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Qualities, Part 2

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

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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.

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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.

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