Phase 3.

Mum´s Dancing - Improvised dance concert & Analyses

The last version, Mum’s Dancing [Mamma Danser], which I would like to describe as an improvised dance concert, was dramaturgically shaped through the experience of moving the installation into different spaces. In collaboration with a big church festival in Trondheim, Olavsfestdagene, we got an invitation to perform in the Nidaros cathedral, and then later in the large church, Bergstadens Ziir in Røros — each of which, in different ways, provided new and overwhelming frameworks for the improvisations. The formal, restrained, tradition-bound, and religious framing was a great contrast to the free, improvisational and loosely structured performance. The church building is in itself a contradiction to the concept of multi-focus. The central altar, pulpit, or crucifix turns the audiences´attention towards a central focus point. The feeling that our open and improvised form was not strong enough for this strictly ordered room led to our strengthening some formal elements in the improvised performance. Our experiences in the religious rooms also reinforced my attention to dramaturgical frameworks. In preparation for the final version of Mum’s Dancing, my research questions were about the performative experiences of the multi-focused event:


What is involved in providing a space for decentred and multi-focal experiences in theatre and art for the very young?

How can artistic research methodology inform this research process?


By decentred and multi-focal I mean a kind of artistic expression which is not constrained by a linear succession of events, but is rather divided into many simultaneous occurrences and areas of focus from which the spectators can freely choose. The spectators’ experience of being decentred is thus incorporated in the art form (Bishop, 2005). This kind of artistic expression belongs to a tradition of installation art and interactive exhibition. But what does this mean for the youngest children? What does it involve for the artists? And not least, what does it entail for the art researcher and the research focus?

The final version of Mum’s Dancing was performed in a more clearly defined artistic space: a black box at Dansens Hus in Oslo [Oslo Dance Hall]. The dramaturgical structure was now established as choreographic elements following those of the Mamma Danser film (Finborud Nøren, 2011), with an introduction, order, and timing. The moments of interaction and non-interaction with the children were sharpened. 

At the improvised dance concert events at Dansens Hus, the free improvisations in the performance space, were interrupted three times by a fixed, choreographed dance. This dance was performed in almost exactly the same way as the dancers on the film Mamma Danser, and it was exactly timed with the film’s music. The dancers on the film were thus mirrored by the live dancers in the room. The live dance followed the film’s form and content in both a choreographic and thematic sense. The interruption was repeated three times with varying focus during the course of the performance, each time followed by free improvisational sequences. The dancers coming together with the drummer in an improvised final act rounded off the performance. The audience was made up of both kindergarten groups and children accompanied by parents. 

Methodologically, I worked with changing perspectives and focuses and became aware of my own position as an artist, director, and researcher. I made some film recordings during the performances and tried to reveal how my research interests and questions discovered or covered the real event and the experiences of participants. I had moved from an interpretive to a performative position, and this repositioning had required theories on artistic research. Taking a performative research approach means that the research involves the artists, the audience, and the researcher in mutual interaction, where the researcher also can be the artist and vice versa (Borgdorff, 2006, p. 13). My research questions had changed along the way during this process, and thus became stages in the performative research approach.

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Mum´s Dancing - The event, 2011 (05:00)


Accounting for one’s own perspective and finding a clear focus are important anchors in research in general, but may also conflict with other ways of approaching knowledge.

By means of focusing, individual events can emerge clearly and acquire significance; but in de-focusing, one can discover other, new, or unexpected things that otherwise would have been left undiscovered. In not giving focus or form, space can be created for greater presence and openness about what is happening in the moment.

Working more intuitively and perceptively can therefore lead to new realisations and knowledge. It is sometimes necessary to ‘quieten intention in order to awaken intuition’ (Håkon Fyhn, 2011, p.14). The problems related to the researcher’s ability to perceive or not perceive what is actually taking place in the performance has been a key methodological question in this project. I have chosen to describe the problem by distinguishing between three different forms of focus:

·       Group focus (common focus on performative events)

·       Personal focus (guided by own interests) 

·       Multi-focus (decentred, listening)

The artistic research process was led by both a focused intention and a more open, intuitive, and affective perception. In the last phase, as I was developing Mum’s Dancing as an open and multi-focused event, I had to quieten my intentions to give way to the affective researcher.

A growing understanding of a decentred subjective experience, and the significance of delimitation, focus, description, and interpretation ran through this process as artistic challenges and research questions.

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Improvised dance concert researching changing perspectives and focuses: The traditional common focus from spectators towards stage, each spectator´s individual focus and the affective multi focus of the whole event. 
Dansens Hus, Oslo, September 2011.

Analysing the event

This analysis is based on a video clip from the improvised dance concert Mum’s Dancing, which is presented in the window down to the left.

Using the film camera as a tool, I tried to investigate how I constantly shift focus and perspective. The camera is able to make an overview without any specific focus and include a lot of information. The camera’s eye can also choose a very specific moment of musical communication, and it is possible to move the camera’s eye in the direction of unexpected events. Using the camera as a research tool became a method of investigation, helping to shift between differing positions, including:

·       The critical dramaturgical eye;

·       The creative directing eye;

·       Focus on the sensous experience of one child;

·       Affective sensation and ambience in the room;

·       Observation of social life in a group of children;

·       Intensity of rhythmic music;

·       My own bodily response;

... and so forth.


Looking at the film (to the left) creates another level of investigation:

What do I look for? What do I see? And what do I not see?

In describing this film clip, I was searching for possible intentions and communicative events. I observed children deep in involvement and play, rather than simply a general picture of decentred chaotic activity.

In the close study of this video clip, which on the face of it may seem fairly confusing, I discovered that the great majority of the children seemed to be deeply focused. The children are concentrating on their own personal interests and fascinations. They come into the room and ‘inhabit’ it in a more exploratory, sensory, and physical way than the accompanying adults (Løkken, 2000; Merleau-Ponty, 1994 [1945], p. 3). The installation has been created with the small children’s physical approach in mind. Objects and installations are size-appropriate. The investigation to which they are invited is a kind of play, in which they have the opportunity to try things out, inspect things from different angles, crawl in and out of the installations, move back and forth, and place themselves in different parts of the room. Even though it is not so clear on the video, the atmosphere in the room was thoroughly attentive and concentrated. Some of the children are very actively engaged with the film projections, rocking horses or shoes, whilst others restrict themselves to one or a few things. Some children hold back, watching from an adult’s knee.

Installation art activates and decentres the spectator (Bishop, 2005). It gives the children opportunities for free exploration of the space, objects, and relationships. An example could be the children bathing in the film projection on the duvet. They crawl around, roll about, and watch curiously as their own and others’ bodies vanish in the film’s light. Claire Bishop terms this form of installation experience ‘mimetic engulfment’; in other words, a form of decentring in which the spectators lose their own physical boundaries and become one with the surroundings (Bishop, 2005, p. 82).

In my interpretation of the video clips, most of the children concentrate deeply upon the things on which they choose to focus. They switch between a personal focus and a group focus on the dancers or the music. Some children interact directly with each other, while some children seem to be affected by the event in a less direct way. They appear decentred and captivated by sensory impulses in a mode of multi-focus.

In the next section I will show that the performers’ perspective is also highly focused and centred, but at the same time they aware of what is happening in the performance space as a whole.

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Analysing research conversations

For the performers, the film clips sparked reflection and conversation around what is involved in multi-focus events. The performers expressed that the improvisations were exciting and contained varied and good meetings between themselves and the children. They highlighted the concentrated attention activated as improvising artists, preferring to use the terms multi-listening and in-depth attention rather than the term multi-focus, which they associated more with superficial and unconcentrated attention. Instead, they placed emphasis on the balance between multi listening and a deeply centred focus on their own actions, whether prepared and the spontaneously improvised. This suggests a necessity to listen simultaneously to themselves and to the totality of everything in the room. Both the dancers and the musician represented central focal points for the audience in the production. The performers also described their own experiences as deeply focused, even though many things were happening at the same time. The dancer, who moved around freely in the installation room, had a sense of moving in and out of her own focus. She said:


In the beginning, when I’m standing and turning around on my own, I gather quite a lot of information from the room and from what happens when the children come in. I get a feel for how they are […] I notice several different things that are happening but nevertheless I choose to focus on the one thing or the other […] I have an overview of what’s going on in the room but I have a strong focus on what I’m doing. There and then I could not tell you everything that happened along the way. Absolutely not.

(The quotes are taken from a research interview with Tone Pernille Østern and Tor Haugerud in October 2011.)


The room and the installation also provide impulses for the dancer. She can, for instance, suddenly break off a sequence in order to fill up an empty space in the installation. This action is a physically and spatially intuitive impulse, which creates balance and dynamic movement in the whole performance space. The musician functions more as a fixed part of the installation, surrounded by his drums and percussion instruments. From his perspective, he experiences a type of overview and says:


I have a very clear focus on two things: primarily on what I am doing and what the dancers are doing. And then I have a kind of supplementary focus on everything that is going on with the kids and the rest of the public. If I am to manage to create something with artistic content, it is a good thing to have a focus on what she [the dancer] is doing: that is the best impulse for me.


He experiences his contribution to the whole as a sort of counterbalance: as someone who can gather the threads together. The musician shapes a rhythm, and in collaboration with the dancers he creates strong and explicit figures in the room. He can also relax and make room for other impulses; allowing other events to have full focus. He can choose to keep his focus on the dancer, both giving and receiving impulses, or switch focus to the actions of a group of children, to whom he may musically respond. In one video clip we can see some children who are standing and swaying to the rhythms. The swaying rhythm can be caught up and reinforced by the musician, but he can also shape the activity by increasing or decreasing the tempo.

All performers are able to control the audience’s focus in the room with the help of sounds and actions. They assume a loaded bodily mode; they put out feelers in all directions and have an intense sense of presence. The dance is characterised and led by impulses given in the room: the rhythm, the children, and the objects. During performances that develop in a chaotic direction the performers make use of various strategies:


a) Selecting. They select a cross-section (personal focus) of what is happening: a child, a group of children, or each other (dancer, musician) and hold their focus there.


b) Listening. They direct their focus inwards towards the artistic expression itself and maintain a focused attention towards their own work (personal focus).


c) Giving. They intervene in the situation and provide some clear impulses that gather attention, creating a common focus.


Both the dancer and the musician express a dramaturgic awareness when they consciously and in collaboration direct a series of events. This often begins cautiously with the children and develops during the course of the performance towards a number of different energetic breaks or high-points. A physical sense of space, time, rhythm, tempo, and repetition plays a leading role during the improvisation. The improvisational artists have trained their intuitive sense of dramaturgy and develop an improvised physical narrative or composition for the scene. As this becomes the performers’ focal point, so too does it also capture the children’s awareness. Mastering this form of artistic improvisation requires skill, awareness, and a great aesthetic sensibility.

This performative knowledge can be appreciated both artistically and theoretically, and does not preclude interpretative and instrumental research perspectives. I believe, rather, that this performative knowledge paradigm opens up new artistic knowledge.

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Analysing the levels of performance events


Even though the audio-visual documentation in the above example functions as a fairly objective descriptive narrative, there is no doubt that I have made an interpretation and selection on several levels. During my own filming I chose to follow the movements of the dancers in the room. I was experiencing a high degree of decentred attention, searching for a focus, and the choreography offered this focus in this seemingly chaotic and playful event. It was also interesting to observe how the dancers’ choreographic pattern managed to adapt to the crowded room.

Working on the description of the video clip I shifted focus from the dancers, choosing to follow the actions of the little girl with the tulle skirt, as I realised that she was in ‘musical’ contact with the event. When I described her involvement, I interpreted only what I saw in the picture. I have thus focused on some events and missed out a great many other perspectives. I have selected one child and one performer for my description, although there are maybe 20 children inside the frame. My choice was the interaction that I was especially interested in examining. My interpretation had elements of a phenomenological approach, in which perceptions predominate. I interpreted the interaction as ‘musical’ in the sense that the girl related rhythmically, swaying to the music and the movement, and that the tactile qualities of the tulle skirt and the red shoes stimulated her attention. Turning my attention to the social presence of the little girl’s parents or caregivers, I also saw that she was located in a social tension between her adults, who were paying her full attention, the performers who were in contact with her through movement and glances, and the other children who were playing around her and at whom she is looking.


The events within the performance can be identified as follows: the improvised event in the room, the fixed event caught inside the camera frame, the creative event of looking and selecting what is significant in the event, writing the narrative, and, finally, the event of looking at the film and reflecting (even theoretically) on how the represented event can be understood.

Levels of analysis:

As a framed and fixed event, the small scene on the video clip was a fragment that gave me the opportunity to focus and deepen my understanding. Looking at the video clip together and in dialogue with the performers, I was able to compare and correct my interpretation in relation to their perspectives. In these dialogues, my own decentred experiences of observing the event turned out to be more of a problem for myself as an artist-researcher than for the performers or the children. The confusing experience of multi-focus comes to the fore as an outsider and observer, unlike when one is in the midst of the action. Being an academic researcher requires this kind of distance, but I will argue that important knowledge about the art experience is missed when focusing exclusively from an outside perspective. Being an artist and researcher means to place oneself in the midst of action, in the knowledge that this is also a valid perspective. Focusing and de-focusing at different stages of the process and the performance can be useful strategies for performative research.

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