Bodies on the Line: Research Project Conclusion

I started this project with questions about place, and specifically, questions about how dance activity might transform spaces into places by connecting people more deeply to their surroundings. Drawing on my background of community engaged dance projects with older populations in New York City, I thought that engaging in somatic explorations and improvisation in a series of spaces outside the dance studio, crafting choreography from those experiences, and writing about the process on this blog would help me gather more insight into making dance in non-traditional spaces, and perhaps also with non-traditional performers. In some ways, this has happened, namely in that I now have a better grasp on what kinds of questions to ask when encountering a new space: What dangers are present? How might the public or passersby react to seeing dance here? What is this place’s role in society and how does that affect how we move? What do I not know about this space that I need to find out? Do my small ensemble of dancers and I belong here?

 That last question about belonging became an increasingly relevant idea in my thinking about dance practices in spaces outside of the studio, so much so that it started to shift me away from my initial ideas about transforming spaces into places. I started to realize that my interest in exploring place through improvisatory practices, especially practices that are somatic-based and call for mindful attention, stems primarily from inquiry into the relationship between social engagement and a sense of belonging. In other words, how might participating in these improvisatory, embodied activities of orientation to everyday spaces increase a person’s local sense of place, of belonging,  to the point of inciting change on a personal level, maybe even community one?

At the outset of this project, I developed five categories of place to use as starting point as an improvisational score for our site explorations (see Bodies on the Line: Research Project, Part 1 ). The score has transformed a bit since the beginning, particularly in that this question of belonging began to emerge inside of it. In the video below, you can see how I guided audience members at 1st year MFA showing through this score as a seated meditation.

Once this idea about belonging emerged more clearly in my process, it became necessary to admit that concepts of “belonging” are complicated. Over the course of the semester, this Bodies on the Line course revealed to me, with new urgency, that the pervasiveness of settler colonialist ideology exists firmly in our society, largely unchecked, and contributes to immense social oppression and violence all over the world.  In the US, and other places as well, it’s taken to be a natural state that entire groups of people are marginalized from the social, cultural, and political sphere, repeatedly told through structures of oppression that they don’t belong, and that they do not have a meaningful place to call their own.  To really address this idea of belonging in my research, I had acknowledge that by crafting an artistic practice around helping people attune to and engage with their environments through contemporary dance practices that stem primarily from the Western concert dance tradition, I might also run the risk of perpetuating the notion that this land is anyone’s to claim, or even, that because of my own privileged place in society, I somehow know how communities should be functioning in the places they inhabit.

The tensions around these ideas of belonging are complex and enmeshed in layers of social structures that I didn’t want to ignore throughout my project. However, this course also presented some truly fascinating, maybe even hopeful, ideas about how artists might be able to subvert some of these systems of oppression through their work.   Many of the readings, (I’m thinking particularly of Andre Lepecki’s, “Stumbling Dance” and Randy Martin’s, “A Precarious Dance, A Derivative Sociality”) have suggested that through a horizontalization of dance practices, by leaning into the idea that dance is already everywhere, all the time, and by spreading out and cultivating dance at the level of the street, perhaps artists might play a role in actually dismantling these systems of oppression and inverting structures of power. Through artistic practices that refute verticality and hierarchy, maybe artists can contribute to cultivating places where the scale of “who belongs” starts to tip in the other direction, away from dominant paradigms.

At a certain point, it felt important to stop theorizing and actually draw my attention to what belonging felt like at the level of the body with my dancers. When someone has a sense of place, they experience not only a physical ease, a sense of safety, but also agency. There is an empowerment that allows one to stake a claim in the space they inhabit. Moreover, the Western philosophical tradition tells us that this felt sense of security and power, when recognized, is also a requisite of a politically-viable life where social engagement is possible.  What interests me, is that at a purely physical level, these powerful sensations are quite similar to what is cultivated through many improvisatory, somatic, and meditative practices, practices that emphasize an embodied orientation of self to other via questioning, by emphasizing moving through discomfort or the unknown, and by finding both ease and agency, even in situations where there are no clear arrivals, no points of destination. These are the exact same types of practices that my dancers were using throughout this project’s span of site-specific explorations.

What this hints at, on the one hand, is that for the marginalized, for the isolated, dance practices can be a means of accessing this physical sense of agency, a literal reclaiming of the embodied power that has been refused to them.  Dance as a form of resistance is a well-established human tradition. On the other hand, for those of us who might represent the privileged, who have a secure sense of place within this dominant paradigm, these practices can be way of re-tuning our over-inflated sense of security in the world we live in. Without the ability to question, to listen, to be open and vulnerable to the unknown, too much safety can become a barrier to the urgency of empowerment that accompanies an embodied sense of belonging. With openness of attention and awareness to body, we might be able to re-position ourselves into a more balanced place in our society and natural environment via embodied practices of listening, noticing, and responding.

Starting with a simple task of taking mindful improvisation outside the studio and into places where dance does not normally occur, this project represents just one way, a first step, in which I might bring these ideas into my ongoing artistic practice as a method of reorientation to the spaces we encounter every day. You might ask: Why we didn’t adventure a little further from our home base at Sullivant Hall? Perhaps there’s some fear on my part, but mostly, I’m less interested in the physical precarity or spectacle of dancing bodies in unusual places, or even in wanting these ideas to be legible in my choreography, than I am in developing creative strategies that demonstrate this type of attention to place through the process itself, strategies that could be repeated daily and draw from our everyday experience. As an artist, I’m not so interested in choreographing dances about political problems so that an audience member might wake up and suddenly realize the world is theirs to change. I’m more interested in teaching and creative practices that literally enact the change I want to happen by inviting people, through dance practices, to better orient to where they belong within the environmental, social, and cultural dimensions of our daily lives.

Throughout this project, I was frequently reminded that the precarity of this world isn’t far away. It’s actually happening right now, inside of our homes, our workplaces, even our own bodies in the form of environmental injustice, racial bias, complicity, fear, ignorance, and more. We just have to start noticing the aspects of our experience that we too often push aside. Dancers are highly-skilled practitioners of noticing, sensing, and responding, and I’m interested in capturing those skills to encourage communities, even my own community of dancers at OSU, to embody the world outside the studio from the place of our own kinespheres.  I believe that it’s just as important to practice how to walk down the street with an open attention as it is to dance across the studio floor with the same quality. If we continue to think of our environmental and social injustices as large, global, and “out there,” we will always be surprised when we discover that our privilege is blinding us to what’s going on right underneath our feet. I want to fight slow violence with slow justice, not because there isn’t urgency to these problems, but because that’s the speed at which change actually happens, and that’s the speed where you can start noticing your actual place in the world.

So now that I have all these grand ideas about how my dance practices can intersect with social engagement, what does that mean for my actual choreographic work? The line between what we think and what we can show with our bodies is often a really long, sometimes impossible journey. The work I presented at the 1st-year MFA Showing was unfinished, maybe not even legible to those who viewed it, but for myself and for my dancers, that work represents the time we took to notice, to gather sensations, to relate, to make memories, to create something together as fully-embodied, social individuals. Going forward into future work, I know that I have gained immense experience through this project that will help me transform the space of a dance-making process away from the often perceived-to-be blank canvas of the studio with its “neutral” bodies, and into a place full of social context and meaning.

 After one of our site explorations on this project, when we had returned to the studio to start crafting something out of it, one of my dancers asked, “But what does  what we’re making have to do with what we experienced on the street?” It’s hard to say, because inevitably, something will be lost in translation. But I know that our bodies carry the residue of every single thing we experience. It may not be visible, but I know that Anna, Mel, and Bita moved differently in the studio because of our time spent on the street. If we had simply stayed inside and pretended to be on a sidewalk, the work would have been completely different.

You can view the work below. Enjoy.

 

 

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