Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Descent

I am writing this post off the back of the first session of my Dancing with the Red Goddess Course.

The first session is entitled "The Descent" and is themed around the myth of Inanna's descent into the underworld.

The link between this tale, and the toolkit of an artist or performer are plain to me. At the beginning of the tale Inanna dresses in all her finery. In fact she dresses in enough finery that the guardians of the underworld, and her "sister" Ereshkrigal would be suspicious of her motives, and rightly so. The recorded myths don't seem to make it very clear what she was up to taking a day trip into places no living being would willingly go; but it does appear clear that she sought to protect herself from harm, by loading herself down with "Mes", symbols that align with the features of the civilised, earthly world.

The thing is, that while these protected her, they also prevented her from reaching what, if it were not her conscious goal, is the necessary path in her tale.

Ereshkrigal, the queen of the underworld, represents a darker side to Inanna, she is the goddess of death to oppose the goddess of love (Inanna). She is not so much a sibling, as the darker side of the same being. In order to be whole, we have to be prepared to meet and understand the side of ourselves that doesn't usually see the light of day. We may choose not to express it, but we do need to be aware of it to be sure that is the right choice.

As performers, we often portray a character or a role, but that's not good enough. Your audience is too clever for that. Your audience knows when you fake it, and the only way to present a genuine performance, that will sit well with them, is to include a strong element of your true self. A streak of vulnerability. A good dose of honesty. How can we do that, if we don't really understand who we are. What is there under the sequins and makeup?

When I prepared for this session, I looked at Inanna's finery, and the Mes they represent. I wondered what these might mean for a modern day performer.

It should be noted, that these are not "bad" things. In fact they represented the ideals that make society work. If however, we hold them too tight, or mistake them for being part of ourselves, rather than a framework we can live around, they become millstones around our necks. As a performer they become inhibiting, and they hold us back. So what stops us from being the artists we want to be? Here are just a couple of examples.

Your status, job or role. Even if that identity for you is that of a dancer. In fact, does being "a dancer" or "a dance teacher" hold you back from taking the risks that might make you look undeserving of that title, but also might just make magic happen. Perhaps you have a "serious" job, that makes it hard to let go as a performer, lest that professional mask slips.

Your creations, and spiel. As artists self expression is what we do when we do it best, but your art is not you, it is derived from you. The things you produce, and the things you say, are not you.

Your gender role/sexuality. As women (and for those living as women), who this course is geared towards, we live under a heap of expectations in terms of our behaviour, our dress, our personal grooming. Sometimes we are loathe to be raw, or emotive, or willful; Or alternatively, we fear to let slip our sensuality, lest it be misinterpreted as an invitation, rather than simply an expression of feeling good in our skin.

Letting go

In order to enter the underworld, Inanna has to shed a layer of protection at each of the gates. She casts aside her status, her magic, her loves, her ego, her will, her illumination and her role as a woman, and stands naked before her dark sister.

It's a frightening process to go through, but also liberating. 

I would like to share an example of how letting go of the constructs that helped me define and maintain the everyday version of myself could contribute to my dance.

It was a running theme that I had a  technical issue with my dance. A small niggling flaw became part of my identity as a dancer, I complained to my teachers about it, and the consciousness spread so that it was always a feature of my dance critiques. After one performance, where I had worked so hard to eliminate it, and it happened so little, that were you not looking for it, you would never notice, it was mentioned again as a flaw in my performance. 

Annoyed with myself, I watched a video of that dance, and then I watched several others, and I noticed that several dancers who "didn't" have this issue, seemed to manifest it more than I did. In fact one of my greatest dance idols carries it almost as a feature of her dance. In other words, my "problem" was now only a problem because I brought attention to it, through my self-critique.

So I cast off the lapis beads. I told some close dance friends that I was done with it. I no longer have this issue, it is not part of my dance. 

It doesn't happen anymore. The physical work I did to correct my technique was weighed down by the construct I had created. When I let go, I freed myself to be a better dancer.

Often the ideas we have about ourselves, or the ideas others have about us, can be a positive for our performance. We can take them and use them to add texture to our expression. We need to be mindful though, of what we carry on our shoulders, what we need, and what we must cast aside, and most importantly, to not be afraid to be naked, and staring ourselves in the eyes.

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