet of the audience, unsettling the stomach, unhinging the face, making us mask-like in the face of fear, as you rise in your terrible costume, each frantic spin faster than a Kathak dancer, faster but tethering you to the earth not air, not flight, I think of the circles you traced in a Parisian café, on a Parisian lane, down a Parisian boulevard, later, when life had resumed again and cities reassembled; I think of the circles, in your later paintings, stilled and solidified into reliefs, no longer spinning from terror, but composed, their circumferences almost standing corner to corner like a corps de ballet; I think of the tender curlicues for Arp’s poems, sliding into and under one another, looping into other circular motions and meanings, like your terrific limbs that night on stage, sharply snapping in and out of action only to snake their way through folds of material, tracing a figure 8 on the floor. You bravely danced your way through life, circling danger but never cowed by it, never discontinuing the line but creating your own, albeit curved, delineation. A drawing, a weave, a desk, a bag, a window, a painting, a motion, a word, a step: a dance. A dancing, fleeting, meeting thing; score and movement at once.
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