michael j. morris


Integration of Art and Life

Integration.

Balance. Integration.

Connection. Balance. Integration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.



Scattered thoughts

Life seems too busy for any sort of formal exploration of a single idea. So I think this post is going to be yet another scattered list of the ideas that are playing around in my mind right now.

Spring is here in Ohio, and it has carried me into a week of bliss. Mornings of yoga and Qi’Gong in the grass facing the sun, afternoons reading on a blanket in the park, strawberries, and the negotiation of getting work done and surrounding myself with pleasant company. I feel happy, and it makes me think of something my dear friend Laurel once said to me: in a year in which their seemed to be a direct conflict between nurturing my art/my creative self and my larger life happiness, she offered that perhaps it was also a service to my art/creative self to be happy. That maybe being happy would also serve to produce “better” art. So in the blossoming weeks of spring and flowers and friends and sleeping with the windows open, I am again negotiating those poles (that probably overlap quite a bit): the pressures of graduate school and this intensive investment in my art/creative self/education, and the more holistic happiness of living life.

This addressing a speculation concerning the line between art and life (this is not a new paradox). Where does the line between the two lie, if in fact there is a line. This was a frequent theme in the class I took last quarter with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil, that of the intersection of art and life. How might the activities of our daily life be considered an art experience? How might the activities that we generally relegate to art be considered in the larger scope of our living (this is applicable for viewers of art, but even more so for creative artists)? If we distinguish between these, “Art” and “The Remainder of Life,” why do we make the distinction? Particularly in dance, which unfolds/progresses over time and space, is it “separate” because of the time/space in which we demarcate it? This is more simple when we speak of a  specific dance work. Or maybe not. I know my piece “About” because of it’s beginning and it’s ending. But in another sense, it also contains the months of conceptualization, the months of rehearsal, and continues to live on in the bodies and memories of those who encountered it, either as dancer or viewer. The “work” or “About” continues into the “remainder of life.” Is that continuation still an “art experience?” 

There is also this quality I have encountered in other dancers in which that which occurs within a specific piece is something like acting, pretend, or not real. And I don’t understand that. If you are playing a particular “role,” perhaps the distinction is more clear. If I were to dance in Les Noces, clearly I am not actually “The Bridegroom.” But is that the dance? Is the name the art, or is it the physical experience, the way the piece lives within the body? In which case, that “role” is a part of who I am, part of “real life.” Embodied experience cannot be “faked” or “acted.” It simply is, and as such, is for me part of the larger continuum of “real life.”

These are some of the ideas I’m thinking about.

On the subject of the collapse of Art/Life categories: This inspires me; I wish I could be there. An excellent example of art and life completely getting lost in one another:
bwinvitedesigned

Wedding as expression of relational love between two (queer) people. Wedding as performance art, as socio-ecological statement. The lines are blurry. The wedding is real, it is a wedding between these two women, their fifth actually, and it is also their art. And their art is their love. And their love is their art. I love this.

 

Other creative quandries:

I have a question about violence. I find that increasingly the subject matter of my work is the physical experiences themselves. Sometimes they exist loosely as a metaphor for larger existential experience, but even in those instances, my subject, my emphasis, is on the corporeal nature of that experience. How might those ideas live in the body, etc. Right now I seem to be thinking in reverse. This has come largely out of Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. He proposes the notion that meaning emerges from embodied experience, and it is in fact that experience that is the substance of what we know. For example, he discusses doubt or shame. These are feelings, pervasive sensations of emotion and the body that synthesize as an experience we might call “doubt.” He tries t describe the physical experience of doubt, the slight tension in the body, the effect on the breath, the hesitancy that enters into action and respiration. He proposes that these physical experiences do not “accompany” doubt, they ARE doubt. They are the experiences by which we “know” the thing we call doubt.

My interest right now is engaging with specific physical experiences, and allowing that which we feel/know/understand of its “meaning” emerge from the physicality. And right now there is an extremity to this interest, bordering on violence. Such as intense pulling in of the musculature towards the midline to the point of literal physical exhaustion. Or explosively launching from a squatting position up and back into space, as far as you can. These border on destructive, but they hold my interest because I think in them lies a specificity of experience that relates to larger existential topics. I am interested in the capacity of these specific physical experiences to reveal something . . . more. Something about what it means to exist. We’ll see where it goes . . . the connection is that these experiences, in all their brutality, are real, they are part of life. How do we live with them? How do I ask a dancer to live with them? I can articulate what I see as their value, and I do believe that risk can be part of what makes good art, but what about the lasting affects?

Which segues into another speculation, that of choreographing identity. I am interested in how these real physical experiences, that cannot be separated from “real life” are absorbed and retained in the body, and thus in identity. By engaging in specific actions, through the choices we make in the body, we are contributing to what our body is, its consistency, its memory, and thus who we are. It seems to add a gravity to what we do as dancers, as choreographers, the roles we take on, the classes in which we participate, etc. And I am also thinking about the “non-dancer population.” I am teaching a modern dance class to non-dance majors tonight. How am I contributing to their identities through the physical experiences through which I plan to guide them? 

Somatics is playing a big role in these research interests as well. In almost every branch or field of somatics, the body and mind are conceived of as inseparable, a unit, a soma. Memory, then, might exist in the muscles, the skeleton, the blood. Feelings and emotions have chemical foundations within the body, and those are experienced and retained. Thought is grounded in the brain, but extends into the body as well, which is why as  one directs thought to certain subjects, the way the body feels/is held/is experienced changes. Etc. etc. etc. This is where I see my research developing.

 

That’s all I have time for today. Those are my scattered thoughts, ideas, and inspirations.



Listening

Tonight I am thinking about listening. This is a recurring concept in my creative outlook, one that arises from my experiences with Butoh, various somatic forms, and an aesthetic that is continually fixated with subtlety. It finds resonance with the work and words of Pauline Oliveros and her practice of “deep listening”, an almost meditative practice of heightening sensory awareness as a method for creating, where creating (in her case music, in my case dance) comes out of absorbing, processing, responding, approaching an environment with an open mode of consciousness and letting the creative act arise from that form of engagement. This concept of listening is finding new echoes in subjects I am experiencing here in grad school: the concept of “emergent taxonomy” from Applied Technologies in Dance, the idea of an organization of material (which is what creating is all about) arising out of what is there rather than imposing an organizational structure hierarchically; also, the practice of “post-positivist research”, a way of looking as a subject without defining absolutely what it is you are observing, without deciding what form your findings will take, allowing the direction of the research to evolve from the practice of observation; in reading/reporting an article on Pauline Oliveros and the construction of gendered identity in her music. The author (Timothy D. Taylor) writes about Oliveros’ invocation of “feminine” characteristics in music such as intuition and sensitivity, as opposed to the “masculine” qualities of notation, prescription, and order. Gender politics aside, reading about the investigation of these approaches (intuition, sensitivity, listening) in the creative process was invigorating.

So, what I’m curious about is what this looks like in dance. There is certainly precedence, especially in areas such as improvisation, contact improvisation, Butoh, etc. Even in other choreographers’ creative process, the idea of a choreography emerging from the process/experience of dancing (such as appropriating/structuring improv experiences into choreography) is not unheard of. That is not typical of my choreographic approach. Typically, find myself fixated with a subject. I steep myself in that subject matter, then generate movement material as a metaphorical exploration of the subject. This material is given to dancers, structured, rehearsed, and eventually performed.

I am wondering what would happen if I deepen my research/understanding of these “listening”/awareness based practices (Butoh, somatic techniques, Oliveros’ “deep listening”, etc.), then direct dancers through experiences in these processes of listening with the body, and eventually allow choreography to surface from this practice of listening, even through to the point of performance, maintain a constant approach of dance and movement as listening rather than expressing. What would that experience look like? How would it feel for the dancers? For the audience?

More and more my aesthetic is drawn towards details/subtlety/nuance. I connect these propensities to this quality of awareness, or listening.

I have a sense that this might be the starting point of what might evolve into my MFA research project. I am interested in exploring other ways of listening. . . even this blog is an experiment in both speaking/authoring, but also listening, paying attention to what is emerging, what responses there are, and allowing that awareness to shape the content. That is part of how this blog is a creative activity for me, and how it is playing a role in the way I am thinking right now, especially in how I am thinking about my art. It’s very circular: something is set into motion, that motion is observed/listened to, that awareness loops back into the creative process to shape the direction of that which is being set into motion, more feedback, more response in the way in which information (movement, writing, graphic, etc.) is generated, etc.

What do you think?
How do you listen with your body, or in your own creative media? How can the act of creating also be an act of listening?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

-M