For All Your Life

A pair of writings—aural and textual, both mercurial—from a choreographic process considering the value of objects and lives

Digitally manipulated photo of a person with dark skin floating on their back in aqua water.
Leslie Cuyjet, For All Your Life Studies, 2021. Video still from installation at SculptureCenter. Courtesy the artist.

either, or

The pressure of water on your skin is different depending on the type of water you are in. You know this, not because you can distinguish the minute variance in pressures of water. You know this because this is physics. At least the way you understand it. No, physics is not subjective. Rather, this is the way you understand what you’ve read in the National Geographic magazines that sat on the shelf in your grandmother’s living room. A little trivia bit you’ve carried with you since flipping through the glossy pages on the carpet, on your belly, heels kicked up and crisscrossing. There were stacks and stacks of old issues and every now and again you would gravitate by that worn spot in the carpet below the shelf. Your mom suggested getting rid of them, as they were simply collecting dust. You would lose yourself and time while your parents were doing the things that you will learn much later that you do with your parents at that age, when your roles start to reverse. A transition that takes its toll on everyone. But for now, you’ve proceeded to lose yourself in the contours and sinuous lines depicting the hydrodynamics of humpback whales as they dive to depths of hundreds of feet. And didn’t realize you were holding your breath. Crisscross, applesauce.

In an ocean, the water is more dense because of salt, dissolved over time. (That part is chemistry, not physics.) The salt content and depth of the oceans are much greater than the chlorine water of a pool, say, even the deepest deep end. Even the block-long Olympic-sized public pool in your current neighborhood. Or how deep you imagine it would be. You’ve never been there, after it reopened as an actual pool instead of an edgy venue for a massive outdoor dance performance. The performance’s success led the city to reinvest and refill the pool for all to use as it was intended. There were no more glass bottles and used needles that filled the pool, thanks to the performers who cleaned up the concrete themselves to make it usable for dancing. And then the city said, thanks, we’ll take it from here. Splish, splash. 

Water pressure can feel more intense because of temperature too. The salty cold waters of the ocean put more pressure on your skin than fresh water or bathwater enhanced with epsom salts. Being in salty cold water brings on a feeling of freedom you can’t replicate anywhere else. Swimming comes naturally to you. You can’t explain it more than that. Our bodies are organized in such a mysterious way that no medicine or study of science can unlock the origin of our instinct to walk, breathe, or swim. You go to the ocean when you’re lonely, you know you’ll get a stronger hug than when you’re at the pool or the best tub you’ve ever had. Given the physics and chemistry you understand, and all. And bonus: you get to float out there and disappear for a while, wrapped in someone’s arms. Not needing to catch up, for a minute. You kick your heels up and knock your head back and the two flat mounds on your chest start to dry in the air and sun, above the waves embrace. Along the back of your body, there’s a push, a snug, a holding up. And above the wind catches the tiny hairs on your skin. A great inhale allows you to feel your chest expand both more deeply in the water, and rise above its surface, at once. Here you are not just spending time, this is time itself. You lack words—language is all messed up with feeling. There’s no sense in making meaning of anything because it’s sloshing all around in arrhythmic crests. You belong to nothing for this moment. The sum of all of this negative space gives you great pleasure. Still, just a minuscule spot in the sea but you revel in this moment of greatness, being bigger than you actually are. 

Here, you are your most self. To be half in and half out, to submit to land and sea as you choose. One is the future, the other is the past and only here can you be present. You breathe in heat to warm the numbing chill of the water below you. Slowly, water fills your face with a battering of salty droplets so they accumulate in the pockets of your eyes next to your nose and unsuspectingly as you take a breath, this little pool of brine rolls into your mouth. The delicate balance is disrupted. What a delusion to think that you can disappear! Cough, clap.

You think about your mother. You think about your selfishness. You are certain there is a shark nearby, circling and waiting to strike. You think about coffee and chocolate. You wonder how salt could burn in your lungs so badly. You should stop smoking. You think about one day being a bad bitch. You wonder if you can really be alone without loneliness. You wonder if you were ever enough. You wonder if you will take a satisfying breath again. You remember how it stung the first time you didn’t get invited, when everyone else did. You remember the confusion you felt when being punished and they said, this hurts me as much as it hurts you. You remember not sending a thank you card makes you ungrateful. You remember, after getting the lead in the school play, not all attention is good attention. You remember the back of your lover walking out and leaving you with what’s left. You wonder if you’ll eventually pickle out here, preserved in time. You wonder how far the light reaches in the water below you. Jesus, your nose stings. Maybe this end is just, you consider for a moment. Maybe this discomfort, hacking and thrashing and such, is generous in its brevity, trumping the lifetime of unease you realize you’ve felt most of your life. Only here, between sun and sea, this thin line of in between is there space for you. Either, or.

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Leslie Cuyjet

Leslie Cuyjet is a performer and dance artist living in Brooklyn, NY. She is most known for her work as a performer, earning a “Bessie” Award in sustained achievement for collaborating with a range of artists including Will Rawls, Juliana F. May, Cynthia Oliver, Jane Comfort, David Gordon, Anohni, NARCISSISTER, Kim Brandt, Niall Jones, and a canary torsi/Yanira Castro among many others. Her own work interrogates those experiences as a performer in various experimental and post-modern forms …   read more