michael j. morris

Sensation, Vulnerability, and the Present

I am behind on my work. I still have an article by Marcia Siegel to read and generate a kind of abstract of for a class that’s in a little over an hour. But I need to write right now, not read. I have ideas spinning, coming out of dancing and choreographing and relationships, and I think that’s is primary purpose of this blog, to note those contemplations/processes, and offer them as entry points into the creative process.

I am thinking about the line between sensation and interpretation. This is not a new speculation for me . . . I think it began with taking a class in Gaga (Ohad Naharin’s “movement language”) last Winter and being asked to expand my concept of pleasure. We worked in pairs slapping one another’s bodies as hard as we could, and inviting ourselves to interpret that sensation, both of slapping and being slapped, as pleasure. Before pleasure and pain there is sensation. What we think of as pleasure or discomfort or pain or exhaustion, etc., are interpretations of physical sensations. In that Gaga class we were being asked to reinterpret, to intercept ourselves before interpreting sensation and pain and potentially reinterpreting the sensation as pleasure. I remember that for the rest of the quarter, into the spring and my Somatics Survey course with Abby Yager, I continually brought myself back to the place of sensation, trying to intercept interpretation and perhaps discover new possibilities for pleasure.

Last night the I met with the “cast” (I hardly even consider us a “cast” . . . I am not yet sure what the purpose of this process is . . . it has to do with the present, with the doing, with what we are doing, not yet the “why” we are doing . . . what are we then, a group that does things together? Is that a “team” or does “team” necessarily denote competition, opposition? Community? Kula? Autumn Quartet?) to review the movement material for the dance that we’re creating, then we reconvened at my house for conversation. We each had generated a writing of our “Body History” (a concept from Andrea Olsen’s Body Stories that was adapted by Abby Yager in our Somatics course in the spring). The format/prompt was as follows:

“Body History (adapted from Andrea Olsen’s “Body Stories” via Abby Yager)
Write your personal body history. Allow yourself to collect memories over time.
-The story of your birth. Include the exact date and time of the day, season, and year. Include pre-birth, if possible; the mood, health, and activities of your mother affect life in the womb.
-Your earliest movement memory. Go back as far as you can to the point where memory blurs into dream.
-Your earliest kinesthetic sensation. Again, go back as far as you can. You might not be able to locate or identify where this sensation came from.
-Physical joys/physical pleasure/physical training
-The environment where you grew up, your favorite place, and where you feel most at home.
-Comments you received which shaped your self image.
-Attitudes towards sensuality, sexuality, and gender
-Injuries, illnesses, operations. Note differences you perceived in yourself pre/post event. Identify scars on your body and where those scars came from.
-Nutrition/food. When do you feel most alert? Sluggish? Revved? Calm?
-Anything else in the history of your body that interests you.”

We (Erik Abbott-Main, Eric Falck, Amanda Platt, and myself) each shared our body histories, aspects of which were extremely personal, aspects of which were vulnerable, etc. My evening concluded with a feeling of so much more insight, connection, understanding of these people with whom I am working. There was a sense in which I felt that this was a continuation of our experience with KNOW(TOUCH)ME(YOU)(MY/YOUR BODY). A more holistic way of knowing. Amanda made the statement that these were the kinds of things she wanted to ask/know about all of her friends. I think we all agreed. It’s a level of knowing that we don’t always get to with the people we know/work with/love. I adore these three people . . . because of what I know of them. How their bodies feel, how they direct my attention, my hand and focus and care, over the surface of their bodies, how they execute my movement material, situating these parts of myself in their own bodies (by which I mean their own selves), how they think of and remember their own histories, the histories of their bodies. It is intoxicating, the amount of knowing. I think it is a kind of knowing that provokes loving, in a sense. I question how I could know all that I know and not adore these three individuals. Somehow I feel that this way of knowing, maybe even loving, is at the center of this piece.

Erik made the observation that a kind of vulnerability seems to be what I am getting at in this process . . . and I think that is incredibly astute. It has to do, again, with getting inside who another person is . . . through all these various methodologies . . . and that somehow informing or contributing to the dance itself, its movement material, its choreographic structure, its content, and the more subtle qualities of how we experience one another/move with one another as a dancing ensemble. I love that these experiences are part of the work . . . and I wonder if there is a way to more specifically allow the work to emerge from these vulnerable, personal, intimate experiences with one another.

Of course this makes me think about Love Art Lab and the conflation of life and art, love and art, life/love/art/relationships/gender politics/sexuality/etc. I am pleased to recognize that connection.

One of the questions in the body history related to the concept of physical pleasure . . . which, I realized after I read my body history, I had interpreted in an incredibly limited fashion. Given the speculation on sensation and interpretation, why had I limited my description of my physical pleasures to “expanding awareness in movement as in practices such as Butoh”? What about the pleasure of white wine with brie, honey, and red pears? What about the pleasure of hugging or kissing or sex or masturbation? What about the pleasure of the wind blowing on me, warm blankets, or throwing myself across the floor in a dance studio space (re: “click here 4 slideshow or 6-8 character limit”)?

In this speculation on pleasure and sensation, I am brought to an idea that I am teaching/offering in the yoga class that I am teaching this quarter at OSU. It comes from the Bhagavad Gita primarily, the idea of taking action without concern for results of actions. I can offer a couple of quotes:

“But the man who delights in the Self,
who feels pure contentment and finds
perfect peace in the Self—
for him, there is no need to act.

He has nothing to achieve by action,
nothing to gain by inaction
nor does he depend on any
person outside of himself.

Without concern for results,
perform the necessary action;
surrendering all attachments,
accomplish life’s highest good. (65)”

“You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results,
open to success or failure. (Chapter 2, stanzas 47-48)”

In returning to sensation itself, before interpretation or expectation, we are thrust back into the present. Sensing, not considering sensing. Focus on action and the sensation of the action. I feel this when I am dancing in Abby Yager’s modern technique class this quarter, mostly phrase material from works by Trisha Brown. The execution is something like “this right now, bending the leg, now spearing the arm, now dropping the weight, now pushing away, now, and now, and now . . .” I think the movement lends itself to this sort of approach. It means letting go of what comes next, what just happened. It means letting go of expectation and even interpretation (for a bit).

And that’s what I am thinking about right now. That is what is coming into the work, influencing and generating the work. Back to Marcia Siegel and the development of lexicons for the observation, analysis, and critique of dance.


from William Forsythe, etc.

Today was the first day of classes in our spring quarter at OSU. Besides starting work in a smattering a new and exciting courses, today we were graced with a special visit from Bill Forsythe. It was a pleasure to see him again and hear him talk a bit about his work and the work we’ve been doing. He sparked lots of idea, many of which will not get decent attention in this post, but which I at least wanted to jot down, for myself and for you. In no particular order:

-He spoke briefly about making dance legible, and how difficult it is to put dance into words, to articulate verbally what is essentially non-verbal. I tend to think of it as articulating the ineffable. Dance is something that is so rooted in immediate corporeal experience, so many sensations and feelings that do not have names, that do not lend themselves to verbal description. I find that sometimes when I try to discuss dance and what it is I do as a dance artist, I am tempted to wax into poetry and metaphor, hedging in this ineffable practice in descriptions that cannot possible translate the actual experience, but hopefully create some sort of defined space in which exists the indescribable thing itself: dance. I am actually interested in hearing Marcia Siegel speak on this subject on Thursday. She is giving a guest lecture on the subject of Forsythe’s work in relation to criticism. I am interested in how that might address this concern, for putting dance and choreographic knowledge into words.

-He spoke about how early on he began to question if a thing had to be the way that it was. This is such an important question. It emphasizes the arbitrary nature of practically everything we do, especially choreography. When faced with the infinite field of potentialities for human movement, each time we make a dance we make a series of choices of what we will do, the sequence in which it will occur, and this becomes choreography. Throughout the creative process, I am constantly coming to find myself asking this same question: “Is this how it has to be? How else might it be?” I think it has to do with clarifying WHAT it is you are doing. What are your intentions? How malleable are those intentions? Might I abandon them if I see something new emerging in the work? Whatever it is I am attempting to serve and embody in the work, how else might it be? What other movements, what other organizations, does it even need to be a dance? What other form might these concerns take?

-This segued into another idea, that of DOUBT. Bill encouraged us that the ability to constantly doubt what it is we know is a greatest gift in dancing and making dances. I dare say, it is a/the great gift of living, of being human, the ability to constantly recognize the limited base of perception and experience on which we “know” anything. This is so important in the creative process, the ability to look into the face of the things you “know,” your pre-existing assumptions for your work, your field, and ask yourself how you know this thing that you think you know. I think doubt is a space of amazing creative potential. I have long thought that doubt and faith share a common source, and that is uncertainty. Faith is that in which you can believe despite uncertainty; doubt is that which you may not be able to believe due to uncertainty. When we allow ourselves to live in that uncertain place (because whether we admit it to ourselves or not, uncertainty is always where we live), we open ourselves to potential motion. Uncertain is like unstable, able to shift, able to fall, able to tumble and roll, and in that motion, make new discoveries. I have a reverence for doubt, and doubting what we “know” as dance artists is a perfect way to keep things moving. By questioning what it is we know, we risk finding new answers, new solutions, making new choices based on these new discoveries, and new work comes out of these place.

-On the subject of “knowing,” Bill touched on a the idea of “feeling as knowing” and “knowing as feeling.” Because dancing is an active experience (like consciousness itself?), it is a way of knowing that has roots in the feeling of that experience. This sort of concept seems to re-prioritize the hierarchies of knowledge, giving validity to a way of knowing that comes purely out of personal, subjective, physical sensation.

-Victor Hugo’s “This Will Kill That” was recommended to us. It is the second chapter of his larger work Notre-Dame de Paris and illuminates how the printing press was potentially responsible for the recession of cathedral architecture, shifting from a visual to verbal culture. This seems relevant in the discussion of translation and literacy shifts, how the evolution of technology is involved in both of these.

-The misunderstanding or challenges of making dance legible perhaps lie in a larger cultural issue of text and literacy being privileged. So how then do we explicate what it is that we do/know without depending on something as privileged as text? The “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, Reproduced” project has depended on a visual literacy, translating choreographic data into visual representations of that data. Remember, that web project goes live THIS WEDNESDAY!

-We have the unique ability to discuss art as a state of BEING because we are our art, it exists as us; dance is an embodied art form.

-In the larger version of this “Monster Partitur” (“You Make Me a Monster”), the audience participates in the construction of the cardboard “monsters” that serve and choreographic information for the piece, before being told the story of the piece’s origin’s: Bill’s wife’s illness, her bleeding, her bending, and her death. Bill described the experience he has witnessed in the audience once they have been told the story, once they realize that the folding of the cardboard skeletons is in some way referential to this personal narrative. He spoke of them being implicated in the story, and how their work then felt somehow dirty or contaminated by the revelation of what it represented or referenced. It raise for me the question of how this described experience translated into my experience of the “monster making,” having the fore-knowledge of what it was I was doing and its origins? It certainly contained none of the surprise. I hardly even feel that it felt contaminated . . . it felt beautiful, reverent, but in the way that Butoh feels beautiful and reverent to me, honoring the fullness of experience, including the grotesque, the unpleasant. I have long felt (and still do, to some degree) that the nature of beauty or aesthetic experience is one of contrast. We appreciate a thing as “beautiful” by its relation to something else. Some of the most moving and dismantling art for me has been integration of this contrast within the single composition, in which the lovely is mashed up with the grotesque; both become richer due to their companion. I think this sort of experience, one of “beauty,” was a big part of negotiating the foreknowledge of the origins of the cardboard monsters in the process of making them. The work was crafting, making elegant forms and compositions (the lovely), while being framed by, or even saturated with, the knowledge that this work came out of grief, out of suffering and death. As tempted as I am to spin off into a discussion of the synthetic process of beauty, suffering as a source of transcendence, I think I have to stop now.


Maybe I’ll have time to flesh these out a bit more later in the week? We’ll see.
Hope you are able to make it to some or all of the events going on this week (see earlier post).