II. (Dis)locating the Peripheral Body: Improvisation Movement Strategies
A. Meditation for Hyper-Empathy
1. Emptying Perception and Activating Projection
B. Generative Ruptures
1. Flow and Rhythmic Event
C. Navigation Strategies
1. Prefixes and Modifiers
2. Vector, Emotion, and Dynamic Sublime
III. Choreographic Structures: The Score
A. Deploying Action: The Choreographic Body
IV. Future Research
‘Difference’ infers the existence of a split: a point at which something is no longer itself, or its definition changes. I am interested in this split, and see it as a cavernous fissure, or a line of disappearance, whereby reality slips into liminal (space) and subliminal (consciousness) territories. I will consider the emergence of difference as ‘Evental’ (Quote: Zizek, Event). What intrigues me about this territory is that it is never fixed, and emerges indirectly through constant flows, fluxes, and movement. If this movement were to be curtailed, delineated, and specified, it could fall into the realm of choreography, and in the following discussion, I will draw parallels between the emergence of Events, and structured improvisation, in a choreographic consideration of movement. This research seeks to understand difference by exploring the possibility of inhabiting the body differently, how improvisation techniques offer an entry point into doing so, and how this newly inhabited body might interact when a dramatic reframing of reality has been produced.
I will reference improvisation techniques as approaches to locating Event, and discuss how its emergence is marked by a moment of ‘perceptive discrepancy’: a dramatic perceptive shift of the everyday, which is also a characteristic of Zen ‘Satori’: (Quote: Suzuki, Intro to Zen Buddhism).
I will consider this enhanced physical attention as a ‘peripheral body’, the actions from this charged space of attention as performance, and the space between bodies as ‘social’ space. I will reference contemporary choreographers such as Jerome Bel, Jonathan Burrows, Dave St. Pierre, Keith Hennessey, William Forsythe, and Marten Spangberg, and Judson Church, Fluxus, and Neo-Dada artists such as Yoko Ono, Yvonne Rainer, and John Cage. I will also reference my personal artistic research.
I will bring this investigation to the body, the senses, and the subconscious, or ‘shadow self’, and discuss techniques that catalyze rifts in perception, enhance ‘peripheral’ senses, and indirectly produce a ‘lost’ notion of self. I will then introduce this investigation to the ‘social’, or the space between bodies, and consider how the choreographic process resembles a micro-society, providing a template to play time within space under a series of conditions that test an artistic proposal through actions of the body. But what if one could inhabit the body differently, and extend the perceptive abilities of the body into the space beyond its physical borders? This moment of fissure could then extend out into the social space, the space of interactions, and become a territory for generating and performing Evental difference.
II. (Dis)locating the Peripheral Body: Improvisation Movement Strategies
What is ‘difference’ from the perspective of a peripheral body? I will first address what I mean by peripheral body: that which the senses inform and are within our control, that which the senses inform and are not within our control, and that which the senses do not inform at all, but nonetheless produce a sensorial response via imaginary stimuli. This peripheral territory therefore must include some semblance of fiction, whereby there is no ‘real’ initiating sensation, but an imagined sensation produces a constructed real. Tapping into this territory is a mental exercise of focused attention, or meditation, and it opens the dancer to a re-configured sense of her body.
Dance techniques design attention to the senses in very specific ways, forming an inner dialogue between the dancer and her body. This dialogue produces various qualities of the choreographic ‘material’. This dialogue is also what distinguishes one body from another, feet from floor, right arm from left hand, or ‘difference’, and the dancer can learn to track, memorize, and repeat these subtle differences over the course of a performance, rehearsal, class, etc. Much of dance history includes works that are composed by this process of encoding and replicating sequences of differential stimuli. However, what if, at the heart of the technique itself, is an attempt to blur this inner dialogue, to unharness the focal point, and lose the pathway? What if the activity itself – of precise focused attention – is also what dislodges that attention, and renders the source of attention, and the information it is gathering, somewhat impossible to grasp? The resulting actions of this dancer’s body become of a provisional nature, an explosive exorcism, or a necessary recovery that could not be preconceived, and are OF the technique. The body produces the expression, by necessity, and by way of a conceptual entry point, as opposed to a physical duplication. It is from this perspective that I will discuss improvisation as a generative tool. (Quote: Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and Jen Joy, The Choreographic).
There are many examples of improvisation methodologies that offer conceptual entry points that catalyze movement, affect its qualities, or establish relationships between dancers within time and/or space. I will focus on those that deploy scores, or language-based proposals, which describe a framework for action, but leave the resulting intricacies up to the agency of the dancer (and sometimes spectator) in real time. This interpretive response often becomes part of the fabric of the work, whereby spontaneity, chance, and a continual assessment of the circumstances are played out in real time. This approach requires a specific kind of training, whereby attention and listening become differently activated than when a dancer is replicating movement. (Quote: John Britton, Encountering Ensemble, Jonathan Burroughs, A Choreographer’s Handbook re: score definition, and Exhausting Dance, Andre Lepecki, plus examples: Simone Forti, Jerome Bel, Dave St. Pierre)
In an ensemble, the improvisational model allows collaborators to contribute from within the process, and foster a work that ‘produces itself’ in terms of its final expression. What therefore becomes scored is a system of engagement that determines how to collaborate, and how to manage events over the choreographic engagement. These scores can include a myriad of descriptive features, including dramaturgical materials, causal relationships, images, spatial parameters, time delineations, and if there is any room to make concessions or deviate from the score itself, etc. The subsequent question then becomes: how are these scores are produced? Are they pre-imagined, or are they invented retroactively by observing what has already emerged in the process? Or are they a combination? Do they strategize a predictable effect, or do they open up towards an unknowable affect? (Quote: Patricia Clough, The Affective Turn) Is the outcome the performance, or is reading the score itself enough? (Quote: Deborah Hay, No Time to Fly, Keith Hennessey, re: Dance on Economy, Yoko Ono re: Grapefruit). It is my assertion that in order to open the process up to Event, then affect must be in play, and in order to open up to affect, then the score must open towards a previously unknowable outcome. The performer enters the score with: “I am prepared, but I don’t know what is going to happen.”
A. Meditation for Hyper-Empathy
The paradox of an ensemble is that it is composed of strong individuals (Quote: John Britton, Encountering Ensemble re: paradox). What tools are offered that guide individuals within the ensemble to an egalitarian situation, whereby methods for responding to, and dealing with situations have been clarified for all? In my practice of locating my peripheral body, I have also developed a technique for collaborators to locate theirs.
This technique is a meditation, whereby an audio score guides the listener through two activities: emptying perception, and activating projection. These activities are meant to bring forth a new way of sensing the body, and then transmit or project this new body into the space. This transformative mental exercise consciously disrupts, and redirects signals delivered by the senses, rendering the body ‘porous’ and its actions ‘phantasmic’: embodying and projecting the subconscious into the space. The resulting perception of the once familiar body is lost, rendered as a formless form, even though a kind of sensation is still ‘there’. From this territory of emptying, the present notion of the body can then only be an imaginary projection, a trajectory of desire, or a subconscious playground. This body is a manifestation of disoriented, peripheral, and refracted senses.
It is in this state, where conscious reality and the imagination are operating in tandem, and are (in this case) indiscernible, that the peripheral body has become activated. The activities of this peripheral body are what I refer to as ‘Hyper-Empathic’, or the act of internalizing the physical reality of objects and persons within the peripheral body’s reach, and consequently producing movement. It is a methodology of stretched perception that elicits a physical response via imaginary stimuli. It is a proactive strategy in that it 'takes' sensation, and then immediately embodies and enacts it, therefore 'giving' sensation back to the ensemble through movement. It is a dance that produces itself.
1. Emptying Perception, Activating Projection
How does one go about emptying perception? In the Zen notion of Satori, there must be “… a general mental upheaval which destroys the old accumulations of intellection and lays down the foundation for new life; there must be the awakening of a new sense which will review the old things from a hitherto undreamed-of angle of observation.” (Suzuki 771-772). John Cage offered these new angles of observation directly to the audience, whereby found/unperturbed/site-specific sounds were framed by his compositions, and he redefined the sonic possibilities of music (Quote: Cage, Silence, re: Lecture on Nothing)
In attempting to empty perception, one must first exhaust the senses, render them mute, and position them in the background, in order for some other, provisional capacity to make itself known. For example, I’ve been working on expanded capacities of the gaze. In a mapping exercise, I guide dancers to focus their eyes on something in the room, widen to a peripheral gaze from that position, and then move toward something blurry within their field of vision. Eventually, the peripheral landscape takes on a new life through this new attention to it. However, it can only ever exist as a peripheral landscape, because its features disappear, change, or come into definition when attempting to move towards them, or ‘see’ them. There is curious information in this blurry territory that is alluring, magnetic, and only exists when not looking at it directly as it is held in the expanded senses.
Similarly, I made a physical meditation that guides the dancer to emptying her gross anatomy throughout the space, dispersing skin, fluids, muscles, and bones across various points in the room. The duration and imagery of this exercise (including actual fatigue) leads to a numbing of delineations, or a formless for, that is experienced as a 'current'. It is from this place that projections of the subconscious can occur, and another kind of body can be imagined.
But if there are no borders, there can be no inner world. What if, once the peripheral body is activated, that its hyper empathic response produces an immediate projection? As if there is nothing separating the vulgarity of inner thoughts with outward action, and there is only response without restraint? Deborah Hay says “Ready, Fire, Aim”, and Susan Rethorst talks about Proposals in Action, as if projection not only has a direct link to the subconscious, but is immediately enacted. This immediacy puts the body into play as a precursor to conscious thought, a precursor to language, as though identification is temporally delayed, post-action. It is only the dancers’ intrinsic technique that intervenes, that offers restraint, or saves the mover from injury, and produces new kinds of physical patterns. This idea of the body as an immediate projection site resolves performativity in that the dancer never has to ‘perform’ in the conventional sense, but only to stay active within the directive, and allow herself to be seen. In this way, the structure and framework of the score affect the dancer’s way of operating or ‘being’, and the dance makes itself happen. It has been given its own inertia.
B. Generative Ruptures
With all of these active flows of improvised movement, how is context produced? If considering that improvisation can be used as a tool to generate knowledge, or to test and observe what emerges from the (sub)liminal, how or when do we know something has crystallized into an idea, a motif, or something ‘good’, or ‘bad’? In the case of structured improvisation, or attending to a task over time, there are binaries of flow and event, resistance and surrender, or directing and re-directing that play off the rhythms of how the improvisation plays out. Essentially, in any situation, and at their most reductive, the dancer’s movement options are to resist against, to go with, or to change. It is my argument that this moment of ‘change’ is the emergent Event, is not always a conscious choice, and can lead to something previously unknowable happening. The Evental change marks a physical discrepancy, or difference as a dramatically ‘felt’ rift. (Quote: Felix Guittari, Chaosophy, re: rational being etched out of the irrational) (Quote: Jen Joy, The Choreographic, re: the arc of a spear, making difference visible through its passage.)
(Quote: Suzuki, Intro to Zen Buddhism: “Satori comes upon a man unawares, when he feels he has exhausted his whole being.” (742) This perceptive shift emerges like the ground bottoming out, and in an Evental sweep something, even something terrible, comes into being. It is pre-linguistic, utterly unfamiliar, and once it becomes inscribed it can also become instantly boring. The thrill of live performance is the hunt for this feeling, this vague shift that momentarily ruptures identifiers, logic, and convention. It is what continues to sell tickets, it is the shudder of life, or something becoming. It is different. So different that it has no name, and emerges from a darkness that I call the Line of Disappearance, or the space between existence and non-existence, here or there, one perception of reality and another. It is something to notice. It could hold the key to a work’s context, set off a trail of investigation, or help build a lexicon of material to build from. It could also be nothing. Whatever it is, it can emerge as both a research tool, and a performance trait. (ex/Steve Paxton's 'Satisfyin’ Lover')
When this sudden shift takes place, it is disorienting, and I am interested in the contingent moments that follow. How does the body pull itself through, negotiate from abstract to real, or play out these immediate moments in space? What does this kind of dance look like?
1. Flow and Rhythmic Event
How is flow, a force that burrows out cavernous rock, rivers, landscapes, or mental spaces, responsible for cracking the ground in half and producing a Line of Disappearance? How can flow shatter the configuration of the body, self, or identity, rendering it incompatible with what previously existed?
In movement, I consider flow not as a singular, unperturbed stream, but rather something that is pixilated and unpredictable: inertia along a series of corners, a rogue bicycle bumping downhill, light refracting through elements in deep space, or a river that curbs, flips, and bumps over an ever-changing rock bed. The tiny moments that redirect flow are what I consider Rhythm, and these blips, or the timing of these blips, are what form a horizon for the movement landscape, and give texture to choreography. (Quote: John Cage, Silence, re: rhythm).
To engage in flow, is also to engage in rhythm, as the stops, starts, and changes form bridges for flow to travel along. In order to open up these bridges, to test their materials, one must experiment with rhythm, and then wait and see how flow plays itself out, perhaps arriving at a tepid pool, but occasionally a surprise waterfall. For example, I set the improvisation task of ‘Always going a little bit too far’, which results in both a delayed and urgent rhythm to each step, as if each step is necessary by virtue of saving myself from toppling over. The result is a strange grappling dance of near misses, a clunky mess where flow is momentarily interrupted as it tries to connect between moving targets. In the moment right before falling, there is an essential grab for the next rhythmic post, or ‘step’. It is in this moment of wildness that I am temporarily not myself. I am suspended from judgment, analysis, ability, identity, and self. It is a miniature Line of Disappearance, where difference is etched out by unconscious actions of the peripheral body. (Quote: Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism, re: no attempt can create Satori)
C. Navigation Strategies
To navigate the seas of improvisation, strategies are essential in order to bring the flows of movement into representation, collaboration, semiotic encoding, or see that the work becomes a work. This notion of ‘becoming’ implies a trajectory, a vector, and outward propulsion from the internal life of the process and/or technique. To connect more than one Line of Disappearance is to create a sequence. This sequence can be used as a compass, and it can be captured, for example in the text of a score, or a video camera, in order to fasten it and hold the space of the dance. For example, Meg Stuart uses a video camera as a tool to capture moments in her process that are then re-learned, step-by-step, by the dancers in order to duplicate the improvisation sequence in performance. For her, nothing is quite like the first time, so she tries to capture something of the energy of improvisation, but with an exact repeatability.
1. Prefixes and Modifiers
An effective model for navigation also lies in looking at change itself. If a rhythmic blip resists, goes with, or changes flow, how or what is the nature of this change? I propose looking at this change as a starting place that produces flow, as opposed to trying to identify the change by exclusively concentrating on flow. To start with 'how' something is modified can in turn produce the before and after conditions of its modification. These prefixes also find their way into language and scores, but are open-ended, so the verb that normally follows is produced by movement exploration. For example, improvising with the prefix ‘Re’ transformed into Direct/Redirect. To look at change itself, or the moment of difference, and to then change the way we change, is inevitably what will rupture, produce contingent movement, and make way for new perspectives.
2. Vector, Emotion, and the Dynamic Sublime
The difference between emotion and mood is that emotion has an object. This could also imply the existence of a vector, or force with direction, towards or away from that object. For example, the object of fear might be a bear, which would suggest a movement away from said bear. However, something else might happen. What if this vector ‘away’, was also accompanied by a vector ‘towards’, due to an equally forceful curiosity for the bear? There is a simultaneous magnetism and retreat, control and helplessness, resistance and surrender, where an imagined consequence (being eaten) and a physical reality (being immobile) are competing in the present moment. Is this what Kant meant when he talked about the dynamic sublime as movement simultaneously towards and away? (Quote: Jen Joy, The Choreographic, re: Kant)
Go with, go against, or change.
What if this tension between imagined consequence and physical reality could be re-produced as a tool for creating perceptive discrepancies? Is Kant’s dynamic sublime tapping into the same experience, and can we re-produce it in the kinesthetic by using two incompatible or contrasting vectors?
The dancer holds a position in space. In this position, she visualizes a small, concentrated area of the body: a ‘heat ball’. She then visualizes a trajectory of this heat ball along a very specific vector through space: right elbow arcing towards studio light bulb. Without any physical preparation, the dancer visualizes this path until it is absolutely clear, and proceeds to thrust the heat ball along its imagined vector. It never works. The body never follows the precise trajectory of the imagination. What is experienced is a discrepancy between perceived reality and imagined reality, in what becomes a rift is reality itself. What is more real: the projected path or the physical outcome? Virtual action or embodied action?
The difference between emotion and mood is that emotion has an object, but emotions of heightened intensity can also operate retroactively (Quote: Zizek, Event, re: love as Evental) and imply a circularity. These emotional vectors can also create tension between dancers, or a circularity of pushing and pulling at the same time. For example, if we go back to the peripheral body as 'taking' hyper-empathic sensation that is then immediately projected outwards, and then place another person engaged in that same activity within spatial proximity, a circularity comes into play, whereby the empathic material is coming from the other person, and is also projected back to her, which she in projects in return. This closed system of simultaneously sending and receiving the subconscious by virtue of the peripheral body (receiving) and the projected imaginary (sending) presents a strange magnetism. The vectors are trapped, orbiting between, and because they still have ‘directionality’ they have the ability to carry emotion, both towards the other person, and simultaneously towards the self. Am I sending you ‘joy’, or do I feel joy because you are fulfilling my desire for joy? What does this dance look like? What is it to see yourself through another person’s body, which you are also affecting?
III. Choreographic Structures: The Score
The choreographic are structural capacities that delineate moments in time over space. It is the ‘over space' of this definition that infers the necessity of movement, vectors, and trajectories. (Quote: Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance) Some of these trajectories are organized as linear narratives, in the instance of ballet, some as abstract, such as Merce Cuningham, deconstructionist, such as William Forsythe, and some take philosophical cues, like Marten Spangberg, following the lineage of Deleuze and Guittari, and presently speculative realism. Some borrow from the mathematical abstraction of numbers (Anna Theresa de Keersmaker) or physical theatre modalities (Dave St. Pierre) or transferring the choreographic to other technologies (Peter Welz) or shamanic ritual practices (Guillermo Gomez Pena, Keith Hennessey). What interests me is how these artists produce the choreographic, or how intentionality, causality, and accident produce the work that is witnessed on stage in direct relationship to how the choreographer collaborates with the dancers, and considers the dynamic of agency and control in his/her process.
In my experience as a dance artist, I have been involved in two different scenarios: the first is extremely open, whereby the choreographer is looking for something (which he/she can’t always identify) and the dancer is left to produce it, or some kind of 'surprise'. Often the dancer has no idea what she is supposed to be doing, but is still trying to produce something worthy of attention. The second scenario is extremely closed, and the situation is one of precise duplication of the choreographer’s movements. Sometimes there is room for differences in ‘style’ (Quote: Jonathan Burrows, A Choreographer’s Handbook). These examples are polar opposites, and there are many artists who work differently, or have found a way of reconciling the two.
It is my position that 'how' an artist deploys action within the choreographic framework is what determines the balance of control and agency within the process, and renders the creative process as a template for, or reproduction of, a social process. How we engage determines what we make.
It is my proposal to consider the choreographic body as a BODY in and of itself, and to understand choreographic interactions as a macro template for the way an individual deploys action. Therefore, the social construct that determines the interactions between people is also what affects the individual agent’s options: the social body as having governance over the physical, individual body. (Quote: Guittari, Chaosophy) Guittari argues that it is no accident that paranoid schizophrenia is a resulting pathology of global capitalism. The way we are structured to engage with each other changes the way we inhabit our bodies.
If we take this proposal to the choreographic, and consider it as a platform for human connection, then we must consider how the individual body acts as a direct result of how the choreographic body has been organized. What controls are in play? I look to the score as a transparent guideline, one that is fundamental to understanding the ‘way of being’ within a performance context. The score considers both agency and control, as it gives enough information for the dancer/performer to follow, to navigate from, but also allows room for his/her agency, and to deploy action with the consideration of a bigger construct of engagement.
B. Deploying Action: The Choreographic Body
If operations of the choreographic body parallel the individual dancer’s body, then we can apply the previously discussed principles of locating the peripheral, hyper-empathic body as a way of inhabiting the body differently, and how flow and rhythm open situations up to the emergence of Event: the ungrounding, repositioning, and disorienting shift that allows us to the see a situation differently.
So what are the peripheral senses of this macro choreographic ‘body’? Starting superficial and going deep, I will consider the identities, personalities, and characteristics of the collaborators as this macro body’s superficial membrane or 'skin', the movements through, in between, and across the space as the soft tissues, 'muscles', and force of this macro body, and the rules of engagement, and tasks that occur over time as the 'bones' of this macro body. By bringing attention to these three ‘physical’ characteristics of the macro choreographic body, I can deploy the same processes for inhabiting the choreographic body differently, thus opening up the choreographic performance to Events of perceptive difference that can be shared with an audience. The experience of the audience and the dancer become synonymous, or the experience of dancing is transferred through the choreographic body. (Quote: Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy)
The first peripheral territory is the ‘skin’, and is composed of the individual dancers that form the macro choreographic body. They are the first line of choice making, and respond to changes, each other, the audience, the feeling in the room, the subtleties of corporeal communication, and the vague ‘vibe’. When they make a change, it is causal, or because of some force, some provisional action, a slip, a mistake, a luscious accidental lift. They are the fastest communicators of the dynamic exchange that occurs between people, and if they are the primary responders to the changing landscape of the work, then they should be equipped to do so via shared techniques (Quote: John Britton, Encountering Ensemble). However, what if the information they are sourcing is stretched, as far as possible, outside the choreographic body? Could they then somehow respond to more, to bring information from beyond the room into play? Could the choreographic body become hyper-empathic? What might this dance look like, if it is dramatically open to being affected by the present moment of performance?
This ‘skin’ is also the who and the what, and is the primary enactment of representation as we see the characters of the work, and all of their iconic associations, in action.
The second territory is the macro body’s muscles that operate as the transitional movements through the choreographic landscape. How does the dancer get from one place, or moment, to the next? Here we encounter dance’s dependence on space (Quote: Badiou, Dance as Metaphor for Thought). This is also where technique comes into play, and the ‘dancing’ is seen as a series of transitional flows between, across, through, or under, space. On a macro level, the balance of flow and rhythm throughout the space becomes visible. The length of sections, and the dynamic canvas of choreographic change becomes visible and communicative. When and how moments transition are of importance, and these transitions produce emotional vectors through the space, and outward to the audience, as witnessed through force, flow, how the piece moves, and when rhythm interrupts. What if this macro territory of vectors was also able to receive vectors, or emotional information, from a peripheral source? Could the audience provide that source? Could this body produce the 'dynamic sublime'?
The deepest operation, the bones, are the structural capacities, directives, and tasks that instigate action. This is the where and the why. This is the influence of the space in which the dance occurs, the circumstantial construct, or the urban landscape that seeps into the subconscious. (Quote: Marc Auge, Non-Places) It is an operation of frames, and points towards the meaning of the work, the goals, the research, the dramaturgical information, and the score. But what if these seemingly hard corners, platforms, and spaces that hold the dance were as porous as the hyper-empathic, peripheral body? What if they were collapsible, responsive, dynamic, or open to interaction? Can we make the surfaces upon which the dance exists open to more information? Moving platforms, or changing the order of events, because the choreographic body chooses to make it so? This kind of interplay acknowledges that there are rules, but there are also changes, and they are what keep the choreographic body alive and acknowledge its impermanence or decay. To dance with the aesthetics of the dance, and not be subjugated by them, or beholden to recreating their previous formations. To reassess at every turn. To become lost, and only recognize you’re lost after the event is over. (Quote: Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells)
How can change be identified, and what is its trace? To understand difference implies a split, a before and after a change, and references to ‘before’ can only be understood when compared to against ‘after’. How does this operate in terms of affect, and can it be measured? If the choreographic body can be ‘alive’ in the manner described above, then perhaps it can also experience affect, or the ungrounding phenomenon of Event, or the dramatic and unexpected reframing of perspective, which at a certain scale could also be called ‘revolution’. (Quote: The Affective Turn, Clough)
IV. Future Research
I will continue this line of research by considering how the organization of bodies, and the space between bodies, can transmit affect, and the possibility for this transmission to lead to the mobilization of movements, revolutionary tendencies, and change.