Thursday, 5 July 2007

Investigating notions of identity in Contact Improvisation Dance practice

I am a relative new-comer to Contact Improvisation Dance, (I shall use the initials CI from now on) having been engaged in practice and teaching for eight years now. The questions I raise here are therefore from a desire to inform myself and further my understanding of CI. I would like also to encourage informed debate for all and the sharing of thoughts on certain aspects which may be inherent within the nature of the dance, which relate specifically to the notions surrounding the title of this post: 'The self and 'other' in Contact Improvisation Dance practice'.

If one takes as a basic premise for Contact Improvisation Dance the idea and practice of two (or more) people connected through not only a diverse repertoire of listening through touch/weight-giving and receiving, but also through an active mutual sharing of intent - the intent to reach out both physically and conceptually - to be actively inquisitive - I would like to suggest that the nature of the physical, emotional, somatic and psychological conversation(s) taking place are influenced by and perhaps even driven by states present in each of us, of what I shall term, 'host'/self and 'stranger'/other roles or identities.

This descriptor 'host' and 'stranger' was first implemented by Georg Simmel in his 1908 essay, 'The Stranger'. The words suggest a desire to communicate the often, incommunicable. Simmel used these words in two contexts: The first context located the 'other' in urban society in a place which was and still is, understood by us - each of us, as 'host' identities, at home and comfortable on our own ground. Often, in this context, the 'other' has a capital 'O' signifying ethnical difference and is often associated with attitudes and stances which are prejudicial to and biassed against a fair perspective of that other person. Still in the same context, the term, 'stranger' can be used to describe simply, the 'person-you- have-never-met-before in the street' - an 'unknown' entity and in so doing, unconsciously we locate ourselves as 'hosts' within this scenario. It should be acknowledged of course, that the person you have just met will equally (unconsciously) and with just as much validity, consider themselves to be 'host' to their schema of the world which is not unknown, where you are the stranger.

However, in the second scenario the term 'other' can also be used to describe that 'otherness' within yourself. That part of you that perhaps you are not sure that you know too much about. That part of you that sometimes takes you by surprise. The part of you which may put you out in an instinctive, limbic region and the part of you with which you can sometimes converse when you are listening adequately - to this 'other' in yourself. So there is the notion here that in fact, you yourself can be that person that you meet in the street - and be the stranger.

On one level to partner someone in a CI duet is a simple undertaking. But I believe there are layers which materialize and evaporate around the success of being in the moment where there is only the moment - layers of feeling, observation, appraisal, self-doubt, elation, concentration on not doing any of these things ...
which constantly move and replace and replace and replace one another within the dance. I am wondering to what extent these layers are generated by the self/host and stranger/other dynamic within us and outside us as we somatically read ourselves and symbiotically read our partner?

Are we alone when we solo? Authentic Movement as a vehicle for self-regulatory enquiry teaches us, I would suggest, that we are often not 'alone'. We talk to ourselves. If CI can be seen as a fractal of 'life', then as in life where we are sustained and the world around us is re-inforced by our internal dialogue so we oscillate between 'being' and talking to ourselves in the dance. Existentially listening in the moment in a duet, often the internal dialogue is stilled, so perhaps negating that presence of the self/host and other/stranger in our personna within the dance.

Do we move in and out of self and 'other' roles in the dance? Or are we too busy listening to our partner - being in the moment, for this distinction to be recognized or indeed, realized? The nature of improvisation is such that improvising as a process creates holes or impasses or interfaces between doing and not-doing. Does our attention focus during these moments, away from our partner and back to us? Can we be conscious, during these moments, of our internal conversation as well as the one we are having with our partner?

I am inclined to the belief that in fact, all CI encounters are 'successful' as events in themselves, whatever the outcome, (within reason) in the sense that they foster liminal dance experiences, narratives of the unexpected. Like so many dancers, I have danced unexpected dances with a variety of people; with Argentinians in Sydney and with Americans in New Zealand Aotearoa, but of course, equally, every dance with an established friend is a foray into uncharted territory. Recently, I had someone I had never met before approach me to duet and cordially, I asked, 'How are you feeling today?' The response was, 'Come and find out', a not uncommon yet extremely evocative invitation to come and collide gently with the unknown and in so doing, to 'find out' not through being told but through the process - and it is a process - of simply engaging with .... a stranger.

CI creates an expression of and a desire for collaboration - with strangers. CI also provides us with the tools to negotiate this uncertain terrain and manage the encounter using perhaps the most profoundly-simplest of strategies; that is by the desire and through the facility to listen. The mutually-collaborative voice occurs only after one learns how to listen. It makes of us all, open learners. I believe the conversation which then develops is negotiated through a mutual honouring and acceptance of difference. The difference manifested in the encounter by the host in each of us, a tacit acceptance of the stranger in us and the existence of both in the partner in the duet.

1 comment:

nomads.hat said...

'The scene of a crime too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence' (unknown)

This is not a police file and I was not there, although I have seen the video of the 'crime scene'. Instead, I must piece together this event from my distant view and anothers evidence-gathering. Rather than taking this at face-value, I choose to read between the lines, to speculate about the traces and undercurrents to which the evidence

This is a reference to a review of
'Two for One', written on 'Risky Two: Excavate: A two-man dig', a Contact Improvisation Dance performance carried out in Canberra, Australia, in 2006 by dancers David Corbet and Jacob Lehrer. The referenced texts are included here with the kind permission of the reviewer Zsuzanna Soboslay and ''.

I have danced with both David Corbet and Jacob Lehrer on all too brief occasions. I locate myself within the sphere of their influence because both of these individuals have for some time, been instrumental in extending concepts which hitherto, may not have been immediately associated with CI as a movement form (dramatic tableaux bordering physical theatre/sound) and they have also been challenging the 'norms' of CI Dance in terms of a non-adherence to studio-based enquiry. (See 'Absent in Form' or its other title: 'Initial Draft' in Both of these dancers carry considerable 'mana'/respect for the integrity of their work, during and post State of Flux Dance Co, in the Australasian (and beyond) movement environment of Contact Improvisation Dance or what I may make so bold as to define as a post-structuralist dance form.

The review:

In the photo, on the studio wall behind the two men is a sign which says, 'the missing are here, the gone and the taken are with us'.

A quotation planted, as it were, in the review of this work by Soboslay
reads, 'Are there really It and Other? Or really no It and Other'
(Zhuangzi, Inner Chapters, 4th Century BC).

Both of these apparently disparate comments, for me, position this particular work squarely at the gates of the questioning of identity and the potential diaspora of the 'other' in relation to the self. Does 'otherness' or alterity come and go? Is it always here but simply elusive?

As I read this, in 'Excavate: A two-man dig', seeking to articulate ownership of an inter-dependent voice within what transpires in every successful CI interaction as a very intimate collaboration, the dancers in this piece still have a concern and a listening body for the 'missing' other. Is 'Other' really missing? What is 'Other' to be missed? 'Are there really It and Other?'

I suggest that we have glimpses of this ourselves, within our dancing moments and when we witness the dancing of other CI practitioners.

In Authentic Movement practice, a movement discipline which can complement and inform the discipline of CI dance, the silent (but not always) partner who sits and observes (who is not really passive, but deeply involved in the moment with the dancer) witnessing the dancer, may comment to the dancer at the close of the movement passage, that the dancer seems to be moving outside themselves, independent from their self and its established patterning. The surfacing of an-other driving force can be discernible in this way. The evidence of this barely-visible non-agenda in the improvising dancer is often expressed with difficulty however. How do we talk about 'otherness' within movement language?

During and of the forays onto, over, across and through the terrain of each other`s physical forms in a CI duet, is there more that can be said?

Soboslay writes: '... The 2 bodies begin to merge and roll, intertwine and release ... the question of who is one or the other loses grip and for me, the real performance begins... within such intimacy, who can can draw the distinction between acted and acted-upon? This is as complex a relationship as that between foot and earth, mother and child, mouth with atmosphere. One dancer leans into, shares skin with another; a dancer walks, talks, bounces off/with/in the room ...'.

I wonder, within that field of seamless yet diverse non-intent, whether there is another 'form' of interplay occurring? I am interested in the form of the non-physical non-intent - that non-agenda I mentioned above; almost invisible, manifesting 'beneath' the dancing moment which yet, perhaps can only be initiated and enacted by and through the physical bodies in the space. The philosophical theorist, Emmanuel Levinas, whose great treatise on the 'other' was located from the standpoint of ethical responsibility, stated that responsibility for and a response to the awareness of 'difference' initiated by the existence of the 'other' resided in the self - if you will in this context, the physical form. I maintain, however, that the physical form is governed from below at certain times, by the 'otherness' of that non-form - the movement beneath the movement.

I am interested in the 'non-form' of how the body goes and why it goes there - its passage through the space in which it is, only-ever-just-situated, with its silent partner - and then the other dancer. The self traversing the (in this case) the studio space and also simultaneously, the 'other's' space. I am interested in the 'going' moment, present/future meld. The moment of the intention to go which, in terms of forecasting, within the language of improvisation is almost anathema but which may come, I suggest, from a place of tacit agreement between the self and the 'other'side of one-self, as well as the 'other' physical partner with whom you are sharing the dance. It`s ok. I don`t want to know the outcome before it arrives. I am curious though, about what drives the pathway that is navigated.

Sovoslay recognizes a shift in the duet: '... suddenly the process lifts itself into a different qualitative place ...' Is she sensing that undercurrent of 'listening for the other' within self and in the other dancer, which when heard in the dance and in that flicker of time, is translated into a simultaneously interdependent yet symbiotic response? Is this what happens in the 'best' dancing?

Sovoslay maintains that: 'The best of contact improvisation always teases at this fabric ...' Again,
'... who can draw the distinction between acted, or acted upon?'

The gone and the taken, are always with us ...

'Two for one'