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 This lens, through which we view the world, is of course, out of date, but more pertinently was never accurate.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
I am on the train from Exeter to London, in the process of ‘leaving home’ and already ‘being elsewhere’ preparing to arrive and begin the exciting prospect of watching all that will develop over the coming weeks. As I posted on the forum last week, my own recent writing has been concerned with processes of transmission — in training and in developing material from historical material for performance. I am reminded of Michael Bristol’s words in Susan Bennett’s book on nostalgia in performing Shakespeare:
If I hand something over or hand something down to you, there will be a moment at which I must let go of it. It is in this moment that he possibility of a cultural abyss or rupture opens up. Since that possibility is always present within what we call tradition, we can never understand this cultural phenomenon as a process of undisputed succession. (Bristol in Bennett 1996: 13)
I am fascinated by this ‘rupture’ or possibility — and began to think about it in Beijing where the translation process (in words, through bodies and and across discipline based understanding and assumptions) was providing this for the choreographers and the dancers. As Homi Bhaba famously said:
… We should remember that it is the ‘inter’ — the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. (Bhaba 1994: 38–39)
I’m going to be looking at this ‘in-between space’ (or spaces) and hope to tussle with its possibilities through observation and conversation in the coming days.
Hi, this is LIN Yatin from Taipei’s TNUA (Taipei National University of the Arts) Taiwan. Very glad to be participating in the first day of ArtsCross London 2013 Academics meeting. This is my third ArtsCross experience.
Finally we arrived in London and being together with scholars, choreographers and dancers from different places for the 4th Artscross/Danscross project. The first day meeting for all the academics was warm and fresh, like old friends meeting in a new place. I have been waiting for this moment for a long time since I started the project with Chris in 2009 Beijing. He promised to host the project in London once and I believe he will do it. I know he have been working very hard with his colleges to make this happen. Thanks to them! Now we have created a great network with a wonderful partnership between Beijing, London and Taipei. Beijing–Taipei–London, a new journey, a new start.
The cross (as in ArtsCross) is part of our project title and is methodologically as well as thematically at its core. The cross X symbolises the separation and unification of two elements. It marks the distinction between systems, disciplines, cultures and contexts; and simultaneously entails their transcendence. ArtsCross is thus crucially, I suggest, about boundary crossings. A boundary may be seen as an “arbitrary line or marker of territory (which might be land, skin, cellular membrane, shoreline or academic discipline area” (East 2010). In dance, we are used to operating with boundaries – and to collapsing them: for instance the inside-outside boundaries so often thematised in modern dance (such as by Doris Humphrey) and also evident in Chinese mask dances (which, if I understand correctly, can seek to merge the identity of the God and the performer). Or consider the boundaries between genres: for example the fusion between traditional Chinese dance and contemporary dance in Guo Lei’s piece.
In contrast to thinking which is determined by intractable dichotomies and binaries, the system theorist Niklas Luhmann writes that “boundaries do not mark a break in connections… The concept of boundary means … that processes which cross boundaries … have different conditions for their continuance (e.g. different conditions of utilization, or of consensus) after they cross the boundaries” (2000). Luhmann distinguishes boundary encounters where people interact across boundaries (I imagine much like neighbours arguing across the garden fence) from boundary crossings which presuppose the openness of a system and permit unhindered flow of ideas and innovations across a pre-existing divide. Some innovative theatre and dance forms aim to establish a dialogic blurring between spect-actors (Boal) and performers across the curtain line; the work is thus constantly in flux, negotiating relationships between performance and audience. While this does not happen explicitly in any of the ArtsCross choreographies I have witnessed, Vera Tussing does seek to establish a connection with the audience, though currently in a tentative and as yet unfinalised form.
So, if we believe Luhmann, crossing boundaries will result in “different conditions for … continuance” and hence in change. It is evident from the rehearsals that some ArtsCross choreographers are reaching across boundaries to accommodate the corporeal (and other) specificities of their dancers; while equally some dancers are crossing boundaries to meet the expectations of their choreographers. Be this as it may, the ResCen artists and performers who emerge from the project, having engaged in so many artistic, linguistic and national boundary-crossings, will be different from those who embarked on it initially. When everyone returns home, the experience of ‘being elsewhere’ will mean continuing on from a different point or perspective, having adjusted their habitus in one way or another.
P.S. After drafting this blog, I watched Su Wei-Chia’s translated interview in which he used the metaphor of ‘crossing’ to pinpoint the commonalities amongst differently trained dancing bodies: “When working together I really hope to create something that is built upon a shared belief amongst us, based on what we individually believe in. To me that is an act of crossing, or moving beyond boundaries”.
Our group of ArtsCross academics met yesterday for our first extended period of greetings and discussions in London. We raised ideas about crossing cities and countries, notions of global citizenry and “cosmopolitan” engagement, the possibility of translation and transference. My education as an academic–much like my education as a dancer–has served to enculturate me to participate and enjoy this particular kind of dialogue. I anticipate the beginnings of generative debate and deliberate research.
In the back of my mind, I heard my son ask, what kind of group is this? He and I had recently been talking about what groups of animals are called in English: a parliament of owls, a romp of otters, an unkindness of ravens, a dazzle of zebras. He is in dance class, and wanted to know what a group of dancers are called. Are we called a flock of dancers like birds, or maybe a lamentation of dancers like swans, he asked? (Maybe if you’re a Graham dancer, I joked. Huh? he said).
And though my son asked a literal question, it resonated in me in important ways both literally and metaphorically as I sat in the lecture room at The Place. How we identify ourselves together (and apart) as academics must mean something. In many ways, it frames the terms of engagement. Are we a cosmopolitan of academics? A skeptic of academics? A translation of academics? An ambiguity, discontent, philosophy or satisfaction of …. the discussions continue.
Thoughts on ArtsCross (1)
2013 ArtsCross — Danscross Seminar 1
1. The emergence of questions
In homogeneous cultural systems, things remain unchanged. But within globalised, internationalised
2. Analysing and answering questions
Ted talked on his post yesterday about the terms of engagement which we are using and are in the process of defining here in London. We began Friday morning with one such very rich discussion about the word ‘cosmopolitanism’. It derives from Greek cosmos (the universe) and polis (city) and it is said that when asked where he came from, Greek Philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope replied ‘I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês).
I had been thinking about this word in my work at University of Exeter, working with several PhD students from Asia who have been tracing the roots of their own national training practices or performance traditions and attempting to account for the myriad ways that a practice has been shaped and reshaped by interactions between East and West and/or shifting gepgraphical borders. I wondered if the word ‘cosmopolitan’ could help us account for some of this ‘movement’ and give us a useful way of thinking about the work we’re seeing here.
Of course, as the discussion usefully made clear, there are several issues. The first is assuming that everyone uses the term in the same way and the second is asking who uses it and why? Does its use immediately imply a western bias and does it imply that we all become the same? Is there a better word in Mandarin we could use?
I’ll be thinking about this more as we continue discussion, but what I found really exciting about the exchange of ideas was that it moved from very large scale ideas about nations, traditions, politics and ideologies to small scale examples: a phrase of movement in a particular way of training, the way the foot relates to the floor in the studio, where we carry our weight and how we use gravity.
One of the privileges of being involved in this project is the ability to move between these two scales — to observe dancers and choreographers working together ‘up close’ in minute detail and then to ‘stand back’ and think about the big questions.
I posted on the blog a few days ago that I’m interested in this space ‘in-between’. Just before 9.30pm last night Riccardo and one of his dancers were improvising a piece of a solo phrase. It was the end of the day, everyone was tired. Riccardo made some suggestions about the quality of the dancer’s relationship to the movement and to the the space around him that he wanted; ‘try an insect moving on roller skates’, ‘the floor is boiling’… He gave the dancer space to experiment, to feel for himself the potential of this quality — the choregraphy emerging in the place ‘between’… Philosopher Francois Jullien talks of ‘the between’ as ‘that by which the thing breathes, gains its freedom, is irrigated, and allows itself to be permeated’ (Jullien 2009: 95) which seems a fitting description of that interaction.
ArtsCross Observations (1)
I finally got to see some rehearsals. At ArtsCross London, I caught up with the boss, Director Guo Lei, colleagues — the choreographer Zeng Huanxing, “old comrades” — Zhibo (Zhibo is the only dancer from Beijing to have participated in four sessions. I’m the only Beijing academic to have participated in four sessions), students — Wu Shuai (we ran into each other during the third Danscross/ArtsCross). I saw the tail end of the morning’s rehearsals. As far as the afternoon and evening sessions, I just snatched a glimpse.
Most of the pieces I saw today were modern works. Only the work by Guo Lei, which uses Nuo opera masks from Southern Jiangxi province as props, was a classic piece of Chinese dance (in China we would call this piece an ethnic work. This shows how the concepts of ethnicity and nationality can change in different environments, one sometimes substituting for the other). Of course, the changes in the cultural space brought with them new discoveries. One which stood out was when the only dancer from London put on the Nuo opera mask, and the Chinese forms and characteristics became manifest on the body of the Western dancer. The conflicting aspect of this cultural fusion didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. Rather, it allowed me to sense the spirit of Danscross and the theme Leaving home, being elsewhere. The imagery of Nuo opera may well contain rich regional, ethnic and religious shades, but it also contains an invocation for peace, something that every person yearns for in this period of crisis and danger.
In the different rehearsal rooms, there was a feeling of “breathing” and “nature”. Breathing constitutes a central element of dance. It is also a form of rhythm and emotion. The truth and irreproducibility of dance means that in an era of “mechanised reproduction” (Walter Benjamin) dance retains its “Aura”. Chinese traditional culture places particular emphasis on the idea of “Chi”. Western modern dance seeks to use natural breathing as a response to the rigidity and conservatism of ballet. If we adopt Benjamin’s definition of the Aura, then dance can be considered the most authentic of art forms, always faithfully recounting history. So, despite being away from home — from Beijing, from Taipei, from London, the choreographers were all seeking to recount the authentic thought processes involved with moving from one “home” – their city — to another “home” — the international sphere. Dance can therefore be considered as an authentic component of true history.
When I walk into Zeng Huanxin’s Friday rehearsal around 12:30pm, Zeng is working with Kenny on a solo section. Kenny’s intent focused physique, strained visage, and sweat stained clothing attest to the fact that he and Zeng have been working steadily for quite some time before my arrival, probably beginning around 11am. Add that to the 90 minutes that I observe Zeng and Kenny shaping and molding a solo section, and I calculate something close to 3 hours of intense rehearsal between the two of them.
For a while, it is just me (an American academic) observing Zeng (a Chinese choreographer) working with Kenny (a Hong Kong via Taipei dancer) in Studio 10 (The Place, London). When Ola (a Swedish academic) enters the studio, it begins to feel a lot like a meeting of the United Nations of Performing Artists & Academics (otherwise known as ArtsCross).
At one point, Ola leans over to me and whispers about “the labor” involved in the rehearsal. His observation shifts my perspective — crossing the “t” on something I had perceived but not yet fully grasped the significance of — and helps to focus my attention on questions of fatigue and failure, labor and learning in dance cognition and creativity.
But first, the dance in progress … Kenny travels backward in circling patterns, transitioning into rising and sinking phrases that stretch side to side, forward and back. These more lyrical phrases alternative between more gestural phrases (walking, gazing, reaching) and more virtuosic movements that spiral in and out, turning suddenly into twisting leaps that fall to the knees only to rise immediately again to a high level balance and stillness. The rapidly cycling phrases coincide with sudden shifts in time signature not found in the music. (Ola identifies the music as a version of Ave Maria?) It’s a challenging bit of choreography.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Zeng is detail oriented. He seems to emphasize (a translator joins us a bit later to clarify) specific direct and indirect foci, and use of weight and weight-shifting, at each moment in the dance. At one point there appears to be some question about exactly “where” Kenny is centering his relationship to gravity as he shifts his weight. To my eye, comparing Zeng’s demonstrations to Kenny’s performance, Zeng appears to locate his center of gravity a few notches lower than Kenny: more “martial arts” center than “modern dance” center. (Martin and I have a helpful conversation afterwards about various “centers” in the body, which the Crossing ArtForms group had discussed at length.) As the rehearsal goes on and on and on, Kenny tires noticeably. It’s important to note that he tires physically, but does not complain or retreat from a determined and earnest effort to meet the choreographer’s demands. Zeng is calm and generous, but insistent. The work is going well. The labor is evident.
When Ola mentioned labor, I mentally referenced recent cultural and political studies, such as Franko’s (2002) The work of dance and Srinivasan’s (2011) Sweating saris. Here, in the presence of labor dancing, however, I am struck by the micro-developmental process and salubrious effect that fatigue seems to play in Kenny’s repeated failures. (Here I mean failure in most positive way, as in “risk, fail, risk again.”) To my eye, Kenny improves dramatically as his body labors: his breath deepens; his movement becomes more fluid; maybe, just maybe, his center of gravity evens lowers a notch or two. The performance becomes better, not the worse, for wear.
Numerous motor learning studies have examined the effects of exhaustion on skill performance and acquisition: basically, the idea is that, with increasing levels of exercise, performance should improve up to an optimal or maximal point and then decline again with a further increase in exercise intensity and/or duration. Kenny seemed to me to be reaching that maximal point and Zeng appeared to push ever so gently for a further increase just beyond capacity, but I did not see a decline in the final run through. Quite the opposite, which got me wondering: if conventional wisdom says that fatigue to exhaustion is the foe of expert performance, could it also be a friend? In his wearied state of bodymind, I expect that Kenny may not consciously recall every word of Zeng’s directions, but I wonder if fighting fatigue somehow sediments the desired qualities in motion. I wonder if Zeng or other choreographers think so. (Later, I observe a similar approach in Riccardo’s remarkable rehearsal process). I wonder what the dancers think? Perhaps all this is obvious to everyone but me, but I wonder about physical fatigue — not to the point of injury, of course! — as a potentially creative force in dance-making process.
In connection to talks in the working group ‘Crossing disciplines’ I have tried to see what is potentially unique about the ArtsCross concept from a disciplinary perspective. Discussing disciplinary approaches is of course inspiring in light of the versatile framework of the project, in which national, linguistic, cultural, pedagogic and aesthetic boundaries are crossed – just as the theme of this year’s edition of ArtsCross indicates. However, rather than navigating disciplines to speculate about the concepts of home or elsewhere, or simply decode what is being encoded I rehearsal processes, I have pursued crucial meeting points between the project management, choreographers, performers and academics. The mentioned roles and functions are often considered as integral parts of case studies in
As I mentioned in my first posting within the ‘Crossing disciplines’ forum I look upon the performance processes as the core activities of the project. And as Martin pointed out yesterday these processes have proven to be experimental in several of the choreographic processes. To synthesize these comments, I view the experimental scope of the performance processes as the gist of the ArtsCross concept. Experimentality pertains to all research orientations within higher education institutions, although in different ways and for different purposes.
Experiments are central to natural sciences such as medicine. In order to produce a new vaccine in lab experiments different components are often introduced in order to observe new reactions to a pathogen. If successful, the test will need to be repeated over time in order to corroborate the predictability and sustainability of the result as well as go through an ethical clearance procedure.
In many ways social sciences are less experimental in so far as they mostly aim to investigate what actually goes on in society and social relations. If we stick with the medical experiment, laboratory experiments often turn to the social science of epidemiology in order to corroborate the success and stability of a new medicine. Again, this is done in light of how people actually live, how susceptible lifetyles are to a certain ailment and how effective a vaccine would be against the ailment. So an experimental test group (who tries the vaccine) is set up alongside a control group (who is given a placebo) under normal living circumstances. Again, it is the medical trials that are experimental, not the social aspect of the people who are ready to test it. To take another although related example in the social sciences, the ethnographic fieldwork of anthropology has built up a whole paradigm of philosophically and ethically motivated paradigm to demonstrate the merit of observing, rather than intervening or otherwise altering, the behaviour of people (even if this is changing in connection to
When it comes to the arts and humanities within conventional higher education institutions, they are quite difficult to appreciate in terms of experimentality. On the one hand they are often focusing on experimental practices in the arts that disrupt and alternate linguistic, performative, corporeal and other phenomena, but do not usually intervene or alternate the events or objects they are studying. In a similar manner, the ArtsCross project is designed to keep performance processes and observing procedures apart in order to optimize the practical/professional and analytical/academic achievements in their own respective right. In the working group ‘Crossing disciplines’, however, we have discussed, on recommendation of Ted, possibilities to take on our assignment as ‘ArtsCross studies’, or perhaps an ‘ArtsCross discipline’. This would imply studying our meeting in a multidisciplinary and multimodal way, that is, in the portfolio format that
What we get from this multidisciplinary framework is not only a dynamic project format with potentially unique qualities (which can contribute with essential bodily,
去发现，是一个过程，是一个很有趣的过程。在2013 Arts Cross中，我们作为观察者会与编导、演员一同去发现创作过程中存在的一些有趣的、有意义的事情。在＂舞动无界＂的这次工作中，我转换了角色，与前两次舞者、编导的身份不同，观察者给了我更多去了解舞动、关注创作的角度和纬度，而这正是我在不断发现舞蹈魅力到过程。
Leaving home: being elsewhere
Discovery is a process. A fascinating process. During the 2013 ArtsCross session, we had the opportunity, as observers, to discover, together with the choreographers and performers, some interesting, meaningful things which occurred during the creative process. During this session of “Danscross”, I took on a different role. Unlike the previous two sessions, where I participated as a dancer and a choreographer, participating this time as an observer, I had more latitude to seek to understand dance, and it was through this process that I came to appreciate even more the attraction of dance.
The theme of this year’s ArtsCross was “Leaving home: being elsewhere”. When I first heard this theme, I felt almost as if I was in a dream. It was my first day in London. Were they referring to me? Or to the scholars who came with me from Beijing? Or the academics, from Taiwan and from other places? This was a really interesting theme. It kept making me think of questions I wanted to ask. I suddenly felt overcome by a feeling of homesickness and melancholy which I had not felt for a long time. At this point, I began to feel fuzzy again… where exactly should I be homesick for? I currently live in Beijing, but I am originally from Inner Mongolia…
During one of the discussion sessions we talked about “cosmopolitanism”, and while we were constantly asking ourselves, “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” we recognised that we all exist within the world as “global citizens”. In recent years, whether in the world of dance or in other fields, it is clear that things are becoming more and more globalised. While this makes many things more convenient, we also encounter many challenges. This also is a process of discovery. Through the 2013 ArtsCross platform, we came into contact with dancers and choreographers from many different places. Their cooperation allowed us to use the platform provided by this dance project to use the perspectives of dance to discover new questions. This was what was interesting: from the observer’s perspective, the “Leaving home: being elsewhere” theme encompassed more than just the dance aspect; it also touched upon a broader vision.
At this point, “Leaving home: being elsewhere” seemed to be saying that these people had come to London from different cities to participate in ArtsCross, and that this was a way of finding a commonality. We were discovering more things that were different — about dance, choreography, movement, ideas, culture, habits, and more… I really enjoyed this process of discovery. In this record I will touch upon some “similarities and differences”, and seek out the things which changed and the things which did not change in the participants during the dance creation process, from the perspective of an observer. I am very much looking forward to this process, a process of “Leaving home: being elsewhere.”
ArtsCross Observations (2)
In breathing, one experiences the
1. The transcendence of demonstration/observation
2. Imaginings/Transcending Space
3. Observing/The transcendent nature of research
Perhaps as the result of an awareness and analysis of this “crossover”, I seek to gain a stronger grasp of the ideas behind my research.
I have drafted this blog about Greenberg’s perspective on the arts under modernism in response to an issue which Ted raised at our group meeting, but am cross-posting it here as I feel it may be of broader interest:
Clement Greenberg was a visual art critic from the US whose writings on modernism in the arts proved highly influential. In what is sometimes termed a concept of medium specificity, he developed his view that the advance of modernism went hand in hand with a sharpened focus on the unique qualities of each artistic medium, i.e. on what makes one art form distinct from another. In Modernist Painting (originally published in 1960), he offered the following observations on painting:
“The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. …
What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself….
The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. …
It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained […] more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art. The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture. Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.”
Greenberg’s notion of modernism was effectively defined by a separation of the arts, in contrast with their synthesis as posited in Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’) whose impact on modernism was also considerable. In any case, Greenberg’s ideas on the uniqueness of each artistic medium have been applied to dance by the likes of Roger Copeland and David Michael Levin. I do not have Copeland’s whole essay to hand here, but he wrote in 1986 that “twenty years ago the reigning sensibility among serious experimental artists was the quest for ‘purity’ of the medium, the desire to determine what each art form can do uniquely well… Choreographers were expected to emphasise the barebones essence of their medium, the human body in motion, unembellished by theatrical trappings.” (178) He was obviously thinking of the Judson Dance Theater here.
Copeland has also suggested that Balanchine’s purist works, which strips ballet of everything extraneous such as a story, décor, etc. exemplify Greenberg’s notion of modernism; while the alliance of the arts in the works by the Ballets Russes typifies an approach more akin to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
Now, we have moved away from modernism quite a while ago, but I can see how these issues are still relevant in our era, and might more specifically be applied to our project….
It’s my first day at ArtsCross. I’m picking up the baton from writer Donald Hutera, who is at the Edinburgh Festival for a week, and am conscious that a week of a work has already gone by without me witnessing its development. So what was my entry point? Well, having already spoken to choreographer Vera Tussing at the opening reception about some of her ideas, I thought I might get up to speed quickest by attending her rehearsal, then go and sit in on some others.
Get “up to speed”? The idea went out of the window straight away. Within half an hour of Tussing’s rehearsal, I realised that I would need to stay for most if not all the 3-hour rehearsal if I was going to get a handle on it. I decided that dipping in and out of rehearsal scenes would be too touristic; I would need to stay put longer in one place if I wanted to get a better feel for it.
Tussing is working with six dancers: one from Greece, two from Beijing and three from Taiwan. The first exercise they do, at the beginning of rehearsal, is lie on the floor in pairs with their ankles hooked together, seeing how they can hang off this pivot point between them. Then they practice a sideways lift, again in pairs, concentrating on the preparation in the knees. Then they try a little push-and-fall, in pairs, focusing on the impulse and the giving-in to gravity. I’m beginning to get a picture – weight and partnerwork are the dimensions being tested here – but half an hour has already passed, and the picture still feels like the sketchiest of outlines.
Gradually, the outlines become filled in. I begin to get a sense not just of the practice, but of the people – who is more extrovert, who more reflective, who is more reckless, who more considered. A sense of the different bonds of affinity that the dancers and the choreographer have, or are building. I’m reminded strongly of an interview I recently did with Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is noted for working with diverse groups of dancers (Shaolin monks, Argentinian tangueros, Korean b-boys, African dancers, ballet dancers, modern dancers, non-dancers). “Choreography,” he said, “is a very social art. You have to work with people. People are its medium.”
It might seem like an obvious statement to make, but it strikes me as the key to the process I’m seeing here. This rehearsal is an attempt to make something with these people. The fundamental questions are what to do together, and how to work together.
In part 2 of this post, I’ll look at how I saw Vera and this group tackling those questions, what they came up with and some challenges they faced. For the moment, I’ll leave with the thought – that choreography is, in very material terms, the embodiment of a social process. Its medium is people.
Part 2 of this blog posting will follow shortly.
After Martin’s seminar yesterday on Practice as Research, where he encouraged us to think about the ways we’re watching the work in the studios and how we communicate what we see, I recalled being in Riccardo’s rehearsal the previous evening. While cueing the sound for a run through of part of a sequence he noticed his phone and jokingly asked the dancers, ‘Who’s tweeting about me?’ Laughing, he asked again, ‘Come on, who’s tweeting about me?’ One of the dancers had taken some pictures a few minutes before and had just sent them out on Twitter.
It made me think about the speed at which we can communicate our ideas to each other — very different from even a few years ago. How, if at all, has this shifted the way we verbalise our ideas and has it, indeed, shaped the process of observing and reflecting itself?
When I enter a studio to ‘observe’ can I allow myself to ‘arrive’ in the space, to be ‘present’ to allow an experience to happen? Or do I ‘snatch’ or ‘grab’ at a moment — already shaping it to be communicated before I’ve really allowed it to happen?
Martin Buber wrote a dialogue between two men discussing whether experience can be transmitted through the written word (Buber 1957: 7–9). He suggests that the ‘potentiality of form’ is already present in every experience, but that what is written is entirely dependent on the full engagement of the person in that experience. Thus he describes the painter who ‘paints with all his senses’, whose ‘seeing is already painting’.
Certainly giving myself time to settle, to be present in the room, to ‘absorb’ what I’m experiencing seems essential…
After a glorious and sunlit Borisbike ride to Colombia Road along the Regents Canal this morning, the ArtsCross academic team reconvened back at The Place for the latest seminar in our series. The depth and breadth of discussion has been quite staggering over the last few days, and I salute not only my colleague’s intellectual willingness to engage with difficult or unfamiliar ideas and modes of thought, but also the patient way in which all involved have paused, waited and translated. We are supported in this not only by the linguistic gifts of those members of the team who speak both Mandarin and English, but also by the patient input of Chia Chi who has so ably made out thoughts apparent in one language or another.
In framing today’s session on Crossing Languages, Chen
Without a comprehensive (and frankly unlikely) survey, that’s a question that may best pass unanswered. However, I found
This put me in mind of Su Weichia’s rehearsal. All of the five women in his piece are technically excellent, skilled performers. Su’s choreography has not disappeared or removed that technique — surely an important aspect of each of their identities — but it has invited them to unravel themselves from it, and reach beyond it. And reach they do, bending and stretching oppositionally at their limits, in a slow, but almost constant eddying flow, that has the strength and depth of tidal water if not its mass and volume.
It must also have been an astonishingly difficult process of rehearsal. Somewhat mirroring the fashion in which they twist, stretch and recoil across the stage, over the last two weeks they have repeated this strange, slow extremity of movement over and over again. I don’t think it at all metaphorical to suggest that this has also been a drawn out process of unraveling their identities, inasmuch as that refers to the habits and dispositions we consciously and unconsciously deploy in communicating and interacting with others. Unraveled, drawn out into long, sinuous threads we now see them wrap around and over one another with the delicacy, accuracy and poise that only skilled technique can bring, but also being flung past its habits and dispositions to spool around others, elsewhere.
Ya-ping managed to spark a great discussion today by ushering us through the needle’s eye of language and onto wider fields of travel by bodily, traditional and interpretative movements. To appreciate this journey I can’t help but associate the notion of language with a couple of remarks by Ludwig Wittgenstein (at the risk of cross-referencing my own blog postings in Beijing).
Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language who basically thought, at least in his later career, that language is a very deceptive means of acquiring knowledge. Trying to understand the world through grammatical systems is to reduce the pursuit of knowledge to a game with a set of rules that one can establish and change on quite arbitrary conditions – especially if you happens to be a philosopher who writes about trivialities like the meaning of life (to quote Samuel Beckett) instead of important matters like dating or gossiping. This doesn’t mean that language is a superficial thing, it just means that we have gotten used to cheating when we play the game of meaning and understanding by imposing overriding linguistic and semantic rules to it. Instead we ought to view language as various forms of social practice within certain cultural realms, according to Wittgenstein.
The first remark from Wittgenstein I came to think of was his simple proposition that “to understand a word in a language is to understand a whole culture”. Of course we share many words and so to understand a shared word across national or cultural boundaries we need to translate it in one way or another and thus identify common grounds for such a translation. Those common grounds are not necessarily linguistic but might very well be musical, pop-cultural or physical. Think of the word surfing. In parts of California, for instance where Ted lives, surfing is a lifestyle, while it is merely a leisurely activity in Europe (in Sweden the Baltic sea hardly offers any waves at all, so we use the word surfing for a computer activity). So Europeans and Californians both use the word “surfing” and refers to similar water and surface related activities, but that doesn’t mean that they mean the same thing when they use the word. The reason for that is that the cultural conditions for using a word far out-weighs the meaning of a word as a linguistic unit in a grammatical system.
This leads me to the second Wittgensteinian remark, namely that the problem to understand people in a culture that we find really strange is not necessarily due to the problem of understanding their language, but it is more likely due to the fact that we cannot “find our feet with them”. The latter phrase is of course an idiom and does not mean that we understand a certain culture if we learn how to walk or dance like people in it – you can acquire the technique of imitating such an action, just like you can learn a language in an isolated place far from its cultural life. Understanding people’s “form of life”, as Wittgenstein calls it, is rather a matter of understanding why people engage in certain social practices by doing them in a way that makes sense to yourself. To take a literal example of this from my own life, it was not until I spent time in East Africa that I understood what a tropical rain shower meant. In Swahili ‘rain season’ is called ‘kipindi cha mvua’ and I could easily have learnt how to spell that back home, I have seen tropical rain showers on TV and I could even have calculated how much rain that actually hits you in a burst of rain by mathematical means. But it wasn’t until I was there that I understood that there is no sense in running through the rain to take shelter, which I was used to doing in Europe where it doesn’t rain quite as heavily. By hanging out with people in East Africa I stopped running in the rain but simply walked to the nearest house or mango tree to take shelter.
I’m also thinking about Kate finding her feet with the other performers (such as Teng Yue in the picture above) and the choreographer Guo in the mask dance. She did an amazing job yesterday when I visited the rehearsal (I would have posted my video of it had the blog permitted that volume of info) and it was quite interesting to see the verbal although mainly non-verbal communication she engaged in with Guo and her fellow performers. The question of meaning regarding the cultural practice of the dance hangs in the air for me, perhaps even for Kate and the other dancers, and perhaps even for Guo. So here I feel a need to stop writing since I have reached the end of what I’m capable of understanding. But it doesn’t feel like the end of a road, but rather as a significant crossroad in the ArtsCross experiment – thanks to Ya-ping’s invitation to travel with her from far away cultures all the way to the internal displacements of dance and discussion.
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