Softly. Bending. Hand Pointing to the Ground
“[The score] is kind of like a tranquilizer, like taking a quaalude, maybe...”
Melinda Wilson, a former ballet dancer, muses to Chicago-based artist Cherrie Yu. The pair are listening to an audio translation of Yvonne Rainer’s famous Trio A, a solo dance where Rainer performed choreography without musical backing and features a seamless flow of everyday movements like toe tapping, walking, and kneeling. The audio translation comes from Melinda’s longtime friend and percussion musician Joyce Linsey, who happened to be Melinda’s accompanist for many years. Joyce describes the movements of Rainer’s Trio A:
"Softly around/ softly around, forward/ bending/ arms/ spherically/ as she turns, and sways/ she continues to roll in circle/ her arms/ skipping..."
The audio is actually four separate tracks overlaid: three of Joyce describing Rainer’s choreography, and a fourth of her playing percussion instrument while watching Trio A. Joyce’s voice reverbs, echoing over itself, overlapping, folding in—like dropping a pebble in a small koi pond and watching the ripple vibrate across the surface of the water until it meets the edge and turns back, meeting itself head on. Or, as Melinda described it, the audio is like a tranquilizer. The three voices and percussion track are overwhelming, yet Joyce’s voice is languid and elastic, stretching time out so that the audio feels both rapid and slow moving. Cherrie and Melinda listen to the score three times. They are beginning to choreograph a segment for Yu’s Trio: A Translation Project, a continuation of an earlier project that Yu started in 2020. Each time Cherrie plays the audio, they both listen and note down different phrases that stand out.
“Hmm. I’m not really sure where to begin.” Cherrie says. She is contemplative and serious, a characteristic heightened by her closely cropped hairstyle and tendency to pause deliberately between thoughts.
The pair are choreographing over Zoom, a challenging constraint that neither seems particularly perturbed nor stifled by. I’m grateful because it allows me to linger as a fly on the wall, swaddled in an afghan on my bed as I hurriedly scribble notes, even though I’m surreptitiously recording their conversation on my phone as well. I spend the majority of the time attempting to describe Melinda’s movements. They start the rehearsal with a warmup. Cherri tasked Melinda with an assignment to identify three movements from her week that she could demonstrate. She performs two of the movements. The first one she demonstrates is a cross-legged position where she rests her shoulder on her knee and her chin on the inside of her wrist. She explains that she watched a dance student assume this position during class. The second movement she acts out is of someone crossing the street and looking over their shoulder. Cherrie gently chastises Melinda, explaining that she was hoping that the movements she brought would be ones that she herself acted out and not someone else’s, Cherrie suggests, “they could be something as small as getting out of bed or the way you hold up your arm to brush your teeth.”
Melinda laughs and sheepishly adds, “It’s hard as a dancer because so many people have molded me!”
I laugh and anxiously glance to make sure that my audio is still muted. As an amateur dancer with some training in modern and contemporary, I find her comment quite humorous. Dancers are quite literally taught to suppress their own idiosyncratic styles of movement in order to master the forms and techniques of their chosen dance style, repeating positions and poses until they’re muscle memory. Now, Cherrie is doing the reverse, attempting to prod Melinda towards a more primal understanding of her movements, stripping back her formal training in order to identify more task-oriented, unrefined movement.
“Okay, I don’t think it’s helpful to improvise out of nowhere. I think it might be helpful to go back to some of the segments you shared with me during the warmup,” Cherrie says, deciding on a course of action. Melinda begins moving, arching her back in a feline-like position before tossing her right arm over her shoulder and gently tapping herself on the back with her fingertips. She buckles her upstage leg and pivots to face her laptop. She moves closer to the camera.
Melinda describes the feeling of the movement sequence. I notice that she pauses frequently, often punctuating her statements with a question: “How do I say this?” She contemplates before responding, yet she’s jovial and unpretentious in her explanations, often laughing in a high-pitched way, quietly trailing off at the end. Haw, haw, haw... She has high-arched eyebrows, a pleasant, broad smile, and a dramatic smokey eye that’s noticeable even through the grain of the webcam. The pair decide to slow down, focusing their attention to each movement as a single unit.
Cherrie later emails me a 2014 essay by Yvonne Rainer titled “The Aging Body in Dance,” explaining that the essay was illuminating during the rehearsal process because all of the performers for Trio A: A Translation Project turned out to be over forty, and all of them people with children. The dancers include Melinda; Tony Rodriguez, a retired Chicago firefighter; and Cherrie’s own mother. She adds, “I didn’t plan for this, it [just] came to be this way. I think it comes through in their writing, sometimes in very different ways—how they perceive the change in their bodies, and how they relate to their children in a physical way.”
In her essay, Rainer writes, “In these recent dances I have given myself roles other than that of a dancer. Mainly through the reading of texts (authored by others), I variously enact a carnival barker, a historian, a social critic, a political analyst, master of ceremonies, and narrator of my brother’s cognitive decline. My preferred mode of self-presentation is “existence.” I love to exist on stage. I no longer “dance.”
This ethos, a rejection of typified forms of dance and performance, emerges full-fledged in Cherrie’s work. The range of performers, largely individuals with no formal dance background, prioritizes raw, unaffected movement. Except in Cherrie’s project, text is used in a multitude of ways. First, Rainer’s original dance is translated into a written score, which Cherrie and the performer use as material to choreograph new movements. Second, Cherrie has each performer write in response to various prompts during rehearsal. These texts later become a voiceover for the filmed segments ofTrio A: A Translation Project.
Cherrie asks Melinda to “describe an instance where you felt apathetic.” Melinda laughs and coyly asks, “This won’t be shared with anyone else, right?” I feel a moment of secondhand shame and embarrassment while sitting quietly and taking my notes. Of course, I can’t see what Melinda writes. She doesn’t read it aloud. She sends it later to Cherrie, but the question feels revealing, intensely intimate because it makes me reckon with my own fallibility as a person. I feel a sudden sympathy for Melinda as I watch her intently write about this moment of personal failure.
I think about repetition, about Anne Carson’s poetry chapbook The Albertine Workout where she discusses Samuel Beckett’s writing on habit, the banality of existence and bodily pleasure, specifically his descriptions of protagonist Murphy sitting from Beckett’s novel of the same name: “The sensation of the seat of a chair coming together with his dropping posteriors at last was so delicious that he rose at once and repeated the sit, lingeringly and with intense concentration. Murphy did not so often meet with these tendernesses that he could afford to treat them so casually. The second sit, however, was a great disappointment.” The sensation diminishes with repetition. This is not the case in Cherrie’s practice. Through repetition, her performers’ movements in Trio A: A Translation Project become more joyful, more abundant, teeming with potential.
The brilliance of Yu’s practice is her intentional pursuit of the banal, of the mundane movements of our everyday, mining them to find these moments of bodily repetition, refining them until we start to understand the bountiful abundance of our bodies, of our daily movement, unearthing something simple and yet unmistakably profound. While Yu’s practice is clearly rooted in dance, Trio: A Translation presents and grapples with something much more universal: existence itself.