What does it mean to ‘self-choreograph’?

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’.

Becoming Interested

‘Purposeful Purposelessness’

– 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.

Solo Choreography: What’s the Wizard?

“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Being-With-Alone

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.

Words for Dancing

“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

 

 

Choreographic, Choreography, Composition

What is the difference between choreography and choreographic?

At the end of last year, frustrated by the lack of opportunities, I decided to commit to a weekly practice session, on my own in the studio. Every week I enter the space to ‘practice’ being a choreographer. The only problem is that I seem to have forgotten how to ‘choreograph’.

A quick dictionary search reveals what it means to ‘choreograph’ :

compose the sequence of steps and moves for (a ballet or other performance of dance). “the ballet was choreographed by Diaghilev”

The quickest explanation is: to set steps.

And how does the word to choreograph differ from the notion of ‘composition’? From the Cambridge English dictionary:

When you talk about the composition of something, you are referring to the way in which its various parts are put together and arranged.

Composition is the technique or skill involved in creating a work of art.

It feels as though choreography relates to something of the intricacies of setting movement, whereas composition is more about the whole…. In the dance world the two are often used interchangeably, but I feel that there is something to be unpicked here.

By contrast, improvisation is about not setting movement, but responding in the moment. This is not to say that improvisation is easier. It’s an approach which requires a different set of skills.

A shift in the dance world has been the use of improvisation as a means of resourcing movement for choreography. Perhaps this is similar to the devising process in theatre? Rather than walking into the studio with a script, a final plan, we have a general aim and we develop the actual material through an organic, emergent process.

I’d like to think that the latter is a better way to work, because it’s more democratic. The performers have more sense of agency, more creative input into the actual content of the work, rather than focusing on delivery alone. But it raises questions. If I invite a performer’s collaboration, how is my role different? Is increasing performer agency, reducing the choreographer’s ownership? Perhaps it’s no wonder that a dancer colleague remarked that “it’s dancers who make the choreography anyway”…

I think my own struggles with this relationship between dancer / choreographer have led me to be both and work alone. And so here I am stuck in a space wondering how to be both the resource-er and choreographer. How do I capture my own material and give it shape from inside it?

Muddying the water, solo performer and choreographer Rosalind Crisp calls her practice “choreographic improvisation”. She has developed a set of tools that she engages with as a means of directing/ choreographing her dancing. She doesn’t know what will come next, she says, but she knows how she will find the next move. Sometimes she calls her tools “choreographies” because they give shape to and direct what’s coming out. They are choreographic in nature because they carry a logic, a direction, a specificity. But they are improvised because the actual resulting steps are not pre-set. They simply happen by being present to the choices in the moment.

I cannot help feeling that what Crisp is talking about when she talks about “choreography”, “Choreographic” and “the choreographer” is choice. And I agree that the resulting performance is engaging, playful and choreographic.

But where does that leave me, as I wonder back into the studio on my own? Am I setting? Must I set material? Is the desire to set simply a lack of confidence in my ability to improvise in a way that is engaging and choreographic? Or is there something else? Have I forgotten how to choreograph? Is the presence of my own body and my own movement just getting in the way? Have I spent so long improvising that I cannot shift my approach back to setting? My sense is that just moving is such a seductive option, that it takes some curiosity beyond the movement to engage with its composition, to choreograph. And then setting feels so bland, like flattening the material resource. Is there a way to keep the fullness of material whilst setting? Is there any need to actually set?

 

 

The Elephant in the Room

Last night I watched / played / participated in what is undoubtedly the best immersive theatre work I have ever come across: The Justice Syndicate at Battersea Arts Centre. In brief, 12 audience members sit around a table as ‘jurors’ and proceed to review evidence in a case, discuss their thoughts and then go on to cast their vote of “Guilty” or “Not-Guilty”. Apart from highlighting the flaws in the judicial system (or are they flaws?) the work brings to the fore the nature of decision making itself, and especially the dynamics of decision making within a group of people. At the end of the performance the neurologist, who advised the company in the making of the work, talked through the particular patterns of decision making that have been observed in this work. A key point was the interplay between intuition and reason in the making of decisions.

Dr  Kris De Meyer explained that intuition is like an elephant and reason is a small rider sitting on the elephant’s back. What most people would like to think is that their decisions are governed by reason, who tells the elephant where to go. But in fact this is seldom the case. For most of us the elephant is calling the shots, with the little rider on top making up stories for why the elephant is moving in one direction or another. To take the reins back into reason’s hands involves an active engagement with a different perspective, causing moments of dissonance. It is interesting to note that neither reason, nor intuition are necessarily right or wrong. Ignoring intuition can be just as harmful to us as ignoring reason. De Meyer pointed out the significance of this in the current political climate, where an in / out vote on the EU, led to entrenchment on both camps and a thoroughly divided UK.

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Dissonance.

Our ability to disrupt our patterns of choice, to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing, of accepting our own fallibility, our inclinations towards manipulation and coherency. To really see ourselves. These are all aims of the solo practice I am developing, using the process of disruption as an awareness generating tool. The aim is not to hang in perpetual uncertainty, but to understand why we make the choices we make, not just as artists but as individuals.

Not Knowing

Over the last couple of months I have committed myself to a weekly solo practice session. I spend three hours per week alone in the small studio at Chisenhale Dance Space. As you walk into the reception a sign-in sheet asks you to tick off why you’re using the space: Rehearsal, Workshop, Performance etc. Somehow I find it hard to tick the ‘rehearsal’ box, because I don’t feel as though I’m rehearsing. The word ‘rehearsal’ suggests something known, linear, attainable. But when I walk into the space I never feel that I “know”. Instead I feel immersed into a constant inner dialogue of self-doubt, frustration, boredom. When you’re on your own in a space you are confronted with yourself on every dimension. What I’ve learnt to do is settle into the process, accept the chatter and self-doubt and be present to the space. I carry words into the space with me, because words have a comforting clarity when all else you have is form and motion. This week I was buoyed by a line from John Cage:

Not working = Knowing

Working = Not Knowing”

– John Cage

 

Outwarding

Today is the final day of my residency at Dance City in Newcastle. Well, technically it’s “tomorrow” because I’m cheating and writing this a day earlier to save time for the looming deadline of Friday’s “sharing”. In Hink’s Five Facets model of creative processes, Assaying is followed by Articulating. ‘Articulating’ is the stage where the work becomes known, established, defined. But it simply doesn’t feel right to suggest that this is where I’m at. It feels impossible to know what a work is until it’s been “seen”. Which is why I’m skipping to Outwarding and placing Articulating aside for the final evaluation.

I normally find sharings more terrifying than performances. The work is always messy and unfinished and there really is no hiding behind stage lighting. The bare bones are revealed for… dare I say it… judgement..? And it’s all of you out there that people are watching, in-between lunch and a cup of tea.

This is where I’ve found Hink’s description of Outwarding most useful. He frames it as a part of the process, a chance to see “if the work lives beyond me and brings liveness to others”. The idea of empowering artists to gain and manage useful feedback in a way that supports their process, is well-known in the dance world, thanks to the excellent work of Liz Lerman and her Critical Response Process. But Hink’s poses questions that highlight the process of Outwarding itself:

Is it important to you that your work is seen?

If so, do you have a more precise sense of what it might be like for it to be seen more? What might come from that for you?

And do you have a sense about who you would like to see your work?

If so, how can I introduce this work to its right audience? How can I help it find its lovers?”

Whilst sitting in another artist’s sharing yesterday, I realised the importance of this last question. A member of the marketing team, sitting in on the sharing, offered her description of the work that we had just seen. Not in a judgemental way, but as a means of explaining the importance of clearly articulating the work so that it found its right audience. I had never considered this before. I just thought, and still do to some extent, that good work is just good work. But of course it’s pretty hard to know whether something is actually good or not. All we can know is that we’ve put something out there. In Seth Godin’s words:

Here, I made this. I hope it changes you.”

Delving

Today was my first day of Residency at Dance City in Newcastle. Once again, I’m developing ‘Fold’, or some iteration of it.

Working solo has become a natural thing for me. As has schlepping around a whole suitcase packed with projector, laptop, computer, tripod, cameras, a lot of postcards and other miscellaneous gadgets. Whilst preparing for this residency, I recalled an idea that Andrew Morrish taught during his solo improvisation workshop: if you build your own architecture in the space, then you’re not alone. By architecture he meant both real and imagined props, prompts, ideas that hang in the space with you. Frames?

So far, ‘Fold’ has been a visual piece. Last year I worked with camera and projector to create three versions of my movement that ‘conversed’ with each other. ‘Hands’ became the most clear image of this. But today things started on a different page. Rather than working with physical ‘frames’ I started by working with words. I created audio scripts to lead me into movement, ending up with a word score.

Score is the S in RSPV, the iterative cycle that I’m working within: collecting Resources, developing Scores, performing them (to camera), evaluating them (without judgement) in order to refine the Resources and Score that feeds into the next cycle etc.

RSVP is a system that I’ve adopted to support the making process. It’s another architecture in the space, and one that I have used for the last year. But this year, wanting to explore movement again, I’ve drawn on a second architecture: Josiah Hinks’ 5 facets process. If RSVP is the meta-structure, then 5 Facets offers different kinds of resources, questions. It’s a supportive, soft structure that feels more pertinent to the creation of movement material.

It begins with Delving.

In Delving the situation is already given and allowed, we enter and play there. We are like a child exploring within givens it would never stop to think about. This is the space, this is the size of the paper, these are the colours we have, this is the body I have and this is the situation I am in. – Josiah Hinks