Sunday, January 16, 2005

I finished my article yesterday and am pleased that I have started being able to more easily write about my research. I’ve pasted it in below in case you’re interested!

Towards Intersubjectivities in Contemporary Dance Choreography
Written by April Nunes, 15th January 2005

This piece of writing illustrates a practical route of discovery towards intersubjectivities and intercorporealities in contemporary dance choreography. In this paper the term intersubjectivity is used synonymously with the concept of intercorporeality. In dance, the two are inseparable. As dance practioners, enthusiasts and theorists we operate within the non-dualist realm where body and mind are not dissoluble and the embodied thoughts of the dancer are evident in movement. The pathways of investigation into the experience of intersubjectivity in dance are not fixed and are not finite. The investigation documented here is indicative of a personal account of practice-based research into contrasting areas of study in order to illuminate possibilities towards choreographing contemporary dance that reveals both the intersubjective and intercorporeal relationships between the human beings who participate in a contemporary dance event (i.e. the choreographer/maker, the dancer/performer and the audience member/observer). Furthermore, the investigation is a creative one, addressing issues for which language is an inadequate medium for the articulation of experience. As a result there are changes of ‘voice’ used in this paper, shifting between a third person theoretical analysis with the use of academic language and a first person who shares the process of movement discovery. The mix of these ‘voices’ aims to provoke new thought and practically illustrate my phenomenological approach to the study. It is my hope that this format will engage you, offering the opportunity to both critically analyse and enjoy through a sense of movement imagination. Valerie Preston-Dunlop makes a good point in saying, “Discussing movement in written words is notoriously difficult since the lived experience is never compatible with words. Oral discussion about movement is always accompanied by gestures which embody the very thing that words find beyond their capacity.” (2002:61).
As previously stated, the heart of this investigation lies within the experience of intersubjectivity, a phenomenological experience described and perhaps oversimplified as, the act of perceiving oneself whilst perceiving another. In the act of perceiving another, we don’t first see the parts and then build associations, we always perceive the whole and what is key about this phenomenological experience is that it is descriptive, not analytic. Merleau-Ponty said that phenomena are meaningfully apprehended as structured wholes. In other words, to some extent we know what we are looking for but not as an intellectual judgement because our perceptual experience of objects is located within a structured whole. However, because our experience of perception is open ended and these objects float in and out of our attention, we are able to clutch onto certain experiences and make them more meaningful to ourselves. This is important to the experience of the dance event. The dance event, containing the dynamic inter-relationships between choreographer/maker, dancer/performer and audience member/observer is fertile ground for this intersubjective phenomenon. The temporal moments of the dance event that become meaningful to ourselves are based upon our experiences of kinaesthetic empathy that present themselves to us as a result of the intersubjective experience. This notion of kinaesthetic empathy is related but not restricted to emotional response. A variety of emotional responses open up to us when we observe or experience a dance event; and these range from the mundane to the profound. However, kinaesthetic empathy strikes us on a deeper level and does not occur in the absence of intersubjectivity.
To approach the subject from a slightly more tangible angle I will first burrow into the familiar area of the dance medium. This medium is made up of sound (live, recorded, environmental, circumstantial or spontaneous), space (theatrical, studio or site-specific), performer(s) (including their fixed and flexible semiotic contents) and movement (including non-verbal cues, naturalistic/behaviourist movements and reified dance techniques). My practice-based research into the area of intersubjectivities in contemporary dance choreography has led me to investigate five sub-areas of enquiry. I call them ‘The Five Rs’. The Five Rs are: Reaction, Repetition, Replication, Readiness and Reality and they aim to physically illustrate the intersubjectivities within the triadic relationship; namely that dynamic inter-relationship between choreographer/maker, dancer/performer and audience member/observer. To begin, I must first highlight the fact that I am aware of the problems with these terms. It is obvious that in today’s world of contemporary dance, choreographers dance, dancers create, audience members perform and dancers observe. These roles are not static and the boundaries between them are in fact blurred. But until sufficient terms can be created to solve this problem I have decided to use the words: maker, performer and observer to describe the human relationship that is vital to the intersubjective experience in contemporary dance. They are after all, just words and as stated earlier, language is an inadequate medium for the description of experience. That said, I will now ironically attempt to articulate initial discoveries concerning the Five Rs.

Reaction has to do with the phenomenological experiencing of the strands of the dance medium: performer, movement, space, sound, within the triadic relationship of maker, performer and observer. I have found the study of movement improvisation most insightful in dealing with the idea of ‘reaction’ in terms of movement.
The word ‘reaction’ is not without previous connotations. In chemistry or physics it pertains to the physical alteration of substance. In medicine, if you have a ‘reaction’ to something it usually implies suffering or physical trauma as a result of the body rejecting a substance that has been ingested or inhaled. In the first instance I want to explore reaction in relation to dance in terms of a pre-reflective phenomenon, not involving a moment of decision at all but an act that is both simultaneously mental and physical and experienced by the performer in the moment in response to internal or external stimuli. The stimuli may or may not be consciously recognised by the performer. In other words (and let this be an example of the shortfalls of language in describing dance experience), reaction is not premeditated. For example, a sound is not heard and then the performer thinks, “Ah, that sounds like a train, I will now move in a rhythm that fits the train sound.” Reaction in this sense of impulsive as opposed to cognitive relates directly to the performers sensorial awareness. In the second case, which must also be considered in looking at ‘reaction’ in relationship to dance, performers, in addition to making movements from a pre-reflective state also take conscious action in response to their knowledge base of how their body moves or is capable of moving. Reaction to a stimulus and reaction that incorporates active decision-making processes are intertwined but do not necessarily occur at the same time. The practical investigations described below will aim to illuminate both the pre-reflective and conscious action facets of reaction that ultimately lead to an intersubjective experience.

Dancing to the Sound of Another
In a recent workshop I had participants begin repeating a movement over and over that involved their whole body and would increase their heart rates. After five minutes of repetitive motion I asked them to be still, listen and feel their heart beating inside their body. I asked them to shift their weight on the spot moving to the sound of their heartbeat and then finally to move off-balance allowing the beat to carry them through space. However, what happens in this exercise when participants start moving is they loose the ability to hear and feel their heartbeat with the same intensity as when they were still. This is because firstly, their movement creates sound and secondly, because physiologically the beat of their heart has subsided back into its natural rhythm over time. The movement they create in these moments is in reaction to something else and possibly shifts here into conscious action based on their knowledge of previous movement experiences. However, their focus and intent to hear and feel the heartbeat remains a steadfast, one-pointed direction for the conscious mind allowing for the preconscious and physical body (which are inseparable) to be open to the state of reaction as a pre-reflective phenomenon.
This practical exploration continued as each participant was asked ‘partner-up’ with another person. I asked them if they could feel the heartbeat of their partner (either through touching their partner on the upper chest or wrist). If they could not feel the heartbeat I asked them if they could hear their partner’s breath. The task was set up to encourage movement in reaction to the sound of their partner’s vital bodily functions (i.e. their breath or heartbeat). I gave the verbal prompt that their partner was creating a sound score to which they could dance. Because both people were listening intently to one another and both were creating sound and movement simultaneously, the intersubjective nature of this exercise was profound. Most participants said they experienced a sense of not knowing who was moving to whose sound as the boundaries between the maker and doer were fused. Every participant said that the exercise was difficult and that what made it difficult was the experience of existing in a realm of not knowing. This is feeling of ‘not knowing’ is a liminal state of neither here nor there, the between that carries with it absolute potential. In the dance event, when we as makers, dancers and/or observers experience this ‘not knowing’, this liminal state, and then this too is the phenomenological experience of intersubjectivity. If our thoughts, actions and perceptions are tied up with those thoughts, actions and perceptions of others then the powerful, uncomfortable state of ‘not knowing’ or the state of the liminal is formed and re-formed according to our mutual corporeal experiencing of each other and of ourselves. Like the kneading of bread, where one part of the dough is folded and re-folded onto itself so is the experience of intersubjectivity where the thoughts, actions and perceptions of one is continuously existing and evolving for the thoughts, actions and perceptions of the other.

Repetition in terms of movement is an area I have practically explored as a way of gaining insight into the phenomenological / semiotic debate. I will not discuss the aspects of this debate in detail in this paper but I will clarify that I am working from the perspective of semiotics as approached in the practice of theatre, “…semiotics has developed away from orthodox semiotics, linked as it is to verbal language, in recognising the way in which theatrical discourse is different from other linguistic-based models of signification.” (Preston-Dunlop and Sanchez-Colberg 2002:104). In dance too, semiotics must be viewed in a light that does not rely on linguistic models in order to place meaning of a symbolic nature onto movement. Bert O. States, a theorist in drama speaks of semiotics and phenomenology as being two sides of the same coin. Working from this perspective and also taking into account Merleau-Ponty’s views on meaning, whereas the world already has meaning but we are always capable of transforming that meaning by changing the way we relate to the world. Merleau-Ponty also elaborates that meaning is not fixed and we as human beings relate to meaning differently based on our past experiences of the world. Meaning changes and I am interested in how meaning of movement changes as it is repeated. English comedian Eddie Izzard illustrates clearly how one movement performed over and over again prompts us to give different meanings to the movement. He repeatedly circles his hands one around the other, and admittedly, through language tells us he is running his hands under the water faucet. In a later skit he does the same movement but tells us a mouse is running over his fingers. We see both in the same movement. If we transpose this example into dance, and strip away the linguistic cues, I still believe that repetition in movement interestingly elicits for us a multiplicity of meanings. This highlights the integral relationship between the meanings that things have for us and the meanings that we apply to things. This also raises the question of how the mind affects movement and how movement affects the mind. The most profound way I have found to explore this practically is through butoh dance.
In butoh the dancer begins with an image. Kazuo Ono, one of the founding fathers of butoh, famously used the practice of becoming a ‘dead body’. From this state of a ‘dead body’ or from the attempt of holding the image of becoming a ‘dead body’ he believed that the dancer could then readily receive or embody any emotion, desire or image. The dancer repeats the image of ‘dead body’ in their mind until the body follows. This goes back to the relationship between the affects of the mind on movement and the affects of movement on the mind. It is a cyclical experience. The mind holds the image ‘dead body’ and the body falls to the ground. The mind perceives the body on the ground and feeds back the image of ‘dead body’. This mind-body interaction is occurring simultaneously as the perspective of non-dualism confirms. So repetition of image breeds repetition of form and vice versa in the art of butoh dance. I also believe that this type of mind-body connection happens in contemporary dance. The phenomenological experience of intersubjectivity is at work in this experience of repetition as is the perception of self being reflected in the perception of other. We can only come to know this experience of ‘dead body’ through our past experience. However, by holding the image in the present it becomes our reality and our world.

I have explored the idea of replication in a practical sense in order to more adeptly understand the concept of kinaesthetic empathy as it pertains to the experience of intersubjectivity in dance. Edith Stein speaks on one aspect of empathy by saying, “I imaginatively transpose myself to the place of the other subject to comprehend the object of the subject’s experience from his or her point of view.” I believe that in the act of replicating movements of another you come to understand yourself better. This is indicative of the intersubjective experience. Butoh dancer Ojima Ichiro describes the intersubjective experience discovered through replication in the following way,

“…so you imitate an old woman and maybe find that you have a real affinity for that particular way of moving; by trying to be different people and things one comes to find which have the closest relationship to your heart and body, and in this way one finds not only one’s own style of dance, but one’s own way of being in the world.”

I have looked to the nonverbal communication cues of posture, gesture, proximics, gaze and breath in my practical exploration of replication of movement and over the
last three years I have worked and re-worked the following task, which I call ‘Discovery of Form’. I have lead this task in the context of workshops at dance related conferences, classroom studies at the university in which I teach and improvisational workshops held independently for non-dancers. Before I embark upon a full description of ‘Discovery of Form’ I think it is valuable to outline some of my thoughts behind each of the nonverbal cues and state some of the questions that they raise for me concerning the area of intersubjectivity.

Posture brings insight into what sorts of psychological and physical information we can glean about someone by the way he or she holds their body up against gravity. Observing another’s posture, sheds light on the memories that are imprinted on their body. Posture displays the effects of repetitive motions, mental and physical habits, and traumas to the body mind complex (i.e. whole being). For example, a man who thinks he is too tall may develop permanent slouching. Likewise, a woman self-conscious about her breasts may roll her shoulders forward and develop chronic back pain. ‘Our posture reflects our value, our personal history and our culture.’ (Fortin, 2003).

Gestures provide information about our humanistic values concerning our relationships with others, a physical interface that is very important to the experience of intersubjectivity. We can recognise patterns in the gestures we use to express ourselves and further question what information our gestures generate about us. We can concentrate on observing the body movements of others in order to broaden our own capacity for gestural expression. ‘Everyone shares a common repertoire of action schemes, even though there are instances in which specific gestures convey different or even opposite meanings in different cultures.’ (Schwarz, 1996).

The field of proximics addresses how we place ourselves spatially in relation to others and our environment. One vital issue to consider is that there are social and cultural rules about what is acceptable in terms of proximics in every given situation. For example, a sustained duration of physical closeness during rush hour on the London Underground (or any other world city’s public transport system) is normal and accepted whereas physical touch and eye contact are viewed as threatening and therefore avoided.

Facial Expression
Facial expression, from a non-dualist perspective serves as a form of expression (as do all nonverbal cues) that link our internal thoughts to our external physical body. Why then, despite dance practioners and theorists arguing for the “thinking body” all these years have dancers neglected the capabilities of the face? The face normally worn by contemporary dancers (and I say worn because it often seems like a protective mask of non-emotion) inhibits our capacity for full expression. This face worn by the contemporary dancer I equate to a lid on a boiling pot. Should not dancers let the face dance like we do the body?

Directly related to facial expression, gaze is an incredibly strong nonverbal cue. How we look at another person and how we use our power of intention to direct our gaze creates relationships with others of varying emotional content. Even if we cannot see the eyes of someone we can sense being watched and this phenomenon directly affects our proprioceptive sense.

The last main nonverbal cue I examined in preparation for the practical task of ‘Discovery of Form’ was breath. Breath is our life force. One can sense the emotional state of another through their breath. For example, anxiety is characterised through a shallow quick breath, as is fear. We can use the breath to calm ourselves or to create an emotional state. We can use the breath to assist us in physical exertion. Breath has a direct impact on our whole being.

‘Discovery of Form’
The task begins when I ask participants to find a physical form for their body that they could hold in stillness for up to five minutes. The physical form is a reaction to what they feel encapsulates their personality at that given moment. Participants are asked to consider the nonverbal communication cues and to make precise choices as to how they will be physically manifested. Emilyn Claid speaks about the internal language of a dancer who has to sustain a moment of stillness in performance; her words are also very relevant to the first task of the workshop. She says,
“To physically perform the task I am committed to the discursive layering of an intensive, verbal but unspoken internal dialogue. This is a multi-layered thought process about the actions and sensations of every single movement of muscle, sinew and bone in my body; about metaphorical subtexts; about other performers, space, time and about relations with the spectators. If the ongoing immediate, vibrant, intelligent verbalisation that is happening at any moment of practising standing still could be recorded, the texts would be deafening and ceaseless. Yet, standing still appears as a moment of silence.” (Claid, 2002).

Arguably, if are operating under a non-dualist perspective of body and mind, then thought cessation in the mind surely influences the stillness of the body. For me, Claid’s claim raises the following questions: How still is silence and how silent is still? If there is constant chatter of ‘internal dialogue’ how can the body appear still? Furthermore, does it appear silent? Where is the gaze? We know that the eyes are active in thought and therefore, if the eyes are moving are the body still? These are questions I am investigating at moment through further practical research and the task of ‘Discovery of Form’ was specifically designed to provide insight into the ways participants’ thoughts, opinions, attitudes and beliefs about themselves could manifest physically. They took the present moment (and each present fleeting moment as it so exists), attempted to achieve a state of reaction to ‘the moment’ in order to produce a physical form. An important point of discovery in this task is that the form, although attempted (and in varying degrees of success) to be held in stillness was not stagnant. In my own personal experience of the exercise, holding a form in stillness over time leads to a natural rolling of thoughts, or as Claid speaks of, an inner dialogue. This experience alone leads to a stronger understanding of oneself. The development of self-knowledge is a key characteristic of intersubjectivity as we come to know ourselves through the experience of ourselves, and through our experience of others.

The fourth area I am working on practically is the notion of readiness. Readiness means working with a heightened awareness in order to feel the natural moments for movement initiation in both group and solo work. Readiness also means cultivating absolute commitment to each movement so that the observer will not see fractures in your intention or gaps in your attention. I have practiced this idea of readiness in a group of twelve dancers, working within the parameters of set sections of movement material and stillness. We did not move until we were all ready and could feel we were all ready to move onto the next section of set material. By feeling I mean a sense of heightened awareness of one another’s intention to move. When we felt a gap in our attention we (usually initiated by one dancer) as a group, stopped moving and waited in stillness until the next impulse to move emerged. Working with stillness to this degree we were hypersensitive to any small movements that may have been a signal from another dancer indicating that they were ready to move. These small movements were not deliberate, pre-meditated movement cues, they were a reaction to the heightened state in which we were working. The overall aesthetic of this practical work was electric with a vibrant tension of each dancers being. Merleau-Ponty says quite relevantly, “To understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance—and the body is our anchorage in a world.” Because we all knew what the expected outcome of the choreographic task was (i.e. to move in unison) the challenge to notice the intention behind moving was met with precision and conviction.

Reality is a loaded word in more schools of thought than one. The way I wish to define it her has more to do with the rejection of the concepts of symbolism, mimesis and representation in dance and I use the word ‘reality’ loosely to refer to an alternative to these concepts.
The way in which I practically explored this notion of reality relates to the phenomenological experience of space and place. I am especially interested in the relationship between space and place and how, although space and place can never be separated, it is important to distinguish between the two. Space becomes place when we come to know it through our lived-experience. We come to associate certain spaces with our reactions to them; and then they become places with meaning and familiarity. Harold Turner (1979:13), who has researched phenomenology in regards to places of worship says, “Spaces, or the different places within space, have meaning and value only because of the different organisation and content they contain, which mark them out from one another.” Take for example the bathtub, for most of us the bathtub is a haven, a quiet place where we can unwind and relax. Over time, after many baths we come to associate our bathtub with serenity. In this way, we have an affect on the place and likewise the place has an affect on us.
Space in the context of this paper refers to the physical space or place used for the purposes of a dance event. Space is made of many facets that pertain to the physical, social, cultural and political aspects of our world. Improvising in a space is quite a different process than creating a site-specific piece of choreography. Site-specificity implies that these facets have been examined and taken into account in relationship to the dance work whereas improvisation allows for the personal experience of the site’s organisation and content to become manifest as movement. The phenomenological experience of space in this way allows for the site unfold both inside and outside the performer. As the performer internalises the site, the site becomes a part of the performers being. Active sensory awareness is necessary for internalisation of the site. The performer must soak up the visual field, experience the texture of surfaces, breathe in the scents in their surroundings but beyond all of the five traditional senses, the performer must perceive the site with their whole being, experience the site in a phenomenological context, engaging through the sense of proprioception. Proprioception is in a nutshell, our sense of self, especially in relation to the placement of our body. This sensing is based in my notion of reality that is absent of symbolism, mimesis or representation.

This brief overview of the practical research I am undertaking in regards to the Five Rs: Reaction, Repetition, Replication, Readiness, and Reality, has illustrated how the traditionally intangible notion of intersubjectivity can be realised practically in dance. I hope that the idea of intersubjectivity has prompted further questions, thoughts and opinions about the current choreographic processes used in the making, performing and observing of contemporary dance. The pathways I have taken in following a route of discovery towards intersubjectivities in contemporary dance choreography lead not so much to a fixed conclusion, but to a clear sense that further practical and theoretical research is needed in this area. It is my wholehearted intention to continue researching this area with an aim to develop choreographic methods that will re-conceptualise mimesis and symbolism in contemporary dance choreography by cultivating an awareness of intersubjectivities in the performative context whilst highlighting the performer as an individual.


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