41. With Perfect Feeling: Dance Transformed in The OA

Before dance history, theory, and aesthetics, I quietly invested my life researching dance in TV, film, and video games because they are my first homes just as much as dance. I grew up equally attached to my pointe shoes as I was to my Saturday morning cartoons, Blockbuster rentals, and multi-console games. And, thankfully, I’ve never felt ashamed to play video games, obsess over TV shows, and collect films.

The visual arts are our sisters in motion, each presenting a language the other can appreciate and learn from. I don’t like to completely refer to TV, film, and video games as “popular culture” or “entertainment.” They’re part of the visual ARTS. And they can all directly relate to the performing arts, to dance.

Just like my quest to read dance books, my life linking the visual to the performing in pop culture has mostly been isolated. I remember writing about dance in film as a teenager first discovering life beyond Fred Astaire and West Side Story. My high school English teachers gave me blank stares when I referenced the contemporary vs classical movement in Memoirs of a Geisha or how Faith’s only happy place was the dance floor at The Bronze. Yet, when Aronofsky unleashed Black Swan everyone immediately wanted in on our world. (I still have a lot of shade for that film despite its beautiful costuming and score…)

Thankfully, I’ve met my match in The Nerdist where I can sometimes sneak cross-genre posts about awe-inspiring tech advancements or music video news that also feature stunning legit choreography. (And hopefully, I can continue to research the many multidisciplinary connections to dance in grad school.)

Still, in today’s dangerously hostile and repressive socio-political atmosphere we place limitations on everything that is “other.” Under a Trump era: Everyone’s the same and no one’s the same. Us vs them. Dancers “aren’t” nerds. Nerds “aren’t” dancers. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Yet, every now and then my worlds collide. And all those negative limitations melt. Now and then the dance world is suddenly leaked back into the general public’s consciousness, after forgetting about its vital relevance and history. Dance in main stream media is like a brain freeze. Every now and then the public quickly eats up a widely accessible trending topic with digital help–from social dance in Just Dance to tap in La La Land. Shortly followed by a lull in interest, as most people don’t think about dance on the daily. In the long run and once it meets its media expiration date, it’s an exclusive “hobby” meant for perfecting one’s body.

This situation is less of a random occurrence for music videos; dance has always been part of the visual journey to showcase a musician’s creative vision (see my previous posts about dance in music videos). But for most visual art outlets, dance is almost always attached to the literal: a rhythm game where you’re an avatar dancing, a drama about dancers. The studio, the only literal place for dance to exist on screen. How many more times do we as dancers have to watch our lives become narrowed down to ballet vs hip-hop, struggling waif ballerina, womanizing CIS AD, bitchy white corps cliques, old and done prima, angry hip-hop inner-city kid, or hyper-competitive ballroom dancers?

On rare occasions the public can witness the wider usage of dance, the power of movement outside of the studio and stage context, side-by-side with expansive narratives and expanded plots.

Enter The OA. (Spoilers ahead.)

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I’ve been delaying my binge of Netflix’s latest exclusive creation (I’m still trying to play catch up with last quarter’s games.) But I’m glad this series in my life at THIS moment.

Real talk: I’m feeling claustrophobic, confused, chaotic. My relationship with ballet changes every day due to work. I’m cut off from regular classes due to money or distance. My nights watching live dance have cut down to a handful due to my negative introverted aspects. And the people I really need to talk to in person about serious dance/life things are all in New York.

I’m alone again and, at the same time, deeply involved and invested in the dance world. I always knew I’d be a part of dance for the rest of my life, but I never imagined I’d get to work for my hometown ballet company. I’m humbled by my archival work, giving back to the company I grew up adoring from a far. But I’m also restricted in more ways than I can count.

Where am I going in dance if I can’t move, talk, and think about it with perfect feeling? What happened to that whole wide world of dance I experienced throughout college?

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So I’m watching The OA, after hearing tons of my dance friends jumping over because of Ryan Heffington’s involvement (which immediately set off warning signs cause I can’t stand Sia’s “Chandelier” music video for personal reasons…) Heffington has successfully wrapping the public up though, so I cautiously hoped that the movement in The OA wasn’t that over the top “weird” obnoxious style. (I’m pleasantly surprised in this case, but I’m still not a complete fan of his style.)

Since I’m just now finishing the series, I also missed my chance to write about its news for Nerdist. (But I’ll be ready for you, season two!) In any case, my fellow Nerdist Scott Beggs wrote a season great review and you should check it out! (5 out of 5 burritos!) In some ways, it’s better for me to distance my current dance research studies from immediate profit. (Oh, this freelance life is strange and lovely indeed.)

For a rare moment in time, I had people in my life coming in from all sides. Loving the things I love about being a human in the 21st century. Hyping this streaming sci-fi series and praising its experimental contemporary movement.

Worlds colliding. Wonderful harmony. Much art, such Nerdist.

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Wikipedia labels The OA as a mystery, drama, sci-fi, supernatural, fantasy series. Okay… while I agree that there’s a lot wrapped up in eight hour-long episodes, it’s not that crazy of an idea to comprehend really. Even with angels involved. A lot of people warn others that the first 3-4 episodes are tough to get through: Loaded dialogue. Close-ups that last for too long. The “action” doesn’t happen until midway. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

(Side rant: Viewers are SUPER lazy and greedy with these Netflix series. The creators of these small-scale shows and the behind-scenes Netflix teams drop an entire season with a single click–boom, instant access–and you’re complaining about world building in the first episodes? Get the fuck out. Here’s my 28-year-old rant: I remember having to rent separate videos of single seasons of shows at Blockbuster, rewatching every VHS at least three times before trading it for the next. And guess what, we were patient AF back then. End rant.)

The OA is another addition in the archetype of TV and film–following theatre and literature–that’s always been here since the dawn of these visual arts. Look at Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky from 1986. Part action, drama, fantasy, comedy, romance animated film. A mysterious girl meets strangers and they journey together. ICYMI: this isn’t a new plot. The OA, however, offers new character narratives that embrace multiple genres in authentic ways. And–here’s where I return to my point–it explores and examines dance as a comprehensive way to heal alongside compelling narratives that are seemingly unrelated to “the dance world.” See also, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha from 2013: an awkward young adult’s tale about being an awkward dancer in New York without lending itself to a single dancer trope other than financially struggling.

Before I started watching, I tried to avoid reading too much about it. Strangely, I didn’t want spoilers. I did confirm for myself that the main character isn’t a “dancer” in the literal sense; we never see her take dance classes as a kid and she never steps foot in a studio or stage. Refreshing.

I reached peak hype levels when NYT’s Gia Kourlas wrote a beautiful op-ed about the movement in the series. I’m reading a lot of interviews now that I’ve finished the series, and the interviews with Brit are exceptionally epic. She’s a co-writer/creator with her longtime friend, screenwriter Zal Batmanglij. I can’t get enough of their bond and artistic integrity. I really liked her previous indie venture in sci-fi, Another Earth, but with The OA she excelled to new emotional depths–the biggest quality I want in all actors.

Here’s a moment Brit Marling described to Kourlas about Prairie/OA’s first movement scene with Homer in their cages (see featured gif):

Everything fell away. We were just two people stuck in our bodies, wanting to break all constraints, wanting to tell each other complex things about need and betrayal and loss and love and only having these movements with which to do it. It touched something so sublime.

The sublime. That’s the word that always confused up my students in DAN 4366. It’s both beautiful and ugly. It’s simple and complex. It’s neither white nor black, red nor blue, right nor wrong. Sublime movement on screen is rare.

A lot of critics and writers are swarming to label the transformative dance in The OA as interpretive, but it’s so much more than that. Interpretive Dance is a genre in its own, with its own rules and distinctions.

When we talk about the sublime in dance, we have to reach the core of movement which Interpretive Dance lacks because it’s so attached to its rules and distinctions: a bird flaps its wings in many ways, but it still has to be visually universal. Here the five movements don’t follow any rules of interpretation that we know of yet. Where did they come from really? What are they interpreting? Emotions, feelings, thoughts. All ambiguous human aspects found by angels. This isn’t interpretative dance. It’s closer to movement therapy than anything really.

And one more thing: this isn’t a collection of strange, bizarre movements that somehow just appeared over night. Heffington (despite my personal opinion of his career) is a professional choreographer who’s seriously studied dance in many forms. He knows what he’s doing, so stop making this seem like choreography is a mystical creation that only a few people can achieve! ICYMI: anyone can be a choreographer and dancer if they put in enough determination, passion, and devotion to the art form.

There’s a fine line when using choreography–and with the depth of this narrative, particularly–it could be dangerous or cheesy or fall flat… My job is my job, and I focus on that. I put a lot of time and love and research and input into it, and then I let it go.

Just like film making and video game design, choreography is a creative process, complete with compiling references and elements from the outside to create within. In the case of The OA, the five movements look like they could have been conceived by humans living in this world at this moment in time because they were created by a IRL human ATM. Unsurprisingly to us dancers, there are hints of Gaga, some balletic flow, the essence of Butoh, the core of Graham, the breath of Limon, the groundedness of hip-hop, the intensity of voguing, and everything in between tailored to fit this specific sci-fi plot.

Recap: I’ve found serenity in The OA because of its authentic presentation of sublime movement alongside narratives and plot.

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We need storytellers to entertain, but also to talk more honestly about the time that we’re in.

So yeah, the exact movement isn’t exactly on screen until episode 4 “Away” when Prairie/OA reveals it to the second five. She’s world building for them as the writers/directors/actors are world building for us. It’s like Jane Eyre telling her story from the near end only to have Charlotte Brontë tell us that it’s just the beginning. It’s like how we start at the resting spot in Zanarkand in FFX, only to realize that the end is just a dream.

To all those complaining viewers though, the movement in The OA has been there all along.

In episode 7 “Empire of Light” the second five are moving with an extreme amount of freedom in their daily life. When meeting up before starting their session they walk across the field to the abandoned house. Except this time they’re more open with one another in their positioning. No crossed arms. No turned backs. No heads down. You have to watch the first episodes with an awareness to bodily presence. How they respond with their daily movements. The change is subtle enough to recognize once you stop considering dance as a limited activity for a studio or stage. Dance is everywhere.

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In that episode Steven leads the group through Homer’s second movement, and it’s like I’m back at TXST in modern class. I used to despise group work, partnering off in dance classes. Peer feedback is important in dance and definitely in life. We crave acknowledgement, understanding, and advice.

In this series, specific movements help each of the second five open up to one another–just as we learn to open up in a semester of specific movements in class. It also helps them say what they need to say about themselves. Especially with my favorite character, Buck.

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He practices the movements in front of his mirror after taking down some generic photos of swimmers and drawings of other people. The real Buck, the sensitive soul and strong spirit, is alive in the simple act of moving, dancing on his own more than having to explain or compare himself. As an authentic transgender character (and IRL person), Buck has the most to gain from this set of perfectly felt movements. Through practice, we can tell later that Buck has full embodied the five movements, much like BBA too. He also believed Prairie was the OA wholeheartedly–even after the (planted) books were found, Buck chose to remain vigilant to the idea that angels exist.

So I get to the cafeteria scene–after switching to headphones and wrapping myself up under the covers–and I’m a mess of emotions. Anytime a high school shooting is used in TV and film, I get extremely absorbed, slightly disturbed. Case in point, Gus van Sant’s Elephant, which I saw at fifteen after learning about Columbine for the first time in class.

But when these five silently decided to unite and embrace the five movements they previous had abandoned to defeat (or distract) this random (or planned) shooter, I lost it.

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Here are five movers who are all different. First, we rarely get to see that after decades of Ziegfeld Follies overload and homogeneous NYCB modeled companies in film. The wide-spread idea of the individual in dance is practically extinct, unless you count exceptionally skilled “prodigy” stars and talents which the public love to brain freeze over.

It’s great that the public is learning to catch off-beat moments in the corps or whatever, but what more can we learn from watching different bodies moving to the same choreography other than the mistakes? The mistakes suddenly aren’t mistakes, because in this case every character is allowed a unique way of presenting the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth movements.

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Different dynamics, same shapes. They don’t have to be a replica of Prairie/OA or Homer. They still have to get technique down–like all of us dancers–but they are free to investigate what the movement means to them and how it relates to everyone else. Fuck, I might have even enjoyed watching Hap go through the movements with perfect feeling, realizing that like his captives he also has a different but connected movement language.

Also, presenting dance before violence is extremely bold for the visual arts. Wash away the Degas hazy of beautiful bodies performing for perfection or the dancer inflicting pain onto herself, and you get sublime performances for positive catharsis. The cafeteria scene summarized the wealth of emotions built up with Prairie/OA–from sympathy to fear to guilt to anger to love. Then a release.

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Everything came crashing down during this final dance but nothing stopped completely. The second group was able to open the portal, OA is reunited with Homer, but it doesn’t stop there. (Season two, where are you?!)

Life doesn’t stop after the performance ends.

Dance isn’t just about the final product.

Movement is constant.


Obviously, I have a lot more to say about The OA. But I think this is a good stopping point for now.

Luckily, this is my blog and I can write my brains out about anything at any moment. So reader beware, I’ll continue to research dance in The OA later.

This is just the beginning.

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Read more about The OA:

The Nerdist: THE OA Mesmerizes with a Powerfully Beautiful Peculiarity (Review)

Vulture: The OA’s Choreographer on the Meaning of the ‘Movements’

Marie Claire: Brit Marling Spills on Her Mysterious New Netflix Show ‘The OA’

Elle: The OA Netflix Dancing Ryan Heffington

Thrillist: The Strange Five-Movements Dance on Netflix’s ‘The OA,’ Explained

Vanity Fair: How The OA Dreamed Up Its Otherworldly Movements

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