Dancer-turned-journalist describes creation of performance art piece

The light dimmed, and a woman’s voice began to speak, describing legs bending, feet hurting, the jealous emotions between dancers, the frustration with impossible-to-please choreographers, and the joy of the action itself.

Claudia La Rocco

Thus began “I just need one word and I can tell you everything,” a performance art piece created by Claudia La Rocco, former dance critic for The New York Times and current editor-at-large for the Brooklyn Rail, as well as a dancer and poet. The work was presented as part of a talk by La Rocco on Oct. 15 during her visit on campus as a Poynter Fellow in Journalism.

The disembodied voice continued, expressing other anxieties of a dancer: “Do they see you now as your own artist, not just the thing doing and being done upon?” “What if your material never finds you?” “What did you believe before the technique was put on you?” Images of pain, death and suffering were repeated throughout: a dead deer, a car crash, a school shooting, a fire, estrangement between lovers.

In introducing the piece, Emily Coates, a faculty member in the Theater Studies Program,  relayed La Rocco’s encouragement that audience members interact with the performance in whatever manner felt appropriate. Audience members responded in a variety of ways. A number mimicked the movements described by the voice, others walked about the room, and some even laid down on the floor.

When the performance was over and the lights came on, La Rocco herself entered the room and offered to answer questions from the audience, a majority of whom were in Coates’ “experimental writing and performance” class.

The piece originated, according to La Rocco, when a friend of hers, a curator of an art gallery, was doing a group show of performance art pieces. The friend wanted to represent something that doesn’t leave behind object traces of itself, as the visual arts do. La Rocco — inspired by her time as a dance critic when she had to pay attention to minute details while describing a performance that by its very nature leaves no trace — wanted to replicate that feeling. And so a lot of the material “minutely describes things, to the point that [they] become abstract, so precise that they don’t tell you anything,” La Rocco told the audience.

Asked about the images of death and suffering that give the performance art piece its air of melancholy and sadness, La Rocco said that, as a writer, she is drawn to sadness, “I find it stupidly romantic,” she said. But in terms of the piece itself, “I was thinking of power dynamics of makers and doers, the moment when you feel like you’re fulfilling the thing, and then the next moment you aren’t, of those competing languages and intimacies in the [dance rehearsal] room.”

La Rocco also discussed her writing process. As she described, “my process is staring at something, knowing the deadline is approaching and knowing that I should be doing it.” She then referenced a David Foster Wallace quote she felt summed it up quite nicely, “I’ll spend 8 hours a day worrying about not writing.” This space when it feels like nothing is getting done is actually incredibly important to her, said La Rocco.

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