‘Hands’ is a short dance film that can also be performed live with real-time projection. The work explores dialogue and form through hand gestures that reach, curve, invite and retreat. Hands is a soliloquy about loneliness and longing, drawn out through a dialogue between the artist’s right and left hands.
This short study was created during the Covid-19 lockdown. Reflecting on my own isolation and need to reach out and touch the world, I created this duet with a Mirror, building on my research with Mirror in 2017. I was initially drawn to the way the mirror created an external ‘partner’, with the crop of my arm seeming both connected and disconnected from my body. In the final section I play with the perspective and framing of the camera, which mirrored that of the mirror itself creating a double dialogue and commentary on the ways we are contained and ‘enframed’ by our real and virtual spaces.
There’s a great quote in an interview with Philip Decoufle where, asked about his solo work, he states:
“There is no choreography in a solo. Choreography begins when there are three dancers. When there are one or two I don’t believe it’s choreography. ” (Pakes, 2004)
And yet here I am, as I think are many others in this Covid world, seeking to do what Decoufle states is impossible: to choreograph on myself. To the countless artists for whom working alone is an ongoing fascination and choice, Decoufle’s words possibly say more about the expectation of what it means to choreograph, then the impossibility of self-choreographing,…perhaps?
Which leads me to wonder: what does it mean to ‘self-choreograph’? And, more to the point, why does it feel so difficult?
Perhaps so much is made out of the difficulty of being alone in a space, that we allow ourselves to be consumed by the emptiness of it? I know my challenges are not so much around what to do, but why I do it. Why this leg instead of that leg? Why now and not later? What’s the point of it? Who wants to see this? Why would anyone want to see this?
Which is why the question, ‘what does it mean to self-choreograph?’ is not just a question of definition. Of course it feels significant that I describe it as ‘self-choreography’ and not simply ‘solo choreography’. Solo choreography can be performed by another after all. By self-choreography I mean to forefront the authorship over the singularity of the performer, I mean to direct the viewer not just to the presentation of a dance, but to the self-choreographed nature of a dance. And there-in lies it’s stickiness.
Self-choreography involves engaging with the multiple facets of ‘self’ (a loaded term, for sure). It involves recognising the different voices that are present in the mind when one starts dancing alone. The alone-ness, the emptiness, the silence may feel like a harsh denial, but, like meditation practices, it’s simply a momentary restriction on stimulus that allows those voices to become really present. And don’t they know it! Working alone is difficult because it acquaints us with ourselves. At this point I recall Ben Spatz’ question in ‘What a Body Can Do’: ‘Is this theatre or therapy, spirituality or research?’ (Spatz, 2015)
The answer depends on what you do with it.
For me, the emptiness is filled with a single strident critic. Working with my mentor, Rosalind Crisp, I’ve become aware of the gazillion ways ‘that voice’ stifles my dancing. Nothing I do is right for her, nothing interesting, nothing good enough. She embodies every single person who has told me I’m no good, every programmer who turned me away, every bad application outcome. She has a bloody loud voice, she’s cynical, critical and deeply unhappy. That bit’s the therapy.
But now someone else walks in. She tells the critic to shut it and sit down over there, tells the dancer to stop fussing over her clothing/ the cold floor/ her hair and ‘just get on with it’, whatever that is. And then she invites the choreographer to watch.
The choreographer suggests something. She offers an intersection, a disruption (large or small) that contains, directs the moving dancer. Each suggestion comes with a caveat: try it first, you can always leave it. The dancer is not bound to do exactly what the choreographer says. The dancer can make choices within the rules she is dancing with. The choreographer watches, and stretches the spaces around the rules. She clarifies, brings more nuance to the rules, more layers, more textures. She holds the dancer to those spaces, and then she lets her go and watches again, watches as the imprint reveals itself in the dancer’s movements, watching the echoes of that exercise dissipate, collect, re-collect.
The comparison with therapy is not so far off. My mentor and teachers are currently stand-ins for my own choreographer. They enter the space like a gardener, weeding out the stuff the quells the flowers. Putting things in their place, giving space and nourishment to the delicate buds so that they have space to bloom. The result is an instant relief. The skill of self-choreography is to be your own gardener.
Sometimes Rosalind jokingly asks: ‘why can’t you do this yourself? If you spent long enough working alone, 20 years down the line you’d work this out for yourself’. But that’s only if I learn how to work with myself and don’t have a massive falling out that leads to self-destruction! It can be a dangerous game to delve into working alone, precisely because of this self-confrontation.
But I do persevere, which begs the question, why? Why self-choreograph?
To me self-choreography has been a deliberate choice. The embedded-ness of author/performer is both an aesthetic and a political statement. It is about dismantling the hierarchy of performer/ choreographer models and challenging the outside-in approach, (the grand artistic vision), with an inside-out process, one of ‘material handling’ (to quote Barbara Bolt), of finding something rather than producing it.
All this is, in fact, what it means to ‘self-choreograph’.
– John Cage, Composition in Retrospect, 1993
Today is the 26th October 2020. This date might be different to the date that this post is published, and that is because I want to be deliberate and considered in what I write here. Today is the start of something, something as of yet unknown, and I am writing this so as to capture it, as though to take a verbal photograph that I can pin to this time and space. The description below consciously aims to describe my experience within the work. At Crisp’s request, I have not shared any direct instructions. My aim is to find a way to describe the work that is not reductive, to get across the feel of the work without stating it in absolute terms.
The ‘something’ began with a chance web-search, looking for a workshop, which then led to an email, which in turn led to a zoom call at 9am this morning with Rosalind Crisp on the other end, sitting on the other side of the world and at the other end of a Monday.
We spoke about the aim, the purpose of the session. My difficulty is that I have a problem with just moving, I said. Just moving is so coloured by unconsciously/consciously ingrained patterns. It feels bland. And this leads me to not moving. What is it that I do when I am not moving? Well, I choreograph through frames. I set up a mirror or a camera and I craft material through my interaction with that frame. Rosalind suggests: ‘the frame is a decoy that engages your attention, but it doesn’t address the moving’. Moving, then, is the purpose.
We unpick what is means to just move. Rosalind suggests another definition for just moving as ‘moving without a purpose’. This is where we start: purposeless moving for 2 minutes. And already, just doing this, gives it a frame, a kind of permission, paradoxically it feels purposeful. We begin to layer frames. The point is not that moving without a purpose is a problem, the point is to find strategies to work with it.
We settle on two ideas. I work alone for 3 minutes. I am aware of my working through the task. I notice my tendency to focus on a body part, with my eyes, whilst moving it, and realise this is not necessary. The eyes are just another limb, they can respond but need not constantly point at the moving part. And I struggle with the whole body moving. What does it mean to have the whole body moving? Is it even possible? Surely even if I send movement out into my whole body, that movement has been initiated at one point? At what point is it just whole body? And whilst I am working through this question I am almost unaware of how expansive and liberated my movement becomes in those moments.
Rosalind demonstrates another tool. When it’s my turn I instantly struggle. What become clear are the habitual co-ordinations. I am now locked in a battle of disrupting/ interrupting the ‘flow’ of those deeply ingrained patterns. I have to almost mechanically break myself down. Constantly stop myself. Every time I get it wrong I grimace, shake my head and try it again. It feels as though I am un-learning.
By holding onto a purpose, I maintain my interest. It’s as much about developing the ability to attend to the whole body as it is about the dance. At some point the task transitions into art. Right now it’s just an exercise.
I work again. I notice my desire to start shaping. We discuss this. What is my aim? Is the aim to show just one thing, to craft the movement, or is to remain in the expansiveness of the process? To craft the process?
We go back and forth between scores. I am aware of the comedy of those moments when I lose control and I find this curious since I would not consider myself funny… Can any body create humour? Rosalind notes how I stay with things. Yes I do. I don’t let them go, I respond. Partly because I do not know them well enough to register that they are there, and partly because I enjoy them and want to know them. Can I let things go? Can I stay ‘in the transition’.
After discussing a few logistics, we agree to meet next week.
I spend another hour continuing to work alone. At first I time myself. 2 minutes. 3 minutes. But my phone isn’t really working properly and the timer doesn’t signal the end of the time! I stop caring and find that I am just dancing, purposefully.
I sat down to write this out and remembered Cage’s quote ‘purposeful purposelessness.’ I kept reading and came across another line that seems strangely relevant:
‘Boredom Plus Attention = Becoming Interested’
– John Cage, Composition in Retrospect, 1993
Images taken with autophoto app documenting self practice 26/10/2020. Score: Just one thing.
I’ve become obsessed with trying to pin down what I’m doing, to find a way of describing my practice without using my words and to find a way of seeing myself so that I can ‘know’ what I’m doing or at least know that I am ‘doing’.
Following on from my last thoughts where I considered ‘choreography’ as a form of capture and therefore attempted to ‘choreograph myself’ by ‘capturing myself’, this week I took the notion of capture one step beyond the practice of choreography. My aim was to capture my practice itself, to capture what it was I did when I ‘practiced’. I felt that the short term capturing 1 minute apart was too ‘close’ and that I was too aware of practicing for the camera. So Simon created a programme that allowed me to capture my practice by taking a photo every 5-10 minutes.
Unlike Capturing as Choreography, capturing practice required a real letting go of control. Firstly the wider time frame makes it harder to stay with something long enough to capture it. I therefore have to let go of things I might have liked to capture and accept that something less interesting might make the cut. This lack of control becomes all the more evident when my practice involves engaging in another ‘choreography’ that absorbs my attention as in the documentation below. The first set of images document my practice over a 1.5 hour period during which time I ‘warmed up’, thought about what I wanted to do, set up a ‘choreography’, ‘performed’ a choreography and watched back the choreography in order to repeat the cycle. (Further images of this process were captured, however the programme shut down before they were downloaded!) All words enclosed in ‘scare quotes’ above are written so to remind myself to think more about how I am using them in the context of my practice research.
The second set of images are the resulting ‘choreographies’ captured by my phone running an app set to take a photo every 1 minute. Unlike the previous experiments, I was not able to see the framing of the space or have some sense of when a photo might be taken, resulting in a less intentional choreography. I worked on my living room carpet with white masking tape to once again draw out the framing or enframing within the frame of the camera. The framing of the collage took place post practice and was almost accidental, however the appearance of white lines both between and across each picture draws out another possibility for choreographic interplay.
NB: the notes in this blog aim to document my work as a dance artist / researcher. For notes on my Pilates teaching work please go to http://www.margueritepilates.com
The above photos document my practice (in place) in July 2020. Working in my home here in Tottenham, North East London, I began to capture my movement through an automated photo app. I set up the app to capture a picture every 1 minute for 5 minutes. The result is a series of frames that I call ‘choreographies’, ‘temporal enframings’ of my explorations of the frame as I move around my living space.
‘To see choreography as an apparatus – moreover, to see it as an apparatus that captures
dance only to distribute its significations and mobilizations, its gestures and affects, within fields of light and fields of words that are strictly codified – is to delimit those hegemonic modes of aesthetically perceiving and theoretically accounting for dance’s evolutions in time. The casting of dance as ephemeral, and the casting of that ephemerality as problematic, is already the temporal enframing of dance by the choreographic.’ (Lepecki, 2007)
“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
At the start of this scholastic year, when things seemed so certain, dates were fixed and real life plans were made and normally kept, I started a Practice as Research PhD. I began thinking, aiming, intending to unpack the solo form. I cannot really say that working solo was an absolute choice. It was more a situation that I found myself in, and when I tried it out, I found it sometimes fitted and sometimes did not. And so I began to think…
On the occasions when it worked, I was working with some kind of technology, by which I mean, a physical device of some sorts. It could have been a projector in the space, a mirror, a physical frame. Inanimate (although I’m sure that in later writing I will tear that assumption apart) but yet dialogic partners.
On the occasions when it did not work I was on my own in a (usually cold) space, rolling around on the floor, writing increasingly frustrated notes in my diary, like this one on the 14th March 2019: ‘Why am I doing something that I’m just finding really hard? Why do this?’ Or this one on the 25th April 2019: ‘I can’t just improvise!!!!!!’.
I was a maker, a choreographer even. I felt that I had to choreograph in some way, whatever that meant. And there I was, on my own, completely stuck. But I knew I had to ‘do this’, because as an artist for 17 years, I was on the brink of being annihilated. I had shifted so far to the edge of this thing we all call ‘the dance world’ that a gentle sneeze would have shoved me off. I was there, in a freezing cold studio, because I had to be, because being there was the only stake I had left in my claim to being an artist.
If the first two realisations were the basis for my PhD enquiry, then this last one was the motivation for pursuing it. And starting has been like a sigh of relief. Reading, thinking, writing in long hand, un-editing, listening in to this space around the solo and around my work with the solo. I was tired of fitting in to 200 word sections of applications. I now have 50,000 to write and I am going to enjoy every one of them! (Note to self to re-read this post in 4 years time).
I’m using this blog to document, track and share my practice research as it develops, in the hope that, by making this seemingly indulgent enquiry public, I might be prompted to think beyond the scope of my singular work.
You have my reasons for starting a PhD, but you might still wonder what the point of it is. In all honesty, I do not know, but I have a hunch, or a number of hunches: It is about the empowerment of the artist /self, about the problems with choreographic models (the assumptions within and the structures of support that enable them) and about recognising the layers of technology (both visible and invisible) that frame and enframe (to use Heidegger’s term), our practice, so as to reveal the wizard behind the screen.
Breathe out slowly. Write the Movement. *
I came across the Creative Articulations Process (CAP) whilst researching for my PhD proposal a few years ago. My own area of interest is solo practice, and finding ways to resource the solo artist to enable that practice led me to the Choreographic Practices Journal and CAP. Up to that point I had worked with Halprin’s RSVP cycles (which I wrote about here) and had nurtured a particular interest in the notion/s of ‘resource’ and/as ‘disruption’. My initial encounter with CAP, via an article in the Choreographic Practices journal, left me perplexed. I understood and was drawn to the idea of unpacking the creative process, but didn’t understand the focus on language and “languaging”. I parked the thought somewhere in my mind that I should look into this further, but for the meantime I worked with a simpler version in the form of Josiah Hinks’ 5 facets process (which I worked with and wrote about here). Having since started my doctoral research, I looked up CAP again, saw this workshop coming up and instantly booked. And there I was.
Sit still for 10 minutes, mark the page
The workshop was led by CAP creators Vida Midgelow and Jane Bacon at Dance4 in Nottingham and ran over two weekends in November/ December 2019.
Sit upside down, record the view
I write here as a visiting tourist to this practice, my aim is to capture to the page the final resonances of the work, mainly so that this writing might become a resource for me in the future. However I am still new to this place and I write this more as an excited traveller might write home to describe a wonderful place they’ve just seen. It’s incomplete and likely full of errors. But it is where I start.
Take a few steps, write the story
CAP consists of 6 facets through which one cycles in a creative / somatic process. The facets are: Opening, Situating, Delving, Raising, Anatomizing and Outwarding. Each facet employs different modalities: movement (or being in the body), languaging (which might be written or spoken) and the slightly indirect expression on the page via drawing or mark making.
Opening – Arriving, noticing, being present to the now, settling
Situating – What do I bring to this space? What stories and histories are present?
Delving – What’s there? Plunging into the dark and rummaging around.
Raising – Pulling something out. What draws your attention?
Anatomizing – Shaking it up. Letting go of whatever you’ve found and looking at it differently. What else might it be?
Outwarding – A temporary conclusion. What is this thing right now?
The process is rhizomatic: any number of facets might be present at any one time.
CAP is not a scripted form. It is mobile and can interface with other practices or processes with which you work.
Feel into words before they hit the page, let them dance their way there.
CAP may be practiced as a daily / weekly hour-long practice which the creators call “the ground form”. Or it can be practiced in its expanded version, which might stretch out over hours, days, months, years.
The ground form is a structured and time limited means by which to practice the qualities of each facet. It involves spending 10 minutes in each facet. 5 of those minutes are spent in the body and 5 are spent on the page. It can be used as a means of generating resources for a longer practice or as an isolated practice in itself.
The expanded version may or may not be time limited. My sense is that the expanded version offers a framework (via the labelling of facets) by which to move through and articulate where one is within a process. One might spend days cycling through just two facets (such as Delving and Raising, Delving and Raising, Delving and Raising) and perhaps knowing that this is happening might be a useful prompt to shift forwards, towards Outwarding or backwards to Opening. Perhaps…
Close your eyes, write a secret dance
It’s not just about the individual facets. CAP is also an approach and key to this is the notion of “dual awareness” which underlies the work. To describe this Jane offers the following mantra: “I have a body and I know I have a body”. So whilst I am moving I am also witnessing myself moving, whilst I am sensing, I am also witnessing myself sensing, whilst I am writing I am also witnessing myself writing and whilst I am speaking I am also witness to my speaking. The aim of this dual awareness is to bring attention not just to the outcome of (or reality of?) our doing, but to the ways in which we carry out those “doings”. How do we move? How do we sense? How do we write? How do we choose? How do we talk? This is achieved through a constant internal and external tracking. This notion of internal witnessing comes from Authentic Movement, and also has strong phenomenological underpinnings.
Another fundamental aspect of CAP is bringing awareness to our ways of speaking when we are immersed in a somatic practice. The CAP approach employs a way of articulating that comes from the body/movement / sensation rather than talking about the body/ movement/ sensation. This notion hints at discussions around Practice-as-Research (PaR). Fighting to maintain the primacy of the practice, artist researchers are seeking ways of writing that places writing/ articulating as another modality within their practice, rather than simply as a means of documentation. However the discipline of writing or speaking from the body rather than about the body has clear benefits beyond PaR. It presents writing, mark making and drawing as a dialogic partner within the movement practice. This writing might be vague and oblique at the start of the process and move towards a more concrete and deliberate form in Outwarding. As artists we often encounter a need to language our work, whether that’s to complete a funding application, or to explain our work to that distant relative (who we don’t think will understand anyway). It felt good to be challenged to speak differently.
Spin until dizzy, mark the page
As we cycled through the ground form I noticed my desire to get to the page or get off the page. “There’s a discipline in delaying” they said.
Look around, record the room
On the second Saturday evening a participant spoke about their desire to have a “lucky dip” of prompts that would encourage her to write or mark make in different ways, disrupting the natural propensities that pull us towards habitual ways of doing.
The notion of disruption might be a third underlying principle in this work, since the form ultimately generates shifts and tracks them in order to generate meta shifts.
A thought was aired by Jane (I think): When is a disruption a positive encouragement to shift and when does it get in the way?
We were given a task in Anatomizing where we offered something from our process to two other participants, without explaining it. The other two participants reflected on the offering and then gave back a response in the form of either movement, writing or mark making, again without explanation. This resulted in a shift for me that absolutely could not have been possible on my own. One participant referred to the exercise as a “somatic wash”.Sit still for 10 minutes, collect your dance
When I left Dance4 I think I nearly ran for a train. I just wanted to get home. Quickly. But I wish I had lingered. It felt as though I had found some real grounding in the practice and I wish I’d savoured that space for a little longer. This morning, filled with resolve, I picked up the collection of “resources” that I had spent years gathering and had since stuffed into the depths of mess that is my desk drawer. I went into a studio and I practiced the ground form… alone. I noted with amusement:
If you have the mindfulness app on your phone, the green one, (not the blue one) you can set it for an hour’s unguided meditation and it will ping every 5 minutes. The perfect companion to the Ground Form.
Breathe out slowly, write the movement
*Quotations are taken from “Skript” by Jane Bacon and Vida Midgelow
More about CAP can be found at https://www.choreographiclab.co.uk/creative-articulations-process-cap/
The question I’ve been asking myself recently is this: Where does my work fit?
And the reason for the question has been both a frustration at two years worth of rejection emails coupled with, and perhaps also resulting in, an overwhelming sense of creative nomad-ness.
It’s not so much a problem of my ego being wounded, but more a feeling of not being within a community, a movement, a shared energy and feeling lost on the edges of a profession. And I think all this is slightly compounded by the fact that I now chose to work solo, providing all the more isolation.
And like my decision to work solo, I also acknowledge that the nomad-ness is also partly a result of my resistance to fit in, and a desire to really know who I am, to really excavate my own creative identity without the persuasions of audience and programming expectations muddying the water. I think sometimes you just have to be alone to know yourself.
Being alone does not mean being lonely or isolated.
Which is why another area of interest for me, alongside the aesthetics of my compositional practice, is the notion of working alongside others, in parallel.
Whilst developing this idea for my PhD application, someone recommended I looked up the work of the philosopher Jean Luc Nancy. Nancy talks about the notion of singular / plural, a situation where there is no individual outside of our relationships, and that there is no community without our singular identities.
“Existing never means just being, but ek-sisting or being-toward. The I is not a self that is immediately present to itself. Existing is always a being-exposed to, being-outside-oneself,…” pp97
If I apply this to how I work in the studio, then somehow even if I am working completely alone, I am always working “with” or “toward”. I just have to notice how this is. For example, I work in a studio run by artists, so each time I show up and work there I am “with” the historical and current community of artists who form that space. When I bring resources into the space with me, I am “with” the originators of that resource, be it an author, artist, poet etc. When I move, I move “with” the knowledge of movement that has already been imprinted into my soma. And when I make creative choices I do so “with” the socio-historical and cultural legacy of modern and postmoderen dance that is so deeply ingrained in me I am absolutely not separable from them.
The notion of being with or being toward has given me a new sense of empowerment around my nomadic state. Being a creative nomad allows me to pitch my tent wherever the resources are most nourishing. I have the option of being toward any artist, resource or idea I find interesting. And I have the option of framing those encounters in whatever way feels right, authentic rather than through some kind of mechanised process.
“This is one text in an ongoing series; to find a way of writing which though coming from ideas is not about them; or is not about ideas but produces them.” – John Cage
Resource: a source of aid or support that may be drawn upon when needed
Score: “even a shopping list, for example, can be a score” – Lawrence Halprin
Performance: the action or process of performing a task or function
Value-Action: A reflective process, more than simple evaluation and feedback, but a recognition of shared values underpinning creative exploration. Recognising limiting values or value systems that are present.
Continuous – forming a series with no exceptions or reversal
Practice – the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.
Practise – carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.
Continuous Practice – A serial way of working leading to multiple outputs
Process – A linear way of working leading to a single final output
Solo – For or done by one person alone; unaccompanied.
Solo Practice – A method of working alone
Solo Practise – Working alone regularly in order to gain proficiency
Generative – Able to produce or create something that is more than the sum of its parts
Authentic – True to one’s own personality, spirit, or character
Whilst working alone in the studio, I’ve become interested in the traces of remembered movement. How can I build material from the ground up, using only my body and muscle memory as my resources?
Pick a movement
Turn it over, like a pebble in your hand, know every part of it.
Remove anything superfluous
Once you have it in essence and form, begin to play with it.
Change it’s shape
Stretch, condense it, reverse it(?)
Now hold on to the framework of that material and move in and out of it
Now let it go and…
and so on….