The Wit(h)ness Scores

When I first began to work solo, I was driven by a need to reclaim my identity as a dance-maker and to ground my making in the material of my performance. The crafting of dance, so often credited to the authoritative notion of a ‘choreographer’ (detached, aloof, all-knowing) and the performance of that dance which is so often left to the dancer (the people who get their hands and feet dirty….literally), could not be separate anymore. I called this approach to dance-making the practice of self-choreography, where ‘self’ is both the material and the relational starting point (though not the end point) of a choreographic process.

When I began to perform these self-choreographies, another hierarchy emerged: it was the hierarchy that placed me, performer/ maker, at the centre of an audience/ viewer’s attention. After all, if you are the only one dancing, what else might you expect? I had a feeling that this, too, was undesirable. An audience that came to watch me dancing solo might be disappointed at the ordinariness of my movement. (Rainer’s Trio A, 1966, beautifully challenged/s this expectation). Another layer is added by the mere fact of being a woman dancing solo, bringing up questions around the male-oriented gaze, the disconnection, confrontation and objectification that might result… even when that audience/ viewer is another woman/ women. How could my self-choreography be an invitation to a wider awareness? How could it challenge our ways of seeing, by making a proposition to be with instead?

A series of hunches and accidents led me to two specific approaches that gave me a way in, a vocabulary to address this problem.

The first were Mary Overlie’s Six Viewpoints practices, which I learnt through Deborah Black’s virtual viewpoints workshops (Oct-Dec 2021). Black’s virtual sessions began with 5 minutes of rolling around on the floor, bringing the brain down onto the same level as body in a symbolic grounding, before focusing on one specific ‘viewpoint’. Overlie identified 6 ‘viewpoints’ of performance: Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement and Story (the 6 SSTEMS ) constructing various exercises through which the performer foregrounds one mode of attention. Black describes it as an ‘er’ practice, a pre-practice.

Working through the practices I noticed that dance is often only ever focused on one of the materials: movement … no surprise there. Dance performance and dance-making often prioritise moving and movement as the primary focus of the choreography… but what about the other materials of performance? By swapping my focus from my movement to my presence within space/time, by swapping my attention from myself as a shape-maker to myself as just another shape-time within space, suddenly the potential for a horizontal attention opens up, and by extension, an awareness of others-in-space/ others-as-space, others-as-time, others-as-emotion etc. Overlie described the audience as a piano, but I would go further, I would say that in the practice of self-choreography, the audience is the relation to and through which the choreography emerges. They are another material of performance.

Which takes me to the second influence in this process of articulating my practice: the writing of the feminist artist, psychoanalyst and theorist Bracha Ettinger. I came across Ettinger’s writing by chance. It was a google search around my key word: ‘witnessing’ that led me to an online article discussing our consumption of images of war. Ettinger was exploring how the notion of a ‘matrixial gaze’, one that is open to resonances from the other, differs from the disconnection of the phallic gaze. Coming back to that text over and over, I realised that there might be something here that needed a serious amount of my time. So I decided to step out of my reading on ‘post-modern improvisation practices’ and read as widely as I could around Ettinger’s work.

Ettinger reclaims the feminine imagery of the Matrix, etymologically linked to the uterus, to describe the situation of ‘relations-without-relating’, a process of ‘wit(h)nessing’ via/through the ‘matrixial borderspace’. Extending the practice of ‘witnessing’ into one of being with via the term ‘wit(h)ness’ naturally resonated with my intention as both a performer and witness to my own performance. I had noticed that my performance was different when confronted (a deliberate term) by an audience. I was acutely aware of them in the space with me, sharing the same ground. I described this awareness as a ‘bi-directional witnessing’.

The term ‘witnessing’ has a strong link to somatic movement practice, especially through the framework of Authentic Movement, which leads to the development of the ‘inner witness’. In their CAP process the dance-artist-researchers Jane Bacon and Vida Midgelow talk about developing a ‘dual awareness’. There is a shared language across these practices and what Ettinger is describing, perhaps not unusual seeing as Ettinger and Authentic Movement are drawing from / contributing to the field of psychoanalysis. Yet, I am aware that I need to tread carefully into the lesser known territory, knowing that my engagement with these ideas is still naive.

The result of these two influences has been the development of what I call my ‘wit(h)ness scores’. Performed-with a mobile/ semi-mobile audience, the score aims to draw attention to a wider field of awareness in which the performer is only one point of relation. Yes there is a distillation of the practice (I hope) through my performance. But I am not necessarily in the foreground. My question to my with-nesses is: in this shared Border-Space, am I really the only one dancing?

Image: ‘Am I really the only one dancing?’ – performance of a ‘Wit(h)ness Score’ at the SPA Conference 2023, Valletta, Malta

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