Human Subjects

Although I’ve been watching the rehearsals for a while now, it took some time for a final clearance from Queen Mary’s Ethics Committee to come through, allowing me to publish any thoughts about them. In any situation where academics observe or work with ‘human subjects’, this kind of clearance is a formal requirement. As reductive as ‘human subjects’ appears to be of those who are artists, dancers, parents, citizens and teachers, pausing to think about how and why one watches, and what its consequences are — an impulse coming from social and bio-medical science in the case of universities — can’t be altogether a bad thing. Watching, and looking are not innocent or neutral things. Looking changes things, for which dance is perhaps a case in point.

I’ll sketch out three illustrations of this in a moment. However, in the spirit of ethical good practice, I also want to preface this posting by clarifying my own role as an observer further, and what this implies for the blog posts that will come from it. In an effort to be faithful to the privilege of watching the company rehearse, its is on the matter of rehearsal that I will be focusing my attentions. It’s important to me to consider what they are doing as a matter of rehearsing towards performance, an undertaking that is particular to the time and place it is happening in (the studio), rather than trying to imagine myself as a spectator, and what I am watching as if it were presented on a stage (albeit sketched out with gaffer tape and shoes). In the studio I deliberately try not to watch the dancers’ practice and discussions from a putative front, in order to try and avoid considering what they are doing as ‘performance’. What interests from these positions, in which one looks through or into the practice, rather than at it, is the extent to which the stuff of everyday life — laughter, gossip, work, family — feeds into, what is an extra-ordinary undertaking for those involved.

  • Look One — between ourselves

Having worked on sequences of movement in isolation (in the sense that they’ve been developed separately with Jonathan by each individual), the dancers have this week worked on putting these into duets, and larger group choreographies. One of the difficulties of doing this, leaving acts of memory aside for the moment, has been in negotiating around one another’s pathways through the space. At times this is fixed by a simple shift in direction, or a fractionally later start, but sometimes it’s done with a look, a deliberate opening of attention to one another that seems to say, ‘it’s at this point we meet, and it’s here and now that we’ll shift torsos, turn or skip around to let one another pass’. The very fumbling way in which I’ve just written that perhaps gives a sense of the complexity of what that look holds, not only in the expression shown by one to another, but also in the way that it must be held between them, even if only for a moment. It’s an engagement with what is about to happen that’s not altogether unlike the momentary ‘and…’ with which musicians and dancers also gather themselves just before playing or moving. In a duet, where Kenneth steps into a long, low turn across Namron’s pathway, without pausing to explain what he is doing, Kenneth raises his head slightly and looks at his partner. It’s an action that seems to gather the moment temporarily, in a brief inertia, so that Kenneth is able to step just across Namron, rather than into him. At first, this moment is repeated a couple of times and the look between them is marked and  noticeable. Later, when this section is rehearsed again, I notice it only as a fleeting thing that passes over their faces. Although it’s a look that ‘says’ something (‘here I come, don’t crash into me now’), it’s more than that. It passes between them. It’s not exactly Namron’s or Kenneth’s, but a moment of attention that they share together. Throughout the rehearsals, Jonathan has noted the extraordinary ability of these dancers to work together in common purpose. This is perhaps what experience brings, a degree of freedom from how I perform, that draws one’s attention, instead to how we do.

  • Look Two — looking and listening

Part of the structuring of the piece is based around that of La Folia one of the earliest European musical themes. Although it is thought to have had its origins in Iberian peninsula in the sixteenth century, variants of La Folia are found all over the continent. Melody travels and is translated, and so it is that elements of La Folia are to be found in folk songs in the Netherlands and Finland and in the compositions of Bach and Rachmaninoff . Its rhythmic sequence is being used by Jonathan and Matteo to give a common structure to different movements developed by the dancers following a common order of ABA, CDC, AB, in which A contains a count of 4, B 8, C 6 and D 2. This week, the company have worked together to learn a series of movements developed by Kenneth that used this structure. It’s complex, and the shifting count, together with the playful shifts that Kenneth has worked on saw much hilarity and looks from one to another as the dancers sought to both remember and maintain the flow and rhythm of the movement. La Folia is not only a rhythmic structure however, but also a melody, for which not only the sequence, but also the playing are important. Although the dancers do not follow the notes of La Folia itself, the sense of playing or following a melodic line, in which one note is in a kinetic relationship to those that precede and that follow remains. Moreover, if listening to a melody is to follow and feel the dynamic movement between the notes and the ebb and flow of their intensity, then the exchange of looks between the dancers appears as a kind of listening — an attention to a temporary, tangible presence. Movement, like sound, is disappearing in the instance of its occurrence. At first, with Kenneth showing the movements to the group in a mirror, this looking-as-listening was obvious in both the concentration on the dancers’ faces, and the glances that they made towards him or towards the others, in trying to follow the flow of one movement into the next. As the rehearsals have developed, the glances and concentrated faces have dissipated, but the dynamic quality of attention is still there. Where before, I was conscious of individual dancers’ attentions to their own movement, what appears now is their sensitivity to the way in which their individual dynamics are caught up in a larger whole.

  • Look Three — a look that speaks

It might seem a bit glib to comment on at first, but what these dancers bring with their age and experience, is a considerable presence. Of course its not age and experience per se, but what these in turn allow; what appears as a control of the moment one is in, a willingness to simply ‘be’ within it. This is the ephemeral stuff of performance that has scholars regularly tying themselves in knots. It’s such a temporary, impermanent thing, that resits an effort to capture it in language, but here goes. There is a rather beautiful duet between Namron and Linda in which they walk to centre stage, wait and then he lifts her (there’s more to it than that, of course, but I don’t want to give the performance away in its entirety here). As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I try to watch the rehearsals from places other than at the front. Arriving a little late to the afternoon session on Wednesday, I found the company running through this section, and not wanting to distract them, was stuck in this position. As uncomfortable as this made me feel, it did allow me to watch a simple, yet beautiful way in which Linda and Namron showed this presence. Arriving centre stage, they stand together for a moment, Namron behind Linda, and look out at us.

In Old English, the primary word for speaking maþelian also implies meeting, and in speaking together, there’s still perhaps a vestigial sense of coming to and being in a temporary community that is more than just oneself. This is what Namron and Linda’s look affords us. As simple as it is, it is astonishingly difficult, technical even, in that it takes considerable physical and personal power and control to simply stand and just be there, looking at and with others, and not trying to fill the space that forms between you with something predetermined. Their look speaks to us, meets with us, and affords us a moment or so of a shared sensibility.


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