This article was originally written by Penny Chivas for submission as part of the Master of Education and Learning in the Performing Arts at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and has been adapted for use here.
Dance improvisation in performance offers much to both audience and performance. In this paper, an idea of gravity will be traced and offered towards a sense of timelessness in motion. Using physical and experiential themes of grounding and centering as related to the work of Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, I will suggest that these provide insight as to how timelessness can be felt inside improvised performance work. In light of this writing, two key events surround this research work; the first being the recent publication of Albright's “How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World” in 2019, and secondly, the untimely death of Nancy Stark Smith in early May 2020. I had the opportunity over the years to study with Nancy on several occasions.
An Infinite Moment of Timelessness
The Oxford Learners Dictionary lists two meanings for “timelessness”:firstly 'the quality of not appearing to be affected by the process of time passing or by changes in fashion' and secondly, 'the state of existing or continuing forever' (Oxford University Press 2020). Both of these meanings indicate a reference to a time outside, and addition to the present moment. For the context of this article, these qualities will be viewed as portals to time outside and in addition to the present moment within a performance or performance practice. These could be a particular moment, or series of moments that deeply reference another way of being, whilst still containing the original performance material. That is to say, that two moments co-exist together.
Within the creation of improvised movement, I personally believe I sense this when I am “given” material; which I define and sense as being in connection with something much greater than onlymy body. These moments I perceive too as an audience member and that a dancer on stage can simultaneously be there, but also present and inhabiting space and time as a five year old, and old woman at the same time, that there is something “timeless” being sensed. The feeling as a performer, personally, is of being “given” - a deep sensation that a path has been laid out to follow and within that a sense of linear time dissolves, although it still exists, and seen from the outside as “timeless”. This is not the same as making a clear intentional choice within a performance, choosing a conscious pathway, rather I am speaking of a pathway that appears in thepresent momentwithout pre-decision. This the path towards the two moments of time existing together.
The English art critic, John Berger in 1972 launched a four part BBC documentary entitled “Ways of Seeing”. In episode one, Berger speaks of a certain stillness and silence in a painting that allows for the viewer to connect, 'something travels down that corridor at a speed greater than light, throwing into question a way of measuring time itself' (Berger 1972). This is, in essence, the “timelessness” I speak of. Instant Compositional teacher and performer, Julyen Hamilton has spoken about this ability to be “timeless” (Hamilton 2020). I believe as an audience member I am aware of this from a felt sensation, something outside of a cognitive awarenesses. In saying so, I also recognise that an audience member may need to be prepared to accept this quality that may arise. For teachers such as Hamilton, for this possibility to arise, movement of the dancer must be supported by the use of a centralgravity axis in the body. Hamilton additionally relates his work in perceiving timelessness to the influence of Berger's “Ways of Seeing” (Hamilton 2020). To me, this then resonates with the image of a line of gravity supporting the body and from which a “corridor” as Berger describes may resonate.
Additional support for the falling away of a strict linearity of time within improvisation can also be found in Nancy Stark Smith's work.The Underscore isa heightened practice of Contact Improvisation in which the practitioner passes through a series of stages indicated by a symbol and title. In a particular section of the practice, a series of states of awareness as described as “non-sequential anytime all-the-time” aspects of the work. I have always personally understood this in a very loose way of being “whenever” - as if able to come and go. However, another interpretation is that these are “out of time” (Buckwalter 2010: 68). I believe that Buckwalter is not referencing that there is no time to finish the task, a common way to draw meaning from this phrase, but rather, that these aspects exist outside of our common perceptions of a linearity of time. Unable to measure by the ticking hands of a clock, time changes into another form completely.
Gravitas, as defined by the Online Etymology Dictionary is 'weight, heaviness'; figuratively, of persons, 'dignity, presence, influence... A word wantedwhen gravity acquired a primarily scientific meaning' (Online Etymology Dictionary 2020). I am proposing that this sense of “timelessness” affords both audience and performer a sense of gravitas, that for both parties, within an ever changing world of possibilities on stage there become certain moments that hold more significance, more presence and even more influence than others. And in addition, I propose that, within dance, gravitas can be found when working with gravity as a physical, felt and real construct. This then relates back to the Berger's concept of the 'channel' speeding through time.
Working with Gravity
This idea of working with gravity within a Western movement setting is not a recent concept. A suggestion for the first point in which gravity has been linked to movement is 1810 in Heinrich von Kleis's 1810 “On the Marionette Theatre” essay (Bigé 2017). Von Kleis instructed dancers to work with a “centre of gravity” within their movements, otherwise he suggested that it is possible that dancers' souls could be found in their elbow – which he believed would indicate a sure sign of an afflictionof a serious ailment. Von Kleis drew to this conclusion after studying the movement of how marionettes would be made to demonstrate that their character was suffering (Von Kleis 1810). Perhaps a romanticised version of the study of human movement, it does however lead back to the idea that to indicate a sense of normality within human movement would be to place gravity in our “centres” and in doing so, at least in this line of reasoning support our souls to be here and not maligned.
Continuing with a morerecent approach to experiences of gravity within movement can be found in the extensive research in the development of Contact Improvisation. My own experiences of practice includes working with the “Small Dance” as developed by Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith in which small movements of the body are observed as we stay standing. As we stand with our spine lengthened and our joints softly released it is possible to begin to notice the multitude of small movements that take place for us to be here. Gone is the idea that standing is a static, or fixed position, and in fact leads us as practitioners to notice these small movements consistently in any orientation. This is a theme I keep coming back to again and again in my own practice, in motion, in rest and in varying orientations. Often I have spent time in a studio and, more lately, my house, scanning my bodychecking that all of itis able to participate in these subtle movements, noticing when perhaps ankles, or a section of my back is less available to this process.
This is not to say that the ability to stand on one leg should or could not be prized, but the idea that we are “on balance” in a static position is no longer valid. We are always in motion, however small and rather, I would argue it is how much we allow our perceptions to perceive these shifts that becomes the major conceptual question. This, of course, a physical and proprioceptive challenge but also intellectually presents a great charge to ideologies offering to be 'strong and stable', the political slogan used by Theresa May in the lead up to the 2017 General Election in the United Kingdom (The Guardian 2017), or the current slogan from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a “secure future” (Liberal Party of Australia 2020). Perhaps if a political slogan was offered for gravity it would be “sense, act accordingly and continue to listen”. This particular manner of working with gravity asks us deeply to allow that our relationship with the earth is always changing, needing constant awareness and that we as humans are always connected to the earth. I propose we must accept that change is an inherent quality of being human, but this in itself does not lend itself to being able to make brash claims of the now, or the future.
Steve Paxton both dances and explains verbally in the seminal dance film Fall After Newton, “...Newton ignored what it felt like to be the apple” (Paxton, transcribed 1988). Perhaps as a society we have been obsessed with observing from the effects of gravity from a place of objectivity rather than seeking an embodied felt sense. This is also echoed by dance philosopher Romain Bigé who notes that our sense of weight as humans has been almost silenced in post-industrial societies (Bigé 2017). To be in this constant “small dance” of gravity we must be there and present and allow that the future is unknown. In its relationship to improvised performance, I argue that this state of being in flux is the crucial element to invoking “timelessness” through the use of gravity, and therefore supporting the bringing forth of gravitas for all involved.
I do however feel the need to highlight that this viewpoint stems from a particular worldview. As someone who has practiced Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian movement form, dance forms have existed for much, much longer that promote a use of a “centre of gravity” and connection to 'axé', a spiritual energy, or life force (Cambridge University Press 2020). Ibelieve it is useful to trace the development of dance through the predominantlyEuropean/North American view points, but doing only so would leave us limited in our world view, as well as the risk of speaking only from a predominately White perspective. This is something I personally need to understand further.
Experience Of Gravity
When sensing or working with gravity, some may even find this way of working calming as observed by Steve Paxton;
“Standing still is not actually “still.” Balancing on two legs demonstrates to the dancer’s body that one moves with gravity, always. Observing the constant adjustments the body makes to keep from falling calms the whole being. It is a meditation. “ (Paxton 1979)
As I have experienced this work, gravity facilitates a more nuanced approach to working with my skeletal structure, as overt muscular tension is released. This contrasts greatly with other ways of approaching dance, or movement, in which often a particular muscular action is emphasised. Also implied is this deeper action, of working from deep inside the body – moving the humerus in the upper arm, rather than the outer layer of muscles.
From this place, I find support is given back from the floor, as well as a calming of the mind, as Paxton alludes to in the aforementioned quote. From this too comes a certain clarity in both motion and intention of the movement. A reach of the arm can be a reach of the arm without distortion through the shoulders, and reaching from the bony structure with this sense of release then encourages a shift of the pelvis in response, and if standing a subsequent action of the placement of weight on the feet. Such a reach with a muscular action, although perhaps allows for more variety of ways of moving, would allow someone to stop their movement at the shoulder, or perhaps somewhere like the lower back leading eventually to undue stress and strain.
Within these notions of gravity, and skeletal movement, I do find myself at odds with a certain kind of prevalent culture of celebrating muscular tone, energy and force within the body, as well as bodily aesthetics. This is not to say that a dancer cannot leap, run around and lift fellow dancers, but to me, this work of gravity speaks of efficiency - that no extraneous movement is needed. Indeed, contact improvisers can be flying each other around the room in safe, beautiful and graceful movements, but whether the “look” of muscular bulk is important is another question. An oft quoted phrase, almost a somatic proverb, “tension masks sensation” suggests the idea that tension within our muscular bulk makes movement more difficult to sense (Paxton 1977). This begets the question: does “hard work” give something more value in our culture? Should working the body be “hard”? How important is it to derive pleasure from moving? And lastly, how much do we culturally permit this possibility?
Moving in a circular manner almost, back to working within a felt sense of the body, Ann Albright traces the perception of gravity with proprioception in “How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World”. In particular it is the vestibular system located between the ears that permits us as humans to organise ourselves in relation to gravity and in doing so will always help us find the ground beneath our feet (Albright 2019:21). This is to say that we need not be dependent on an external visual stimulus to locate ourselves. Yet how often are we encouraged in a yoga class, movement class to find balance by looking at a fixed, unmoving spot, when this is actually only the beginning of finding true equilibrium. To be with gravity we need to be able be able to perceive it, and to be able to perceive we must be working with the felt sense of the body, and for this to happen efficiency we as dancers, and indeed humans, must accept a certain sense of instability in our structures and perhaps even in our everyday lives.
Dance performance improvisation has the potential to suggesting meaning in a myriad of possibilities and this document seeks to bring clarity to perceived moments in which time becomes timeless for dancer and audience leading towards gravitas. This proposition can be traced through physical actions that allow for gravity to fall within the body with little overt tension, which in turn supports a greater sense of feeling. This however relies on a pre-conditioned acceptance of the variability of our bodies and lives and demonstrated is at odds with certain ideologies including those in favour de-industrialisation. In tracing the history of gravity in Western dance, linksare found at varying points to one's “soul”, as well as to calming qualities despite the high level of variation at play. One thing stands out and that is that the more we trust and initiate from the body, in practices such as the Small Dance, the greater the level of support for gravitas and timelessness can be found for performers and audiences.
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Header photo by Jeremy Thomas.