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 gather-ing was to witness 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 the experience of expanding awareness of sensations. Such experiential perspective is based on the principle that sensations are ways to penetrate and gain in-sights 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 awareness in order to increase the movement vocabulary and choreographic possibilities. In general, somatic practices taught me that virtuosity is not only a matter of control and form, and that dance improvisations are based on our con-sciousness and awareness of decision-making rather than on our achieving of creative results.
The structure of a BMC-session starts with a host introducing physiological issues and body systems, for example the respiratory system, the skeletal system, etc. 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 practice partner’s touch. The practitioners are considered ‘active receivers,’ a name that refers to their relaxed engagement, induced by a prosaic voice guiding their visualizations. Gradually, the host instructs them to explore the body systems 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 recollect the dance and its sensations; in a personal narrative the participants share their experi-ences with the group, allowing dialogue, associations and differences to surface.
Differing from the traditional function of somatic practices as therapeutic practices, I apply extending awareness in purpose of an artistic and aesthetic dance research. (ft. 1) In my artistic research practice, I use the previously introduced structure of BMC, specify its physiological issues and adapt the exercises in order to investigate and experiment with the moment of interpretation in improvised dance and instant choreography. I reframe BMC as an artistic and aesthetic dance research and named this practice Nervous Systems. It is a practice to gain knowledge on dance integrating no-tions from experimental phenomenology, neuro- and cognitive sciences.
When I practice Nervous Systems, I inquire dance in a defined time and space; I understand this spatiotemporal framework as a fictional territory that functions as a safer place to experiment with physical sensations, imaginations, and real-time and -space. In contrast to the open character of my artistic and aesthetic dance research, this fictional territory is a finite place and time. The moving and attention of the participants needs to be confined in order to experiment with actions and activities, in order to grasp these and fictionalize them, and eventually to interpret these as movement or choreographic materials. In Nervous Systems, this territory for experimentation is marked with tape, chalk, light, etc. and limited in time by a clock, timekeeper, or soundtrack. These elements mark off a safe place, a place where normative or everyday relations to time, space and embodiment do not limit the practice. To consider the spatio-temporal framework in which the aesthetic experiment of Nervous Systems takes place as a fiction is a necessary agreement among participants that help them to fully explore dance as actions in a non-judgmental way.
Nervous Systems opens up a hybrid study between science and dance. More precisely, by inquiring how anatomy, neuro- and cognitive sciences can be implemented as a technique for researching dance improvisation aesthetics. It investigates bodily centeredness and other idealizations of embodiment through dancing. As a derivative of somatic practices, it mobilizes expanding awareness in order to localize a different range of movements of the body in dance, a range that encompasses more than anatomy and kinesiology. It is by loosening the tight rope between dance and corporeality that Nervous Systems explores the possibilities of different forms of cognitive states in dance, broadening our understanding of what repercussions concepts such as centeredness, balance, and control have on embodiment in dance improvisation.
On …Through Practices, I limited the explicit 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 systems: the central and peripheral nervous system and the sensorial apparatus. The practice was introduced taking as reference my personal studio routine. (ft. 2) Every day of …Through Practices, I changed the experiments in relation to the shared space, the time of the day, and the expectations 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 structure of the practice of day one and asked the group to enter, exit, and re-enter the space ‘anew,’ before starting. (ft. 3) I rely on these elusive activities, that is, the unclear performativity of waiting and not dancing, in order to extend the awareness in the practice and stimulate participants to start experimenting together. The setting of Nervous Systems is a fragile frame that ground the little discomfort of experimenting and consequently generates a tension between our understanding and our performing of the score. The practice focuses awareness for this tension, and explores it as a place and time that allows the emergence of dance aesthetics.
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 try to help them by sharing my personal associations and by acknowledging how the themes of the visualization resonate in the emerging dance composition. However, I have to refrain myself from explaining what we are doing and instead make them trust their own agencies by performing the score. This figuring out of the score, searching for the boundaries of the improvisation, causes a puzzling feeling of uncertainty, doubt and unease, all sensations that might precede curiosity and awareness. The empty rhythms of these ‘non-activities’ destabilize traditional notions of being active and passive, participating and witnessing, dancing and not dancing.
In short, this seemingly aimless experiment is confusing; it destabilizes how we experience time, space, and movements. The basic strategy of Nervous Systems consists in a suspending dynamic. It aims at bringing performers together into anticipating improvisation and allows them to wait and clarify what is happening with their relation to dance and choreographic aesthetics.
At this destabilizing stage in the practice, the group dynamic gains momentum. Participants are at a tilting point in developing the tasks, or states, that make up the score. Heads are turning to find support in the gaze of co-participants; this mental reassurance supports the group to take agency of this ambiguous dance. The tasks 'perform waiting,' 'explore noticing and awareness,' and 'do nothing/not dancing' stretches their horizon of attention, the participants recognize structures in what seemed to be random, group constellations and causalities. These recognitions are compasses to let a favorable direction and a plausible path of decision-making emerge in their unfolding improvisation. Through small digressions of their alertness, the participants 'resurface,’ intervene and temporarily dissolve the growing suspense. The dance is still minimal: small adjustments, some walking material, and twitching 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. The score directs the participants to 'flirt and relate' with this sense of control, this translates into their nervous systems 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. In these monologues they describe their dances, their words circulated around what they recalled of the improvisation, a selection of moments translated into words. As such, some participants contributed to a rather fragmented and incomplete image, a multi-perspective narrated reconstruction of the dance experiment. I’m skeptical about the critical function of this reporting activity and wonder how it contributes to the dancing as research in Nervous Systems. I sense that these words not only miss, but also lack the power to grasp the tacit nature of our dancing. In order to transform improvised dance into a reliable source of information, the storytelling generates a montage of passed sensations. Verbal languages filter, tranquillize or excite experiences, what results in (mis)representations. These verbal reflections are then miscommunicating the tacit and often-oblique language of experi-ences in dancing: they “de-scribe” or “sub-scribe” what is instantaneous and sponta-neous. Through dancing as research we wish to expand and speed-up our awareness to grasp the moment of recognition, to grasp beauty in dance and choreography.
I believe that the human nervous systems are neither fast nor direct enough to consciously grasp, contain, or direct improvised dancing in its high-speed transfor-mations. These observations confirmed my interest in experimenting through Nervous Systems with alternative feedback models that do not alter the medium and follow the principles and rhythm of improvised dance. Accordingly, it is my aim to further research Nervous Systems and explore how human physiology can be extended in order not to pose a limit for this dance research practice. My next step in the research is to experiment with extending the nervous systems of the participants in order to come closer to an instantaneous grasp of the dance and choreographic materials. Through integrating artificial intelligence, as implemented in the field of algorithmic choreography, Nervous Systems extends the cognition of the dancing body and generates a feedback system that runs simultaneously with the improvisation. This experimental method, that I named Somatic R.E.A.Ch. (research in electronic and algorithmic choreography), detects and processes the movement and speech by the dancer digitally during his/her/their improvisation, in order to send it immediately back to the experimentation with movement through audio or visual devices. (ft. 4)
Nevertheless, this next phase in the research does not exclude the reporting activity of Nervous Systems. I consider storytelling and recollecting of experience good ways of supporting and motivating us to further explore and reflect on what escapes our attention in dancing as a professional performer in Western theatre dance and dance improvisation culture.
1) It helps me to make a distinction between the artistic and aesthetic properties of dance as research practice. My artistic research deals with properties that are concerned with the construction and techniques of the dance practice. For example, when I investigate how different organizations and formulations of movement instructions make my improvisation practice more or less comprehensive for the practitioners. These artistic properties are precise, manageable, and can be named or defined in research. When I research aesthetic properties of dance, my perspective shifts from construction and techniques to appearances and experiences of sensations. Aesthetic research makes me approach my practice more intuitively and with more sensitivity to what emerges from the flow of the dance- or dancing experience itself. For example, when I investigate how one dance affects me or others; researching when its play with appearances and disappearances makes us conscious, captivates us, or disrupts our being with it, as a dancer, researcher, or spectator. In other words, both artistic and aesthetic properties of dance are intertwined but are not interchangeable components of my research practices.
2) 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 improvising while the last part of the recording turns into background noises.
3) The score reads: “In silence and shoulder blades cannot touch the floor: 1) Perform waiting, 2) ex-plore noticing and awareness, 3) do nothing, not dancing, 4) resurface, 5) relate and flirt.”
4) “Thinking Bodies in Dance. A somatic R.E.A.Ch.” is the title of a PhD. in the arts that I started in September 2020 at the Royal Conservatoire and the University of Antwerp. The goal of this research is to investigate how somatic practices, Nervous Systems in particular, and technology can mutually enhance each other in order to develop techniques for dance improvisation as research.