The ArtsCross London 2013 Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.
The ArtsCross London 2013 Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.
As ArtsCross London begins, the project’s UK directors offer some of their thoughts on where the next three weeks of collaboration and exchange might lead.
Chris Bannerman writes:
I believe it was Martin Welton who first proposed that the theme should somehow refer to ‘home’. After enthusiastic responses from Beijing and Taipei, we each retreated to mull over possible formulations, searching for the one that would best articulate the inchoate sense of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment in London that would mesh with this moment in the project’s life.
Perhaps strangely my thoughts turned not to ‘leaving home’ but rather to 1965 and Bob Dylan’s seminal album released in that year, Bringing it all back home. What Dylan meant by this title is open to question, but in the case of ArtsCross the idea of ‘bringing it all back home’ had for me a particular and a wider relevance. The particular correlation arises simply from the fact of the three previous ArtsCross editions: Beijing in 2009, (called Danscross), Taipei in 2011, Beijing again in 2012; and now in 2013 in London, my home. Thus all of the experiences, the intensity of the rehearsals and performances, the passion of the exchanges, and the
The wider relevance is more difficult to articulate as it involves broad sweeps of history, and concerns the habitus, or unstated assumptions, formed through a western narrative in which the modern world, and concepts of modernity, has been constructed by Europeans who shaped the modern age. This lens, through which we view the world, is of course, out of date, but more pertinently was never accurate.
Now, ArtsCross in its small way, is assisting in a reconsideration of that
I am not certain, however, that this changing order has been grasped in the UK. I notice the looks of incomprehension when speak about the Beijing subway (underground) system with its air conditioned carriages, flat screen displays adjacent to every door, and the
The tide of western dominance that formed a flood of economic and cultural hard and soft power, coupled with empire and arrogance, has turned – now we must deal with the new realities and
ArtsCross London 2013: Leaving home: being elsewhere is beginning; as it unfolds so does the possibility of new exchanges, new understandings, new beginnings.
Martin Welton writes:
This weekend, choreographers and dancers from London, Taipei and Beijing meet together for the first time. At this stage, we know little about the works that will be made, but what we do know is that they will challenge our expectations.
Some of these may be cultural:
As in previous instalments of ArtsCross, the choreographers and dancers will be joined at the beginning of August by a team of performance scholars who will observe the creative process. Many of this international group of academics are experienced artists in their own right, but all share a commitment to deepening understanding of how the particular conditions that attach to creative processes serve to develop specialist ways of knowing and modes of practice. More than this however, in looking through the lens of the particular, this scholarly attention is also seeking to map out ways in which cultural and creative acts of translation trace possible routes or pathways for future collaborations. Some of these may well involve artistic production, but given the extent to which this is always freighted with political, economic, and educational concerns, what could a project like ArtsCross tell us of how we might converse, exchange and learn together to our mutual benefit?
ArtsCross began on Friday morning with Chris leading the choreographers (bar two, still in transit) in a workshop. It’s a privilege to be able to watch the process from the very beginning this year, and even more so, to do so with the rich background of the projects Beijing and Taipei instalments underpinning it.
It starts in a gentle, theatrical way. Across the performing arts, many of us will have done an exercise like this, although maybe not so often will we have found the finesse and variation in it that appears this morning! Chris invites all of the choreographers to ‘write’ their name with their bodies. This could be a movement response to its sound, or a physicalisation of written characters. They show them, and there’s a real joy in the immediate presence of differing vocal tones, alphabet, signs and calligraphy moving and resounding through their bodies.
They are then invited to adapt these patterns and gestures and begin to move them around the room. They can walk, pause for ten seconds, copy someone else, pause…and then they are off. He doesn’t really need to talk much more. Across their different styles, contexts, languages and cultures, the group find a fluid and collaborative form, flocking, leaning, separating, and hesitating. They sink and rise together, lowering and lifting one another from the ground. Vera Tussing takes Mr Guo for a walk, Mr Guo sinks. Vera sinks with him. Su Weichia runs towards them, hesitates behind their rising torsos, jogs backwards and Zhao Liang jogs with him. They turn in a broad arc, and pick up Eddie Nixon’s eddying arm. What would the algorithm for this be? It’s like the movement of a flock of birds, collective, but individual, like starlings over Brighton pier.
Later, Chris sits with the choreographers in a circle. He lays down ‘the rules’. They must work with a dancer from each city, and work with no less than three and no more than six of them. I seem to remember that he began some of the Taipei sessions with this dictum of Stravinsky’s – the more rules, the more possibilities; freedom in form. As he talks, one can observe them begin to think into the process. You can see their eyes moving between Chris as he talks and some inner space where the choreography is perhaps already beginning to take place, even in the absence of bodies. Maybe the movement they’ve just made together will feed into this, or maybe just the feeling or idea of how to pick up another’s presence, bodies sensate of other bodies, a flickering of tone, step, glide and run that phases in and out of walking or stillness.
Watching them move together, I feel a certain sense of relief, mixed with the simple kinaesthetic pleasure that comes with watching really good movers move well.
After two phases of Artscross I attended in Taipei in 2011 and in Beijing in 2o12 so far, an important shift took place for me at the auditions for this 2013 phase in London. I had always been highly sensitive to the discourses that emerged around the dancers and choreographers, as well as academics, representing in some ways their ‘countries’. Very easily, in my view, discussions arise in which generalisations happen about Chinese-ness, British-ness and Taiwanese-ness, and ‘old’ mistakes that we have supposedly learned from, can all too easily creep into discourses.
Perhaps it was due to the London group largely being made up of dancers who might well live here in London, but come from different countries, such as Italy for instance. Also the London-based choreographers are not all British. One of the Taiwanese dancers is from Hong Kong etc. So what happened was that at the auditions, in order for the choreographers to be able to choose dancers from each place, they needed to work in their groups. And here the terms ‘Chinese’, ‘British’ and ‘Taiwanese’ did not quite work for categorisation, and the groups were simply described as the ‘Beijing group’, the ‘Taipei group’ and the ‘London group’. Moreover, each group is made up of course of individuals from specific schools and with specific training and professional dancing backgrounds.
Something to think about, for me, as countries propose a very different sort of identity to those of cities. I am looking forward to see the works unfold in the meeting of the different localities involved. What do Beijing and Taipei bring to London? And what does London offer them? What role, in fact, did each city play, in which the different Artscross phases have taken place so far?
As Steffi wrote earlier, it’s cities more than nationalities that are at play in the mix of people in the studios. It’s hot and muggy in London at the moment, and the city doesn’t really have the infrastructure. This heat is pretty unusual! But with the windows open (at least in the studios I visited), the atmosphere in the studio felt close to the city itself. ‘The studio’ is often nominalised and abstracted as if only one existed, which rather belies the multifarious architectural, social and emotional spaces that they otherwise are. There’s an argument to be made, of course, for a ‘metaphysical’ studio (Zarrrilli 2002). But there are also tangible, quotidian studios, which do not always differ in terms of ambiance, space or sociality from the activities streets, and weather outside their walls. In this hot weather, with feeble British air-conditioning offering little respite, the doors and windows are open. And the city is tangible. This city — London — is home to some of us, but it is also an elsewhere to most of the participants of ArtsCross. Indeed, like many Londoners, I wasn’t born here, only moving (when work did) in my late twenties. Moving through some of its streets, doors and passageways, it remains an elsewhere.
Hsiao Mei only arrived from Taiwan this morning, but pitched straight into her rehearsals. She spoke a little about her thoughts on the piece she wants to make (I’ll maybe save the details for another post), and then asked them to begin improvising around movements from their daily routine, watching them intently, and then side coaching them. The dancers all move around or through moments or fragments that are recognisable gestures or patterns of quotidian behaviour, although its already too ‘danced’ to qualify as ‘pedestrian’ in sense of those everyday movements drawn into dance by Childs, Rainer et al.
Watching this, and thinking of how jet-lagged Ho Hsiaomei must feel, I’m reminded how elsewhere and home are not always as separate as we might think. Like the studio and the world outside, they lag over one another — they keep going when their normal or usual pace and place should have finished or been left behind. One of the received wisdoms of my theatre training was that the world outside should be left at the door of the studio. Removing your shoes, obeying the rituals of entry and exit, prepared you for the ‘extradaily’ tenor of practice (Barba 2000). Is it always so desirable to have it this clean cut though I wonder? Aren’t those touching points between the polish of performance and the grain of everyday life the source of some real pleasure?
Zhao Liang’s company are only on the second day of rehearsals, and although they are still figuring things out, and exploring possibilities, the movement is already complex and beautiful. Long ribbons of elastic are stretched across the room, and as the dancers move, they wrap and unwrap themselves in and out of it. The don’t have the tensions of a rope but there’s a feeling of them being pulled one way or another: home and elsewhere. At 8pm it’s still 30 degrees, and the dancers are working right to the point of exhaustion. Some of them are on their second rehearsal of the day. All of us are willing the rain to come, for their to be some easing to this intensity, for the city outside to come to our relief.
Yesterday was my first day of watching rehearsals, and for most groups it was their second day into the work. I left in the evening with a variety of very touching impressions, of people from different places getting to know each other.
When I entered the room of Beijing choreographer Zeng Huangxing’s rehearsal, I was struck by the quietness he had created in the room. The six dancers were paired up, with one lying on their front on the floor and the other on top of them, back to back. They were immobile for what seemed an eternity, yet suddenly what Zeng called an ‘explosion’ occurred: the dancer on the bottom would start kind of shaking and very rapidly stand up, bringing the person on top to standing.
There was a distinct skill and quality at stake here, that Zeng was after. The person lying on top needed to be very relaxed, to be able to go with the ‘explosion’. As he said, if the person on top can’t really relax, the person below can’t really explode.
The group then proceeded to work on exercises that would allow them to locate and move from their centre. When lowering while bending their knees, Zeng asked them to be aware of a sense of the lower they sank, the more space there would be above their heads. Also, while to an onlooker the dancer/practitioner might look calm from the outside, inside much should be at work — a sense of expansion into all directions. Zeng then provided weights to be placed on the dancers’ heads, to further emphasise control and stillness, asking them eventually to move so quickly to the side that the weight would drop onto the ground next to them.
At least this part of the session that I witnessed was solely used by Zeng to prepare his dancers for the work to come, in terms of a unified way of relating to mind and body. His work seemed strongly influenced by Taoist principles, at least I recognised direct correspondences to my own practice of Wu style taijiquan.
Much time seems to have been spent in making the dancers move yesterday, to find out ‘who they are’ in movement terms. In Ho Hsiao Mei’s first rehearsal (she had arrived for this session straight from the airport!), the choreographer from Taipei paired her six dancers up into three couples and gave each a theme for improvisation. They loosely were contact and non-contact, control and hiding. She would work with each pair and highlight and emphasise aspects of movement that worked for her.
Ho Hsiao Mei
Similarly, Beijing-based Zhao Liang watched his dancers for a long, long time improvising individually with long rubber bands that were stretched across the studio:
Vera Tussing (German and London-based) made her six dancers work in two groups of three, working on a game with simple rules – call out a name – move but stay in relation to each other, either rotating or changing place – play with levels… and make decisions on time/timing. In a next step she asked the dancers to map a structure, in their own way, on paper:
Dam Van Huynh (originally from Southern Vietnam and London-based) worked on a phrase with his dancers. After they had learned it, he emphasised that the movement itself is not that important, but how it is translated by each dancer is what matters to him. The same movement will be done differently by each individual, and in a following exercise Dam asked them to explore different ‘textures’, that are highly specific. He stated clearly that he needs to know ‘who’ the dancers are, how the ‘gut feel’, how they experience their body. Each of them have their own identity, how can you put this in movement? For instance, the fact that you like Bruce Lee (as was his own example)… Dam’s instructions were to ‘mess that phrase up’, to dissect it, open it up. ‘I need to know who you are by the end of this exercise – surprise me!’
Dam Van Huynh
In all these very early stages of the works I have witnessed yesterday it struck me that much time was spend to set up the ‘how’ of the movement, or how to relate to movement. The different choreographers approached this in their distinct ways, and some focused more on working with the dancers as a group, while others worked on exercises that emphasised something ‘individual’.
Within these approaches there is the idea that you can put ‘something’ or ‘yourself’ into movement. We all know what we mean here, but how might we better articulate such processes?
I will continue watching now…
It’s now Day Three of rehearsals, and, impressively, in the studios I visited today, ideas are taking shape and companies are coming together. I spent some time today observing rehearsals of Su Weichia, Riccardo Buscarini, and Zeng Huangxing. The choreographies are already looking quite different (as one might expect), but I wanted to take a moment in this posting to reflect on some similarities amongst them and in doing, to pick up on some further connections based on observations in the Taipei and Beijing installments of ArtsCross.
Clearly, as one watches choreographers either put movement ‘on’ dancers, or shape material developed with them, there are particular ‘vocabularies’ or ‘phrases’ that emerge — both in the way that the nascent performance begins to ‘speak’ and (less metaphorically) in the kinds of spoken instructions, encouragement or comments that are given. Listening to a language you don’t speak, one notices less the meaning that arises out of lexical and grammatical interweavings, and more the rhythm, pitch and tone of the speaking voice, the way in which it either follows, interpellates or sits to one side of the movement, and the extent to which a listener either takes it in as part of their own process, or else stops to pay attention. One might describe some of these sonorous inflections (in an English idiom at least) as relating to the ‘quality’ of the movement.
Of course, the spoken words themselves are also indicators of what the choreographers want these qualities to be, and it’s hard to really gauge what is really being requested in the absence of translation. Even so, there is some value in thinking through their sonority a little more. It’s hard to conceive of sonority without relating it some way to bodily affects, and so it allows an idea of language and expression which is already kinaesthetically directed — what the psychologist Daniel Stern as called their vitality contour. We follow not only the indexical meaning of the spoken word, but also its direction, flow, weight and so on. These contours are not contained in the words in the way that a
During the rehearsals that I’ve watched, it has been noticeable that each choreographer has their own way of offering or drawing out qualities of movement in their dancers’ work through the sonorities of their vocal instructions. Watching Riccardo’s rehearsal, the rise and fall of Riccardo’s voice for example, both moves with the rise and fall of bodies in a complex, weaving knot, but also brakes and accelerates them, and lends ascents or descents from the floor a smooth or jagged edge in line with its delivery. Su Weichia demonstrates a move, and ‘marks’ it — runs it through in its basic form, slightly faster than its meant to be — and his voice, relaxed and conversational reflects this. He then slows it down, and, putting his body behind the movement extends the form, stretches through to the edge of balance and moves off it, his voice also moving to the edge of its expression, rising, falling, pushing a breath as far as it will go.
Book tickets for the ArtsCross 2013 performance:
Book tickets for the conference:
Over the past couple of days it has become noticeable to me in each rehearsal space that a shift has already occurred in each group from a stage of early beginnings and getting to know each other to ‘setting something up’. The feeling that I got in each space, albeit distinct with each group, is one related to a working with many ideas that yet bring along question marks, uncertainties, possibilities… and the distinct labour that this sort of early work in a process demands. Each group of dancers is working with ideas of beginnings presented by each choreographer, and while the large work remains yet ‘unknown’ to them, small bits seem to have emerged here and there, that are being worked through and through.
Instigated by my recent collaborative work with Susan Melrose, I have been sensitive to the issue of time that this working through material demands. In some instances, as an onlooker, I have been overwhelmed by feelings of sympathy towards some dancers, who needed to work through a particular movement again and again, for instance for London-based choreographer Riccardo Buscarini, who needed to see a particular sequence from many angles from his dancers. His way of working out the material was to look and re-look from four sides, to suggest small changes and move forward, or perhaps backward again. A lot of repetition was involved here, of dancers lifting legs up high, lowering themselves on the ground, twisting their bodies… on their fifth day of working hard as part of Artscross.
I have also been struck by the amount of time being spent by dancers improvising in some of the studios, often independently. Zhao Liang’s dancers, at least when I was present again on Tuesday evening, were pursuing their individual working out of movement with rubber bands stretched across the space, which they had been doing for most if not the whole of the three-hour session on Monday evening, at least. The time being spent by dancers, the time being given to dancers improvising is then, at certain times, interrupted with individual feedback given by the choreographers. These small conversations and working out what ‘works’ seem to me to be part of a ‘teaching’ of the specific sensitivities and sensibilities that crucially make up aspects of each choreographer’s work. Tung I-Fen creates a space for the dancers to also provide ideas from their perspective, of having worked through their material…
Today is a day of rest for the group, which I am sure will produce a further shift in the processes when they all resume tomorrow.
For good or ill, ‘quality’ (or ‘qualities’) is the term and idea I can’t stop thinking about this year. Lodged somewhere in my memory is my slightly perplexed seventeen year old self reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I haven’t returned to the book in the intervening decades, but what my memory (and a brief dip into Wikipedia) reminds me, is that, leaving the two-wheeled travelogue to one side, it is an enquiry into quality.
At the very beginning of her first rehearsal, Hsiao Mei told her company that she just wanted to watch them work for a while, in order to get a sense of the quality of their movement, and of their personalities. I doubt that such propositions are all that unusual in early rehearsals amongst new companies, and given the international and inter-linguistic context, I also suspect that ‘quality’, ‘movement’ and ‘personality’ have some intellectual and embodied purchase across these differing milieux
Quality, Pirsig suggested, is like the leading edge of a moving freight-train. It’s not a property of the engine, the cars, or their contents in anyway, but pertains to the movement which they effect together. It is speeding, racing, pushing etc. These qualities are not possessed by the train exactly, but can be discerned in what it is doing, actively. Similarly, the quality of a dancer’s movement is not exactly in, or possessed by her body, but forms its leading edge as she moves.
Similarly, it’s not in space at any given point, but unfolding through it. I spent some time on Wednesday in Su Weichia’s rehearsal once more, and he is working very hard on drawing out particular qualities from his dancers’ movement. Five young women standing in a line, push their hips sideways to the limit of their extension, twist their torsos, back up and over them, their arms turning back around in the opposite direction again. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the plastiques developed by the Polish Laboratory Theatre in the 1960s in terms of the extremity of the turns and extensions used, but the quality of the movement is markedly different. It’s more ephemeral, and smoke like, in the way that it shifts through space, barely punctuating it. It doesn’t point to a location, and thereby create some sort of mise-en-scene. Instead, it almost seems to move us free of location and draw our attention to movement per se.
We are of course, creatures of a world that is constantly on the move, often at scales and dynamics beyond our perception — luminous and tectonic movement being the two most obvious that spring to mind. However, Western philosophy has preponderantly sought to outline (and thereby fix) loci and objects for the purposes of analysis and inspection, whereas that pesky movement just keeps on moving, never stopping to tell or reveal what it is. (The obsession with ‘is’ is more or less the case in point. How long have we wrangled with the notion of Being?) A way out of this bind is suggested by the French sinologist and philosopher Francois Jullien through the example of melting snow — it is a process, rather than a thing. ‘Meltingness’ is a property of the snow only in the movement of its transformation from frozen to liquid water. Strictly speaking then, its not property of the snow at all. In recognising a transformation like ‘melting’, Jullien argues, we cannot cling to the idea of a permanent identity (eg. snow that is frozen). The world is not substance, but transformation, and quality does not belong to any thing or person, but is manifest by them, ineluctably, as a process of change. I find this incredibly hard to write but am excited by the prospect of a series of choreographies that appear less concerned with how a dancer moves from ‘here’ to ‘there’ or from ‘this’ to ‘that’ but are content instead to keep company with the transition itself.
Since one of my tasks at this particular Artscross event is to focus on ‘language’ as part of a group of academics, my attention has been drawn on the sorts of languages that are being used in the rehearsal spaces. In many instances I have witnessed a ‘searching’ for the ‘right’ words or expressions by choreographers and dancers, when working a movement out together. What is the word that will make the dancers understand what the movement is about, how it is motivated?
Yesterday in Dam Van Huynh’s rehearsals for instance I observed the group working on a particular group sequence. There was a moment where verbal instruction was clearly at its limit and Dam proceeded after actually being asked by his dancers to ‘show’ what he meant. However beyond this, to further refine what the dancers had picked up through his demonstration, he added more instructions through words. Such instructions can be of very different kinds, one of them was for instance to start a particular section that involves long reaches and jumps ‘from the core’, as he told his dancers. In other parts of the same sequence I heard a dancer make reference to imagining grasping a ball and hitting it with his head in a particular moment. Or I recall during auditions there being given an instruction of initiating a movement from the ear.
While these examples are very typical kinds of movement instructions, I am still interested in those moments in which practitioners transition from verbal instruction to instructions that involve physical demonstration or touch. What importance and role but also what limits does verbal language have in the practice of
Due to the intercultural nature of the project, the issue of language as such is of course heightened. In some of the processes much Mandarin is being spoken, where choreographers are less comfortable with speaking English themselves, and certainly vice versa! Of course there are very efficient translators in every rehearsal, yet it is obvious that not everything can be translated, and any translation ‘misses’ something. One of the translators interestingly told me that she felt it works much better for a choreographer to give instructions in English, even if their English is not very good, rather than relying solely on the translator, as of course a speaker does not only communicate in words…
When we speak of ‘being elsewhere’ we tend to think in terms of geographical shifts, such as flying from Beijing or Taipei to London, or vice versa, or migrating to another place from where we were born, raised or ‘socialised’ – as I did in 1999 when I left my native Germany to live in the UK and later New Zealand. The choreographer Riccardo Buscarini also used a spatial metaphor, commenting after yesterday’s rehearsal that for him, being elsewhere meant having no roots (like a tree dislodged from the earth), or embarking on an Odyssey.
Being elsewhere can, however, be taken in several less literal senses, as encapsulating distractedness, boredom, or alternative modes of consciousness such as ecstasy: a word derived from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meaning standing outside oneself i.e. a removal to ‘elsewhere’. Ecstasy is a topos that has been used extensively in dance: not just in the classic example of Turkish dervish dances; but also in Western theatre dance, for instance some of Mary Wigman’s works; and indeed as part of ‘rave’ club culture. It entails a complete letting go or abandonment of conventions and forms of control in order to seek different or ‘higher’ forms of consciousness.
I think this invites another approach to habitus, which was mentioned at the opening event and subsequently on the discussion forum: a notion closely associated with Bourdieu, created in the interstice between the subject’s will and (societal and other) structures. In dance, the notion could be applied to the habits formed as a result of our daily training which comes with an internalisation of certain bodily codes and practices. When I first arrived to study in Cambridge, I vividly remember taking my first RAD ballet class and my sheer astonishment at the fact that everyone seemed to know and was able to execute their exercises even before the teachers entered the studio (such syllabus-based classes are all but unknown in Germany).
These differences are not just of genre and style, but essentially of corporeal habits. In the rehearsals I observed yesterday and last year in Beijing, performers had to jettison some of their learned physical training and acquire new skills which could even be at odds with their previous experience: for instance giving and sharing weight (aka contact improvisation exercises) as in Vera Tussing’s rehearsal, partnering and lifting etc. All of this is about ‘being elsewhere’: not in the most obvious sense, but in one that is inevitably associated with a letting go of one’s roots, shedding control of what has been previously learned and often accepted as normal and ‘default’.
Ola made a presentation at IFTR, International Federation for Theatre Research, in Barcelona on Thusday July 25. There was not enough time to introduce about ArtsCross but some people asked me about it. Hopefully many people may join ArtsCross.
We are over a week into rehearsals now and it is fascinating to see small sections of choreographies coming together in the different spaces. The work on different exercises and improvisations that was being done at the beginning of the process has now in most if not all groups led to a first ‘putting together’ of performance material. Small
I keep thinking back to the day of auditions, when the dancers and choreographers from the different places involved did not know each other yet, and how much has changed since then. Now, wherever the practitioners (dancers and choreographers, with their translators) are from, they have spent already a while here in London at The Place, ‘working things out’ together. Over the rehearsals that have taken place so far, the groups have been working on ‘the dance’ and what it might be, and this work visibly involves much else than creating and setting movement.
My attention has been drawn to a ‘working each other out’, both of dancers and choreographers respectively. This ‘working each other out’ and the ‘working out of the performance material’ go hand in hand together, and it is here somewhere that the logics of the pieces seem to be established, or ‘found’, as practitioners often describe the moment when a work seems to attain a specific ‘identity’ with its particular demands. In their different ways, in each of the dance works being created here as part of Artscross, each individual practitioner is highly contributing to what the work is becoming, and working hard at it. In several processes I have witnessed dancers contributing with ideas as to how to move ‘it’ on, working from a sense of felt experience from carrying out the work.
It is a different sort of input that is taking place at this stage compared to the early rehearsal phase, because it seems that a sense of the logic of each piece has already been established, if only vaguely. By logic I mean the ways of functioning of each emerging work in structural terms as well as in terms of the sorts of movement it is producing, which seems inseparable to the ways of functioning of rehearsals. So this ‘working each other out’ has implicitly meant a ‘working out’ of how the work is being ‘worked out’.
And it is here that language demands such a central role in each of the creative processes, as due to the nature of this project mixing up practitioners from Beijing, London and Taipei, a ‘working out’ on the level of understanding each other not only in movement terms, but also in terms of the spoken word and what the individual practitioners bring into the work from their respective places is heightened in each of the sessions. But it has led to some
Knowing I was about to be a fly on the wall again during the making of nine new dances as a culmination of the London-based edition of the international creative residency ArtsCross 2013, a dear friend sent me a youtube clip. It’s a mock-Chinese ditty sung by what looks like an animated badger. I don’t find it offensive, just engagingly silly. What’s peculiarly endearing about it is the lack of translation. Apparently the song contains no words that are meant to be understood anyway – they’re all nonsense. It’s the spirit of it – and the sound of the rhythmic vocal delivered by an animal in a suit – that amused and charmed me.
But enough with the oblique at best preamble. I arrived on Monday, July 22 at The Place in time for a photocall. Most of the choreographers, dancers, translators and other behind-the-scenes personages involved in ArtsCross this year were captured by camera (several, in fact) while standing on a stairway (bound, no doubt, for possible artistic paradise to paraphrase George Gershwin). I spotted dancer-choreographer Darren Ellis, drafted in just the night before to lead the morning warm-up class. What’s the vibe been like, I asked? ‘Crazy, energetic, exciting and excited,’ he says, adding as an afterthought the word ‘intriguing.’ I grabbed a few minutes with the ever-genial Chris Bannerman who, speaking about the translation team, says, ‘They [the choreographers and dancers] don’t need that much, it’s such a physical thing.’ Still, as he acknowledged, it’s handy to have someone officially bilingual in each studio for every session and ethical as well. Plus there’s meant to be some collecting of dance words in various languages – an aid, perhaps, to help answer the question, Does meaning bend?
I try to get a grasp of who’s who, and from where, but I recognise it’s going to be an ongoing and necessarily incomplete process (and one interrupted by my attending the Edinburgh Festival from August 1st although I return for the ArtsCross performance on the 10th). In the Founders Studio at the front of the building Guo Lei (whom I am reliably informed is vice-president at Beijing Dance Academy, or BDA) is putting a handful of dancers through their paces. They face both him and the studio mirror in front of which he’s planted – I enjoy the mirror-imaging. The grouping of bodies is marked by the making of big mimetic circles with the torso and then, suddenly, arms jutting out like branches or antlers. Among the Asian movers is a tall young man (Huang, Yu-Teng) with a hard-to-overlook mop of hair the colour of a Grannie Smith apple. It’s also a genuine pleasure to BDA dance company member Zhao, Zhibo who, if memory serves, is the only dancer to have been involved in every single ArtsCross to date.
In the small section of his work that I observe being done again and again, Guo Lei seems to be placing his cast into rhythms based on some specific idea of dynamic tension and release. They’re like a mechanical plant that keeps opening and closing, rotating and then sprouting spiky bits. I’d love to be able to ask for just one sentence that might convey the essence of what he’s seeking in the piece, and to define what this smoothly-functioning unit of bodies represents for him. (And to explain how what he is doing relates to the collective theme of leaving home: being elsewhere.) Instead I unobtrusively clock body language, tone of voice and the like. And, for instance, how willowy the two Chinese women are beside Katie Cambridge, a sturdy Westerner trained to move in a different way and with a different genetic makeup that determines so much about who a dancer is and what he or she can do.
Dashing to the other side of The Place, I pop into studio 9 where Su, Wei-Chia is having his all-female cast feel the space. The white opaque shades on the windows are down and the mood is warm yet cool – like a hothouse out-of-hours. They rotate shoulders, sometimes big and then small. ‘Details are clear,’ intones the choreographer quietly, like a voice inside their heads. ‘Nothing in between.’ There is a spiralling of arms that are also occasionally U or C-shaped, and a corresponding light flicking of feet. The dancers – four Asian, one Western — are self-absorbed but steal occasional glances at one another. They’re working their upper limbs, and shifting their feet, and changing direction – like a small grove of loosely-aligned human trees. Rootless trees that think.
It’s subtle, intuitive stuff. All of these tasks are short explorations. I think they are a way for Su, Wei-Chia to lead his dancers into concentrating on parts of themselves – their bodies, that is – that they don’t normally acknowledge or are made as aware of. ‘Sometimes we start in a hard position but it’s perfect to create a new movement,’ he says to them in that same soft yet authoritative voice. He has each dancer begin to pull and tug on various body parts or points via invisible strings. The sort of self-puppeteering through which they are being gently guided, with its small twists and contained contortions, is fascinating to observe – improvisation with rules or strictures in place.
‘Are you happy, shy?’ Su, We-Chia asks of them, adding, ‘Use your body but be aware of the relationship with each other if you can.’ Only now, writing this a week later, do I register the low-key rumbling of whatever music/sound he had playing underneath these exercises. And now, in the memory of my mind’s eye, they’re floating across the room like self-transported seaweed. Their dancing is internalised yet always conscious on some level of its surroundings. ‘Be aware of your relationship with each other,’ says the translator. ‘Concentrate by yourself at the same time,’ chimes in Su, Wei-Chia. ‘Sometimes look forward and very far.’ Inside, outside; body, environment. They ooze and undulate like a sensual, rapt cross between plants and living statuary. It’s all part, I imagine, of a sensitisation to the finding of new organic forms with little or nothing fixed or pre-planned…
Next door in studio 10 – where the open door is less a symbol of welcoming creative policy than due to the simple fact that the room is warmer and potentially muggier than in 9 – Riccardo Buscarini is creating waves with five men. They move in low, thrusting and artfully tangled surges, solidifying briefly into gnarled tableaux before a new tumult overtakes them. ‘Crazy bodies,’ remarks Buscarini. Soon he’s mocking what he refers to as the ‘blah blah’ of his directions to the dancers. They’re strong and wiry and often stretched taut, with limbs gripped at wrists and ankles and partial wraparound lifts. ‘It looks like a dance by Matisse,’ he says, but if so there’s an extra muscular edge to it. Again I notice the difference in bodies: the three Asian men are thinner and bonier than the two more solidly-constructed Westerners. But all five dancers are pliable yet exacting, their linear arms and legs contrasting with curved backs and torsos. They listen and follow Buscarini’s instructions to make the transitions between each group shape ‘really smooth and complete.’ But each one, he cautions, is not an end in itself: ‘You just touch it and transform it something else’ it never finishes.’ They’re riding his wave.
Buscarini’s been making oceanic sounds – or was I imagining it? Conjuring wind and waves, and sea foam. (One source of inspiration for him was, he later reveals, Theodore Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa.) Dynamics are important to him. He speaks to the dancers of ‘water inside the body and wind outside,’ and of their softness and silence on the floor, and how ‘in order to stretch out you need to begin smaller.’ He advises the men not to rush. I was watching them head on, but it’s equally gratifying to view them in motion from the side (as I believe the audience will see them).
After the session is over Buscarini tells me of ‘an epic journey’ and of his concern that ‘maybe it’s not going to come out that way’ by the time his 45 hours or so of studio time is up. But I can sense his pleasure in the quest. We talk about what I suppose could be referred to as the rootless suspension of travel and the sort of homelessness that happens when you live between places. ‘Sometimes I feel more at home on a plane,’ Buscarini confesses. ‘That’s what my piece is about – that sensation of never having a fixed point.’
Much of our blogging to date has focused on the ‘up close’ material of the project, in ethnographic or phenomenological terms, examining specificities of language as it is spoken in rehearsal room, or as it might get to grips with the immediate realities of activities there. One of the project’s propositions however, is that intercultural work doesn’t simply arrive, occur and rest in studios and on stages, but that it passes in and out of them in flows of varying complexity in which the influence for impact of the work itself on others may occur at several removes of time and space from these originals. There are ways in which each or all of the ArtsCross participants can be said to represent the interests of their culture, nation, institution or constituency (e.g. ‘dancers’ or ‘academics’). We can all probably be said, in some degree, to be trying not only represent those interests to others, but also to enact them in ways that make them meaningful for others — explaining, moving, exchanging and so on. Whether or not any of us are actively choosing such a role however, I would also suggest that we are all being moved by currents of a
Earlier this year, the British Council and the policy think tank Demos published ‘Influence and Attraction’, a report on culture and ‘soft power’ (1). This document is worth bearing in mind in relation to the ArtsCross project, and not only because of the cultural relations effected by bringing together such a range of actors from different cities and backgrounds. The report tries to trace some of the ways in which cultural activities bear upon the societies that participate them, and outlines eight ‘forces’ that shape cultural relations. It’s ironic of course, that at a time when the arts are consistently undermined domestically in politics and the media as fripperies, internationally, Britain is trying to take ever more advantage of the presumed strengths of its ‘cultural industries’ and of their value as drivers of the ‘creative economy’. In the report’s foreword, the Foreign Secretary William Hague suggests that ‘There is nothing to be feared, and much to be gained from the growing diversity in international centres of culture around the world. This opens up new opportunities for Britain and the British people…We in government are determined to play our full part in helping to liberate that ingenuity and talent across our national life, and to champion it all over the world’. Whilst there’s undoubtedly something platitudinous in such statements (incisive forewords are surely something of a rare breed), what rescues Hague’s comments, and the report they validate from being entirely so, is the extent to which soft power acts upon a politican like Hague, at least as much as it is enacted by him. It is this that maybe lies at the heart of the paradox of the profile the UK’s arts policy mentioned above. Although the arts budget represents only 0.1% of government spending, it suits the domestic agenda to get tough with frivolities like ballet or fringe theatre, despite their providing a return on that investment to the tune of 0.4% of GDP. However, as Britain’s ability to project power by military or industrial means overseas declines, Billy Elliot and Warhorse are recast as not only lucrative exports, but gestures with which to palpate the sensibilities of overseas others and attune them to the social, cultural and political body of Britannia that reaches out through them.
The eight forces that shape cultural relations identified in the Soft Power report are as follows:
I have no immediate interest in tracing the ways in which these differing forces flow through the ArtsCross project at this point, other than to note the extent to which they all draw the application of that power, whether in terms of its use or its impact, away from the actuality of experience of cultural practice. The power in creative or cultural experiences by this reckoning is always on its way somewhere else. Acting, dancing, painting, imagining, have no agency or in and of themselves beyond the extent to which they act as a vehicle for ideology, capital, policy etc. This has of course been a central problem with the notion of cultural industries to which the soft power agenda is allied. As an invention of the early years of the Blair government in the UK, the rather instrumental approach to culture led to an increase in funding in that period, but also to a mania (in the UK at least) for a) systems of measurement, and b) validating those systems in terms of income or capacity. In other words, the greater the volume of money or participants accruing to a cultural event, the greater its worth was presumed to be. Having spent the last 10 days in particular, and the last three years more generally looking closely at a set of practices actively seeking to work between different cultures, this lack of attention to manifestations of ‘soft power’ in experience seems odd to me. It seems to both disenfranchise participants in their experience as cultural actors, but also to neglect the extent to which they channel power into and out of it, often doing so indirectly. Functional efforts to trace cause and effect are likely to face defeat, given the complex overlapping of quotidian and aesthetic experiences involved.
This nexus of the aesthetic and the quotidian, personal and social experience, policy and practice, is what makes ArtsCross speak to the debate around soft power, cultural diplomacy, and the creative industries I think. For sure, we can think of it as a case study example of intercultural relations. At institutional and personal levels, all involved are making an effort to broker broader understandings of other cultural practices, language, and experience. The specificities of this interest me very much, but I’m also increasingly concerned with the idea that some aspects of them might jump the circuit of the project itself, and inveigle themselves into social and professional life elsewhere. After three iterations of the project (Taipei, Beijing, and now London) I find that I’m at home in it to some extent. Do the resonances of such experiences sustain across time and space away from our work together, and shimmer into the fabric of others, elsewhere?
Riccardo Buscarini has managed to effect a very beautiful, tender way of moving, lifting, and touching together amongst his dancers. It seems unusual to me to see five men touch and manipulate one another in a way that does not seem to suggest either erotic tension or control. What is there, instead, is tenderness and care, and in consequence of them, a sense of being in common. I can’t really say ‘where’ or in ‘what’ this sense is coded, because it’s a matter of apprehension rather than of decoding signs and signals. It is at the dancers’ fingertips, and between them, and our sensibilities as we sit, watching carefully. Theories of interculturalism, like much political thought, have tended to fixate upon the possibilities of knowledge between the notional positions of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. What performance, and perhaps dance especially reveals, is that these categories — perhaps because they are reduced to, and separated as loci — are hard, if not impossible to identify in acts of moving and creating together. One perhaps finds this even more in the rehearsal room than on stage, where a ready separation of performer and spectator is always and already present. I watch Wei Wei and Petros working together in Riccardo’s rehearsal. Their bodies are very different, by which I’m not referring to their ethnicity, but their physicality. Between them, between Wei Wei’s slim swiftness, and Petros’ grounded strength, is a softness, a quality of working and moving together which is more than the sum of its parts.
This softness between them is a power, it arises out of what each of them does, but requires the other to actively engage it, take it on, and develop it. We need to understand power as movement — transformation, transition — rather than only in what it effects, and by what instruments. Speaking of power in music for a 2006 Reith Lecture for the BBC, the conductor Daniel Barenboim argued that ‘power does not have to work through control, but through the accumulative strength that comes from the build up of tension’ between its constituent elements. Furthermore, he suggested ‘even the most powerful chord has to allow [its] inner voices to be heard’. The sublimation of any one element, is no chord at all, but the assertion of dominance, over the other elements, and over the listener. By tension, I think that Barenboim is referring to a form of dynamic relationship, rather than to conflict. The softness between Petros and Wei Wei requires tension, both because they physically clear a space for that quality to occur — holding off other impulses and possibilities — and because it requires an ongoing set of shifts — as Petros’ body lowers, Wei Wei’s has to follow. The tension at stake here is not one created by difference between presumed opposites — the UK and China for example — but by the need to accommodate (i.e. make a home for) divergence, for the movements of currents away from sources real or imagined. Francois Jullien proposes that we shift our attention in thinking interculturally from concerns for difference to divergence: ‘instead of baldly assuming some unity or specificity of principle, on each side, one which we might know beforehand (although where did this projection come from?) divergence sets what it has separated in tension and discovers one through the other‘ (2).
Whilst I don’t doubt that the arts can act as instruments or agents of the forces outlined in the British Council’s report, what it seems to miss, or underestimate to me, is the extent to which artistic practices can themselves be a manifestation of soft power, rather than just the means by which it is effected. Certainly the way in which Petros and Wei Wei cooperate and interact can be understood as a metaphor for mutual understanding and respect for common interest, but it is not only the capacity of the arts to represent interest of foreign policy, history, ideology and so on that are at stake. Petros and Wei Wei do not so much invite comparison — a ‘Chinese’ moving body in contrast to a ‘British’ one — but, in moving together, and thus away from those presumed singularities, our attention diverges from them towards a new current or sensibility we could not otherwise have grasped. Jullien characterises this in terms of a ‘richness’ and ‘fertility’ which may come about in consequence of seeing ‘the diversity of cultures or thought as so many available resources, of which any intelligence can make good use in order to enlarge and reacquaint itself, and from which benefit may be gained, which means that they would not be lost, which is the risk run by contemporary uniformity as a result of globalization’ (3). Instead of conceiving the arts as a means of exerting influence by one nation/culture/city/etc. over another, what if they were instead thought of as a common ground for determining mutual interest? If Petros and Wei Wei can so readily find a way to be ‘soft’ together, and without compromising their own integral sense of
(1) Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century; London: British Council, 2013
(2) Jullien, Francois The Silent Transformations (trans. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski); London: Seagull, 2011, p.27
(3) Ibid. p.28
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