19 ︎︎︎Notes for a nurtured body

by Kathleen Heil

In my living room I play one of my favorite tunes interpreted by Al Green: “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” which was written by the Gibb brothers though Green’s version is the only one for me. I don’t have a broken heart, far from it, but there’s something about the dolefulness of this song as Al Green sings it that leaves me feeling nurtured when I dance. It’s the way his voice seems to come in to comfort you, swaying with a warmth echoed by the shimmering notes of Charles Hodges’s Hammond organ spinning through the Leslie speakers. It speaks to me. It makes me feel wryly happy. The word succor comes to mind, with its Latinate evocations of someone running to your aid.        

What does a body need to be nurtured? I feel spread a bit too thin these days, but who doesn’t. I think about what Bojana Kunst says in her book Artist at Work: Proximity of Art & Capitalism (Zero Books, 2015), that the artist is asked to be endlessly available, endlessly flexible, endlessly productive, and of course the capital is distributed haphazardly, and of course what is asked of her is also asked of other laborers, this is the new model under late capitalism – as Kunst writes: “Is this not the description of the contemporary worker, equipped for continuous high performance? That of the always critical and active laborer, whose subjectivity is entirely subjected to the models of contemporary capitalist production?”(Artist at Work, p. 80).

What I love about Al Green’s voice is that it is never productive, it is creative, vibrant with life and, in “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” evinces a kind of languorous timelessness, the feeling I often get when I sit in cemeteries. Not because of some morbid longing for death, the wish to be at peace by being free from the pulse of life – it is the opposite – time slows, and the pulse of life, amid death, feels all the more palpable. As Green sings, “I can still feel the breeze…that rustles through the trees,” and I can hear the birds and look at the angle of the light falling on the grass and maybe not think of all the demands available to me on my dumb phone at hand but instead just read or think and be relieved for a moment of the need to be productive.

This is what Al Green’s voice does for me: in the contradiction of the mournful ballad he affirms, with his beauty, the latent beauty at hand around us. In my dance, I was tired today and started on the floor. I tried to let the soft tissue of my body both sink into the floorboards and feel supported by the ground below. I tried to still the nervousness in my sternum, then tried to let it be, then decided not to try to do anything about it other than feel it as another component of the dance, even if I’m impatient with the limitations of my body sometimes, I can’t undo the violence the body has been made to know against its will. 

I move to stand, explore creating angles with my elbows as I plié, dropping the weight in my tailbone to contrast with the loop of the lyrics. In the dance, it’s not even that I feel Al Green is singing to me, there is no identification, it’s something simpler, a kind of sympathy, it feels like the antithesis of productivity. Live and live, he sings, and I dance this embodiment with him, the pleasure of it, my head turns as a leg lets up an irreverent kick, my spine softens into the floor and then my hands and feet bring me back into verticality, an arm shoots forward, curls back, the palm of my hand connects to my hips, pushing me back down to the floor, where I fold forward and then shift my weight, bringing my legs over my head to stand again as Al Green’s sublime voice rolls through the notes.

I let the synapses shimmer, in the name of nothing other than a little bit of nurture, despite and because of all of the interminable spaces between. May this be our defiant, delicious dance.

These notes were written in response to an essay workshop that focused on “touch, energy & healing,” and included a conversation and chi exercise with San Francisco-based choreographer Sara Shelton Mann.

Kalligrafie © Kadir [amigo] Memis, courtesy of the artist