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Hands and Symmetry

Last weekend I took a stroll through the Lower East Side and happened into McKenzie Fine Art, where the current exhibit is “Homeostasis” by Judith Braun. From the sidewalk I could see only that the work was quite detailed, and this drew me in.

One side of the room was hung with many small drawings, while on the opposite side, the wall itself was painted in a large symmetrical design. The gallerist was in in mid-conversation with another visitor, “Most people don’t understand what it is….they think it’s computer generated, but it’s all hand-drawn in graphite”.

When I stepped in closer to examine the framed drawings I started to appreciate the near-perfection of their elegant symmetries. The same thing could be done with 100% accuracy by Photoshop, but this was all created by a human hand. I imagined attempting to draw one of these sweeping curves---so far so good. Then I tried to imagine the fine motor control I’d need in order to mirror that.


This virtuosity in drawing reminded me how difficult it can be to reproduce a dance phrase to the other side, especially if it’s not made of the ballet steps I’ve worked on for decades. So I got interested and looked Braun up online.

Symmetry, it turns out, is a recurring theme in her work. The wall installation I saw consisted of many, many fingerprints in perfect bilateral symmetry.

Photo by Cesar Delgado Wixan

Symmetry is also the basis of an arm improv exercise I learned from Crystal Pite-- one I’ve since adapted for use in my own classes. As Crystal pointed out, the two sides of our body can move in a more symmetrical unison than a group of dancers could ever hope to achieve with any amount of rehearsal. When I move like this it doesn’t matter how fast I go; I can easily maintain symmetry in my arms. What’s more, my brain doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but somehow my arms have agreed on a plan.

The next stage of the exercise is to move in asymmetry, which is surprisingly hard, especially if I try to vary the energetic qualities of the two sides.

Braun seems to agree, saying of her attempts to draw simultaneously with sticks of charcoal in both hands “I realized that my hands, our hands, just naturally move simultaneously, the same way. It’s harder to do different things with your hands at the same time, the way musicians do. So I thought: “Wow I can do this, but maybe it would work better with just my dirty hands,” and I made a fingerprint on the wall. Wow, I noticed that the fingerprints were really interesting marks, very three-dimensional looking. They weren’t just flat smudges. And there was so much control and variation possible, just with pressure and gesture, like any other drawing tool.”

Then I thought of this video I’d watched the previous week, of the artist Heather Hansen.

While Judith Braun apparently prefers privacy and solitude for her fingerpainting, Hansen makes her art live in performance. Her large-scale charcoal works, created by symmetrical movements of her full body, resemble for me the sun salutations that begin my daily yoga practice. They also resemble some of the floor exercises I teach in the beginning of my contemporary class.

Photo by Kokyat

I try to do all my exercises on both sides, but the more complex the movement, the more difficulty I have mirroring it. In a choreographic process, when I teach my hardest stuff, I almost always do it do just it to one side. My Sacroiliac joint (a bony structure which resembles some of these drawings) has been subtly awry for the past several weeks for this reason.

In ballet class, the equal training of both sides gives me a daily opportunity to assess my body’s asymmetries. Even when all is well, my left leg is my stronger supporting leg, and like most dancers, I am a right turner. Trying to do fouette turns to the left feels like trying to write cursive with my left hand. Awful.

So I guess the human body’s symmetry is only partial. It would have to be, considering what lies beneath the surface: the heart on the left side, and the liver on the right. Or the lungs, which have different numbers of nodes on the left (2) and right (3). How could the skeletal system ever be 100% even when it serves as the container for such an asymmetrical set of innards?

I did a quick bit of research and found that there is a rare condition, situs inversus, where all the internal organs are reversed---heart on the right, liver on the left.

Image credit: Jonathan Rosein, NY Times.

I also learned about the ‘node” the tiny pit on an embryo from which left-right asymmetry begins---it happens because of the whirling of tiny hairs (cilia) whose movement create a leftward motion of fluid. From there the body breaks its initial symmetry and chooses its left and right sides.

This fit right in with my love of spirals. But I wanted to know what happened to that node---apparently it became part of my nervous system, but where is it now? Is it spread out through my body somehow, or still concentrated in one spot? I tried Googling “where is my node now?”, to no avail.

If anyone knows the answer, I’d like to hear it. In the meantime I’m exploring more symmetry and asymmetry in movement, starting with my handwriting (inspired by another Braun exhibit at Simuvac Projects.) Yesterday, in addition to left-handwriting, I tried cursive with reverse letter order by word, then I tried mirror-writing whole lines. These tasks were difficult much in the same way as retrograding a dance phrase. Though I was working in a simple two-dimensional plane I still had to pay careful attention to momentum, as well as to the question of where I initiate each letter. Later, just for fun, I tried writing cursive with no spaces between the words. My brain and hand objected with every single word. Not being able to cross my T's and dot my I's right away felt truly distressing. Montessori learning dies hard, apparently.


All these efforts emphasized for me the extent to which my thoughts flow from my physical habits. When I resumed my normal left-to-right writing after a few pages of humbling experiments, I felt sharp, focused and ready to make new mental connections.

Next time---full body movements in a dance studio.

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