michael j. morris

partial alignments and degrees of difference

Several different areas or dimensions of life have recently pushed me to articulate what I consider to be one of the most fundamental tenets of my ethics: I want to live in a world of difference. I do not want to live in a world in which everyone is the same as me, in which we all aspire to agree fully, in which we presume that everyone’s needs and values totally align; I want to live in a world of partial alignments, a world full of not only different perspectives but different ways of life and modes of living that create the conditions for different perspectives. I want to live in a world in which we struggle to find commonalities, and in which we strive to coexist when no single commonality can be reached.


This week there were a number of important presidential primaries, including Ohio. In the weeks and months leading up to these primaries, I have found myself in heightened states of disagreement with people in my community, on Facebook, and in conversations which sometimes unexpectedly turn political. I have continued to consider and reconsider my position—which I won’t lay out fully here, but which continues to find the existing political system dysfunctional, a position from which I struggle to trust or believe in any political candidate, from which I have admired the idealism and passion of Bernie Sanders, and from which I have consistently found myself more aligned with the practicality of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This writing is actually not about expounding on or defending that position. Rather, as I continue to navigate this campaign, I find myself faced again and again with extreme, superficial representations of candidates who I do not know personally, but who are undoubtedly much more complex—and in some ways similar—than what is presented to me by the media, friends, and loved ones. bell hooks very usefully reminded us yesterday: “As a firm believer in the importance of free speech, I consider it vital to feminist democratic process that all women be free to choose who they want to support—whether I agree with them or not. As a challenge to dominant thinking and practice, it is crucial to not construct images of individuals that are one dimensional and binary. No one is all good or all bad. Importantly, our focus should be on critical issues, standpoints and political perspective, not on personalities.” hooks addresses several points that I consider to be vital: first, that we simply must be able to affirm one another’s choices and perspectives, even when we do not agree, and that we must not continue to construct one-dimensional and binary depictions of political personalities. Again and again, we are presented with totalizing binaries—Clinton or Sanders, democrat or republican, us or them—binaries that depend on reductive, one-dimensional representations, binaries to which we subscribe and which we then proceed to reproduce and circulate. Not only does such thinking do a disservice to the world in which we live—the complexity of which rarely if ever simply complies fully with such reductive, binary logics—it distracts from the actually more difficult but important work of critical analysis and dialogue between perspectives and positions that are different in many ways, but also in some ways partially and contingently align. As Kate Bornstein taught me in Gender Outlaw: “The choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive alternatives.” And as Brené Brown asks provocatively in Rising Strong: “…when faced with either-or dilemmas, the first question we should ask is, Who benefits by forcing people to choose?” Both Bornstein and Brown remind me that binary thinking is a tactic of power, of regulation, and both suggest that there must be other ways of examining situations that are forced into such binaries.

Form Flow Alignments

Still from annotated video illustrating allignments, the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time Credit: Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

One approach that has been life-changing for me is to look for partial alignments within degrees of difference. This is an approach that emerged from a choreographic research project called Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced, which investigates systems of organization in choreographer William Forysthe’s dance One Flat Thing, reproduced. [You can read all about the project on the website for Synchronous Objects.] In this project, the research team—directed by William Forsythe, Norah Zuniga Shaw, and Maria Palazzi—studied the ways in which this dance “examines and reconfigures classical choreographic principles of counterpoint,” which they define as “a field of action in which the intermittent and irregular coincidence of attributes between organizational elements produces an ordered interplay” (see the Introduction essay “The Dance” in the SynchObj site). In other words, counterpoint emerges from an ongoing activities across which emerge moments of shared qualities or similarities, moments that appear briefly, intermittently, and irregularly. They describe these moments as alignments: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes.” These shared attributes might refer to multiple actions executed with the same timing, or multiple dancers doing different things but all moving in the same direction, or different dancers that pass through similar shapes with their bodies, even if they are performing different actions, for example. Alignments often emerge in situations in which the “top structure”—or what we notice most prominently—is difference: dancers doing different actions in different ways coming from and going towards different places, etc. Within these heightened states of difference, at the deeper level of organization, partial and fleeting alignments occur, qualities or attributes are shared, briefly, incompletely, and even circumstantially. This dance and the Synchronous Objects researchers prioritize the importance of these moments, these partial alignments, as developing a mode of organization that relies not on unison or uniformity, but actually depends on difference, on the lack of total unison or uniformity.

This occurs in the dance itself, but Zuniga Shaw suggests that it might offer ways of thinking about other parts of our lives as well: “I think this is significant not only as a concrete phenomenon in dance, but also as a larger metaphor that’s applicable to how we look at and analyze ecosystems, to how we maybe notice the play of light on the water, or the interaction of branches in the canopies of the trees above us, and to how we interact with the complex realities of our daily lives. So what if in those situations when there is conflict in your lives, in those situations where we’re encountering maybe just a lot of difference, in our classrooms, in the downtown streets, in our workplaces: what if we approached those situations contrapuntally? And we didn’t try to squeeze these things into marching bands of unity, but instead we get pretty excited about that disagreement and difference, and heighten our attention to the deep structures, the deep sets of relationships, degrees of alignment, quirky little agreements, that are percolating under the surfaces of our lives all the time.” What if when we encounter difference—different values, different perspectives, different actions and activisms—what if even when we encounter conflict, we allow ourselves to become curious? Rather than first attempting to convince one another of our own perspectives, rather than trying to make you more like me, what if we started to ask questions: can you tell me more about what you think? What are the values and priorities that brought you to this perspective? What is it you desire? What is it you need? What are you afraid of? What might we be able to do together?

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Another event in my life that has prompted this line of thinking is Caitlyn Jenner’s reality docu-series, I Am Cait, which is now in its second season. I have a lot of opinions about Jenner’s presentation in the media, the way in which our culture has elevated someone of her racial and economic privilege—white, wealthy—to the status of “icon” so rapidly, the significance of her very public transition given her history as an Olympic athlete and hero for American masculinity, and the particular priorities of her show, none of which I’ll go into here. I think I Am Cait has done some things really effectively; I also think it has handled some people and their stories reprehensibly. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Angelica Ross—founder of TransTech Social Enterprises and actress on the hit new show Her Storyspeak at Denison University; she discussed the ways in which her appearance in the first season of the show had been cut down considerably, eliminating the successes and activism of her life, and reducing her to a familiar sound-byte regarding the struggles that many trans women face. I am sure that this is not the only instance of the stories of trans women—particularly trans women of color—being edited and simplified to fit the particular agenda of the show and Jenner’s image. That being said, the show is also introducing issues that I find important: one of the big themes that is emerging this season is difference. The premise of the season is a road trip on which Jenner is joined by a group of other trans people—mostly trans women—and several people who are not trans. On the bus and on the road, conflicts have already arisen—no doubt providing the kind of drama that make a reality tv show successful. Arguments have developed around politics—Jenner is an adamant conservative republican, everyone else on the trip seem to be democrats—and around different experiences with language. Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein have already had multiple conversations about the controversial term “tranny,” which Boylan and others find offensive and hurtful, and with which Bornstein identifies, as her “name,” her community, her family. The group has had conversations about what it means to be a woman, in which perspectives differ and in some ways partially align. Throughout the television drama of what is unfolding, what I appreciate is that the show is offering a representation of difference, conflict, and partial alignments. While it continues to show a somewhat narrow and extremely limited segment of trans communities, it is showing that not all trans people are the same, nor should they be. I appreciate that the show is not only giving visibility to [a few] trans people, but that within this community, there are a wide range of identities, perspectives, values, and feelings. We are not all the same, and if we were, that would be cause for concern. As Jenny Boylan tweeted yesterday, “‘Unity’ for the Trans movement, I think, means accepting broad range of identities. Not making us all agree on one.” And why not? As a culture, we have long been comfortable with a range of perspectives, values, positions, identities, and personalities with our cisgender celebrities; besides embracing a range of identities in trans communities, I would hope that we could also accept that kind of range for trans celebrities as well, even when we don’t agree with their perspectives and choices.


Candis Cayne, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, [I think second from the right is Mimi Marks], and Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker, who also appears on the show, wrote earlier this week, “Friends can disagree. And in this historic primary season—fraught with anger, fear, and resentment—friends WILL disagree, LOUDLY … So let’s all take a deep breath. Let’s not feed into the fierce rhetoric that is destructive to the greater cause. Let’s have these conversations with respect. Let’s appreciate what we’ve achieved and retain the righteous willpower to achieve more.” Boylan and Drucker, in their writing and on the show, continue to hold space for conversation, for listening, for finding connections across disagreements. They have openly criticized Jenner for her unwillingness to listen and discuss other perspectives—an unwillingness that seems to be shifting as the season progresses—and they continue to engage one another at the places they align across their pronounced differences. Particularly moving for me was the way that the show handled the conflict between Boylan and Bornstein in the second episode of season two: at a dinner with the whole group, Bornstein describes how she and Boylan share values for the livability of trans people (which she jokingly describes as “trans supremacy”), but that their personal strategies and ideologies conflict. After having a long talk, the two came to the point where they could say: “Some of your stuff is hard to hear, and I know some of what I say is hard to hear, and I’m trying to throttle it back in your presence. But I know you listen to me, and I promise I’ll listen to you.” Boylan describes their friendship as disagreeing on so much but loving each other so much, and in that, I hear counterpoint; I hear partial alignments—here, love—within heightened states of difference, and the presentation of that as a mode of relationship and coexistence is something for which I am very grateful.

[This post has already gotten quite long, but I also want to acknowledge that I see this kind of relationship modeled expertly and beautifully by bell hooks and Laverne Cox in their public dialogue at The New School, which you can view online. On many points, Cox and hooks disagree, and then keep talking. They stay in the conversation. They maintain and investigate the places they align and agree, however small or temporary, within the context of other ways in which they disagree irresolvably.]

I want to be very clear: I am not advocating for difference and an appreciation of partial alignments merely out of some kind of liberal/PC fetishization of “diversity.” I am committed to these perspectives because of the very material reality that none of us live in a world of our own on our own; we live in a world with others, and we are making a world together in which we will all continue to live. That world cannot be formed from a single perspective, from any single set of values that manages to overwhelm, overturn, or eradicate all others. The world that we share must constantly be grown out of not only our differences in perspective, but also our different values, our different priorities, our different needs. It has to emerge not only from the irresolvable differences and partial alignments between people who consider themselves democrats and people who consider themselves republicans, but also between people who have different racial histories, who have different gender identities, who have different modes of ability, who have lived for different periods of time; and also between different species with whom we share this planet, different modes of life at a multitude of scales, living creatures who are so different from me that sometimes it seems the only way that they might survive is if we do not. I believe the question we must ask again and again is: how might we live together without eliminating our differences? Where and how do we align partially while maintaining our vast differences? The alternative is totalitarianism. The alternative is fascism. The alternative is the cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—to borrow a term from bell hooks.

I want to live in a world in which we can hold different—even contradictory—perspectives without abandoning the pursuit of collective world making and coexistence, without resorting to violence. To be clear, I consider an insistence on sameness, an insistence on unity that eliminates difference, to be the ideological starting point for countless forms of violence; any desires for conformity, for sameness, for unity that does not allow for difference should be extremely suspect. As we continue in the year of this presidential election, I hope that we might shift the conversation towards curiosity, towards listening, towards examining partial alignments rather than trying to convince the other to fall in line with one’s own views. To be sure, I have no illusions that the current political system that we practice in the United States is not broken; however, within the broken system, I want to believe that intelligent, critically thinking people can and will come to different conclusions as to what might be the most effective direction for our nation. When the people I love unabashedly support a candidate that is not the person I have chosen to support, I want to believe that we can survive those differences of perspective. I want to believe that we can not only peacefully accept that our loved ones, colleagues, and community can intelligently reach different perspectives/conclusions, but also recognize those differences as opportunities to get really curious about one another, learn about these other people with whom we are sharing and making our world, and hope to understand something about the values, feelings, priorities and thought processes that shape their perspectives and desires. Within trans communities, within larger communities in which trans people live, I want to believe that we can hold space for our differences, and in doing so, also attend to the small, partial, potentially temporary ways in which we align, in which we can experience something shared, with which we can pursue a world that emerges from no single view or ideology, but from the rambling complexities and contradictions between the countless modes of living together on this planet.

John Jasperse’s Canyon: at the precipice of chaos

Photo by Tony Orrico

My experience of John Jasperse‘s Canyon, performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts on 28 April 2012, is a play of territories at the precipice of chaos, a shifting superimposition of structures and organizations—of bodies, of time, of space—that enact opportunities for disruption, deterritorialization, and disorganization, and a gesturing towards a fullness of that provides the very grounds from which organizations like “bodies,” “time,” and “space” emerge. My vocabulary here is particular, and it is worth clarifying at the front end. In watching Canyon, I am immediately struck by the multiple dimensions that are at play within the work, not simply “space,” “time,” “bodies,” etc.—fundamental elements of dance/choreography—but the particular structures through which these elements take on definition. I think of these structures as territories, following Deleuze and Guattari. Elizabeth Grosz, discussing Deleuze, writes, “… the constitution of territory is the fabrication of the space in which sensations may emerge, from which a rhythm, a tone, coloring, weight, texture may be extracted and moved elsewhere, may function for its own sake, may resonate for the sake of intensity alone. And, equally, insofar as its primordial impulse is the creation of territory in both the natural and human worlds, art is also capable of that destruction and deformation that destroys territories and enables them to revert to the chaos from which they were temporarily wrenched. Framing and deframing become art’s modes of territorialization and deterritorialization through sensation; framing becomes the means by which the plane of composition composes, deframing its modes of upheaval and transformation” (Grosz 12-13). Sitting in the audience in the Wexner Performance Space, I am met with a collection of such framings, mappings, and organizations: a white Marley floor set askew (not parallel to the walls); a line of bright orange flags—themselves reminiscent of staking claim to land as a new “territory”—dividing the floor into two halves; structuring of the space accomplished through lighting (lighting design by James Clotfelter), inscribing blurry delineations of brightness and shadow; and perhaps most overtly of all, sprawling linear compositions in fluorescent tape traversing the walls and floor (visual design by Tony Orrico). Each of these materials suggests a mode in which the space has been organized or territorialized, a system through which structures have framed (and in doing so, produced) “space.” These various territories do not describe the same space; rather, they function as divergent structures superimposed on one another offering multiple accounts of space, each organization a route for disorganization when considered through a different logic. The lights do not territorialize spaces that reside within the bounds of the lines of tape; the lines of tape do not align with the rectangular Marley floor nor the rectangular architecture of the space; the line of flags cuts through these various other territories; and so on. In this sense, the superimposition of territories effects a series of deterritorializations, each structure producing a rupture in the others, each exceeding the logic of the others. This dense layering of territories/organizations/structures produces the opportunities for their own undoing. Grosz goes on to write, “… art is not only the movement of territorialization … it is also the converse movement, that of deterritorialization, of cutting through territories, breaking up systems of enclosure and performance, traversing territory in order to retouch chaos, enabling something mad, asystematic, something of the chaotic outside to reassert and restore itself in and through the body, through works and events that impact the body” (Grosz 18). At these sites of rupture, where these various territories cut through one another, I am brought close to something, what Grosz calls “chaos”: it is that full potential that provides the very conditions for extracting experiences and concepts such as “space.” It is at the collision between these territories where I glimpse their undoing, where I brush up against chaos and “the beyond.”

And the performance has not even started yet.

As the sound score begins, dancers come running through the audience into the space. The dancing feels familiar. It is exquisitely precise; it springs lightly and circles and swings, almost entirely vertical, and always with a particularity that feels both powerful and measured. At first I think that the familiarity of these vocabularies feels generic, then something happens: I notice the spatial pathways of these dancers, juxtaposed over and against the lines drawn on the floor and walls. They move with precision, yet it is precisely not the paths traced out along these lines. Between the “territory” of these highly organized bodies—organized both in the clarity of the choreography, but also in the evident regulation of their training—and the tape, the lights, the demarcation of the Marley floor space, the architecture, I falter. These frameworks or systems of organization (or, again, territories) each provide a way to see and structure the space, and they do not align. They do not operate through the same logic, and thus they continually cleave through one another. Bodies fall into temporary lines with one another, but they are lines that intersect and extend through other lines (light, tape, Marley, cement, flags) in the space.  In this sense, what seems familiar or even generic takes on new, unexpected properties. The movement—however familiar it might feel—enacts an unfamiliar operation in the disruption/deterritorialization of other versions of the space, and in doing so, makes the movement itself no longer what it might have seemed to be.

Space is not the only element that is produced through these various forms of organization: these bodies, as bodies do, are moving in/through time. Their movements repeat, and the rhythms of their repetitions segment time, as does the music, and the time produced through the movement of bodies and the repetition of those movements is not always the same as the time that is produced through the complex rhythmic structures of the sound score (composed by Hahn Rowe). These temporal territories deterritorialize one another (or, at the very least, suggest routes—”lines of flight”—along which deterritorialization might be accomplished), and in doing so, I brush up once again with that from which time becomes.

Somewhere between time and space, I encounter the alignments of bodies: dancers coming into synch with one another, sometimes in brief or extended unison, sometime in shared timing of different gestures, sometimes in shared or similar vocabulary that is not in synch with one another. [William Forsythe and Norah Zuniga Shaw define “alignments” usefully in their introduction to the Synchronous Objects project: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes. Manifested as analogous shapes, related timings, or corresponding directional flows, alignments occur in every moment of the dance and are constantly shifting throughout the group.”] In these moments of alignment between bodies, fleeting territories emerge, briefly establishing logics capable of holding these dancing bodies together, traversing other configurations of time and space, while also interrupting the clear/stable individuation of bodies on stage.

At a pivotal moment in the piece, the performers distribute themselves across the stage, pulling up the fluorescent orange tape that has traversed the white Marley throughout the performance. This is the first time that these bodies have moved along these lines, taking on the organization of these marks, but they do so only within the very moment that they become unmarked. This is breathtaking, the mundane task of pulling up tape demonstrating something of becoming unmarked/disorganized/smooth in the very moment of reiterating/retracing the given marks. I think of Judith Butler’s suggestion that the opportunity for the subversion of performative regimes is in the repetition of those very performatives. The repetition is the site of agency, the point at which the doing can become undone. The strips of tape peel and snap off the floor, into the air, and are rolled into great balls. So much happens in these moments: following these lines, the lines become undone; the two-dimensional moves suddenly through the air, three-dimensionally, and coheres as haphazard clumps. The linear formations are made to break with their own logic, rapidly transitioning into new states, themselves becoming the tools for their own deterritorialization. Something similar happens with the standing flags throughout the piece: at various points, dancers reconfigure these flags, and in doing so, simultaneously produce new [organizations of] spaces while undoing the spaces that had been described by the flags only moments earlier.

These are the mechanisms of the piece, these various structures intersecting and undoing one another and themselves. But throughout it all, there is the suggestion of something more, something beyond, what Grosz calls “chaos”: “Chaos is not the absence of order but rather the fullness or plethora that, depending on its uneven speed, force, and intensity, is the condition both for any model or activity and for the undoing and transformation of such models or activities. This concept of chaos is also known or invoked through the concepts of: the outside, the real, the virtual, the world, materiality, nature, totality, the cosmos, each of which is a narrowing and specification of chaos from a particular point of view. Chaos cannot be identified with any one of these terms, but is the very condition under which such terms are capable of being confused, the point of their overlap and intensification” (Grosz 26-27). In Canyon, this chaos is most articulate to me in that which is beyond, that which is out of bounds, out of reach, out of sight, off balance, just beyond what is accounted for within the available logics of time and space and bodies, just beyond what is demarcated by the choreography, the lights, the floor, the visual designs, etc. The beyond/chaos operates constantly at the edges of the territories, and I catch glimpses of it in their mutual disruption, but it is perhaps physicalized most overtly in the ridge on the floor at the edge of the performance space: the Marley floor takes on a kind of topographical elevation, inclining upward into a short roll near the far “upstage” edge (see photos). Throughout the performance, dancers and objects move over this ridge to disappear behind it. Quite literally, we were shown where visibility ends and unseeable/unforeseeable possibilities exceed both the visible as well as the floor space. Similarly, dancers frequently enter and exit the space through the audience seating, simultaneously extending the “performance space” and—depending on where one was sitting—crossing out of sight. In these moments, I became keenly aware of what was beyond this organization—“the performance”—and the liminal space at the margins of what is included within the time/space of the performance. This was for me the ongoing brush with chaos between and beyond the intense proliferation of organization(s) within the work.

Photo by Tony Orrico

Finally, this sense of “the beyond” is articulated throughout the dancing bodies of the work. Time and again, dancers (Lindsay Clark, Kennis Hawkins, John Jasperse, Burr Johnson, and John Sorenson Jolink) perform at the edges of their balance (there is a lot of stumbling in this piece), at the edges of unison, at the edges of alignment, at the edges of clear geometric spatial formations, at the edges of stability; frequently, they fall or spill or are thrown or slide into this “beyond,” into excess, off balance, no longer fully in control, not quite in unison, no longer in a straight line. I love the moments of the dance in which the dancers seem to to drift and wander, with drifting foci and limp bodies, somewhere between intoxication and a dream stake, a kind of a wandering about wonder that does not clearly define its trajectory, that does not rigidly contain these bodies. The limits of clear organizations/structures/territories—again, of balance, of unison, of alignment, of spatial formations, of stability, etc.—are explicated through these excesses. This is what lingers with me as the night wears on: the sense of what exists just beyond how this moment is structured, the specter of chaos as the rich, full ground from which territories—those various ways in which my body, this space, this time, my sense of self, my geographical situation, etc. etc. etc.—take on precarious constitution. This is not to disparage organization or structure or territory; these are the strategies through which we navigate our experience and our worlds; these are the strategies with which dances—all art, in fact—are made. Rather, there is a quiet hopefulness in the lingering effect of Canyon, an awareness of the conditionality, contingency, and precarity of such structures, a persistent sense of what exceeds these frames, of hovering at the edge of what else (and how else) might be possible, between and beyond.

Cited: Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: deleuze and the framing of the earth. New York: Columbia U P, 2008.

Lady Gaga, Ballet, Synchronous Objects, etc.

I haven’t updated as recently as I would have liked. There is so much going on here at the end of the quarter, but I feel that there are several points that I want to quickly share. I confess, there is very little overt connective tissue between these various ideas, but the common denominator is that they are occupying my attention right now, and as I hope is clear through the overall journey of this blog, that which occupies my attention inevitably finds its way into influencing “the work” (i.e. my creative practice, the dances I make, the papers I write etc.)

So there’s Lady Gaga. There’s her new album Fame Monster that is blowing up my world.

And there’s its connection to ballet. On November 14th, Lady Gaga premiered her new song “Speechless” at MOCA’s 30th Anniversary Gala in Francesco Vezzoli’s “Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again).” She played a piano customized by Damien Hirst, wore a hat designed by Frank Gehry, was accompanied by dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, who were attired in costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. That alone should be enough said. But you can read more about it here. And see a clip of it below. And an image.

So for my last week of teaching ballet this quarter (to beginner non-majors), I set all of my barre combinations to Lady Gaga, predominantly the new album, as an homage to this contemporary intersection of high Russian ballet and contemporary pop culture, it in itself an homage to the Ballets Russes and the work of Serge Diaghilev. After having taught Vaganova Technique all quarter, it felt appropriate.

I had an amazing opportunity to take a class with Jill Johnson, former dancer with William Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet (among a list of other credentials). I relished the opportunity to revisit a way of moving that became familiar last winter working with Nik Haffner and Forsythe’s “Improvisational Technologies.” Today Jill emphasized the relationship between these ideas and classical ballet technique, epaulement as rotations in the body, and working rigorously in abstracting these various rotations and counter-rotations. It was not the same way of moving that I explore last year, but there was significant overlap, and moments of realizing how that experience last year changed the way that I move “naturally.” You can see me exploring some of those ideas in a piece I performed in October here.

I am also working on authoring a new paper, the working of title of which is “Body of Knowledge/Knowledge of the Body: An Analysis of the Presence of Embodiment in Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced.” I am working to construct a working theoretical definition of what is meant by “embodiment” from synthesizing writings by Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, Judith Butler, Amelia Jones, Heidegger, and Henry Sayre, among others, and then looking for the presence of embodiment in Synchronous Objects. I have found that there is a fairly widespread uncomfortability amongst dancers engaging with this dance-based research project. I think it has something to do with a sense that the knowledge that we know as our moving bodies has been extracted, transformed into date, and re-presented in forms/objects other than the moving body. My interest in the implication of embodiment throughout the project, in the site of origin (the dance), the collection and translation of the choreographic systems into data, the transformation of the data into alternative re-presentations, and ultimately (and perhaps most viscerally) in the viewer of the project himself or herself. While the paper is still in the works, I feel that there are implications of embodiment throughout the project; this is most acute in the viewing of the project. The project is an object to be viewed, to be understood by a viewer. It is a request for the re-embodiment of the knowledge being re-presented. I am attempting to describe that not only does the site itself necessitate the (embodied) presence of the viewer, but that the way in which the objects themselves are understood are through conceptualizations of time, space, density, movement, etc. that emerge from an embodied experience of the world in which we live. This is supported primarily by Johnson and Lakoff’s writings in Philosophy in the Flesh and The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. I’ll keep you posted on the paper. In the mean time, I hope you go and explore the site.

In the reading I’ve done in preparation for writing this paper, a gem of a resource was a book I came across by Henry M. Sayre entitled The Object of Performance: the American Avant-Garde since 1970. Sayre writes about the shift of importance in the visual art world from the art object to the performative act, and in doing so the shift of “presence” from the artist/object to the viewer of the object. He writes beautifully about the photograph emerging as a respected medium, a signifier of both presence (the viewer of the photograph, and even the photograph as an object itself) and absence (that which the photograph depicts). He also wrote about the action painting (re: Pollock, Krasner, others) as a significant shift, in which the paintings that were bought by museums and collectors were not the action painting itself. It was a thing concerned with the immediacy of the action; the painting acted as a trace, a document of the action, and yet an object itself. Like the photograph. Like Synchronous Objects. It has sparked some fascinating notions as I have engaged with visual art after this reading. Last weekend I saw a series of works by Dale Chihuly, mostly large glass sculptures. It was fascinating and exciting to engage this work as “movement traces,” the documentation of the actions of the glass artists (which, in Chihuly’s work, art already mostly interpretations of Chihuly’s “action painting” designs for the pieces), and even farther as potential “movement scores.” Visual art as movement score. Reading visual art as movement scores as a method for engagement. There is something there.

Speaking of art object as documentation of action, I just ordered a “Tit Print” by Annie Sprinkle. She posted on her facebook today that she just made another batch of them, and had them on sale today. They consist of large ink or paint prints using her breasts as her instrument. I think they’re lovely, a kind of Yves Klein way of revealing the body. And the fact that I am going to San Francisco later this month to interview Annie and Beth and see their upcoming show “Sexecology: Making Love with Earth, Sky and Sea” at Femina Potens Gallery.

One of Annie's Tit Prints

Yves Klein "untitled"

Finally, a little rant: I am exhausted about hearing about making art or dance “accessible.” I take issue with this word. Because it rarely refers to making art experiences available to the population. It most often implies that the art be constructed in such a way that the viewer can “get something out of it.” It is not about making the art itself accessible as it is about making a specific experience (or kind of experience) of the work accessible. I think it has emerged from the collective anxiety of audience and artist worrying that they have somehow misunderstood the art experience. And my issue is this: “accessible” implies that there is something to be “accessed,” something encoded that must be (able to be) decoded. It assumes that art is essentially communicable, that its purpose or intention is that the viewer understand or “access” the experience that the artist has of her or his own work. And I think that is simply not the purpose of art. My theory is also that we live in such a visually complex, communication driven culture that we spend our lives trying to “figure out” what we’re supposed to understand from images, advertising, commercials, etc. etc. etc., that we come to the art experience with that same pressure. It is my opinion that the art experience is perhaps the opportunity for reprieve from this way of engaging and understanding. The purpose is not to access the encoded meaning, but instead to engage with that with which you are presented and make it meaningful for yourself. Construct meaning rather than access meaning, using your experience of the dance or sculpture or literature or music, etc., as the materials by which you construct your meaning. In this sense, I am opposed to making art “accessible.” I am in favor of making art available. But I would like to do away with this language/concept that there is anything to “access” in art. It is there. You experience it. You make that experience meaningful for yourself using the materials before your as the materials of your meaning.

There. That’s my little rant for today.

Back to reading/writing about Synchronous Objects.

Videos from 60×60

Finally I am posting video footage from the 3 October event 60×60 Dance held at Wall Street Night Club. Enjoy:


Shows I ache to see
9 October, 2009, 8:53 am
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , ,

I just read a review of William Forsythe’s “Decreation,” a piece choreographed in 2003 with connections to Anne Caron’s book by the same name. Anne Carson is my favorite author, unquestionable. Autobiography of Red, Eros: The Bittersweet, Plainwater, Glass, Irony, and God, etc. I love these books. This is not the first time that I have discovered connections between Forsythe and Carson. But I ache to witness this connection:

“The Forsythe Company performs through Saturday at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, at Ashland Place, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100, bam.org.”


I found a short video clip of the piece:

Later this month, Meredith Monk  will also be performing at BAM. October 21-25, she will be presenting Ascension Variations, another piece created in collaboration with Ann Hamilton. I don’t think there is any way that I will be able to see that show, but it feels destined that one day I will be able to see Monk’s work. She, along with Hamilton, is one of the most important artists to my work and I have yet to see her work live.

Again, I found a little video:

One day . . .

60×60 in Review

60×60 is now over. I hope you were able to make it. It was an amazing show full of diverse talent and good energy. I felt that both of my pieces were successful in executing their intentions. The first was an improvisation intending to utilize Forsythian Improvisational technologies to which I was introduced last year, as well as ways of moving that I associate with those technologies. It was one minute long and explored material both standing and on the floor.

The second was dual purposed and highly conceptual. It was an homage to “The Strip” section of David Gordon and Valda Setterfield’s Random Breakfast. It was also intended to deconstruct the relationship between the socially presentable body and the actual body (or corporeal morphology) of the individual. It was something of a temporal palindrome, starting upstage, walking directly downstage while undressing, then moving back upstage while re-dressing. All in one minute. A friend said to me afterwards that the piece could have gone on for much, much longer. I agree. I have a sense that I will re-stage the piece at some point. I am interested in how the fully clothed body that is viewed at the end of the piece is different from the fully clothed body at the beginning because of what has transpired in-between. It is always all about the in-between. The piece also commented a bit on gender and sexuality: I wore heels, women’s slacks, and a large black lambs wool coat. During the performance (the images below are from the dress rehearsal) I wore a t-shirt that says “Legalize Gay: repeal prop. 8 now!” It also had an oddly intimate feeling beyond just the exposed body; there was something about the action of undressing and re-dressing, the clumsiness, the un-sexy-ness.

CoCo Loupe graciously photographed the dress rehearsal. I share those photos now with you as documentation of the piece. Video footage may be posted in the next few weeks or so. Additional footage/images/commentary may appear at http://60×60.blogspot.com/ in the weeks to come so stay tuned there.

Also, I just received this by email today from the directors of 60×60:
“Mark your calendars now. We will be coming back to Columbus to
do this again during the first weekend in October, 2010. Tell your
friends and colleagues. Let’s make the next one bigger and better. More
details will come as things are confirmed…. stay tuned.” Very exciting.

Here are the images from the two pieces:


















Integrated Repertory, Composition, and Notation

As part of the Labanotation Teacher Certification Course (TCC) that I am taking right now, we have been asked to design and teach an “integrated” class, in which we find ways of introducing, exploring, or utilizing Labanotation in the context of another course. Examples we were given by our faculty included an integrated repertory experience in which we used notation floor plans as a learning tool for learning a section of Anna Sokolow’s Steps of Silence (taught by Valerie Williams), and modern technique class incorporating the introduction and exploration of the Labanotation movement concept “space holding” (taught by Julie Brodie), and an composition class utilizing Laban’s Motif description as a creative/generative opportunity (taught by John Giffin).

Already we have had excellent examples presented by my classmates, including integrating Labanotation into a Modern dance class for non-majors, a study of embodied dance history looking at Helen Tamiris, a musical theater (or dance for actors) class, and a elementary notation class looking at hula dance. All have been richly informative and inspirational.

I am teaching again tomorrow, and although I have my lesson plan, I am still fleshing out the underlying philosophy of what it is that I am doing. I am planning an integrated Repertory, Composition, and Notation class in which students learn historical choreography from a Labanotation score (for tomorrow’s class, they will be reading a piece of my own choreography from 2007 entitled “Endless Reach”), then create their own compositions from a Motif score of the same dance. I am interested in using this opportunity to question and investigate the nature of choreography and choreographic information. As I am writing this, I can’t stop thinking about the Synchronous Objects project and Bill Forsythe’s essay on “Choreographic Objects.” In his essay, Forsythe question the nature of choreography, its potential to exist in forms other than the dancing body (which he coins as “choreographic objects,” distinct primarily due to their persistence through time); “Synchronous Objects” was a lengthy exploration or demonstration of that contemplation. It examined one dance, one piece of choreography, in which the “essence” of the material was counterpoint, in movement material, alignments, and cueing. This was the “essence” of this particular exploration of this choreography. I remember during the Synchronous Objects Symposium, Bill was fairly explicit that this project was not for the purpose of preserving the dance for re-staging purposes, but for exploring its potential to generate new forms of expressing the choreographic information within the dance. While I am interested in this course providing an opportunity for embodied history, the preservation of dance works by their “re-staging” in contemporary bodies, I am also interested in investigating the nature of choreographic preservation and dissemination. I suppose this entire investigation stems from a question of what is the nature of choreography. More and more I am convinced that it is not “the steps” or specific movements/actions of the dance; historically, choreographers have changes the specific movements of their dances time and time again. In some cases, they have completely recreated entire sections of dances, added or taken away dancers, rearranged sections, edited the music, etc., and yet the piece of choreography itself has been retained. What then is essential to the choreography? And in that question there is another: what must be passed on in order for the choreography to “survive” or continue to live? 

For those reading who are unfamiliar with the difference between Labanotation and Laban’s Motif Description, the former is a more specific notation describing specific movements, positions, timing, etc. Motif, by contrast, is far more open to interpretation. It describes general actions such as “moving on a circular,” “turning,” “jumping,” “standing still,” “gesturing in an arching motion,” etc. capturing the important elements or motifs. The Dance Notation Bureau’s website has an excellent explanation of both Motif and Labanotation. Of Motif, they offer:

“Motif Description is a method of recording movement that is closely related to Labanotation. In fact, many notators consider them subgroups of the same system. They use most of the same symbols and terminology, have a similar format, and both record fundamental components, such as direction, action, dynamics, and timing, that are found in all styles and forms of movement.

The main difference between the two scripts is the type of information they communicate. Structured Labanotation gives a literal, all-inclusive, detailed description of movement, so it can be reproduced exactly as it was performed or conceived. In contrast, Motif Description depicts just core elements and leitmotifs; it highlights what stands out, is most important, or is most impressive. A motif score might convey the overall structure of a dance improvisation, what one should focus on when learning how to swing a golf club, the primary movement features of a character in a play, or the intent of a person’s movement in a therapy session.

An example of Motif Description is shown below (see the example by follow the link to the DNB above and clicking “Motif Description Basics”). The notation indicates the salient components of a dance sequence; other aspects of the movement are left to the discretion of the performer. For instance, the notation states that the first part of the sequence is about turning. The manner of turning is open to interpretation. It might be done on one foot or while sitting on the floor, using a free or controlled quality, finishing with the body facing the front or the back of the room, or with some other variable. All of these interpretations would be valid, as long as turning is the movement’s focus.

The notation is written going up the page, i.e., first there is turning, then flexing, then extending, and so forth. The length of the symbols indicates the timing of the movement; longer indications have a greater time value than shorter indications.”


By drawing from a Motif description of historical dance works, including my own choreography, the choreography itself provides information that shapes the generative process of new work. I suppose another lingering question of mine is “To what degree is this ‘new work’ a dissemination or continuation or preservation of the ‘original’ choreography? To what degree might it be the ‘original’ choreography? To what degree is it something altogether new?” In all restaging situations, there is interpretation, and interpretation is a creative act. There is a sense in which it is both a reproduction of the “original” but also something new “after the original.” The work created tomorrow by my students become “new choreographies after Endless Reach by Michael J. Morris.” And there is a sense in which the choreography’s life has been continued.

More questions than answers, but maybe that’s the way effective, subject-centered teaching happens best, especially when one is “teaching” something like composition or a creative process.

So that’s something that I’m thinking right now.