michael j. morris

becoming becoming becoming

This fall I am creating a new dance work in the Department of Dance at Denison University. This is both my first semester as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Denison and the first dance I have choreographed with these students. At the moment, the working title of the project is becoming becoming becoming, drawing from a range of references, but specifically borrowing language from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—their concepts of becoming-woman, becoming-animal, and becoming-imperceptible. These are concepts that I have previously explored in a burlesque solo entitled becoming emma, becoming imperceptible. In that piece, I worked with a minimal set of vocabularies through which my body passes: first, eroticized feminine gestures from a burlesque idiom—the grind, the shimmy—then more remote idealized femininity embodied in a balletic idiom—bourrées in fifth position, undulating arms that directly cite Fokine’s Dying Swan and Petipa/Ivanov’s Swan Lake—and finally, in my most exposed state of undress, rolling and crawling that evokes something nonhuman, something insect or creature. The balletic swan is an interesting transitional figure between the eroticized feminine and the animal: she is femininity becoming more unattainable, more rarified, but also more animal, less fully human. I think the choreography offers a proposition regarding the parameters of femininity, the erotic, and the human—where they intersect, where they dissolve, and how they move through a single body.

For this new work, I am considering similar ideas with some of the same references across a larger cast. At the moment, I will be working with twelve dancers. With this group, I will continue to interrogate a range of mechanisms through which culturally specific idealized femininities are produced, reproduced, circulated, and potentially deconstructed or deterritorialized. While working with some of the vocabulary I began to explore with becoming emma, becoming imperceptible, I am interested in investigating the movement/choreographic idiom of the fashion runway—the style of walking, the usually straight-and-narrow spatial pathways, the understated presentationalism of people just walking in order to be looked at, and how they figures subject/object positionalities—alongside continuing to work within a limited ballet vocabulary and movement derived from the nonhuman animal. I am also interested in how these vocabularies and references can be spatialized in relation to one another, as both states and spatial territories through which bodies pass. I’m interested in exploring how these spatialities are positioned in relation to viewers and in relation to particular geometries. One way this might be addressed is arranging the audience on four sides, where their seats demarcate the edges of a plane and the intersecting sight lines extrude a grid. Bodies then might move along this grid, conforming to straight lines and right angles, or they might move across the grid, in ways that do not conform to its logic. These are concepts that I began to explore in some ways in TOWARD BELONGING, a group work that I premiered in April 2015. As with that piece, I will also be investigating repetition as both a choreographic device and a fundamental property of the ontology of gender. Following Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity, we can think of gender as an ongoing activity rather than a state of being, a set of stylized behaviors and acts that are repeated incessantly, producing the effect of their own persistence and stability. Thus, the references of which this piece may be composed include philosophy, multiple movement idioms/traditions through which the feminine and the human/nonhuman are produced (fashion, ballet, etc.), my own previous choreographic work, and abstract concepts like the grid, repetition, and spatialized territories—which are, of course, already politicized in our lived experiences of them.

Here I would like to start to aggregate some specific textual, choreographic, and visual references for the work. I have collected a few different passages of text and videos that will inform my process.

If I can secure permission, I am also hoping to include recorded spoken text by Juliana Huxtable, originally written for the Hood By Air Fall/Winter 2014 runway show (video above), which addresses a range of body ideals in relation to gender:

Lastly, these passages from and discussing the work of Deleuze and Guattari are informing this process, and it may be that recorded readings of these passages also become part of the final work:

“In [Deleuze and Guattari’s] view, the binary couple Man/Woman is one of the interlocking sets of coordinates on the categorical grid defining the person. They correspond to Nobody. They are empty categories. ‘Woman’ is simply the oppositional term without which ‘Man’ would have no meaning. It is simply that in contrast to which what is designated ‘Man’ is deemed superior. It is a patriarchal construct … No real body ever entirely coincides with either category. A body only approaches its assigned category as a limit: it becomes more or less ‘feminine’ or more or less ‘masculine’ depending on the degree to which it conforms to the connections and trajectories laid out for it by society according to which coordinate in gender grid it is judges to coincide with. ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ as such have not reality other than that of logical abstractions … ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ and their many subcategories designate stereotyped sets of object choices and life paths (stable equilibriums) promoted by society. They are clichés that bodies are coerced into incarnating as best they can. No body is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ One can only come to one’s assigned cliché, like metal to a magnet that recedes father into the distance the closer one draws, in an endless deflection from invention. The only end is death. Gender is a fatal detour from desire-in-deviation (every body’s secret potential and birthright) … A body does not have a gender: it is gendered. Gender is done unto it by the socius … Gender is a form of imprisonment, a socially functional limitation of a body’s connective and transformational capacity. Although thoroughly social, gender is not of course arbitrary in the sense that bodies are assigned categories at random. Gendering is the process by which a body is socially determined to be determined by biology: social channelization cast as destiny by being pinned to anatomical difference” (Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, 86-87).

“The feminine gender stereotype involves greater indeterminacy (‘fickle’) and movement (‘flighty’) and has been burdened by the patriarchal tradition with a disproportionate load of paradox (virgin/whore, mother/lover). Since supermolecularity involves a capacity to superpose states that are ‘normally’ mutually exclusive, Deleuze and Guattari hold that the feminine cliché offers a better departure point than masculinity for a rebecoming-molecular of the personified individual. They therefore recommend what they call ‘becoming-woman’ for bodies of either biological sex. Becoming-woman involves carrying the indeterminacy, movement, and paradox of the female stereotype past the point at which it is recuparable by the socius as it presently functions, over the limit beyond which lack of definition becomes the positive power to select a trajectory (the leap from the realm of possibility into the virtual—breaking away)” (Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 87).

“Yes, all becomings are molecular: the animal, flower, or stone one becomes are molecular collectivities, haecceities, not molar subjects, objects or form that we know from the outside and recognize from experience, through science, or by habit. If this is true, then we must say the same of things human: there is a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, that do not resemble the woman or the child as clearly distinct molar entities (although it is possible—only possible—for the woman or child to occupy privileged positions in relation to these becomings). What we term a molar entity is, for example, the woman as defined by her form, endowed with organs and functions and assigned as a subject. Becoming-woman is not imitating this entity or even transforming oneself into it. We are not, however, overlooking the importance of imitation, or moments of imitation, among certain homosexual males, much less the prodigious attempt at a real transformation on the part of certain transvestites. All we are saying is that these indissociable aspects of becoming-woman must first be understood as a function of something else: not imitating or assuming the female form, but emitting particles that enter the relation of movement and rest, or the zone of proximity, of a microfemininity, in other words, that produce in us a molecular woman, create the molecular woman. We do not mean to say that a creation of this kind is the prerogative of the man, but on the contrary that the woman as a molar entity has to become-woman in order that the man also becomes- or can become-woman” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 275-276).

“The question is not, or not only, that of the organism, history, and subject of enunciation that oppose masculine to feminine in the great dualism machines. The question is fundamentally that of the body—the body they steal from us in order to fabricate opposable organisms. This body is stolen first from the girl: Stop behaving like that, you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re not a tomboy, etc. The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her. The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too. The girl is the first victim, but she must also serve as an example and a trap. That is why, conversely, the reconstruction of the body as a Body without Organs, the anorganism of the body, is inseparable from a becoming-woman, or the production of a molecular woman” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 276).

“…it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all other becomings” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 277).

“If becoming-woman is the first quantum, or molecular segment, with the becomings-animal that link up with it coming next, what are they all rushing toward? Without a doubt, toward becoming-imperceptible. The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formula” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 279).

“A line of becoming is not defined by points that it connects, or by points that compose it; on the contrary, it passes between points, it comes up through the middle, it runs perpendicular to the points first perceived, transversally to the localizable relation to distant or contiguous points. A point is always a point of origin. But a line of becoming has neither beginning nor end, departure nor arrival, origin nor destination; to speak of the absence of an origin, to make the absence of an origin the origin, is a bad play on words. A line of becoming has only a middle. … A becoming is always in the middle; one can only get it by the middle. A becoming is neither one nor two, nor the relation of the two; it is the in-between, the border or line of flight or descent running perpendicular to both” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 293).

“This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segement by segment, have a small plot of land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bringing forth continuous intensities for a Body without Organs” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 161).

Sources of insight and inspiration

I feel as if a new post is dreadfully overdue, but I’ll be honest: I am absorbing a lot of information right now; it hasn’t really had time to synthesize into my own thoughts. So I thought I might just offer a list of what I am taking in right now as inspirations and source materials:

Ballet technique classes with Karen Eliot three days per week. It is amazing to have been practicing this technique for almost ten years now and still have moments of total tidal shifts in my understanding of what it is that I’m doing. Karen is an exceptional teacher.

Reading The Splendor of Recognition: And Exploration of the Pratyabhijna-hrdayam, a Text on the Ancient Science of the Soul by Swami Shantananda. I’m swimming in thoughts of Consciousness (citi) as the creator and substance of the entire universe, the creative pulsation (spanda) of creation, sustainment, and dissolution, the nature of subject and object, knowledge, and the mind. One quote for today (and understand that several terms in this quote are specialized; most importantly, identification of Siva as a specific deity is symbolic, and in fact refers to the Supreme Consciousness out of which all Reality emerges):

“Wherever the ind goes, whether toward the exterior or toward the interior, everywhere there is the state of Siva. Since Siva is omnipresent, where can the mind go to avoid him?”

Reading The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice by Georg Feuerstein. I am only a chapter into this, but it is an exhaustively precise description of the historic evolution of this complex system of thought/practice.

Reading Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude by Amy Bloom. This is Bloom’s only non-fiction, and it is lovely. It is truly queer in that it is completely undermining my concepts of normality, gender, sexuality, social roles, relationships, etc. It is written in an easy fashion on subjects that are less easy to contemplate. For all my support of transsexuals, it is not easy to read about phalloplasty and metoidioplasty female-to-male surgeries. These are complicated, invasive and painful surgeries that are offered as part of an FTM transition. It isn’t easy to read about the tension in relationships between heterosexual male crossdressers and their wives. Etc. And yet I think it is contributing positively to broaden my perspective of identity and society and self-perception/presentation/performance.

Reading Matt Morris’ genius writings on Aeqai: A Journal for Writing on the Visual Arts in the Greater Cincinnati Region. Matt (who is my twin brother) is writing an excellent series concerned with sculpture in public spaces. In them he has touched on concepts of the private/public dichotomy, the relationship between social, psychological, energetic, and geographic space, the relationship between art and identity, etc. They are truly brilliant and worth your time to read.
First installment.
Second installment.

Watching HBO’s In Treatment. This series is GENIUS. I am completely addicted. It follows a psychoanalyst and his progress through the cases of five patients and himself week by week. The episodes are short, generally limited to the content of his sessions. The acting is superb, the writing even better, the filming excellent, etc. Everything I want in a television show.

Listening to Jay Brannan‘s new cd In Living Cover. Jay Brannan is probably best known for his role in the John Cameron Mitchell film Shortbus, but makes beautiful music as well. I loved his first album, and this week he released an album of covers, including Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” and the Cranberries “Zombies,” among others. Great listening for this week.

Dancing in a new project with CoCo Loupe, Eric Falck, and Jeff Fouch tentatively titled “3 Boys and an Old Prophetess.” No idea where this project is going, but you can read more about it on CoCo’s blog here.

finishing my Elementary Labanotation Certification exam

I have a lengthy to-do list for the summer and I am slowly making my way through it, absorbing and continuing to move and thrive and live. These are pieces of that process.

All come highly recommended.

Reflecting on the Spring Quarter

The spring quarter is almost complete. Two informal showings today, and I will be off into my summer. For a day, at least. Wednesday I start a two-week intensive Labanotation Teacher Certification Course. Which then segues straight into the summer quarter. But the schedule will have  bit more breathing room.

Perhaps my largest project this quarter was in my History, Theory, Literature of Choreography course. I decided to do a queer analysis of choreography by Frederick Ashton. Originally it was my intention to analyze two ballets, The Dream and Sylvia, but after in-barking on the analysis of The Dream, I found it so rich in “queer potential” that the emphasis of the research became The Dream alone. 

My primary interest in this research was to consider the potential contribution of Frederick Ashton’s choreography to queer culture, or for his choreography’s queer contribution to dance culture. It also came primarily as a response to Jane Desmond’s assertion of the centrality of dance history and queer theory to one another in her book Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On & Off The Stage. She writes:

“. . . to understand dance history and dance practices, we must analyze them in relation to histories of sexualities. Conversely, it suggests that the analysis of dance, as a form of material symbolic bodily practice, should be of critical importance to gay and lesbian studies and the ‘queer theory.’ Until now neither analytical approach has received much attention from dance studies scholars or from those in gay/lesbian studies . . . What happens to the writing of dance history and criticism when issues of sexuality and sexual identity become central? And what happens to our considerations of queer theory and to gay and lesbian studies when a dancing body takes center stage? What do we see that we didn’t see before? What questions do we ask that were heretofore unspeakable, unnameable, or unthinkable? What analytical tools will we need to formulate these questions and to develop provisional answers? In what ways might these initiatives reshape our readings of past histories and give rise to new ones? . . . This claim for the necessary intersection of sexuality studies and dance studies is based on two assertions: first, that issues of sexuality, and especially of non-normative sexuality, are not merely relevant to but play a constitutive and under recognized role in dance history; and second, that dance provides a privileged arena for the bodily enactment of sexuality’s semiotics and should thus be positioned at the center, not the periphery, of sexuality studies.”

These ideas were a central point of departure for this research. When I first became aware of Ashton’s sexuality, I was struck by the fact that his work (like so many other choreographers) is not discussed in relationship to his queer identity. It is not that I was interested in establishing a causal relationship between his autobiography and the content of his choreography, nor even speculating about his intentions for his own work. Instead, having become aware of his queer identity, I was interested in how one might interpret his ballet through a queer lens, and how this interpretation might reveal a relationship to queer culture.

In the paper, I attempt to situate The Dream in relationship to the queer culture, such as the relationship of the term “fairy” in the late 19th century and early-to-mid (to present?) 20th century describing an overtly effeminate man who was assumed to solicit male sexual partners (as opposed to “normal men” who abide by the socially expected behavior of masculinity). I also situate the ballet in relationship to the Radical Fairy movement of the 1970s that evolved out of the social politics of gay activists such as Harry Hay. Besides this “cultural situation” of the subject matter of Ashton’s ballet, the paper is primarily a choreographic analysis, looking at the narrative, character development, relationship of characters to one another, individual movement vocabulary, and use of partnering as it relates to the notion of “queer,” or a subversion of the normative or heteronormative.

While I would love to post the whole paper here, as it represents a significant investment in my own research, I will resist the urge. If you are very interested in this analysis, just let me know and I’ll try to find a way for you to read it.

Another significant portion of research this quarter has been in the are of Labanotation. In addition to pursuing my Elementary Labanotation Certification (almost done), I did the work of reading/learning two pieces of choreography in my Intermediate Labanotation course. We learned from score: Yvonne Rainer’s  “Trio A” and three versions of the Sylph’s variation in act II of La Sylphide (the versions were from 1849, 1865, and a version considered current to today). These were in vastly different dancing styles which necessitated different methods for employing the notation system. But more importantly (to me) they addressed a certain kind of hunger in the study of dance history. Too often in studying dance history, our primary points of access are through watching (visual) and reading/lectures (linguistic). Rarely do we have the opportunity to embody seminal dance works from the past. Both of these pieces represent profound periods in the history of dance, La Sylphide representing the Bournonville ballet tradition and the Romantic ballet, “Trio A” representing the 1960’s Judson/post-modern shift in American dance. Not only did we have the opportunity to understand the meaning of these periods in our bodies, but they were made to co-exist within our bodies, disparate styles and periods collapsed into a singular corporeal experience.

I want to briefly describe my experiences of each of these pieces. “Trio A” was surprising in many ways. The first was the extreme complexity of the notation for this piece. “Trio A,” along with most of the work that came out of the Judson group, is considered pedestrian, anti-thetical to traditional theater and concert dance. For me, having read and written about this work, it has always seemed as if it would be simple. The notation revealed that it is not; it is incredibly specific. This quality revealed itself further as we interpreted the notation and learned/practiced the piece. It demanded so much concentration which gave it an almost intense, meditative quality. As it became familiar, it retained this quality of a moving meditation. Some of the directives in the score have to do with evenness of tempo, phrasing, and dynamics. Nothing is to be emphasized, nothing should be given more importance than anything else. And like Rainer’s “NO Manifesto” (below), it is a run-on sentence, nothing repeating, just streaming along in a similar fashion. I feel this quality, the meditativeness, the almost effortless physicality (paired with intense mental focus) infecting the way I approach other movement material as well.

“NO Manifesto:

“NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.”

“Trio A” was meant to embody these ideas. You can see how they translate in Rainer’s performance in the video below:

La Sylphide was more difficult for me. The notation was specific but not as specific as “Trio A.” It made assumptions of certain stylistic understanding. Because my ballet training is not in Bournonville, these assumptions were lost on me. The learning took far more time. The most interesting part of this process was recognizing the relationship of one historical interpretation of the choreography to others, how movements were rearranged, cut, reversed, sped up, or slowed down, etc. It raised questions (that have come up throughout this year) about the nature of choreographic information. If the steps change, what is it that makes each “version” the same ballet? What is the choreography beyond the steps? What is necessary to its integrity? Etc.

I tried to find a video of this variation, but I couldn’t find the exact section on youtube. 

One of my most interesting courses was a Somatics survey taught by Abby Yager. The goals for this course were for practicing a deep listening to the body, cultivating a appreciation and understanding of the Self through this awareness of the body, and the development of a personal somatic practice based on one’s sense of one’s own body. This sort of information feeds directly into a central research interest of mine, the relationship of the body to identity, the embodied nature of existence and experience, and the relationship of a dance practice to the development (or choreography) of identity. I am interested in how these investigations might synthesize in my creative practice and choreography, how choreography might come out of this kind of self awareness, or how I might consciously consider the practice of choreography as a shaping of individual identity through its engagement of the body. In a larger scope, I am interested how individual identity comes out of the way we “choreograph” ourselves, how our conscious and subconscious choices of the ways we handle ourselves physically come to define us for ourselves and others. I am interested in how a cultivated awareness or “deep listening” of the body might contribute to this choreography of identity. The modalities explored in this course (Qi’Gong, Alexander technique, Yoga, Trager, experiential anatomy, Klein technique, etc.) have offered me a wide range of approaches to this sort of research.

This quarter I also produced a solo-in-progress entitled “Red Monster.” It was partially inspired by Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and evolved (for me) as an investigation of the ways in which shame and desire transform us (me) into monsters. I just posted a video of this piece on youtube. I don’t think it is an ideal performance (15 May 2009, as part of SIP, the first year dance MFA’s informal showing), for many reasons, but it does offer a look at what I have been exploring choreographically. I may continue to work on this piece. I’ll keep you posted on its evolution.

Here at the end of the quarter I also made several trips to Cincinnati where my twin brother lives. These trips were mostly about seeing art, but this past weekend I attended an event called Dance_MF, which was essentially a huge late-night dance party at Northside Tavern. It is a monthly event, and this was my first time there. It brought several things to mind. The first was a fairly simple observation, something that I have observed before in “dance floor” situations: individuals are far more likely to dance around one another or even in reference to one another than they are to actually dance with another person, by which I mean share any sort of physical contact. It’s always struck me as a disparity, that a social situation primarily characterized by its intense physicality is more based on a visual engagement than one of connected physicality. This is indicative of a larger social disparity with which I’ve been discontented for some time: despite the fact that we are embodied, corporeal creatures, our engagement with one another or knowledge of one another as human beings is more based on our visual interpretations of one another than our actual physical engagement. This strikes me as odd, in culture at large, but especially on a dance floor. I wonder if this awareness has emerged from my dance/choreographic life. To consider a three-to-four hour dance “composition” or “improvisation” in which the participants rarely touch one another feels either boring, ill-crafted, or a very specific social statement. What happens when we engage with life as art, social behavior as composition? How might “society” become a comment on society within the confines of the dance floor?

It also made me think of Jonathan Bollen’s article “Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor” (a portion of which can be read here). I’ll try to summarize this article sometime soon.

Another curious effect of this event was an awareness of myself as a “transgender presence.” I decided to wear a dress to the dance (an evolution of wearing skirts and heels and other traditionally female articles of clothing and accessories), not in an attempt to be female, but as an interpretation/expression/expansion of masculinity/my own identity as not being relegated to the narrow expression of identity traditionally associated with masculinity and maleness. At some point during the evening, I became aware of how much the population on the dance floor respected the gender binary. I do not identify as transgender, but in my transgression of traditional male expression, I became a kind of symbol of transgender. Which was an interesting dynamic on a dance floor, not to mention an interesting evolution in my perception of self.

And that’s my reflection on the spring quarter.

Inspiration for today

Sometimes I worry that when I post in such rapid succession that no one reads the posts before. At the same time, I only know of two or three people who are reading anyway . . . and I am trying to honor this space as a “public creative platform” as much as it is forum for discussion and ideas. So I wanted to post a few inspirations from today; I hope you read the other recent posts as well:

First, an article I stumbled across that feeds PERFECTLY into the research I am doing concerning the presentation of gender in dance, historically and in the present. It is called “The Travesty Dancer in Nineteenth-Century Ballet” by Lynn Garafola. You can find it on JSTOR here. I am certain ideas will spark from this article. It discusses the rise of female travesty dancers (cross-dressers, in this case, women dressing/performing as men) in the Romantic ballet in France and England. Already I am curious how sexuality may have played a role in this shift . . . the over-feminization of the female in the Romantic ballet, the exile of the male dancer, to installment of female dancers in male roles, all concurrent with the rise of institutionalized prostitution in the professional ballet theaters. I am wondering if the exclusion of the male dancer and his replacement with female dancers was a response to the sexual desires of the desirous male audiences, many of whom were seeking assignations with the ballerinas.

Inspiration from different areas (not devoid of gendered content):
Fashion. The Spring Couture lines have been released. I finally got a chance to look them over. Here are just a few things that stood out to me:

Christian Lacroix 
Christian Dior






And photos by Adam Pretty of gold medalist Olympic diver, Matthew Mitcham:


Just stunning. There may be an unfolding dichotomy/discussion in the depiction/perception of kinaesthtics (kinesthetic-aesthetics) in fields like dance, fashion, and sports . . . and how this may relate to gender. In reading Dancing Desires recently, the dichotomy was presented that men in dance are generally considered feminine, whereas women in sports are generally considered masculine. It was the first time I became aware of this potential parallel. I’m not sure this “inspiration” post contributes any to this discussion, but there are elements here: women in dance who dress/behave/move like men (in dance, who are already considered feminine; so many layers of gender construction there . . .), women in fashion, and these incredibly graceful portraits of a truly great male athlete. Maybe just by posting these here in this collection I am contributing to the discussion, even if only in my own thought processes . . .

Hope you are inspired today.