The Reach for Presence

Lizzy Le Quesne

Contexts / 12.10.2010

In Lapped Translated Lines at Sadler's Wells, London, in September 2010, Rosemary Butcher used film and sound to amplify the internal senses of dancer Elena Giannotti as she performed. Lapped Translated Lines is a collaborative piece with concept and choreography by Butcher with film-maker Daria Martin, composer Cathy Lane and architects Matthew Butcher and Melissa Appleton. Conceived alongside and shown prior to Lapped Translated Lines was Destructive Navigations, created by Butcher with Pablo Bronstein.

In Afterall journal, issue 16, Jeff Wall traced a trajectory through modern art that he described as 'Depiction, Object, Event'. He explored how painting, sculpture, drawing and photography gave way, with the appearance of the readymade, to the 'object' as art, and subsequently a conceptual reduction to a 'condition beyond objects' made something else - an event - possible as an 'instance of art'. This he attributed to the challenge advanced by movement: 'the radical breach [that …] comes with brutal directness from the movement arts, from theatre, music, dance and film.'1 Although Wall cites the movement arts, including dance, as responsible for radicalising, irrevocably altering and updating the visual arts, he writes that it was within the visual arts that reduction and negation were taken the furthest, and that 'the avant-gardes of the movement arts were more subdued', continuing: 'none of them had any internal need to reach the same point of self-negation as did the depictive arts.'2 In this essay I propose that new developments in dance, such as the emphasis on the integration of body and mind epitomised by so-called 'somatic' practices, mean that this art has also reached the point of self-negation. In the wake of the increased experimentation characteristic of 'postmodern dance' by artists such as Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown (which we can understand as analogous to the experimentation which, for Wall, thrusts visual art into new territory) dance artists are philosophically and practically rethinking their medium. They are discovering new ways to make use of the unique insight dance can provide in terms of investigating and mobilising the 'intelligent body' to address contemporary experience.

The development of the art's avant-garde can be traced back both to postmodern questioning of what dance might be, and further back to early modernist investigators into human movement, such as Rudolf Laban, Isadora Duncan or those at the Bauhaus, all of whom in different ways considered the moving body in terms of human subjectivity and relationship to the social, political and industrial world. Indeed, some aspects of the newest emergence of dance can be recognised within Duncan's far-sighted essay 'The Dance of the Future' (1903) and other writings where she describes how her art will at some unforeseen time emerge newly evolved and newly meaningful. Written in her characteristic unruly and poetic style of 'the torrential movement that must come - the glorious childbirth of the dance',3 her vision nevertheless describes an art of moving that is articulate, groundbreaking and fundamentally humane. I would argue that with radically new approaches to technique and a new philosophical understanding of the body in relation to the world, dance is now experiencing, amongst other developments, the fulfilment of many aspects of that vision.

With the development of philosophy of embodiment and embodied perception stemming particularly from the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and related thinking in psychology, cultural anthropology, cognitive neuroscience and linguistics, the Western world is moving towards a greater recognition and understanding of embodiment as a primary existential phenomenon, and of the body as site of meaning and of independent intelligence. Mark Johnson's The Meaning of the Body (2007) demonstrates how significant aspects of human understanding are essentially rooted in the body's physical encounters with the world, and how aesthetic, metaphorical and emotional aspects of embodied experience are essential in the development of ideas, language and reason. In this context, and with dance academics increasingly drawing upon experiential knowledge of corporal being in relation to such theories (from Sondra Fraleigh's exploration of links between dance and phenomenology to, more recently, Andre Lepecki's looking at both presence and body as contested notions) dance is shifting its own parameters. Lepecki, in his book Of the Presence of the Body (2004), writes of 'the gap between body and presence in the history of modern Western subjectivity and modern Western dance' and presents the different ways that artists are finding both to express that gap and to 'step into presence'.4 Dance is becoming less a spectacle of organised, objectified bodies and more a way for human beings to actively explore subjective embodied consciousness, notions of presence and their agency in the world - how we perceive and act upon the world from within it.Dance is becoming less a spectacle of organised, objectified bodies and more a way for human beings to actively explore subjective embodied consciousness

What Wall identified as the movement arts' 'internal need to reach a point of self negation' has been long in coming. Dance has traditionally been constrained by numerous unquestioned givens (e.g. occurrence in a theatrical setting; assumptions of lyricism, athleticism and spectacle; infatuation with certain technical styles, young hyper-fit bodies and gender stereotyping) which failed to acknowledge the subjectivity of the dancer and the wealth of political and philosophical discourse around human movement. Provoked by a static mainstream - of choreographers re-arranging prevailing dance languages and aesthetics with apparently little more than increasing technical spec - several generations of the dance avant-garde have been busy deconstructing the medium from within. In the forty years since those at the Judson Church dance space in New York re-invented choreography as a space to present and observe the body in action rather than conform it to given media-specific aesthetics, various waves of experimentation have chipped away at the assumptions of the art. Dance artists are now re-examining human movement and ways of embodied being both in terms of physicality in unprecedented detail, and as a minded, personal process in continual flux, unique to each person and in relationship with the world. Seen in two dimensions in classical dance, then as three-dimensional but abstracted bodies in early modern dance, dance artists finally understand that dancers - even as they dance - are people.

Siobhan Davies's new work ROTOR (2010) features an ensemble of performances, sound installations and artworks based on ideas generated by dance. A component of ROTOR, The Score (pictured), has been filmed from above and its patterns created a score for nine invited artists including a composer, poet, ceramicist, photographer, playwright and visual artists to respond to through their own artform. ROTOR includes work by Siobhan Davies Dance, Angela de la Cruz, Matteo Fargion, E.V. Crowe, Clare Twomey, Alice Oswald, Sam Collins, Alexandra Hughes, Ben Tyers and Massimo Bartolini.
Acknowledging the dancer as a human subject, and the body as a perceptive, articulate organism, reveals complexities of consciousness. Rather than shifting the body around in an enclosed space of rhythmical composition, choreographers are setting up opportunities for the attentive body to enter into live engagement with ideas. Choreography may be an instruction as to how the body-mind may address a moment as much as a precise bundle of movements. The US choreographer Deborah Hay has had enormous influence in terms of placing questions at the core of choreographic process, with her system of improvisation around variations on 'What if?'. Questions such as 'What if every cell in my body could be in a state of constant beauty?' or 'What if every cell of my body could perceive each and every moment in 360 degrees as unique and original?' held in the mind of the dancer while he or she moves, places the dancer's body in live, active physical enquiry. Rosemary Butcher has been influential in developing notions of choreography as specific and highly crafted embodied 'states' of energy or movement quality or mental process, set in space and time, and in this way working with and revealing more of human presence or being. Long-standing assumptions of virtuosity and physical prowess are eroding, to be superseded by other values of sensitivity, clarity and frankness in relaying the body's responses. More about 'who' and 'how' than 'what', dance movement has both a new openness of form and a new density and specificity of presence.

Key to the emergence of this change has been a re-contextualisation of traditional dance techniques, be they classical, modern or contemporary, which have been infiltrated by so-called somatic practices. These are a network of movement-based approaches that aim to increase awareness of inner processes within an 'integrated body-mind', or a whole self. In various ways they encourage subjective understanding of patterns of holding or functioning, and stimulate self-determinacy through structural support and alignment, helping the body to move in more open and comfortable ways - giving it more scope for autonomy, fluency and consciousness, and for self-expression. Fundamentals of dance technique have thus shifted from learning given forms to developing efficiency, perception and articulacy in the moving body. Informed by developments in neurophysiology acknowledging the interdependence of mind and body, somatic practices work with sensations of the interior body in relationship to the environment and other people at a minute level. Forty years after Yvonne Rainer made The Mind is a Muscle (1970) and ninety years after Duncan wrote of the movement of the body being elementally integrated with the 'soul', dance is now dominated by a real understanding of the integrated body-mind.

A number of different techniques have been developed by individuals since the 1960s, largely in the USA and both within and outside of dance, that work on this principle of body-mind integration and mutual expression. They combine intellectual knowledge of anatomy with experiential discovery and internal knowing of the body, and explore the relationship between bodily experience and imagination. Using 'Experiential Anatomy' dancers physically and internally explore and understand the body's structures, systems and workings, rather than or alongside studying them abstractly. The practice called 'Body Mind Centring' uses touch and imagery to systematically address different systems within the body such as bone, fluids and organs to reveal and transform anatomical, physiological, psychophysical and developmental patterns. Feldenkrais Technique looks at discovering and unlocking subtle habits of behaviour and positioning in the body-mind through a series of guided investigations into movement problems proposed to specific parts of the body. Skinner Releasing Technique uses visualisation in states of altered consciousness to stimulate alignment, energy, efficiency and other technical aspects of dance. SRT has indeed developed its own use of language to reframe thinking about the body-mind replacing, for example, the term 'body' with 'the physical self' or 'the whole self'. Many other somatic practices such as Alexander Technique, Cranio-Sacral Therapy or Rolfing as well Eastern techniques such as Yoga or Tai Chi, remain principally therapeutic or in the realm of general wellbeing and exist outside of dance, but are also increasingly studied and used by contemporary dancers.

Not only do the somatic practices address psychological, cultural and personal aspects of the dancer in the dance, but they also reconsider the physical. Where Duncan began to turn to the intentions and responses of the body as source of movement in her focus upon the solar plexus, contemporary somatic practices function with a more inclusive and democratic view incorporating diverse systems throughout the body. They highlight the roles played by connective tissue and other systems such as lymph and organs beyond the traditional focus upon muscle and bone; and explore new ways for the nervous system to relate to different parts of the body, using poetic imagery for example. Skinner Releasing Technique looks consciously to quantum physics, regarding the physical self and the world in terms of energy, sub-particles and waves, considering the dancer as sensitised participant in complex fields of multidirectional gravity and potential that essentially connect all matter and all life - coming close to another of Duncan's intuitive predictions for a dance that brings the human into alignment with elemental forces.

With the deepening of personal investigation and the strengthening of the subjective and creative voice of the moving body comes a subversion of traditional philosophical and choreographic hierarchies. The traditional structure of several unquestioning dancing bodies (usually female) being organised by a designing choreographer (usually male) is being disturbed, in an inevitable move towards 'solo authorship'; the rise of the dancer-maker (who performs her own choreography); or collaborative practice in dance-making. Fulfilling another of Duncan's apparently simplistic prophesies, 'In my school I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements but to make their own',5 this sets the dancer in a new position regarding his or her practice. It empowers and activates the dancer, makes his or her facilitator of his or her own impulses and actions. And in so doing, it opens up the art form to new levels of analysis, variety and political resonance.6

The active human body's experience in encounter with the world and with other people also has a political value which dance artists are beginning to understand. 'Community dance', bringing professional and non-professional dancers together, and particularly strong in the UK, necessarily contaminates ideals of technical polish and highlights people being and moving together, in relation to one another, and within communities. Notions of the nature of relationship - between performers, and between performer and viewer - and ways of consciously addressing the viewer's embodied state are emerging as content within the work itself as artists re-design and test the rules of the viewer/performer relationship. No longer simply inviting viewers to approach or to touch them - as in many happenings of the 1960s and 70s - experimental dance artists are now actively intervening into the private field of the viewer, inviting them to experience new relationships, new journeys, or new experiences of their own bodies. At Characters, Figures and Signs (2008) at Tate Modern in London Jennifer Lacey vocally guided her audience through a physical experience of one of Trisha Brown's signature solo dances, opening their eyes afterward to perceive the city anew through the panoramic windows of the top floor studio. Dog Kennel Hill Project in their People Working Project (2010) perform on working canal boats in Nottingham and in offices and workplaces alongside the ordinary workers. They speak to and guide their audiences, revealing the combined physical and mental efforts in which we are all engaged.

This reappraisal of dance comes in a long line of shifts throughout the twentieth century initiated by what is still understood as a dance avant-garde. Merce Cunningham's radical abstraction in the 1960s viewed the body as a microcosm in a macrocosm of uncentred, multifaceted space. In the 1970s and 80s in Europe Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theatre brought dance to self-consciously stylised, postmodern theatricality, and in the late 1980s companies such as DV8 in the UK further developed the shift toward physical theatre, using forceful, atypical performers to explore the psychological and dramatic impact of movement. Since the 1980s Rosemary Lee's work with non-professional dancers of mixed ages in a range of urban and rural sites, companies such as Candoco that integrate able-bodied and disabled dancers, and Amici with dancers with learning difficulties, have revealed the articulate body as more various and inclusive than previously allowed. In the 1990s various dance languages were systematically unpicked by artists such as Shobana Jeyasingh and William Forsythe, who pitched elements of classical techniques - Bharatha Natyam and classical ballet, respectively - against 'contemporary' dance language, revealing them to be culturally imposed and self-reflexive coded systems. In recent years, choreographers such as Xavier Le Roy or Ivana Muller have been moving away even from movement itself, minimising it, or replacing it with text or a more or less static image, and breaking down the codes of theatre practice and the performative state.

Now, I would argue, as dance has approached that 'internal negation' which Wall refers to as essential to the reformation of the depictive visual arts, and following this dialectical trajectory, dance artists are looking afresh to, and rediscovering, movement, in its new appearance as the art of knowing and inhabiting the human body as physical self in space, time and social structures. The early moderns challenged classical dance aesthetics of weightless, lyrical bodies in pre-determined relationships with one another and in contained, rarefied space. The postmoderns further challenged dance in terms of narrative or theatricality, exploring the abstract or expressive possibilities of a wider vocabulary of movement and questioned ideas of spectacle. Current dance artists are furthering investigations into the body as site of personal perception and experience, of a human being as embodied subject in the context of real world space and relationships. In times infiltrated with the virtual, embodiment rises to the fore. Movement allows us to sense ourselves, to be grounded somewhere - in our physicality - within and in connection to the myriad relationships, connections and contested space of the contemporary world. Reaching toward presence both in the practices of the medium itself, and in terms of its position in the culture, the new dance is asking significant questions about what it means to be human and how we interact with each other and with the world.

  1. See Jeff Wall, 'Depiction, Object, Event', Afterall, issue 16, Autumn/Winter 2007, p.7.

  2. Ibid., p.12.

  3. Isadora Duncan, 'Richard Wagner', in What is Dance?, ed. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, p.266.

  4. See Andre Lepecki, Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004, p.3.

  5. I. Duncan, 'The Dance of the Future', lecture given in Berlin, 1903, quoted in

  6. This move towards the dancer as artist, and collaborator, brings with it a number of new complexities and vulnerabilities for dancers. Working essentially alone, from the inside of one's own body, poses a significant challenge for artists, as choreographer Rosemary Butcher, a leading influence in the practises and discourse amongst the new avant-garde, is keenly aware. In response to this she leads 'Critical Pathways: Understanding the Nature of One's Own Practice' at Independent Dance in London, to directly tackle the challenge of solo authorship by bringing dance artists together in shared studios to discuss and share their work with each other and the public as it develops.