The ArtsCross 2011 Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.
The ArtsCross 2011 Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.
So after many months the moment finally arrives that I go to Taiwan. So how do I feel? Nervous, excited (nervous!) I can’t wait to arrive and meet everyone involved I look forward to getting into the studio and putting into practice the ideas that I’ve had bubbling in my head. Who knows where it may all lead… somewhere great and grand perhaps? Starting this blog seems to make this that much more a reality, Taiwan’s not on the other side of the world anymore, it’s drawing ever nearer. It’s begun! See you soon!
I’m here in Taiwan and WOW it’s hot! The hospitality has been spotless, the organizers and other participants seem very nice, I love the guest apartment and the food is delicious (I could’ve continued eating all night, I think the rotating table makes the food even more appealing somehow). Tomorrow we audition 94 dancers, pick the six we want, and start working the day after. So, almost there, not quite.
What’s on my mind at this stage? Paper planes, sugar, underwear, faceless figures, climbing, crossing, falling, a radio tuning in and out…
But early days, I’m still uncertain, and waiting
There were a couple of times today, as I sat watching a hoard of young and mainly Asian hopefuls in one of the studios in the dance department buildings on the campus of TNUA (Taipei National University of Arts), when just I couldn’t help thinking about A Chorus Line.
If you know your iconic American musicals (or their film adpatations) you’ll recognise the title as that of an iconic 1970s hit about a Broadway dance audition. It’s the show that ends, after a helluva lot of soul-baring, with a host of hoofers in identical spangly gold costumes stepping out in style as the collective embodiment of ’one singular sensation.’
At TNUA there were ninety-odd singular sensations crowding the dance floor, and ranging in age from about 15 to thirtysomething. The task that had to be accomplished with them was one of selection on the part of ten choreographers — four from Taiwan, three from mainland China and another trio from the UK. This is the ArtsCross choreographic team who’ll each be spending the next three weeks making a short (ten minutes max) dance piece that’ll be publicly performed at the end of August.
But when you’ve only got three hours to put that number of bodies through their paces, and in a single space, you can only be so choosy. And yet choosy you have to be in terms of such attributes as body type, level of experience, perceived strength and stamina, the ability to pick up the movement quickly, a juicy physical expressivity and dynamic flow, presence and personality.
All the auditonees wore numbered sleeveless t-shirts, but of course no two participants were alike. It’s just that some stood out at different times more than the others. Seeign them in smaller groups of ten or so was an altogether fascinating exercise in what catches (or loses) the eye. Sometimes it was their size, as well as how well they moved, that counted. The tall female #3. for instance, seemed to indicate a consistent power in motion and yet wasn’t able to melt down to the floor in quite the oozy, spiralling manner that one section of the movement phrase she’d just learnt would’ve allowed her to do. Then there was male #89 who with his compact body and floppy mop of platinum-blond hair looked like a trend-setting Shetland pony. This boy’s head was as hard to overlook as wiry male #14′s butt-hugging green camouflage-patterned short-shorts. In a sea of bodies these, too, are the sort of things you notice.
Some dancers came to the fore not just for how they looked, but for what they did and when. I’m thinking of male #40 injecting unexpected, fairly subtle street moves into a musical improvisation, say, or the admirably focused way in which male #96 strode slowly and simply downstage through a stream of busily wriggling, self-centred dancers and made us aware of being aware of them himself. Or how about the ten dancers imported from the Beijing Dance Academy? Sure, they were auditioning in order to be seen and considered by the choreographers. But they were also pretty much guaranteed to get picked, if only because to send any back to China would be a waste of the money already spent to bring them to Taipei, as well as a loss of — or possibly slap in — the face. Anyway, they’re plainly a professionally well-attuned gang. How better to account for the wonderful moment when they were executing, in unison, a short series of voracious and animalistically martial phrases (conococted by the choreographer Avatara Ayuso) and (per her repeated request of those we’d already seen) suddenly began vocalising the breaths they took at each kick, lunge or twist?
So, after all that, it was back to the conference room and a drawing board where the talented ten listed their top choices. It was rather like watching election results being tabulated up-close albeit on a small-scale. Each choregrapher could pick up to six dancers, but the popularity of certain ones created complications. There were inevitably compromises, plus a good deal of swapping to be done, in order to accommodate everyone’s needs and the demands of a schedule that will see each choreographer in the studio for just three hours a day (exclusing weekends) for the next few, short weeks. But at least the first literal steps in bringing ArtsCross to actual creative fruition have been taken. Let the next phase of hard work — and fun — begin.
The blog is live, the artists have arrived and dance writer Donald Hutera has been posting his observations of the first hours of ArtsCross Taipei 2011.
In the coming hours, days and weeks the academics will join the artists at the Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA) to undertake the observations, discussions and writing that are an intrinsic part of this exchange. I arrived four days ago to touch base with TNUA colleagues, and to join them in phone calls to the Beijing Dance Academy (BDA), continuing a partnership between ResCen and the BDA that began in 2009 with Danscross: dancing in a shaking world.
In the first entry on the blog for Danscross, (http://rescen.net/blog/) I noted that the preparation period of years, months, weeks and days were distilled into a single moment of palpable anticipation as we gathered in the studios of the Beijing Dance Academy and waited….
On that occasion the task facing the first two choreographers, Zhang Yunfeng (I am following the Chinese convention of placing the family name first) and Shobana Jeyasingh, was to work with the professional dance company of the BDA to create a dance that used up to six performers, was under ten minutes in length and addressed, in some way, the theme ‘dancing in a shaking world.’ These conditions also held true for the other six Danscross choreographers, who worked, two at a time, over
By way of contrast, in Taipei there will be ten choreographers (four from Taiwan, three from China, three from the UK); thirty to forty dancers (ten from BDA and twenty to thirty from Taiwan); and twenty academics (from BDA, TNUA and UK/USA) all present in one place at one time. This will add to the possibilities for dialogue and exchange, and will also increase, perhaps exponentially, the intensity of the experience.
We have decided to continue to explore the validity of Stravinsky’s notion that through the imposition of rules the artist finds freedom, and so we have kept the conditions that the choreographers faced in Danscross. There is however, a new theme — selected for its resonance for each partner, a resonance that must be activated in both the English and Chinese languages. While it was agreed some months ago, it seems to have gained in significance and appears especially salient today as we witness continued international turmoil over budgets and currencies, aging populations and health care, the search for safe and sustainable energy sources, questions of media and individual rights, and ecological and human fragility; all playing out in a time of profound geopolitical change and instability, as the balance of economic power shifts to Asia. In 2009 we felt that the world was shaking, but we also thought that by 2011 there would be more stability – now we are not sure, so our theme is simply: ‘uncertain…waiting…’
In spite of the inaction that this theme might imply, ArtsCross has brought together a group of international academics from theatre and dance to observe and reflect on performance over a number of projects, a broadening of focus that instigated the change of name from Danscross to ArtsCross. Taipei 2011 is one edition of a longer term commitment, and we arrived at this moment and place following months of discussion with Xu Rui and Zhang Ping from the BDA; and subsequently with Ping Heng the Dean of Dance at TNUA and her close colleague Wang Yunyu. The addition of TNUA was initiated by Yeh
This will be a rich and complex experience and the potential strands of investigation for the academics and artists are multiple. A key point of reference for everyone is the focus on process and practice — which means that we can meet and exchange in and through the work. And it is by working together that we grow in understanding, as pointed out by Charles Landry and Phil Wood in The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage (2007). The single performance event, lecture or workshop can do much to inspire and instil new glimpses, but it is in the
This will be the test – to achieve dialogue and hopefully understanding in the tangle of ‘otherness’ that will be in play — artists and academics, East and West, Republic of China/Taiwan and People’s Republic of China/China, theatre and dance, Europe and USA, women and men – in Rustom Bharucha’s words we are all ‘somebody’s other’. And this performance process is also a performative action in the sense discussed by the philosopher john Austin– the symbolic significance of the collaboration between the BDA and TNUA is active in the ‘real’ world, as well as in the reality of the world of performance, as is the presence of the UK partners.
One example of this is the fact that the BDA documentation refers to TNUA as TUA, omitting ‘National’ from the title as it implies the independence of Taiwan and denies the unity of China. This reflects the complexities of the arts when viewed within wider contexts, and perhaps recognises their value in cultural diplomacy, negotiating through and beyond the difficulties of language. In fact, as noted above, the formal designations for our partners’ nations are Republic of China (for what is often known as Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (often simply referred to as China). Seen through the formal construct, there appears to be agreement that there is only one China; the disagreement concerns whose claim to be the government of China has most legitimacy. The arguments surrounding this issue are many and it is not an issue that will be resolved through ArtsCross – rather, if necessary, we may employ what Colin Knox and Paul Carmichael, amongst others, referred to (in relation to the Northern Ireland agreement) as ‘creative ambiguity’.
Creative ambiguity is a stance that recognises and accommodates individual interpretations, even to the point of accepting the
In the working environment, it is most likely that associations, alignments and friendships will arise based on cultural values that stem from artistic and academic interests, minimising, if not eliminating, the significance of political terminologies of location. For example, the cultural values linking independent artists, or linking those in maintained arts organisations, just might supersede other considerations of culture, nationality and/or discipline.
And we must not forget that, potentially the most critical dynamic will stem from eastern and western perspectives. In writing the announcement for ArtsCross, which precedes this blog entry, Martin Welton the
This can perhaps be seen more strongly in the West, where the dynamics of past economic and cultural dominance, and associated interventions in Asia and elsewhere, have obscured the ability to know and understand ‘the other’. Amongst the reasons for this might be the lack of incentive for the dominant partner to be sensitive; and the assumption of the globalised status of the cultural values of the dominant (and in many
The analysis exposing the fallacies in this narrative is multifaceted, but one point is especially pertinent: the cultural transformation commonly known as the European Renaissance would have been impossible without the introduction of the printing press which originated in China and was introduced through busy trade routes into Europe. So, Martin Welton is right, both from a longer temporal perspective and because we must acknowledge work from the more recent past including East meets west in dance, a publication based on an initiative that brought together choreographers from east and west in the early 1990s, and the work of Yang Meiqi in Guangdong which began in the 1980s.
Still today, our partner artists and academics from Taiwan and China arguably know more about us than we know about them. Their artists and academics seem bilingual and
As a conclusion, I would like to reformulate a point I made during Danscross. We see key challenges facing us today that are shared; they are also unconfined by national boundaries. We focus on the working environment and on the practices of artists and academics – encountering the ‘other’ hoping to better understand ourselves; examining the particular, hoping to see the panoramic. Today the artists are working and the exchange begins; I am optimistic and excited, but also, I confess even at this late hour that I have also experienced uncertain…waiting…
Austin, J L, 1962, How to Do Things with Words Clarendon Press
Bhambra, G K, 2007, Rethinking Modernity, Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination Palgrave Macmillan
Bharucha R, 1995, ‘Somebody’s Other: Disorientations in the Cultural Politics of Our Times’, Third Text 26:3–10 Routledge
Knox C, Carmichael P, 2005, “Devolution — the Northern Ireland way: an exercise in ’creative ambiguity’” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 23(1) 63 – 83 Pion
Landry, C and Wood P 2007, The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage Earthscan
ResCen Danscross: Dancing in a shaking world (http://www.rescen.net/events/danscross09/DANSCROSS09.html)
Solomon R, Solomon, J Eds 1995, East Meets West in Dance: Voices in the
Temperature: 35°C (in the shadow)
The phrase of the day: ni hao! Ni hao ma? // Hello, how are you?
Today has been a very exciting day for everyone involved in the audition process. We had a group of about 90 dancers from Taiwan, mainland China (a few from America), all eager to work with the 10 choreographers that will develop a piece during the next three weeks in the Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA).
The first thing that has taken my attention is how well organized everything was. The team of the Dance department is incredibly efficient. You can see they are very used to deal with large numbers of people! and make them work in perfect harmony. How pleasant to work like this.
The first questions that came to my mind as I stepped in the dance studio were: what to look at when you confront yourself with dancers that you have never seen?; how to chose about 6 of them out of 90 in just 3 hours? My first criteria were to consider the body type, and the facility to remember the taught sequence. Considering I’m looking for certain physicality in the movement I could see some of the participants were still too young or too tiny to deliver what I was looking for. Once we did that first cut I concentrated on who was able to improvise and make instant changes when a correction was being given to them. Even though I’m sure in my decision I missed many good dancers… They all did it very well, you could see they believe in what they do, you could see they really want to DANCE.
Already in the audition I could perceive certain differences in the training of the dancers coming from Taiwan or from Beijing. Those from Taiwan are very good at improvising (how creative they were!); they have a good sense for group rhythm and are very open to try new things. Those coming from Beijing were very good at slow motion (how magnificent they are in keeping their balance!) and at delivering elegant movements with incredible precision. Their capacity to remember phrases was remarkable. I’m glad that finally all the choreographers have been able to have participants from both cities. I’m sure that is going to be a great inspiration for us, the choreographers.
The selection process has been very complex and it has taken us about 2 hours to make the puzzle. But the main thing is that it has been a great example of collaboration and negotiation between Taiwan, mainland China and England.
I hope I can establish an open dialogue with my chosen dancers, and make a piece for/with them where the exchange of ideas and thoughts is the leading force during the creative process.
PS. I have to say that I finally couldn’t help it and instead of 6 I have ended up with 14 dancers (5 males and 9 females). How exciting!
I’m enjoying that lovely sense of relief at having started…
There seems to me to be two such distinct phases of making a piece of dance: The weeks, perhaps months, of preparation — gathering ideas, finding music, refining ideas, finding better music, forgetting ideas etc. etc. all suddenly changes the moment you step into the studio and start to choreograph. It’s both frightening and reassuring to know however hard you can work before hand, the thing you make is about you and the dancers, in that place, at that time.
And now that it’s begun, I can only look forward to what happens. Uncertain… waiting!
Today marked the first day of rehearsals for the 10 choreographers involved in the ArtsCross Project here in Taipei. After months of organizing, planning, worrying, negotiating, exchanging, and brainstorming, ArtsCross Taipei finally unfolds with what feels like a natural, comfortable, and invigorating jolt of energy. To begin with a simple note about the community of people here, everyone seems to be so eager with an underlying sense of calm resolution. Despite the ArtsCross theme ‘Uncertain…Waiting’, it seems to me that for the most part, the dancers, the choreographers, the directors, the organizers, the interpreters, and the observers seem relatively at ease and certain that ultimately, this is an exciting adventure with wonderfully creative and all around talented people. After spending some time in Taipei in April with the people from TNUA, I can say with confidence that this place makes one feel so welcome, it is the kind of environment that organically encourages intimate sharings… some of which began today…
I had the opportunity to observe a few rehearsals this afternoon and evening. The range of styles and methods are vividly and immediately apparent amongst the choreographers; it is refreshing to witness so many different ways of beginning. As a choreographer myself, I can understand how daunting the beginning of any piece can be with a new group of performers; one can only try to be patient as the rapport slowly develops and becomes a deeply genuine collaboration. I could sense though that each choreographer entered the studio, and the process, with the required patience, the intuitive knowing that the group they would be working with over the course of 3 weeks would grow together to become a very special community. I was specifically impressed by the amount of space, time, and room each artist granted to their dancers; they really allowed the dancers to stew with a particular idea or movement. I always exited the studios reminded about how unique dance artists are; there is a fearlessness, an ability to
A few important phrases that protrude in my mind and certainly affected me personally and perhaps maybe you can think about as well:
‘What is the most uncertain thing in your life? Think about it for 30 minutes. Then we will share’ – Yu
‘I want you to draw what you are most afraid of. What are you afraid of? It can be literal or abstract. Draw it’ – Avatâra Ayuso
‘Make a change. Make a new decision’ – Alexander Whitley
Footage from Avatara’s Rehearsal:
Somehow, probably in the flurry of my own pre-Taipei existence, I never knew that ArtsCross has a theme. Or if I was told it, I’d forgotten. By theme I mean the phrase that the ten anointed choreographers were given in advance, and upon which they could, if they so chose, base their creation.
Two years ago in Beijing the theme was Dancing in a Shaking World. This year, given all that’s been happening globally, the joke is that maybe it ought to have been dubbed Dancing in a More Shaking World. But in 2011 it is, instead, Uncertain…Waiting.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this phrase is interpreted by the dance-makers.
Today they and the 36 dancers selected after Monday’s auditions began working together on the pieces that will be shown to the Taiwanese public later this month. This was the day when numbers became names — although perhaps for Avatara it might be said that what she now has is a comparatively sizable number of names. Yesterday, as compensation for surrendering the majority of her top choices to others in order to balance out the schedule, there was a bending of ’the rules. Consequently she’ll be working with 14 dancers rather than the previous maximum six.
If anyone can handle the larger load she’s the one. But more on that in a bit.
Avatara is one of four choreographers in the TNUA studios from 6.30–9.30pm. The other are there from 3–6pm, hence my feeling this afternoon of wanting to be in six places at once. Rather than bemoan an impossibility I drifted from one studio to another, ideally taking enough time to pick up a fact, witness a valuable exchange or capture an atmosphere.
YU Yen-Fang is a Taiwanese dancer-choreographer. Having spent considerable time in the USA and Europe, her English is excellent. Thus I learnt that she’s deeply interested in improvisation, and regards herself as a director rather than a dictator (the word she actually used was ‘queen’) who wants to guide her seven dancers to go ‘in and out of the comfort zone.’ Sometimes she starts to go with them, initially joining in an improvisational task then quietly slipping away to observe them continue it. ‘I like things that are not set and that I cannot reach easily,’ she explained in her let’s-sit-on-the-floor-and-introduce-ourselves moment.
Alexander Whitley is a British-born dancer-choreographer, formerly a member of the Rambert company but now attached to Random. The five dancers with him worked with an air of calm purpose, generating movement material with facility as he watched, juxtaposed the results and set new tasks. The most ice-breakingthat I saw was based on such simple but effective games of trust as ’you fall and we’ll all catch you if we can,’ which Whitley soon morphed into ‘each of you pick one person whom you try and catch when they fall.’ The ensuing acts of rescue were agreeably unpredictable and, for those involved, even a little giggly. Laughter is a good way for a group to bond.
There was little room for humour in the studios overseen by the choreographers from mainland China. The discipline, however, was impressive. In all three cases their dancers were receiving instructions in how to refine the movement they ‘d been given, and sometimes it was being demonstrated by the choreographers themselves. This was certainly true of ZHANG Jianmin, head of the choreography department at the Beijing Dance Academy. It was plain, as I watched him working in do-as-I-do fashion with three out of the six members of his cast, that the man knows exactly what he wants. There are nuanced forms and shapes to arrive at, and one of the best ways to achieve this was have the dancers repeat them again and again until they were imprinted on their muscle memories. Initially seemed less interesting to watch than Yen-Fang or Alex’s sessions, because here things were far less playful or exploratory. But gradually I began to question and even came to revise my opinion. Repetition also deepens the imprint of movement on the mind’s eye of those who witness it.
Yet I wonder what surprises, if any, are in store for the mainland Chinese dance-makers. Should there be surprises for people making new work? How much value can be placed on unpredictability in the creative act or the creative arts? More specifically, have these faculty members from the BDA arrived in Taipei with preconceived notions about what work they will make? And, if so, would it be fair to dub them ‘pre-conceptualists’?
I’m joking, but only in part. Still, in all fairness the term may not be entirely accurate. Maybe it’s simply a question of methodology. Rather than opting for the more organic, getting-to-know-you games of discovery other choreographers favour, those particular trio seems to have clear, strong ideas of what literal steps their work will involve. So why ’waste time’ (the quotations marks are mine) pursuing anything else? They just get down to it.
That’s certainly how it seemed in ZHANG Xiaomej’s studio, where her six dancers were concentrating on ritual moves involving sticks entwined with artificial flowers. Ditto in the space presided over by the magnetic LI Shanshan. Her focus was completely on one strapping, shirltess young Taiwanese lad who was executing. with laudable control, a series of slow/fast steps with twists - a solo version of the kind of tricky phrases Shanshan was dishing out to the auditionees yesterday. Clearly this lady knows her stuff.
LAI Tsui-shuang, from Taiwan, has the most modest-seeming project in ArtsCross: a six-minute duet. But, just as in a short dance review where every word counts even more, it may be that in a short dance piece with a small cast every move bears the weight of inevitability and thus only the most necessary gestures, steps or interactions should be allowed to happen. (Not being a choreographer I’m making a conjectural leap here.) In any case, what I saw during a merequarter-hour was a young woman in a brown dress repeatedly running towards her male counterpart and, at the last moment, turning round so that he lifts and carries her forward from the bottom of her back. That was the intention anyway. The couple in question never quite got it right — that is to say, they did not achieve the seamless, full-bodiedzest that seemed to be required of them. Was she running at the best speed, and would she turn at the right moment, and where would he provide her with the most secure support? Was he strong enough, or was his stamina being sapped? Was she soft enough for him to grab, and did she trust him enough to surrender herself to him?
I was thinking that a whole piece could be made out of just one repeated action which may never be fully or ‘successfully‘ realised; its continued failure (underscored by the we-must-live-in-hope possibility that they’d finally get it on the next attempt) would become a personification of uncertainty and waiting. This, however, is just my own digressive musing and not at all Tsui-shang’s intention. Indeed, I might have to ask her to articulate just what it she’s aiming for. Suffice to say that under her patient scrutiny the undercurrents of determination and frustration in the dancers’ bodies and demeanour were almost palpable.
Back to Yen-Fang’s space, where the spirit of spontaneity was deepening. It was especially good to see the shy or supposedly less confident young women (who’d said as much about themselves earlier) more than holding their own in a group improv centred around one twitchily paranoid individual at a time, each of whom was surrounded by a pack of space-invading bystanders. A sign of this task’s efficacy: although maintaining a fly-on-the-wallrole, I still felt I was a part of the amorphously microcosmic society Yen-Fang’s dancers were embodying simply by me being privy to it.
Meanwhile Alex’s lot next door had rapidly coalesced into a quintet you wanted to watch. The five of them spilled out a series of loose-flungyet accurate moves that showed how gratifyingly soon in a process collective commitment can be developed.
Onto the evening sessions. I couldn’t resist starting out with the force of nature otherwise known as Avatara. She speaks a mixture of English and nascent Mandarin that, due to her Spanish heritage, I can’t help but call ’Spandarin.’ More to the point, she’s simply delightful to be around — forthright, funny, hard-working and strong.
So how did Avatara manage a room with 14 dancers, none of whom speak English as a first-language (and half of whom are members of Beijing Dance Academy)? By being clear about what she wants to achieve or, more specifically, how she wants to go about achieving it. Collaboratively, that is, and to the maximum in terms of what you will give of yourself.
In the first few minutes the dancers learnt about her, but she also learnt about them. First their names, which she repeated (with the correct cadences), and then by asking each one to say what they liked about dance. Next it was name your favourite colour. (Most answered in combinations, and several said white.) This was a clever strategy on Avatara’s part for, as she later told me, she’s thinking to use the individual colour choices preferences, duly noted by her, to find costumes for the finished piece.
She then asked them to, first, really think about and then draw what they most secretly feared. These little art works Avatara subsequently shuffled about and distributed at random, with each dancer using first a hip, then a rib (the left one!) and then a tendon (the right) to ’draw’ whatever particular fear they’d just been handed — as if there were a pen or pencil sticking out or attached to a specific body part. This was a good means of loosen their bodies up and watching them closely at the same time. (So interesting to see what impulses such a part-focused exercise releases in the rest of the body.) Setting aside potential confusions, the dancers pretty much whole-heartedly surrendered to the instructions they were given.
Avatara is plainly luxuriating in the space she’s using and the amount of people at her disposal. I left them and slipped over to watch YAO Shu-Fen’s six dancers, plus three understudies. All nine wore surgical masks as they acrobatically maneuvered their way over, about and upon a few low (only two-high) mattresses. Apparently this is a reworking of a piece made some years ago called Dream Hatched, but incorporating the needs, influences and, perhaps, dreams of a new cast. ‘It’s their age and their time’ that Shu-Fensays she wants to make visible. Watching their energetic somersaults, rolls and flip-flops I was reminded of a slightly softened-upversion of the slam-bangrisk-takingwork of New York-based Elizabeth Streb. I also suddenly found myself wondering what it would be like to see a handful of OAPs trying to do something similar. Maybe Dream Hatched could be the next Kontakthof.
I was starting to run out of steam by the time I made it over to the studios of the Taiwanese BULAREYAUNG Pagarlava and British-based Khamlane Halsackda. Not many notes, and too little concentration. And so I ended the evening where it began, back with Avatara’s ‘army’ where the mood was one of sweat-soaked and physically challenging fun. The group was being pushed to its physical limits via stamina-testing games of trust rooted in the solar plexus (the source of Avatara’s own gutsy force as a dancer). Dancers pulled and pivoted in turn-and-grab exercises or embarked upon weighty, body-draggingwalks (with one person gripping the ankles of another trying to stride forward). Call it Avatara’s paella-like version of boot camp. All the push-pull activity carried loads of strenuous, earthy uncertainty, but at the same time there was nothing the least faint-hearted or stagnant about any of it. I can hardly wait to see more.
After observing a few rehearsals today, I began to see the challenges of bilingual verbal communication as well as emerging intricacies and complexities of interpretation. I also noticed the patience required and employed to deal with the accompanying frustrations in imparting desires, questions, expectations or ideas to someone who does not speak your native tongue. Luckily I think the body ultimately always grants us some level of understanding for one another. The body acts as its own interpreter providing a genuine expression of deep truths beyond language. I tried to imagine what it would be like if the choreographers rehearsed without speaking for part of the time. I wondered how that would affect the fluidity of the rehearsal process. No matter how many challenges language presents, laughter and a mutual optimism between dancers and choreographers seems to be the best remedy.
Quote of the day: ‘I felt that when you hit the point of exhausting the movement, you stopped demonstrating, stopped presenting, stopped worrying about what I was thinking. It became human. I want that.’ – Khamlane Halsackda
Video Clip of the day: Alexander Whitley Playing with Falling and Catching
I wonder what kind of dreams I’ll have tonight.
I’ve stroked the head of a fish. A carp, or koi in Japanese, I think. It looked like a huge pale goldfish. This was at Chun Tan (someone please correct me if that’s wrong), the oldest of the 52 hot springs in the lush hills above Taipei. Many fish were swimming about in a shallow pond, but only this one repeatedly came to the surface with its big mouth agape nearly every time I leaned in to dip my index finger in the water. Maybe it merely wanted to be fed, but it didn’t bite my finger. And maybe it wanted exactly the contact I had with it, which was to pet its smooth head for just a moment before it slipped smoothly away. But it kept coming back.
I think I’m in love. Does anyone know how you can tell a fish’s gender? (That sounds like the beginnings of a joke: ‘How do you tell a fish’s gender? By FILL IN THE BLANK.’)
This gender thing is important at the hot springs, at least at Chun Tan where men and women bathe separately. After…what, two hours, or was it more? I lost track of the time. What a luxury. Anyway, after immersing myself in hot, tepid and cold water, plus a few visits to the steam room, I felt like the proverbial new man. Or maybe, more accurately, I felt more like me. Or like a me I’d like to be more often: quietly revitalised and incredibly content within my body.
And then to top it off I make friends with a fish.
I regret being unable to see first-hand how being in Taipei influences the work that’s being made here during ArtsCross. I have this theory-of-sorts that seeing a dance in the place where it was made, particularly if the person or people who made it come from that place too, can offer insights into the work.
Location, location, location.
Finland’s a good example. I think you can gain a deeper understanding of Finnish dance by beating yourself with a branch inside a smoky sauna and then tottering naked into the nearby lake. Especially if it’s at night, or the nearest thing to night that the Finnish summer can offer. (On some evenings it remains so light that you could just about read a book.) There’s something about that combination of temperature and light and purification and awareness of nature that subtly and sometimes seductively permeates a good deal of the Finnish dance I’ve seen. It influences the way that people behave, too, and that in turn has a bearing on the dances they make in terms of methods, style and content.
It was good to go away from TNUA’s lovely, welcoming hillside campus and the splendidly intense creative isolation of ArtsCross just for a day. I actually did it two times. The first was this morning, when it was my privilege to visit the riverside flat that LIN Hwai-Min calls home. Founder of both Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and TNUA, this pioneering sexagenarian is a bona fide cultural hero and veritable Buddhist rebel whose chief tool for change is art. For nearly forty years Mr Lin, as they respectfully call him, has exerted — and continues to exert — a profound effect on dance and the people who make it or teach it or are interested in it in Taiwan. We talked and then went to lunch, taking a taxi to a Japanese restaurant (Kikugetsute, I think it’s called) in a busy location at the bottom of the same big, winding hill up which I was later driven to the spings and the unforgettable and touching encounter with my fine finned friend.
Uh-oh. I just realised that in the afternoon I ate both raw and grilled fish, and yet there I was in the early evening stroking one.
So what does all this have to do with dance-making at TNUA this summer? Not sure. Maybe I need to let that idea swim around in my subconscious overnight and see what, if anything, rises to the surface tomorrow morning.
Temperature: 36°C Humidity: 72% Words of the day: Wo, ni, ta, women, nimen, tamen // I, you, she/he, we, you, they
I have decided not to use a translator in the rehearsals. My departing point is the same as when I choreograph in England: direct verbal and physical contact with the dancers. But obviously here I need some “extra” tools to help this communication happen:
I haven’t developped any other tool yet. At the moment those are being very useful. But it is interesting to see how each dancer responds better to one or another, so sometimes the same thing has to be expressed via more than one of those tools. I really enjoy having to do this, as it forces me to understand deeper the movement, the task I’m giving to them.
From the first rehearsal day I told them this was going to be a piece created in
After watching them for two days now, I can confirm their dance training is very different. There are two clear styles here that are being confronted: the one of the 7 Taiwanese dancers and the one of the 7 dancers from Mainland China. They all are working together very well, trying to know their physicality better. The big challenge I have now during these 11 days is to try to find a harmony in their movement, a common land where their personality is not erased, on the contrary, where they can express themselves via different movement qualities, new body relationships.
P.S. Hopefully by the end of this week I will be able to pronounce and remember their 14 mandarin names!
I began the observation day by watching Alexander Whitley’s rehearsal; it’s amazing how much can be accomplished in so little time. The problem with observing is how easily one gets sucked into a particular room. I was quite mesmerized in Alex’s group space. I began free writing and thought I could share with you (the virtual audience) what spewed out as I simultaneously watched and wrote.
Every body part has a distinct role and purpose, there is no superfluous expression in this space. Every movement and gesture has an intention and I’m not sure how Alex conveyed this so eloquently to his dancers in such a short period of time. I see clarity- the movement itself is not ‘uncertain or waiting’ for me personally, but in it’s assured execution there is a beginning hint of the consequences of pending uncertainty or instability. The embodiment itself communicates something beyond the force of the movement’s stability; it’s as if there is a fear of waiting, like to continue and assert oneself is to avoid the negative aspects of uncertainty. I think perhaps the breath is key in this embodiment, the dancers seem breathless, this keeps my own body on edge in awe and in hope as I watch them.
What is our relationship with uncertainty in this project in particular? I think it originates in the exchanges with language, cultural subtleties, and body habits. We think we are uncertain of how to interact with each other and therefore, sometimes, we act according to these thoughts of possible uncertainty. We worry that we are being too informal or too formal. We wonder if our jokes are undertsood or whether a casual smile is seen as crossing a boundary. We listen to the tone of a voice and try to guess whether it suggests approval or dissatisfaction; eventually making conclusions that possibly fit with our own desires. We decipher the deeper meanings of an email or the raise of an eyebrow. We guess if our voice is overbearing or our laugh is too jolting. The day to day operations of a
Such self imposed uncertainties are the most interesting because one has to question what is the value in these dwellings, these ruminations? Maybe they lie in the human desire to distinguish right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, chaotic and stable, certain and not…. waiting… waiting… perhaps once we can relinquish such dichotomies a fear of simply existing – with all the unpredictable dimensions of our experience – will dissipate. Can we find the moment of waiting and stillness and being unsure within ourselves and can we discover power and strength within it? How, how, how can we reach an acceptance of all the dualities we are up against especially in the realm of grey? What does dance or live performance or the body provide us with that helps us cope with the unknowns? Can we dive head first into uncertainty without needing to know there will be someone to rescue us?
Quote of the day:
‘Day 1 we worked so hard physically. Yesterday we talked a lot, a lot, a lot!!… almost 3 hours. I want to know what they are thinking about. I want an interaction, a relationship.’ – Yao Shu Fen
Gesture of the day:
Dancer giving the sign of the cross before executing a risky movement (in jest)
Clip of the day:
I spent yesterday [Thursday, August 4, that is] on the spotless TNUA campus, dipping in and out of the afternoon and evening studio sessions in the dance department, taking notes about what I was observing, having tiny verbal exchanges (plus one good talk) and thinking.
For instance, there’s blogging to consider. I guess I’m not surprised, but this blog is one of over 156 million in the world today. I don’t know a lot about blogs as this is only the second to which I’ve contibuted. I can see that it’s designed to keep us — by which I mean whoever is directly involved in ArtsCross — connected. I’m used to having my words in print, but I’m always curious about who’s reading them. Maybe that’s why I can’t help but wonder who might [want to] read this, and why, and what it might mean to them especially if they’re not directly involved…
As for the sessions, I began with Alex putting his five dancers ‘through their paces.’ Bodies are such solid (albeit also fragile) tools and yet they almost seem to transmutate into something else — something elemental — when put to some artistic endeavour. I’m thinking of the way Alex’s lot elbowed the air as they slalomed across the studio floor, fleetingly inhabiting shapes that carried them along as if on a current. They appeared to be buffeted about as if by some external force, yet remained in control even when near to losing their balance or collapsing. Alex, I think, means to cultivate this sense of precariousness. Aspects of the metaphorical elements of water or air help. In another exercise, testing an image to see if it resonated for him, he instructed a dancer to move like a cat preparing to pounce as it prowled through tall, wind-blown grass. Said plant life was three of the other dancers undulating above this faux feline.
I left just as Alex’s dancers were about to insert, per his instructions, militaristic positions into the phrase he and they had concocted earlier this week. Drifting to another studio, this one visible from outside via windows, I watched as four of Jianmin’s dancers repeatedly burst upward with arched backs rather like exploding flowers that then gathered together in a centripetal spiral. Across the way Avatara was in a small studio with four dancers who’ll be in her piece and nobody else’s. (She’s meeting with them daily for two hours prior to another three hour session with her entire cast of 14.) One of them demonstrated a move of his own which she then absorbed, taking it into her own body and modifying it before giving it back to him.
In yet another studio Shanshan continued her method of building up a piece in increments, trying to refine one section before moving onto the next and running it, if necessary, again and again until whatever problem it presented was more or less solved. It’s like putting a puzzle together; she interlocks the individual pieces but she always has the bigger picture in her head. Tellingly, the problematic bits will last mere seconds in the finished work. Once the problem (in this case, the ease with which a small woman manoeuvre onto a tall man’s shoulders and is then helped down with the aid of a second female) is solved, Shanshan handily slots it back into the group trajectory. All five dancers rocket forward, some hitting levels higher up in the air as others sweep the floor. But always — at least in this one section — there’s a forward propulsion.
Upstairs Yen-Fang’s septet were dealing with ways in which one might dance a solo alongside another person. In other words, dancing together but still in a solo. ‘I feel that there’s a range of possibilities of being connected,’ Yen-Fang commented before sending two dancers at a time out onto the floor. Once again I found myself identifying with it. The impact of these non-duet duets or invisibly linked solos or whatever you might wish to call them varied, but I understood the impulse behind them. It’s akin to what we do with people — strangers, usually — all the time as we share space in public places, maybe bumping into somebody but always avoiding contact, and yet breathing the same air. What I was seeing could be described as heightened body language as social action.
Xiaomei, meanwhile, was busy instructing five female dancers in a far more formal but no less heightened state of being. The women looked like they were meant to be abject, restless and imploring spirits. Xiaomei knew what she wanted from them, certain qualities that are exactly right for the sort of traditional-seeming Chinese dance she’s making. The dancers’ faces were masks of sober patience. The two men in the piece lurked on the sidelines, seemingly without much to do rather as they were when I last visited one of Xiaomei’s studio sessions.
I know artists work in different ways to try and attain whatever they’re after, and that it’s important to not jump to any assumptions particuarly when watching someone at work who’s from a culture different from your own. Still, as I watched this group, I couldn’t help thinking about what the American film critic Pauline Kael once wrote about The Sound of Music. No fan of this much-loved musical, Kael wondered if there was never a single time when just one of the von Trapp kiddies didn’t want to perform and had a tantrum, or threw up from nerves. I’m not comparing Xiaomeu’s dancers to the onscreen von Trapps, and they’re certainly not children. Rather, I suppose I’m questioning working methods that demonstrate what a fine line there can be between discipline and strait-jacketing. I think this reflects my upbringing in American, where it’s common to assert one’s individuality, rather than China where, although my experience is limited, there may be a greater emphasis on the collective. Suffice to say that, for me, Xiaomei’s sessions are less of a pleasure to watch than others. But in the long run they’re no less valuable.
This is a continuation of my last posting about Thursday’s studio sessions. Prior to the evening block I sat with Bula, whom Mr. Lin of Cloud Gate called ‘one of our babies’ because of his history as a TNUA student, a Cloud Gate dancer and then resident choreographer of Cloud Gate 2. Bula is also, I was told, a ’prince among men’ within his aboriginal tribe (one of 14 in Taiwan, I gather) because of his family’s high status. He seems genuinely modest about this. A soft-spoken but quite agreeable fellow, he says that choreogaphy is ‘my way of communicating.’
I didn’t spend much time watching Bula at work, but he appears to function like a coach and a cogitator who works in an air of quiet concentration with his dancers, and then broods about what’s been done so far, and what the next step is. Apparently he hasn’t spoken much with them about what his intentions are, but that may be because he doesn’t yet know this himself — at least not in a way he can articulate. Perhaps this is his way of dealing with the theme of ArtsCross — uncertainty and waiting.
I like listening to the language choreographers use to convey what they want. Khamlane spent the early part of Thursday night working with individuals. It was interesting to watch him, with his muscular build, alongside the slim and tall young man to whom he was teaching a sequence of movements that were more about earth than air. Whether it was a turn, a pull or a stretch, there was a weight that Kham wished to see. ‘Long and low’ is how he described the way a leg should be on more than one occasion, while the directive for a drop towards the floor and a backwards fling was ’gather and throw it.’ Later, with another dancer, it was ‘the torso drops and the leg goes up, like a see-saw.’
Avatara was in full flow with her 14, getting them to all work on a juicily expansive phrase that reflects her own appetite for movement. There’s nothing fuzzy or lazily generalised in what she does or, more to the point, wants them to do. ’Keep it strong’ could be her motto. In another studio Shu-Fen was sending one male dancer vaulting up onto and, at least in one case, right over a mattress held upright and buttressed by two other men. On the following evening (that is, tonight) three of her boys were twirling, twisting, tossing and turning atop these trampoline-like props. This was movement research masquerading as play.
I had to miss the afternoon sessions in order to venture into the city to watch a dress rehearsal for an unfinished piece by YANG Ming-lung called Eastern Tale that premieres in early September as part of Taipei Arts Festival. It’s a commission from Dance Forum Taipei, a company formed in 1989 by PING Heng, the Dean of the School of Dance here at TNUA. What a fine company she has — ten highly attractive young dancers who come across as interesting people as well as diligent, extremely skillful movers. It helps that Ming (who danced for half a decade with Trisha Brown’s company in New York) has crafted a work that is clean and clear, and marked by a subtle wit and an attention to detail. The tension built into the work was well-balanced by the trust is requires to execute it.
Back at TNUA (which — I can’t help it — I’ve occasionally been sorely tempted to write as ’TUNA’ even before my post-hot spring bonding with a fish this earlier this week) I slipped into Kham’s studio. He was giving his dancers strings of numbers (‘like a lottery’) and it was up to them, after he’d assigned certain ones, to find the twitchy little moves that would correspond to the counts each had to keep. ‘I want to see tight, short and microscopic movement in a confining space’ was Kham’s directive. ‘I don’t want you to think about what it looks like at all,’ he added. ‘It’s more about sensation.’
Given the mathematics he was using, was it really just a coincidence that Kham’s t-shirt bore the cryptic statement ‘Quantum leap is about Einstein’s secret career as a dancer on a glassy beach’? I asked him what words might best describe how he felt about the way things have gone this first week. ‘Exhaustion’ and ’beer’ were the answers, followd by, ‘Up and down. Really well at first, then “What am I gonna do?” and then okay again. I’ve thrown them in the deep end with some partnering, and I’m going to go down the road of intimate physical work.’ And if his dance, at this point, had a smell what would it be? ‘Paper. And dust. Something musty and old.’
I ended up in Avatara’s studio, with ten ballet barres forming a kind of angular silver landscape to one side. Her dancers used them and the floor space to play a game designed to sharpen their ability to listen and look and take their cues from each other. ‘You have to see with the ears,’ Avatara’s voice rang out at them. There were many rules in this game. We live by rules and, in this case, move by them too. One example: pre-designated dancers who raised an arm were a signal for the others in their group to fall onto their backs, feet together, until that arm was lowered. Walk, fall, rise and then walk again was the pattern, but one marked by unpredictabilty and, again, uncertainty. Straight lines — and alert minds -were a must. I won’t be in Taipei to see for myself what rewards Avatara’s dance will yield when it’s completed, but at the moment it smells like team spirit.
This first week has been busy and exhausting (in a satisfying way). It has also been a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it week too, but I guess time does fly when there’s art to be done, certainly as far as choreographing is concerned.
‘Tis my last day here in Taipei. I’ve just come from a walk up to the back entrance of the TNUA campus and the little-seensculpture park that’s there, along with a view (if you go right to the top and a wooden platform) to the sea at…Danshui? No one around but egrets and a few butterflies.A good contrast to last night’s visit to the night market at Shilin which was sometimes a mash-upof people with pedestrain traffic bottlenecks…
A few thoughts, randomly spinning in my most immediately accessible memory bank:
1. What would it be like if there were Western dancers here too? I understand that some Chinese academics will be arriving next week along with the Western ones. Good!
2. The large group of us (the BDA lot and UK-basedpeople) went to the National Palace Museum yesterday. Wonderful stuff there, too, once the initial hoards at the entrance and trying to see the jade cabbage were bypassed. After two hours of beautiful jade and bronze and ceramics and painting and calligraphy I exited and realised as soon as it was before me how my vision — my awareness — of the sloping, forested hills rimming Taipei looked different to me now. To state a truism, that’s what art can do. I wonder which of the dances made here in these few weeks (actually just one working week if you calculate 3 hours a day for 13 days), might have had a similar impact on me….
3. To a hot pot restaurant afterwards. Completely communal eating. Avatara and I speak about this communality and what it means in Asia versus the West. It’s her creative hot pot, as these thoughts might influence not only what she may write on this site, but the work she makes.
4. I look forward to learning what titles are chosen for the dances, and what costumes, and what music is used. All to be decided in the next week or so. All potential clues as to what a work is about, what motivated it and so on.
On a more personal note, I wonder if I will see and have contact with ‘my’ fish tonight at the hot springs before I fly back to the UK. It has no name yet, as far as I know, but I have a dear Aunt Wanda so maybe that could be the fish’s English name. My Chinese name, self-designated, is Fei Yu which means fly[ing] fish. But I will still answer the name Donald — like the duck!
It’s nearing 3am and I’m of at least two minds: whether to lie down for half an hour or force myself to stay awake so that Im ready and ’alert’ (ha!) when my ride to the airport arrives at 4am.
Goodbye o college dorm room I never before had!
Goodbye o fish called Wanda!
We all went to the hot springs tonight. (By ’we’ I mean the BDA dancers, plus the mainland Chinese and UK choreographers, as well as three American participants in Taipeidea — Caroline, Jordan and Colin: may I welcome you to this blog?) A big group. The experience was exceptionally restorative, too. For me, again, yes, but also for the dancers and choreographers new to the hot springs. They worked hard and well in the hothouse atmosphere of TNUA this past week and deserved this.
Anyway, when I got there Wanda didn’t come when I dipped my finger into the water of her pool. Was she snubbing me, maybe because she’d heard through some aquatic grapevine that I was leaving? (Or was it that she sensed this same finger had just a few hours earlier stroked the nose of one of the two mascot-like water buffaloes on the TNUA campus and was she, perhaps. jealous?) Only later, after I’d soaked myself in the springs, did she allow me one lovely stroke of her smooth head. I didn’t ask for more. That one touch was enough and then she slipped away.
I never discovered her Chinese name. But someday, perhaps…
I’d like to somehow make a parallel remark about dipping a toe into dance, or brushing up against some new inter-cultural (or inter-species) discovery, or something along those lines, but at this hour I’m afriad that I’m just not up to it. So instead of any more malarkey I’ll quote William Forsythe who, under the auspices of the Taipei Arts Festival, has organised a a free installation in an old derelict tobacco factory in the city centre. I could only visit it for half an hour at the most today, due to time constraints, but I was glad to have had a look.
Here are ‘Bill’s’ words as quietly emblazoned at the start of the exhibition:
‘Choreography is not so possessed by its historical practice that one cannot find another or better therefore.’
So, ArtsCross choreographers, may you keep searching and finding.
Humidity: 74% (windy)
The phrase of the day: nimen yao cha ma? // would you like some tea?
Had you ever had the experience of eating a hot pot? (in mandarin…). Every one seats around the table and, having previously chosen anything they want from a meet/fish/vegie buffet, you just put your choices inside the chilli soup that is inside a hot pot place in the middle of the table. What you have put inside is cooked in about 2 minutes and you just take it back to your plate whenever you want to eat it. By the end pieces of meat, fish, tofu, noodles and many other things that I don’t know what they were, are all being mixed in the soup. It’s seems a simple process to just pick up what you put inside, but most of the times I found myself not finding what I had put inside and taking what the others had put inside. It was very frustrating as I didn’t want to take what they had put into the pot! I felt I was invading
What are the implications of all this into the dance studio, more precisely into a rehearsal with 14 dancers from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. Well, the main one is that I can see they feel very comfortable with the fact that they are a large group; with sharing a space and working together. This sense of community (very rooted in their own culture, from food to politics) is very evident during the rehearsals. Dancers in Europe tend to be more egocentric, in the sense that we want/need/like a constant attention to each of us. We want recognition, and we might feel hurt if that is not given to us during a couple of days. Here (even though I try to do my best to give them personal feedback) I can see they “feel ok” with being on their own. They are obviously very happy when anything is said to them in order to improve certain movement, but I feel they behave more like a team, rather than like individuals within their private space. Eventually this sense of community happens in the European dance troops also, but this is probably just when the dancers have been together for a big while (years of practicing together in the studio). I am just surprised to see that here this feeling of community has happened in such a short time. What I’m trying to work on now, is on pulling out on stage their individuality, to help them to feel free to talk to me and their mates, to express what they think, to even make suggestions when creating movements, to make decisions.
I joined the group of BDA dancers, BDA choreographers, UK choreographers, and others on the voyage to the National Palace Museum, a hot pot dining excursion, and a Taiwanese musical at the National Theater this past Saturday. On that day, as well as this, I realized how much we all can sense truth and imitation of the truth even if we cannot quite always pinpoint or express what these truths or falsities are exactly. For example, at the museum we were brought to a special exhibition of a painting that had been historically broken into 2 parts and was now
I don’t know what provoked me to ask whether it was real, my eyes are not trained in traditional Chinese painting; it must have been my intuition prompting me to question this copy of brilliance. Likewise, at the musical, though there was a language barrier, I sensed that the musical lacked a certain depth. I believe many of us left the theatre (early) because we were craving raw passion and more openness from the performers even if it was a musical (sorry!). We couldn’t understand the language, but we could understand the body language, the performance, the presence, and the potential of what wasn’t.
Imitation versus Truth. Copying someone versus exposing something honest within.
In friday’s rehearsals and in today’s rehearsals, I heard from many choreographers (and heard from many choreographers via the interpreters) a request to their dancers to bear more than just a repetition of what was seen visually and physically direct from the choreographer’s body. Perhaps not just the choreographer’s truths but the dancer’s version of the choreographer’s truth: in fact, an interpretation of what was observed (which still has some level of verity ultimately). I heard requests for responses from the dancers that were not exact replicas (because in this case it would only be that, a fake replica)- but instead, for reactions that encased both the emotional and physical impulses with some level of authenticity from the individual dancer. Whether the movement had been devised inside or outside the studio, it seems most choreographers crave the real thing. None of us can escape or resist the pursuit of authenticity in all its different guises. Sometimes, especially in the context of performance, it’s tempting to imitate or copy something, especially when it is beautiful or aesethetically interesting or attractive to someone, but even in performativity, ain’t nothing like the real thing. Even just a sliver of individual truth in the movement conveys something extremely satisfying for performer, director, and audience member….(in my opinion of course!)
Quote of the day: “Stop, Stop….[Pause]….It should be real. Don’t just jump…follow your partner’s energy.” -
Clip of the day: Zhang Jianmin
Random thoughts on Body Ritual Among the Nacirema: a research note on dance observation and magic in dance.
Kham, Studio 5, 7–8pm 08.08.2011
Walk in. Take off shoes. Sit on floor. Open a sheaf of papers. (Something like a notebook.) Appear watchful, studious. Hold papers. Look at papers. Shuffle pages. Bring face close. Closer. Flex feet, extend legs, roll shoulder, look up. Turn. Head around. Look in mirror. Grimace. Scratch scalp. Stand up. Look at papers. Bring face close. Closer. Handle implement. Huddle over page. Make small scrawl. Grimace. (Something like a smile, not quite.) Shuffle feet. Move lips.
Kham: [facing dancers, looking at page, speaking softly as if to self] “Good.” [look up, louder to group] “Good!” (pause) [Nod, direct eye contact] “I think again,” [smile] “let’s try it again everybody.” [look down at page, slight pause] “This time, I’ll count more slowly.”
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3, 4, 5
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
In 1956, noted anthropologist, Horace Miner described the Nacirema, a little known tribe living in North America. Published in the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association, American Anthropologist, Miner gives readers a thorough and exciting ethnographic account of the myriad of taboos and ceremonial behaviors that permeate the everyday activities of the members of a magic-ridden society. Focusing on ”attitudes of the body,” he depicts secret rituals that are believed to prevent disease while simultaneously beautifying the body. Through careful analysis and thick description, Miner demonstrates the importance of ceremonial specialists such as the ”holy-mouth-men” and the ”listeners” in directing even the most routine aspects of daily life among the Nacirema.
What does all this have to do with Kham’s evening dance rehearsal? I guess you had to be there. But there’s more …
>> spoiler alert if you have never read Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, a classic of anthropological literature <<
… the formal academic way in which Miner writes about the curious practices that this groups performs has the effect of distancing the reader from the fact that the North American group described is actually Americans of the 1950s. (“Nacirema” spelled backward.) At the time, Miner’s piece created an uproar in academic circles because, as some overly sensitive American anthropologists believed, he was essentially criticizing (lampooning, really) their own research and writing practices. They were the Nacirema.
Which brings me back to Kham and his studious dancers (and right before that, Chris’ holy-mouth-man appointment, but that’s another story). True, Kham and his assistant and dancers were working on a complex movement and meter problem in a tricky section of the piece. Yes, the dancers were taking, making, and looking at notes. They moved in restricted, patterned ways always with paper in hand, never putting the pages down. I thought, “this is an interesting deconstruction of [insert overwrought conceptual theory here].”
Kham held fast to a sheet of paper too. Obviously he was demonstrating the precise way in which — “WHOA, hold on!” I stopped myself short of takeoff on an ill-advised flight of the imagination — I suddenly realized the dancers were simply trying to learn the complicated movement-calculus task that Kham had ingeniously (deviously) given them! Oy.
The dancers’ notes were serving an important creative-cognitive purpose: the numerical traces joined together with marked movements were helping to reduce the cognitive load of remembering (at minimum) a) the movements, b) the phrase, c) the counts, d) their individual spacing-place in the phrase and counts, e) the group placing-space in the phrase and counts and f) the arc of the entire movement-phrase-spacing-placing-counting of one section of one part of Kham’s piece.
Pure, hot, dance, magic.
5, 6, 7, 8
And the description at the beginning of this posting, you ask? That was me of course, trying to turn my Nacierma self inside out and back around. Now it all makes sense. I think … Oh well, better check with Kham about that.
In the relationship between questions and practice we are not in a linear progression, more of a mobius strip.
For me, questions open up the wider field. Key to phenomenological enquiry (description, curiosity, interdependent relational process, embodied here and now experience) is the ability to acknowledge how our immediate interactions are affected by our embodied histories, our innate need to make meaning and to seek interpretation through questioning even as we embrace living in the here and now.
Choreographers question on a daily, moment-to-moment basis. Much of the work in the studio is an attempt to resolve, find embodied answers for those ongoing questions. Never finding, or wanting, a single answer, or truth, keeps us, as choreographers/writers/practitioners returning to the studio/page. Living now and questioning living now are partners in a dance of now and then.
And there is the Artscross theme of ‘uncertainty’, which colors the open enquiry that has no answers. I am already looking at the work through the pre-determined lens of uncertainty – if that lens is possible. And of course I am opening myself to questions. How do choreographers work with uncertainty in the studio, when they have three weeks to produce a performance? How do choreographers deal with the enormous uncertainty of working with performers they do not know (at least the UK choreographers)? Can they allow themselves to admit to uncertainty in the studio? How do dancers work with the uncertainty of the moment with the choreographer while their bodies carry historical and repeated codes of knowledge? What is my experience of uncertainty that I bring into the studio? Can I stay with, feel and experience uncertainty? How long can I allow myself to embody not knowing?
So I set myself a challenge. Yes, phenomenological observation, yes, to enter into the work in the studio to see what arises. And to notice how the predetermined theme of uncertainty is played out in my body and others’ bodies within the studio. Can we catch a moment without fixing it? Perhaps, in a relational dialogic practice…
What did I see?
Kham’s performers – holding pieces of paper, huddled, absorbed in the act of counting, limbs jerking, quiet concentration, heads down.
Yen Fang’s performers — improvising, hip hop fragmented ripples, a sense of something playful, multi directional.
Avatara’s group laughs loudly. Her voice, sensual, opens the space: ‘I want strong women of the 21st century – you understand that?’
Yao — four double mattresses in the space. The group is sitting in a circle, talking their dreams. Laughter shared.
These moments open time, unfixing, waiting.
On laboratories, microbes and microdevelopment
Yen-Fang, Studio 5, 4–6:30pm, 08.08.2011
“Shall we come back to work,” Yen-Fang asks sweetly but it is not a question. The dancers had been working more or less consistently on solo material for about two hours and were returning from a short break.
“When doing your own exploration,” Yen-Fang begins as the dancers sit with her in an intimate circle, “there is something about this space …” Her sweeping gesture, looping up and around the studio, takes the dancers eyes (and mine) swimming up to the rafters into the pools of light cascading down. She continues, “a shared imagination. This particular environment, this same universe, that needs to be acknowledged.”
She pauses, perhaps uncertain that she’s made her point. We wait. Her audience is riveted as am I.
“Separate investigations,” she nods looking around at the dancers’ faces, “but being in this room is like a big lab.” (Come to think of it, with the white walls and rounded roof, Studio 5 does look a bit like someone bisected a test-tube.)
Yen-Fang smiles, “But the same universe. I would like to acknowledge that and invite you to be inspired by what you see or feel here, each other … to jump in no hesitation.”
Yen-Fang grins broadly, a beatific countenance. “That was my realization for the past hour,” she murmurs. Everyone is quietly nodding and smiling. It’s hard not to smile when Yen-Fang does. “Okay, back to work.”
(Yen-Fang speaks excellent English and Chinese. Fortunately, she has an American dancer in her piece, so one can catch the thoughts expressed in English to him or the larger group, all of whom obviously understand a great deal of English.)
In this rehearsal, I glimpsed what seems to be Yen-Fang’s preferred working style at this stage of the creative process. Some work had been set but solos needed to be developed.
Prior to the comment about the shared relational space, she observed each individual dancer for up to twenty minutes. She moved around the room to view at different angles, high and low. Then there was discussion, some demonstration, a bit of checking – I did this, you did that – a bit of an explanation or focused consideration or more demonstration, and then a melting away to the periphery to afford the dancer some mental and physical space to continue working. This was repeated all around the room.
Yen-Fang assumes a process-oriented, calm and inquisitive demeanor though still retains what one might call a pre-reflective approach. This is generative time, not decision time. Individual moving identities abound (cf. Roche, 2011) and yet Yen-Fang’s keen eye lends a surgeon-like precision to the development of an overall movement signature. Her desire for clarity in motion is juxtaposed by a preference for interplay between direct and indirect spatial intention, a predilection for supple spines and exploration of “back space”: all that juicy room behind one that invites depth but rarely gets its due. It is a surprisingly pleasing aesthetic that Yen-Fang embodies, like a flowing, textured, elegant scarf. She is a remarkably adept mover.
Her encounters with each dancer include a series of moments of confusion, experimentation, multiple iterations and sudden understandings. These snapshots, brief moments, made me think of a relatively new approach in psychology that analyzes microdevelopment in human behavior. Microdevelopment is the study of developmental change over short time periods, measured in seconds, minutes, or hours instead of days, months, or years. It is analysis in real time, observing the fine-grained phenomena of a gesture, a nod, a frown. Microdevelopment captures the transitional moment through which one moves from a simple to more complex knowing. And, because the study of creativity is the study of change, any adequate account of a cognitive or creative process must provide credible explanations of the transition from not knowing to maybe knowing to actual knowing. As in life, transitions in creative process function as a kind of connective tissue.
Using a microdevelopmental lens, one can see Yen-Fang’s sixty-second, self-described realization as a turning point, a piece of connective tissue holding bone to muscle as the dancers work for authentic movement in relationship to her, others, and the whole ensemble. For me, the lab analogy harkened back to the halcyon days of “movement research” with a contemporary twist. In the 60s-70s, artists like Yvonne Rainer in America (among others) assumed the proverbial white coat and placed the organism under the microscope. Seemingly with the purpose deconstruct, the goal was to know the source, genome if you will, of movement’s biological makeup in order to hypothesize, test, and use it so as to alter it at the genetic level in some way.
Something else entirely happened in the 1980s and 90s. Dance experienced a profound shift, unsettling the cool laboratory method and disinterested result. Movement practices, one part artistic and one part political, brought the lab onstage with a power and passion that overwhelmed the rest. In New York and San Francisco, it hit like a massive tsunami. Some called it a mess; others not knowing what to say, simply equivocated, calling it post postmodern; still others called it real-life-get-used-to-it. In America (as I would imagine, elsewhere), the iconoclasts were sometimes treated rather badly, more like microbial infections spreading doubt (rather than creative dis-ease) amongst the staid field of dance, panicking the choreographic population. Happily they did not care much, not enough to stop anyway. Call it what you will, displacing or stimulating, the point was to re-center the aesthetic order of things. No doubt, one can find today the salubrious effects on dance everywhere.
Now we’re somewhere quite different: a reactionary time; a middle; a promise? And still the lab remains in some ways more open and available than ever before. Perhaps the lab space itself is waiting, patiently waiting for ’someone’ like Yen-Fang to offer ‘something’ in response to her generation “why”: something about how creative artists today are systems of interacting habitats, influences that need no alteration, just a little food and water and time and attention to reveal themselves.
I walk into the studio and Yen Fang is working with three men. Two men are mirroring each other’s movement, in close contact, facing each other but not touching, perceiving each other with all senses. The third man is moving on the ground between them, like a Golam figure seeking attention, twisting and turning, arching and falling. Yen Fang observes closely, talking intimately with them, as they improvise.
The women are spread out across the outsides of the space, improvising individually. Yen Fang works with each woman one to one. Each dancer improvises with a particular set of instructions, to embody and embrace Yen Fang’s movement quality. These dancers are fabulous. One woman’s lower back is so expressive, arching and curving from minute to extreme degrees. Her body is fragmented, wrists broken, shoulders tipped, hips distorted, feet turned inwards, dissolving into soft palpitating muscular ripples, moving in multiple spatial pathways, never fixing, always changing, multi fronted, a body fired with intelligent contradictions. She moves towards a certain direction in space but another movement, another direction, has taken over before the first is completed. No action is fully performed before the balance is shifted, no limb is extended to complete a conventionally expected shape, change has already happened. The conventions of formal space are displaced, the dancer works in many dimensions, superbly articulating each micro detail. No mushiness here. The improvisation ends and an intimate dialogue begins between the dancer and Yen Fang, who intermittently, throughout the dialogue, demonstrates with her own body — and she is stunning to watch. (I am aware here that I am talking about ‘dancers’, I do not have the names of the dancers in front of me to equalise the dialogue in written words).
Yen Fang is particular in her search for multiplicity. As she observes one dancer improvising, she notices how he moves his torso from side to side, two dimensionally. She works with him to increase the possibility of multi directional movement, twisting, turning, curving, dipping, and tilting. I am reminded here of how we hold our emotions in our bodies – and yes Donald, the body always lies – we all hold parts of our bodies against the fear of letting go to the unknown.
So – I watch movement language that fills me with the energy of uncertainty, of not knowing, a potency of possibility. There is no truth here, no final statement. This is not about authenticity. This has nothing to do with seeking truth, real or representation. This is a full-embodied practice of undoing all that. I sense in my body this is about embodying the intelligence of constant change, aliveness in the moment of moving here and now.
I am also drawn to the relational practice between Yen Fang and her dancers. She meets them as people, with personalities, with voices; she meets them equally in the space. They are in dialogue; there is an exchange of knowledge. She is not telling them what to do, and they are not waiting to be instructed. Yet both of these are happening. Something is created between them, here is a creative between-ness.
Yes I am writing after the event and I can make connections with forms, codes, styles and histories, Forsythe, Jonathan Burrows, European postmodern dance. I can also contemplate how these individual voices will come together as a group. But not when I am in the studio. I am observing process, I am engaged, and I am in the moment. And I want this aliveness to continue.
I am wondering about how we might make process as performance – in this context of Artscross. I feel sad that this process must take the shape of product, that this inter-relational, dialogic moment of uncertain knowing must somehow fix itself into a choreographic shape that becomes there and then rather than here and now, where Yen Fang’s presence and dialogue with her dancers is abstracted – to be replaced with a relationship with a fronted, seated, audience. How can this uncertain knowing be maintained through to performance? For here and now, in the studio, is the unique immediacy of performance process. And this is perhaps a place where the dialogue between observer, writer and choreographer might hover.
I’m finally coming up through the fug of jet-lag this morning, and having promised myself not to return to old topics, am now, of course, immediately doing so. Something that has struck me over the last day and a bit of watching, thinking and talking, is how often the question of feeling has arisen, either as part of something a choreographer wanted a dancer to do or show (i.e. more of), or of something I wanted to see. There were times, yesterday, watching various groups of dancers, who all seemed to be giving, or investing something in the work, which I’ll call feeling for the moment. I can’t deny my own feeling, that on occasion, something seemed to get in the way. It wasn’t the dance itself exactly, but sometimes i wanted to live — or have the dancers live — with that feeling a little longer, before another flurry of limbs drew my attention elsewhere. Maybe that’s my own bias and background as a theatre person coming through, but I am curious sometimes as to whether there is a tension between an urge or need to move — from A-B, on to the next thing — and a need to find feeling. The debates over this tension are as old as the hills, but watching various performers come to it as individuals or in groups it seems to me to be a discussion still worth; is it?
‘Feeling’ is a useful word to me as I think, as in English, it is a catch-all term, which allows for movement (no pun intended) between affect and exploratory touch. Having heard some of the TNUA and BDA choreographers instructions to their performers translated using this word, I’m curious to know what the Chinese words or terms being used are, and what other cognate ideas they might carry with them.