Phase three ends

I am picking up the narrative of these postings as the clock robbed Emilyn of the chance to maintain the daily contributions in the final days of this phase of Danscross. I am happy to say that she will fill in the gaps in coming weeks and complete this remarkably rich commentary on the phase three process.

The last three days of this period (days 10 — 12) were filled with intense activity as choreographers and dancers honed their works and made final alterations and adjustments. Simultaneously more people were drawn into the studios: Emilyn Claid and Qing Qing were joined by academics Naomi Inata from Japan and Luo Bin from the China National Academy of Arts Research; and lighting designer Charles Balfour arrived from London to work with Chinese designers Ren Dongshen and Shui Wendong. The introduction of these new spectators brought the performance moment palpably closer.

Another interesting element to be added come from material gathered by Emilyn and Naomi who interviewed both dancers and choreographers, so enabling more voices to join this record of the creative processes. These subsequent additions will alter a blog which has focused on the immediate and spontaneous, and perhaps this part of the process will exhibit a change in register — a kind of reflective blogging.

Days 10 and 11

In the midst of the bustle and the preparations for the production the concentration in both studios deepened noticeably. The energy of the dancers became more consistently focused and the longer passages of material both demanded and allowed longer periods of attention to be sustained and enhanced. Academics and designers have commented on the fact that the works and the working methods are virtually polar opposites as the sweeping phrases of Kerry Nicholls’ work are in stark contrast to the minimal sparseness of Wang Mei; and the panoramic scope of Kerry’s attention and energy is contrasted by the pinpoint focus of Wang Mei.

But nonetheless I am struck by the remarkable similarities in the works and processes: both choreographers demand an unusually high level of concentration from the performers and a commitment to being completely present in rehearsal; both have very clear structural concerns and work carefully to hone the structural elements; both are concerned with finding movement languages which challenge the performers albeit presenting very different challenges; both works are present a kind of balance — Kerry finding unity and collective identity within a world of individuality, and Wang Mei finding moments of individuality to balance the strong collective presence. While it might be said that such aspects of the choreographic process are always present, they are more explicitly present, more clearly identified by these choreographers than is the norm.

These points were noted in the discussion which took place on Day 12 as part of the sharing, of the two works. The comments from academics, choreographers and dancers acknowledged the challenges that the works presented, and also repeated a point made in other creative periods of Danscross: that the presence of academics and dance studios is new at the Beijing Dance Academy and the experience is proving fruitful and thought-provoking. It is seen by many of the Chinese academics as fieldwork, which raises interesting issues/tensions about the nature of the ’field’ and its relation to the normal ‘habitus’ of the academics.

‘Believing is seeing’ or the context makes the meaning — or not

I had my own thought-provoking moment from one comment from Luo Bin, the Director of the Dance Department at the Chinese National Academy of Art Research. He commented that the dancers had difficulty in achieving the clarity of detail in Kerry’s work. This was at odds with my perceptions of the work, which puzzled me and that led me to speculate how this disparity might arise and on what he might be seeing.

My first thought was that Kerry’s movement vocabulary may not be familiar to him and as he was only in attendance for the last three days, his eye had not become attuned to the movement. This is not meant in a superficial way — rather it is an acknowledgement that our visual experiences lead to specific interpretations of the world and form a key part of our habitus, that familiar context or world that we reconstruct each day, but which may form a veil which impedes our vision of the new or disrupting.

This reminded me of times in the past when I have experienced a shift in perception that allowed me to enter into a new visual language, complete with vocabulary, syntax and structural form (it is always difficult to avoid the literary metaphor!). On one occasion in India when observing Kathak classes and performances over a period of weeks, I felt almost a physical sensation during one performance, as if the dancer, and dance form, virtually literally came into focus for me and suddenly I could comprehend what I was seeing.

It seems obvious that a process of visual acculturation needs to take place, but what is fascinating about this is that the eye seems unable to physically, mechanically capture the data and a level of confusion arises that cannot be dispelled. This is probably not the case, rather it may be the brain’s inability to process the information — to locate it within a context and make sense of it. The shock of the new means that there is no context in which to view the work — that the act of comprehension (literally taking together) eludes us and so no sense can be made.

This is supported by some findings in science disciplines (eg the University College London scientist Professor Zhaoping) that believing is seeing — that the context forms our perception of visual events. The implication of this is that when the context is unfamiliar, we are inhibited from forming a coherent perception.

In this case and in my Kathak experience, it was not that the context determined what I believed I saw, but simply that I could not make sense of (believe) what I was seeing. While this may be discomforting when viewing an established dance form, in my experience it also plays a more enticing part in watching new dance works, as they often present a number of possible avenues of development, and even display an aesthetic of ambiguity. In these cases the initial visual ‘confusion’ can  be savored as part of the appreciation of a dance coming into being and crystalising before us.

Point of view — translating from the studio to the stage

In this case, I also wondered about the problem of Luo Bin’s field of vision as he was in a dance studio viewing at close proximity material which is designed to be seen in a theatre from a much greater distance. The issue of ’point of view’ influencing the opinion (or, point of view!) of the viewer reminded me that the choreographer is utilising a professional expertise that allows them to transpose the dance material onto an imaginary stage, even while viewing it in a studio, making decisions about the material and structure that only make sense when seen in the proper performance context.

The challenge for viewers in making this translation was made greater by the use of de-centralised space and the complexities of the timing, with events occurring simultaneously in a torrent of movement, sometimes at opposite sides of the studio, interspersed with wonderfully constructed, but seemingly spontaneous moments of synchronicity. It seemed to me that it would be physically impossible for the viewer to take in the full range of this visual information, as so much lay outside an individual field of vision in the studio. In this setting the viewer must accumulate repeated viewings in order to construct not only a familiarity with the movement, but also a ’map’ of the dance so that the totality can be assembled.

Identifying the disparity in Luo Bin’s visual perception and mine is an integral part of this initiative of course, and I welcome the opportunities for further dialogue that phase four and the performances and conference will bring. I may find that my speculations are misconceived, but already the experience of this debate has stimulated thought and reflection, and led me to analyse my own past experiences of the unfamiliar and how it becomes familiar. And the ’believing is seeing’ point is also entirely relevant to me — my familiarity might be a barrier to my ability to perceive what is before me.

Binocular vision

My intention is to apply a kind of ’binocular vision’ to this task. One eye uses my knowledge and experience of the disciplines of dance and dance making to observe, noting any points of interest without making judgements; simultaneously, the other eye is given the task of simply observing, using my human perceptual apparatus to be present and open to whatever might occur. In this way I hope to avoid seeing only what I wish to see, or simply reinforcing my previously held understandings and beliefs. Is this possible? I can’t be sure, but the attempt seems important. How to watch, see and observe will no doubt feature again during Danscross, and may the debate flow freely.

Zhaoping L, Jingling L (2008) Filling-In and Suppression of Visual Perception from Context: A Bayesian Account of Perceptual Biases by Contextual Influences. PLoS Comput Biol 4(2): e14. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.0040014

I am writing this from Tokyo where ResCen is undertaking research into community arts practice (this term is not always used in Japan). Yesterday at Setagaya Public Theatre, arguably a unique institution in Japan, with an impressive range of work and a very string reputation, we observed a visual arts/theatre workshop for children aged 6 to 10 and my thoughts turned again to the impact that community arts practices have had more widely. The use of devising processes particularly and the focus on process, although in this case, there is a product to be shared, both at the end of each day and at the end of the series of workshops.

But the focus on the experience of the participants and the process of addressing a particular set of external factors seems intrinsic to both this community work with school children, and the professional context at the BDA. This is dangerous territory of course, as it is all too easy to ascribe the creative act to the realm of childish play and to diminish the expert practitioner status of all those involved, but especially the performers — although there is no denying the expert practitioner status of those leading the Setagaya workshops, they are very skilled indeed.

These are topics for another day, but the proximity of the experiences of the BDA and now the Setagaya Public Theatre has thrown up more food for thought, and more thinking, digesting and processing is required.

Prof Chris Bannerman
Head of ResCen, Centre for Research into Creation in the Performing Arts

1 comment to Phase three ends

  • Hilary Goodall


    This reminded me of the conversation we had about ‘urban’ audiences in London being possibly less able to ‘enjoy/appreciate’ the rural obsession I always wanted to bring into my work! Seems to be a similar experience in what you are saying with your Chinese colleague.

    Also reminds me of the work I did on perception – that we will always try very hard to ‘make sense’ of what we see in dance or art – despite the visual image (or movement) being obscure or unfamiliar. With no aural guidance, we seem to subconsciously revert back to finding links with something we already know in our past/culture/experience. I made a possible link with our ancestors always needing to quickly make sense of what they saw – in that it could present danger.

    I’m enjoying the blog. Thank you. Hilary

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