Jessica Warchal-King is one of the nation’s great ambassadors for concert dance. She is the Artistic Director of JCWKDanceLab. She has toured internationally and nationally, dancing in some of the premier venues in the country. She has been a senior dance artist with Kun-Yang Lin/ Dancers from 2010 to 2017. Warchal-King is a founding member of Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet. Her choreography has been presented in companies and colleges from Virginia through New York. She has curated the InHale Performance Series. A trained instructor in Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, Warchal-King has given master classes and/or taught dance at Widener University, Muhlenberg College, Dickinson College, Franklin and Marshall College, West Chester University, Temple University, and Old Dominion University. She has been praised by
critics for her “devotion to technique.”
I had the pleasure and privilege of working with her on such projects as Oklahoma! and Blok’s Puppets at the Fairground Booth at Alvernia University. I have watched her work as a great artist and as an equally great teacher. We sat down to talk about dance recently. This is a lightly edited version of that conversation.
Q: Thank you for your time.
As a young person, your parents put you in dancing classes. When did that start?
Warchal-King: My Mom put me in tights when I was three, and that was the end of it.
Q: Was it that simple? Why did your Mom do this? Why dance and not gymnastics, or other options for girls?
Warchal-King: We lived in a small town, so I think that was one of the only things that was available for young female tots. I don’t know that there were a lot of “mommy and me” classes. I did swimming, too. Those were the options available to me.
I remember being in our living room, and Mom getting the newspaper and seeing an ad for Berks gymnastics, and saying, “Hey, Jess, would you like to try this?” When we moved here, I did go into gymnastics and I also tried a couple of dance studios around here. It hasn’t been an easy journey. No single trajectory. But I always come to dance, or dance comes back to me. Somehow.
Q: At what point did dance become something serious for you? Was it in elementary school? High school? On social media all the time, I see young people interested in a life in the arts, but they’re dissuaded for one reason or another. It’s not an easy life. And there are many 3-year-old girls in tutus across this great land of ours, but they don’t all pursue it professionally. So, what was that process for you?
Warchal-King: I’ll tell you two stories.
The first happened when I was in the 4th Grade. We were having Career Day or something. We had to draw what career we wanted to have. I was like, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I was ten, right? (Laughs) My best friend at the time – her parents were both lawyers, so she was going to be a lawyer. I didn’t know what a lawyer looks like, but, “Beth, OK. You’re going to be a lawyer. I can be a lawyer, too.” Right? Sure. She drew a desk, so I drew a desk. She drew a person behind it, so I drew a person behind it. She had some books around, so I put books around. Then we handed in our assignment. All right. Lawyer parents were nice, so that was cool.
And then for some reason . . . I don’t remember what the catalyst was. But I remember shortly after turning in that drawing being really upset, because I had lied on that drawing. In the interim, l realized that I really wanted to dance. I remember going to my 4th Grade teacher almost in tears, apologizing that I had lied on this Career Day paper. Because I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a dancer.
Q: That’s sweet.
Warchal-King: Pathetic. (Laughing.)
Q: Wonderful. What’s important is that there is something inside you that tells you that the truth of your life is that you need to be a dancer.
Warchal-King: At ten.
Q: You can’t go against this.
Warchal-King: I can not lie on this Career Fair drawing. (Laughs.)
Q: The teacher is going, “What? Who are you?” (Laughs.)
Warchal-King: She’s like, “It’s not that big an epic deal. You don’t have to get that upset about it. You want another piece of paper? Here.” (Laughs.) Yeah.
That was one pivotal moment.
The other was when I was 16. I was at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. It was a really amazing, five-week summer program where we intensely studied. It was state-sponsored, and it was for the arts. I was in classes. We took yoga. Then ballet. Then, a major class. And then you had choreography. And then you had to take a minor because they wanted all of the artists to have experience with other arts. And then every evening – five/seven days a week -- there were performances or art exhibits. It was the most incredible experience.
As part of that we also had opportunities to sit down with our instructors and be mentored. “So, what is your dream? What is your goal? What do you want to do with this? How are you going to take this experience of working at P.G.S.A. and move forward with your career, and also in your community?”
At this point I’d been told many times: “You’re not going to be a dancer.” “You’re too fat to be a dancer.” “You’re too smart to be a dancer.” “It’s just not going to work out for you. You should probably pursue some other options.”
I said to him, “I keep hearing this. I’m thinking maybe about medicine. But I keep coming back. I get really frustrated when I can’t think about doing this for the rest of my life.”
And my mentor said, “Y’know, you can. It’s totally possible for you to do this the rest of your life. You’re not going to be on the stage at the Lincoln Center by the age of 16. You’re here. That has passed. And there are some limitations you have, but that’s an aesthetic thing, and things are changing. It’s totally possible for you to do the things you want to do.”
I remember him talking – he had a house in a neighborhood with a two-car garage, like that was the sign of success at the time. He said, “People see my name in the paper, and they think I’m a normal person. But I have a dance company. And all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Wait, you’re a dancer?’ And all of a sudden, their perception of me changes, even though my kids grew up with theirs.
“Yes, you can have a normal life. Be financially stable. As an artist.”
Nobody had ever said that to me. I remember sobbing, and saying, “Nobody has ever said that to me.”
When I was 18, I was working with Opus I, a professional dance company in Philadelphia. They had set a solo on me. I remember working with Tim, who was one of the Artistic Directors. We were working in a small studio, working on the solo. And he said to me, “You dance so beautifully. Such a beautiful dancer.” And I just stopped and lost it because that was the first time anybody had said to me, “You are a beautiful dancer.” And he said, “What is wrong with you?” I cried, “Nobody has ever told me I’m a beautiful dancer.” And he was upset that at 18 I had never been told that I was a good dancer, or a beautiful dancer, or worthwhile.
Q: This mentor at the Governor’s School gave you permission to be an artist?
Q: It’s interesting that you mention the 4th Grade. I’d done some little plays in class and in church. When I was in the 4th Grade, I was in a new school in a new town. And they had decided that they wanted to do a heavily edited A Christmas Carol as a program. There would be two casts – an afternoon cast for the other students and an evening cast (the prestige cast) for the parents. They had auditions in each of the Home Room classes for Scrooge. And I got the evening Scrooge. No one told me anything, but I thought, “This is something I could do.” And I basically knew what I wanted to do from about that time.
It’s interesting how these things go. The parents and teachers involved in this probably don’t know the effects of what they’re doing on some of the children they work with.
Q: I want to touch on something you said. You’d been told that you were “too smart” to go into the arts. I think this is interesting. When I was a kid, I’d been told from some adults in my life as a teen, “You’re so bright. Why wouldn’t you want to be a scientist? Or an engineer? Or something like that?” As if the arts don’t need bright people.
Warchal-King: Or, that you can’t be smart and be an artist.
Q: Or that artists are somehow dumber?
Did you get a lot of that? And as a woman, what did that do to you?
Warchal-King: Right. I think from some certain people, repetitively, people I admired and respected. Yes, it was hard. I think it’s the association with the body. Our society has this association that when you work with the body, you’re less intelligent. The mind/body dichotomy that we exist in.
You have to be smart to be an artist. You have to have on so many levels. Artists have to have different types of intelligence. And as a dancer you need to have spatial intelligence and kinesthetic intelligence. And memory.
One of the choreographers I work with is Nora Gibson. She’s been compared to Lucinda Childs and sometimes Merce Cunningham. All of her work is like a giant math problem. It’s just [She gestures.] . . .
Q: It’s a brain thing –
Warchal-King: It’s a brain thing. And the challenge is to be in your brain and in your body at the same time.
Warchal-King: And still make it look like you’re not thinking and be effortless. There is a very physical aesthetic, and there’s also an incredible mental aesthetic.
And the emotional intelligence that we need to have. So, yeah. It’s silly.
There’s an article that’s running around Facebook now about how the first female, Black astronaut credits dance for being able to make it as an astronaut. Because you need to know time management, and you need to be aware of so many things.
I think of life as a performance, and that has helped me work through a lot of situations. If I say, “OK. This is for this specific amount of time, I can perform. What do I need to do in order to perform?” And it’s a kind of a switch. In a way, it’s compartmentalizing life. Sometimes you have to do that.
When I talk to my students, I say, “You have a presentation to do. You say you can’t speak in public, but you’ve been performing and going to competitions your whole life. Think of this interview, this presentation as just another performance.”
“Oh, I can’t do that!”
“Yes, you can. It’s just putting on a different costume. The stage is different. You’re used to navigating different stages. You’re used to navigating different performance spaces. You’re used to improvising when the music goes out. You’re trained for all that stuff. It’s different – your costume is different, your character is different, your material is different. But you need to think about this other thing you’re nervous about in life as the same as your training. It’s transferable. “
And having that transferable skill is something I’ve been pushing when I’m working with dancers who aren’t going into professional dance scene, or the professional dance world. A lot of my students are going to be nurses, or into Physical Therapy.
It’s all a performance.
I talk a lot about taking care of your audience. We talk about that as a spatial awareness thing. If you’re facing stage-left, you still have to be aware that there’s a body of audience at stage-right, so how do you use your energy to take care of your full audience if your physical focus is in one direction?
How do you take care of the people around you? How do you take care of your class? How do you take care of your colleagues? How do you take care of your patients, if you’re working in that situation? Improvisation –
Dance training allows you to do that. If you can flip that switch. You can say, “I have the skills. I just need to translate them to a different medium.”
Q: You said so much there that we could branch off in fifteen discrete, full and satisfying conversations.
I’d like to get your thoughts about hierarchies within the arts. In our culture, if a public school ends music, the result is huge. People will protest, raise money, etc. to have music instruction in the school. We see nothing at all similar to have dance in the schools. Not a large amount of energy is expended on behalf of dance. As a consequence, we have this parallel system of private studios. What do you make of that?
Warchal-King: I think the thing about the studio system is that there are so many, and there’s no national standard. There are educational standards for dance, and national standards for dance in public schools. But there’s no certification. And there’s no certification for dance studio teachers. I think about this a lot.
There’s no certification that says, “I’m a professional dancer.” What does that mean? That’s another rabbit hole to go down.
I think about it like a contractor. What certification does a contractor actually need to be considered a professional contractor? Say, “I’m a professional contractor?” They really just need a license or some sort of paper that says they’re allowed to do the work on a house. And then they do whatever they do, and they get paid whatever they get paid.
Q: And it might be good, or it might not be.
Warchal-King: It might be good, or it might not be. But there’s less judgment on defining a professional contractor than there is on defining a professional dancer. Likewise for studio teachers.
I think studios are a wonderful thing. I think it’s great that there are lineages that are being passed on. I do worry about the health and safety of young dancers, especially because there’s so much information available right now through the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science – all the dance P.T.s out there, all the nutritional information that’s out there – just in terms of health and safety.
If teachers aren’t aware of that, or can’t access that, or haven’t experienced it in their own world; we’re doing a real disservice to young bodies.
Q: I’m not saying this to “mansplain,” but to further the conversation. We already have this cultural expectation of women’s body image, which is its own piece. Add to that the aesthetic preconceptions people have about dance. That’s a heavy load to carry on your shoulders.
Warchal-King: Yes. And that goes back to how are we addressing the mental health crisis in our schools and in our young people. There’s so much that they have to deal with. Cheese-O-Man, we can use expression to work through this stuff! We can use the physical.
Like -- “The issues are in the tissues.”
We can work through those things physically. So many people don’t know how to verbalize what’s going on. That’s why you’ve got kids throwing things, or acting out. But they’re trying to experience the things that are going on in their bodies. Their emotional state is embodied. We separate and disconnect that. I think there’s a disservice when we take out [expressive] physical education. There’s a hierarchy with dance.
And I think part of it has to do with the body. We do a disservice to the body. We compartmentalize the body. We remove the body. We talk about the body separate from the person. The body is the casing for the spirit – and so my spirit is good, but my body is not really good – and they talk about the “sins of the flesh” – well, that’s the body.
Dance is so much about the body, and supposedly the body is “bad.”
People have done dance forever. There are dances that have been lost that we don’t even know. It’s part of life, it’s part of celebration. In non-Western cultures, it’s very integrated into the religion and the community practices. It’s integrated into the health care. Belly dancing started out as a form of inducing labor.
Q: You’re kidding me.
Warchal-King: No. And it was just done by women, just done for women, just done with women. And then with colonization that it became sexualized. But it’s for the passage of the next life. Which makes sense, it’s all of this movement of the torso and of the pelvis, working to get things going.
Dance is used for healing. It’s used for worship. Again, there’s this hierarchy. It was done by non-Western cultures for years. And non-Western cultures are “bad” in terms of this linage and this hierarchy.
It’s interesting, there’s an article out about how ballet is the white-ethnic dance. Ballet is very specific about hierarchy, and it’s very specific about gender roles that are reflected from Western culture. Everything is about the lifting up. There are the two dynamics of the female – there are the witch and the princess. Or, the witch and the fairy. And both of these are unobtainable ideals. The point the writer developed was that ballet is to get “higher” to “god.”
Dance is ephemeral. It is the one thing we can not document. Laban tried to. You have to go to school to learn how to read that.
Q: Labanotation is tough.
Warchal-King: The people who can do that and the amount of money and the time and effort to reconstruct. There are some copyrights on the big stuff. There are some institutes trying to protect iconic works in the dance world, but it doesn’t last. We can record music and write down music. We have written texts for poetry. We see visual art. But dance exists, and it’s gone.
I think that the inability to codify, recreate, reproduce, store it, package it, put it in a box or museum has devalued dance.
Q: Looking at dance in a big way, I have some other questions for you. As a choreographer, what comes first – the music or movement? Do you think of the movement and find music to fit that, or do you hear a piece of music and think, “Aha, I know what the dance will look like.”?
Warchal-King: I think the intention comes first. Then the dancers. Then the movement, based on who the dancers are. For me. And then the music.
Q: So, the music comes last?
Warchal-King: Generally, yes. Unless it’s a musical theatre piece.
Q: You’re doing a Broadway-like show? You’re choreographing to a play?
Q: When you choreograph, do you have an image of something like still-life pictures, or gestures like an arm articulating through the air? Is it the gesture in the mind’s eye, or, do you have like a moving film strip – we’re going to here and here and here?
Warchal-King: The here and here and here usually doesn’t come until about mid-way through the process. The movement generation comes from the feeling state. I often ask my dancers to create movement. Then when I see what they’re doing I manipulate that. Or, when I’m moving and improvising, I’m trying to listen to the issues that are in the tissues. What is my body trying to say? What are the habitual pathways that I use? Do I want to choose them? Or, do I want to move away from them?
I’ll give you an example. This was 2009/10. I was researching Hinduism as part of my graduate studies. There’s one branch of Hinduism called tantra that says the body is a microcosm of the universe. This was something that really clicked with me. This was the first time I was given permission to let my body fully experience everything that’s going on.
If the universe is this big, and there are so many things going on – of course, this makes so much sense. There’s so much going on inside the body at all times on so many levels. So, I started to dive more into tantra. I found the chakra system. I began paying attention to different ways energy was flowing through my body, how I was physically feeling, and how I was emotionally feeling. How my posture changed based on that work.
I’ll give you an example. You have a lump in your throat when you’re upset. You really have a lump in your throat, but you don’t actually have a lump in your throat. That’s a very physical, real thing. And it’s associated with a very real emotion. What are the other things that are happening?
When I’m really happy, what do I do? I lean forward. I open my heart to you. This is the heart center in terms the chakra system, but it’s also where the physical heart rests. It’s interesting this is where we carry a lot of our emotion. My grandmother passed in 2010. As we were preparing for this. I got to see her. I’d get emotional and feel that there was this carving out of my chest, like my sternum was collapsing, and being scooped out. So, [gestures] I find this became a gesture I would use. When I’m working I have this diving into the heart space in my choreography. I return to this gesture a lot.
It’s made a lot of sense to dancers. We’ve learned, as we’ve talked through this process, that two of the dancers in a current project have lost people dear to them. It’s an uplifting experience to be able to process that through the rehearsal process.
Listening to what my body is saying and to mimic that externally is where the movement really comes from. And years of ballet training and release techniques filter in clarifying and codifying what those things are.
Q: You mentioned the “f” word earlier – “fat.” I can’t imagine that you were fat. Were you saying that because of the insanely thin aesthetic for ballet?
Warchal-King: I was always very muscular. It’s funny. I look at my 4-year old picture, and it’s the same as my 27-year old picture, and I think, “Well, I haven’t changed that much.”
Q: With that. . . you’ve given birth. That has profound effects on a woman’s body. What has that done for you, to you, with you as a dancer in dealing with those profound changes?
Warchal-King: I really struggled with being pregnant. I was miserable. I felt that my body had betrayed me. They . . .they-they -- y’know “they” . . . They say, “It’s this beautiful thing. You’ll glow. You might have a little morning sickness.” I had carpal tunnel. I had sciatica. I was nauseous. I know my body. It was hard pushing through these changes.
I felt energetically I was connected to an umbilical chord of the universe – all this life that had come before me and all this life that will come after me. I had been accepted or inducted into this Hall of Women who have gone before me. Energetically, it was very profound. To be able to talk to all of the dancer-mothers in the Philadelphia area who had gone through this previously – they said, “You’ll get through this. You’ll be fine.”
I didn’t know what the hell was going on with my body. Things were changing. Things were growing. Things were moving. I’m getting kicked from the inside. Things hurt. Why do I have carpal tunnel? They’re my wrists. But no, everything is swelling. The whole body is connected, so of course my wrists are going to be affected, and my vision will be affected. And that makes sense to me in hindsight. But it was something I really struggled with.
In terms of renegotiating, re-learning how to use my body – I couldn’t bend backwards. I needed to re-learn how to use my body. I needed to make it energetically look like I was lifting up and bending backwards, which is actually the correct way of doing things. I’ve been so used to muscling through and just doing what had to be done.
Re-learning how to do everything was impactful and helped me appreciate and learn how to talk to people who were either learning dance for the first time or negotiating other injuries – especially my Dance for Wellness folks. They’re coming with Parkinson’s Disease. In essence, their body fails them. People who’ve gone through cancer and treatment, and their body is rebelling against them. But they can still create something beautiful.
In pictures, I don’t recognize myself, my body. Three years out.
Q: What about the “inner” life of dance?
Warchal-King: I think the love and the joy and the dedication and the this-is-something-that-has-to-happen-in-the-world – especially when my son was very young – it was very hard for me to leave him to go back to work and start teaching and rehearsing again. It became more important that I do it.
All of these people who are in my audience, in my rehearsal, in my class were babies once. They needed their body taken care of. They still need their body taken care of. They need this. Our first language is physical.
It is more important now that I’ve had a child to continue to teach, to continue to perform, to continue to put work out there, to talk about dance – because I have this little body that I’m taking care of. Everybody was a baby. Everybody has needed to be taken care of.
I have a dancer I was talking to about this. He had to take a nap, so we didn’t get to do a thing. She says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to just take a nap whenever you want?” We’ve all been there. We’ve all had that opportunity. We didn’t recognize it at the time. [Laughs.] But we’ve all had that opportunity. For most of us, if we were lucky, we had someone to take care of us.
There was some point we were told, “Don’t be creative. Don’t listen to your body.” Which is funny. As I’m teaching my child to get potty trained or talk about how he’s not feeling well. All of these YouTube videos, instructional videos -- this child development stuff are saying, “Listen to your body. What is your body telling you?”
I’m going, “Oh my God, at what point do we stop this?” We stop listening to our bodies, and I think that’s one of the reasons people get sick so often. Or, we’re wearing little things on our wrists that say, “Get up and walk fifty steps!” So, your body is engaged. And there is a direct correlation between mental health and physical health – between life expectancy and what you do with your time before that.
It’s become more important for me to continue working and to create the community I want to create. Not because I want it for me, but I want my son to grow up in that. I want to teach people a way to be and act in the world – to be empathetic to their own body and to other people’s bodies. That’s the world I want him to grow up in – where people are aware and supportive and physically embodied and in-tune. And in the way a performer has to take care of their audience, they’re willing to be aware of other people in their environments and other things in their environments.
Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. There’s this whole thing on social media about the entitlement of young people. I was at a children’s basketball game where the girls were about 8-years old. It was the end of their “season,” and each girl got a participation medal. One of the fathers near me said he wished that hadn’t happened. He didn’t like participation awards. By contrast, Mr. Rogers always said, “You’re special.” And most of the parents I’ve known have said to their children, “You’re special.” So this entitlement is about other people’s children, not my children. So I wonder what if culturally we all expected to be treated that way, with their own contribution to make.
Warchal-King: Yeah, everybody is valued and worthy and has their own unique and special gifts.
Q: And their own contribution to make. Now I want to watch this video of you dancing with you.
Warchal-King: I’m interested to watch it.
Q: Initially, I’m interested in this. In this piece, you turn your back on the audience. I’ve been taken to task as a director when I’ve had people turn their backs on stage. I did this once with a play in a proscenium theatre, and the critics hated it and hounded me. How dare I? Well, some characters were sitting watching a play-within-a-play being performed. In my view, it gave extra focus to the important part of the show at that point.
This is a big thing, I think. You do it for a reason. What’s that about?
Warchal-King: In ballet it would be the same thing. I remember that training – not to turn your back on the audience.
A couple of things – this piece is from a longer piece – and in the longer piece, there’s a small, upside-down table that gets manipulated. There are four posts, and I’m standing inside the table. It’s like I’m inside a cage.
The theme comes from a fringe festival. The theme was “Finding Home” and required the use of a card table.
I struggled with being grounded and back in Berks County, PA. In part, I’d always been told, “You’ll never be an artist. Oh, you are an artist? You’re weird.”
So, working through and with the idea of being confined and changing my perspective about space and time was an impetus for this piece. Also, not being comfortable in my body still, how do I negotiate being in a small space – navigating dance safely in a small space?
One of the parts of my body I’m comfortable with is my back. I’ve always had a strong back. I wanted to demonstrate that and show that.
Q: That’s why you have the backless shift. It’s important.
Warchal-King: Yes, and to show there’s so much movement potential inside the body and inside a confined space and to allow for very clear articulation. You can also articulate the hands and the feet, which I do. But the back is so big – to be able to share all of the emotional stuff – the spine holds so much stuff. It holds up the torso. The way we carry our body based on our spinal structure and the way we hold our spine – there’s so much range and dynamic energy inside of that.
It kind of was (now that you bring it up) about turning my back on Reading, which I’d done that so many years.
It was really about reframing the space inside of the confinement and addressing all of the directions inside of that space. I address downstage, downstage right, stage right, upstage . . . I had performed this in Philly, and one of the pieces of feedback was, “I’m glad that you completed the circle, and you came all the way back around. That was really satisfying.”
Choreographically I played with a lot of different ideas inside of this confinement. I wanted to show the possibilities of small space.
Q: The other over-arching question I wanted to ask is this: In tap dance we hear the dancer – the feet. In some African dance we hear the slap of the foot against the floor. But by and large, we don’t hear dancers. I’m certain that forever, there have been dancers grunted doing lifts or whatever. But we don’t hear that because of the music. Something that appears to be important to you is that at times we hear you, or we hear the dancers. So, even though there were sound problems in the theatre where this video was recorded, we can hear breath. And you want us to hear breath. What’s that about?
Warchal-King: Yes, historically it’s important that you not hear the dancer. I think it goes back to the being seen, but not heard cultural thing? I remember as a young dancer banging my pointe shoes with a hammer to soften them so they wouldn’t make noise on the stage. They’re wooden! You’re throwing around wood.
Q: It’s lumber on lumber.
Warchal-King: Yes. You’re going to make noise on stage, but the audience shouldn’t hear it. It’s also that idea of being higher than human and lifted up to whatever.
A couple of things about hearing the breath.
The breath for me is one way that we’re all connected. We’re all inhaling and exhaling. I’m breathing your air. And you’re breathing my air. That is something that is invisible. We’re connected by that. We’re all breathing and doing this rhythmic thing that is happening. That is one way we are connected. That’s one element.
I think voice is very much part of the body. That becomes important to me as a performer. I’m not so much interested in talking onstage, but allowing sounds to be heard from the body because the body emits sounds.
Breath is an energetic impulse. We sigh, and that has an energy to it. When softball players throw, they let out a yowl to enhance the energy of the ball, so there’s a more holistic thrust from their entire body that’s going with the ball. Tennis players do the same thing. It is a release of energy, but also a part of the dynamic of the movement.
If all of my cells are exhaling at the same time, then that’s going to have an energetic impulse. That will “read” more for the audience. Hopefully they will feel something in their kinesphere – in their body.
There’s a theory in dance that’s called kinesthetic empathy. It allows the physical body to feel even if the mental body doesn’t necessarily understand.
Q: I think that’s true for all performance. Here I use a vulgar example when I reason about this aspect of performance – porn. I just don’t think most people are voyeurs. Yet we know that porn is this huge industry. Why are they watching if they’re not voyeurs?
Well, these days we hear more about “mirror cells” in the brain that allows us to achieve feeling through watching. We appear to be mirroring in some interior process what we watch. This process works kinesthetically in watching dance, emotionally when engaging with narrative drama, etc. It’s part of what we do.
Q: Let’s turn this on and watch it. Your toes are flexed. And then you press the floor. It’s intentional, so what’s the thought behind that.
Warchal-King: There’s a practice in yoga where you lift your toes and feel the four corners of your feet. We tend to think of the foot as a triangle – your big metatarsal, your little metatarsal, and your heel. But if you think of your heel being wider, then you have four corners. That allows direct bone connection to the ground. I scoop with my feet, and then I press down with my feet. It’s almost organic breathing with my feet to connect with the ground. And that connection filters up through the rest of my body.
Q: Here you turn your back. When you do that, what do you do with your front? Since you’re showing us your back, are you concerned with what’s happening with your front?
Warchal-King: Yes. It is. Honestly, I’m trying to soften my heart space so all that energetic attention can go to my back. And my focus is still down.
Q: Your eye focus is important even though we don’t get to see it?
Warchal-King: And in addressing each direction, there’s an element of spirituality in which there is this intense connection with the earth, and an acknowledgment of the different cardinal directions. In some non-Western practices, you address each of these directions in the world before you begin any sort of process. That’s why my eyes are down – it’s a reverence or asking or supplication.
Q: There’s a point where your back is to the audience. When you look, you look over your left shoulder until you continue moving to your right. What is that about?
Warchal-King: There’s more space on the left side of my body. The right side of my body is structurally and functionally shorter.
Q: Is that what you feel, or is that objectively so?
Warchal-King: I learned that from a physical therapist after an injury.
The left side of our body is considered the female side in yoga. The heart rests on the left side of the body.
There’s also an acknowledgment of where I’ve come from.
Q: You’re going clockwise, so I wondered about that.
Warchal-King: There is definitely acknowledgment of the audience. Also, I’m turning around to say, “Do you see me? I see you. I need to go into my own space.”
In order to protect myself. In order to figure out what the next thing is.
It’s also reflective of me in life. I often hibernate.
Q: You’ve gotten around and your arms are going up. And we’re going to see the hands join and then come apart. What’s going on with that?
Warchal-King: The whole rumbling happens. And that’s like that full body thing where the rumbling happens in the feet, and the arms release.
I think of it in this high/low connection between the greater universe and this earth. In Sufi and other cultures there’s this lifting up toward the heavens and pressing down into the earth, and the body is the connecting medium. I think that’s playing out in my own up/down/open/reaching down.
Q: Then the arms come out.
Warchal-King: Very much about embracing being vulnerable – opening up to these situations that are shifting, changing.
Q: When your hands are above your head, we get to see the articulation of the fingers that much more clearly.
Warchal-King: Yes. It was important to show that the body is capable of so much, and so much can hold power and hold emotion and draw and attract attention – even in small, minute ways.
I continuously come back to this in my creative research – questioning the things that we don’t pay attention to but are very important. That’s where my horseshoe crab research led me to.
We don’t think about the articulation of our hands. But they have a profound impact on the way that the arm moves and the connection to the shoulders. Then that influences posture, and that influences so much more. We don’t think about the connection of the feet to the ground. Our feet hold so much information, and we get information from walking. There is the whole kinesiology study of barefoot balancing about finding awareness how the body responds to what happens in the feet. When your feet are aware of what’s going on, that can help your physical health and training, etc.
Q: In certain pockets of Asian theatre, there are whole encyclopedias of meanings in different articulations of fingers, hands, and wrists.
Warchal-King: In non-Western traditions they tend to engage the whole body. I tell my students about the Haka all the time. People are making faces. They’re making faces not to be funny, but to scare another tribe before war or to ward off the evil spirits.
The feet, the hands, the face, the eyes, the posture.
Q: For me the toughest question to get my arms around has to do with dance and narrative. The dance on the video almost comes close to having a kind of narrative structure, but often dance doesn’t have the elements we associate with storytelling. When you’re doing it, what’s going on in your head? Do you think, “Here’s a chance to do an arm extension, this is where I manipulate my fingers?” Or something else? What’s going on with you?
Warchal-King: I’m thinking and trying to be present in the feeling state that I’m trying to create and allow that to flow through. In addition to the butterflies and superficial thoughts that are happening my head, I’m trying to focus on my breath as a connection between all the parts of my body and my exterior environment – whether that be the stage, the audience, whatever. Letting my training take over in terms of trusting the rehearsal process, trusting the intention, trusting I’ve done enough research in the intention and in the movement, and be in the moment. If the movement doesn’t happen right, what does my training say about improvisation? How do I re-work to that?
It’s really a practice of being aware in the moment – negotiating what I want to portray versus what is actually happening. The stage is uneven. The surface is slippery. How is the audience responding? It’s about trust.
For me. I trust this space. I trust this process. I trust the intention. I trust the work that I’ve done up until this point. Yes.
Q: After you’ve done a performance of your own choreography or someone else’s work, how do you asses the quality of your work? Do you recall your performance? How do you assess your own work?
Warchal-King: If I’ve been able to trust, then that’s a good performance. If I can let go and trust – that is a good performance.
If I’m not physically present or ready in terms of going into the performance trusting. That’s not necessarily a good performance.
Seeing the video, it kind of looks like how I expected it would look. That’s kind of what I felt.
I’m hoping the audience would have this mirror neuron response that would be stronger than what would happen on video in an empty theatre. That’s the power of live performance. There’s nothing like the experience of live performance.Watching a two-dimensional version of myself, that’s what I thought it would be like.
Q: I’ve never gotten used to seeing me on screen. What I look like doesn’t match what’s in my head. Not at all.
Warchal-King: I want to go back to something. You asked about my pregnancy. I did not fully accept my pregnancy until after I did a performance about it when I was about five months pregnant.
Warchal-King: Acknowledging how we process through our bodies – I had to do that. It was the first time I thought, “I’m OK with this.” It was really helpful moving forward. If I’m going through a crazy change, it’s all right to make a dance about it and to dance through it. It was about finding a different solution.
Very real evidence for the ways dance can have profound effect on the ability to process through dramatic life events.
Q: Thank you so much for your time. There are dozens of questions I’d like to keep asking. Unfortunately, this is where we end for now.
Warchal-King: Thank you.