Our bodies are thinking. They are remembering, sensing, telling stories, translating, moving in a flow that for the most part eludes our conscious mind. The neurologist Oliver Sacks once said that we are constantly dreaming, even while awake. In my experience the body’s thinking is a physical dreaming. The body carries experience, language, thoughts and beliefs and it never stops expressing the things that our conscious mind has forgotten or not yet understood.
A company of dancers functions in a similar way. A company is a body, an energetic sensing organism. The work that a company makes is itself a transient body that is composed of our thoughts and abilities. As with our own bodies, these communal bodies never lie. It is very clear when freedom, or the clear expression of energy is present, and when it is not.
Bill Forsythe is an intuitive. He is someone who senses the potential energy of a piece, its possible body, long before it comes into view. As Duchamp said, art work is a mediumistic practice, and although that may sound obscure it is true in a very practical way. Someone who is making a work needs to first sense something, the potential body of it, and then find out what is necessary in order for it to become physically manifest.
As a company of performers and creators, we engage in a delicate and powerful ensemble sensing. We notice, not always consciously, when it is time to move into a new area, revisit an old, when to correct something that is going the wrong way or when to let it fail and collapse. During the creation process of a new work, we practice being in the state that allows the work to move through us most cleanly, with the least interference; the state where we can collectively create the work by thinking it into our bodies, by thinking the parts of the work into a whole, and then by releasing ourselves as performers into its energetic structure.
Sometimes we are successful at this, sometimes less so. Dancing work is a curious blend of dogged repetitive practice and mediumistic transmission. It requires tremendous physical skill, which in turn requires years and years of daily practice, training the body to differentiate between subtly different states. Dancers need to attain a certain physical mastery in order to become transcendent, but at the same time need to transcend a focus on physical mastery in order to move into the heart of dancing. In this ongoing process we practice remaining consistently curious, noticing that freedom is not an absence of external pressure, but an internal ability to remain fluid and engaged under demanding circumstances. We practice the skill of discipline: using a situation containing many rules as a vehicle to enter into areas that a less rigorous situation would not precipitate.
With my own body, I have experienced powerful lessons regarding the nature of freedom and the body’s thinking. I have several structural deformities in my back, which for many years caused me substantial and constant pain. These deformities have the effect of dis-integrating my body, causing it to act in separate parts. Through studying the Alexander Technique, I have learned that it is possible to remain fluid and integrated in the presence of these potentially immobilizing structural situations. This technique teaches practical methods whereby one learns to recognize the habitual patterns of use in the body that are causing pain, and to inhibit the impulse to engage in those patterns. Through practice, I discovered that it was not the structure of my body that was causing the problem, but the unconscious thought patterns that had developed around those structures. I needed to learn the skill of thinking my body into a whole.
During a creation period with Bill the work often begins as a broad concept. We create and assimilate information, music, movements, rules, structure, words, objects; things that we sense might be connected to the idea that we begin with. We experiment with different forms of relationship and states of being, we articulate fine details, sometimes have days of hilarious stupidity, and then we practice the art of discernment. We practice committing completely to what is being developed at the moment, while remaining prepared to jettison whatever doesn’t work out. Sometimes things head in the wrong direction and then both the dancers and the choreographer need to be able to let go of their own achievements, if they are no longer pertinent to the piece. We need to be willing to wait, to fail, to not know, to be outrageous, disciplined, clairvoyant. We have to be willing to change, to abandon what we understood to be right.
Pieces can start from any point and every point within them contains the nature of the whole. Pieces can arise through years of sustained research and months of work, or sometimes they just sneak up on you, fully formed.
A new piece is a thing that has its own internal architecture, which determines what can successfully occur within it. It is like a weather system, where clouds are the visible result of the interaction of force and matter. A new piece has inherent forces that interact with the thoughts, energy and bodies of the performers to shape the nature of its flow and the events that occur within it. The process of creation can feel like failure, struggle, or exultation. For a piece to function, each performer must be willing to experience its inherent energies. Bill’s work has many tributaries, he moves in many directions, doubles back, jumps off cliffs, sits down and waits, leaps into the air, digs his hands into the ground. Within this body of work, one major area of investigation has been the use of gaze, the use of the eyes; what kind of vision are we attempting? external, internal, the ecstatic, the banal? How is the body thinking? What does it see?
In some pieces, such as Limb’s Theorem (1990), Artifact (1984), or the first act of The Loss of Small Detail, called The Second Detail (1991), gaze is used as a kind of compass. This gaze, or directed seeing, by focusing strongly in one direction, illuminates all the other directions that exist in relationship to it. It establishes a sense of geometry in the body and in the room, it expands and delineates the space and marks clear relationships between the dancers, the stage and the audience. This kind of gaze forms the basis of the classical épaulement; a set of complex relationships between the eyes, head, shoulders, arms, hands and feet in the balletic form. In épaulement the body is a series of curvilinear forms in angled relationships. The strong, outwardly directed, linear gaze of épaulement reflects the angles of body’s inner directional refractions.
In second version of The Loss of Small Detail (1991), we began to consider a different kind of gaze, one that was not outwardly directed, and that moved at inverted angles to the co-ordinations in the body. An inverse épaulement that we called dis-focus, a kind of seeing that is not a diminishing of vision, but rather a widening of vision, backwards. Using proprioception (the body’s ability to sense where it is in space) and the learned reflexes of épaulement, we began to create a situation that enhanced the dancer’s sense of the kinetic potential of space. Dancers develop a very keen proprioceptive ability that enables them both to sense and to imagine their bodies with a high degree of exactness. The kinesphere is the space that the body’s movement occupies. Taking in information within this sphere involves sensing the body where it cannot be seen, i.e. you cannot see your shoulder blade, but you can sense where it is in space and in relationship to the rest of your body. This ability of the body to create an internal image of itself also allows for the possibility that the body can create an image of itself where it does not exist. When we dis-align our eyes from their usual functional relationship to the body, as in the method of dis-focus, we experience a phantom proprioception- the sense of an extra-corporeal body that acts in relationship to our disassociated eyes. In Loss, this new, imagined body is filtered through the complex, internal refractions that are the learned reflex of épaulement: it is an inverse body of angled relationships that flows backward from the gaze. Each movement that the body makes is experienced as occurring in counterpoint to this other, projected, body, in the space outside of the real body. We have the sense that our proprioceptive field has expanded to include the space that our bodies do not actually occupy. As a performer you see the stage with its visible objects and empty spaces, and at the same time you see the space around you as seething with potential forms and lines of movement. The character that I perform in Loss is one who is continually ambushed by, caught up in, this welter of doubled vision. I am often being moved by other people on stage, and at the same time being pulled by the events that I perceive as occurring in this expanded area of my proprioceptive imagination. I have the sense of seeing these two visual worlds at once, and always speaking of one in the other. My real and imagined bodies are in a constant state of exchange through the medium of the eyes, which in-corporate the ideas of motion present in one visual world and translate them into the other.
This quality of being in multiple states at the same time is one that is often present in Bill’s work. How to act with precision and still be open to multiple inputs. How to sense many different levels of motion and be able to switch directions mid-stream. This multi-streamed state is something that we worked (and are still working on) in many pieces, but particularly in Decreation (2003).
Decreation was a tricky process; it was full of deep-dwelling, impossible seeming things that were reluctant to surface. We began by thinking about the nature of the contiguous and the discrete, the nature of restraint and communication. We started working on a language of indirectness and fragmentation. We tried to set up situations where it would be impossible to coordinate our bodies in the usual, instinctive ways. For example, Bill created the task of walking while setting in motion a sort of diachronic physical ricochet in the body. This was accomplished by sending the eyes in one direction, jaw in the other, rib cage in one, hips in the other, etc. These tasks tended to involve extreme isometric tensions, and, in my case, because of my back, it was virtually impossible to do any of the things that Bill was suggesting without ending up in a cramped heap on the floor. So, in this Decreation process I encountered these things that I could not do. I needed to re-think what it was that the piece required from me. After a while I gave up and stopped trying to achieve things and let myself be in the state of impossibility to see what it had to say.
In rehearsals, we bound ourselves together with ropes and tried to move. We each created what we called a “ 10 point” sequence, where we tried to connect and observe ten points on our body while adhering to impossibly restrictive rules of behavior. We engaged in various experiments to see how two bodies could be in complete and constant contact with one another. We made ridiculous operas, sang for days in a seamless flow of evolving scenes, finally creating physical “ arias”, which were the result of the body voicing its attempts to see itself within these restricted states. These arias began with the idea of creating a catalog of all conceivable body movements in 60 seconds, as way to bridge the past and future, to become a ball of memory, to become everything at once. We tried to make a book of the body. We covered our bodies in charcoal and, remaining in these states of restricted behavior, approached a paper-covered wall in the studio, making a huge mural of markings, drawings, imprints of the body. Using texts from a book by Marguerite Porette, a 12th century mystic, we thought about the state of jealousy that arises from fragmentation. We made scenes where one text moves through many people, where the body speaks what the voice cannot, where one person speaks what another cannot. We tried all these things, and many others. We failed constantly in whole new ways, and slowly it became clear to me that this was about exactly the kind of inner ricochet that is always going on in my own body. I began to consider that the piece itself necessarily contained within it these junctures of struggle/obstruction. I considered how my own body, with its many areas of twisting and physical impossibilities, can only function in a state of integration with its whole self that, in my case, means integration through thought as the actual physical functioning is disturbed. This piece could only be present where this state of constant, oblique tension was the norm. In order for the piece to speak, each instance of communication needed to take place in a state of mediation or translation. The body of the piece spoke through its impossibilities.
One movement method that came out of this we call “ shearing”. It is a state that the body enters into where no physical or vocal action is ever made directly. For example, as we approach a microphone, or a person, our thoughts might move in that direction, but our bodies ricochet backward, off of the thought, in a series of oblique refractions. The body becomes a proliferation of angular currents, a state of complex, fragmented reaction.
Eventually I noticed that in order to enter into the required torqued states, which would normally be disastrous for my body, I had to understand what my body was thinking. I had to understand that it was already engaged in thinking about the whole room: about the form and direction of the body of the piece and the nature of the information that I was receiving from the bodies and the voices of the other performers. I realized, for example, that the task of creating this physical ricochet of eyes, jaw, rib cage, hips, and so on, actually became possible if I allowed it in my thought to be not an activity, but a state that traveled through my body and connected me to the room.
This is my experience of my body and of being with the company in Decreation. Imagine: your interior pressure and knotted-ness is so great that in order to speak it has to be done like a ventriloquist, but in reverse. You have to pull your body in the opposite direction of your voice, your thought, until there is enough distance and tension that it is possible for your voice to slip out before your body snaps back to its usual configuration of twist. You are possessed by several voices that all require this release and are acting simultaneously. This is happening not just within your own body, but also between all of the bodies on stage- you are all engaged in the transference of voice from one person to the next, through the sheared, pulling, torque of the body. This happens not through muscular construction, but by releasing yourself into the flow of the piece. You and the other performers, all together, think the slippery, tight fragments of the piece into a whole, you think so deeply into its nature that it is possible for it to speak through you, and for you to move through it. Suddenly what you saw as areas of obstruction in your body, in the piece, now appear only as areas of highly directed flow. You discover the nature of the piece’s wholeness: the body thinking itself into the flow of the world, and the world flowing into the thinking of the body.