To seize the fleeting: Making Clarice Lispector dance

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To seize the fleeting: Making Clarice Lispector dance
Dancer-choreographers Jodi Melnick, left, and Maya Lee-Parritz at Hudson Hall in Hudson, N.Y., on Aug. 21, 2023. Melnick and Lee-Parritz’s new work, “Água Viva,” is loosely inspired by Lispector’s novel. (Lauren Lancaster/The New York Times)

by Marina Harss

NEW YORK, NY.- They’ve been at it for hours. Jodi Melnick and Maya Lee-Parritz, both dancers, both choreographers, are in an airy dance studio in downtown New York City, feeling their way through a dance passage. Moving close together, they enter and exit each other’s orbit. They keep track of each other in the mirror, communicating every so often in short bursts: “I’ll link up with you here,” or, “There’s a fling-the-arm-thing here.”

They are in the final weeks of preparing “Água Viva,” a dance loosely influenced by a 1973 novel by Brazilian experimental writer Clarice Lispector. The piece will premiere Saturday at Hudson Hall, in Hudson, New York.

The dance is both a duet and a layering of solos. Now the two women are independent but complementary entities, now they move in near-unison, now in canon. They also move differently — Lee-Parritz more angular and rhythmic, Melnick more delicate and detailed, almost molecular.

Melnick, 59, has been choreographing on the postmodern dance scene for decades and has performed with Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Trisha Brown, Sara Rudner and others, as well as on her own. She is also a devoted teacher of dance. Lee-Parritz, now 31 and a rising choreographer in her own right, was her student a decade ago at Barnard.

Since those Barnard classes, teacher and student have regularly spent time in dance studios around town developing movement. “We started this practice,” Melnick said in a phone call earlier this summer, “improvising, sometimes with eyes closed, writing, and talking to each other.” They’ve become artistic partners, engaged in a continuing conversation about dance and life.

During one of those sessions, the two realized they were both carrying the same book, “Água Viva,” by Lispector, who was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Brazil as a toddler in 1922 with her Jewish parents, who had suffered in the pogroms.

The choreographers were captivated and moved, they said, by the sense of urgency in Lispector’s writing. Lispector writes in “Água Viva” that she is “trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it’s already gone ... the is of the thing.” Melnick and Lee-Parritz’s dance, with its mix of abstraction and precision, delicacy and drive, communicates a similar urgency, an effort to “reveal and discover some kind of truth beyond words,” as Melnick said, to show it, give it shape, hold it and then move on.

In Portuguese, the words “água viva” mean both living water and jellyfish; the novel’s title has also been translated as “Stream of Life.” Consciousness was a frequent theme for Lispector, who has been described as a kind of Brazilian Virginia Woolf. “What she’s trying to do in all her books, including ‘Água Viva,’ is try to touch the exact moment of life,” Lee-Parritz said, “exactly as it’s happening. You feel that energy.”

It is a feeling that dancers speak of when describing the sensation of the body and mind in performance — a kind of flow. “It’s how I feel with dance and with making choreography,” Melnick said. “I can express sensation physically, in the tension and the twist, the reaching of the arm, the jaw coming forward, the eye rolling back. I want you to see it and feel it in that moment.”

Her words were clearly illustrated in a passage of the dance, a solo for Melnick that the two choreographers developed together. The seed was a series of movement phrases created by Lee-Parritz, which she recorded and then played back for Melnick in extreme slow motion. Melnick then copied the movement, retaining all of the idiosyncratic effects. “I decided to learn it as if it were happening to me that way, in slow motion,” Melnick said. “It became very internal, very dramatic.”

In the solo, she moves in an exaggerated legato, as if swimming through glue. When she reaches away, her eyes follow her hand as it sweeps through the air, her head tilting, face illuminated by an almost rapturous expression. “I’m not an emotive person,” Melnick said, “but I decided I was just going to go with it.” That quality of physical extremity, in turn, echoes the tone of passages in Lispector’s book. “In this land of the is-itself I am pure crystalline ecstasy,” she writes.

That immersion in the sensation of the moment, or what Lee-Parritz describes as “bursts of sublimity,” is a subtext of the piece, as is the transcendence and duality of beauty. “This work has a relationship to beauty and form and simplicity,” Lee-Parritz said, “but with an awareness of decay and ugliness.”

The process through which the two choreographers created the slow-motion passage, trading phrases and then shaping them together, is a perfect example of the fluidity of their collaboration. In the studio, they watch and offer suggestions, ask questions and sometimes even nag. When something wasn’t working in the recent rehearsal, Melnick suggested coming back to it later. Lee-Parritz said dryly, “Let’s talk about it now.” For them, creation is negotiation.

Melnick described their relationship as sisterlike; sometimes she feels like the elder sister to Lee-Parritz, she said, “but the relationship also very easily gets flipped.” The sister role, she said, is one she feels comfortable in and one that she has fallen into before with other artists, both younger and older, including New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns.

Melnick and Lee-Parritz’s collaborative process represents the piece’s most significant departure from Lispector’s writing, the product of a singular consciousness. This dance is very much the product of two brains and two bodies working in tandem. “I’m experiencing her body next to me,” Lee-Parritz said, “and there is this kind of one-to-one mysterious transmission between her body and mine, her bones, her hair, the way she talks, everything. I can’t even say what is my vocabulary and what is hers.”

In her book, Lispector writes of a “fragile conductive line,” a “breath that heats the passing of syllables.” It’s not difficult to imagine a similar process taking place between Melnick and Lee-Parritz. Although each may be doing her own thing at times, they are always deeply connected.

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Lee-Parritz said. “We’re trying to touch that fragile conductive line and magnify and embody it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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