SPEAK By Erin Mei-Ling Stuart

By Erin Mei-Ling Stuart

September 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Lately, I keep thinking of that Leonard Cohen lyric. Because lately, I’ve been thinking about— and trying to slip into—in-between spaces. And maybe it’s not just lately. Thirteen years ago, when I started my company, I named it EmSpace Dance, after the typographical term for a space the width of a lower case m. You see, the space between words is typically the width of a lowercase n. The wider em space is what a typesetter would put after a sentence to give it a little breathing room. A space between thoughts. If you’re of a certain age, when you learned to type, you probably learned to hit the space bar twice after sentences to mimic an em space. (That’s frowned upon now as old fashioned, by the way).

So how do you get into the space in between?

Sometimes you end up there by accident. You’re headed somewhere, then find yourself somewhere else, neither here nor there. (Sounds a little like every creative process that I’ve been a part of, come to think of it). But can you intentionally find or create those spaces? Yes. Yes, of course. We all have our ways.

Here’s what I’m trying now: Put two things next to each other. When you put two things next to each other, you get a space between, right? Example: dance and theater. They’ve been rubbing shoulders for long enough now that we’re all pretty comfortable with it. We have the term “dance-theater”—with or without hyphen, as you prefer—and we have some idea of what that means. Still, working at the intersection of words and movement remains challenging and exciting. Sometimes they come together as naturally walking and talking. Sometimes the words and the movement fight for dominance. It can be awkward. There is friction. And somehow that friction can open up some space where we get to see something we didn’t see before.

But the space I’m most interested in right now is the space between primates and prayer. Yup, that’s primates as in monkeys and apes (and humans), and prayer as in—well, I’ve heard many definitions of prayer at this point, from a conversation with God to alignment with the universe to “barfing up big balls of energy.” These two subjects set up house in my brain two years ago, and their dance-theater baby is coming out this month. (Actually, as I am writing this, the blessed event is two months away, and much is still unknown. But with my collaborators, I am starting to open up the in-between space – a space that is both primate and prayer, primal and divine.)

Shall I address the gorilla in the room? The “why this”? Why primates and prayer?

They started out as separate thoughts rattling around my head as I danced and hiked and meditated my way through a month-long residency at Djerassi’s Resident Artist Program. I had read A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky years before, and had wanted to make a dance about non-human primates (and humans as primates) ever since. I started monkeying around in the studio. At the same time, I was feeling the influence of a recent trip to Europe and the awe-inspiring cathedrals and churches there. Some had a frenzied feeling, filled with tourists and cameras, but others offered something that felt like sanctuary, even to an atheist turned “bad Buddhist.” In one of these quiet, sacred spaces, I decided to meditate. I was surprised to find that before long, my body abandoned the upright posture of zazen and bent into a position that was familiar, though I couldn’t say why. Elbows on the pew before me, hands clasped, head bent. The shape of Christian prayer had snuck into my body somehow.

Was I still meditating? Was I praying? Was it all the same thing? I started to wonder.

So back at Djerassi, I started playing around with ideas around prayer (not with the idea of RELIGION, mind you—that subject is way too big. The idea was prayer: the action, the practice).

And prayer and primates ended up next to each other in my mind, and in the movement I was creating. They started to look related. They started to seem intimately connected to the way we understand being human.

Primates have been studied to help us understand our bodies, disease, language, emotions, relationships, even love. We have studied them because we understand them to be like us (ninetyeight-point-something percent like us genetically, in the case of chimpanzees and bonobos). They are where we came from. They connect us to who we are as creatures with bodies, and as social animals that cannot thrive alone. Prayer also seems to be about connection, both to our communities, and to something much bigger. Prayer helps us understand who we are through the vision of what we aspire to be.

And thus, Monkey Gone to Heaven was conceived: dance-theater about primates and prayer. I went to work, sometimes on my own, sometimes with collaborators. We started working with the subjects separately, amassing prayer material and primate material. I kept the faith that the connections would start to form, the space in-between would start to open up. Now and then, we slip into the in-between space. Today, Monkey Gone to Heaven has some sections that are one thing or the other—dance or theater, primates or prayer. But the parts that blur the lines feel like the heart of the piece. I hope when we are through, we’ve made enough cracks for the light to get in.

Monkey Gone to Heaven premieres September 13-22 at CounterPULSE. emspacedance.org

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of In Dance.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is the artistic director of EmSpace Dance. She has been a part of San Francisco’s dance community for 20 years.