Probably, when push came to shove, William Butler Yeats knew that there are, in fact, quite a few ways to know the dancer from the dance. But for anyone who has trouble grasping that, a gem of a student performance last night at Bennington College made the case as eloquently as I can imagine it being made. In These Three: Nicole, Katie and Rivera, three young women (Nicole Pope, Katie Martin and Rivera Cook) beautifully articulated the idea that movement belongs to one person, but that it can be echoed and intensified and reinterpreted by the movement of another. As they explained to the audience in a short question-and-answer session after the performance, the dance choreography came about slowly. They were invited by their instructor, Dana Reitz, to bring a sequence to class. They then worked on examining the individual gestures, observing and learning each other’s motions, repeating the process, eliminating what seemed extraneous, adding what seemed essential, until—under Reitz’s direction—they had found their way to a piece that was luminous. The performance had no soundtrack: The musicality was expressed by the arch of a back, the swoosh of a bare foot against the wood floor, the intensifying exhales of the dancers as they intertwine, reaching into one another’s space without actually touching. As an audience member remarked, it was an outstanding example of process and product coming together, made all the more poignant by the fact that it was performed on the cusp of commencement; the fluidity of movement crystallized a connection made just before disbandment.
Bennington is about a 90-minute drive from Yaddo along twisting roads that, at least in my experience, are always populated by the slowest moving farm machinery in existence. Two-thirds of the way into the trip you cross from New York into Vermont, but the landscape holds that secret—the rolling hills and purple skyline remain constant from one county to the next. Yaddo and Bennington share several things, having sprung into being at a similar moment in American history; many of the teacher practitioners on Bennington’s faculty (and a good number of its alumni) have also come to Yaddo as guests over the years. Beyond that, the two institutions share a rare belief that creativity and reflection should be at the center of existence, not at the periphery. I can’t tell you how many letters I receive over the course of the year from artists who’ve spent time at Yaddo and who want to express the sense of relief they felt at being in a place where they didn’t have to explain all the time. The importance of their work, the decadeslong pursuit of an idea, the whacky hours they might choose to keep … here, it’s all taken for granted; they sit each night at dinner with people who get it. In an essay he wrote about Yaddo, John Cheever put it significantly better than I can:
To find a room in which you can count on being undisturbed until four in the afternoon and count then on sympathetic company, a swim and a good dinner is extremely difficult. It sometimes helps if the room that you work in bears the impress of someone you esteem, but it doesn’t much matter if your predecessor has been a broken-down historical novelist or—like myself—a blocked short story writer. They will have contributed to the fertility of a climate that encourages serious work.
These Three said to me that the climate at Bennington also knows how to foster creativity. Today, as I listened to Liz Coleman, Bennington’s president, talk, I thought of my grandfather, an uneducated, rebellious man who stood around 5-feet-3 and never met a question he didn’t like. He loved a curious mind as much as he loved a thick slice of toast slathered with butter and pepper, and almost as much as a good scotch. He might have found her erudition intimidating, the speed with which she speaks unnerving, but he would have adored her insistence on a questing mind. And why not?