This essay brings together the respective academic and professional dance backgrounds of Marnie Orr and Rachel Sweeney in outlining a choreographic proposal that involves cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural vernacular around body-place relations.

Surface Tensions takes the idea of topographic exchange between place and body, exploring relationships between sense, perception and memory relative to evolving site-based dance practices, undertaken in the UK and Australia as part of the dance research partnership between Dr Rachel Sweeney and Marnie Orr entitled ROCKface. In this article Orr and Sweeney introduce an interdisciplinary live research approach to practice developed over the past six years. ROCKface employ physical and verbal tools for navigating changing terrain, informed by land science and land management knowledge. Motivated by survival in a changing world, our aim is to broaden the scope of choreographic inquiry by sharing research processes exposing existing physicality and verbal articulation across a range of disciplines. In this way the work is cultivating a mode of operation based on an explicitly phenomenological worldview of the body. The process is also designed to benefit all participants by focusing on environments both internal and external to the body, and exploring, dialoguing and naming the nature of the multitude of relationships existing between those environments. The aim is to develop tools, techniques and environmental exchanges to foster an awareness of one’s own intuitive anatomy as part of a project of deep ecological critique.


In an ever-increasingly volatile balance between human development and material resources within the present boom or bust climate, promoting an awareness of individual agency must start with whatever sensibilities are present in the individual.

Orr and Sweeney of ROCKface, their live research partnership, outline how the dancing body in contemporary performance might act as a shifting site reflecting cultural and ecological concerns, directly engaging with matters surrounding sustainability, based on an ability to physically articulate a critical response to interior (anatomical) and exterior (environmental) states. This articulation can be described as embodied response to land, and extends to the ability to verbally describe interrelationships between sites.

The ethos of ROCKface is driven by the idea that the body responds to current radical transformations in nature through a confluent process of adaptation. Central to the argument of this paper is the idea that the dancing body’s own ability to act responsively through responsiveness to current unstable global and local conditions requires an immediacy of physical thought and simultaneity of critical sensation in order to fully articulate an embodied place relation, perhaps to instigate change.

As site-responsive artists, the current shifting political and environmental climate provides a timely need to expand contemporary choreographic practice to embrace flexible language structures in order to reposition the body in proximity to land and matter. This paper advocates and responds to a growing, imperative need to develop communication processes designed to transverse disciplines, to develop shared language that describes body/human interrelationships with the land, with other species and with the weather. ROCKface works to apply contemporary choreographic language to other disciplines by engaging groups of artists with scientists and local knowledge holders. This language, both physically and verbally articulated, is interrogated between the fields of ecology, geography and dance for the purpose of expanding the horizons of applied experiential knowledge, beyond ontological questions as to the nature of our being, and extending toward real change in the life-world.

Orr and Sweeney argue that their creative live research practice endeavours to cultivate a conscious and multifaceted application of modes of embodiment. Directed through their shared training, performative, design and production strategies, the researchers seek to respond to notions of displacement and environmental change through adaptive and generative dialogues between body, place and memory.

Terms of Engagement

The term “site” is adopted here to describe an identified land location and/or physical human body from which one works/exists, and a critical reflection on the individual body as a place of embedded corporeal experience and cultural activity. As opposed to the notion of site as empty, the term “references” a context invested in.

The use of the term “site-based” will be applied in relation to the investigation of a particular terrain; in other words, those present conditions specific to a particular environment, and their ensuing effects on the dance body through sense-perception. Here, Gay McAuley’s suggestion of movement in her description of the site-specific performance practice mode is useful in defining ROCKface live research approach to dance work, as it also:

emerges from a particular place, engages intensively with the history and politics of that place and with the resonance of these in the present. This kind of work cannot travel, it exists only in the site that produced it (2006, 9).

To further define the writers’ use of the terms “site” and “site-based” performance work interrogated throughout this paper, Pearson and Shanks’ succinct description of performance as a generative act is useful:

Site-specific performances are conceived for, mounted within and conditioned by the particulars of found spaces, existing social situations or locations, both used and disused … They are inseparable from their sites, the only contexts within which they are intelligible. Performance reconceptualises such sites: it is the latest occupation of a location at which other occupations—their material traces and histories—are still apparent: site is not just an interesting, and disinterested, backdrop (2001, 23).

The term “choreographic” references the translation and distillation of certain training principles identified by Orr and Sweeney through their role as co-facilitators and directors of immersive training and performance projects for ROCKface. The use of the term “dance” more broadly references the physical creative expression of those translated or distilled directives, whether self-realised by participating artists and researchers, or directed.


Founded in the UK in 2005, ROCKface aims to create a blueprint for long-term choreographic collaboration exploring knowledge intersections between dance, ecology and geography. With combined backgrounds in Butoh and Bodyweather physical practices, the root of Orr’s and Sweeney’s work is to highlight the sensory and kinetic intelligence of the dancer working in immersive conditions. In 1997, Rachel Sweeney trained and performed with the Seattle based Dappin Butoh Company. From 1999 through to 2001, she trained under Swedish butoh dancer Su En (see Sweeney 2009). Marnie Orr is an endorsed Bodyweather practitioner first introduced to the practice in 1998 in Cairns, Queensland, through Leah Grycewicz. Following participation in a Bodyweather Intensive led by Tess de Quincey in Sydney, she was invited to become a founding dancer in De Quincey’s company, and continued training and performing full time for two years with Tess de Quincey, alongside the now Denmark-based Bodyweather practitioner, Stuart Lynch. Orr has also trained with Frank van de Ven of Bodyweather Amsterdam.

Initially identified in the work of avant-garde dancer and artist, Tatsumi Hijikata and his contemporary, Kazuo Ohno, Butoh is an experimental dance performance expression that first emerged in Japan in 1959 and can be described as both a philosophy and movement expression, as it can be argued to identify a set of principles that govern the moving body in performance. Much debate has been generated during the past decade on the lineage of Butoh from its roots in post holocaust Japan to what has become a gradual dissemination of this art form into western theatre and dance practices, finding resonances within the currents of experimental dance, dance theatre and performance art (see Massine & Viala 1988; Fraleigh 1999).

The term and philosophy of Bodyweather was founded in 1978 by Butoh dancer Min Tanaka, developed with his Mai-Juku performance company, firstly in Tokyo, Japan, and then moving to Min Tanaka’s Body Weather Farm, one hundred kilometres west of Tokyo. Bodyweather can be described as an intercultural practice, in aiming to work beyond the borders of any one culture and address universal relationships (see Snow 2002 & 2003). De Quincey—Australia’s leading Bodyweather exponent—characterises the practice as a broad-based, comprehensive physical training “that proposes a practical strategy to the mind and to the body” (2006).

Bodyweather promotes the idea of the human body as an open vessel, constantly changing like the weather, and employs immersive processes of inhabitation, duration and exposure. While both Bodyweather and Butoh arguably can be said to share the perception of the dance body as an interdependent entity subsisting as part of the ecology of its surrounding environments, Bodyweather practice has evolved a distinct methodological framework based on the MB studio training. MB—meaning Mind/Body or Muscle/Bone—refers to a preparatory movement training session developed by Min Tanaka working with Mai Juku, which is based on the mechanics of the walking body at work. The MB takes place indoors or out, within a rectangular field-like open area, based upon participants walking the length of the open space and back again, maintaining a constant, flux like movement. The floor pattern used within the MB structure can be traced to the outline of the Japanese rice paddy fields as the movement patterns which the dancers follow can be seen to mirror those rotational ones created by the domestic Japanese farmer.

Both Butoh and Bodyweather, despite being relatively new traditions, have spread during the past fifty years from their respective cultural roots in Japan to Europe and the States. While they equally can be seen to contend with issues surrounding translation and appropriation, share certain principles of movement and an underlying philosophy of the body, there is clearly a separation of purpose. Whereas Butoh might be described as essentially a performance expression, tied to a cultural aesthetic, Bodyweather is driven by a daily training approach, and can be seen to be cultivated directly out of the conditions of the physical and cultural landscape within which it is presented. Peter Snow describes Bodyweather as consisting of three parts: daily life, training and performance (2003), and is hence designed for any body. In adopting a Bodyweather approach within their contemporary site-based dance practice, Orr and Sweeney have distilled certain elements of the daily training structures inherent to Bodyweather, integrating its principles into their own research practice.

This paper aims to provide an insight into the choreographic approach of ROCKface in developing physical approaches to land, driven by the interaction between dancer and environment. The approach remains focused on an application of physical and perceptual consciousness within a site-based movement research practice.

Intrinsic to the work of ROCKface as an international performance research collaboration is the production of a sustainable performance methodology, stemming from the sensate dialogue that is produced in response to those particular conditions explicit to each environment, and further developed through ongoing written and oral live and virtual transmissions. Here, the work of written documentation serves to produce a further material layer aiming to re-contextualise and deepen knowledge surrounding the practice of site-based performance.

Choreographic Methods

The choreographic methodology of ROCKface is defined by its live research approach to investigating movement, focusing on the body’s relation to place, and the place relation within the body (physically, culturally, and in terms of personal identity), through the experience of the immediately inhabited environment. The ROCKface methodology may also result in the construction of other live creative output according to the line of inquiry of the researcher, or group of researchers from different disciplines working within one particular activity (see Figure 1 below). The development of the researcher’s ability to respond within the perpetual improvised moment is not necessarily confined to body-based inquiry or responses. For ease of understanding though, discussion below will focus on the dancer’s line of inquiry. As such, the live research process itself therefore embraces and makes use of knowledge beyond conventional dance practices that might prioritise the authorial role of a singular choreographer’s creative signature.


Figure 1: Notebook entry of “mapping tasks” for presentation in Bridgetown Film Festival, WA (31 Jan 2009); by Orr.

For the writers, live research refers to a cooperative inquiry process of live dialogue exchange (see Reason & Bradbury 2001). The process of inquiry is designed to cultivate research outputs through sharing the live moment, following sustained periods of intense focus where participants engage with individual lines of investigation, as pertinent to the immediate environment. There are sustained periods of engagement with groups of artists, scientists and/or local inhabitants (see below), resulting in multiple creative outputs ranging from shared terms of reference, art product, embodied knowledge, raw data, and ongoing dialogue exchange (see for example Figure 1).

In opening up site derived choreography as a generative and individualistic method, a shift of emphasis occurs from contemporary form-based movement techniques (which can be followed, copied and accurately replicated in the body of the dance student) toward a conscious personal and collaborative expression of movement, created through a shifting dialogue arising out of the direct experience of the movement researcher working in and as part of the land. By adopting Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s view that to perceive is to participate, there is an implication of exchange, just by being a living body at the site (1945).

ROCKface seeks to extend a contemporary definition of choreography as an instant generative act that prioritises the work of individual receptivity within highly structured improvisational frameworks. Implicit within the generative act is the notion of exchange and dialogue-generative process that occurs within the individual dancer as the primary receiver of sets of sensory based information. Simultaneously there arises a need to firmly establish divergent communication processes of and between dance bodies. Feeding into divergent processes is the influence of the particular site where each ROCKface intensive takes place. Such communication exchanges become the focal point of the performance act rather than as disposed toward a unified viewing position that might exist within a conventional black-box performance stage setting.

ROCKface intensive projects have taken place across UK and Australia, including:

• Mapping Project 1 (Dartmoor, UK: 2007);

• Mapping Project 2 (Dartmoor, UK: 2007);

• Transnational Terrain (between Dartmoor, UK, and Kalamunda, WA: 2008);

• Movement Laboratory (Bridgetown, WA: 2009);

• Camera-Body-Place (Bridgetown, WA: 2009);

• Adaptation (Dartmoor, UK: 2010);

• SandSkin | BloodWater (Carnarvon, WA: July 2011, to be completed); and

• SandTrack | WaterTrack (Barmouth, Snowdonia, Wales, UK: Dec. 2011, to be completed).

Dance anthropologist Karen Vedel’s cultural citations of body and landscape provide a useful alternate perspective in positioning the dancer in direct relation to his/her environmental surrounds (2007, 135-149). Vedel has worked with the Bodyweather projects mounted by Tess de Quincey, namely Dictionary of Atmospheres and Triple Alice. Triple Alice was a series of interdisciplinary intensive laboratories in site-specific movement, writing and visual arts practice which took place in Hamilton Downs near Alice Springs, Central Australia, during 2005. Vedel acted as a writer in residence for the second of these projects. Where Vedel suggests that a site-based performance practice mode of inquiry implies a process of writing over places already written on, the dancer can be said to operate in dialogue with the land’s ecology and extant writings. The act of site-based performance thus assigns a reflexive meaning, both intervening and commenting on the inherent conditions of that place, and therefore of space itself.

Drawing on his interactions with and study of the Indigenous Tiwi people of Northern Australia, dance anthropologist Andre Grau notes that the term “land” can be used interchangeably with the term “language”, to denote “country” or a place with specific connections to a specific people or skin group of the Tiwi and other Indigenous tribes. To the Arrente people in central Australia, body is also country (Vedel 2007, 135-149). Cultural anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose affirms this view with her widely celebrated statement of indigenous Australia:

People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person … country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life (Rose 1996, 7).

Such definitions suggest an inclusive and shared set of references that place the body subject in a dynamic and symbiotic relation with its environment, and environment as inseparable from body. Below is a photograph exemplifying a depth of relation beyond form-based inquiry and self expression via embodied language. The image serves to describe a transfer of properties between the dancer and the environment (here focussed especially on the rough bark, and the substance and the relative position of the tree). This transfer might be considered a generative rather than determining choreographic technique, which ROCKface has identified, named and developed.

Figure 2: Marnie Orr, taken at Centre for Contemporary Art & the Natural World, Exeter, UK (2007). Photograph by the authors

In an investigation of the body’s relationship to gravity, a moment of movement is captured during transference of the property of weight between three objects: Orr (body), tree (wood) and a stone (rock; see Figure 2). The dynamic tension that exists between the human body and the tree relates to the intricacies of certain sensations and their immediate physical/physiological manifestation in the body at any given moment. Below Orr describes this relationship as one of kinaesthetic empathy:

I had placed the rock in my hand and was equating the weight of the stone almost exactly to the weight of my skull. At the same time, I was pressing my weight into the tree, almost propped up by its force. So, you could say, I was fully engaged in a transfer of properties into the body while at the same time experiencing a displacement, or transference of my own body weight. By objectifying the sensation of the weight of my skull, I could experience feeling the weight of myself in space. In this case, my sense of displacement of my mass into the tree through my chest and the rock was experienced as a two-way exchange.

The term “properties” is used above to describe distinguishing characteristics or attributes of a subject; for instance, height, temperature, density, depth, texture, actions/movement qualities such as the quality of the sway of a tree’s limbs, also speeds, timing, and the body’s longer-term relation to and within the surroundings. The notion of emplacement serves to describe the body in its environment during such an exchange, or a transference between subject properties. Here, the role of perception, proprioception and proximity can be said to operate interdependently throughout the sustained sensory dialogue between body and land-based material. The body’s own daily, seasonal and life shifts come to echo micro processes of environmental change.

Experience is bound by proximity. That is, a spatial and temporal closeness of the body subject to another body, to a subject or object, an image or a happening. Scale, height, distance, density, tension and texture are abstract concepts until an experiential, phenomenological engagement of this kind occurs. That engagement arises due to either a direct, conscious body-centred exteroceptive perceptual spatial ordering of objects in relation to oneself in, or as part of, an environment, as well as un- or sub-conscious proprioceptive awareness that is not specifically “conceptual” or “perceptual” in nature (“nonconceptual” or “nonperceptual” knowledge in philosophic terms).11 The philosopher and cognitive scientist Shaun Gallagher, for example, expands on the work of Brian O’Shaughnessy, whom advocates proprioception as “attentively recessive” (O’Shaughnessy 1995, 175-204; Gallagher 2003, 53-68). Gallagher continues:

when I am engaged in the world, I tend not to notice my posture or specific movements of my limbs. In its most typical form it provides a non-reflective awareness of the body. It is possible, however, to transform proprioception into an attentive reflective awareness in which I “involute” my attention to some particular part of my body. I can attend, for example, without vision or any other sense except proprioception, to the position or movement of my foot. O’Shaughnessy admits that this would be an atypical case of proprioception (he calls it reflexive or introspective proprioception).

A critical re-positioning of the dance body by focusing on introspective proprioceptive processes, and the shared existing language around body sense, leads the writers to ask, what is the capacity of the current contemporary dance body to act as a host in addressing an imperative need to contextualise the body? If we follow Edmund Husserl in considering the body as the primary place through which we assign value and meaning (Abram 1996), the work into perception pursued by dancers and performance practitioners might inform strategies for survival in a changing world. By bringing together bodies holding varying knowledge bases, and starting with whatever sensibilities already exist (physical and oral), ROCKface works to address the dance body as a critically engaged vessel, navigating and instigating change via perception and reflection.

Within facilitated research structures, internal processes or body senses can be greatly enhanced through movement training, where physiological and psychophysical awareness is developed over durational or shorter but repeated intensive time periods.

Residential Research Intensives

Since 2006 ROCKface has conducted immersive residencies for professional artists from various disciplines, which typically run for ten days. This group process is bookended by an extended writing, place-mapping and design process between the two facilitators, working between the site of the research intensive, and the studio. Residential intensive research processes facilitated by ROCKface are dedicated to working with scientists, local land knowledge holders, and other artists across varying fields, for the purpose of sharing and interrogating across the disciplines existing physical and oral/written language surrounding the body as it interfaces with itself, its environment, and with other bodies. Notably, Orr and Sweeney have sustained a four year relationship with geographer Willem Montagne of Dartmoor National Park, Devon, UK. This relationship and that with many other professionals has enabled the integration of terms and ways of seeing/knowing into the live research practice, such as the concepts of triangulation and stewardship. Moreover, during the research intensives and shorter associated projects conducted in Bridgetown, Western Australia, during 2008 and 2009, ROCKface worked in consistent dialogue with land management professionals Cheryl Hamence of Blackwood Valley Landcare, and Sheila Howat, the latter an award winner for her environmental land management strategy. Their input ranged from consultancy, to hosting the group through long bush walks and conversations. Information imparted included land management and biodiversity strategies, camera monitoring techniques for species-specific surveys, and examination of the use of back-burning. Howat and Hamence also participated physically or as observers during research activities carried out within directly and immediately relevant bush land, as well as audience members to performance production outcomes.

The purposeful attention to the relationship between body and place, and its infinite description, is thereby stimulated and engaged across the varying fields of knowledge nurtured by a core group of artist researchers conducting the physical movement inquiry. The core group engages in morning MB training followed by afternoon ‘ground work’. Typically after a number of days, local knowledge holders and scientists are invited to present or collaborate with the group to impart their local knowledge of an area or particular line of interest. This has acted to further inform participants of the significance of certain elements, and offers ways to work with and respond to the land.

Within this framework for each ROCKface residential intensive, creative physical processes presented to the core group are planned between studio-based and outdoor immersive training and practices, drawing on individuals’ existing embodied knowledge to produce independently generated sensory strategies, including intuitive anatomy, collective cultural memory and embodied memory experience. The facilitated live research training and activities encourage group and individual research to employ these sensory strategies by focusing on the perpetual improvised moment, resulting in the live construction of choreographic scores. The writers acknowledge here the considerable historic bind between dance and writing as found within notational choreographic scores, most notably developed by modern dance pioneer Rudolph Laban. The term “score” is used widely here to encompass writings, photographic images, maps and other drawing materials that emerge as part of the constructive process working in response to a particular site.

Figure 3: Haytor Quarry Dartmoor. Figure 4: Bellever Tor, Dartmoor. Photographs by Llewyn Maire & ROCKface (2007).

The writers identify such physical processes as working or acting within definable, distinct perceptual modes of engagement. Any mode of engagement synthesises a range of sensory stimuli that are activated according to the mode one is working within. To illustrate the physical mode of engagement for dancers, we turn to The Mapping Project 2, held in Dartmoor UK in 2007. After some days of training during a day-long walk through the moors, an activity took place known as Open Body Action. This is a shared ROCKface performance term describing a performance proposition as part of intensive training and research programs that engage participants to freely investigate a designated land area. Prior activities directly feed in to the immediately available physical tools of the dancer-researcher. The proposition is an opportunity for the researcher to equate specific properties of a particular terrain with equivalent movement sensibilities by working to “read” the “land” or the “country”—a term used here as referenced by Paddy Roe of the Bardi tribe in his book of the same name (Benterrak, Muecke & Roe 1984). The Open Body Action of The Mapping Project 2 was held in what was later identified by Montagne as a very overgrown, abandoned sandstone quarry, known as Haytor Quarry (Figure 3, left). Subsequent individual reports by the participants confirmed they experienced a sense of gradually growing consensus in their movement to work with repeated and highly symmetric actions. The participants “found themselves” in a “working body”, and that this was heavily influenced by historic imagery and associations of industry and human intervention at this specific site. In particular, it was conceded after the four hour durational investigation, that such a consensus was possibly influenced by the role of collective cultural memory where in this instance, the granite rock had been manipulated and shaped by human intervention. This was in contrast to the tor regions most recently experienced by the group where the rock formations had largely been shaped by natural weathering processes (Figure 3, above).

As stated above, the participants developed a “working body” approach in their experience of Haytor Quarry. This was in direct contrast to the performative qualities generated out of the tor region, in which again according to participant reports, they worked with elemental imagery embodying water-like qualities and sediment erosion and movement—informed more by a “dancing body” approach rather than a “working body” approach. The properties of that place informed the physical approach to that land. The 2007 research intensive referred to here engaged Orr and Sweeney within a facilitative capacity to a mixed group of nine artists (writers, performance artists, dancers, media artist, musician, teacher, martial artist) who engaged a number of performative propositions (following daily MB training). Researchers could respond intuitively to the material conditions of particular country through his or her ability to access those sensory stimuli that are pre-existing, to enable a dynamic interchange to take place with the land.

Such physical approaches to place can be referred to as individually encountered states of being, or modes of engagement based on one’s sensibilities and apperception, levels of awareness and chosen focus at a given moment (see Abram 1996). Zygmunt Bauman discerns the “pilgrim” and the “tourist” as possible “modes of life”, in which intent and identity mesh with physical expression, perception, and movement patterns or habitus (1996). ROCKface have taken on the terms “pilgrim body” and “tourist body” as terms addressing particular states of physical approach, further identifying the “pedestrian body”, such as one would find at a train station, and a “soldier body” owning a particular relationship to land and survival. Each approach has its own degree of temporal and spatial content, and will alter as the individual experiences different terrains, external weather patterns, as well as according to what in Bodyweather terms is seen as the internal “weather” or map of sensations of the person (de Quincey 2006).

Within such emerging live generated scores, movement and other vocabulary develops as embedded in the dancers’ immediate and sensorial responses instigated by the ecological, geographical, historical and/or geological conditions present within the specific local environment within which the dancer or researcher is working. As opposed to the notion of a choreographic score that might be applied on the surface of a particular site, or adapted to another site, the aim with the movement researcher is to develop intuitive connection with both the particular present conditions and physical properties of the immediate environment, including its residual histories and traces (weathering, mining, occupation, and so on). An outcome of the developing inter-subjective dialogues between land materials, sentient properties and proprioceptive processes that arise for the individual movement researcher, might be a highly engaged, open physical state.

Inherent for participants in activities as described is a sense of intuitive anatomy, where transformation also demands an alteration of our perception of what the body is doing. The aim of the training component is developing available bodies, able to access the sensorial stimuli in any pre-existing properties of an environment, and to therefore potentially change one’s relation to their environment and subsequently to oneself. The aim of the research activities is to develop bodies able to adapt. An adaptable body is defined here as a constantly transforming entity—changing like the weather according to the needs of the body working as part of a greater system.


Current ecological concerns look to adaptation as key strategy for sustaining endemic mineral, animal and vegetable life through identifying possible compatible species transglobally. Within ROCKface’s performance practice lies the recognition of those adaptive strategies found within integration practices in agrarian cultures to promote sustainable vegetation. In adapting to new climates and conditions, and cultivating new aggregate sensibilities, addressing a concern for the maintenance of biodiversity and for strategic ecological integration can be seen to reflect those macro- and micro-cosms of human relations, in parallel with physical matter redistribution and changing physiological states. An example of such an environmentally sensitive physiological change within site-based performance practice is offered below.

Referring to the body’s tendency to literally alter its state according to its surrounds can be regarded as subscribing to key philosophical principles underlying Deep Ecology. First coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, Deep Ecology describes an ecological philosophy and ethically-aware scientific approach based on the lived experience of deep, radical interconnectedness with environment (1973, 249-258). Rejecting a reductionist methodology, the Deep Ecology worldview builds on cultural historian Thomas Berry’s position that the world is made up of “a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects” (Harding 2006).

Furthering the movement of Deep Ecology is the anti-mechanistic theory of Gaia developed by atmospheric chemist James Lovelock and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis. Gaia theory refers to Earth as a living organism, where all things are interrelated and interdependent. As opposed to a mechanistic or hierarchical worldview, Earth exists not merely in support of living organisms and species, “but that sum of all these organisms in the Earth’s environment creates a system that is, in itself, alive” (Harding 2006). This radical point of view is based on re-appraisal that even the atmosphere—the air that we breathe—is part of a living organism. Air feeds us and we feed it, changing each other through the process of breathing, our lifeline. This implies that as bodies we are standing in, not on, the Earth.

Adopting these principles, ROCKface identifies the body, as “constantly, simultaneously engaged with the self and the immediate surrounding environments, living the experience … as embedded within the world’s ecological matrix” (Orr 2008). This engagement occurs regardless of a consciousness of the event itself. Rather, it is experienced physically through the moment. In this manner, Orr and Sweeney argue that for the human body in live research mode (whether you are a dancer or anyone else) or even if one is not in a mode of research, the exchange between body and surrounds resides in the cellular body and not in the form based, trained and cultivated dance body.

In referencing Bodyweather practice, Peter Snow might be describing the unfathomableness and depth of cellular interrelationship in his eloquent statement about weather, that it:

can be understood as a multivalent, capricious, cyclic and unpredictable system of influences occurring “inside and outside” bodies, and in fact throughout the world. On this view, bodies and the world as weather would be inter-penetrable, capable of infinite difference and endless change (2003, 51).

Physical Synaesthesia

The passage that follows is a piece of automatic writing created in response to a two-hour durational performance research process conducted as part of the Camera-Body-Place research intensive, July 2009 (Figure 4). The intensive was conducted on a local farm destroyed by bush fire in January 2008. In particular, the three hundred year old native xanthorea grass trees had survived the fire and remained intact despite their charred exterior trunks. These and other local and internal sensations and responses helped to inform the material below:

The fingers are smelling the landscape. The tongue listens to a bird on the opposite hill. The ears can feel the distance between the teeth and the horizon. The mouth is an open orbit, revolving eye. One arm meets the other, exploring its crevices and contours with the objective gaze of an estranged limb.

Figure 5: Rachel Sweeney during Camera-Body-Place, Bridgetown, WA (2009). Photograph by the authors

ROCKface’s immersive approach to land through creative practice is articulated in the above image where the dancer engages her senses within an application of physical synaesthesia. In deliberately reframing and re-prioritising the body’s normative proprioceptive functions, multiple sets of sensory engagement are encouraged. Within the above image and its associated writing stream, the dancer can be said to de-familiarise her normal sensory perceptual habits, and thus re-experience her relation with the environment. This in turn helps one to produce movement styles, images, and so forth which, at least at this poetic-perceptual level, might echo or reflect the environment within which they are generated.

Physical synaesthesia as both a concept and a choreographic directive activates multiple points of sensory engagement across the body’s surfaces. In doing so, the dancer’s proprioceptive awareness effectively creates a division of labour in the body. This division directly works against the supposed intention of kinetic logic that underscores the relation of weight, momentum and balance associated within existing conventional contemporary movement techniques. In the work of Eric Hawkins and Doris Humphries, for example, the establishment of a conscious relationship with gravity which emphasises the use of breath, contraction and suspension in moving down to the floor, and returning to standing, sustain and define these techniques of twentieth century dance. Physical synaesthesia, by contrast, emphasises the conscious multifaceted application of movement impulses in the body. The conditions of the surrounding land might further affect the division and regulation of labour within the body and by consciousness when one is working in relation to an unstable environment. Here the terrain differs dramatically to the evenly sprung floor of the dance studio, and so new, reactive processes are stimulated.

As the above example of the choreographic technique of physical synaesthesia serves to illustrate, in adapting to an ever changing topography, the extension of the dancer’s perceptual limits through heightened awareness and sensitivity to gravity might offer a sense of intuitive anatomy. This transformed state demands an alteration of our perception of what the body is and how it functions, thus creating a sense of availability within the body that can be regarded as a prerequisite for developing the adaptable body through working outdoors.


Key to crossing knowledge boundaries of dance craft with other disciplines is the engagement of aphenomenological worldview of the body. The body can be seen here to “seek… to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience” (Abram 1996, 35). In offering an argument for such a worldview, this paper addresses how contemporary choreographic method can be reframed so as to address the body working in context. Hence, where dance ecology currently refers to the life, sustainability and biodiversity of dance and dance culture, there is room for the term to include identifying the “exploration of movement and dance making processes as integral tools for the learning and the research of the life, sustainability and biodiversity of the ecological world, within which human beings hold intrinsic value” (Bridge et al. 2003).

The critical hub of ROCKface identifies interdisciplinary live research processes for engaging in an adaptive mode of practice based on the body’s ability to simultaneously engage with the immediate environment, whilst witnessing or reading that occurrence. Through the constant negotiation of his or her immediate environment, the dancer might be said to develop a new sensitivity to the ground underneath. Within this expansion of the dancer’s spatial perimeters, the body’s own parameters for movement can also be seen to expand. As the body adapts to the new coordinates of its perceptual limits—the extended projected gaze, uneven footing, temperature changes, altered weight distribution—perceptions of time and space are also challenged, because here the body’s sensory receptors act, in Alphonso Lingis’ words, “not as material objects of nature agitated by stimuli, but as organisms capable of perceiving and activating themselves in organized ways” (2004, 6). The dancer’s movement imperative here is simultaneously motivated by his or her immediate responses to an outer perceived reality and by the tangible and embedded reality that occurs within such a synthesis.

In the shift of scientific and popular paradigms, in recognising the dire need to secure a sustainable future for the planet, the study of our own physicality as embodied philosophy becomes paramount for self, community and global transformation. To reiterate: for ROCKface, the term “dance ecology” describes a creative contemporary approach to identifying the processes, systems, maps and poetry of the embodied mind, where the body is constantly, simultaneously engaged with one’s self and one’s immediate surrounding environments, experienced as embedded within the world’s ecological matrix. The development of critical language such as those of the physical processes, systems, maps and writings of ROCKface, strengthen connections between physical architecture, internalised sensation and performance expression through a choreographic design that explicitly links environments through a constant nourishing of body, place and sense relations. In this way, dance ecology aims to re-situate the dancing body as instrumental in navigating change. Such a body, then, might provide a site through which to articulate critical physical, written and oral responses to unstable conditions from an adaptable and confluent position.

The dancing body, present and sentient, seeks to re-imagine and intervene in the conditions of place through activating choreographic design using heightened physical perception and articulating movement language as instantaneous response. The potential of language exchanges across disciplines is forwarded through generative dialogue, adapted towards an ever changing landscape.

This kind of work is in its infancy. And generally, babies need to crawl before they can walk. Through the ongoing development and discussion of cross-disciplinary language and an integration of a shared embodied philosophy which language can enable, the writers reflect on the possibility of site-based creative endeavour addressing the big picture questions. These are the social and political implications, if any, to push forward well “beyond the horizon of a pure (creative) immersion in the flesh of the world, experienced in and through the renegotiated limits of the flesh of mere bodies” (Maxwell 2003, 71).


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1 (1.) “Nonconceptual content can be roughly described as content that is manipulated apart from concepts by users that may or may not even possess the relevant concepts” (Schroeder 2008). “Nonperceptual” knowledge is a similar concept, referring to that which one intuitively knows irrespective of perception or later conscious activity. For more on these concepts, see Bermúdez 1995.