What would your spirit look like, if it flowed like ink on paper? Where would you go, and what would you create?
On February 17 and 18, 2022 participants including first year students, seniors — myself among them — and senior faculty explored what it meant to transcribe dance and movement into visual expression as a part of Col(LAB) 3.0: (Collective) Self-Portraiture: Autobiography and its Discontents. The workshop was led by two New York-based dance artists: Yin Mei, an internationally-renowned dancer and choreographer originally from China, and Dahlia/Dixon Li, an artist, writer, scholar, and Princeton English department alumna.
When we walked into the Roberts Dance Studio on the first day of the workshop, Yin Mei and Dahlia were unrolling thick rolls of paper into parallel rows across the floor. Lined edge-to-edge, the rolls created a canvas nearly the size of the floor itself. After completing the initial setup, Yin Mei asked us to remove our shoes and gather in a circle. She led us through an opening exercise — something between yoga and a guided meditation — meant to reconnect our bodies to the surrounding environment. Directed by her poetic nudges, we swayed left to right and lunged back and forth, imagining ourselves transformed into trees, eagles, and other non-human lifeforms. I relished into the quiet calm of these moments—a rare luxury amidst the perpetual motion on Princeton’s campus.
In contrast to the serene synchronicity of our warmup, for the main dance each of us received unique actions to perform at different points in the choreographic sequence, employing ink, charcoal, and our bodies to create “autobiographical” impressions on the paper canvas. The movements of others seemed to erupt spontaneously. Bodies writhed. Black exploded onto white. With the activation of the body as a vehicle for image-making, the performance felt reminiscent of works such as Yoko Ono’s “Action Painting” and Shigeko Kubota’s “Vagina Painting.”
The following day, we hung up the scrolls and examined our paintings. I was arrested by their beauty and dynamism — stratified into separate columns, the abstract marks evoked the violent, kinetic force of an Abstract Expressionist painting. As I moved throughout the room and examined the markings up close, I was transported back to the events of yesterday’s dance: A boy sits with his knees folded beneath him as ink cascades down his back and splatters around him like blood. A girl collapses onto the ground with an ink-soaked sweater in hand, the force of her impact creating marks the size of her torso. We charge across the room and channel our energy into kinetic scribbles; a girl dances to the rhythm of our mindless stampeding.
Connecting yesterday’s choreography to a history of dance in Asian and Asian-American contexts, Dahlia suggested that art could act as a portal into the past. Exhibiting several images by the photographer Li Zhensheng, she explained that during China’s Cultural Revolution, ink was painted onto bodies as a form of public humiliation. The photographs revealed that our beautiful Pollockian marks belonged to a much more contentious lineage of political oppression. We often think of time as something that unfolds linearly, as a series of contingencies, but time is much more complicated—it folds back onto itself, forming loops and layers. In envisioning history as recursive rather than linear, material objects become palimpsests suffused with meaning.
Dahlia also shared her personal story as a U.S.-born Chinese-Diasporic Transfem dancer and scholar — a nod to the way that that art can help us process and articulate life’s complex, tumultuous experiences. “Art has a voice that words cannot capture,” Yin Mei noted. To encourage deeper reflection and artistic collaboration, Dahlia invited us to the floor, where we crowded around a scroll of pink paper, shards of charcoal in hand. We drew freely and responded to each other’s marks, allowing intuition to drive our creation. Time slipped away and traditional divisions of identity — age, gender, artistic expertise — dissolved as we were pulled into a collective act of making. It seemed as though, for those few minutes, there was nothing we could do that would be judged as wrong — it was enough to simply be present.
“How do we keep this element of play active in our everyday lives?” asked Anne Cheng, professor of English, as we reflected on our time in the workshop. Dahlia offered a possible solution: perhaps we could animate play in daily life by continuously interrogating habits and structures that have become normalized and ossified over time. By challenging the way we have been conditioned to live — whether by external pressures or our personal expectations — maybe we could envision a fuller and more playful way of being, one that embraces small doses of spontaneity and pleasure, rather than discrediting these as anti-productive.
I also thought about Audre Lorde’s call for collaboration as creative praxis in her powerful essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In advocating for a more expansive notion of the erotic, Lorde writes: “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”
When I call to mind instances of play and joy in my own life, I am with my close friends and immersed in something creative, whether it’s a performance we’re viewing passively, or one of our own artistic endeavors. Even the simple act of cooking and sharing a meal with loved ones can activate the power of the erotic if we give ourselves over to the occasion. So often, I find myself rejecting opportunities for joyful engagement in pursuit of my own work. Col(LAB) 3.0 was a much-needed reminder to make time for the people in my life. Art, after all, cannot thrive in selfish conditions — it is meant to be shared and experienced with others.