On the Emergence of Choreographic Material in ‘Silent Pact’
Queen’s University Belfast
Key words:improvisatory compositional approaches; affect; emergence; relational movement
In this essay I explore the emergence of choreographic material in my performance piece Silent Pact (2018), created in collaboration with voice artist Una Lee. The performance evolves from re-visiting an intimate affective trace –a letter from my mother– through dance improvisation and performance-making practice. In June 2015, I received a letter from my mother together with a poem entitled Silent Pact (28/06/1981-28/09/1981). The letter tells the story of my mother having to keep me in secret, as she got pregnant three months before her church wedding. I discover that my real birthday is three months earlier than what I had been celebrating all my life. In 2018, I am commissioned to create a piece as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations in Belfast; the theme was women’s silent voices. After considering various stories of women’s that were close to me, I remember my mother’s letter. This is what choreographer-dancer Silvy Panet-Raymond pointed to me as a ‘radical practice’. Although I don’t consider myself exploring radical ways of creating performance, it was interesting for me to note that in this work the movement vocabulary contrasts dramatically with the movement in a series of pieces that share the same research focus – the affects of dance improvisation. In Silent Pact, there is a clear moving away from stylish vocabulary, I achieve a strong presence in a performance charged with emotional nuances and textures. I chose this work for discussing the emergence of choreographic material as I found that the resulting choreographic material emerged from a particular set of conditions that was a move towards defining my artistic signature.
My practice involves making performances working with the affective traces of multiple iterations of dance improvising, which I use for generating the movement and the structure of the piece. Within this effort for working with something of the past, yet with a desire for allowing something new to emerge, I discover a process of layering and distilling happening at the same time. On the one hand, the technique of layering material involves producing numerous iterations of a dance that is contained under a particular exploration. Then, in this process of working with no rigid scores, or structural frameworks, in the reactivation of the driving force of the work, I found that I naturally re-encounter less elements than in the previous experience. A distilling starts to happen. Not all is re-inhabited, retraced back. There is a sort of filtering where only some of the elements reappear in the new iteration, while simultaneously, there is new material emerging in the process of engaging with the traces. Building upon the notion of affect as a passage of intensities from Brian Massumi, I found a way to expand my understanding of this process of recuperation and filtering of choreographic material. Massumi describes intensity as the beginnings of a selection,
...the incipience of mutually exclusive pathways of action and expression, all but one but one of which will be inhibited from actualising themselves completely. (2002a, p.30)
The core themes discussed in my analysis evolved from a process of intertwining live narrative over edited film footage documenting the layers of improvisations of the performance piece, and later adapted as screen-dance, Silent Pact (2018). In folding layers of movement improvisation with oral narrative, I am interested in allowing the semantics of the work to speak back to me, producing knowledge about my compositional process that moves between the artistic and the academic register. My artistic research interest lies on finding ways to amplify the affectsof dance improvisation. For that purpose, I oscillate between movement and orality as a technique to elaborate and gain awareness on the affective experience of dancing. Moreover, my performance-making process involves the creation of aesthetically stimulating spacesthat I inhabit using dance improvisation. Thus, the movement material emerges from a relational dynamic with the materials and objects organised within this constructed environment of materials and objects. In the process of critically engaging with my choreographic process, I apply the framework of relational movementproposed by Erin Manning (2009, 2013).
The Emergence of Choreographic Material
In the process of making Silent Pact, the choreographic material emerged from a ‘process of formation’(Massumi, 2002b, p. 9)where ‘I explore the possibilities for dancing afforded by a wedding dress and to a spoken (English) version of my mother’s letter. I was interested in developing the sensibilities to dance improvise responding to Una’s performance of the letter, moving away from the narrative line. My first affective response to the letter came in the form of a moving visual image to inhabit with dance improvisation and Una’s voice (in the section On the Conditions for EmergenceI discussed the creation of this ‘aesthetically stimulating space’ for dancing). Then, I had no other strategy more than to dance improvise over and over again in this ‘relationscape’ -drawing on Erin Manning’s (2009)— which was productive for choreographic development. Through this practice, I established a conversation with my affective response to the letter, dancing from attending to sensations within my body, as well as moving-with the constructed choreographic environment and objects. I could sense my body was extending to the edges of the fabric, my hearing reaching out towards Una’s voice, my travelling in space being conditioned and informed by the objects that made the scenography: my moving forward sensing the mirror, by dancing back sensing the presence of the bed. Manning suggests that in engaging in practices of ‘constant conversation’ with the world produces an ‘in-gathering of forces for expression that elicit not standard responses but the novelty of conceptual innovation.’ (2009, p. 288). What did it emerge from this moving-with conversational approach? In the initial explorations of moving to the voice, I found that my response was tied to the meaning of the words, where moments in the narrative punctuating the rhythm, speed and effort in my improvisation. As we progressed in our rehearsals, Una’s voice started to unfold new layers of nuances, she offered me a musicality that provoked a new affective encounter with the text. There was a moment where I found I wasn’t relating to the content of the letter anymore, instead I was relating to the performative and expressive qualities of her voice. This new explorations of dance and voice produced a process of layering and distilling of movement material, in the sense that I was accumulating improvisational dancing experiences, while also filtering material in each new iteration. In this practice, I recognised a process of moving from an ‘affective attunement’ to Una’s performance (from visual essay).
In practices and writings on dance improvisation and somatic movement, there are often reference to paying attention to the present moment of moving. There is a particular emphasis placed on being in the present, and on the presentness of the activity. For example, Sondra Fraleigh talks about the practice of present-centered awareness, which integrates teachings from phenomenology, somatic and Zen (2015, p. 63). As a practice, considering the notion of the present moment offers a way of grounding the mind, pulling it away from thinking about the future, the past, or daydreaming. However, in my movement improvisation research practice, I found that the concept of the present is problematic as a perspective for knowledge production. I pondered: can I grasp a present moment of improvising in dance? Looking at the problem of the present of improvisation in music, Michael Gallope suggests that ‘[t]he instant cannot be presented as a form of absolute knowledge without recourse to a mediating network of remembered or ‘absent temporal intervals…’ (2016, p. 146). Gallope explores this problem drawing on philosopher Vladimir Jankelevith who argues that ‘[w]e can take, in the smallest being of the instant, only a consciousness itself almost inexistent'. Gallope suggests that ‘[t]his leaves us with access only to the uncertain and approximate poetry of the “almost inexistent”.' (2016, p. 146). Gallopes’ reflection resonates with my experience of feeling that the performances I create only exist in the moment I am performing them.
In my movement practice, which has a particular focus on performance making, I found that although I can sense a temporality that centres around what I’m doing in a particular moment in time, I work with the emergence and formation of movement, which involves something of all three tenses of lived experience—past, present and future. I encountered an impossibility in trying to fully recreate the ‘present’ of movement improvisations. For instant, in the task of trying to catch a present moment of dancing as in a ‘pause and reverse’ call —as in Lisa Nelson's Tuning Score—, or when trying to retrieve over my movements looking at video footage, I am faced with the challenge of moving through the exact same movements. While I cannot claim the skill to fully recuperate a present movement of dancing, perhaps more successfully, I can attempt to re-enact the dancing qualities that became noticeable through the sensing of an intensity. An intensity that formed when a significant lived experience took place and pressed onto my body. As in the example of a graceful movement, Manning suggest that ‘[a] graceful movement is one that feels like it already carries the fullness of the movement passing within the preacceleration [meaning the virtual force] of the movement taking form. Time collapses into an intensity of process, and what we feel is not the object of the experience but the flow of experience itself’.’(2009, p. 96). Thus, in trying to articulate the knowledge that emerges from embodied research practice, I find that the idea of being in the present can be misleading. As a result, my work became about the traces of affectsof the dancing experience. I think of the trace as an accumulation of instances that get registered on the body because its intensity.
There’s always a layering and distilling of movement material simultaneously occurring in performing from the affectsof dance improvising. Drawing on Deleuze’s idea of ‘real but abstract’, Massumi argues that
‘[w]hen a body is in motion, it does not coincide with itself. It coincides with its own transition: its own variation. The range of variations it can be implicated in is not present in any given movement, much less in any position it passes through. In motion, a body is in an immediate, unfolding relation to its own non present potential to vary.' (2002b, p. 4).
The action of reversing, then, is re-enacted from the experience of a trace, an affective mark that relates to the past as much as to the potential of the future, forming movement anew each time. Massumi proposes that in movement there is no present moment as such. The present is intangible since it is too quick to be grasped and is in constant becoming of the next moment. He talks about a pastness and a futureness that are in constant catching up with each other (Massumi, 2002b).Then, the concept of the affective trace appears to offer me a felt-object to attend to. An object of attention that is embodied and belongs to my experience of dancing. Drawing on Spinoza’s perspective of affection as a trace, Massumi suggests that ‘[t]he trace determines a tendency, a potential, if not yet the appetite for the autonomic repetition and variation of the impingement.’ (2002a, p. 32). In my practice, I came to know the experience of the affective trace as different from memory recovery. The trace can be thought as a mark or impression left of the body, produced by the intensity of a dancing experience, which touches the dancer in multiple ways.
By attending to the affectsof dancing, I found a thinking tool for investigating the process of performance making at the intersection of a philosophical concept —affect—, and an embodied practice —dance improvisation. Therefore, I want to argue against improvisation as an experience of the present moment, and instead propose dance improvisation as a practice of attending to the emergence of movement forming, which constitutes —borrowing from Massumi— 'a field of emergence'. (p9) From this perspective of emergence, I can better articulate the doing that takes place in embodied research through dance improvisation. In this field of emergence, I’m using affect as both the whatof my research as well as the driving force of the howin my methodological artistic process. The framework of emergence as an experiential and conceptual construct is shared among current artistic research discourses that privilege the affective, embodied, relational sensitives and intensities between artistic collaborations (i.e. Gansterer, Cocker, & Greil, 2017; Ingvartsen, 2016; Manning, 2009; McLeod, 2016).
The Conditions for Emergence
The creation of an aesthetically stimulating spaceas an environment fertile for choreographic improvisation is a central condition for the emergence of movement in my practice. The construction of such spaces evolves together with the choreographic work. Although they get more refined with time, I found they start more concrete than the movement ideas. The creation of these activating environments come from an image in my mind that involves a particular organisation of objects, colours, textures, and bodies in space, which together with the dance convey or suggest a provocative poetic meaning. In the case of Silent Pact, I imagined the dance took place in a bedroom, in the moments before the bride dresses for the wedding. First, I visualised a wardrobe, and the two female performers in the scene: myself (as the dancer that embodies the ‘the destiny that is already set ahead of the bride’, and Una Lee (voice artist) which was the silent voice of my mother who couldn’t speak her truth, and both of us were moving in relation to that wardrobe. In my imagination, I embodied the a re-lived memory of a mother’s silent voice, and this came with the image of being inside the wardrobe. Then, the ‘silent voice’ (speaking in the present through the spoken letter) appeared in my mind eyes combing her hair in front of a mirror. The next visual imagery came as a poetic relation among the bodies and the space: the voice that is heard is not been seen, and the body that is seen is not heard. I was interested in playing with this split of feelings and events in the experience of a bride / woman / mother-to-be. Starting from this visual imagery, I was interested in exploring through improvisational tasks the experience of a woman torn between the pressures of her maternal feelings and the social pressures of her time –the last years of the military dictatorship in Argentina of the 80s. It was later, when working in the studio with Una, that the idea of a mirror hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room emerged as a more poetic, and practical way, for conveying the silent voice. Interestingly, during the performance, I discovered that, at times, the audience would see themselves in the reflection of the mirror, possibly noticing their thinking, as they watch the dance.
Figure 1. Choreographic Constructed Space in 'Silent Pact', PS Squared Gallery, March 2018.
In reflecting upon the relational movement between the choreographic constructed space and the movement material, I noticed that both processes informed each other, though their unfolding happened at different speeds. The choreographic site was alive and mutated in response to the dancing happening within. As Derek Mc Cormack suggests, bodies and sites as being produced together (2015). He draws on Alanna Thain (2008)notion of “affective commotion” for arguing that ‘rather than thinking about bodies and sites as discrete entities pre-existing the relations of which they are being composed, we are better understanding both as being produced together: the form and the force of bodies and sites emerges through and as a relation-specific events.’ (McCormack, 2015, p. 81). McCormack’s perspective makes me see the sculpting of the choreographic site as an affective response to the mother’s letter that involves choreographic thinking as much as the moving in the space.
When critically reflecting on my process, I discovered that all of my dancing explorations involved a ‘moving-with’ as proposed by Erin Manning (2013).
While I was doing this at a pre-conscious level in my artistic practice, it was during my reflective process, working with orality over the video footage of the rehearsals, when I identified a resonance with Manning’s relational movement framework. Although it was conceived for one dancer, Silent Pact emerged not as a solo dance, but from a co-creative relational process of taking everything in and allowing choreographic material to evolve from this relation. As a creative proposition, ‘layering and distilling’ is different from other choreographic practices in that it centres on avoiding stylised vocabulary and resisting the temptation of recuperating movements because they are aesthetically appealing, staying, instead, with the affectsof movement forming.
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Gansterer, N., Cocker, E., & Greil, M. (2017). Choreo-graphic Figures: Deviations from the Line. (G. Bast, Ed.) (Angewandte). Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.
Ingvartsen, M. (2016). Expanded Choreography: Shifting the agency of movement in The Artificial Nature Project and 69 positions. Stockholm University of the Arts.
Manning, E. (2009). Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Massachusset: MIT Press. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.fr/dp/B004G8QLVY/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=3TSUABHXZSY6V&coliid=I17SHEZ528MZCC
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Massumi, B. (2002b). Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Post-contemporary interventions. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
McCormack, D. (2015). Athmospheric Choreographies and Air-conditioned Bodies. In V. Hunter (Ed.), Moving Sites: Investigating Site-Specific Dance Performance. Oxon: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
McLeod, S. (2016). The Movement Between. Dance Improvisation, Witnessing, and Participatory Performance.Deakin University.
Thain, A. (2008). Affective Commotion Minding the Gaps in Research-Creation. Inflexiones,1(1), 1–12.
Speakers Series with Paula Guzzanti, SenseLab, Concordia University, Montreal, June 2018.
The original letter was in Spanish.
Many choreographers work on recuperating movement improvisations using video footage (i.e. Rosie Kay Dance Company (from personal communication, Dance Mash Birmingham, 2017)), while this possible at same level, this approach centres on recreating the shape of movement. In contrast, I’m interested in allowing the affectsof the dance improvisation experience to be the core of generating movement material, as well as shaping and structuring the resulting performance piece.
In her book Relationscapes(2009), Erin Manning proposes the term ‘preacceleration’ to refer to the virtual –as that which is not yet happening– force of movement’s taking form (2009, p6).