moving ideologies 3: neutral body

Occasionally someone comes on the floor and after that the performance begins. If the starting point is onstage that means a body appears that has not yet begun to act or dance. Who or what is that body?
In the performing arts, especially now, there is a huge emphasis on the identity of the performer. But here we’re not talking about people portraying themselves or others onstage, instead about something more elemental. If the performer appears before the performance begins, then he or she can be identified as a sort of servant to the performance, about to enact something. This servant body is usually that of the professional actor or dancer, a kind of commando set into choreographies or plays.

In the process of dance and theatre training there is often an agreed-upon starting point, described by different names like ‘zero’, ‘first position’, ‘natural’ or ‘neutral body’. These terms refer to a state of balance and readiness without character or choreography: a position of preparation in order to accomplish any role or task, starting immediately. There is an implication that a neutral body, like a neutral mask, is a blank slate, a tabula rasa: “the mind before impressions are recorded on it by experience.”

But there is a problem with beginning here. This neutral prepared body is like a neutral gear in a car – the motor may be running but the gears are disengaged. The audience can see beneath the repose and the confidence to the feigned quality of anonymity in this neutral body. A neutral body is a representative of the cultural values of balance, harmony and reason merely by the fact of its verticality, horizontality and symmetry. The performer and viewer begin by implicitly agreeing on these same underlying values.

But the human body does not have to be anchored to ideals of beauty. It might even be refreshing not to think of the theater at all as a place for universal values or ideals. The performer does not have to be an everyman, a repository of projections, or carry a message like a spear.
To create really alive unexpected public experience, instead of just provoking the viewer it might be more interesting to evade the audience’s search for illusory content – rather than attempt to attract it. The viewer is then not able to rest on his or her assumptions about the artist or the art. The performer’s challenge can be keeping the body anonymous but somehow specific. This anonymous body would not then be some neutral representative of order.
In fact performers are free to act as if it is the audience who is the tabula rasa. There are opportunities in sustaining suspense, refreshing a situation by sidetracking the interpretive mind of the viewer, and propelling the work forward in a rhythmic and unexpected way. Performing is then about remaining alert to the vicissitudes of the moment – what comes up. Engagement rather than display can become the hallmark of good performance.

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I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or too artificial. I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say.

Jasper Johns, London, 1974

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Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable, 1954

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zeami 4

Is it not true that fundamentally there is nothing fixed concerning good or bad? Rather, depending on the occasion, what is useful is good, and what is not useful is bad. Our art depends on the taste of the audience at a particular time and place and will be produced in response to the general taste of the time. Such is the Flower that is truly useful. Here, one kind of performance is appreciated; there, another sort is welcomed. The Flower must differ depending on the spirit of the audience. Which of these Flowers then represents the true one? The nature of the Flower truly depends on the occasion on which it will be employed.

from ‘Style and the Flower‘ (1418) On the Art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, English translation J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakuzu, Princeton U. Press, 1984.

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What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.

To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.

It is always the case that interpretation of this sort indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else. Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, 1961

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moving ideologies 2: rhetorical body

In the past years I’ve often gone to a dance performance and ended up feeling as if I were watching television, sitting there having someone tell me something, a message I should be getting. Unfortunately then aside from the mental work I don’t have much to do.

These days it seems as if almost everyone in art has a message, framed as some kind of issue. And generally the mode of communication, whether spoken or projected, verbal or visual, is the word – often lots of them. It sometimes seems as if words are busy taking over the arts – even those art forms that may have traditionally been non-verbal, like the visual arts or dance. The role of the audience in contemporary art nowadays seems to be to understand, to try and get the message. They don’t have much more to do than agree or disagree really, or maybe nod their heads and think, “That’s a nice way to put it.”

Despite all this message making, many artworks today ironically don’t seem to be able to stand for themselves, to be self-explanatory in their own terms. Perhaps this reflects an understandable desire for relevancy on the part of contemporary artists, but they seem to be relying pretty heavily on one message mode. If I went to a concert of instrumental music I could get so involved that I might even be moved to tears, but I’m not required or maybe even able to put it into words.

As for dance, the problem for performers and choreographers is that once we let the word onstage – spoken, recorded or projected – then everything else we do gets reduced to accompaniment. The audience starts relating the movement they see to what’s been said – not the other way around. The word is like a dictator of meaning onstage. If we are dancing and we suddenly say ‘Chicago’ everyone can’t help but start trying to make connections to the Windy City.

So while this may be a handy tool to convey meaning, it does limit the role of the audience. They are restricted to the level of trying to understand, and then to interpret. This creates a distance between viewer and performer that seems to be contrary to the immediacy of the live event.

Interestingly, this verbal message mode, a form of persuasion classically known as rhetoric, influences movement and action onstage even without the use of words. For example, in watching theater, dance or any kind of performance I often see the performer at some point standing directly full-frontal facing the viewer. This is usually meant to be a code for ‘open, honest, revealing.’

But this seems like a misunderstanding of what’s being communicated to the audience. This face-front position onstage primarily means the performer, either verbally or non-verbally, wants to say something. It’s a kind of rhetorical stance. Sort of like Potemkin’s villages or the storefront architecture in the Wild West – we are only supposed to see the front, the statement. The first message we get is that the performer wants to persuade us.

This rhetorical stance can severely reduce the scope of the theatrical experience. The viewer is placed in the passive role of having to respond to an argument, and can’t take a role of observer, of ‘voyeur’. When looking at someone so frontal, we cannot create a world from what we see but have to respond to an address or an argument. We can become uncomfortable in this passive role, suspicious, perhaps even embarrassed. We remain to be convinced.

This rhetorical face-front position is of course perfectly suitable for political theater because it first begs attention and then delivers its message straightforwardly. There’s something in this tactic that seems to attract contemporary choreographers. They feel, as the saying goes, totally up front. In the past, the classical theater upright stance was slightly oblique, the actor stood in a diagonal position in order to be seen clearly from all sides: a more revealing volumetric figure. The full-frontal rhetorical stance in contrast is a strategy that does not want to be seen so much as be heard, even if nothing is literally spoken.

In a way, a corollary rhetorical placement of the body is full-profile to the audience. This is a kind of ‘demonstration’ position. It also begs to be read, but in this case the performer is not making an argument, he is demonstrating an argument – taking the position of model. It’s also a message of persuasion, but the tactic is different. Marcel Marceau was a big fan of this full-profile position. One man walking against the wind = every man walking against the wind.

Performers and dancers who take these full-frontal and full-profile positions onstage might want to be aware of the their restrictive nature: they could limit the audience’s capacity for responding and reduce the performance to an argument – a form of rhetoric.

I recently went to see a Deborah Hay performance she made for students here in Amsterdam. There were thirty performers. There were no words. No one stood face front or in profile. The dancing and the positioning were deceptively simple and casual. It was great to be able to create our own meanings from what we saw, to use what was given us – structure, position, tempo, motion and movement – to construct a world that could stand on its own. It was carefully crafted, thoughtful dance, all by itself.

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Our present means of image-production strike me as still utterly under the spell of the verbal – that’s the main part of the problem with them. They are an instrumentation of a certain kind of language use: their notions of image clarity, image flow, image depth, and image density are all determined by the parallel [unimpeded] movement of the logo, the brand name, the product slogan, the compressed pseudo-narrative of the TV commercial, the sound bite, the T-shirt confession, the chat show Q and A.

Billboards, web pages, and video games are just projections – perfections, perfected banalisations – of this world of half-verbal exchange. They are truly [as their intellectual groupies go on claiming] a “discourse” – read, a sealed echo chamber of lies.

Therefore it becomes more and more important to point to the real boundaries between seeing and speaking, or sentence and visual configuration. And imperative to keep alive a notion of a kind of visuality that truly establishes itself at the edge of the verbal – never wholly apart from it, that is, never out of discourse’s clutches, but able and willing to exploit the difference between a sign and a pose, say, or a syntactical structure and a physical [visual, material] interval.

I take a dim view of the present regime of the image not out of some nostalgic “logocentricity” but because I see our image machines as flooding the world with words – with words [blurbs, jingles, catchphrases, ten thousand quick tickets to meaning] – given just sufficient visual cladding.

T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death, New Haven 2006

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moving ideologies

What are some of the ways in which movement performances convey specific or general meaning through posture, gesture or movement in space?

Of course we could consider pantomime, where meaning is generalized but at the same time explicit; where one’s response is basically a recognition and a revalidation of the material word. We could also observe the rich history of symbolic meaning in dance, or refer to psychological meaning in movement, expressed most often through representation of emotional states.

We could also look at underlying codes implicitly agreed upon between performer and viewer which confirm more basic ideas concerning social values and the role of art in society.
For example, codes which signal choreography – like simultaneity, beginning and end of gesture, ease of movement, coordination, reliance on grounded balance, and so on. Or codes that reflect social values – like balance and symmetry, verticality and the leading head.

Hope to investigate these in more detail in later posts but here I want to add two points. First, these underlying codes have severely restricted the vocabulary of modern, post-modern and contemporary dance, and continue to do so. The classic drive to universalism in the body has effectively contained the breakout of specific and unique dance forms. Second, these underlying codes stimulate a response primarily of interpretation and judgment; the audience is prompted to consider what the work is about and what they think of it. The dance therefore becomes about something else; in other words it seems to have lost its face value.

There is a lack of freedom in how dance is made and how it is watched which we need to reflect upon.

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zeami 3

First of all, one must understand the conception that, just as a flower can be observed blooming in nature, the Flower can be used as well as a metaphor for all things in the Noh.

When speaking of flowers, in all their myriad varieties, it can be said that they will bloom at their appointed time during the four seasons; and because they always seem fresh and novel when they bloom at that appointed season, they are highly appreciated. Flower, charm and novelty: all three of these partake of the same essence. In performing sarugaku as well, when this art appears novel to the spectators, they will be moved to find it attractive. Flower, charm and novelty: all three of them partake of the same essence. There is no flower that remains, and whose petals do not scatter. Yet it is just because the petals scatter that, when the flower blooms again, it will seem fresh and novel.

However, a note of caution is necessary. When one speaks of novelty the term does not necessarily refer to some means of artistic expression that never existed before.
Over and above this it is important to know that a Flower blooms by maintaining secrecy. It is said “When there are secrets, the Flower exists, but without secrets the Flower does not exist.” Understanding this distinction is the most crucial aspect of the Flower. The Flower of the actor is possible precisely because the audience does not know where the Flower may be located. The spectators merely know they are seeing something skillfully performed but they cannot recognize the Flower as such.

Thus the technique can represent the Flower of the actor. The Flower provides the means to give rise to a sensation of the unexpected in the hearts of the audience.

from ‘Style and the Flower‘ (1418) On the Art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, English translation J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakuzu, Princeton U. Press, 1984.

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new live dance

In the 2010 edition of the annual World Question Center, the question for leading intellectuals around the world was “How has the internet changed the way you think?” In his response, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist spoke for many when he expressed an increasing desire for non-mediated experience, or what he called the New Live.

People today want to get up from behind their screens and be a part of the world around them, in the same space as well as the same time. The virtual chases the real and avatars approach, but despite the spectacle people ultimately become wary, untrusting and judgmental.

If we were truly to wish for a non-mediated experience we would need to go back in time and gradually remove interfaces until we eventually arrived at a moment before words, directly aware and conscious, alone. A moment like a melody or a dance.

When a car alarm goes off we both hear. When the sun rises we both see. Turning towards each other to make love we touch, smell, hear, see: we share something together with nothing in between but a little space. We don’t have to say anything. No word, no image, no recording brings us together, but just a gesture, a movement.

I believe this is where dance began, in something primordial and unconditioned. A time where instances continuously fall away, where we sense an unexpected future without anticipating it. If we really want non-mediated experiences, we need to go back to this.

In a virtual world of tags and links which continually send people off on a chase for context and meaning, I’d like to propose returning to a non-verbal multi–interpretable form, a new live dance, where the perceptions we share are what bind us. No going anywhere else in search of something other than what is right there in front of us – make of it what we will.

In this form perceptual is primary; conceptual is secondary, just as it occurs in real time. We could be given the freedom to contemplate in an open and individual way what we see before us. There is the potential for mutual respect. The dancer is not telling us something; the audience is not just receiving something – we are sharing instead.

The task for those who participate in the performance event becomes one not of linking but of refreshing. This is done by removing the opportunities for interpretation, pulling audience and dancer closer to the unexpected event which is unfolding. No one needs to ‘get’ anything anymore.

The ever-increasing monumental connectivity of the internet represents a new paradigm in human communication – two billion souls peering into a cloud, busy sharing links and flattening the world and everything in it. But who needs these links anyway? Who needs flat? We need volume. We need to hit the refresh button instead – over and over. We don’t need yet another story, another link, another excuse to go somewhere else. We need the opportunity to create our own version of nowness, just by means of our own perceptions.

We need the new live dance.

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