Dancing in spite of nervous systems (2020)
Contribution to Choreography as Conditioning 5.
In October 2019, I had the opportunity to present my artistic research practice for three consecutive days on the event … Through Practices. The set-up of this gathering was to observe and actively explore ten such practices. In this text, I will articulate notions of dancing as research by introducing my practice and by revisiting its sessions during this event.
Somatic dance practices are held together by their intriguing inquiry of movement through ‘expanding awareness’ of experiences and sensations. Such experiential perspective is based on the principle that sensations are ways to penetrate and gain insights in activities. I got familiar with this approach to dance during my Conservatoire training in classical, modern and contemporary dance studies. There, I trained in Body-Mind Centering (further BMC), which is an improvisation-based somatic practice that focuses on expanding physiological awareness and as such recalibrates the range of movements in dance. In general, somatic practices taught me that technical virtuosity is not only a matter of control and form, and that dance improvisations are based on our consciousness and awareness of decision-making rather than on their creative results.
The structure of a BMC-session starts with a host introducing physiological themes. In the first constellation of the practice, the participants are listening to the host while comfortably lying down on the floor, eyes-closed, and sometimes supported by a partner’s touch. The practitioners are considered ‘active receivers,’ a name that refers to their relaxed engagement, induced by a monotonous voice guiding their visualizations. Gradually, the host instructs them to explore the themes in an introspective dance: an improvised solo composition of sensing in motion. During the closure of the practice these dances are revisited. Everyone gets invited in a circle to talk about their sensations and to make associations with physiology and their biography.
In my artistic research practice, I use this structure of BMC, specified its themes and adapted the exercises in order to experiment with phenomenology and cognitive psychology in dance improvisations. I named this practice Nervous Systems.
Practicing Nervous Systems inquires dance in a defined and marked time and space; it is a fictional territory that functions as a safe place to experiment with physical sensations, imaginations, and real-time and -space. As such, Nervous Systems opens-up hybrid spaces in order to investigate bodily centeredness and other idealizations of embodiment through dancing. As a derivative of somatic practices, it uses ‘expanding awareness’ to localize a different tessiture of the body in dance, a range that encompasses more than anatomy and kinesiology. It is by loosening this tight rope between dance and corporeality that Nervous Systems explores the possibilities of a different mindedness in dance.
On … Through Practices, I limited the contextualization of Nervous Systems to a minimum. Almost immediately, I asked participants to find a comfortable place close to the ground and started narrating a visualization that made them familiar with the research themes: their central and peripheral nervous system and sensorial apparatus. The structure of this group practice was in a raw state, loosely based on my personal studio routine. (1) Every day of … Through Practices, I changed the follow-up experiments in relation to the shared space, the time of day, the previous sets, and the initial engagement of the participants. The first day, I presented the score for the improvisation in four short sentences; the second day, I made the group wait in a demarcated space before presenting them the score; and the last day, I repeated the set-up of day one and asked the group to enter, exit, and re-enter the space ‘anew,’ before starting. (2) I rely on these illusive activities to start experimenting in Nervous Systems. They are fragile frames that generate a tension between our understanding and doing, grounding the little discomfort that comes with experimenting.
During these experiments, I encourage the group to hold on to their feelings and to find nuances in what is happening in and around them. I can help them dig in by sharing my personal associations and by acknowledging how the themes of the visualization resonate in this becoming composition. However, I have to refrain myself from explaining in order to let the score uninform them. The resulting ‘not-knowing’ causes a puzzling feeling of uncertainty, doubt and unease, all sensations that precede curiosity and awareness. The empty rhythms of these non-activities destabilize traditional notions of active and passive, participating and witnessing, dancing and non-dancing.
In short, this seemingly aimless experiment is confusing; it changes how we experience time, space, and movements. The research method of Nervous Systems is this suspense: a dynamic that brings performers together to the anticipated moment of improvising, there, it makes them wait and clarify what is happening.
At this stage in the practice, the group dynamic gains momentum. Heads are turning and eyes looking to find a supportive gaze that can strengthen the belief in the meaning and potential of this ambiguous dance. As their horizon of attention stretches, they notice structures in what is random, recognize group constellations and causalities. These recognitions are compasses to guide a favorable direction and a ‘reasonable’ decision-making in their unfolding improvisation. Through small digressions of their alertness, they intervene and temporarily dissolve the growing suspense. The dance is still minimal: small adjustments, some walking material, and nervous fingers. Similar to the visualization exercise, participants gently take control either by improvising a playful way to deal with their unease, or by interrupting the tranquility and slow continuity in an anxious or nervous physical outburst. Their nervous systems are now experimenting with the impact of impulses on the sensitive web that is spun between their physical sensations, imaginations, and the real-time and -space.
During …Through Practices, I integrated a group reflection to close my practice. Similar to BMC, I asked the participants to gather in a circle and exchange their experiences and thoughts in first-person narratives. Our monologues circulated around the dancing as we recalled the improvisation and translated a selection of moments into words. As such, some of us contributed to a rather Cubist image, a multi-perspective narrated reconstruction of the dance experiment.
I am dubious about the critical function of this activity and wonder how it contributes to the dancing as aesthetic research in Nervous Systems. My fear is that these words not only miss, but also overpower the tacit and implicit nature of our dancing. In order to transform improvised dance into a reliable source of information, the storytelling edits a montage of passed sensations. Verbal languages filter, they tranquillize or excite experiences, what results in (mis)representations. These verbal reflections are then miscommunicating the tacit and often-oblique language of experiences in dancing: they pre- or describe what is instantaneous. Through aesthetic dance research we wish to expand and speed-up our awareness to grasp the moment of recognition, to grasp beauty in dance and composition. Dancers train and educate themselves in techniques and artistry, in highly codified styles or seemingly random or improvised activities in order to center, orientate, and direct themselves through dancing towards aesthetics. Tragically, I don’t believe the human nervous system is fast, nor direct enough to consciously grasp, contain, or direct improvised dancing in its high-speed compositions. That is why Nervous Systems aims at experimenting with alternative reflection models that do not alter the medium and follows the principles and rhythm of improvised dance. The storytelling and recollecting of experiences can as such be valued for what it is: a method to support and motivate us to further explore what escapes our attention in dancing.
(1) My studio routine: I lie down, listen to a self-prerecorded visualization, make breathing exercises, after about half an hour I get impatient and begin experimenting while the last part of the recording turns into background noises.
(2) The score reads: “Only move forward, shoulder blades cannot touch the floor, and avoid noise:1) perform waiting, 2) explore noticing and awareness, 3) resurface, 4) relate and flirt.”