Lydia Okrent is an inventor: fastening worlds to blank walls, curiosity and confidence coexisting in her gaze. The taut magnet of her body passes through space with intention and clarity. In her demeanor, there is a teasing challenge, a sidestepping of gendered expectations. She explains, “I may not be able to do the best pirouette, but I can blink slowly and be a boy or a queen or a dog or a thought.” This constant play of potential marks Okrent’s style. Whatever her current incarnation, she exercises a quiet, sustained force that seeks to be met. Watching her, you feel she is on the edge of something, and inching closer. You lean forward; you wait.
Okrent is intentional about dancing for people she wants to spend more time with—either people she already knows, or people she’d like to know. This list includes Mariana Valencia, Strauss Bourque-Lafrance, Vanessa Anspaugh, MPA, Kim Brandt, Lauren Grace Bakst, and Tess Dworman, among others. Acknowledging the precarious economy of performances funded by small grants and crowdsourcing, Okrent says that she doesn’t expect to be paid her average freelance rate. Instead, she views her compensation more like a stipend. But she does expect to get something meaningful out of the process.
What is the work of the dancer exactly? Working closely with a choreographer is not a passive process for Okrent. "My work as a dancer, a performer, a collaborator is all connected by the hard and endlessly satisfying work of being confronted by someone else’s needs, wants, desires, framework, vision, humor, and ego and the task of figuring out how to make it move, and then, perhaps, move me." This process of clarification in the studio enables her to fully transform within the performance itself. She likens this experience to a scene in a movie where, while out dancing in a club, a character slips into a drugged trance and the sound drops away into silence. She asks me, in all sincerity: “Are you not supposed to want to be a star?”
Many dancers are aspiring choreographers, biding their time as performers until they receive an opportunity to make their own dances. Okrent resents the expectation that dancing in other people’s work is seen as prefatory or even inferior to choreographing. “When I tell people I am a performer or a dancer the next question is usually, ‘Do you also make your own work?’” Okrent insists that while working on a dance is a collaborative process, her approach to performance is ultimately her own: “My work, the work I make and the work I do, is performing, is mine.” True, others may activate her work, but she’s the one who makes us applaud.
An excerpt of Okrent’s work: vimeo.com/100655719 “on the floor on the bed.” Choreography by Mariana Valencia. Performed by Lydia Okrent and Mariana Valencia at Pieter in Los Angeles, July 7, 2014.
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
JAIME SHEARN COAN is the author of Turn it Over (Argos Books, 2015) and Ph.D. student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY.