michael j. morris


Consciousness and Queer Kinesthesia

The summer is offering a little bit more space for ideas to sink in and saturate and synthesize into new ideas. I’m taking in a lot of material right now, mainly through physical practices of ballet and yoga, but supplemented with readings (some of which were described in my previous post). Currently I am reading The Splendor of Recognition: An Exploration of the Pratyabijna-hrdayam, a Text on the Ancient Science of the Soul. It is an essential text of Kashmir Saivism, and has been influential in the philosophy of Siddha yoga. In a truly fundamental description of my experience with it thus far, I would say that it is a reflection on/exploration of the nature of existence, consciousness, and highest reality. It explores the nature of the Self and its relationship to all things. I won’t transcribe the text here (for this type of reading, context is essential; I highly recommend the book if you are interested in exploring some of these ideas), but I will offer two quotes and one idea that have stayed with me throughout the week.

The first is by Baba Muktananda addressing himself as if speaking to a seeker:
”Because of your existence,
Creation exists.
If You do not exist,
nothing exists.
Muktananda, first know your Self.
What are you looking for
east and west,
north and south,
above and below?
Muktananda, the whole universe
you alone are, you alone are,
you alone are.”

Out of context, this perhaps seems bleak or irrational, but it follows a discussion of spanda, the divine creative pulsation by which the universe is constantly in a state of creation and destruction. It situates the subject (the individual) as the origin of the universe, because the universe as he or she knows it arises completely out of his or her consciousness of it, and that consciousness is in a constant state of fluctuation (the creative pulsation). In each moment, as we perceive and become conscious of ourselves and the world around us, we are creating that world for ourselves and our own understanding/knowledge out of our consciousness. The world as we knew it previously is gone; in each moment it is created anew within our consciousness. This is the creative pulsation, and this is how the universe only exist because you the seeker exists. It, the universe (or more specifically perhaps, the universe as you know it, the universe in which you live) arises out of your consciousness, and thus its existence is contingent on your own.

The second quote I would like to share is a simple phrase that has been something of a mantra for me this week. I won’t analyze it here, just offer it for contemplation:
”I am a mirror, and my life is nothing but a reflection of my Consciousness.” 

 

The next amazing thing I read this week was an article called “Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor” by Jonathan Bollen. This was perhaps one of the best articles that I have read this year as it specifically relates the understanding and presentation of identity to physical/dance practices, which is essentially where I am interested in my research developing. This article was basically an analysis of gay and lesbian dance parties at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival in Australia. It is an amazing read that I also highly recommend (it is part of an anthology by Jane Desmond entitled Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage). It has some ideas that might be more easily extracted from the article. It’s theoretical inquiries create a dialogue with Judith Butler’s performative theory or gender. Butler offers, “Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” This leads Bollen to a discussion of the difference and tension between an enactment of gender as a kinesthetic stylization and the materialization of gender as a morphological process. It is the difference between an indication of form and an indication of action or motion. He explores a fission between the the morphology of the body and the potentially queer kinesthesia with which the body takes actions. Two queer kinesthesias that he addresses are the “girly poofter” (gay men dancing in a demonstratively feminine manner; think show girls and drag queens, lots of arms and torso and hips, light shifts of weight, etc.) and the “cool dyke” (lesbian women dancing in a way that might generally be associated with straight men, heavier weight, grounded stance, less mobile arms, a sort of hunch of the upper torso, etc.). He states that these are hardly the only ways in which gay men and lesbians dance, nor is it the only way to organize an analysis of movement material presented on a dance floor, but were more like kinesthetic stylizations that might be sourced on the dance floor. These are examples of indications of where kinesthetic gender departs from morphological gender; this constitutes queer, the subjugation of the normative, the accepted or expected, in which a body behaves in a way differently than expected from its form. It adds complexity to both a reading of gender and of sexuality.

Another exciting discussion in this article pertains to dance floor practices in general. Bollen discusses the dance floor as the site for not only an unfolding performance (and choreography), but also of training and rehearsal. It is on the dance floor that one learns how to dance on the dance floor, and it is there that one “practices” or “rehearses” those ways of moving, in the process of performance. I find that fascinating, and I am sure that I will never be able to experience a dance floor setting the same way again. He also discusses the dance floor experience in a way that I have been contemplating for a while now, as a sort of emergent choreography, a collective or communal negotiation of space, tempo, temporal synchronization and counterpoint, and movement vocabulary (which tends to emerge through a process of borrowing, appropriating, mirroring, or abstracting gestures from others on the dance floor). I find this fascinating. And it sparks another contemplation: if the way in which we move our bodies is indicative of our perception and/or presentation of our identity (I consider this to be a kind of choreography), then this process of integrating movement derived from the movements of others into the way in which one moves transforms the dance floor into a site for the evolution of identity, literally creating/recreating who we are through the way that we move. I think it also raises some interesting questions about the sourcing of other people’s movement/presentation of identities as material with which to construct one’s own choreographed identity.
Clearly this article is blowing my mind. 

I am also dreaming up a potential collaborative project with my friend/colleague CoCo Loupe. I’m not yet sure of the details of how it might all work out, but I wanted to share some of the earliest musings on what form this piece might take. This is raw, scattered brainstorming, but part of the function of this blog is to give entry points to my creative process and my dancing life. Everything you read here is a part of that, from political observations, to posts of inspirations, descriptions of course work, etc. I cannot emphasize enough how much all of that goes into the making of the work. But this is a more rare opportunity to share quite literally the earliest ideas for a new piece of choreography. It involves a list of things that I am thinking about (notice its relationship to my tag cloud), pieces of inspiration, and a rough sketch of how I am currently mapping the piece. It may not make perfect sense, and it is hardly a detailed description, but it is how I am thinking about the piece, and that’s what I want to share:

 

Thinking of things that might inform a new piece.

Transgressing gender boundaries. Me in a dress. CoCo in a dress too? That story from Come to Me about the woman and her transvestite hairdresser friend . . .

queer politics. subverting the normative. how do you subvert the normativity of a dance performance situation? venue? Audience relationship? making it into something unfamiliar, or transforming into something familiar from another setting?
A Wedding? Wedding as performance.
Les Noces? Love Art Lab?
This is moving around an idea . . . how to make it not comic. A wedding touches a poignant political issue for me.

Integration with life. What would that look like? Yoga. Dance floor experience. Lady Gaga. Observing solitude. Secret single behavior. red monster.
Vignettes, moving fluidly from one thing to the next, solos, duets, different ideas suggesting themselves as other things. What is it and what else might it be?

Methods of translation/transformation. Notation/motif/metaphorical description . . .

“I am a mirror, and my life is nothing but a reflection of my Consciousness.”

Cuddle performance (Love Art Lab)
KNOW(TOUCH)ME(YOU)(MY/YOUR BODY) (the piece I developed in the Embodied Knowledge Ensemble with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil)

danger. risk. violence. the solo I was making for Betsy.
pulling in to the midline. being invisible. squatting. throwing body back through space. hitting the floor. dropping. falling. catching. fighting. struggling.
Les Noces.
austerity of Les Noces. contrasted against the gaiety of Les Biches.

Loving the earth. Making love to the earth.
Making art into love and love into art.

Nicole Cassivio “Many Feathers” duet/group piece.

performance art/service aesthetics.

public/private. bringing the private into public. making the personal universal. May Sarton. Erik Erikson.
“Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing.”

Contributing to the queer history of dance.

TRIO A. TRIO A. TRIO A.

Forsythe principles. choreographic objects. improvisational technologies.

CoCo stands near center facing Michael wearing a dress and high platform boots
Michael begins in underwear and starts by putting on dress. Maybe doing hair into a big Gibson girl wave sort of thing?
Michael meets CoCo at center stage. Turn to face upstage, and perform a kind of wedding march. Michael keeps collapsing/falling, CoCo keeps stabilizing him. This might become a bit more stylized into some sort of partnering or might stay very literal.
Reach “altar” . . . maybe some sort of ‘wedding dance’? Maybe ‘writing’ vows with some part of the body (in a Forsythian manner). Turn to face one another. Maybe some sort of enactment of the KNOW(TOUCH)ME(YOU)(MY/YOUR BODY) piece . . . Michael places CoCo’s hand on his chest, leans in and awkwardly kisses CoCo’s cheek. CoCo gently pushes him away, then put his hand on her chest. Fumbling to negotiate arms for a waltz; fumbling continues as the feet negotiate who is leading and who is following.
Waltz carries them to tiny dance floor space (maybe described by a lighting special, maybe not), music changes to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance;” bust into club style dancing. Coco starts collapsing/falling (escaping?) as Michael did in wedding march, with Michael now catching/stabilizing her. Eventually she hits the floor and begins ‘violent solo’ (struggling in the floor, thrashing, throwing body/limbs into the floor, etc.). Michael begins by pulling intensely into midline, legs falling open, trying to walk. Walk becomes labored by the muscular action, incorporate lowering to squat. Eventually throw back in space and begin violent solo (same movement sequence as CoCo). CoCo at some point has softened to gaze at Michael. As the violent solo builds, she builds in involvement/vicious jeering as if ringside at a fight. As Michael eventually softens in the violent solo, CoCo stands and begins a strip tease (which means she needs to have layers . . .), perhaps moving around the space (ref. Judson). As the strip builds, Michael builds in vicious jeering (also as if ringside at a fight or a scary strip club). CoCo’s stripping becomes angrier, culminating in throwing her shoes (maybe at Michael?). This starts a physical “shouting match/knife fight” sort of thing with distance between the figures.
Both (or one person) begins to get tired, weak, exhausted, sick, etc.
I don’t know if it makes more sense for each to continue in the “fighting dance” as the other gets weaker, or for one or both to show concern . . . but I think this is how the piece ends, whether in some reflection of compassion or continued animosity. . .

 

In the list of inspirations for this piece, I mentioned Amy Bloom’s short story “Only You.’ This is an amazing little story that I have loved and contemplated for years now. I think it completely relates to whatever it is I might be investigating in this new choreography, and I thought I would share it with you. It can be read here, and it’s a pretty quick read. I hope you enjoy it.

Finally, also related to the evolving new piece is this fascination with violent action. This is not a new interest. I can see it in my work as far back as . . . well, the first thing I choreographed, really. To be clear, rarely is it an interest in interpersonal violence, but in intense, almost uncontrolled action of the individual. I think the sense of violence comes from the sense of impact in which I am interested: bodies hitting the floor, falling, throwing, swinging with a terminating impact, etc. I am also interested in the fact that this sort of action cannot be faked. There is a tangibility and a reality to it that can be felt. I am currently questioning the nature of presentation, of staged dance works (as opposed to dance as it is experienced by the dancer, a kinesthetic experience rather than a visual). The value I can currently still find in the visual presentation of a dance work is the way that seeing might be related to feeling, how a viewer might relate their visual experience of the dance taking place to their own corporeal and kinesthetic experience, a kind of kinesthetic sympathy. I find this sort of “violent” movement to be much more evocative sympathetically. We tend to feel it when we see it; we cringe, we pull away, sometimes we hold our breath. It evokes almost a sense of terror . . . and I don’t mean that it is my interest to terrorize my audience, only that if my interest in presentation is to evoke this kind of kinesthetic sympathy in the viewer, this sort of violence lends itself powerfully to that kind of experience. I am also interested in the irrevocability, the irreversibility of this kind of movement, unlike the slow, almost meditative quality that my work can sometimes tend to demonstrate. This violent action is one that cannot be faked, and it cannot be taken back. This is true of all movement, but this quality is emphasized in this type of action. So in the description of this new work that I am contemplating, this is what I mean when I say “violent.”

Those are my thoughts this Sunday afternoon.



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.