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.

Laboring to learn in Zeng’s rehearsal

2 thoughts on “Laboring to learn in Zeng’s rehearsal

  • Today I had the chance to interpret for Zeng and the production manager about the technical aspects of the performance. After the meeting, Zeng raised the question whether it is possible to cancel one of his rehearsals sometime next week?

    His point was, he thinks the formation of his piece is now completed, and the dancers are feeling ‘fresh’ about the set of movements. However, continuous repetition (more rehearsals) may cause a loss of ‘freshness’ to the movements, which could result in boredom that will affect the performance.

    More is not always better.
    Practice makes perfect, but excessive practice may reverse the positive impact. I wonder what the dancers think..?

  • Interesting, yet we also know that in some processes pushing yourself through tiredness leads to great discoveries. In the particular work that Zeng creates, I wonder if Kenny’s exhaustion might have led to the dancer letting go of certain tensions that he is trained to hold, but which resonate with Zeng’s movement system that is strongly informed by his practice of taijichuan.

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