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Vermont Artists’ Space Grant winner Toby MacNutt: Week One

by Toby MacNutt, Vermont Artists’ Space Grant recipient 

For more information about the grant, click here.

Choreographing a solo for yourself is hard. Choreographing a duet for yourself is even harder!

Choreographing a solo for yourself: even if you can see the phrase perfectly in your mind as it should be danced, you still have to teach it to your body and refine it, take it from step-by-step into fluid movement. It’s surprisingly challenging; you’d think that performing your own material would be easier, but the body still has to learn.

I’ve been working on a duet for myself, as part of the process of investigating relationships between different bodies. I’m a “trimodal” person and dancer: I can dance with the floor and some standing, I can dance with my crutches, and more recently, I use a wheelchair as well. The wheelchair won’t be appearing in this project—maybe a later version—as it’s still so new to me. We’re still learning how to relate to each other. My crutches and gravity and I have been relating, and dancing, for a much longer time. I plan to make at least three pieces during my time at the Flynn: one, a duet for myself with my crutches, drawing on the basic fact that while they often act as a part of me, they’re still a non-me entity, not a part of my body, so we have a relationship. Two, a piece with another dancer, with no crutches, reflecting that symbiotic relationship I have with my inorganic mobility aids into human form, emphasizing the closeness and unity I experience. And three, a piece with another dancer, and with crutches, looking at the ways they change my relationships with people, and the ways two dissimilar bodies relate in space. There may be more, if we’re exceptionally efficient!

So while I’m getting the other dancers organized, I’ve started with myself. The strategy I’m using for this piece, to make something that feels like a duet while technically only featuring one dancer, is to use duet-making tools to generate my movement vocabulary. I started on day one with a “call and response” task: I would make a shape or movement, and I would find a way for my crutches to “respond” to that shape or movement with one of their own, then I would respond to their action, etc. It takes some mental gymnastics. From there I moved on to ways that our relationship is made visible. One, gravity; with the crutches as extra legs, I can do unique jumps, leans, and “lifts.” Two, changes in limbs (quantity, or length, depending how you look at it). Three, simple physical connection: when used in the typical fashion, it’s easy to see my crutches as extensions of my arms. What other ways can I connect to them, and how does that change the perceived relationship? Four, proximity: what happens if I leave them and go move somewhere else?

Now wrapping up my second week of time in the studio (~10 hours in), I’ve generated a ton of vocabulary, both by relationship exploration and duet-making. Everything but a chunk in the middle has been roughly shaped, and even that has its rudiments in place. I know some of the actions I will take, and what ways I will test the duet relationship, but haven’t yet strung them together. I can see the overall shape of the piece: how the relationship begins, evolves, ends; what features are most prominently featured at what points. At this stage, the shapes are in place, the movements sketched out, and most of the transitions established, but the dynamics are not: speed, sharpness or softness, nuances such as head and face and fingers. I am now working with jazz shoes – I like to be barefoot, and its characteristic of modern dance, but my feet have been suffering, and this piece will do well shod – but not yet with music. My next task is to accumulate several music possibilities, and then let music shape the still-nebulous center. From there, it will be about refining, as I start working on new pieces with other dancers. Next week, I start the first “true” duet!

I video-record myself regularly as I create to document my progress. It’s also a helpful tool for me as I create and shape pieces I’m dancing in, so I can see from an outside perspective. If you’d like to follow the evolution of the creative process more visually, I’m uploading many of the videos to my Vimeo page: It’s a very different point of view than you get as an audience member for a finished piece. Enjoy!

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