michael j. morris

thinking about training dancing


I’ve recently made some time to get back into a studio and dance. I am choreographing a new dance with four dancers—Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Sharon Udo. I am also returning to dance training: when I first came to grad school, I taught yoga, ballet, and modern dance. However, while I continue to teach a weekly yoga class, it has been several years since I have taught ballet or modern/contemporary dance; in 2013, I had the opportunity to teach Butoh as a visiting artist at Virginia Commonwealth University, but even that feels like ages ago. Since then, my teaching has primarily been in the areas of writing about dance and dance history. This year, I was awarded a Presidential Fellowship, which has given me a leave from teaching in the university in order to focus more on my research. Alongside my scholarly research and finishing my dissertation, I have prioritized returning to the studio, reinvesting in choreography—which has and always will be my first love—and re-discovering what it means for me to teach technique.

Before getting into the studio, I wrote a bit about what I considered to be my priorities for teaching technique:

-Training bodies: I am very interested in the ways that a technique class can be distinct from a repertory experience. I am interested in how a technique class is primarily invested in developing and expanding the capacities of a dancer’s body—hopefully in ways that are translatable across different dances and contexts—rather than providing more repertory for the dancer to have danced. These two functions overlap of course: learning a dance often requires developing new skills, and there is always so kind of choreography to any exercise. However, I am interested in how developing/cultivating particular capacities of bodies can be prioritized rather than technique class functioning as a space for proliferating my own choreography.

-Sustained movement dynamics: my investment in sustainment is multi-layered. First, in a global sense, the 21st century—in both daily life and on the concert dance stage—increasingly demands acceleration and rapidity as the pace of attention, thinking, moving, and responding. I am interested in my technique class challenging the totality of this norm towards speed, cultivating corporeal potentialities that might otherwise remain underdeveloped. I am interested in how deceleration and sustainment require modes of durable engagement that are both physical and mental. Second, coming from my experiences training in Butoh, I believe that sustainment provides opportunities for expansive awareness and care—of the body as a whole, all of its parts, and each moment—that can be neglected at a more rapid pace of moving and living. In this sense, I believe there is an ethics to practicing moving slowly: what else might we notice? For what else might we become responsible? How might an increased capacity for sustainment translate into greater sustainability for bodies and dancers, and how might that sense of kinesthetic sustainability become a resource towards what is and is not sustainable in our world today? Further, drawing from my research on ecological relations with the nonhuman and the inhuman forces and factors that move in and through human bodies, how might slowness and sustainment provide opportunities for accessing some degree of sensitivity to “deep time,” the duration of the world that exceeds human life before our advent and after our inevitable departure? While my technique class moves across multiple movement dynamics, it is with an emphasis on developing a capacity for sustainment, and the ability to find and return to this state in the midst of other dynamic intensities.

-Coordination: whether movement in sustained or quick frequencies, I prioritize coordination—of movement with the breath, of one part of the body with another, and of multiple bodies within an ensemble. Coordination is ultimately a practice balancing multiple concerns, taking responsibility for multiple parts within a larger aggregate or milieu. I consider this skill to be necessary for precise dancing and applicable to how we might approach the world beyond the dance studio.

-Balance: I define balance as the ability to respond effectively to/within a multiplicity of changing dynamic forces. Practically, we refine balance by practicing precarity—dancing and moving through physical configurations in which stability is more challenging.
While prioritizing balance and the responsivity it requires, I also recognize that there is immense potential in being off-balance, in being disoriented. Disorientation and imbalance are generative experiences; they require invention and perhaps reinvention. There is also something potentially queer about imbalance and disorientation. To the degree that orientation can be shaped by normative forces that make it easier to be oriented in specific ways, and to the degree that being balanced might result from a world that conditions particular responses to the range of force in which we live, to be disoriented or imbalanced perhaps requires us to develop abilities to respond that the dominant norms of our world have not taught/trained us.

-Horizontality: I am invested in training bodies to increase their movement potential off of the vertical axis. Verticality is not only the dominant orientation of our bodies to the world in our daily lives: as such, it is implicated in any number of other norms that traverse our bodies while they occupy that dimension of space. Verticality also has a strong legacy within the history of Western concert dance, as well as my own training in ballet and modern dance. By emphasizing floorwork in and out of the horizontal plane, we increase the capacity of our bodies to occupy less familiar circumstances, ask parts of our bodies to take on supportive/weight-bearing roles that they may not in daily life—reterritorializing our bodies and their parts to take on new potential functions and meanings—and develop the strength and flexibility necessary to support those horizontal functions. In a developmental movement perspective, horizontality might be seen as a space of potential, the space we occupy before our bodies learned to move and function as they do. By working in that space, it is possible that we access the generative potential for how else our bodies might become.

-Modes of consciousness: Moving in any particular style or dynamic range directly affects how we perceive and how we respond to perceptions. Moving and perceiving are intimately tied to the nervous system, the overall state of the body, and thus to modes of consciousness. In turn, I believe that inasmuch as moving constitutes modes of consciousness, such modes also condition how we move and how we are prepared to move. Sustainment, coordination, balance, imbalance, horizontality, and so on, all generate specific ways of experiencing the body, time, and space, and the terrain of those shifting experiences create various modes of performance.

Alongside these training priorities, I have also developed precise language around my teaching philosophies and pedagogy. As they relate to teaching technique, this includes:

“At the core of my pedagogical approach is the fervent belief that to live in this world is to live fully entangled with others who are invariably different from ourselves, and that to live well in this world of difference requires that we strive to see our world from the perspective of such differences. Sharing this world—and it must indeed be shared—requires striving to see from innumerable points of view, and from such views, working together to create a world that is more livable for more forms of life. I believe that in the university—through our research, in our classrooms, within our distinct disciplines, and between and beyond our disciplinary boundaries—we have the responsibility to inspire and guide our students towards such ethical engagements with a world that emerges from our differences. In whatever courses I teach, I emphasize the importance of engaging and examining perspectives other than our own through the study of critical theories and artistic productions in various media, and through privileging discussion as a practice of listening, distributing authority, and co-creating knowledge. My hope, to quote Judith Butler, is that through these processes of engaging with others we might all ‘become dislocated from our own cultural and historical perspectives only to return to them enriched by an understanding of other lives.’[1] Through such departures and returns, we make the familiar strange, practice seeing from other points of view from which we might recognize even ourselves as more and other than that for which we could previously account. In doing so, we expand the possibilities for who and how we might become, for how we can understand or imagine this world we share, and thus for how we might take action in order to care for our world and the multitude of others with whom we share it.

My experiences teaching physical practice courses—such as yoga, modern dance, ballet, and Butoh—have given me opportunities to develop strategies for facilitating encounters with difference as central to learning. First, in whatever technique I am teaching, I emphasize that each and every body is unique. We all come to study these techniques with different strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds in training and injury, different proportions, shapes, and sizes. In my teaching, I honor these fundamental differences, emphasizing the kinesthetic and aesthetic principles of each technique and helping students discover how such principles work for their individual bodies rather than imposing singular ideals to which all students must conform.

At another scale, when teaching studio courses, I am introducing students to physical practices that originated in other parts of the world, other historical periods, other ways of thinking, and other systems of value. These techniques have disseminated from body to body—teacher to student, teacher to student—up until the present when students are learning these practices from me. Through these genealogies, these techniques have accumulated rich and complicated histories of aesthetic tendencies, social and cultural conventions, political circumstances, and personal kinesthetic knowledge. In learning any of these techniques, students are encountering this collective of others with whom these practices originated and through which they have been developed, preserved, and passed along. Importantly, this learning takes place in and through their own bodies, which is one of the profound opportunities that studying dance provides: students engage with a collective history of other times, places, and bodies in their own bodies, coming to know this world of others in themselves, and in turn coming to know and develop themselves—their own bodies—through this world of others.

It is not only the origins and histories of these techniques through which difference becomes appreciable: as these techniques become familiar to students, they begin to experience themselves as unfamiliar. Literally, physically, at the levels of muscle development, flexibility, coordination, and cognition, students actualize their own potential, embodying different versions of themselves. As they grow in their abilities, I encourage them to recognize that there is never only one body or self that they always are or will be. I often say in my yoga classes: we are all always already so much more than that for which we can consciously account. Rather than a fixed, static perspective of oneself—or, in turn, of others—these practices offer physical experiences of the mutability and conditionality of who we are. Students can come to appreciate that difference is not only an experience of others but also an experience of who we once were, who we are now, and who we might become. I believe that as students learn to embrace and cultivate such differences within themselves through these physical practices, they are learning to value and appreciate the diversity of others as well and to affirm and contribute to practices in which difference might flourish.”

[1] McGill University, “Judith Butler, DLitt – McGill 2013 Honorary Doctorate Address,” May 31, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFlGS56iOAg.

These were my thoughts going into the studio. Alongside these priorities, other foci have emerged from my work developing phrases. These thoughts/realizations are less verbally articulate, more kinesthetic, but worth attempting to include here:

-Bartenieff Fundamentals and the techniques of José Limón and Doris Humphrey are deeply embedded in my body, and these seem to be the primary methodologies available to me for investigating/pursuing coordination, balance, off-balance, and moving between vertical and horizontal.

-While I never choreograph dances to music/counts anymore, there is something deeply gratifying about figuring out how specific movements translate across different meters and rhythms. Timing, or at least various physical approaches to time, seems to be important to me.

-I have a strong instinct towards simplicity and repetition, as opposed to complex phrases that go on endlessly. This is both an aesthetic value—indicative of my strong inclination towards minimalism—but also a tendency towards an efficient pedagogy: I am interested in carefully training bodies/muscles/thinking to be able to execute particular movements and particular kinds of movement that are then translatable across different choreographies. I do not want technique class to be a repertory experience. [I am indebted to Susan Hadley for this realization.]

-The spine seems to be central to all the movement I create.

-I seem to be extremely interested in the relationship between stability and mobility, specifically: what are the fixed points or parts around which movement orbits? What must remain still or held or placed in order to enable the movement of other parts of the body? How might shifting what parts are fixed and what parts are mobile not only cultivate a greater awareness of the body but also a flexibility/fluidity in how the body’s mutability/conditionality might be perceived?

-The ways in which the limbs move between “parallel” and “rotation” fascinates me. As much as I want to train dancers to have access to mobility and stability in both, I am most interested in how bodies move between these degrees of rotation, and developing control/sensitivity within those transitions.

-As I move around in the studio and imagine teaching this material to a group of students, I am reminded that we are always teaching and learning more than just course/class content. In any class, we are also teaching/training power dynamics, social relations, ideologies about bodies and how we think and talk about them, attentiveness to difference, and so on. Here is where critical pedagogy—from the perspective of bell hooks—always shapes how I am considering what I am teaching. Inasmuch as the body organizes one’s experience of the world, training how we organize the body has the potential to re-invent possibilities for experiencing the world. And inasmuch as teaching and learning are social experiences, as in the dance studio, whatever else we are training, we are always teaching ways of approaching others, modeling modes of sociality in how we teach.

These are still mostly starting points. I’ve developed a full class of phrase work that trains these various priorities (I think), but I will be continuing to investigate both the material I’ve developed and what other ways of moving can accomplish my pedagogical interests.

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.