Under the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition for “shape” (n.) is a third variant, which to me, at least, was unexpected: “The contour or outlines of the trunk of the body.” If I had known the tailor’s lexicon of “dress forms” and “shaping boards,” perhaps it wouldn’t have surprised me. It turns out that shape is as deeply entwined with the body’s trunk—from hip to shoulder, the twisting torso, the meatiest part, with its internal organs and differentiating sexual characteristics—as it is with line, the pitch of an angle or a curve.
Watching Maria Hassabi’s dancers move, this relation between shape and trunk, contour and torso, line and shoulder-ribcage-waist-hips-skin-bones-muscle, comes into focus. The emphasis is less on what the limbs can do—except in a few, sharp moments—than on what happens when movement is slowed down so much that we see every nuance of movement unfolding from the core of the body; the limbs become outgrowth only. Watching a shoulder emerge, its musculature folding and growing, or a haunch easing gradually: this is watching shape that is never merely geometry. Her dancers, instead of making shapes, refer us to how we feel shape.
Born in Cyprus in 1973, and based in New York, Hassabi begins each work on her own body. She makes a dance like STAGED in 2016 (the black-box half of a diptych; the other half of which is a live installation of 2017, STAGING), first as one very long solo, built on her own movements. Then she teaches it to her dancers, which means that the four dancers of STAGED multiply her, fracturing a solo into multiple parts that can now touch one another, repel or entwine. Their movement is slowed to sometimes no more than stillness, with the slightest hint of breath. But we watch more than those bodies. Emanating from the torso of each of Hassabi’s epigones are shapes that heat and cool each other, that demonstrate how far a rhythm can be stretched before it can no longer be felt or seen, or how much distance can be implied before two points lose contact. From these minute tensions and perpetual adjustments surface the connection between what we perceive as gradual movement and the shapes of the dancer’s trunks as they are forming. Each trembling reinvents the very notion we carry of shape, no longer only a static picture—integer-like, symbolic, a template—but a mobile and powerful force.