The humane choreographic method of Joe Goode

On the weekend of May 20-22 I took the workshop “Finding the Bones” with Joe Goode and his company dancer emerita Marit Brook-Kothlow. The workshop was described in promotional material as follows:

“Using a teaching style developed by Joe Goode that incorporates movement, writing, and spoken word, participants will learn to be more aware and compassionate communicators, honest performers, and creative and mindful individuals.”

Specific acts of movement, writing and spoken word, are also described. But implicit in the workshop’s description is an understanding that performance is often uncomfortable, even when desired and desirable. The description also reveals a source of that discomfort by suggesting that performance doesn’t always feel “authentic”.

Despite its psychological underpinnings, the weekend-long workshop had a steelier direction, systematically revealing Joe Goode’s approach to choreography, a form of dance composition that requires speech and narrative to be incorporated into movement. Even further, that dance is a form of speech and narrative but one that needs those companion forms, essentially, in its performance. Speech, narrative and movement are indivisible in Joe’s choreographic process.

Joe Goode Performance Group

Dancers Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Andrew Ward and Damara Vita Ganley in rehearsal of the Joe Goode Performance Group. Photo by Jessica Swanson.

This introduction to the process was done in a carefully presented series of short exercises that led the workshop participants to intuit the narrative basis of movement.

The workshop on Day 1 began at 6 p.m. and ended at 9 p.m. It began as a short introduction by Joe followed by a warm-up that he calls “movement for humans”. Joe began the session by asking us to leave our ambitions, striving and the need to compete behind: Your grandmother loves you, he tells us. The warm-up took place on the floor, so that most of the body was supported most of the time. The moves resembled yoga, without the forced positions or sustained poses. Though rolling from curled position to curled position might seem almost too easy, it warms the muscles and the joints. Effort is made but as a form of relaxation. Waking up the next day I knew I had been exercising, all of my body seemed sore, but not, thankfully, too sore.

Rather than sitting in a circle and introducing ourselves in that self-conscious and stiff way that most workshops use so that participants have a sense of who is there and why, introductions to the group were done as a series of short exercises. We paired off, and were asked to enact how we saw the other person when she first entered the room. This was a challenge. I hadn’t seen, or noticed, my partner until the moment we paired off. I had to make a quick intuitive judgement on how she would have been moving if I had seen her at the beginning of the class. We then told each other something about our names. Interestingly, everyone took that to mean their given names, rather than their family names. Then going around the circle, people introduced their partners to everyone else by telling the story of the other’s name while enacting the gestures of how they had first seen them. It was collaborative, informative, simultaneously intimate and distant, as performance is, and completely painless.

The next exercise was to write in answer to the question, “What part of your body disturbs you?” We then chose six to eight words and the one word that contained all our emotion toward that part of the body. We were then given a chair and told to devise three sets of movement; for example, two long elegant movements toward the chair, and a finalizing movement. We then spoke the text while moving. Finally, we were asked to take the body part out of the movement. Voilà: the first dance.

Day 2 ran from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Marit led the workshop in the morning, and from her we learned a combination to music, similar to floor work in most dance classes. The combination had some characteristically modern dance moves along with moves that were extensions of something we might do in the course of the day: wiping a table, for instance.

In the afternoon, Joe asked us to again divide into partners. We shared singing, in an innovative and spontaneous way; a kind of sound-making. And then we were asked to write about our mothers. Once again the text pried into pain, but this time the pain that forms around our closest, most primal relationship. “What,” question asked, “is it about you that your mother is most disappointed in?” Everyone then read her text to her partner and the partner would choose some words in the text that were appealing or engaging. These weren’t necessarily about summarizing the text, or choosing the most insightful six words; the choice could be simply the most musical phrase, or the most nonsensical phrase. The writer of the text would then devise three movements based on text the partner had chosen. Her partner would “amplify” one of the movements by repeating it in some fashion. That gave each person a set of four performative phrases: singing or sound-making; a fragment of personal text; three connected movements inspired by that text; an “echo” of the partner’s movements.

To those four was added another set of phrases. Each performer would “place” her partner in a position, as if she were a statue. Then she would move into the negative spaces of her partner’s position. Once in that entwined position the two performers would “rock”. That gave each performer a set of six phrases. We were then asked to choreograph these phrases into a minute to a minute-and-a-half collaborative piece. Voilà: the second dance.

Day 3, which also ran from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., began with the movement for humans warm-up. After an exercise on reading movement cues from a partner, similar to the “push hands” exercise in Tai Chi, and a short discussion about performance and the emotions motivating performance, the workshop moved on to the third choreographic module. Again, we haphazardly separated into teams of two, and began to devise performative phrases, verbal and kinetic. Questions cued the making of these phrases, such as “What are you good at?” And the texts we each edited down our own texts by choosing a phrase or two of six to eight words, or one word. The one word was then inserted into the other phrase. The words I chose this time around fell into the following text:

dried leaves on abandoned
Victorian brick wall abandoned
music surprising word abandoned

Another text-generating exercise required moving around the large dance studio/ performance space and finding an object we were attracted to and describing it with three words. I found a pair of faux patent leather leopard skin mary-jane platform shoes. The three words were: shiny, animal, comfortable. We were then asked to put those into a description of ourselves. Here is the text I wrote:

Like a magpie I love shiny objects. I also love large, fluffy pillows and heaps of bright-eyed cats, glittering cups of tea, babas au rhum.

These texts we read to our partners. My partner had written a text on the tortures of insomnia. Collaboration with anyone is often an exercise in opposites. And the opening of thought that brings with it.

The movements we developed were extensions of the practices that we had used in the preceding two days. Finally, we were asked to put together a two- to three-minute dance. The difference being that we had to chose a particular space in the large dance/ office/ performance space. One of the major differences between this space and most dance studios is that there are no mirrors, a deliberate choice on Joe’s part. He didn’t explain why but my instinct is that having no mirrors requires two crucial things: trust in the emotional “rightness” of your choreography and trust in your fellow dancers and observers to recognize and accept that emotional rightness.

My partner and I chose a two-story-tall blank dark gray wall. It was the epitome of large open spaces gone entirely neutral. As we worked on putting together steps and text, Joe walked around posing a question and challenge to each group, “Where are you going to put the audience?” The answer had to be very specific, and in our case he suggested we ask the viewers to lie down on the floor with their heads back so that they were watching us from below and upside-down. That was too extreme for me to feel comfortable with – as an artist I tend to be minimalist along with all the constraint that implies – but I’m usually willing to go along with the program if a designated leader has an idea. Why not? It’s an opportunity for experiment, and it’s not going to ruin or even radically change my life. Change has always been a glacially slow process for me; surely a comment on the stickiness of my internal capacity for resistance. And so, our audience watched us upside down and from below as they were stretched out on the floor. Voilà: the third dance.

As I hope the above narrative points out this workshop was a detailed, well-thought-out excursion into a form of choreography developed by Joe Goode over, I imagine, some thirty years of work. It was brilliant, tender and fertile, moving through all the living aspects of performance from dancer/ singer to audience/ viewer.