Dance research in spite of Nervous Systems (2020)
Contribution to H. Langsdorf & A. Arteaga (eds.), Choreography as Conditioning 5.

In October 2019, I had the opportunity to present my artistic research practice for three consecutive days at the event …Through Practices. The structure of this gath-ering was to witness and actively explore ten such practices. In this text, I will articu-late the notion 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 an experiential perspective is based on the principle that sensations are ways of penetrating and gain-ing insights into activities. I became familiar with this approach to dance during my conservatory training in classical, modern, and contemporary dance studies. There, I trained in Body-Mind Centering (BMC), which is an improvisation-based somatic prac-tice that focuses on expanding awareness in order to increase one’s 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 consciousness and awareness of decision-making rather than on achieving 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 listen to the host while comfortably lying down on the floor with their 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 is invited into a circle to recollect the dance and its sensations; in a personal narrative, the participants share their experiences 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 as an artistic and aesthetic dance research.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 which I named Nervous Systems. It is a practice that strives to gain knowledge on dance by integrating notions from experimental phenomenology and neuro- and cognitive sciences.

When I practice Nervous Systems, I consider dance in a defined time and space; I understand this spatiotemporal framework as a fictional territory that functions as a safe place in which to experiment with physical sensations, imaginations in real time and space. In contrast to the open character of my artistic and aesthetic dance re-search, 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 move-ment 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 spatiotemporal framework in which the aesthetic experiment of Nervous Systems takes place as a fiction is a necessary agreement among participants that helps 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, it inquires into how anatomy and 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, thereby broadening our understanding of what repercussions concepts such as centeredness, balance, and control have on embodiment in dance improvisation.

At …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 by taking as a reference my personal studio routine.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; on 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.3 I rely on these elusive activities—that is, the unclear performativity of waiting and not dancing—in order to extend awareness in the practice and stimulate participants to start experimenting together. The setting of Nervous Systems is a fragile frame that grounds the little discomfort of experimenting and consequently generates a tension between our understand-ing and our performing of the score. The practice focuses awareness on 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 and the 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 con-sists of a suspending dynamic. It aims to bring performers together to anticipate im-provisation 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 in this ambiguous dance. The tasks 'per-form waiting,' 'explore noticing and awareness,' and 'do nothing/not dancing' stretch their horizon of attention, and the participants recognize structures in what seems 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 visuali-zation 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 by 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 circulate around what they recalled of the improvisation, creating 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 I 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, which results in (mis)representations. These verbal reflections are then miscommunicating the tacit and often-oblique language of experiences in dancing: they “de-scribe” or “sub-scribe” what is instantaneous and spontaneous. 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 human nervous systems are neither fast nor direct enough to consciously grasp, contain, or direct improvised dancing in its high-speed transformations. 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 instan-taneous 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, which I named Somatic R.E.A.Ch. (research in electronic and algorithmic choreography), detects and processes the movement and speech of 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.

Nevertheless, this next phase in my research does not exclude the reporting activity of Nervous Systems. I consider storytelling and the recollecting of experience good ways of supporting and motivating us to further explore and reflect on what es-capes 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 tech-niques of dance practice. For example, I investigate how different organizations and formulations of movement instructions make my improvisation practice more or less comprehensive for the practition-ers. 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 tech-niques 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, of the experience of dancing itself. For example, I investigate how one dance affects me or others; I re-search 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, artistic and aesthetic properties of dance are intertwined, but they 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 my PhD in the arts that I started in Sep-tember 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 en-hance each other in order to develop techniques for dance improvisation as research.