With this paper the physical presentation will precede the verbal. The physical presentation is what I have called a laparoscopy of the process. It is an incision into my studio-based research in dance-making at this point in time. The movement that you will see is improvised. This improvisation is housed within a temporary framework of linked solos. This structure is intended to facilitate our individual entries into the dance terrain. It then moves into a more recognisable duet form.
To contextualize this physical presentation that Julie Humphreys and I will make, I would like to involve you in a very easy way as participants. I would like you simply to take the hand of a partner and bringing attention to that part of his or her body whilst watching our dancing. My aim with this is to locate you, the viewer, in a more body-conscious state with which to view us. This is a simplification of a procedure I use in the studio.
Now, the way of holding the hand is important. (I may ask the audience to come onto the floor so that I can more clearly demonstrate this.) Please take the hand of your partner in a firm, clear and decisive manner. Bring them into the present and ground them with this contact. Make a clear decision to hold their hand and then a clear decision to let it go. Repeat this several times, firming up different holds of the hand. Notice the hand. Notice the hand being held.
Good, now swap roles. Yes and now please (return to your seats and) continue this task whilst we dance. You may continue it for the entire duration, or intermittently, or if you don’t want to do it at all, that’s fine.
With this part of the work we are attempting to develop a sensorial response network in our bodies – a landscape of sensations that are a response to what is seen, directly or peripherally of the other dancing body. Our focus is not so much on shape, direction, speed, emotion, etc. Although these are all present, they are secondary. We are not trying to imitate or match the other, but to locate ourselves within our own bodies and listen to the sensation-response we are having in that moment. What is the sensation I am experiencing in my own body in response to what I am seeing or sensing? Breathing with this sensation, I experience an increasing desire in my body to move.
I have developed this as a framework for the discourse between and of our bodies. I am attempting to get beneath verbal language and develop a discourse in the medium itself. I am also searching for performative structures for improvisation.
Initially, and still at times, we use verbal language in the form of ‘scores’ – phrases of text to which the dancer is asked to respond; a practice informed by the work of New York choreographer, Jennifer Monson. We developed a language of these, delineating ‘wide’ scores which break up movement patterns and stimulate new movement and ‘personal poetic’ scores. These, in turn, grow out of one dancer writing in response to the other dancer dancing and then selecting resonant parts of the text to read back to her. The calling of this text triggered ‘unprecoded’ impulses in the dancer. We called and wrote about each other from a bodily condition that was in itself like a kinaesthetic response to the dancing body. We attempted to derail the impulse, to conceptualise by distracting our conscious attention with tasks so as not to interfere with the body expressing its own perceptions and revealing its own ‘mind’.
Some of the ‘wide’ scores we used were: ‘move on a long breath’, ‘stay with that’, ‘take up more space’, disrupt yourself gently’, ‘stillness is always an option’, ‘work with something totally new and unfamiliar’. These were an attempt to direct movement choices, but we realized that, although they may have stemmed from a gestalt analysis of the dancing, they needed to be presented to the dancer in a less analytic way in order to be effective in triggering a body-led response in dancing (see Gaston Bachelard (1964) whose poetics of perceiving has been a source of validation for my experience of the way the body can ‘know’ in improvisation)
The ‘personal poetic’ scores tended to be responses to qualities of movement that the watcher liked and hence were an attempt to ‘choreograph’ the score. Although this has been a useful process, I have suspended it whilst the sensation-led discourse with our bodies develops. (See Roar, choreographed solo for GreenMill, Melbourne, July 1997, and Space Eaters, Perth, September 1997. At that time I felt that I could take improvised materials and territories and set them down without losing any of their immediacy. This was to some extent successful because the improvisation was so extensive in the beginning and the territories did become very clear. It was easy to choreograph the steps. But I did not feel, at that stage anyway, that it was possible to engage as fully with the moment of the body in a choreographed performance as it is in improvisation.)
The scoring helped to reveal quite clearly the difference between a psychologically-led performance and a corporeal one. Although feelings and emotions are part of the currency of the dancing, they are perceptual responses in the sensing body as opposed to conceptual intentions. ‘I need you’, ‘I provoke you to play with me’, ‘I invite you’ may arise from the body in the playing process. However, it is not thought in a conceptual way which I experience as projecting the energy of the body into the head area. Rather, it is known through and with the body as a full body experience.
Some verbal articulation after the dancing is an essential part of the process:
where you are now
go into it
what is it
stay with it
don’t give up until
you have exhausted it
then move on to the very next
thing and stay with that
go into it
find out everything about it
love it, devour it
stick with it until
and only when it is exhausted
can you leave it and move on
The body needs to be prepared. This kind of sensitivity requires long-term training. We have found this work to have a cumulative effect over days and months. The body is a sponge. We are both allowing the trainings of our past to emerge in the play as much as we are re-patterning the body. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand: by training to undo the heldnesses in the body, it is possible for that body to discharge its history – the neuro-muscular history and emotional history stored there. We negotiate that reality through play. Play allows us a space of ‘no obligation’.
This practice is fundamentally one of accepting the reality of the body as it is experienced in that moment. It involves embracing the self, loving the self as it is known and can be known in and with the body by not denying where it is, not forcing it to be elsewhere, not wanting it to be elsewhere (a personal and political challenge in a social and cultural environment that encourages us to be anywhere but in the present and everywhere but in our bodies).
We have practiced this, as we have articulated it, over many months. This dancing has been done with eyes closed in order to engage the other senses more fully and to remove the self-consciousness of being seen. One of the dancers defined what we are trying to do as follows:
‘What am I noticing?’ is the priority. A technique I am working with at the moment is to train us to stop moving at times and notice, to practise states of doing nothing as being acceptable in performance. ‘Nothing is always an option’ is a phrase that has assisted me with this whereas the words that assist Julie Humphreys are ‘Find the right place’. One needs to feel comfortable with this place of nothingness. This requires a maturity with the work, a trust and belief that good material will come. It basically requires self-love, a sense of ‘I am valid just being here with no product’.
The brilliant ‘accidents’ that happen in the studio do create a cummulative effect of confidence in the body. On the 30th October 1997, I noted in my research journal that, ironically, whilst the idea of being in a personal feeling state might cause one to feel vulnerable, it in fact generates more security, more substance and ownership or location of oneself in the dancing body.
So, basically it means much dancing has to be done so that gradually one is familiar in the body with the sensation of being out in that state of the unknown where the body is responding to a continuous stream of unconscious or ‘unprecoded’ impulses.
After a particularly strong dance experience, I noted:
a hole in the pavement today.
Lined up on three sides
some (extra-terrestial) strange
force took hold.
I maintained it on an edge.
It was completely unknown to me
although later I recalled
an episode whilst bushwalking
with my sister in N.T. One
strong place, a mini-rainforest
in the dry country north of Katherine
that we called the amphitheatre.
It was walled with paintings. It thrust us
into another reality. I thought
my sister might have vanished
slipped through a crack into another reality.
I believe that, within my small group of dancers, we are developing a definite language of the body to communicate with each other. This discourse is developing from within and because of certain contexts. The framework of working with a witness is one of these contexts. In witnessing each other, we are involving the participation of the body of the witness. The witness can create a non-judgemental context, a perceptive openness to the dancer. This creates a ritual ‘container’ that supports the dancer in her vulnerability. It allows the dancer to be seen following what interests her rather than (re)producing a performance for the watcher. Perhaps this is only a temporary structure, as alluded to earlier; one that may be able to be dispensed with once we have become more fully embodied.
I am choosing to work in improvisation because I am interested in accessing the liminal consciousness of the dancing body. I find that in improvisation it is possible for the gap to close between the body and its language (signified and signifier becoming one?). Because the dance is of the dancer, it can most explicitly reveal her subjective reality, the body in that moment. This is movement that presents the self without the intervention of another voice or instruction that is separate from the moment of the dancing body. The other voice is usually that of the choreographer (who may also be the dancer) attempting to present his or her thoughts and ideas through his or her chosen representative, the body of the (female) dancer. The artifact that we have come to expect in dance is not a subjective one. Rather, it is a use of movement as an object in relation to a concealed subjectivity of the performer. It is movement that is used as an object to represent, describe, imitate or symbolize something other to that which she knows herself to be through her body in that moment. Such objective movement masks and denies the ‘body-self’.
My pursuit of subjective movement – of movement of the self – means that my practice is essentially a discipline in self-acceptance. To dance of the self, one needs to embrace that which one knows oneself to be through the body in that moment, in each moment as one enters the studio. In this dancing, I experience the space around my body as not other to the space of my body. This is a function of the non-judgemental and requires a context that allows it.
For this, I have needed to question my own notions of the performative. I believe that my work sometimes struggles and that this work might ‘fail’ if it is presented in the usual performance context. To access the delicate subjective moment of the body requires a certain state or condition in the performer that can be immobilised by the conventional western theatre context, one of being viewed with the expectation that now I must produce it all, one of active performer versus passive audience, producer versus consumer. I need an audience to be patient: the goods might not arrive instantly; they may arrive tommorow. They may be subtly manifesting in the subject and not yet visible to the untrained eye expecting the usual feast of form. The audience might need to wait and the vulnerable subject need to be given the space in which to wait.
My intense studio practice, first with four, then two, and now eight (female) dancers, has thrown up some remarkable work at different times. Where and how is it possible to bring a larger audience to share in this exchange? How can this work be viewed, transgressing as it often does conventional notions of the performative and challenging the expectations and preconceptions that (western) audiences bring with them? What audience would be willing to do the work that this ‘performance’ demands? And how can I contextualise this event in order to facilitate a different way of viewing and an other dance experience?
In many ways an audience may need to be ’trained’ in order to enjoy this work. I had wanted to contextualise my physical presentation by involving you as participants in the simple task of taking the hand of a partner and bringing attention to that part of his or her body. My aim was to locate you, the viewer, in a more body-conscious state from which to view us.
Libby Dempster (1997) once asked, “How are we to situate work that is intimate, prior to representation within the dominant culture of representation?” I think that in fact we need to create an other space that is separate from this that eventually an audience may come towards. Rather than trying to reach an audience, perhaps we can bring them towards us.
Dempster, Libby (1997) Ballet and Its Other, Unpublished paper presented at the Antistatic Dance Festival, Sydney (March).