michael j. morris


Making Explicit

I think I am finally coming to a greater understanding of what the meaning or reason of this piece might be. I have been working for a few days on a new soundscore with which to experiment in our rehearsal this week. It is the basic mash-up that I have described before (Marie Antoinette soundtrack, ISAN, Lady Gaga, Aphex Twins) with new text and sound loops woven into it. The new text/sound is taken from two films by Madison Young, “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality” and “Thin Line Between Art and Sex.” I have transcribed the text in earlier posts, statements made by Tommy Midas and Jiz Lee. I have also lifted sound from the sex portions of these films, weaving sounds of fucking, sucking, moaning, groaning, slapping, sighing, orgasming, etc. into the soundscore. It’s pretty hot, a little kitschy, borders between overstimulation and potential humor. I recognize that. There is a sense of both poignancy and humor to hear Lady Gaga sing: “Russian roulette is not the same without a gun, and baby when it’s love if it’s not rough it isn’t fun,” while at the same time hearing a woman begging “choke me, please, choke me, please,” while someone else is moaning while getting slapped around. Several of my peers have asked why I’m creating this soundscore, and here in lies my new understanding: I think I am trying to make aspects of dance that exist implicitly in our practices explicit in this piece/practice. Often in the dance world, especially in Western theatrical dance and dance training, sexuality is significantly downplayed, as if to suggest that sex plays no part in what we are doing. I do not mean to imply that dance is all about sex, not at all. But dance is a physical practice, essentially embodied, and sexuality is persistently a part of our embodied existence. We may not be conscious of it, we may not even acknowledge it, but it is always present. I am interested in acknowledging this, bringing it from its implicit, unacknowledged place into the foreground, explicitly acknowledged as a dynamic in what it is we are doing. I don’t think that this piece/we as a cast/this academic institution are quite ready to literally have sex as part of a dance, especially in front of spectators (although I have to say that this intrigues me), so I am exploring other ways to make the sex/sexuality explicit. This soundscore is one strategy. I think the stripping and biting and rolling around on the floor in our underwear also foreground a space in which sexuality occurs. Similarly, I think the component of the biting is a strategy for making explicit the implicit violence of dance. Dancing is difficult, demanding, and often destructive to our bodies. There is an inherent masochism and sometimes sadism to much of dancing. By creating a dance in which masochism and sadism are made explicit in these “biting scenes,” mixing it up with intimacy, friendship, dancing, and the implication of sex, I am foregrounding aspects of what we do that generally go unacknowledged/unexplored.

I don’t think this is the only reason or meaning behind this work. I think equally as important are the themes of integrating art and life, shifting power dynamics, and agency/indeterminacy as I detailed in my previous post. I was discussing some of these ideas with a colleague of mine this afternoon, and she commented that maybe all of this, the dancing, the sex, the violence, Lady Gaga, maybe it’s all the same thing. Then she refined that statements: maybe it isn’t that it is all the same, but that it is all always a part, always at play. There is sex in dancing even if the dancing is not about sex. There is agency and indeterminacy and improvisation in sex, even if the sex is not about exploring these ideas. There is violence in dance practices, and in sex, and it is sometimes tangled up with intimacy, pleasure, fulfillment, excitement, etc. In a truly post-modern turn, this dance is perhaps less about isolating and examining each of these aspects of human existence and more about blurring the lines between them, layering them in all of there complexity and contradiction, just as they occur in life. Because the dance is our live, our lives are the dance, etc.

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Cloud of Interests

This week I read an article by Alexandra Carter entitled  “Destabilizing the Discipline: Critical debates about History and their Impact on the Study of Dance.” In it she describes history not as neat boxes of knowledge but as clouds of “dispersing interplay” of discourses. My life, art, and interests feel a bit like that right now. I feel as if I have several large foci with small shifting bolts of connective tissue (big ‘ole mixed metaphor) linking them together. Some of these are illustrated in my tag cloud, others are not so concrete as to have a “tag” attached to them. I feel like I am trying to figure out how they all relate, how they inform or reinforce one another, and how the work I am doing might adequately address/serve/interrogate all of these interests.

At the heart of it all is the body. There is the subject of my arching research interests, that of situating the body as the site of the perception, negotiation, and demonstration of identity, and how this state is considered within the choreographic process. Specifically I am interested in considering movement material generated by the body as the extension of personal identity, and examining how the physical practice of movement material constitutes not only the construction of dance but also the construction of personal identity.

From here I am already aware of the paths that connect to other interests. One that seems to be of increasing centrality is the expansion of the notion of the body. This comes up in my yoga teaching, in the paper I wrote about Synchronous Objects, and in the ideas I have surrounding the work of Love Art Laboratory, Sexecology, and Ecosexuality. In yoga I privilege the body as the site of perception. The sage Abhinavagupta wrote: “Nothing perceived is independent of perception, and perception differs not from the perceiver; therefore the [perceived] universe is nothing but the perceiver.” If perception is a physical activity, as Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, and Alva Noë (among others, I am sure) have suggested, and if perception is the unity between the subject and the object (that which is “external” of self, the perceived universe), then the body take on far more importance as the site not only of the subject, but the subjective universe. This is perhaps not a profound recognition, but I think it may have profound implications. Our experience of the world can no longer be entirely considered as a subject moving through an external landscape; instead, the subject (and thus the body) becomes implicated in the “external” world. I think this may be the connection point to Sexecology/Ecosexulaity. The foundation of my understanding of these radical, fabulous, and beautiful notions as they have evolved out of the collaborative work of Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens is that one looks to find sexual (thus bodily) content in the natural environment. I think this recognition of the body as already implicated in environmental situation by virtue of its role as the creative/perceptual site for the subjective universe offers a natural extension to the exploration of sexuality in that environment. For more about my ideas surrounding sexecology/ecosexuality, see my earlier post. Going back to my yoga practice/yoga teaching, part of the way in which I understand yoga is a kind of alchemy of self, the “splendor of recognition,” the recognition being that Self is not separate from the universe in which it occurs, consciousness is the substance by which we create our own universe, Self is not fixed, nor is the universe, nor is the body, and that by cultivating this awareness of the body/Self/universe in our yoga practice, we are substantially transforming not only ourselves, but our consciousness, and thus the universe in which we live.

Adjacent (but connected) to these interest is the piece that I am working on right now, Autumn Quartet, with Erik Abbott-Main, Eric Falck, and Amanda Platt. This piece has been in process since September, and I am still not quite sure I understand it yet. There are so many blog posts writing specifically about this piece, I don’t want to be redundant, but the major ideas that have emerged from this process are: the relationship between intimacy and violence, undressing/redressing the body, shifting power dynamics, indeterminacy/agency (as created by the structure for the piece being an algorithmic score), the integration of life and art . . . those are the main ideas. Recently I’ve become interested in how this piece relates to sex, the presence or implication of sex in the piece even in the absence of actual sexual action. As I listened to Jiz Lee and Tommy Midas discuss sex in a couple of docu-porns by Madison Young, I was reminded of this dance. I’m still not quite sure what the connections are, but I think they are there. Part of how I am interrogating those connections is by bringing that text, that language, into the process, into the studio. I am situating it into my commentary on the work here on my blog, and in the sound score for the piece. [On a side note, I follow both Jiz Lee and Madison Young on Twitter, and it was an exhilarating surprise to have both of them tweet about my using that text in this piece]. I think as I watched footage of a run-through of the piece, I also began to make aesthetic associations with several films, a few that I have been thinking about since the start of the piece, and one that I had not considered. The last couple of scenes in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer have always been iconic moments for me, and as I looked at this dance, I recognized images that directly relate to those scenes, namely the wild flurry of bodies in various states of undress, and the biting, consuming, eating of a person. In case you haven’t seen the film, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it was a new connection for me.

Other points of interest branch out from this piece. I am in a course looking at the history and theory of post-modern and contemporary dance this quarter, and in considering what it is I would like to research for this class, this piece has suggested several points: the utilization of undressing as choreography, its reasoning, its perception, etc.; the explication of violence in choreography in post-modern dance: this has interested me for a while. Much of dance has an intrinsically masochistic quality to it. It is difficult, demanding, and often damaging to the body, in small, overlooked ways. I am interested in tracing the expansion of explicit physical violence in choreography, and considering how it might be indicative of an explication of the intrinsic violence, masochism, and even sadism  of dance practices. I am also considering writing my paper on Love Art Laboratory, Sexecology/Ecosexuality, as a component of this course, as the destabilization of fixed parameters of the body might be considered essentially post-structuralist, i.e., essentially post-modernist.

I have been feeling hungry for Butoh lately. Butoh has been the most transformative, fulfilling, actualizing physical practice of my life. Studying with Yoshito and Kazuo Ohno in Yokohama in 2006 was a formative experience for my dancing life. And yet ever since I came to grad school, the time and attention I have made available for a Butoh practice has been non-existant. I regret this, and at the same time I’m not sure of the solution. And yet all of these things, the body as the site of identity, the situation of the subjective universe, subliminal and explicit violence, these are all aspects that I find that Butoh can address.

I’m interested in applying notions of queer theory to choreographic practice, subverting the assumed normative roles of choreographer and dancer, without reverting to the post-modern model of dancers generating movement/choreographer structuring that movement. While that suggests the (perhaps illusion?) of a democratic process, I don’t know if it has substantially subverted those roles. Again, I think of statements made by Jiz Lee in “Thin Line Between Art and Sex” about being a “switch,” the fluidity of roles, leading and following, and how that sexual perspective might inform not only dance practices (as reflected in forms such as Contact Improvisation), but also choreographic methodologies. Truly, I am fascinated by Jiz’s ideas. They have addressed a whole spectrum of concepts that I have wanted to explore for a while and to which I have not yet given my attention. Jiz also wrote an article in a publication called ArtXX looking at the relationship between cognitive science and queer porn. I just ordered my issue; can’t wait to read it.

Which leads to the last interest that I might address here, and that has to do with a notion I’ve considered as “Sexual epistemology,” or ways of knowing that emerge from sexuality, sex, sexual identity, etc. This sense of considering choreographic process from the perspective of “switch” as suggested by a kind of sexual identity could be considered a kind of sexual epistemology. I am curious about what modalities or methodologies might be suggested by other sexual topics, like penetration/non-penetration, arousal, auto-erotic behavior, kink, etc. I have been interested in how the “sex-positive movement” might address or inform academia, or even more specifically, dance in academia. There has been some acknowledgement of sexual dynamics as playing a role in dance practices, but I question whether these have been acknowledged through as “sex-positive” lens. Carol Queen defines sex-positive as follows: “It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity, which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous. Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationships structures, and individual choices based on consent” (quoted from her article “The Necessary Revolution: Sex-Positive Feminism in the Post-Barnard Era.”). How might our acknowledgement, treatment, and even utilization of sexual understanding affect dance practices in a positive way? I don’t know, but it is a budding interest of mine.

I’m not sure of all the ways in which these interests relate. Nor am I sure of how to give attention to all or any of these during the difficult and demanding period of grad school, but even just by articulating them and cataloguing them here on my blog I feel that I have served the process in some way.

On to other things.



Autumn Quartet: Bite images, etc.

These were taken last week after our rehearsal. I wasn’t certain whether I would post them, but as I read back through the various posts describing this process, it feels very removed from the bodies themselves. Something about these images brings the process back to a very physical place. I think of them as art integrating with life. Lingering bite mark after rehearsal.

I have also been working on integrating various text into what we’ve been working with as our soundscape. First were the previously shared quotes from Tommy Midas in Madison Young‘s “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality.” Now I have made connections to quotes by Jiz Lee in another of Madison Young’s docu-porns, “Thin Line Between Art and Sex.” I’ll transcribe those below:

“I think that there are a lot of similarities between art and sex, particularly with dance.”

[referencing Contact Improvisation]: “It’s about inter-relating with another person, or more than one person, in such a way that it’s improvisational, you’re taking cues from them and what they’re doing, and what they’re going to do next. You know, anticipating what they might do next, or what they might want next. There’s also a level of, like, a follower and a leader sometimes, so sometimes there’ll be, like, someone kind of, like, following, and the other person takes cues off of that, or visa versa, and they switch at any moment . . . I feel like it relates to sex because you can start off in one way and then decide, oh, actually, I’ll let you lead for a second, and I’ll take that cue.”

“It was called the Undress Project, and so I was dancing naked on stage, and it wasn’t sexualized, and actually they found out that wearing a little bit amount of clothing, like even rehearsing in bras and underwear, was more tantalizing and titillating than just being completely naked. And there was a real beauty and zen-like quality to performing completely bare and being exposed, and seeing that our bodies were this kind of functioning machine, where they eat and piss and shit and eat again, and they age and they sag and they live and die . . .”

“I found myself being kind of upset being on stage and being naked and people seeing, like, ‘Oh, that’s a woman,’ and you know, like, the size of my hips and you can see my boobs and to be . . . by a lot of reviewers being, like, ‘She this, and she that,’ and actually I identify as gender queer, so . . . and I had been packing, binding, and identifying as trans for a while, so it was an interesting transition to be okay with my body and be okay with what other people thought about my body.”

“So I got very comfortable with myself naked, moving naked, being seen by others and however they wanted to see me.”

I have also been considering the format in which this piece might be seen by outside observers. I have been questioning the necessity of having any sort of formal or informal performance/presentation since the start of the process, and I still have questions about the implications of presentation for this work. In so many ways, this piece really is about and for the four of us as a practice in which we engage, a dance intended more for the kinesthetic, spatial, and interpersonal experience of being inside of it rather than the visual experience of seeing the piece. And yet there is a sense in which the piece might . . . want to be shared? So I have been considering the possibility of personal invitations, inviting specific individuals to witness our practice, week by week rather than any sort of epitomizing performance experience. I haven’t quite figured out the details or viability of this approach, but it does seem like a way to continue to maintain a sense of intimacy in the process, emphasizing the interpersonal rather than the spectacle. I think.

That is my creative update on the Autumn Quartet. There are so many other thing about which I feel compelled to write . . . how the this piece is beginning to feel implicated in the post-modern period through its inclusion of undressing (I’m thinking again of David Gordon’s Random Breakfast, and Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes). Maybe that will be the paper I write for “The History and Theory of Postmodern/Contemporary Dance” this quarter. In any event, the work of reading and writing and teaching now requires my attention.