michael j. morris


Another exhilarating dance performance I had the opportunity to experience this week was a performance of Trisha Brown’s Sololos, staged and directed by Abigail Yager, performed in Thompson Library on the campus of the Ohio State University.

There is a video of the performance floating around facebook, but I can’t seem to find it this morning. I did find a video detailing the history and renovation of Thompson Library, which will at least give a sense of the architecture to which I will refer.

To start, I have seen this piece three or four times, all in different settings, and I have to say that I could not conceive of a more apt space in which this piece might be performed. I am a big fan of the architecture of Thompson Library, and its structures provided a wealth of lines, spaces and formal alignments for this dance that has itself a kind of internal architecture (I think there’s a sense in which all dance has a kind of architecture, and there has been a burgeoning mass of research exploring the relationships between dance and architecture; the work with which I am the most familiar has come out of/around the Synchronous Objects project. You can read about some of this research here. I also have a brilliant colleague of mine, Mara Penrose, is currently collaborating with architecture student Renee Ripley on an upcoming project entitled Inscription, another great opportunity to examine the interplay between dance and architecture). Sololos, like much of Trisha Brown’s work, has a very precise geometry to both the movement material and the spatial organization of the dancers. There is a linearity to the movement, and a constant sense the every point on every surface of each dancers’ body both corresponds and is aware of its correspondence to spatial coordinates. In the performance of the dance, its internal geometry enters a dialogue with the geometry of the space; the coordinates of the dance become mapped onto the infinite potential axes provided by the architecture and the viewers. There is also an architecture to the timing of the dance; it goes beyond the precision of the individual actions of individual dancers and moves into the realm of interactive precision: I experience it almost as a temporal geometry, and as dancers move through various phrases of movement, in and out of unison, there is a constant sense of correlation across time. Additionally, related to both the spatial/formal and the temporal architecture of the dance, there is also an architecture to the attention required by this piece.

Before I range too far into my own experience during Friday’s showing, I would like to share the description of the piece offered in the program of the event as a nice summation of the nature of the choreography:

Sololos is one of the purest expressions of Trisha Brown’s love affair with choreographis structure. Created in 1976, it is a study of causality–cause and effect, as well as logical processes, properties, variables and facts in which dancers respond to instructions called to them from a dancer offstage. The piece begins in simple unison, quickly unravels into visual complexity, then re-ravels itself back to its beginning prompted by instructions given by the caller. Governed by strict adherence to a set of rules and requirements, it exists in endless permutation as a function of these improvised calls. The vocabulary is entirely fixed, yet the form is composed in the moment.

“The piece is constructed of three movement palindromes. These phrases of movement material can be danced in forward or retrograde, and can be called to change direction at any time. The foundational phrase, referred to as Main, functions as a central artery delivering dancers to choreographic ‘doorways’ through which they pass to splinter off to auxiliary palindromes referred to as Branch and Spill. Whereas there is only one Main and one Branch, there are four unique Spills created by each of the dancers in response to a written set of instructions.”

These sets of rules and requirements are one aspect of what I am thinking of as the architecture of the dance. While the materials are meticulously set, the ways in which they work themselves out, driven primarily by the directions of the outside “Caller” (on Friday, Meredith Hurst and Mara Penrose functioned as the Callers for the dance), is improvised within those rules. Like the physical architecture of a building maintains a certain concrete fixity, a container for infinite possibilities of human movement through the structure, the movement itself is essentially improvised within these structures. Perhaps a bit more phenomenologically, I think there is something also to be said about the “fixity” or “mobility” of the architectural structures within the field of human perception. The way in which we experience a space is entirely informed by the conditions of that experience (others in the space, time of day, personal conditions, memory, etc.), and it is in this perceptual fluctuation between fixity and mobility that I felt Sololos primarily in dialogue with Thompson Library.

I had the distinct experience of the enactment of the dance re-enacting the space. A primary device of this enactment was geometrical alignment. Lines of bodies in space falling into parallelisms or perpendicularities with the formal elements of the library brought those elements into my perception in a new, previously unrecognized, way. Thompson Library is full of grids, some of which are more or less parallel (the shadows cast from the skylight, offering a grid to the floor on which they danced; the central column of the stacks, housed in grids of glass and steel which provided the backdrop for the dance; etc.), others not so rigid (the lines embedded in the floor are sometimes curving, sometimes diagonal, offering lines off of the strict grid with which bodies might find alignment). In this sense, the revelation and transformation of the dance become a frame or device for the revelation and transformation of the library’s architecture in the field of my perception. While this could be said of any dance in any space, it was between the specific linearity of Sololos and the rich complexity of geometrical forms within Thompson Library that I felt a deep affinity, and it was through this affinity that I experienced the mobility of the space itself.

Other factors contributed to this experience: I was aware of how my perception of the space transformed through the expansion and collapsing of space between the dancers’ bodies. The shifting distance between myself and each dancer functioned as a constant re-negotiation of the distance between myself and the structure surrounding us all, the space beyond the bodies.

Perhaps the most overwhelming of my sensorial experiences with this dance had to do with the formulation of spatial coordinates for the bodies in space. Coordinates are defined by a point of intersecting axes. Throughout the performance of the piece, I was constantly aware of the seemingly infinite possible axes in the space. It went beyond recognizing the situation of bodies between one thing and another; I became aware of the trajectories of lines into space, lines extending as planes, the potential to consider the viewers’ gazes/attention as axes for the situation of the bodies (in constant motion). Because of the unique architecture of the atrium of the library, spectators were fully in the round (all four sides of the dance) on four separate levels. My situation was on the first floor, level with the dancers, but I was constantly aware of the viewers two, three, and four stories above the dance, and the potential to consider those gazes as the definitive axes for the coordinates of bodies. The most explosive moments for me came when bodies fell into formal alignments with one another (whether or not they were dancing the same phrase of movement): inevitably the body of a dancer would shift dramatically in my field of perception, now re-situated due to the alignment with another body onto the axes (that I had constructed perceptually) for that other body. Similar shifts occurred when bodies fell into alignments with the library’s architecture; the recognition of the alignment trumped whatever other spatial situation I had previously constructed for that body, and thus in those moments of simple reciprocity between bodies and structure my perception of the situation of those bodies (and thus the bodies themselves) became radically reconfigured.

Through this process of viewing, I became increasingly aware of the constructed nature of these “axes,” “coordinates,” and “situations.” My knowledge of the “object” was entirely informed by my perception of its situation, and the qualities of that situation were arbitrarily constructed. On a more existential level, this offered some space for reflecting on the arbitrary and constructed understanding of “the nature of things.” If we (primarily) understand a thing because of its relationship to other things, it becomes important to recognize that the “other things” that we collect in order for the object to be consider is both limited and arbitrary. This is perhaps the value of intertextuality, recognizing that the meaning of a thing emerges primarily from its situation amongst others, and that by reformulating the situation of a given topic or object, we reformulate the qualities of what we know/experience it to be.

The alignments of bodies with one another also affected the way in which I became aware of other bodies in space and their alignments: patrons of the library walking in unison with one another, parallel spatial pathways, oppositional spatial pathways, etc. Making my way to the arching theme of my experience, the viewing of the dance in this space began to inform me experience of the surrounding activity. Along these lines, the dance and the library’s architecture mutually redefined one another for the duration of the piece (and perhaps even after the piece, if we want to range into a discussion of something like spatial memory). A significant concern for architecture/the architect is how the structure facilitates, enables, and limits the movement of bodies in space (this might also correlate to a central concern of the choreographer). The presence of this dance occurring in the main atrium and entrance area of the first floor dramatically reformed the way in which the architecture functioned by contributing additionally limiting structures (dancing bodies) to the space. Library patrons were no longer corralled by the structure of the building, but also the disruption of the structure by the presence of a dance. The flow of human motion in the building was diverted, and in this sense, the architecture augmented. Coextensively, the function of the space contributed to the dance itself. Most overtly, one woman, engrossed in text messaging, literally wandered into the dance performance space. She appeared horrified when she recognized her intrusion, but in those moments she contributed an additional body that had to be negotiated in the dance. Besides the over intrusion, it was simple enough to consider all the moving bodies in the space as complicit in the dance. Unlike the proscenium situation in which the only obvious moving bodies are those on stage, this dance was surrounded by moving bodies, and they then entered the field of awareness in which the dance could be considered.

With all of these elements contributing to the perception of both the dance and the space, it seems simple enough to assert that the Callers for the piece functioned as both choreographers and architects for Sololos and Thompson Library for the duration of the piece. The ways in which they solved the functions of the dance shaped not only the choreography but the space as well.

And this is perhaps a good moment to offer a summation of the reward this expeirence provided: The experience of the dance in the space, by way of directing fresh and reciprocal attention into the space, made the architecture of the library (a space I inhabit persistently) more alive, more dynamic, and in effect more meaningful. This then might be said to be a rare opportunity that dance in non-traditional spaces (or, more specifically, familiar spaces in which dance does not usually occur): it provides a perceptual opportunity in which the space might become reinvented, revitalized, and reinvested with meaningfulness.

I could write so much more about the meaningfulness of this experience: how shifting my position/perspective from one side of the dance to another between the first and second run of the piece dramatically reformed my experience; how understanding the functions of the choreography and my intimacy with the dancers/callers made an emotional landscape, going with them on a journey of problem solving, moving near-far-and near to the solution (getting all the dancers back to unison Main in reverse, I think); the moment at which one dancer, Quentin Burley, literally ended up partially in my lap because of where I was sitting and where the improvisation of the dance took him, thrusting me not only into the space of the dance, but also a heightened interpersonal awareness of the piece beyond the perceptual/formal concerns that dominated my experience; the potential metaphors for social/cultural mediation embedded in the function of the dance (if we were to allow the end unison to represent a cultural value for harmony, and consider elements like unison, deviation, minor and vast disjunctions between dancers, the range of flexibility that allows for synch-ups, etc. as informative to cultural configuration); but already being over 2000 words, I think I might have to conclude, with the acknowledgement that this dance by Trisha Brown, the superb work of Abigail Yager in its staging, the performance of the dancers and the architecture of Thompson Library, all the connections in between, offered a profound experience for my week, one about which I could write much, much more.

The piece is being done once more this quarter at the OSU Student Union, 4 June at 1:30. It will be different in the Union (a building I find to be vulgar on multiple levels), but I encourage you to see the piece if possible, and perhaps carry a mindfulness of its transformative potential in your viewing.

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.