The poetry of breathing

by Katherine Agard

Today at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. are the only performances of "Exhale" by Harvard's Expressions Dance Company. Earlier this week, I asked one of the choreographers: "Why 'exhale'?" She laughed and said "All of our shows start with 'ex' – so here we are - 'exhale.'" Then she went back to dancing.I was slightly disappointed because I’d been fixated on the word "exhale," and what it means. But I accepted her response because 1). They, as all Harvard students are, are super busy. Exhale is a great title. And 2). There are a limited number of words that begin with "ex": exacerbate, extort, exterminate, anyone? I’d just accept when I found a good one too.But back to exhale.I started and stopped dancing at 7-years old. My memories of this period at the Caribbean School of Dance consist of myself, struggling to follow an impossibly tall ballet instructor; myself, moving spastically up and down in character as a Turkish delight; myself, moving about the ballet studio and finding at the end of it that I wanted to collapse onto the floor, my chest beating up and down.I have always been aware of my breathing in dance. And I’ve always been struck by the fact that a performer's breathing is secondary to the audience (except in moments of disaster) but quite central to his or her performance.Later in life, in the present, I am even more mindful of breath. In meditation, I'm aware of breaths and types of breaths. On the stage, I am only momentarily clued in to a dancer's lung capacity in the pauses of a performance when I see a chest rise or a back hunch. I love those moments in ways perhaps that I shouldn’t: These are the moments in which the mechanism of the performance comes to light. There is something about technical difficulties, actors missing lines, unintended pauses and displays of fatigue that is poetic. We forget -- or at least I forget -- the remarkable amount of effort that goes into performance. And the remarkable amount of effort it takes to hide that effort. Those are the moments I think: Oh right. We all have to breathe. "Exhale" will be performed Friday, Nov. 12 at 5.30 and 8.30 pm. at Lowell Lecture Hall.