ArtsCross London 2013 Key Dates

 

 
  Friday 19 July   Choreographers’ workshops and discussion
Postings of Interviews
 
  Sunday 21 July   Rehearsals begin
Postings of rehearsal video and artists comments
 
  Monday 29 July   Academics begin observations
Postings of academics’ observations – thoughts in progress
 
  Saturday 10 August   Performance Leaving home: being elsewhere
The Place, Robin Howard Theatre
 
  Sunday 11 August   Conference: The aesthetics of elsewhere
Queen Mary, University of London
 
 

ArtsCross London 2013 – Leaving home: being elsewhere

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 late-night problem solving with noodles, barbeques and beer – all of this was coming home to London.

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 This lens, through which we view the world, is of course, out of date, but more pertinently was never accurate.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 world-view — bringing artists from Beijing and Taipei to London and into a dynamic and catalytic space as partners and collaborators, and acknowledging that the economic and cultural dominance that the West achieved about 300 years ago, has now lapsed — the tide has turned and the world is finding a new balance. It may not return in the immediate future to the Asian dominance that marked the millennia prior to the Industrial Revolution, but certainly the new world order is more complex, more pluralistic and features multiple modernities.

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 Wi-Fi internet access available throughout the system. This may not be the only China, but it is China, and to paraphrase the Beatles, have we noticed that the ‘lights have changed’?

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 re-examine our narratives and our place in the world. The wave is rolling back, we are ‘bringing it all back home’ and at the same time leaving our home, our habitus, our narratives. We find ourselves “elsewhere’ and now have to make sense of that place, and our position in this rapidly shifting, new and strange dislocation. Nothing in our education, national narratives or discourses has prepared us – but to paraphrase choreographer Hofesh Schechter’s text in Political Mother: ‘where there is pressure, there is dance’.

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:

  • Just what do we expect Chinese, Taiwanese or British people to be like? What does the way they move – the shifts of beginnings, endings, transformations, lines and flows – tell us about them in general or in person?
  • Some will undoubtedly concern translations. What are the ideas, thoughts or feelings we take for granted in work, in play, and in conversation at home? Are they shared across linguistic, cultural, and artistic borders? How should we deal with difference? If correspondences are to be found, will they map easily onto one another, or will they bring further and unexpected chains of thought and feeling with them?
  • We can also expect our aesthetic expectations to be challenged. To what extent do performances reaffirm our sense of ‘how it goes’, or if they challenge them, how? At what level or stage of a creative work does innovation, experiment or self-expression make itself manifest?

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?

Choreographers’ workshop 19th July

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.

 

Here comes… Beijing! London! Taipei! (in alphabetical order…)

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.

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Beijing!

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.

 

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London!

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?

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Taipei!

Day 2 City heat; Ho Hsiaomei and Zhao Liang

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.

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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.

Beginnings…

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.

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Zeng Huangxing

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.

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Zeng Huangxing

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.

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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:

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Zhao Liang

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:

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Vera Tussing

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!’

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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…

Qualities (Part 1)

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. IMG_1950

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.

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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 four-legged object is in the phoneme ‘chair’, but are in the manner and direction by which I say them to you. Its not only enunciation in other words, but the timing (entrance, exit, duration and rhythm) of their relation to you, and to our shared activity. They are a quality which is beyond, but not separate from the each of us.

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.

Working through question marks, over and over time

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.

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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…

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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.

Qualities, Part 2

For good or ill, ‘quality’ (or ‘qualities’) is the term and idea I can’t stop thinking about this year. Lodged somewhere in my memory is my slightly perplexed seventeen year old self reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I haven’t returned to the book in the intervening decades, but what my memory (and a brief dip into Wikipedia) reminds me, is that, leaving the two-wheeled travelogue to one side, it is an enquiry into quality.

At the very beginning of her first rehearsal, Hsiao Mei told her company that she just wanted to watch them work for a while, in order to get a sense of the quality of their movement, and of their personalities. I doubt that such propositions are all that unusual in early rehearsals amongst new companies, and given the international and inter-linguistic context, I also suspect that ‘quality’, ‘movement’ and ‘personality’ have some intellectual and embodied purchase across these differing milieux

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Quality, Pirsig suggested, is like the leading edge of a moving freight-train. It’s not a property of the engine, the cars, or their contents in anyway, but pertains to the movement which they effect together. It is speeding, racing, pushing etc. These qualities are not possessed by the train exactly, but can be discerned in what it is doing, actively. Similarly, the quality of a dancer’s movement is not exactly in, or possessed by her body, but forms its leading edge as she moves.

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Similarly, it’s not in space at any given point, but unfolding through it. I spent some time on Wednesday in Su Weichia’s rehearsal once more, and he is working very hard on drawing out particular qualities from his dancers’ movement. Five young women standing in a line, push their hips sideways to the limit of their extension, twist their torsos, back up and over them, their arms turning back around in the opposite direction again. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the plastiques developed by the Polish Laboratory Theatre in the 1960s in terms of the extremity of the turns and extensions used, but the quality of the movement is markedly different. It’s more ephemeral, and smoke like, in the way that it shifts through space, barely punctuating it. It doesn’t point to a location, and thereby create some sort of mise-en-scene. Instead, it almost seems to move us free of location and draw our attention to movement per se.

We are of course, creatures of a world that is constantly on the move, often at scales and dynamics beyond our perception — luminous and tectonic movement being the two most obvious that spring to mind. However, Western philosophy has preponderantly sought to outline (and thereby fix) loci and objects for the purposes of analysis and inspection, whereas that pesky movement just keeps on moving, never stopping to tell or reveal what it is. (The obsession with ‘is’ is more or less the case in point. How long have we wrangled with the notion of Being?) A way out of this bind is suggested by the French sinologist and philosopher Francois Jullien through the example of melting snow — it is a process, rather than a thing. ‘Meltingness’ is a property of the snow only in the movement of its transformation from frozen to liquid water. Strictly speaking then, its not  property of the snow at all. In recognising a transformation like ‘melting’, Jullien argues, we cannot cling to the idea of a permanent identity (eg. snow that is frozen). The world is not substance, but transformation, and quality does not belong to any thing or person, but is manifest by them, ineluctably, as a process of change. I find this incredibly hard to write but am excited by the prospect of a series of choreographies that appear less concerned with how a dancer moves from ‘here’ to ‘there’ or from ‘this’ to ‘that’ but are content instead to keep company with the transition itself.

Language and beyond

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.

IMG_0521Dam Van Huynh

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 choreography-making? The examples of verbal instructions I relayed here seem crucial for establishing a specific intention and/or quality of the movement, to draw a line to Martin’s recent blogs – yet words of course never seem enough.

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…

Being elsewhere … but in what sense?

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’.

Working out ‘the work’ and its logic

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 run-throughs are happening here and there, and much detail is being already refined, while more material is being generated.

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 London-based dancers now speaking fragments of Mandarin and certainly vice versa. It is harder and more complex to pinpoint the ways of moving that have been shared across continents, but this is probably what each of the works are about.

First Taste (belated)

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.’

Soft Bodies, Soft Power

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 so-called ‘soft power’, that moves between individual bodies and larger political ones and also carries and continues the effects of their gestures beyond their immediate reach. Again, it’s a proposition of the project that there is more than metaphor at stake in such suggestions, and that events in The Place’s rehearsal studios and theatre bear witness to, and are caught up within this extended movement of power.

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.

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 The eight forces that shape cultural relations identified in the Soft Power report are as follows:

  • foreign policy interests
  • the desire to create a positive image
  • national history and legacy
  • ideology
  • resources
  • language
  • cultural assets
  • commerce

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.

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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).

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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 self-worth, mightn’t that offer a means by which ‘softness’ might enter into the available discourse and practice of cultural relations more widely? By what means can it jump the circuit of their performing together, and into everyday life, elsewhere? It can, I propose, if we think of this softness as an ambiance — something in the air as well as in the body. Ambiances are pervasive, movements that transform as they come into contact with other movements, the aesthetic becoming the quotidian and vice versa. Being pervasive, they also have the capacity to be political as they form the ground for experiences in common.

IMG_1993

(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

Leaving home and being ‘in-between’…

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.

Hello!

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.

 

Beijing – Taipei – London, a new journey, a new start

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.

Boundary crossers

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”.

What our group of academics is called

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.

跨艺 思考(一)

2013跨艺·舞动舞界(Seminar1)
8月1日的分组讨论到今天上午的主题研讨会讨论,让我感受到,关于跨艺或者是跨学科的学术研究,是一个对现实中(实践中)的舞蹈创作中的多元文化元素进行解构式的分析与思考。
1、问题的出现
哲学中认为事物之间总是有联系的。文化本身就是一个复杂的系统,而艺术在其中自然是有着自律与他律的双重性。艺术的自律让艺术创作寻求“独立”的身份,而他律则使得艺术创作现象难以“一言以蔽之”——舞蹈在诞生之初就与宗教密不可分。虽然现代性的分化让艺术自立——如美学的产生,但是后现代的“反分化”——“艺术无边界”,体现了当下对于艺术与生活关系的重新界定,日常生活审美化、审美的日常生活化的出现,打破了艺术与生活的边界,从而也打破了艺术的边界。
在单一的文化系统中尚且如此,在全球化、国际化交织的跨文化系统中,跨艺、跨学科必然成为一种更加复杂的现实和必然。文化语境的历史差异性、地域差异性,是当代舞蹈创作的多样性、多义性、多元化的根源所在。跨艺项目的实验性之一,就是人为设定了一个高度浓缩的跨文化创作语境——东西方之间;北京、台北、伦敦不同城市之间;编导、舞者、学者的不同文化背景等等,——这也是我们观察的重点:在这里“差异性”被强化了舞蹈创作、表演乃至教育等观念的不同;“交融性”被加速了——口头语言、身体语言的经由翻译、舞者、编导、学者的自我调适和相互适应,彼此的陌生感在创作和讨论中被快速消减。
2、问题的分析与解决
艺术创作的复杂性导致其现象或问题无法用艺术自身的学说或理论来全面地予以解释与阐释。因而,跨学科更多地是对方法论的选取与运用,从他视角或外视角去看待舞蹈艺术的创作、审美及其社会功用,如舞蹈的产生与发展,离不开社会经济、政治、文化的影响,如现代主义之于现代舞的出现;舞蹈剧场(DANCE THEATERE)的出现是对舞蹈表达之传统方式的突破;舞蹈的身心合一性,使得心理学、教育学等与人相关的学科给予了舞蹈全面进行自我定位的视角。因此,跨艺的存在、跨学科的研究既是舞蹈艺术实践与理论发展的现象,也是舞蹈艺术获得更多社会关注与评价的途径。

Translation…

Thoughts on ArtsCross (1)

2013 ArtsCross — Danscross Seminar 1
Starting with the group discussions which took place on 1 August and up until this morning’s thematic seminar, I developed the sense that academic research which spans across different art forms and disciplines can constitute a structural analysis and consideration of the diverse cultural elements to be found within reality.

1. The emergence of questions
Philosophy tells us that things are always interconnected. Culture itself is a complex system, and within culture, art naturally possesses a duality of disciplines, discipline imposed from within and discipline imposed from without. The internal self-discipline of art causes artistic creation to strive for an “independent” identity. Externally imposed discipline, on the other hand, makes the phenomenon of artistic creation difficult to summarise “in a nutshell”. At the point of creation, dance is indistinguishable from religion. Although the breaking apart of modernism has forced the arts to stand up for themselves — the birth of aesthetics for example — post modernist “dedifferentiation” — “Art Without Borders” — have constituted a contemporary redefinition of the relationship between art and life. The aestheticisation of everyday life and the normalization of aesthetics have broken down the borders between art and life, thereby also breaking down the divisions between art forms.

In homogeneous cultural systems, things remain unchanged. But within globalised, internationalised cross-cultural systems, crossovers between art forms and disciplines must inevitably create a more complex reality. Historical differences between languages and regions constitute the basis for the variety, ambiguity and diversity of contemporary dance creation. One of the experimental aspects of the ArtsCross project is that it creates a highly concentrated cross-cultural creative space — between East and West; between different cities: Beijing, Taipei, London…; between the different cultural backgrounds of choreographers, dancers and academics… this also constituted a focus for our observations. In this context, “difference” emphasised the diverse ways of understanding dance creation, performance and even education. “Fusion” was accelerated — as a result of the adaptations and compensations made by the interpreters, dancers, choreographers and academics, the barriers between spoken and body languages were quickly swept away during the process of creation and discussion.

2. Analysing and answering questions
The complexity of artistic creation means that it is not possible to use theoretical frameworks or ideas belonging to that art form to fully explain and interpret the phenomena and questions it produces. Thus, cross-disciplinary approaches constitute a choice and application of methodology, an observation of the creation and development of dance, its aesthetics and its social function, from a third party, or external perspective. The creation and development of dance, for example, is inseparable from the influence of socio-economic, political and cultural factors — the influence of modernism on the emergence of modern dance, for example. The emergence of Dance Theatre represented a breakthrough for the traditional methods of dance expression. As a result of the fact that dance combines elements of body and mind, disciplines which deal with people such as psychology and educational studies have given dance the tools to create a comprehensive understanding of itself. Therefore, the existence of ArtsCross and cross-disciplinary research constitute progress in the theory and practice of dance as an art form, while also being a way of attracting greater attention and appraisal for dance from society.

Reflections on 2nd August

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.

跨艺·观察(一)

终于看到排练了,在他乡看到了领导——编导郭磊院长,同事——编导阿曾老师,“老战友”——知博(知博是北京舞者中唯一参与四次的,我是北京学者中唯一参与四次的),学生——武帅(我们第三次在舞动中师生相逢了)。看了上午场的尾声、下午和晚上的排练——管中窥豹,只见一斑。
这一天所看到的作品以现代舞居多,只有郭院的作品以其赣南傩舞为素材,是一个典型的有中国特色(在国内我们通常称为有民族特色,由此可见,民族与国家的概念会随着环境的变化而出现部分的相互指代)的作品。当然,文化时空语境的变化带来了新的呈现,特别是其中唯一一位伦敦舞者带着傩舞面具起舞时,中国的形式元素在西方舞者身体上呈现,这种文化交融的冲突性并未让我感到不舒服,而是让我真切地感到了“舞动无界”和“在别处”。傩舞的形式或内涵或者有着明显的地区、民族、宗教的色彩,但是其中祈求平安是在这个危机四伏的时代中每个人的内心期许。
在不同的排练教室感受到的相近的东西就是“呼吸”与“自然”了。气息在舞蹈中既是存在和显现,也是节奏和情感。也正是因为如此,舞蹈的真实和无可复制,使其在“机械复制时代”(Walter Benjamin)仍然具有其气韵(Aura)。中国传统文化非常注重“气”的概念,西方现代舞也正是以自然之呼吸来反对芭蕾的僵化与保守。如果以本雅明对Auro的界定,那么舞蹈是最具原真性的艺术之一,它永远都是在真实地讲述历史。所以,即便离家,在别处,北京、台北、伦敦的编导都在讲述从一个“家”——城市,到另一个“家”——国际/世界的真实的心路历程,——这是真实历史的细微构成。

Translation…

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.

Laboring to learn in Zeng’s rehearsal

IMG_2878

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.

How do we do it?

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 so-called performance-as-research projects in which the artistic processes epitomize the investigations but where the multimodal make-up of the projects such as management, documentation and critical reflection also hold significant functions. So is it possible to detect the unique qualities of ArtsCross from a performance-as-research perspective? Let me try to answer that question from a broad disciplinary horizon.

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 self-reflective and participatory fieldwork methods).

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 performance-as-research projects are often assessed and evaluated.

Performance-as-research (or ‘artistic research’ as it is more commonly called in continental Europe) is a relatively young category in higher education which acknowledges practical studies such as dance as disciplines of knowledge in their own right. Due to its novelty its official academic qualities and assessment criteria are not fully developed. Hence artistic qualities must be legitimized in terms of assessment criteria that suit natural and social sciences better than artistic pursuits. However, a project like ArtsCross can provide opportunities to amend this predicament if appreciated in a multidisciplinary way and, especially, in terms of an ‘experiment’ in its own right. Experiments usually involve interventions into pre-existing phenomena and processes in order to explore new modes of understanding, practices or products. Just like a science experiment, ArtsCross mixes pre-existing components (institutional pedagogies and artistic agents) in a laboratory-like fashion (protected but open to observation), although with the critical difference that the performances tests the open-ended and unpredictable outcomes of intercultural, human collaborations. The ArtsCross concept can of course also adopt the observation-based methodologies and critical discourses of the social sciences, besides specialized arts and humanities-approaches like dance studies and performance studies.

What we get from this multidisciplinary framework is not only a dynamic project format with potentially unique qualities (which can contribute with essential bodily, site-specific and open-ended qualities, I believe, to an otherwise mainly linguistic discipline such as intercultural communication), but also a potential to develop a special type of assessment criterion in the name of ‘experimentation’, which ought to be ascribed as much significance as ‘predictability’ in natural sciences and ‘interpretation’ in social sciences. I would not encourage us to develop a complex and intricate concept like experimentation if it wasn’t for the fact that we have managed to produce quite excellent outcomes in previous ArtsCross editions. Hence, we seem to attain certain ends, or aims, which we might wish to justify in terms of innovative means, or research methods (cultural diplomacy, creative collaboration, analytical and critical reflections) as well as assessment criteria (such as experimentation). Just a thought.

离乡•在别处

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。
这次Arts Cross的主题是"离乡• 在别处",刚听到这个主题时我有些恍惚,因为那是我刚到英国伦敦的第一天,我想到这是我?还有与我同行来自北京的学者们?还有来自台湾和其他地方的学者们?这个主题很有趣,让我不断的想问问题。我忽然感受到一种久违的情怀,"思乡、惆怅"。这时候我又有些恍惚,我的思乡是应该具体到何地呢?我现在生活在北京,而我来自内蒙古…
我们在一次讨论会议中谈论到"世界主义"的相关话题,在我们不断发问"我们是谁?来自何地?"的同时,我们会认同我们是生存在地球上的"世界公民"。近年来,无论是舞蹈还是在其他领域,看到越来越全球化的一些现象,人们享受便利的同时也发现了许多问题,这同样是一个发现的过程。在2013Arts cross的平台上,我们看到来自不同地方的舞者与编导,他们的合作让我们在这个舞蹈项目的载体上可以用观察舞蹈的角度去发现更多问题,这就是有趣的地方,在观察者的角度,"离乡•在别处"已经远远超出舞蹈本身的纬度,而被拓宽到更广阔的视野。
"离乡•在别处"此时好像在说所有从不同城市来到伦敦参与Arts Cross的人,这是一个找到我们共性的方式,而我们在一起发现更多不同,关于舞蹈、编创、动作、想法、文化、习惯 等等。我很享受这个发现的过程,在这过程中我会记录关于一些"相同与不同"的部分,以观察者的角度发现舞蹈创作过程中每一位参与者的变化与不变,我期待这个过程,这个"离乡•在别处"的过程。

Translation…

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.”

跨藝·觀察(二)

呼吸體現了舞蹈的時間性特質,舞姿、調度則體現了舞蹈藝術的空間性特質——這是一個眾所周知的舞蹈基礎理論。這兩天的觀察讓我想到了一個詞——跨空間(crossing spaces):展示/觀察的空間、想象的空間和思考的空間;舞者、編導、學者在某一刻的同一空間存在中在各自的空間意識中游走。
1、展示/觀察的“跨空間”
從傳統的觀眾席走進排練廳,研究者參與進了舞者排練的展示空間。這雖然有助於研究者從過程中觀察舞蹈藝術的創作,但是另一方面,我們沒有哈利·波特的隱身衣,我們真實地“佔據”了舞者和編導的創作空間——一次,當我身邊的研究者在進行拍照的時候,靠近她的舞者反射性地說了聲“sorry”退到了旁邊。這不禁讓我思考——由於觀察者的在場,編導、舞者的排練是否受到這一存在的影響?雖然他們也很歡迎我們的參與,但是否能夠真正做到彼此的互不干擾呢?是否會成為一種無意識的“擺排”?
2、想象/呈現的“跨空間”
舞蹈創作、表演是抽象思維與形象思維的轉換。編導在想象中設計舞蹈動作,用語言表述給舞者,舞者通過對口頭語言、身體語言(如編導的示範動作)的理解建立自己頭腦中的形象,進而用身體語言表達出來。在場的學者通過編導的語言也同時進行了形象的想象,並與舞者的呈現進行二者的連接,並進行相關的判斷——編導的闡述是否準確,舞者的表達是否到位。台北編導蘇威嘉的排練中,對“扭到要抽筋”的動作,每個舞者有不同的呈現,每個學者也有不同的想像,這些與編導的要求之間一定存在空間形象的差異性。
3、觀察/研究的“跨空間”
對我而言,從第二次參加跨藝開始,我習慣於根據不同的主題預先對自己的研究視點進行2-3個關鍵詞的準備範圍,——因為在實際觀察研究中獲得的信息太多,如果不加甄選的話,研究思路會不清晰,從而影響最終的研究結果。即便有所預先設定,有時也會因為實際操作過程中的“火花”而造成觀察與研究的“混亂”——到底哪些應用於當年的研究主題。我想,其根源大概就是有目的的研究和無目的觀察之間的“跨空間”吧。
或許是對上述“跨空間”的意識和分析,我對自己的研究思路反而更加有把握性。

Translation…

ArtsCross Observations (2)

In breathing, one experiences the time-specific  characteristics of dance. Through stances and adjustments of posture, one experiences the space-related aspects  of dance. This is a fundamental theory of dance which is understood by everyone. These two days of observing made me think of a term — crossing spaces: the space for demonstration/observation, the space for imagining and for thinking. The dancer, the choreographer and the academic exist within the same space at the same point in time, but each have their own thoughts within their own awareness space.

1. The transcendence of demonstration/observation
Crossing over from the seat of the spectator into the rehearsal studio, the researchers participated in the dancers’ rehearsal and demonstration space. Although this made it easier for the researchers to observe the process of artistic creation, the fact that we do not possess Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks meant that we really did “occupy” the creative space belonging to the dancers and the choreographers. At one point, when the researcher standing next to me began taking photos, a dancer who came a bit too close to her automatically said “sorry” and moved to another part of the room. This made me reflect — does the presence of the observer have an effect on the process of rehearsal for the choreographer and dancer? While they welcomed our participation, would it be possible for us to truly avoid disturbing one another? Would we unknowingly come to be seen as “spectators”?

2. Imaginings/Transcending Space
Dance creation and performance constitute transformations of abstract thinking and imagery-based thinking. The choreographer designs dance movements within her imagination, and uses language to describe these movements to the dancer. The dancer constructs an image in his own mind, based on his interpretation of the spoken and body language (the choreographer’s gestures for example), and the way he uses his body to express this. The observing academic also uses the words spoken by the choreographer to conceptualise an image, then connects this to the image created by the dancer, before carrying out various judgements: whether the choreographer’s explanation was precise enough; whether the dancer’s representation of the image was correct. During the rehearsals with the Taipei choreographer Su Wei-Chia, all of the dancers interpreted differently the movement “twisted up with cramps.” The academics also had different ideas, and these were no doubt different from those sought by the choreographer.

3. Observing/The transcendent nature of research
Personally speaking, starting from the second time I participated in ArtsCross, I have developed the habit of preparing some thoughts around 2 or 3 keywords which represent my research interests. When actually engaging in observational research, you are often flooded with a mass of information. If you are not selective, the train of thought in your research can become muddled, and your conclusions can be affected. Nevertheless, even when you prepare in advance, on occasions you may encounter an unexpected idea while carrying out research, which can confuse your research efforts, making it difficult to select the areas you want to cover in your research for that year. I think the root cause of this must be a kind of crossover between objective research and casual observation.

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.

Modernism, the Arts and Greenberg

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.”

(http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/modernism.html)

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….

The medium of choreography is people….

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.

Watching in a High Speed World…

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…

Unravelling and rewinding identies

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 Ya-ping asked whether we might conceive of dance as a means of unravelling and/or re-entangling national identities as we face a world in which they appear paradoxically both less and more important than previously. This led to some very interesting discussion about efforts in the second half of the 20th Century in both the PRC and Taiwan to recover, rediscover or re-establish an ‘authentic’ style, training and choreography of Chinese dance. We’ve been over some of this before, but what was particularly revealing about this discussion was the extent to which it both revealed the very different ways in which source materials have been a) sourced and b) interpreted by some of the principle players in re-establishing classical Chinese dance within China and in Taiwan, and the significance of staging to the subsequent state and status of the artform/s. As Alex Kolb pointed out, folk and courtly dances often take place without the need for an audience — they face partners, other participants, or ritual focii such as idols or deities. Staging them relative to the perspective and sensibilities of an audience, alters their choreographic structure, duration and direction and the sense of whom the performance is for. Does this also open up the possibility that one’s self-identity also shifts to encompass an awareness of the aesthetic judgement of others?

Without a comprehensive (and frankly unlikely) survey, that’s a question that may best pass unanswered. However, I found Ya-ping‘s suggestion of identity as something that can unravel a really useful one. Where many accounts of identity might privilege the tightly wound, self-containing version, what if (continuing the metaphor) the spool of identity unravels? Identity doesn’t disappear under the terms of this metaphor, but becomes available to re-wind or re-wrap around other things, crossing and re-crossing not only itself, but other bodies, spaces, histories and feelings.

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.

IMG_1945

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.

At the crossroads

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.

 

Mask dance

 

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.

跨藝·思考(二)

關於seminar 2的思考
關於跨語言的研究,在我看來,歸根結底是跨文化的研究。如同今天雅萍老師的關鍵詞“travel”,文化之旅自始自在,雖然人是Travel的主體,但人在旅途中是難以自控的,中國的武俠小說中有一句話:“人在江湖,身不由己”。
1、文化的開放性-跨文化的客觀性
如今,科技的發展,世界的聯通加速了這種跨文化、跨語言的存在與發展。每一族群、地域的文化不再是一個穩定、封閉的系統(其實文化一直是一個開放的系統,中國唐代舞蹈的高峰離不開魏晉南北朝時期的南北文化的交融,鄧肯的現代舞受到古希臘文化的深刻影響)。在這樣一個開放、複雜的背景下,文化身份的界定何其之難。文化的動態發展,導致了身份的確定與認同是一個不斷變化的過程,因此在身份的確認與認同中,凝結了內涵而又外顯的文化符號因為易於辨識爾成為識別的主要依據,所以美術、建築、舞蹈這些形象性、形式感很強的藝術樣式常常成為民族/國家/地區文化的標誌性符號。如郭磊老師的作品,因為符號性的面具和手勢、態而成為台北、倫敦學者們對中國傳統文化好奇與關注的焦點。也正如許銳所說,這是郭磊在跨藝語境中創作的作品——有特定的代表性而非普遍的代表性,亦如同我之前在博客中所說的:“跨艺项目的实验性之一,就是人为设定了一个高度浓缩的跨文化创作语境——东西方之间;北京、台北、伦敦不同城市之间;编导、舞者、学者的不同文化背景等等”。跨文化、跨語言無處不在,有時我們沒有意識到,有時我們又明顯感受到。
2、文化的多元性-跨藝的複雜性
跨藝的背景是跨文化的存在與發展,是不同地域/民族/國家文化間“和而不同”的存在;跨藝的方式是交叉性思維與表達;跨藝的過程一方面受到特定創作語境的影響(如界定性的主題、時間、舞者等因素),另一方面也受到編導、舞者“知識儲備”的影響(如對主題的理解、對特定文化形式的理解,包括溝通的語言——這裡又涉及到翻譯的英語-漢語的知識儲備)。所以,跨藝項目研究的特殊之處就在於這種多樣性與複雜性,它不是對藝術創作、表演的單純的研究,而是有著極為豐富、複雜的研究背景、研究視角和研究內容——這正式跨藝的價值所在:當我們通過特殊語境的設定,對跨文化、跨藝中舞蹈創作、表演的複雜性進行分析與研究,得出認識、辨析與判斷的思路與方法/對策,從實際操作層面認識世界性多元文化交流的內涵、意義、價值,以更好地表達文化自我價值,進而獲得文化身份的認同。
在排練室里,舞者、編導用舞蹈在記錄、在表達,我們在同一空間中進行觀察與思考。其本質是,在各自的文化思維引導中,他們在從理性地創作到感性的表達,我們則是從感性的觀察到理性的思考。大家共同在跨藝的語境中,呼吸著跨文化的氣息。

Translation…

ArtsCross Observations (2)

Thoughts on Seminar 2

In my view, cross-linguistic research is essentially a form of cross-cultural research. Just like Ya-Ping‘s keyword for today, “travel”, the cultural journey is unrestrained from the outset. While people constitute the subjective participants in “travel”, while on the road, people are often unable to control their own destiny. As they say in the Chinese Kung Fu novels, “Out there in the real world, you don’t control your own destiny.”

1. The openness of culture — the objectivity of cross-culturalism
Modern developments in science and technology, along with greater global interconnectedness, have sped up the development of cross-culturalism and linguistic crossover. No longer can the cultures of individual groups and regions remain as closed-off systems (in reality, cultures have always been open systems. The high point of dance within China’s Tang Dynasty was intimately linked to crossovers with the Nanbei civilization during the Northern Wei and Jin dynasties. Duncan’s modern dance was strongly influenced by ancient Greek civilization). Against such an open, complex backdrop, identification of cultural boundaries becomes very difficult. The dynamic development of culture means that cultural identification and recognition is a constantly evolving process. Therefore, in defining and recognising identity, cultural symbols which contain both inherent meaning and external appearance become the primary means of differentiation thanks to the ease with which they can be recognised. Therefore, the fine arts, architecture, dance and other such form-based art forms are often adopted as symbols representing the cultures of races/ countries/regions.

As with Guo Lei’s piece, the symbolic nature of the masks and gestures allowed the piece to become a focal point for the curiosity and interest of the Taipei and London academics in Chinese traditional culture. Just like Xu Rui said, this work was created by Guo Lei within a cross-disciplinary and cross-linguistic context — it had some specifically representative aspects and some more generally representative aspects. Just like I wrote in my blog: “One of the experimental aspects of the ArtsCross project is that it creates a highly concentrated creative environment –  between West and East; between cities: Beijing, Taipei, London; between people of different backgrounds: choreographers, dancers, academics, etc.” Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic elements are to be found everywhere. At times we do not realise it, yet sometimes we sense it clearly.

2. The diversity of culture — the complexity of ArtsCross
The existence and development of culture forms the backdrop for ArtsCross. It is the co-existence of different regional/ethnic/national cultures. The approach adopted by ArtsCross is to seek crossovers in approaches to thought and expression. The process of ArtsCross creation is from one side influenced by the conditions imposed by the creative environment (such as the imposition of themes, time constraints, choice of dancers, etc.). From another side, the creation is influenced by the ideas within the “idea base” of the choreographer and the dancer (for example the interpretation of the theme, the understanding of a specific cultural form, including the language of communication. Here we again encounter the issue of English and Chinese translation capabilities). So, the special nature of research within the ArtsCross project is a function of its variety and complexity. It is not simply research into artistic creation, or performance. Rather, it takes place within an extremely rich, yet highly complex research context and perspective. This is where the value of ArtsCross lies: through  creating a special creative environment, and engaging in analysis and research of cultural crossovers, dance creation within a cross-disciplinary context, and the complexity of performance, we obtain ideas and approaches based on understanding, analysis and judgement. At the practical level, we gain an awareness of the meaning and value of communication within a diversified world, allowing us to better represent the inherent value of culture, thereby obtaining a sense of recognition of cultural identity.

In the rehearsal studio, the dancers and choreographers use dance to record and to express. Within the same space, we observe and reflect. Essentially, each participant, under the guidance of their culturally-informed thought patterns, is seeking to create an expression of emotion, starting from a foundation of rational thought, while we are seeking to engage in rational thinking based on emotional observation. Everyone breathed in the oxygen of cross-culturalism in the space provided by ArtsCross.

Dam’s smelly slapping duet, or Digesting dancing bodies

… they face one another. The approach is a greeting with elbow raised vertically, armpit exposed and vulnerable. The boy gestures a gentle wave toward the girl, wafting the most personal of odors in her face. An imagined cloud floats past her nose, eyes, ears, and beyond her head. She stares unblinking. One-two-three steps. Stop. She returns the favor and, as she waves one-two-three, he dips his nose down in closer proximity, seeming to revel in her underarm scent. (“Let it digest,” Dam whispers.) The boy inhales and shudders. The girl stares unblinking. A quick shifting of positions, and her foot slap-slap-slaps the back of his calf.

Dam's duet

I don’t like to think of myself as squeamish, but I find it hard to watch this brief but brilliant moment. I have a strong sense of smell and the deceptively gentle gesture triggers a wordless memory, a recollection really, of stinking armpits. I involuntarily shudder. I resist the urge to lift my arm and sniff. (that damn bike ride this morning:) The slapping itself is specific, percussive and jarring: it strikes me as a ritualized conclusion to the greeting. I feel myself blinking, dismayed.

In an odd way, Dam’s brief duet helps me to digest our academic seminar on Crossing Languages earlier today. As Martin noted, the effort to recover an “authentic” Chinese dance involved a conscious choice to (re)create a personal and cultural identity. This kind of explicit, deliberate search can be contrasted with the implicit, accidental, unplanned, and perhaps unknowable shifts in personal and cultural identity that are happening here during ArtsCross. I’m not sure about the London dancer’s training, but I doubt the Taipei and Beijing dancers were taught to perform the gentle odorous wave. And still, they perform it convincingly.

All of which reminds me that, in fact, all these dancers were brought to this place intentionally, consciously, and deliberately. I believe the Beijing, London, and Taipei directors and teachers wanted the dancers and choreographers to cross felt experiences. Perhaps the potential shifts in dancers’ personal, artistic, and cultural identities were (and are) unknowable to their elders (and themselves), but our colleagues seem to own — to embrace really — the important decision to transport them to this unraveling and intrepid Place.

I admire them for it.

Cat’s Cradle

Following Martin’s blog post (Unravelling and Rewinding Identities) I was in Zhao Liang’s rehearsal yesterday afternoon.  The group was looking at a picture on an iphone of one of the intricate positions they can had created using their giant elastic band.  They were trying to solve a very concrete problem, together (see photo below).

In the sequence I observed, a giant elastic band was winding and unwinding as the dancers moved with and along its length, before the band was joined into a circle to be transformed by the combinations of dancers in pairs moving together.

In the pub last night, Ted reminded me of a game that we call in the UK and the US Cat’s Cradle.  It’s played with a length of string tied in a circle, in pairs (you can see how to play at
(http://m.wikihow.com/Play-The-Cat’s-Cradle-Game).  When Person A holds the string in a certain position,   Person B takes it by picking it up with her fingers and (if it’s done right!) transforms it into another shape.

The game only works with more than one person, and it takes a great deal of communication and co-operation to get it right.  

The ‘Cat’s Cradle’ puzzle of Zhao Liang’ piece seems to illustrate the winding and rewinding that Martin was talking about yesterday.  The important thing here is that the task cannot be done alone — it takes figuring out in a very concrete and pragmatic way.  There are multiple possibilities for transformation and multiple entry points.

The atmosphere in the studio was one of playful problem solving — the dancers very much taking group ownership and responsibility for the group task.  It was a pleasure to watch…image_AWL3866

Studio and stage…space and place

Studio and stage….space and place

Watching Su Weichia’s rehearsal I am drawn to the clarity of the use of space and realise again how he is looking at the studio but seeing the stage. The studio is a metaphor for the stage but the stage space itself is a convention for a magical, malleable, open space that could be anywhere or nowhere with the help of our imaginations and the agreement of everyone present to suspend disbelief.

Later watching Vera Tussing work I was led to consider how the choreographers see the space, not just the studio that becomes the stage space, but what is the space that they imagine as the ground on which their dance takes place?

I imagine Su Weichia’s dancers have begun their journey far beyond the space that I see and they continue far beyond it. I am only seeing one small part of the whole, I am looking at an opening that is only part of a vast landscape, the dancers pass through that opening, through my field of vision but they began long before I glimpsed them and they continue long after they have passed beyond the limits of sight.

Vera Tussing is working on an exercise involving improvisation inviting two dancers into a competitive space that she suggests might be a basketball court and they respond immediately, the gaze locked and the feinting, jockeying, chasing and running — intense and playful all at the same time. I see a boxing ring and then I realised the barre at the back of the studio is has become the ropes – the space is contained and framed and within these constraints. I wonder if her stage for this section will acknowledge and reference the rectangular dance floor linoleum which is bounded by the back wall, the side lights and the front edge – becoming both the actual and the metaphorical arena.

Suddenly the door at the back of the studio opens and dancer almost enters, stopping still as she feels the intensity of the rehearsal – but she has broken the arena and seems to me, (and to her?),  to be in the performance — most significant for me, the metaphorical space of a studio is also broken, we are in this particular place, this studio with that door, the ropes become the barre again and it is that particular barre, in this particular place.

I am reminded of Doreen Massey, the human geographer, who has contributed to notions of space and place as distinct ideas. I wonder how this figures in the realm of performance when disbelief is suspended and we are sensitised to possible reconfigurations or interplays between the two. And when our working space, the studio, is a simalcrum for a performing space which is itself open to transformation and might represent implicit or explicit places. Of course Massey notes that ‘place’ is not fixed, but is open to reconfiguration and reinterpretation, so perhaps what I am noticing is also a metaphor for the wider world, as another writer once noted.

跨艺旅思1

跨艺旅思

2013年的伦敦“跨艺”让三地(北京、伦敦、台北)的舞蹈人融合,来自三地的舞蹈学者、编者、舞者相聚一堂,使得“跨艺”这个平台不仅成为中西交流的阵地,也让理论与实践找到了一个极其理想的交融平台。随着逐渐观摩九位来自三地的编导以及他们透过作品告诉我们的一切,我一直都认为,结果本身已不是最重要的了,过程更让我们感到兴趣。

在学者交流的领域,三个议题给我们提供了具体的话题。但我发现,大家的交流已经远远超越了这些议题。大家探讨的问题,几乎都是这个时代当下学界最关注的问题同时也是整个世界所共同面临的问题。这种彼此相互沟通、增进理解式的探讨方式,让处于世界不同地域的我们相互变得不再陌生。

不再陌生的,除了有具体的一般性接触外,更重要的是思想的融通,最重要的是,这个融通不仅发生在中西两个层面,更可喜的是大陆学者与宝岛台湾学者的直接交流。这种同文化但不同背景下的认识、沟通与理解,让理性与判断价值的意义不断升腾。而这,是我们多少年来所缺少的啊。

现代性、世界主义、文化及其身份认同、实践研究……短短几天的时间,我们的讨论已经触及到许多方面,各种观点纷至沓来。相互尊敬和学习的态度,让“跨艺”这个平台显现着非比寻常的意义。而这种不断的、可以进一步深入的讨论,一定会让我们共同建立起共同解决问题的信心。

“跨语言”是我们第二组学者需要思考的问题。

有意思的是,在本届“跨艺”中,由于两种语言的交融,让我们常常为一个词的准确翻译而无奈。新的概念和术语不断出现,如何通过这个词的翻译将原词的词义及其背景传达出来。这不也正是我们思考“跨语言”的出发点嘛。当然,口头语言的跨越和身体语言的跨越,“跨语言”给我们的思考提供了无限的可能性,而通过现场观察让我们的思考更加丰富。

“跨艺”让我们相识、让我们感受、让我们乘着思考的翅膀从这里起飞!

Translation…

Reflections on ArtsCross

The 2013 London session of ArtsCross brought together dancers from three cities (Beijing, London and Taipei), and allowed academics and choreographers from these cities to interact in the same place. The ArtsCross platform not only became a hotspot for interaction and exchange of ideas between China and the West, it also created a perfect meeting point for the interaction of theory and practice. After seeing nine choreographers, coming from three different places, at work, and appreciating the works which they created, I formed the view that the outputs of the project were not the most important. What was more interesting was the process.

During the academic interactions, the three topics provided us with specific areas of discussion. However, I noted that the exchange of ideas went far beyond these discussion topics. The questions which were explored were some of the most discussed questions in contemporary academia. They were also questions which all of humankind seeks to answer. Thanks to this interaction, an exploration which sought to promote mutual understanding, we participants, originating from different places across the globe, were no longer strangers.

No longer strangers in our day to day interactions, but more importantly, we were no longer unfamiliar with each others’ ways of thinking. Most importantly, this interaction did not just occur between the Chinese and Western participants, but also during direct interactions with the academics from the island of Taiwan. Thanks to this process of getting to know, communicating with and coming to understand people from the same culture, but different backgrounds, made our ideas increasingly meaningful and strengthened the value of our judgements. This is something that we have been lacking for many years.

Modernism, cosmopolitanism, culture and the sense of identity it brings, practical research… in a few short days, our discussions had touched on many areas, and many varying opinions were voiced and heard. Thanks to an attitude of mutual respect and learning, the ArtsCross platform was able to achieve a significance which exceeded expectations. This form of continuous, progressive and in-depth discussion certainly gives rise to a resolute willingness to seek answers to questions.

We in the second group were tasked with discussing the question of “Crossing languages”.

What was interesting was that during this year’s ArtsCross, we often found it impossible to find an accurate translation for one word or another. New concepts and technical terms flowed freely, and we often questioned how to transmit the meaning and the origin of a term through its translated version. Is this not exactly the starting point for considering “transcendence of language”? Of course, when considering the transcendence of spoken language and the transcendence of body language, the topic of “crossing languages” provided us with endless areas to consider. What is more, the actual process of observation enriched our thinking even more.

ArtsCross brought us together, allowed us to experience, and helped us to give wings to our ideas and take flight!

Thoughts from brief engagements with Global Studies

I have had many discussions with a specialist from Global History/Studies about Artscross and have gained some constructive insights from this perspective, since one of my brothers happens to be a professor in the field. Several issues that we have dealt with as part of our Artscross discussions have been much written about within Global Studies, such as the idea of there existing ‘multiple modernities’ in different places, and they are reflected in the different perspectives that Artscross brings together (1).

A further interesting research area deals with languages and translation, which is of course is heightened in the project here that brings different languages intentionally into the creative processes that unfold in the rehearsal spaces. Without a perspective that is sensitive to global developments and interactions much would go amiss, and it is important to bear in mind that languages itself are a product of translations between encounters with those from ‘elsewhere’. And hence languages contain many past misunderstandings in terms of their evolution.

As part of Artscross the differences in the languages we speak are being continually highlighted, such as today in Vida Midgelow’s session when we were guided through an exercise that led to the creation of ‘sound-words’. This clearly relied on a language being written in an alphabet and simply did not work for Mandarin.

Research around the idea of ‘translingual practice’ emphasises the danger of a searching for direct translations and an imposing of theories or concepts in a comparative way, where however different languages also entail different ways of thinking. Lydia Liu has written much about the incommensurability of words, which leads to the idea that the world can be understood in multiple ways (2). Referring to Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin, Liu writes that an original and its translation productively create meanings that are larger than ‘copies or reproductions’ (ibid. p.15).

What I am taking away from this research mostly for now is a going beyond thinking in terms of an East/West binary and ask questions around how these encounters we witness here not only in the rehearsal spaces but also in the many discussions that unfold between academics are productive and in the sense of being transformative to each individual engaged.

(1) Dominic Sachsenmaier and Jens Riedel, with Shmuel Eisenstadt (eds.), Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese, and Other Approaches, Leiden: Brill, 2002

(2) Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity – China, 1900–1937, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995

 

跨艺·观察(三)

1、这一刻(very moment)

舞蹈是时间的艺术,这一刻的瞬时发生与发展让舞蹈成为“活生生的艺术”(living art),是无法作假与再现的艺术。在台北编导苏威嘉的排练中,正如Chris在博客中所写的“Studio and stage…space and place”,在我看来,就是在again and again中,这一刻显得那么可爱——因为它的真实:时间在变,气息在变,运动在变,这或许就是舞蹈的魅力。所以,苏的创作是开放的,看得到这一刻,但是不知道下一刻——如同历史的下一刻无法预知一样,正式演出时究竟会怎样?
2、这一处(very place)
舞蹈是空间的艺术,这一处的物理存在和变化让舞蹈成为“视觉艺术”(visural art)。除了时间的变化,从studio到stage的空间变化,会影响舞者在表演场域内的空间感知,那一刻的舞动将会怎样?北京编导赵梁在排练中告诉被绑带困住的舞者,如果演出时被缠住的话就直接脱下来——这一方面是对舞者解决突发状况的建议,另一方面也“剧透”了舞台和排练室之间存在差异的若干可能性之一,这一处只是这一处。

所以,舞蹈只在此时此地,真实地感受它的气息(Auro)吧。

Translation…

ArtsCross Observations (3)

1. This very moment
Dance is a time-based art form. The way in which dance occurs within a moment, before evolving and developing makes dance a “living art”. It is an art form which cannot be faked or reproduced. During the rehearsals with the Taiwanese choreographer Su Wei-Chia, it was exactly as Chris had written in his blog: “Studio and stage…space and place”. With the repetition, “again and again”, the moment became very precious — because of its authenticity. Time was changing; breath was changing; movements were changing. Perhaps these are the sources of dance’s charm. Su’s creative process was free and open. You could experience each moment, but the next moment was unknown. Just as the next moment in history cannot be known in advance. Is it possible to achieve this in a real performance?

2 This very place
Dance is a space-based art form. Physical existence and transformation within a fixed space makes dance a “visual art.” As well as changes in time, the shift in spaces from studio to stage can affect the sense of space during the performance. In that moment, what form will the dance movements take? During rehearsals, the Beijing choreographer Zhao Liang told his dancers, who were tied together with a band, that if they got stuck during the performance, they should just take the band off. This suggestion provided the dancers with a solution to a potential problem, and also “revealed” one of the differences which could exist between the stage and the studio. Each place is its own place.

So the dancers can only take advantage of the ‘here and now’ to experience their “aura”.

江东伦敦跨艺旅思02:中国舞蹈的“现代性”问题

“现代性”问题似乎是参加2013“跨艺”的学者们仍十分感兴趣的话题,从2011台北“跨艺”将此列为议题,到目前为止,仍有这么多学者对此兴趣浓厚,想必该问题对关注者在关注视角上的持续性发酵,的确是一个具有非凡吸引力的角度。

实际上,中国大陆学术界对于“现代性”问题早就很热了,而且已经进入到较为广泛和深入的视角。不过不能否认的是,想想这么多年的中国大陆思想学界,几乎所有思潮的引发都受到了外来潮流的引启,自然“现代性”问题亦不例外。只是,“话题”虽是外来的,但中国社会自身所遇到的诸多难题,却实实在在与这个概念直接相关。

体现在舞蹈层面,“现代性”的讨论亦不乏其论,“中国舞蹈”报曾数度组织这方面的讨论,一些年轻舞蹈学者的观点也都引起过大家的注意。概括而言,我们所遇到的一些主要问题,几乎都成二元对立之貌,比如:“中与西”、“传统与现代”、“器与道”等。

说“现代性”很容易想到“现代化”问题,而“现代化”又会直接将“现代舞”联系起来。不过,如果认为“现代性”只是“现代舞”的事,那认识问题的角度显然就发生位移了。毫无疑问,“现代舞”自然与“现代性”相关,但“现代性”所指涉的问题却完全可以让我们站在一个更深的层面上予以讨论。

实际上,中国的当代舞蹈文化都是具有“现代指向”的,因为说到底,中国传统的舞蹈形式无论是器的层面还是道的层面,都没有直接传下来。吕艺生先生认为这是中国当代舞蹈与传统的“断裂”。画家陈丹青先生认为,五四以来的新文化运动是“文化激进主义”的体现。虽然,古代舞蹈的断流不能赖在五四运动的身上,但五四运动却的确像一个分水岭,让之后发展起来的中国新舞蹈艺术的的确确沐浴了西方工业文明的启蒙。所以说,一直绵亘至今的中国当代舞蹈文化,由于远离自己的“根”而与我们这个社会发生的种种错位与再对位,其“现代性”的内涵是十分丰富的。在这样的理念并伴随着新中国制度相继经历了文革和经济全球化过程而一路走过来的中国舞蹈,虽然自身一直在不断地提醒着自己的文化航向,但所面临着诸多的困惑,都可以让我们通过“现代性”的话语域来认识、来思考。因此,“现代性”的话题,或许会提供给我们一把钥匙也未可知呢,因为它让我们拥有了一个面对我们现状中许多问题的独特视角。

自然,中国大陆的舞蹈文化已经延续了六十余年,虽历经“现代性”问题的诸多考验,却也从未消失而顽强地不断前行,这首先证明了中国文化本身的特性:总能走下去。那么,面对一个在实践上已经高度成型的机体以及支持这一机体继续走下去的大环境和大背景,我们关于“现代性”的思考是否可以让它获得更丰富的养料呢?拭目以待。

Translation…

Jiang Dong’s London Reflections 02: The question of “modernism” in Chinese dance

The topic of “modernism” appeared to be one in which the 2013 ArtsCross academics were keenly interested. Since 2011, when it was listed as a topic of discussion at the Taipei “ArtsCross” until today, academics have remained interested in this topic. Given the continued interest of observers in the topic, it seems that this truly is a very attractive area.

In reality, mainland Chinese academics have been familiar with the question of “modernism” for a long time, and have already explored the question quite thoroughly. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that almost all of the ideas which have appeared in the realm of Chinese academia have been inspired by outward influences. Naturally, “modernism” is no exception. But while the “concept” originates from outside China, Chinese society contains many of its own conundrums, which are directly linked to this concept.

In the world of dance, there is no lack of discussion around “modernism”. The newspaper Chinese Dance has organised a number of discussions on this topic. What is more, the views of various young scholars of dance have attracted a lot of attention. Generally speaking, a number of the issues which we encounter are almost binary oppositions, for example: “Chinese and Western,” “traditional and modern,” “form and meaning”, etc.

When we talk about “modernism”, it is natural to think about the issue of “modernisation”. What is more, “modernisation” can provide a direct linkage to “modern dance.” But if we think that “modernism” is only about “modern dance”, then our understanding of the issue has shifted. Without doubt, “modern dance” is naturally connected to the concept of “modernism”. However, the areas which fall within the ambit of “modernism” need to be discussed at a more in-depth level.

In reality, Chinese contemporary dance culture is inherently “modernist” since, whether at the level of form or at the level of meaning, traditional Chinese dance forms have not been directly handed down from the past. Lu Yisheng considers that this constitutes a “rupture” between Chinese contemporary dance and traditional dance. The painter Chen Danqing has expressed the view that the New Culture Movement which came in the wake of the May 4th Movement is a manifestation of “cultural radicalism.” While it is not fair to lay blame for the rupture with ancient dance at the feet of the May 4th Movement, it does seem that this Movement was a kind of watershed, and the new forms of Chinese dance which developed following this movement were imbued with inspiration from Western culture from the industrial age. So Chinese contemporary dance, having been cut off from its “roots” and having experienced many ‘dislocations’ and ‘realignments’ with society, possesses a rich streak of “modernism.” Within this conceptual framework, and against the context of the systematic changes which have taken place in China including the cultural revolution and economic globalisation, Chinese dance, while always undertaking cultural course corrections, has faced many perplexing situations, all of which can be understood and considered through the language of “modernism”. Thus, it may be that the concept of “modernism” may provide us with a kind of key, since it provides us with a unique perspective on the many issues that we are faced with today.

Mainland Chinese dance culture has been developing for over 60 years now, and while it has encountered many of the challenges brought by “modernism”, it has not faded away, and continues onwards stubbornly. This demonstrates one of the characteristics of Chinese culture: it can always keep going. So, faced with such a highly developed “organism”, and an environment which allows this “organism” to continue to develop, is there anything we can do to provide more “nourishment” to thinking around “modernism”? Let’s wait and see.

Cat’s Cradle Part 2

I visited Zhou Liang’s rehearsal yesterday just in time to see the first run through of the whole main sequence with music. It ‘worked’ — all the dancers ‘got through’ the webs of permutations of the elastic to the end of the piece. The choreographer was pleased and encouraging: ‘Now we have to work on the details…’

They then worked through specific problem moments; figuring out why a dancer got stuck at a certain place, why when four dancers were holding the elastic above their heads in a square was it not being lowered down at exactly the same time.

At the end of the rehearsal after a final runthrough Zhou said that he was really pleased and that it was coming together well. He asked if the dancers found it difficult. One of them replied that they HAD to work together as a group and he agreed, saying that it was difficult to combine everyone’s different techniques, approaches and rhythms.

It seemed to me that the elastic band provides something very concrete — a puzzle to solve together, as I noted yesterday, but also it gives the dancers nowhere to hide. There are no solos — they can never work on their own. They have to be 100% aware of what everyone else is doing at each moment. They are confronted very clearly by differences in their training (as noted by everyone in their discussion) and have to resolve these together or the piece ‘fails’ (ie they all get stuck in the elastic). There’s no ‘faking’ anything…

The medium of choreography is people… Part 2

I’m picking up from where I left off in Part 1, in the studio with Vera Tussing and her dancers. How are they working together?

So far, it looks like Vera has worked on improvisational tasks (mostly, it seems, to do with giving weight, and with a kind of proposal-response structure), so that the substance if not the design of the choreography comes directly from the dancers. It’s a well-used choreographic method, and an effective one. Heterogeneity is built into the process – and this is, after all, a pretty heterogenous group of dancers. What emerges from the process comes from the people in the group.

The people in this group, I sense, are still struggling, though I find it hard to place where the problem is. Perhaps it comes not so much from generating material, but sharing it. Vera has begun to shape the movement into flows and patterns, to give it coherence, but in order for it to look natural the dancers need both to duplicate each other’s movement and to look like themselves. Vera has already given exercises whereby one dancer initiates a move and the others follow by echoing more than by imitating; but the look isn’t natural yet. The units they’ve built together are, she says, still “a collection of fragments”. Something needs to change in the relation between the dancers and the dancing. “I’m trying to make friends with this material,” Vera says. “Let’s try to become friends with it.” I guess I’m watching a particular stage of creation: the introductions have been made, but bonds have yet to form.

A lot of the moves look fairly simple – leaning away from an outstretched arm, falling down, a kind of boppy stride – but there’s quite a lot going on. Vera has used some rhythmic and evocative music in the exercises, but she’s tried replacing it with silence, or with more “noise”-like sounds, because she wants the dancers to embody their own dynamic. “Be each other’s beat,” she suggests. She has also split the dancers into two groups of three, who dovetail and criss-cross fluently. There’s something quite entrancing about watching these trios, because – I sense an “ArtsCross” metaphor coming on – it’s like seeing the intersection and interference between parallel worlds.

There’s definitely a choreographic shape forming here. It seems a bit bitty still, yet I sense it coming together – soon. Right now (3 August) something is emerging but not yet cohering. It still feels like a jigsaw puzzle. I can see the pieces, and I can see they could make a picture; but I can’t yet see the picture.

Part 3 – yes, this will be a trilogy! – to follow shortly

The social kinesphere

I was at Zhou Liang’s rehearsal today, and saw exactly what Rebecca Loukes calls the “cat’s cradle”: a long length of elastic that the dancers weave and interweave into changing patterns that correspond exactly to the spatial relations between them.

The geometric patterns in space, anchored to particular reaches and orientations of the body, reminded me of Rudolf Laban’s “kinesphere”, a graphic mapping of movement within personal space. Here are some images of the Laban kinesphere:

labangraphic-300x300 dance-notation-08__450px dance-notation-07__450px

Laban’s kinesphere has the body as its axis. In his well-knowm “Improvisation Technologies” CD-Rom (1999), choreographer William Forsythe used the idea of Laban’s kinesphere but without the body at its centre. The geometrical axis could be outside the body, eg:

86864057_640

It struck me that Zhou Liang’s use of elastic creates an image of a different kind of kinesphere. Not only is the individual body not at its centre, but there is no central body. The dynamic, morphing geometries are a property of the group, not of any body within it. Like a kind of social kinesphere.

[To see what I mean, check this video of Zhao Liang’s rehearsal]

The medium of choreography is people… Part 3 (the end)

[Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2]

Let’s reset the scene. Here in the studio are choreographer Vera Tussing and her six dancers. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Here in the studio are Vera Tussing, her six dancers, a Chinese-English interpreter, me, an amenable fellow called Mike Picknett, who turns out to be both Tussing’s “outside eye” guy and her potential composer, and a photographer/videographer, who all stay throughout the rehearsal; plus, a fluctuating number of academic observers, who come and go. So: this is us.

“Us” is (pardon my grammar) a pretty motley lot, then. I entered this studio with a fairly one-dimensional idea: that ArtsCross is a cross-cultural collaboration, its nodes being China–Taiwan–UK, or to be more specific, Beijing–Taipei–London. But it’s not long before I abandon that idea: the terms feel more important as administrative categories for the project as a whole than as ways of seeing what is happening in the studio. As tools go, these national-geographic divisions feel like pretty blunt cudgels.

So what are the boundaries to cross? Language, certainly. Vera conducts her rehearsal in English, but actually no one – including Vera herself, who is from Germany – has English as their first language. The London dancer is from Greece, there are 2 dancers from Beijing and 3 from Taiwan. I ask Vera: is language a problem? She says that communication can certainly be slow, because even with an interpreter, there’s quite a lot of looping in the process. Dancers, interpreter and choreographer keep referring back to each other to check their understanding, so that the lines of communication don’t begin to diverge (a process that in English is called “Chinese whispers”). Vera also points out that some interpreters are more clued-in to her rehearsal process than others, and that changing interpreters also changes the process. On the flip side, there have also been fruitful miscommunications: unexpected results that have been productive.

But language, I think, is a secondary difference. I think the main divisions are dance training and individual personality. The dancers have varied backgrounds – ballet, Chinese classical dance, contemporary dance, acting; and some have more “cross-training” than others. Their bodily habits are different, so their understandings of choreographic instructions, even of the fundamental nature of movement itself, may overlap but not coincide. The same is true of their personalities: their individual qualities as risk-takers, as leaders, as facilitators, as achievers, as dreamers – whatever dimension of personality you care to take. I’m reminded forcefully, again, of the interview that I mentioned in part 1, that I had recently done with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Talking about working with dancers with very different training, he said: “You find similar points of reference, whether in intention, or a gesture or an action, and before you know it you’re talking about the same thing. Because we’re not so different: we have arms, legs, a head. Of course, the personalities are still very different, but personalities have almost nothing to do with the style.”

So, on this practical level, in the studio, my sense is that the principal differences within the dance group are not so much to do with China-UK-Taiwan or East and West or culture and location, but down to the nitty-gritty of the body and the personality. It’s a long-winded way of saying (again) that the medium of choreography is people.

Let’s loop back to our opening scene, with “us” all in the studio. If we’re talking about intercultural encounters here, one look at ourselves in the mirror shows that the China-UK-Taiwan categories are not the most apparent way of seeing ourselves. We are differentiated by aim, by process, by generation, by clothing, by hairstyle, by discourse, by motivation, by body-mass-index, by behaviour. The most marked cultural differences are not within the dance groups, but between the dance practitioners and the rest of us.

伦敦跨艺旅思03:关于舞蹈写作

Vida老师的舞蹈写作课,让我们看到了她的方法:感受、捕捉、心得,强调的是写作者用心去感受动作并予以总结自我感觉进而去用笔表达出来的过程。这种十分感性的体验式写作方法,虽然并不陌生,但还是让我们通过这次讲座而对这种方法予以再次的关注。我发现中西的舞蹈写作方法是不太一样的,他们注重的是身体的感觉,而我们在意识形态方面上的关注更甚。不同的方法、习惯和传统而已,无关乎对于哪种写作方法的价值判断。

关于舞蹈写作,吕艺生先生表达了一个认识,那就是舞蹈写作是完成不了所诠释的那个作品的全部涵义的。他言下之意是,舞蹈是一个特殊的用肢体动作表达的运动和艺术过程,而用笔来进行书写,关乎的则是另一门功夫。书写本身,无论怎样尽力,都不会等同于舞蹈本身的。吕老师的话也让我们再次思考:舞蹈的书写,究竟应当是一种复述,还是一种创造?

应该说,舞蹈的书写也是有各种类型的。但仅仅针对舞评而言,复述和创造,的确是我们遇到的最基本问题。

显然对于一个舞评家而言,复述是他的基本责任。他看到了什么,用斟酌仔细和运用精确的语言将其描述、记录下来,以完成对这个作品的基本印象。这种写法需要较为实证的写作和较为准确的直观感受,同时需要较为可靠的直觉。然而,任何以复述为目的的复述都存在着危险和陷阱,这是舞蹈这门艺术的特性所决定的。也就是说,如果单单为了是复述舞蹈发生的过程,那无论写作者怎样观察、怎样全面的记录,都已经不可能舞蹈的原貌了。因此,以复述为目的的舞蹈书写,显然从一开始就是有漏洞的。如此看来,舞蹈的书写似乎更应该发生在创造的层面之上。

舞评的所谓“评”,自然是舞评者对于所观察事物的主观认识和言说。在言说的过程中,他主要是通过对于对象的观摩与揣摩表达出自己的诠释以至结论。这种表达显然是具有个人化色彩和倾向的。当然,诠释的方式也是有差别的,既可以是在诠释舞蹈或者编导的意图,同时也可以在不断地咀嚼着写作者自己从作品中获得的含义。这样写作的结果,当然也呈现出各种可能是彼此巨大的差异,这与写作者的审美经验、观察和感受能力、预先所做功课、对作品的熟悉程度等都直接相关。当然,所谓创造性的书写若脱离了所观察对象而缺乏针对性的天马行空则是不可取的,但在认识的结果上与编导、与其他观者存有差异自然是可能的。实际上,一个称职的舞评能够咀嚼出别人所不能看到的内涵,更证明了他的价值。

复述与创造,应该并存并交融。

至于写作用母语还是外语更为舒服的问题,这都不必多说了,那自然是母语的书写更能激发思维上的活跃,我同意许锐说的“用母语写作关注的是怎么想,用外语写作只能局限在怎么写上”这个观点,因为我也颇有同感。我虽然曾写过一本英文舞蹈专著,但那个过程中的痛苦让我几年之后至今仍然记忆犹新,除了不得不用的情况下,我是完全不喜欢那个过程的。当然,这个也同训练直接相关,台湾学者陈雅萍似乎就更喜欢用英语写作,这个跟她的学术背景和习惯有关。VIDA还问到在什么地方写作更有效率,瑞典裔英籍学者OLA好像说是在VICTORIA车站,而我自己有个癖好,喜欢在候机厅和飞机上写作,那种流畅的行文和表达,一直让我感觉很好。

Translation…

London ArtsCross Reflections 03: Dance writing

Vida’s class on dance writing gave us an insight into her methods: feeling, capturing, experiencing and then emphasizing is the process which dance writers go through in experiencing movements and then encapsulating their own feelings and expressing them in writing. While we were not unfamiliar with this very emotive and experiential approach to writing, this lecture did cause us to look again at this approach. I discovered that Chinese and Western approaches to dance writing are not quite the same. They emphasise physical sensation while we pay more attention to states of consciousness. These are just observations on the different approaches, conventions and traditions, and do not contain any value judgements on the different approaches to writing.

On the topic of dance writing, Lu Yisheng shared a realisation: dance writing is unable to capture the full meaning of the work which it seeks to interpret. In other words, he was saying that dance is a particular art form, which uses movements of the body to express meaning. Writing, on the other hand, is a different skill. No matter how hard one tries, writing can never be the same as dance. Professor Lu’s words gave us pause for thought. Should dance writing be considered as a way of describing, or of creating?

I should note here that there are many forms of dance writing. But for a dance writer, describing and creating are the most fundamental concerns.

For a dance writer, it is clear that describing is the most fundamental responsibility. The dance writer must use carefully thought out, precise language to describe and record, articulating his most basic impressions of a work. This type of writing requires an ability to write demonstratively and to feel intuitively. It also requires a reliable sense of intuition. However, any effort to engage in describing for the sake of describing carries risks and potential traps. This is the result of the particular nature of dance as an art form. In other words, if one seeks simply to describe a work of dance, no matter how closely one observes, and no matter how comprehensive one’s notes, one will never be able to recreate the original appearance of the work. Dance writing for the purpose of description will therefore always be incomplete. With this in mind, it seems that dance writing should take place at the level of creation.

The “writing” in which the dance writers are engaged represents their subjective understanding and explanation of the things that they observe. During the process of explanation, they are primarily seeking to express their own interpretation and conclusions, based on their interaction and consideration of their subject. Of course, this expression incorporates personal characteristics and orientations. Naturally, there are different approaches to interpretation. The writer can seek to interpret the intentions of the dancer or choreographer. The writer may also seek to express in writing the meaning which she drew from the work. The final products of such efforts may also differ hugely from one another. This is directly related to a number of factors, including the aesthetic background of the writer, his capacities for observation and feeling, his preparatory work and his degree of familiarity with the work. Of course, where so-called creative writing becomes removed from the subject being observed, veering into the realms of fantasy, the results are also undesirable. But the emergence of differences in interpretation with choreographers and other observers is of course possible. In reality, the ability of a dance writer to understand meaning which others have not seen is a demonstration of his or her value.

Description and creation should coexist and interact with one another.

With regard to the question of whether it is preferable to write in one’s native language or in a foreign language, we don’t need to go into too much detail. Of course, it is easier to stimulate one’s thinking when using one’s mother tongue. I agree with Xu Rui’s assessment. “When using your mother tongue, you tend to focus on how to think. When using a foreign language, you are limited to thinking about how to write.” I have experienced the same feeling. Although I once wrote a thesis on dance using English, the painful nature of this process means that several years later, I still remember it as if it were yesterday. Except where one has no choice, I do not enjoy the process at all. Of course, this is also directly linked to one’s training. The Taiwanese academic Chen Ya-Ping seemed to prefer to write in English. This is a result of her academic background and habits. Vida also asked us whether there was a place where we found it easier to write. The Swedish-British academic Ola said he enjoyed writing in Victoria Railway Station. Personally, I like to write while waiting in airport terminals and on planes. I find the ease it brings to my writing and expression a pleasure.

Ringing a cross-disciplinary bell

At yesterday’s academic seminar, Ted Warburton talked about “crossing disciplines”, and used sociology as an illustration. Some of it kind of passed me by (“epistemic reflexivity”, huh?), but there was one section, on research foci, that chimed a massive chord with me. Warburton divided sociological research into four areas: why people dance, how they dance, where they dance and what they dance.

Now, read any book on journalism, and somewhere near the beginning it will tell you that your story – whatever story – needs to address most if not all of the following questions: who, what, where, when, how, why. Without them, you have no story.

Just thought I’d lob that thought in.