michael j. morris

Queer Theorists, Ecology, and Labanotation software

I have been negligent of my blog for too long. This summer swept me away in several new (and some unexpected) jobs, and lots of reading for my second comprehensive exam (most of the reading will likely also be useful towards whatever my dissertations shapes up to be). Getting close to a month without writing, I decided that it was time for an update.

My work situation for the summer is spread across three sources: I have a part-time GA in the Department of Dance teaching Modern I for non-majors and continuing work on a digital video archive for the dance documentation materials within the department. The teaching has been an unexpected challenge and delight. There is a beauty to bodies that (for the most part) have not been trained in dance techniques. I’m having lots of thoughts about dance technique as a form of discipline for the docile body (re: Foucault), but in contrast I am also taking delight in entertaining the perspective of the early modern dance pioneers (Duncan, Humphrey, Graham, etc.), that modern dance has the potential to function as a liberatory project, a resistance to the normative physicality of daily social existence. I think this beginning level course is an ideal demonstration of this perspective: these are bodies that are not going to become “disciplined” through this technique (we meet twice per week for five weeks; ten classes total). My hope/intention for the course is to provide a range of physical experience through which to develop heightened awareness of possibilities through the establishment of an array of sensorimotor schemas. The material that we are exploring is predominantly on the floor, exploring alternative supports and methods of locomotion through a dynamic experience of exchange with the earth; it does not require a significant development of strength or flexibility (impossible in the given time) but does provide the opportunity for the students to become aware of physical possibilities, especially those absent from normative physicality in our culture (horizontal axis of movement, supporting/exchanging weight with the earth predominantly through supports other than the feet legs, etc.). I hope in the next few weeks to also explore systems of timing, cueing, and awareness that depend primarily on group attention rather than counts; I think there is something valuable in a system of organization that emerges from mutual/communal attention (as opposed to an external regulatory system like counts or following me).

My second employment position is also in the Department of Dance, a Research Assistant position funded through the Dance Preservation Fund. I am assisting Dr. Sheila Marion and David Ralley with the initial phase research for developing a Movement Interchange File Format, a file format capable of encoding/recording the complex information of a Labanotation score in such a way that it might be useful for future software developments in writing software, animation, and translation between systems of notation (others most notably including Benesh and Eshkol-Wachmann). My work this summer is attempting to systematically describe the interdependent assumptions and “defaults” of the notation system, and construct a kind of comprehensive “script” that might then be used to formulae the first layer of programming for the file format/associated software. It’s an entirely different way for me to be thinking, and has involved going deeply into the notation system, primarily the Advanced Labanotation series by Ann Hutchinson Guest and Joukje Kolff, alongside Sheila Marion’s dissertation, and a thesis by Kolff proposing a “formal movement structure” that amounts to a computational representation of Labanotation in order to develop computer-based writing software.

I am also working part-time with Laurel Hodory, a local yoga teacher and trainer of teachers. I am assisting primarily with marketing and video work. Some of the footage that I have shot and edited is live on Laurel’s Vimeo account.

My reading for the summer is a survey of several seminal queer theorists (Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Jeffrey Weeks), some phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sara Ahmed), continued readings in ecology, ecofeminism and other feminist writings (most notably Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, Karen Warren, Greta Gaard, Carole Vance, Elisa Glick), and dance/art scholars/philosophers (Valerie Briginshaw, Judith Hanna, Erin Manning). I have also been reading Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder, a collection of the writings of Harry Hay, the founder of the Radical Faerie “movement” (edited by Will Roscoe), because of its potential relationship to my Sexecological/Ecosexual research, but also in preparation for revising a paper on Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” using Hay’s writings and the Radical Faeries as a lens for a contemporary queer choreographic analysis of the ballet. I am only a few weeks in, but already themes are beginning to emerge around notions of fluidity, permeability, a recognition of the constructed nature of many of our borders, boundaries, and systems of description, and the genealogies of those edges that divide and distinguish. For this exam, I am going to continue my examination of the work of the Love Art Laboratory, situating their Sexecological weddings and exhibitions in a larger frame of queer(ing) projects, looking mostly at the Green Wedding in Santa Cruz (2008), the Blue Wedding to marry the Sky in Oxford (2009), the Blue Wedding to marry the Sea in Venice (2009), and the 2009-2010 gallery exhibition “Sexecology: Making Love With the Earth, Sky+Sea” at Femina Potens in December-January.

One of the most exciting readings I have done thus far has been an article by Catriona Sandilands entitled “Eco Homo: Queering the Ecological Body Politic.” In addition to its direct address of tissues that of becoming central to my line of inquiry (contemporary ecological practices, queering ecologies, the implications of these for the body, etc.), Sandilands anchored this article in a personal account of her experience in a series of Butoh classes. Within a matter of pages, she had linked for me what superficially have functioned as disparate areas of interest in my work, ecology, queer theories, and Butoh/dance practices. I was in tears at the end of the article . . . which might be strange for reading academic prose. But it was partially because of the punctuation of the article with passages of personal accounts. And not just any accounts, but writing about the meaningful experience of practicing Butoh, and its potential to function as a physical practice that embodies the concerns of a queer ecology, and fluidity across the borders of presumably bounded bodies through the “taking in and taking on” of the environment as the butoh-fu (the imagistic score informing/forming the dance).

I wish I could post the entire article here, but I am certain there would be copyright issues with that. Instead, I will offer the bibliographic information and quote/cite specific passages that I found to be extremely relevant to bridging these areas of interest.

Sandilands, Catriona. “Eco homo: Queering the ecological body politic.” Environmental Philosophy As Social Philosophy. Editors Cheryl Hughes and Andrew Light. Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2004.

“To conclude this paper, however, I would like to offer a brief, and perhaps unusual, conjecture. Specifically, I would like to suggest the possibility of practices of embodiment that performatively render the boundaries of the body negotiable by engaging in representations and rituals that open the skin to the somatic presence of the abject. This project is, I think, an ecological aesthetics of the body that recognizes the perpetual dancer of the outside but that orients, nonetheless, toward the (self-) creativity imanent in the dynamics of skin transgression. In so doing, I would like to suggest, following Diprose, that a performative politics might include both a transgressive element and a committed desire to re-habitate, re-familiarize, and re-materialize the body in relation to others.

“In this performative re-embodiment, I would like to point to the skin, both as a metonymic focus for an altered politics of corporeal representation and as a physical site to which to pay ritual corporeal attention in alternative enactments. Skin is a porous, changing and active organ that is at once crucial to our lives as organisms and, is, significantly, not thematized as our internal core. Skin is, precisely, a surface, but it is also an active participant in our corporeal renegotiation of the world. Skin is part of the appearance of the world, an aesthetic referent in self/other relations; all organisms are en-skinned, but we all have different qualities of skin and inhabit them differently. Focusing ecological attention on the skin, I think, forces us to pay bodily attention to the complex physiology and social relations by which our bodies bleed into the world, and the world into us. And skin shows us our porous vulnerability to the world always, not just in moments of crisis, and suggests that we learn to live, in non-apocalyptic ways, with that openness” (32-33).

“Rather than skin vigilance, then, skin aesthetics: How to live the body on and in this dynamically porous skin? How to practice a body-on-the-skin in a way that does not aim to coherence and closure, nor to infinite fluidity, but to an active, sensual and contextual semi-permeability? How to think of the skin as a site for the art of the body, for coporeal practices drawn from a range of traditions but without the strong orientation to self-govenance and order? How to think of the skin as a site of a specifically ecological aesthetic, an art form not dependent on infinite consumption and management of body parts and appearances? How to democratize the skin? How to create, on the skin, an ars erotica rather than scientia sexualis?” (33)

She brings this all to her description of Butoh:
“One way I have thoughts about Butoh is that the dance is the animated tension of the body held between external and internal influences. the dancer doesn’t perform an image, say, as an act of willful mimesis; he practices taking it in and taking it on, embodying and performing the interaction between the image and the body’s response. Memory is vital, here: by animating corporeal memory, the dancer opens the skin to the materialization of the image . . . From a more explicitly ecological viewpoint, I understand the idea of a body moving with the carefully ‘installed’ figures of nature–cranes flying in the shoulders–as an aesthetic practice of ecological incorporation. To dance with an orientation and openness to the fact of one’s own materialized body is to dance, not only with the awareness that the other is in your skin, but with the varied embodiments of others as part of one’s corporeal vocabulary. In Butoh, dancing a leaf in the wind is not about representing the leaf to an audience, nor is it about claiming to know the essence of that leaf’s being; it is about performatively re-membering the leaf’s wind-tossed body in one’s own, about losing one’s ‘self’ to the memory of the leaf’s body” (34).

She finishes with a moving description of a Butoh class:
“Thursday, June 20: I carry a landscape in my body. There are trees growing out of my head; my left arm is a waterfall, my right hand a rotting cabbage; old women are playing cards in the sun in my torso; my shins are brittle sticks, breaking and snapping with the tiniest movement. I must walk to the other side of the studio; I am all of these elements but I am also responsible for carrying them and keeping them safe in the crossing. I bear my trees, my cabbage, my old women, my precious sticks, through elemental changes–a windstorm from the west, electrified cattle guards under my feet–and I fall from the effort, damaging my precious cargo, my precious landscape, my own body in the process. But I do arrive. And even as I deposit my little body-world, tenderly, on the floor, I feel the presence of trees, cabbage, women, and waterfall, sticking to my skin, tiny flecks of memory mingling with sweat. I am the history of the presences, and my body is not really mine” (35-36).

Simply stunning. The article also traces/formulates relationships between the governing of bodies and the governing of the environments, the relationship between sexuality and wilderness, the establishment of borders around bodies, borders around landscapes, all in an attempt to “preserve” the “integrity” of each, resisting permeability, resisting fluidity and “pollution.” It is extremely provocative, and I think that it will constitute a sea-change in the direction of my research.

Perhaps lastly for today, and in perfect concert with Sandilands article, is the work of Karl Cronin. My dear friend CoCo Loupe has referenced Karl’s work to me for literally years and this spring I finally got around to taking a look at it. I cannot even begin to write all that I want to write about this work (I am currently entertaining the possibility of it as a chapter in a dissertation; maybe an article). Cronin is doing precisely what Sandiland describes, almost eerily so. He is constructing a Somatic Natural History Archive. Cronin’s description of the project is as follows:

“The Somatic Natural History Archive is a work of conceptual art and experiential geography research. Following direct physical encounters with plants and animals, Karl Cronin creates movement portraits that capture key features of each particular organism.”

“The Somatic Natural History Archive (SNHA) is a research project and public resource developed and hosted by Karl Cronin.

The SNHA will begin with Series 1, the embodied histories of 10,000 plants and animals. Series 1 will take roughly 50 years to complete.

The number 10,000 was chosen because it is large enough to reveal some of the breadth of our planet’s biodiversity, and because the number has been used historically to refer to the “phenomenal world” (all that is), particularly by early Zen Buddhists.

The SNHA is being built in the regions surrounding three research hubs: San Francisco, Santa Fe, and New York City.”

I am in awe of this work. I think it is saturated with theoretical inquiries surrounding the collapse of a hierarchical bio-diversity, the merging of the subject with the “other” (other more-than-human subjects), and echoes/enacts much of what my research around ecologies in performance has been orbiting. I know that this work will have some role to play in my own as time goes by. It is more than simply the exposition of bio-diversity; it formulates the (human) body as the site of this exposition, for this archive. That is perhaps the most exciting part for me . . . I have been working on a digital video archive for two quarters and in the fall I will take up a position managing the Dance Notation Bureau’s collection at the Theater Research Institute in Special Collections at OSU. Archives have been on my mind, and the notion of the body functioning as an archive, materializing the (human) body as an archive of that which is more-than-human . . . it is such a profoundly reverential service. It recognizes and enacts the body as permeable, malleable; it disrupts normative physicality through the adoption of the “other.” By taking the “other” inside/on/as oneself, there is a performative collapse of the distance between self/other. This relates for me to much of Sandiland’s writings, and also Harry Hay’s perspective of a “subject=SUBJECT” consciousness. I have commenting before that with different motives, there could be a sense of colonization and appropriation attached to this work. But there isn’t; it has something to do with the space between owning and becoming, occupation and surrender, taking and receiving . . . I have yet to fully deconstruct these nuances, and I know that there will be much to write and say about this work for a long time to come. For now I will simply offer a video of the work:

There is also an amazing video for Cronin’s “The Dancing Ecologist” fundraiser at Kickstarter here (it doesn’t embed, but PLEASE go view it; it’s short but stunning).

And that’s the short version of where things are at right now. Pride was a few weeks ago, I’m going to be spending the next two months housesitting in three different locations, I am dreaming up projects and choreographies for the fall, over the moon that Dr. Harmony Bench is going to be joining our faculty in the fall, working on papers for two different conferences in the fall (Doing Queer Studies Now at Michigan Ann-Arbor, and CORD in Seattle), etc. I’m not sure what is going to emerge from all of the intersecting projects (How does Labanotation software and sexecology co-exist? What comes from the cohabitation of a digital video archive and queer theories? Etc.), but that’s the lay of the land.

Hope you are well.


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.