DanceWatch Weekly: Caving with Margit Galanter

Margit Galanter mixes life, various movement forms, politics, and a technique called caving to find and create culture through dance

This weekend the focus is on TBA, the Portland Institute For Contemporary Art’s annual festival featuring experimental, interdisciplinary artists from around the globe. It opens Thursday (September 8) with a party. Cocktails, mingling, art and music are all involved. The festivities begin at 8pm and it’s free!

I previewed TBA’s dance offerings in last week’s DanceWatch Weekly. To read that full story click here.

Meanwhile in a small studio in Southeast Portland, I had the pleasure of practicing “caving” with Oakland movement artist Margit Galanter.

Galanter is the visiting Alembic Artist at Performance Works NW and has been researching and collecting information from various sources over the past two years about caving. Her research will culminate in a performance this November in Oakland, and will be a combination of movement, writing and video editing.

Originally from New York, Galanter spent time in Seattle, Indonesia and now lives in Oakland, California. Galanter is a practitioner of Feldenkrais, Qigong, and Chinese energetics, and is a choreographer, teacher, organizer, curator, writer and dancer. Her work seeks to find connections among all of her practices.

Galanter is no stranger to Portland. She and Linda Austin (Co-Artistic Director of PWNW) met 20 years ago when Austin invited her to perform a duet as part of two weekends of performances inaugurating the opening of Performance Works NW.

Over the three weeks that she was here, Galanter opened up her rehearsals to the public in participatory, hour-long “caving sessions.” The last session will be tomorrow, Friday, September 9, from 11 am to noon, and will be followed by mimosas and samosas.

The caving assignment was simple: Lie under/inside a blanket/cave for 30 minutes and do whatever you like. After the 30 minutes is up, you have another 15 minutes to emerge from your cave and another 15 for drawing, writing and discussing the experience with the group.

I was excited to shut out the world and be alone. It was 7 pm, it had been a painfully long day and I was tired and stressed. The heavy blanket over my body and the darkness triggered my desire to lay prone, and sleep. So I did.

After that got old, I started to get restless. I began to imagine myself as my cat Mia who, when I make the beds, likes to lie on her back and push the sheets upward with her paws, making a tent. So I did that. My inhibitions began to fall away, and I started to play, to play purely like children play, with no end goal. Just playing for the sake of playing.

When the alarm sounded to let us know the half-hour was up, I began to shimmy and wiggle out of the blanket, slowly, making a game of taking the full 15 minutes to exit. In the end I sat upright surrounded by my pool of blanket, tracing the hills and valleys of my blanket with my fingertips, creating a mythical topographical map.

The experience was fun, rewarding and calming. I emerged relaxed, rejuvenated and ready for a good night of sleep.

The next day Galanter and I sat down for coffee at Pied Piper, a coffee shop across the street from Performance Works NW, and talked about life, dance, politics and finding culture through movement.


Photo courtesy of Margit Galanter. Photo by Chani Bockwinkel.

When did you start dancing?

Margit: I was a ballerina baby. I took ballet till 8th grade, I did modern dance. I was in New York, so I got to take classes at different places. I was always a mover and a dancer. I’ve had my weird stuff about identifying with dance, but movement has always been the center, that has never been a question.

Was there a point where you decided that this was your career and that you wanted to become a professional dancer?

I don’t even know if I would say that about myself now. I would say that it’s my vocation, and I’ve kind of had to grow into it—meaning have the courage to be an artist. But I always danced.

There was a moment that I wanted to go back and really commit to being a dance artists. So that was probably ‘96, so I was in my mid 20’s, early 20’s, I was like ok, I’m going to put my attention here. And pretty soon after that I got into Feldenkreis and studied it, and that’s sort of how I imagined that I could have a life as a movement practitioner.

Tell me about going to NYU and getting your masters in performance studies?

There is a program there called Gallatin [NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study]. I was already a working artist, kind of in my life. I actually went back to New York, which is where I am from, because my mom was sick. And so I thought it would be a good time to go to school. She passed away, and I couldn’t imagine working to be honest. I felt like it was a really nice time to take a pause and reflect—I’ve always been a dancer-writer, dancer-thinker person. I thought it would be good to have a chance to create some space to kind of ask myself what was I actually doing in dance? At that time I was really not into performance. I think it was because of the death of my mom. But I was very into research and movement study, and so I was kind of wanting to investigate all the different practices I did and look at their connections, like Qigong and Feldenkrais. What is somatics [A field within bodywork and movement studies which emphasizes internal physical perception and experience], what does it mean when people put things together?

I ended up doing a lot of performance research and making a whole show and coming back in. It was a real process of re entering back into culture from being in a very personal family place.

How did you find your agency?

That happened to me really young. I’ve always been a weirdo. I make my own rules. For instance, in high school I was in a dance club kind of thing, where we made our own pieces, I’ve always had an interest in making. Then when I went to college I went to Brown University where you can make your own major.

I was always trying to figure out how to make the world match what I actually wanted, and I didn’t see it, I never saw it in any programs, I never saw it anywhere. So I guess I have to make it.

So I’ve alway been interested in culture and movement together and how those elements relate.

I kind of created this thing that looked at the relationship, how movement affects culture and their inexplicable link. Which is funny because that’s what I do today, it hasn’t changed.

I think maybe it was through that process of constructing that whole four years, I ended up dropping out of college and going to Indonesia for a while and studying martial arts there. Part of why I went to Indonesia in the first place was that I had always heard about how in Bali, art was a part of cultural life. I knew that would probably not be the romance that I heard, and I wanted to understand that.

So I’ve always been someone who is not so interested in just theatrical dance, although when I see it and when I do it, I love it. But for me it’s just one little piece of a larger picture. Which is what is the life of a living human being and how is action a part of our daily life. Actually, a lot of people are like me. I’m rarely satisfied. I am unable to just be in the studio. It doesn’t match up with what it means to be a human for me, although it’s an incredible laboratory and it’s a space for the development of an aesthetic and I think that is very exciting. But I think it’s one piece of a larger pedagogy, or a larger look.


Photo courtesy of Margit Galanter. Photo by Avery Hudson.

I recognize that now, but I had a really hard time finding that. As a younger dancer I was surrounded by a lot of people who were very linear in their thinking.

Yeah, that’s what they are all doing! And everyone’s getting trained to think that, and I don’t know where it comes from because it’s not real. But it’s also good for some people. Like I have lineages and steward practices; I believe in that. If someone is in those movement forms that happen in a studio setting, then there you are in it and that’s the culture and context for it. But I would always kind of look outside of that and be like, “I actually want to be a mountain top” or Qigong, you know, that kind of stuff. Where do I need to be? Where does my heart need to be?

So I’ll say then it was probably pretty soon after that whole grad school, sometime in there, that I started to really develop a sense of, almost like a manifesto of like “if for me, if art doesn’t meet my spiritual life, my physical health, my intellectual interest, my sense of being part of a community, like all those factors. If the whole life isn’t nurtured by art or dance, I don’t see any reason to do it.” And I know that for some people the art world path is the place where that can happen, but for me it’s not. I cross into and out of it. I am much more interested in what is movement culture and how do we create culture together.

How do you create community? How do you find cohorts?

I thinks it’s a process of time and waiting. The clearer I am, the more in touch I am with what makes me happy, the more people are drawn to that. And for me it’s taken me 20 years. When I started my Feldenkrais training, it’s been 20 years since that time. I always had a feeling of what I wanted, but I didn’t know what it looked like. I’m not there yet, of course; it’s going to be my life. Back then I was like “maybe I want to create a community center” or I just tried to imagine a house or the way that people could come in and out and there could be aggregates. I always felt like maybe I wanted to make a school. I always used to call it the smallest school in the world because three people would come and study with me. I think I’m getting there, eventually.

Where I’ve come to now, and this is what I didn’t see back then, is that I have a private practice, that I teach classes, and that I am working in my art life and that I am just nurturing the community where I live and the spaces I live. I’m an organizer, and so I am always organizing stuff. So I feel like when I give, it comes back.

So someone might come to me because their body hurts, and then they might, through this whole process, realize that they can discover their movement and then they might come to a workshop. So it’s like it feeds in so people can come in in different phases with different needs over the course of a life. I work a lot with people who have major physical disabilities or neuromuscular disabilities who are old or young.

I’m really interested in not being in this ghetto where everyone is a 25 year old, white, skinny dancer. That’s absurd, and it’s really easy to fall into as a white person and as a dancer. I never related to that, and that’s why I never related to being a dancer. But at some point I was like you know “I actually have to claim it” because it’s what I care about, but it’s the culture that I want to contribute to. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. I feel like I am doing some big political act by going on stage in November and not having dropped the 10 pounds I think I should have dropped.

Yeah all that stuff. It’s a trip. It’s society.

Why am I not allowed to dance because I’m heavier than I used to be?

Or being a mom? This culture is really really shitty to dancers who have kids. People get separated.

I used to teach Qigong classes at the YMCA, and my best friend who I met at that class, her son came as a baby, he was in that class from the beginning. After a while they wouldn’t let him in the room. The kid goes and is in the kid room and there is a baby sitter and there is free care and that’s supposedly great, but we just don’t have that kind of integration in our society. And it’s a mess; it’s a shit show.

I agree. I have also been thinking a lot about the dances of other cultures and wondering what our cultural dance is.

We are a new culture, and we are a culture of immigrants, and we are fractured and so the “we” is the panoply of all the cultures put together. I feel like really the American dance is the conversation about race. That’s what we are living. And we are really advanced in terms of that dialogue in a way that any other countries aren’t doing. And so somehow I feel like that’s part of that dance. For me that’s how I position my art work, kind of ritual, the simplicity of that, the ritual of daily life, and practice and coming together.

I feel like whiteness is alienation. That fracturing and privilege is somehow alienating and what we can do is create spaces of togetherness. That’s why things like Nia and Burning Man and hoola hooping, and all these crazy forms which are coming out, are because people actually want togetherness.

So I try to create, and this is something that first I establish for my own body or I learned through practice, starting step by step, of what does it mean to be more porous. My grad studies were really looking at permeability in the movement experience that I think we learn in our somatic lives. I am very interested in being a part of, creating, co-creating community spaces that are quite porous. Like the deep cave. We are nurturing the furnace, but they are places people can come and go. And that works for some people and not for others. And there’s somehow for me a politics in that because it’s about making openings so that people feel like they can enter in. So it’s not like “a dance world.” Because then a lot of people won’t come. Everyone complains about the ten people that come see their show, but it’s because they are creating spaces that are limiting for people.


Photo courtesy of Margit Galanter. Photo by Chani Bockwinkel.

So how do you create these spaces?

I don’t know. I’m making it up as I go along. I’m serious: it’s my life work. It’s coalition building, teaching people in many different communities and cultures. It’s doing community outreach. It’s putting in the time, developing relationships over time, sniffing, using intuition, just a ton of shit. It’s like making mistakes all the time, I don’t know, just trying to figure it out.

And then of course I really value the movement practice.

The cave-forms work, where we are going choreographically, is we are really working with opening and closing. Opening and closing as a physical act but also as an experience, an intentional experience a presencing experience. What does it mean to be open with people and what does it mean to be closed with people? Because I feel like that is the basis of what composition is.

You create syntax or rhythm or meaning by closing and opening, and inside and outside, and all those kind of elements are what actually are the basis of the making. We are kind of slowing things down and spreading it out and kind of looking at what are those processes and what is it like to really feel that in the body and take the time to feel the bigness in the space, feeling your space be open and the heaviness.

It’s like the poetics of dance. I’ve always been interested in poetics and poets. I felt like dancers and poets are really aligned, and philosophy, poets and dance are a world that I live in, but I don’t have any training but I hang out with those people.

Sometimes the things I do are really small, and no one knows about them. They are my own ritual. I care less about scale. I am interested in the scale that matches what the thing itself wants and not fitting into other people’s models because its too painful for me. Other people can do it. I just can’t. I’m just someone who makes my own shit up.

I came up as a dancer in Seattle because I lived there for eight years. I kind of learned underground DIY, that’s how I learned stuff, it’s my ethos. So I’m saying this because what I decided to do, was to create a living for myself that could support me and make me feel not scarce so that I would not try to beg that out of the dancing.

Upcoming Performances

September 8-18, TBA: 16, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
September 10, Twilight Tango in the Garden, White Bird
September 10, Collection, NW Dance Project
September 27, Spectacle Garden #5: Equinox Harvest, Curated by Ben Martens
October 6-8, Diavolo-Architecture in Motion, White Bird
October 8-15, Giants, Oregon Ballet Theatre
October 13-15, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, White Bird
October 13-15, Bolero, NW Dance Project
October 20-29, BloodyVox, BodyVox
October 20-22, Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak, White Bird
October 21-22, Lines of Pull, The Holding Project
October 28-30, INCIPIO, PDX Contemporary Ballet
November 3-12, Reclaimed, Polaris Dance Theatre
November 4-6, Obstacles and Victory Songs, Stephanie Lavon Trotter and Dora Gaskill
November 11-13, Epoch, Jamuna Chiarini and push/FOLD-Samuel Hobbs
November 12-20, the last bell rings for you, Linda Austin Dance
November 17-19, Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, White Bird
December 2-4, N.E.W. Expressive Works Residency Performance, Dana Detweiler, James Healey, Jessica Hightower, and Renee Sills
December 8-10, In Good Company, NW Dance Project
December 8-10, ARCANE COLLECTIVE, Presented by BodyVox
December 10-26, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, Oregon Ballet Theatre
December 15-17, Complicated Woman, Katie Scherman/2016 Alembic Resident Artist
December 18, Gifts, a film by Clare Whistler/2015 Performance Works NW visiting artist

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