michael j. morris


Projected Research Trajectory
16 September, 2010, 10:11 pm
Filed under: research | Tags: , , , , , ,

So I’m writing a grant right now, and as part of the grant I was required to author a “statement of purpose” describing my projected research trajectory. While it may be a bit too specific to be considered as a general guiding statement for my research, it does articulate (fairly succinctly) many of the areas of inquiry that I am interested in pursuing. I wanted to share it here as a summation of where things are at right now, and maybe a hint at where things are going next (NOTE: this is not exhaustive; the most notable absence for me is any discussion of Butoh as a significant experiential/corporeal methodology for queer ecologies; there just simply wasn’t the space, and there are several other posts of the blog that touch on this subject):

My primary interests for doctoral research in the field of Dance are the exploration of dance and choreographic practices as functional systems of interdependent corporealities (the constructed realities of the body) and subjectivities (the constructed nexus of perception and action of the individual); and the situation of the body as the site for the constitution (and constant re-constitution) of permeable identity within these systems of interdependency. It is my intention to examine choreographic processes, improvisational methodologies, and dance training, both theoretically and in practice, for their potentials to provide knowledge concerning human and more-than-human ecologies and the construction of corporeal identity that can be utilized both within and beyond the field of dance. Too often dance is relegated to the status of autonomous cultural value—relevant within its own history and discipline, or as a cultural product to be studied—but not considered to be a site for useful knowledge that might be incorporated into other fields of study. It is my intention to explore these concerns in such a way that they might operate in truly interdisciplinary discourses surrounding the body and systems of interdependent organization. I am supporting this research through continued study and creative activity in dance practices—such as choreographic practices in movement generation and group organization, improvisational and “score-based” methodologies, movement analysis and notation, and pedagogical practices in dance; in ecology, as a relevant lens for the analysis of systems of human and more-than-human (referring to other-than-human elements within systems of interdependency) participants; and in queer theories, particularly as they relate to the theorization of identity and the body.

Dance practices—including but not exclusive to choreography—are predicated on an assumption of interdependency between multiple subjectivities. Both the immediate participation of teachers, choreographers, and collaborators within choreographic and performance situations, and the aesthetic and training histories in which those individuals are citationally implicit, have been incorporated into the body and the dance experience of every dancer. In this sense, dance practice always already involves the collaborative construction of individual bodies by way of physical practice, training and the exchange between choreographer and dancer in the choreographic setting, and the collaborative construction of choreographies and dances as objects of intrinsic intersubjectivity. Dances do not reside within a single body or space, but function as systems of interdependency (considerable as ecologies) involving the incorporation of multiple bodies/subjectivities, and often include further interdependency with more-than-human elements, such as scoring and documentation systems across a variety of media, specific spaces (as in site-interactive choreographies), and technology. Of particular interest to me are the more-than-human elements of dance scores in the production of bodies and dances. I consider dance scores such as those written in Labanotation (a system for the analysis and notation of movement based on the work of Rudolf von Laban) and other comparable systems of movement analysis/notation to function as artifacts of transhistorical and intersubjective significance. The score simultaneously describes the movement of historical bodies (descriptions in which the corporeal presence of both the historical dancer(s) and the notator of the score are both necessary and implicit) and provides that information as impetus for the construction of the movement of contemporary bodies, and thus the construction of the contemporary bodies themselves. The score’s full meaning and function only exist between these transhistorical subjectivities, and the dance that the score produces exists only with the participation of this nexus of human and more-than-human elements. While my projected research will include a survey and analysis of a variety of dance practices, ranging from body-to-body methodologies (such as the choreographer transmitting movement directly to the dancer by way of demonostration and instruction) to methodologies incorporating additional more-than-human elements (such as scoring systems or the dissemination of movement material through media and technology), Labanotation, as a significant component of my research profile and expertise in the field of dance, holds for me a particular interest in the investigation of the ecologies of dance practices. The Ohio State University is uniquely qualified to host this kind of research: the Dance Notation Bureau Extension for Education and Research—the only extension of its kind maintained by the Dance Notation Bureau in New York City—is housed within the OSU Department of Dance. The resources for Labanotation research made available through the DNB Extension, including dance scores, research libraries, educational materials and opportunities, and certification programs, are truly unique to this institution, and make OSU the ideal setting for doctoral research involving these lines of inquiry.

In addition to my continued work in Labanotation, it is also my intention to maintain my own choreographic practice as a methodology for this research. Adjacent to my studies in indirect movement generation (the construction of movement in processes that incorporate elements beyond a body-to-body/person-to-person choreographic model, such as Labanotation scores), I consider it important that these studies take place within the setting of the choreographic construction of dance and (coextensively) bodies. The importance of making and doing as useful ways of knowing are uniquely emphasized within the field of dance. It is an assumption of my research that these concerns cannot be fully explored remotely, but that they necessitate an active, embodied exploration through the process of making choreography. Maintaining my creative practice as a choreographer will provide an opportunity for this exploration, a type of research and knowledge generation that is truly unique to my field.

The infrastructure of these inquiries is an appreciation of the body as the permeable and transformable site for the perception, negotiation, construction, and performance of identity. Identity is not a new or unproblematic topic in academic research; it has proven to be a complex nexus of intersecting trajectories of power, politics, and participation within many fields of inquiry. My interest is in the corporeal situation of the complexity of identity. This investigation will draw heavily on the work of queer theorists and my own queer understanding of non-normative, subversive, and fluid identities. The perspective of the body as composed from the collaboration and contributions of multiple sources as intrinsic to dance practice suggests a permeable body, one that maintains ability, definition, and morphology as mobile boundaries characterized by a multiplicity of potentials and possibilities. Queer theories support this perspective by offering a wealth of language, perspective and utility for the maintenance of such permeable borders and mobile definitions. Queer theories also provide methodologies for enacting a necessary critique of and resistance to dance practices that function as systems for regulation and “normalization” of bodies, and as systems of oppression that reiterate sexism, racism, homophobia, and economic inequality through physical education. This critical lens will operate in my analytical engagement with contemporary dance practices, as well as with historical materials such as dance notation scores and conventional writing practices.

A meta-concern of this research is the importance of interdisciplinary inquiry, drawing from relevant adjacent fields of study (such as ecology and queer theory) in my dance research, as well as considering dance as a field of productive knowledge for these adjacent fields and others. My interest is in investigating these topics within practices unique to the field of dance, and offering the knowledge produced by those investigations to other fields addressing these same topics. It is my hope that in doing so I might participate in and further similar endeavors within my discipline to recognize the potential for dance to provide unique and invaluable knowledge within and beyond the field of dance.



The bigness of the body
27 August, 2010, 1:26 pm
Filed under: cosmology, creative process, Dance, Grad School, research | Tags: ,

If I’m honest, I feel like I’m in state of some degree of burnout right now. I know I’ll recover, but I just feel unable to read another thing (even as I read an article by Sondra Fraleigh on the correlation between Butoh and nature this morning), and my mind is hardly synthesizing all that I have read/done/researched this summer. I have ideas about dances that I want to make, but in general I am experiencing a persistent near-paralysis in my making. This morning in conversation with my friend/colleague/gaga-guru Maree ReMalia, I think I began to understand why:

This all started (by “this all” I mean to refer to this research journey into Sexecology, Ecosexuality, ecologies, etc. etc. etc.) in the pursuit of a body that extends beyond the constraints of [the assumedly fixed] biological morphology, a body that accounts for its ongoing state of becoming/constructedness/de-and-re-constructedness, a body that not only participates with its environmental surroundings, but blurs its edges into that space, the body being implicit in consciousness and perception and sensation. My earliest articulations of my (then MFA project)n involved “the listening body,” the body constituted in its attention, and its reciprocal participation with that which exists beyond it. When I applied for my PhD, my proposed research interest had to do with understanding the body as the site of identity, and analyzing/understanding dance practices with with a sense of the active formulation of individual identity in our participation in the formation of dancing bodies: dance as a choreography of identity. Since that point, my working understanding of identity has become less fixed: identity is not a stable essence but an ongoing construction, multiple and fluid and unfixed; I would say the same for “the body.” Through my engagement with the work of the Love Art Laboratory and their art/research in the areas of Sexecology and Ecosexuality, I began to consider the functional systems of interdependency as a primary situation by/in/through which we experience (phenomenally) our selves/bodies. This was powerfully echoed in my research in Tantric philosophy and its function as a foundation for the practice of yoga, a dissolving of the distinction of subject and object into a larger whole that is Consciousness (necessarily a body-based consciousness). In my course work, the constructed nature of the body/individual self became implicated in issues of power, production, reproduction, and the compulsive reiteration of normalized identities. The body is not singular but citational. The body is not only physical but also social, cultural, sexual, economic, etc. etc. etc. The body is “both/and”: it is completely itself, non-representational, meaningful is its own kinesthetic experience; and the body is a [part of?] systems that extend infinitely from it, into history, society, culture, the environment, etc. Its form presents its formulation, a formulation that is constant and ongoing and bigger-and-beyond its biological morphological form.
In short, the body is no longer simple. And it is big.

My choreography has always functioned as a kind of physical philosophy. The dances that I have made have more often then not been principally concerned with cultivating a physical experience/understanding of a facet of human experience. But at the same time, they were also crafted of moving bodies in time and space. I know how to choreograph for those bodies: finite, structural, sensing/knowing. But I think at least a portion of my creative paralysis is that I have not yet figured out how to choreograph for these bodies that are indicative of such bigness, that are always already implicated in such a complex nexus of interesting constitutional forces, that are implicit in the expanse of consciousness, functioning in systems and ecologies far beyond my knowledge/comprehension, constantly changing and (re)forming even as I participate in that formation, who experience and know themselves as sensual and sexual, erotic and desiring; to the degree that we are defined (within our own experiences of ourselves, and within the societies in which we function; and understanding definition as unfixed/shifting/potentially fluid) by our desires, the task of making dances for desiring/desirous bodies is daunting. To the degree to which bodies function as sites of the production of power, I don’t yet know how to situate myself in a choreographic relationship of shaping bodies (through the movement which I offer or generate) and assuming that power.

It all converges in this tension of the “bigness,” the [post-modern?] condition of disparity and unity, the individual and the larger “whole”/”organism” of which the “individual” is always already a part . . . this is a tension that is held in yogic philosophy, in astrology (the life of the individual is unique, but it is also an expression of a larger cosmological whole), in ecology, and even in the corps de ballet. Obviously this tension is not a concise research agenda, but it has something to do with where I want to be/am going. And it has to do with Butoh, and yoga maybe, and the Love Art Lab and Karl Cronin, Sexecology/Ecosexuality, queer theory and queer ecologies, queering dance practices, the erotic, phenomenology, etc.

And right now that’s as much as I’ve got. And I’m feeling a little too burned out to do much with any of it today. I know I’ll find the energy/inspiration for this work . . . just maybe not today.



Urban Regalia

Friday, 14 August, I had the opportunity to see the premiere of Nathan Hurst’s new couture collection “Urban Regalia” at his show “Off with Their Heads” at CS13 in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to the show’s facebook, “Urban Regalia focuses on a royal renewal of precious vintage finds, explores the reconstruction of former garments, and serves as a host for his [Hurst’s] original design concepts inspired by a reinvention of historical regalia.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about this show since I saw it. I’m not quite ready to commit those ideas to type yet, but I thought I would go ahead and let you in on this inspiration in my world right now. Suffice to say that it was a brilliant first showing from a talented young designer/artist:

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You can read Matt Morris’ article about Hurst and the show in CityBeat here.

You can also see images from the show at CS13’s facebook page.

Hurst just posted this video this week. Many of the pieces from the collection are on display. What I love most about it is that just as many of the pieces are appropriated and repurposed garments, their transmogrify is heightened further in their transgression of traditionally gendered morphology on the body of the designer. Just as Hurst engages in processes of “renewal” and “reinvention” and “reconstruction” of vintage finds, former garments, and historical regalia, their situation on the male body both further recreates the garments themselves, and recreates the meaning of the male body. Amazing:

I have an evolving ideology on the concept of the actual body and the social body. The actual body in my mind has to do with biological morphology. The social body refers to the contextual connotations that we associate with the body. The way it’s dressed, the way it’s depicted, the way we think about it because of its treatment in culture. Identity (including corporeal/kinesthetic identity) is situated somewhere in the midst of these. This seems to be the hazard of any sort of focused research: suddenly everything relates to your research interests, but I love how Hurst’s work and this video in particular  relates to my interests in the relationship between the body and identity, and that relationship to the choreography of identity.

I don’t want to make too much of the video as a “video dance” (for those of you who are unfamiliar, “video dance” is a whole field of dance expression, choreography and dances specifically made to be explored/directed/displayed via video rather than live/stage presentation), but I do have critical responses to the movement in the video, not just the garments it animates. To be clear, I view the organization of the body itself as a kind of choreography, the carriage of the body, its stance, its dynamics. But there is also the movement itself. Of course the most obvious observation is its appropriation/mimicry of the runway format, the advance and the retreat, the gate of the “model” (and to be clear, I read it as meaningful that in this case the model also happens to be the designer . . . it relates to my perspective on the choreographer and the dancer (see previous post), a relationship that although different is similar in that it involves the creative action of one individual, the negotiation of that creative activity on the body of another, culminating in an event that represents the identities of both. Here, those individuals are the same, the creative activity of the one individual recreated/translated on the body of that same individual, all taking place in and through the site of the singular body), and the punctuation of poses both near to and far from the camera lens. The advance and retreat reads as meaningful to me: the retreat gives way to the advance, moving away gives the opportunity to move forward once more. It’s aggressive. I like it.
I’m also struck by the contraction of time. We know because the outfits change that a remarkable amount of time has passed in the filming, but we are given something far more surreal to be viewed, in which events occur one after another, like a series of fevered memories (memory being the space in which time becomes flexible, fluid, non-sequential). This contraction of time seems to reflect in video editing what has been done in the construction of the garments. It says, “Look again. And again. And again. Because what it once was is not what it is any longer.”
I am also struck by the gaze of the model/designer (can I add “dancer” if I am viewing the video as a kind of choreography?). While the video reads to me as an aggressive invitation to gazed upon, it’s confrontational. The model/designer/”dancer” gazes back. The viewer can actually meet his eyes (negotiated through the video . . . and I can’t even begin to discuss the politics of presence and absence in the medium of video, not in this post). When he is undressed, it is he who undresses himself, not the viewer undressing him.
I love the drama of the tossed fan, the thrown jacket, the twirl of the long white dress, the coy smiles, the laps when he doesn’t pause to be viewed, but moves towards and away in a single path, almost as if to say, “You can look, but I’m not going to assist you in your looking.”
There. That’s my brief critical dance response to a fashion video.

Oh, and this is a picture of Matt and I at the party after the show. I think we look nice:

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The other half of a dissertation

For months I’ve been thinking about the direction of my research, the areas that I am interest exploring relating to the body and dance and movement. For the most part, what fascinates me is corporeal/kinesthetic identity, which for me refers to the way in which we both perceive and present who we are as individuals through the (moving) body. We come to know who we are through our corporeal/kinesthetic experience, and we present or perform who we are through our physical actions and interactions in the world around us. The body is the site of negotiation between our inner perceptions and the outer perspectives of who we are. Identity then is a kind of choreography, in which the body is organized in time and space as an extension of who we are. I am interested in exploring cognitive sciences, philosophy, research about embodied consciousness (from authors like Mark Johnson and Alva Noe), identity politics (it’s about time I read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble), and how these forces intersect in the choreography of the body/identity.

The sub-theme or assumption of this research is a privileging of the body as essential to personhood, to identity. The  body is not the vehicle for consciousness, it is not the shell or container for personhood or essence, but it is intrinsic to all of these aspects of existence and experience. I am interested in expanding this understanding as well.

As of yesterday, I have come to another understanding of where I would like my research to go. For me it is something like the “other half” of the above described research interest. As fascinating as embodied consciousness and corporeal/kinesthetic identity might be, and as interesting as it might be to consider these aspects of humanity to be a kind of choreography, there was really nothing that grounded this research in the field of dance (as opposed to psychology, philosophy, other sciences, etc.). Until now.

Yesterday I was thinking about the intimacy of the act of choreography. If the body and the way in which it moves is essential to identity, then the act of generating movement for choreography is (to varying degrees, I’m sure) an extension of identity. The act of making dances takes on a quality of intimate exchange, the choreographer extending and offering his or her identity into movement material that is then absorbed into the body of the dancer who invites the movement (which I am thinking of as an extension of the identity of the choreographer) into his or her body and cultivates it as part of himself/herself. Just as the body in general is a site for the perception, negotiation, and performance of identity, this process becomes intensified in the dancer’s body. The dancer’s body becomes the site for not only negotiating his or her own identity, but negotiating the integration of aspects of the choreographer’s identity with his or her own. Out of this negotiation comes the dance. I’m thinking about dance making not only as a creative act but a procreative act. The dance is the product of the negotiation between choreographer and dancer, their actions extensions of identity, the dance being produced out of the integration of discrete movement identities or identifying movement. I discussed this dynamic a bit in a post from May, describing the unique experience of creative collaboration, specifically in working on the piece “Observing Solitude”: https://morrismichaelj.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/queer-presence-in-creative-process-and-spirituality/. I think that I have felt this way about the choreographic process for quite some time and only now am I finding language for it, and its relationship to these other research interests. The arching subjects of this research seem to be in two parts: the relationship of the body to identity, and the relationship of identity to the act of choreography. There are other implications: I’m thinking about how dance notation (Labanotation, for instance) takes on a quality of biography, not only the writing of movement, but the movement of a specific choreographer. If in fact that movement contains an essential connection to the identity of that choreographer, then the writing of that movement is literally a kind of biography. I’m thinking about the reconstruction of dances from score not only as a study of the dances themselves, but as a study of biography, literally embodying a kind of kinesthetic biography of historical choreographers. Ann Cooper Albright spoke at OSU last fall and discussed her research on Loïe Fuller and how part of what revealed this woman to her was the actual kinesthetic experience of hold the long rods draped in fabric, the length of time it took to perform a piece, the ache of the back and the arms, the stability of the core, etc. By moving as Loïe Fuller, Albright came to know her in a different way. I think there are also implication for the more “collaborative” way that many choreographers now work. I think this research will be interested specifically in the practice of the individual choreographer generating movement material within his or her own body that is then transmitted to the dancer; but so much choreography is not made this way. It is becoming increasingly common for the choreographer to shape the dance out of improvisations and brief compositions generated by the dancers. This has never been my preferred way to work, either as a dancer or a choreographer, and I think these research interests might offer an explanation as to why that is. The material that is generated in this way has less affiliation with individual identities; it becomes a kind of raw fodder to the tweaked and wrecked and deconstructed and reorganized and adjusted. If not done carefully, this has felt almost abusive in different projects of which I’ve been a part. If the way we move is essentially related to who we are, and the movement material we generate is thus an extension of who we are, then working in this way risks feeling like the tweaking and wrecking and deconstructing and reorganization and adjusting (etc.) of who people are . . . This is not necessarily a negative thing (it certainly seems to suggest therapeutic potential, deconstructing the individual through the deconstruction of movement), but similar to the care and concern that goes into something like psychoanalysis, I feel a need to imbue those sorts of processes with a similar care. The movement an individual generates can be seen as separate from them, from who they are, but it’s origin cannot. It came to be in/through/and out of them, of who they are . . .

I was in a composition studies class this past spring. During one particular class we did an exercise in which we “danced” one another. It was like mimicry, trying to take on the movement qualities, physical idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, gate, etc. of our classmates. I found myself incredibly disturbed by this exercise. I felt intrusive and invasive when I took on the movement of another . . . and I felt violated and misunderstood as I looked around a room of my peers taking on my physicality and movement. Eventually I dropped out of the exercise. I think something was beginning to reveal itself in that exercise, the relationship I perceive between the way a person moves and who that person is. The casualness with which we were treating one another’s ways of moving and being felt at odds with the intimate nature of what we were doing. We were exploring not only how one another moved but by extension what it meant to be them. Which seems like an action of great beauty, profound intimacy, and something almost like love . . . I wanted there to be more sacredness to it, more gravity, more care and consideration and even consent. I wanted to have the opportunity to offer my ways of moving, to have them accepted and treasured. I wanted the opportunity to treasure the ways of moving/being of my friends and peers.

And that’s where I am right now. I am dreaming up a new piece to begin work in the fall. I have asked to work with three dancers who I admire greatly. I am interested in infusing that process with these concerns, cultivating an appreciation of the body as the source of (choreographed) identity, an appreciation of the intimate exchange between choreographer and dancer. We’ll see how that works itself out.



More Inspiration

Yesterday was the last day of my Labanotation Teacher Certification Course. As soon as I turn in my final project, I will be certified through the Dance Notation Bureau to teach Elementary Labanotation. My head is swimming with symbols and theory and integrated class/course designs. My final project is a course that I developing entitled “Choreographic Knowledge: Integrated Repertory, Composition and Movement Notation.” I am fairly excited about it, but also just exhausted.

Today starts my summer quarter, which will be mainly a mix of ballet and yoga in varying degrees. Ballet three days a week with Karen Eliot. Then a larger research investigation of yoga history, theory, philosophy, and practice that will involve a survey of literature (reading list below) that either describes the history/theory/philosophy of yoga or was/is an important philosophical/sacred text that was responsible for an evolution in the system. This study will then be integrated into my own yoga practice (five day a week asana practice, meditation, pranayama, etc.). This research is intended to deepen my own understanding of this system/practice, both for my own personal development and growth, but also as a preparation for teaching yoga in the fall. I am also finding some of the readings relevant to my larger research interests of the integration of life/art, the relationship of the bodily experience to identity, and the choreography of identity.

Here is the reading list, if you’re interested:

Shantananda, Swami. Splendor of Recognition: An Exploration of the ‘Pratyabhijna-hrdayam’, A Text on the Ancient Science of the Soul.

Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice.

Iyengar, BKS. Light on Yoga.

Iyengar, BKS. Light on Pranayama.

Muler-Ortega, Paul Eduardo. The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-Dual Shaivism of Kashmir.

Singh, Jaideva. Spanda-Karikas: The Divine Creative Pulsation.

Kirk, Martin. Hatha Yoga Illustrated.

Friend, John. Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual.

Only a little daunting . . . I have until the end of August to read/synthesize that information into my practice.

I also wanted to share some scattered inspirations right now. I am contemplating my making, what comes next, what to create (too many ideas in too many directions), whether to continue work on “Red Monster” or leave it for a while. My creative activity might take on the form of notating my piece About. I am interested in that, and also how preservation is a creative activity. But other than those interests, here are things that are “sticking” with me, for various reasons. Mostly they are fun, but all have deeper points of interest as well:

Photographs by SARAH AINSLIE of Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ Blue Wedding:

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Columbus Pride 2009 (photos various from Flickr):

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http://ethandancesinpublic.blogspot.com/

Ethan is an artist working out of Cincinnati. I think his projects are sort of amazing for lots of reasons, not the least of which being that they take dance into public, into uncontrolled spaces, inserting a trangressive body into society/culture/architecture/etc. The dancing body is one which moves outside the boundaries of the social strictures for bodies. It is safe and sanitized when it is removed or remote on a stage space, or on dance floors (which can function as in-between spaces, where rules are subverted, and bodies explore alternative roles/identities), but on sidewalks and parking lots and city streets, it is in violation. That is exciting to me.

Ethan did this amazing project exploring perception of the gendered body. The video is above. The post describing it can be viewed here. Ethan wrote in a January post on his blog, “The thrill of transgressing normal in public space is like a drug. It’s much clearer to me now how oppressive normal can be sometimes.” I feel that way when I am viewing the work. I hope you do too.

So, carrying with me Lady Gaga, Love Art Lab, Columbus Pride 2009, and Ethan Philbrick, I am off to ballet, yoga, reading reading reading, then likely going out tonight. Boys night at Wallstreet.



Integration of Art and Life

Integration.

Balance. Integration.

Connection. Balance. Integration.

Art. Life. Love. Loving. Identity. Multi-media. Interdisciplinary. Integration.

These are the things that I am thinking about. I feel as if most of the time these things become areas of my life or parts of my life, competing and conflicting and challenging one another rather than a more fluid, connected, integrated flow of living.  I’m sure there is a rich field of precedents in the various arts of artists who have managed this sort of integration of life and art. We looked at many of them in my seminar course in Winter with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil. But if I were to make a sweeping generalization, this integration mainly came about (the most effectively, in my opinion) when the definition of “art” was opened to a broad place, and the activities of living became the art. Political activism as art. Ecological activities and humanitarian aid as art. Service aesthetics, in which an activity normally associated with the service industries were appropriated as art practices. In an even broader generalization, the art became ways in which people interact. Social living became the art. And there’s something beautiful about that. That is part of what I see at work in the Love Art Lab with Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. Their relationship with one another, their love, their activism in areas like same-sex equality, violence against sex workers, and anti-way politics, becomes their art in magical and creative ways. I am so inspired by this.

And yet when I’ve been aware of dance artists who have danced this line, they become separated from the “dance world,” from dance techniques, dance history, the evolution of this form. They become removed from concert dance, and “traditional” ways of making. And there’s a part of me that is not ready to lose those connections. As I delve deeper into graduate school, I am submerging myself in those areas of study and research. I am going deep into dance history and dance and aesthetic theories, investigations of the body, etc. But also away from things like “performativity.” I still care about sharing work, displaying work, but its the experience of the dancer, the person dancing the piece . . . I feel myself continuing to get farther away from concerns like fabricated expression and anything artificial. I think for a while now I have not been able to separate what I do on stage (or in a studio, or anywhere else) from “real life.” I am interested in it being a real experience that is in turn witnessed, and we as a community of people, of dancer and spectators, are some how benefited by the sharing of that experience. I’m not sure if this is making any sense, and it feels a bit tangential, but it’s where my mind is going with this speculation. When I performed “Red Monster” in May, it was not “pretend.” It was actually me standing in front of a room of people, without a shirt on, revealing my body, taking measure of it, tracing and touching the parts of my body that I am sometimes ashamed of, and in doing so in front of this room of people, actually engaging with that discomfort and shame. The piece involves a fantasy of an Other . . . maybe in a more vulnerable version of the piece I will not imagine an Other, but actually find someone in the audience who will fill that role. But the fantasy was real in that I was really envisioning that person, really generating those experiences of desire and shame, really fantasizing about having sex with that person as I unzipped my pants and moved as if masturbating [IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE PIECE, I apologize if this makes no sense. You can see a video of it on my youtube account here]. And the piece was about the distance between self and the Other . . . the Other is intended to be absent from that moment. So even though it does lapse into fantasy, the piece is about lapsing into fantasy. If that makes sense. And when the piece was over and I went and sat down in the audience, I had actually done those things in front of viewers.

This is beginning to lapse into my thoughts on the choreography of identity, or choreographing identity. The short, muddled version of that notion is that we know ourselves and our situation in the world first and foremost through our bodies and the movement of our bodies. Corporeal identity (what I am calling the way in which our identity is known and expressed through our bodies) becomes something of a loop, perceiving who we are through our bodies, then contributing to that identity by our conscious and subconscious decisions and directions for how we move, behave, and take physical action in the world. The way we move, the way in which we do things, both expresses and contributes to that corporeal identity. I am also interested in the somatic notion of the memory of the body. I haven’t gone very deep into this investigation, but somatic forms such as Rolfing and Feldenkrais (as well as others) posit that the body carries its history, its memory, in its structure and thus behavior. The way in which we do things, the condition of our bones and muscles and neuromuscular interfacing, represents that which has come before, the history that we carry in our bodies. I am interested in how this might relate to a dance practice. How does the experience of dancing “Red Monster” continue to “live” in my body as part of its history, and thus part of my identity? In very literal ways, I have scars from some dances that I performed (importantly, both my own choreography and the choreography of others); there are literally marks that reveal how my body (and thus my Self) has been changed by this practice. Because of my dance training, I exist in my body differently than someone without the same training. I am aware of my physical abilities and limitations in a different way. This has an effect on my perception of self, my self-identity. I am curious about more subtle ways, like how repetition in the rehearsal process might build strength or weakness, tension or release, in joints and muscles and tendons and ligaments, in the structure and thus behavior of my body. How does that choreography continue to “live” in my body? And in even more subtle ways, like style of movement, movement qualities, etc. I had an amazing experience this past quarter studying modern technique with CoCo Loupe, who was one of my first modern dance teachers when I was in high school. Close to ten years later, my body had an understanding, a memory, of her way of moving. I don’t perform it perfectly, but my body remembered it, because it was part of my early training. I don’t know how to quantify that observation as data, but experientially I was aware of how that way of moving had continued to live in my body, my identity.

Dancing, and choreography, then, takes on an almost sacred quality, because we are literally constructing and deconstructing our bodies/Selves in/through what it is we are doing as dance artists. When I take a class or dance my own work or the work of another choreographer, I am taking that experience, that real experience, into my body as part of its history. It becomes part of the way I exist, part of my corporeal identity, my Self.

And maybe that’s a clue to the kind of art/life integration that I began this post speculating. When talking to my brother yesterday, he mentioned the possibility of the solution being one of “ritual,” in which dancing and training and stylization and ways of moving take on an important role in living, in personal or social life. The dancing becomes more than theater, more than spectacle, more takes on a sacredness that reflects the work I observe being done in the individuals involved. And it alludes to taking on spiritual significance as well.  

That’s all I have time for at the moment. I hope to return to this speculation/contemplation/integration soon.



Integrated Repertory, Composition, and Notation

As part of the Labanotation Teacher Certification Course (TCC) that I am taking right now, we have been asked to design and teach an “integrated” class, in which we find ways of introducing, exploring, or utilizing Labanotation in the context of another course. Examples we were given by our faculty included an integrated repertory experience in which we used notation floor plans as a learning tool for learning a section of Anna Sokolow’s Steps of Silence (taught by Valerie Williams), and modern technique class incorporating the introduction and exploration of the Labanotation movement concept “space holding” (taught by Julie Brodie), and an composition class utilizing Laban’s Motif description as a creative/generative opportunity (taught by John Giffin).

Already we have had excellent examples presented by my classmates, including integrating Labanotation into a Modern dance class for non-majors, a study of embodied dance history looking at Helen Tamiris, a musical theater (or dance for actors) class, and a elementary notation class looking at hula dance. All have been richly informative and inspirational.

I am teaching again tomorrow, and although I have my lesson plan, I am still fleshing out the underlying philosophy of what it is that I am doing. I am planning an integrated Repertory, Composition, and Notation class in which students learn historical choreography from a Labanotation score (for tomorrow’s class, they will be reading a piece of my own choreography from 2007 entitled “Endless Reach”), then create their own compositions from a Motif score of the same dance. I am interested in using this opportunity to question and investigate the nature of choreography and choreographic information. As I am writing this, I can’t stop thinking about the Synchronous Objects project and Bill Forsythe’s essay on “Choreographic Objects.” In his essay, Forsythe question the nature of choreography, its potential to exist in forms other than the dancing body (which he coins as “choreographic objects,” distinct primarily due to their persistence through time); “Synchronous Objects” was a lengthy exploration or demonstration of that contemplation. It examined one dance, one piece of choreography, in which the “essence” of the material was counterpoint, in movement material, alignments, and cueing. This was the “essence” of this particular exploration of this choreography. I remember during the Synchronous Objects Symposium, Bill was fairly explicit that this project was not for the purpose of preserving the dance for re-staging purposes, but for exploring its potential to generate new forms of expressing the choreographic information within the dance. While I am interested in this course providing an opportunity for embodied history, the preservation of dance works by their “re-staging” in contemporary bodies, I am also interested in investigating the nature of choreographic preservation and dissemination. I suppose this entire investigation stems from a question of what is the nature of choreography. More and more I am convinced that it is not “the steps” or specific movements/actions of the dance; historically, choreographers have changes the specific movements of their dances time and time again. In some cases, they have completely recreated entire sections of dances, added or taken away dancers, rearranged sections, edited the music, etc., and yet the piece of choreography itself has been retained. What then is essential to the choreography? And in that question there is another: what must be passed on in order for the choreography to “survive” or continue to live? 

For those reading who are unfamiliar with the difference between Labanotation and Laban’s Motif Description, the former is a more specific notation describing specific movements, positions, timing, etc. Motif, by contrast, is far more open to interpretation. It describes general actions such as “moving on a circular,” “turning,” “jumping,” “standing still,” “gesturing in an arching motion,” etc. capturing the important elements or motifs. The Dance Notation Bureau’s website has an excellent explanation of both Motif and Labanotation. Of Motif, they offer:

“Motif Description is a method of recording movement that is closely related to Labanotation. In fact, many notators consider them subgroups of the same system. They use most of the same symbols and terminology, have a similar format, and both record fundamental components, such as direction, action, dynamics, and timing, that are found in all styles and forms of movement.

The main difference between the two scripts is the type of information they communicate. Structured Labanotation gives a literal, all-inclusive, detailed description of movement, so it can be reproduced exactly as it was performed or conceived. In contrast, Motif Description depicts just core elements and leitmotifs; it highlights what stands out, is most important, or is most impressive. A motif score might convey the overall structure of a dance improvisation, what one should focus on when learning how to swing a golf club, the primary movement features of a character in a play, or the intent of a person’s movement in a therapy session.

An example of Motif Description is shown below (see the example by follow the link to the DNB above and clicking “Motif Description Basics”). The notation indicates the salient components of a dance sequence; other aspects of the movement are left to the discretion of the performer. For instance, the notation states that the first part of the sequence is about turning. The manner of turning is open to interpretation. It might be done on one foot or while sitting on the floor, using a free or controlled quality, finishing with the body facing the front or the back of the room, or with some other variable. All of these interpretations would be valid, as long as turning is the movement’s focus.

The notation is written going up the page, i.e., first there is turning, then flexing, then extending, and so forth. The length of the symbols indicates the timing of the movement; longer indications have a greater time value than shorter indications.”

 

By drawing from a Motif description of historical dance works, including my own choreography, the choreography itself provides information that shapes the generative process of new work. I suppose another lingering question of mine is “To what degree is this ‘new work’ a dissemination or continuation or preservation of the ‘original’ choreography? To what degree might it be the ‘original’ choreography? To what degree is it something altogether new?” In all restaging situations, there is interpretation, and interpretation is a creative act. There is a sense in which it is both a reproduction of the “original” but also something new “after the original.” The work created tomorrow by my students become “new choreographies after Endless Reach by Michael J. Morris.” And there is a sense in which the choreography’s life has been continued.

More questions than answers, but maybe that’s the way effective, subject-centered teaching happens best, especially when one is “teaching” something like composition or a creative process.

So that’s something that I’m thinking right now.