Between my degree at Iowa and my entry into the PhD program at Temple University, a decade intervened. During those ten years, I married, earned an MFA in poetry at Syracuse University, a PhD in fiction from the University of Georgia, and published my first book of poetry, Unfathoms. Circumstance, compromise, and various choices placed me for three of those years in a suburban cul-de-sac halfway between Athens and Atlanta with two and then three small children. I was not dancing, and that tangible absence in my life was not a good thing.
Meanwhile, I watched my brother Alex move from David Parson’s Dance Company to Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas before incurring a career-ending back injury. My sister Taryn was also translated: she moved from the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago to Hubbard Street Dance Company before becoming the director of HSDC’s second company. My younger brother Misha worked with several postmodern companies in Chicago and Seattle as dancer and composer before beginning training as a yoga instructor. Talking with these artists—my siblings—it occurred to me that a singular unswerving path through the world of dance was not a commonality; at the very least, there were other models. Perhaps one of those alternate routes involved returning to dance with tools developed elsewhere. I could hope.
During my PhD in English, one of my three areas of concentration was literary theory. I was drawn to texts that addressed poetry’s attempts to transcend its own materiality: how words were used to get to something beyond words. All art might be described as engaging in a similar project, but I realized that my chosen fields—poetry and dance—in transcending their own materiality somehow also transcended the self. Language and the body are materials inseparable from identity. I began to look for literature and theory that reflected on a particular artistic goal, that of moving beyond the personhood of the artist.
One theorist, in particular, stood out: Julia Kristeva. Her writing resonated with me because her psychoanalytical background detailed how experiences can shape identity, because she wrote about how writing and language cannot be divorced from the body, because she spoke of motherhood/daughterhood as undertheorized and generative realms, and because she acknowledged the history of gender without insisting on gendered attributes as essential characteristics of the artist; in fact, the majority of her examples of feminine écriture were drawn from literature written by men. She also wrote about depression and melancholy in exhaustive detail, and not primarily as mental diseases, but as fertile states for art production and the search for meaning. In her later life, she has written philosophical novels and been accused of dilettantism. I connected to her writing on many levels.
As I studied theory, I was simultaneously drafting my creative dissertation—a novel about a performance art form that does not exist. The characters were based loosely on my siblings and their relationships to dance and with one other. I was beginning to focus on describing the indescribable—somehow making dance live on (or just above) the page. Another theorist I was reading at the time, Theodor Adorno, describes the art effect I was attempting to capture in my work:
In each genuine artwork something appears that does not exist. It is not dreamt up out of disparate elements of the existing. Out of these elements artworks arrange constellations that become ciphers, without, however, like fantasies, setting up the enciphered before the eyes as something immediately existing.
Without going into the problematics of this quote (how can one know what a genuine art work is?), reflecting on it and passages like it forced me to articulate my own reason for studying art—to talk about what is never quite there. I have never been interested in simply recording observable phenomena on the page or stage, although that is a necessary aspect of what I do want to do. My fascination lies in what art points to—its potential sources and meanings… its beyond.
Specifically, I want to discuss artistic implications that are impossible to simply paraphrase: the unsayable and often painful experiences that both necessitate and are made manifest in some works of art. I want to talk about how an artwork made from the stuff of the self (language and/or body) reveals and communicates its elusive meanings to its audiences, its performers, even its creator. I want to witness the transformation of artistic urgency into an artistic product capable of moving others. Julia Kristeva references, in the very last sentence of her book Powers of Horror, the moment when keen suffering becomes art: “the sublime point at which the abject collapses in a burst of beauty that overwhelms us.” I want my writing to dwell on and in this overwhelming.