Alchemies of Anatomy
Choreographer-performer Rosalyn Nasky has a penchant for details
Rosalyn Nasky is 5 feet 8 inches tall. In her solo piece "Found It," performed as part of Co-Lab's Solo Show last July, she wore 5-inch shimmering gold heels. With her back to the audience, feet tensed, shoulder blades flexed, and back slightly arched, her arms pushed against the 2-foot-tall tree stump on which she was sitting, raising her inches above it. To the pop song "Drop It Low" by Ester Dean, she struggled to find footing in the wood's minute ledges and crannies as it wobbled ever so slightly, the severe glimmer of the man-made shoes contrasting against rough cedar. Slowly, she raised herself atop the stump, dropping down into a squat again, pencil-skirted rear in the air, before unfolding to a cumulative height of around 8 feet or so. Smiling, she turned to face the audience and grooved to the beat for a minute. Then she straightened, and the song was replaced by the sound of whistling wind. A calmer, open look replaced her smile, and she took a breath, looking out as if towering above the clouds. (A video of the performance can be seen online at www.vimeo.com/30051187.)
In "Found It," the climb suggests progression through levels of awareness, from carnal to cerebral to one-with-nature, and to Nasky – as a 27-year-old performer-choreographer – physical struggle is a way of life. The summer before her senior year at Cedar Park High School, she decided to repudiate five years of dedication to the school's Celebrities dance team in favor of evening classes at Ballet Austin's firehouse studios, despite the fact that she hadn't set foot in a ballet class since the sixth grade. Though she has the deliciously long limbs, flexibility, and graceful lines required for ballet, her height was no doubt a challenge – the taller your body, the more difficult it is to wrangle, and the stronger your muscles must be – and she had missed five years of essential study. Nevertheless, when Nasky reminisces about that year, she refers to the struggles not with muscle pain, soreness, and sweat, but with "a lot of information." It's as if, to her, physical struggle and intellectual struggle are not exactly distinct things.
Though she continued to study ballet and contemporary dance at the University of Texas and Marymount Manhattan College, in 2008, Bikram yoga took the place of ballet class as her method of daily conditioning. Bikram yoga, in case you don't know, is what many of us would call torture: In a room heated and humidified to near-suffocating levels, you hold excruciating postures for long periods of time, and the teacher may simply count down the time or bark reminders to try harder. You do this for 90 minutes, sweating buckets. Naturally, I asked Nasky what on earth she liked about it. "It's something about the way you feel afterwards, the changes – you're sort of functioning on a day-to-day basis, which I like," she says. She has also increased flexibility in her spine and has found herself matching the slowness that Bikram requires: "Maybe I just have a slow internal beat or mechanism." In 2009, Nasky became a certified Bikram instructor, and today she teaches at Yogagroove in North Austin. (I doubt she barks, though.)
To enjoy Bikram yoga, you have to do something besides just hold the poses and wait for them to be over. You have to spend the time making intrinsic, minute adjustments in your body, pushing and pulling and experimenting. With regard to the reflexive quality of the dancer's tool, the body, I wonder if Nasky's height and lankness also contribute to her focus on intrinsic movement: By necessity, isn't she always moving a bit more than stockier types, making minor involuntary shifts to keep her body erect? But a direct, somewhat grotesque interest in anatomy is also behind works like her "Temple" (2008), in which tiny anatomical details were magnified and contorted, becoming the purpose rather than side effects of a larger movement. "I remember doing this Bikram challenge [60 classes in 60 days] where I lost a lot of weight," she explains, "and seeing different muscles and bones and stuff kind of interested me. Getting to see the anatomy is in and of itself interesting, if it's shown artistically."
For me, "Temple" – performed to music commissioned from Tom Benton – was difficult to watch. It was gothic and sharp-edged, and the contortions of Nasky's fingers and her jutting rib cage assaulted my ballet-bred aesthetic. But sitting across from me at Dominican Joe's, wearing muted colors and sipping a matching pale-green iced tea, Nasky seems nothing like the performer in "Temple." She answers my questions in a quiet, girlish voice, glancing at a notecard, and says it's nothing when I accidentally kick her long legs under the table repeatedly. She says she never wears high heels. She's too polite even to say the word "prostitute." Instead, she refers to a streak of fascination with "women that wear heels for a living, if you know what I mean – those ladies," when we discuss her use of such heels, which she'll also wear in the new work she will perform at this year's Big Range Austin Dance Festival.
At the cafe, she's just run into Brian Pettey, the baritone with whom she collaborated on "Poet's Love" (which premiered last June in a concert produced by Ready|Set|Go!, was shown again at BRADF 2011, and recently won an Austin Critics Table award for outstanding short dance work). In "Poet's Love," Nasky (barefoot) and Pettey stood less than 4 feet from each other, along with keyboardist Rick Rowley, as they performed Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe" song cycle. Not moving from her spot, Nasky seemed to respond directly to the timbres of Pettey's voice, allowing ripples and twitches in her muscles to follow through into waves of movement and gesture. Her body seemed both driven and constrained by the dynamic of the music itself, as if this separate thing called "choreography" didn't exist.
In placing herself side-by-side with Pettey, who is also an energetic, intense performer, Nasky hoped to find "something between." Watching the piece, I found that, while my attention struggled not to split early on, by the end the competition was alleviated – as if the piece had taught me how to experience the whole. Nasky's gestures, both illustrations of and non sequiturs to the lyrics, made for a dynamic, fresh experience of the music. When discussing her work with me, Nasky takes care to avoid the intentional fallacy: She qualifies her meanings and experiences as being solely her own. "I really like things that audience members can sort of pick out and find and try to put together to make meaning for themselves. My brother" – the actor and playwright Evan Nasky, whose wisdom has taken up a special place in her mind since his death in March – "once gave me a really good tip about always trusting the audience's intelligence to make the meaning of the work. So you can let it be really – I don't know if bizarre is the right word – but open, and not give a whole lot away."
Perhaps it is that bit of space and freedom – derived from slowness and an allowance to be bizarre – that makes Nasky identify as a "performer" rather than a "dancer." She sees her work somewhere between performance art and dance, a cross-section where she finds other artists using "a lot of movement, but it's really smart movement. Not just dance for the sake of dancing. So it's pared down and thought out." But the use of her highly trained body as her tool and her focus on music-driven movement make her, for me, undeniably a dancer – and an enthralling one at that.
To date, she has choreographed works only for herself and collaborating musicians, except for a college assignment at Marymount for which she choreographed a trio. Before making that dance, which involved "a lot of running and jumping" to recorded music by the Balanescu Quartet, she had planned to audition for contemporary dance companies. But after getting feedback on the trio, she experienced a new thrill: "I remember just feeling really good about what I created, that piece, better than I've ever felt about my own dancing in something." After graduation she returned to Austin, initially to regroup, but the subsequent permanent move to New York kept getting delayed.
Musicians and composers she has worked with, in addition to Pettey and Rowley on "Poet's Love" and Benton on "Temple," include the percussionist Owen Weaver – most recently on a breathtaking little piece called "A Watched Pot" (created for BRADF 2010; see it at www.vimeo.com/12925917). In the work, Nasky (barefoot and aproned), literally watches the pots – which are also Weaver's instruments – before bursting into passionate flingings across the stage. At the end, she recovers the stillness, but retains the tension in a slow dance with Weaver. That piece also used a composition by Steven Snowden, who will perform onstage with Nasky in Program A of this year's BRADF. Called "Land of the Living," the piece, Nasky says, reflects the performers' common interest in "small things in the natural world making big sounds" and aims to mesh the indoor and outdoor as "a confluence of two worlds or two energies existing at once." In the piece that premiered earlier this month at Houston's Big Range Dance Festival, Nasky wears spike heels and embodies an insect-like figure, while Snowden plays an unusual instrument: a cactus.
Nasky's work to date pegs her as a performer-choreographer; because her own intense, unique physical experience is instrumental in her creations, her work seems inextricable from her own performance of it. But, Nasky says, she'd love to choreograph for other performers: "I think it would probably be a really cool experience, actually, to see what I'm trying to say on someone else's body, because I think it would make me go deeper into what I'm trying to say. I really want to do a duet with Mariclaire Gamble" – a fellow tall, lanky dancer who is also a folksy singer.
Yes, please. I want to see that.
"Land of the Living" will be performed as part of Spank Dance Company's Big Range Austin Dance Festival, Program A, Friday-Saturday, June 22–23, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For information, visit www.spankdance.com/festival.html.