According to Felix Guattari, ethics and aesthetics go hand in hand. Why ethics? Because individually, and together, we are responsible for the future. Why aesthetics? Because everything, even tradition, has to be continually reinvented.
To what extent then is the aesthetic domain affected by ethical concerns? If dance is an interactive, relational practice of innovation, then it will by its very nature be subject to ethical forces and concerns. Ethical notions of responsibility need not be posed in terms of dogmatic morality (rules and responsibilities) but may be thought corporeally, in terms of force, fluctuation, power, and affect. In short, the ethical is already implicated within the domain of dance simply because we dance. It is found in the tactile flow of information, from one body to another. It is implicated in the choice to empower one kind of dance, one domain, one body type over another.
In that sense, ethics is always political.
We have invited a variety of practitioners and artists to look at the notion of intervention—from body to body, through touch, for example, or between performer and audience—as it might relate to ethical questions.
Alterity as Recuperation
The imperative for constant innovation under late capitalism is a catch-cry predicated on the notion of the individual subject. The understanding we now have of identity as fluid and unstable means we, as individualised artists, must constantly recuperate and renovate ourselves and our images in order to remain viable. This phenomenon is most keenly observed through the normalisation of ever increasing levels of education, both formal and informal, by sourcing wider or increasingly specific experiences in order to ‘add value’ to our primary commodities; ourselves and our work. The pressure to form oneself under the regime of unique individualism is rarely criticised in mainstream literature about dance and more pertinently, from my perspective, seems to be the only road to fashioning ones artist output as viable in today’s market.
As Chris Kraus points out in her interview with Martin Rumsby about her unsuccessful film (cultural commodity) ‘Gravity and Grace’, late capitalism produces totalising demands for narratives of hermetic individuals to such a degree that it distracts us from wider contextual issues that condition the individual who acts within the market. In light of this statement, it may be useful to conceive of the field of contemporary dance as a fluid, moving territory that is at once itself a cultural commodity, acting under the same conditions that propel the individual artist, and also at once an active, ontological state of viewing the world.
Judith Butler points out in ‘Bodies That Matter’, it is the act of appearing amongst others or rather the demand to appear before another that designates the subject a social one and from which relations, meanings and discourse can emerge. Contemporary dance is a particular kind of coded appearing, sanctioned through practices that determine which bodies can and cannot appear within its schema of aesthetic and ideological preferences. According to Kraus’s claim, such cultural fields operating under capitalism necessarily must undergo processes of self-renovation in order to continually affirm their viability as commodities. If we are working with the model of contemporary dance as a moving, unstable territory we could posit that it must incorporate new spaces into its domain in order to bolster the entirety of its territory.
So, how does the territory of contemporary dance morph, move and renovate itself?
I would argue that this territory, according to its economy of privileging certain kinds of appearing over others, renovates itself by incorporating bodies that lay beyond its temporary borders into its schema of facilitating appearances and via this behaviour produces new claims to legitimacy as a cultural commodity under late capitalism.
Dance, as a field, recuperates itself through the same practices that individual artists must undertake to remain a viable cultural commodity. Working from this position, certain practices that contemporary dance undertakes seem more applicable than others to discuss. One curious practice, or perhaps essential tenant to how contemporary dance understands itself, is the occasional, deliberate gesture it makes toward bodies that ‘normally’ fall short of the privilege of appearing within its schema, the incorporation of ‘other’ kinds of bodies. This produces problems; most often, this gesture simply doesn’t do what it claims it is doing, rather it reinstates a whole series of normative binaries at work within dance and that which work against this supposedly liberated gesture toward alterity.
Perhaps, when this kind of dance emerges, it is always trapped in its ‘aboutness’, because it can only ever refer to pre-determined categories of bodies/subjects. Does it, when it gives space (but not necessarily ‘voice’ in Spivakian terms) to those that it otherwise excludes, perform a certain liberation, fulfill a certain desire within our community that prides itself on inclusivity and innovative thinking or does it perhaps reaffirm arbitrary distinctions between bodies whilst speaking from a historically privileged perspective?
Does contemporary dance, as a territory and as a commodity, colonise subjects under the imperative of its own constant self actualisation in order to re-affirm itself as a legitimate schema that was always-already based on assigning privileges to certain bodies? Does the inclusion of its constitutive ‘others’ change the position from which it speaks? Moreover, as long as contemporary dance is primarily concerned with producing and staging young, agile, upright and able bodies, does the inclusion of those who do not fulfill these arbitrary requirements simply not produce binary oppositions to what is usually enacted? And of these ‘appearing’ bodies, are they not producing the paradigm through which their ‘others’ are designated as such?
Should we not aim for a kind of pluralism whereby all kinds of bodies can speak for themselves on their own terms? How can we divest from centralised understandings of seeing dance that favours a singular historical voice for ‘other’ bodies and therefore a predetermined notion of what a dancing body is?
Martin hansen is an independent dancer/choreographer working between Melbourne and Berlin. He was the 2014 Dancehouse Research Housemate resident and he regularly dances, makes work, discusses and writes about dance.
this interests me
Since 2005, I have used intervention as a way to disrupt the trajectory of my moving body. I know how to resolve a movement in ways that are familiar to me – a lifetime of habit assures this. So finding ways to interrupt have been critical for me to maintain my engagement and interest. Interruption opens a space in me that allows a different resolution to occur. This interests me. I maintain a practice of attention and the role of intervention focuses this in a specific moment of time. I am my body moving NOW… and NOW… and NOW…
An intervention is an invitation to find new ways of moving, and idiosyncratic movement often results. I experience an originality which, whilst enculturated by technique, gender, age, and race is also distinctive and specific to me. My gestures might suggest through amplification and ambiguity a variety of social and cultural behaviors and aesthetics. This interests me. Dancing becomes the lens through which ideas are manifested, suggested, projected, perceived, intuited and felt. And I love disrupting the expectations of what dance is, or might be, or is becoming at every moment. This interests me.
In my teaching, I use intervention as a way to support a student realize the potential of a moment whilst dancing. I frequently select a word that will shift the dancer’s awareness instantly. It is a finely wrought moment. The right word works but needs to be swift and incisive – cutting through their habitual patterns of moving and/ or decision-making. I feel the word distil in me as I watch, wait and then speak… it is thrilling to see the response being wrestled with. Sometimes I articulate what I think the student is resisting… I trust my gut and go for it in the moment… without hesitation but a lot of discernment and aesthetic precision. I also use touch as intervention – the touch of another invites different connections and responses both from within the body and in relationship to space. Different qualities of touch stimulate, provoke, or support new realizations for the student or myself whilst dancing. The accumulation of specific touch opens new thresholds of potential that influence technique and composition. This interests me.
I recognise my teaching is a philosophical form specific to me and brought into action through my engagement with my students. It is always a relational field. This interests me. It is in the entanglement of relationship that my perception is sharpened and also that of my student. And for this, we both need stamina and receptivity. How do we develop stamina to pay attention at every moment and follow what is emergent? This interests me as a performer, teacher and audience member.
Alice Cummins, MA, is a dance artist and Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner. She collaborates across artforms, with work created and performed for theatres, art galleries, public spaces, and studios. Her writing has been published in the United States and Australia. www.alicecummins.com
Touching to Listen and Listening to Touch
Human touch can convey a highly nuanced sense of intention. Not just conscious intentions towards the receiver of the touch such as ‘I wish you well’ or ‘I wish you harm’, but also intentions that may be unconscious, such as expectation or acceptance, dominance or service. Offerings of touch may be given with an implied request, for example, ‘please touch me in return’ or ‘hurry up and let go of that tension’. Physical contact may be initiated with the intention of ‘doing to’ the receiver from a position of assumed authority and the belief that the person applying the touch knows best what the body receiving it requires.
An alternative approach to these examples of a ‘doing’ touch is a receiver focused or a ‘listening’ touch. With a listening touch, the practitioner uses the point of contact with the receiver as way to perceive what is required in that moment. This immediately changes the quality of touch and therefore the physical response in the receiver.
In the East Asian practices of shiatsu and aikido, there is the notion of all movement emanating from the hara, the region of the lower abdomen below the navel. The hara is considered the physical, spiritual and energetic centre of the body. When the mind is focused on the hara, then action can arise by responding to the situation rather than reacting to a thought or belief. This physically generates a listening instead of a doing touch. In both shiatsu and aikido, the point of contact with the receiver via the hands is kept gentle and the action is applied by moving the hara to generate force. Pulling and gripping can be felt by the receiver and resisted whereas a gentle, non-expectant touch can be received and techniques of applying pressure or moving your partner can then be achieved.
The ethical implications of using either a listening touch or a doing touch are seen in the agency of the receiver. A listening touch positions the receiver as a partner in the exchange and the authority of their own body. It builds trust and facilitates a smooth and dynamic interaction, where the boundaries of giving and receiving become blurred and the potential for outcomes previously unimagined become possible. Conversely, a doing touch often requires or implies a power differential. Even if the receiver has willingly placed him or herself in a subordinate position, they have assumed a passive role and are not actively participating in their own self- actualisation. If the practitioner does all the work, the implications are a lack of faith in the ability of the receiver to navigate their own responsive pathways of release, expansion, surrender, expression or control. When touch follows the lead of the receiver then the receiver experiences a sense of being completely accepted and the practitioner is not drained by the one directional movement of energy. Then the exchange becomes a duet, a delightful conversation where no one is shouting to be heard.
Elizabeth Keen is a registered practitioner of shiatsu, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. She came to this work via a background in dance and theatre as creator, performer and stage manager. Elizabeth practices Japanese martial arts, aikido and shinkendo.
How can we divest from centralised understandings of seeing dance that favours a singular historical voice for ‘other’ bodies and therefore a predetermined notion of what a dancing body is?
The Self at Hand
Her hand is following my moving body at the same time as it is supporting the quality of the connection between my head, my spine and the rest of my body. I’m aware that I have collaborative companionship in my coordinating process. I’m aware that I am making movement decisions. I’m aware of movement itself, moving me.
Walking after the lesson is over I feel so new to myself, every step is my first, so at home in myself that I feel this is how I have always been. (Reflecting on an Alexander Technique lesson with Jane Refshauge, Melbourne, 2007.)
The Alexander Technique offers what Seattle-based teacher Cathy Madden describes as a process of learning to co- operate with our human design.1 It gives tools for accurate body mapping and a process for changing habitual patterns of moving and thinking that constrict us. It’s my final year of teacher training and I’m working with a young man who wants to look at standing. He says he doesn’t have ‘good posture’.
I’m trying Cathy Madden’s ‘have a little wonder’ approach … what kind of body map might he have… what idea of ‘standing’… where might it be useful to bring my hands… but actually, I‘m not really wondering, I’m tightening, and I can see him tightening. I’m tightening readying to ‘do’ something, and he’s tightening readying to be ‘improved’.
Suddenly I feel overwhelmed by implications. The way he’s coordinating to stand is part of his whole way of being in the world, and here’s me about to move in and change that, or at least offer a different possibility.
Later I talk with the teacher. She looks at me with steady compassion. ‘Actually, I see that as part of my job. To interrupt patterns.
She’s right. It’s part of my job. And I realise that if I’m going to be able to do it I need to shed the ‘improvement’ dynamic. (Reflecting on my teacher training – extract from ongoing email conversations with colleague Fiona Bryant, 2015)
For me, teaching Alexander Technique is an ongoing collaborative exploration, grounded in radical respect of the embodied histories and potentials of myself and the people I work with.
My starting place and reference home base, when working with my hands, is always my own whole-self coordinating process. It is from here that I can offer space and invitation for people to engage their own coordinating process, moment by moment. In similar spirit, dancer and Alexander Technique teacher Fiona Bryant describes the way she works with her hands in teaching as an improvisatory duet ‘where there are no established roles of leader and follower, and negotiations that the partnership depends on.’ The organising principle that brings teacher and student together is a shared interest in the process of cooperating with our design.
I am interested in what this kind of collaboration can make possible for the ways we inhabit ourselves and engage in the world.
Kate Barnett is based at the Abbotsford Convent where she teaches Alexander Technique, Yoga and InterPlay. She is currently researching ways the Alexander Technique can assist people with a history of eating disorders.
Haecceities or I’m no fucking Buddhist but this is enlightenment
Writing in, through, and away from the project ‘widen, subtract, warm, cool, observe out’ (presented at the Incinerator Gallery, Moonee Ponds until 28.03.15).
For around a year, I’ve been making various rings out of timber. I bend the timbers by soaking them in water and clamping them around different plywood and cardboard “forms”. The forms – as well as the rings that are bent on them – are manoeuvred in movement improvisations as a kind of perceptual shade, for acts of non-seeing; partially and sensitively blocking out what is visible. The rings are used to experiment with acts of perceiving-moving. When handling them, I’ve experienced a widening of sight along an edge, towards a felt, bodily sense of openess an intensely particular orientation. For me, they have heightened an awareness of what is visible as a field of activity completely permeated, made and reworked by what is invisible.
Jeanette Winterson says that she sometimes sees ‘[Barbara] Hepworth’s sculptures [as] inversions – that the object, however beautiful, is a way of seeing what surrounds it.’2 Even at its most basic, sculpture requires the production of multiple positions or views. I’m most interested in work that operates openly across larger spatial and temporal distances/sites, where sculptural objects are generative parts of expansive artistic explorations. Participating in highly mobile, open and dispersive material arrangements might allow for ways of being that can at times engender the subtraction of any one position or stance. Dynamic materials and their wild (indeterminate) circumstances become intensely mixed with social and bodily movement; movement that happens as both means and ends (touches and responses, reading and writing, feeling and doing). In this mode of working complexities are not captured, they continue to unfurl.
The ways the body moves are themselves a belief system. The process of moving into and through postures is not the corporeal translation of a belief or idea; rather, that process is the belief or idea as it produces a certain stance towards the world, the self, and the relations linking the two… This belief is lived on the order of the body – as a form of consciousness.3
I take care when reading this piece of writing. In the past, I’ve noticed that it can be very easy to let actions become heavily contrived, inflected by inward anxieties (of doing “bad”). It also seems easy to let the influence of others (including nonhuman otherness) to harshly shape the spaces and times that we participate in making. In the project ‘widen, subtract, warm, cool, observe out’ the rings are a tiny contribution to a mixture of forces that enable and constrain what can and cannot be done or said (an ethical fabric). The rings provide just enough of a line of flight for experience, enfolding fresh information, different trajectories and forces, altering the ‘way of seeing’ (and eventually the practice) itself. I’m most excited by this project’s potential to test out a lightness of ‘touch that does not seize hold or manipulate or possess’ others.4 Even the finest intervention can act as a nerve with which various movements refresh our approaches towards figuring and questioning what matters.
I arrive at the garden space with arms full of timber rings and various accoutrements. Strewing them across the scoria ground, I begin exploring the site. Marks appear: sticks, weeds, eucalyptus growth at the middle of very large trees, decomposed baby bird, shiny old chocolate wrapper, spitfire caterpillar, concrete paths, crashing sounds of the adjacent waste transfer station, the path of the sun. Shade, an intensity I had been observing for some months before, is compelling where I stand. As a dynamic play of possible arrangements overtakes my body, the rings begin to stretch the space, redistributing distances and senses; they are cutting across anything at their edges, indiscriminately. What might be considered welcome become, to varying degrees, perforated and peppered with the potentially uninhabitable. All the qualities are lived. The imperceptible and invisible saturate encounters as forces relating and buzzing within fractions of visibility.
1 Bjork [Song], One Little Indian 1997 2 Jeanette Winterson, Hole of Life, TATE online, 2003
3 Carrie Noland, Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture, HUP 2009
4 Alphonso Lingis, [interview] Bobby George and Tom Sparrow, Singularum, last accessed 25 October 2012
Alexander’s Pause for Thought
As performing artists, or otherwise body-focused creatures by nature and inclination, dancers commonly enough encounter the work of F.M. Alexander, either during their training, as something to tap into during their quest for ongoing improvement and refinement, or perhaps as something needed to help overcome certain obstacles, including injuries. For those dancers who have had some direct experience of the Alexander work under the manual (ie. non-invasive hands-on) guidance of a qualified teacher, the impressions (and often enough the benefits too) tend to be enduring.
Paradoxically, one doesn’t need to understand much about what goes on in an Alexander lesson (either one-on-one, or group work), to still register palpable and beneficial changes. By contrast, however, one can read either a lot, or only a little about Alexander’s work and gain a clear understanding its main principles and practices, only to discover that very little of this knowledge makes a lasting or positive difference to one’s bearing, disposition, or ways of moving.
The primary task in Alexander work involves learning to ‘direct’ ourselves towards optimising dynamic equilibrium, so that whatever act/ion we choose to do/ perform, is more likely to occur with minimal effort and to maximum advantage. Such an end is not the exclusive domain or goal of the Alexander work. What is distinctive, however, is the principal strategy for pursuing our ends in this way, what Alexander referred to as ‘inhibition’. Very different to the Freudian notion, the purpose of cultivating inhibition in the Alexandrian sense of the term is in order to free ourselves from habitual, often limited and limiting, largely automatic ways of responding to a given impulse.
Whether the impulse is generated from within a person, or by an external stimulus, most of us rely on our conditioned habits to execute an appropriate and satisfactory response. If my phone rings, I know how to answer it without giving the action/movement pattern much (or any) thought. Similarly, if I have an urge to eat, or pee, I know how to proceed to the kitchen or bathroom without a ‘second thought’. While these practiced patterns generally and largely allow me to reach my destination and achieve my end reliably, I don’t necessarily know whether I might have been able to execute the same task any other way, nor whether any of those other ways may (or may not) have been more comfortable, efficient, pleasurable, successful, satisfying etc.
By learning how to inhibit my automatic, habitual ways of responding to any given prompt or impulse I am, in effect, interrupting an entire psycho-physical pattern that may or may not have been serving my best interests to this point in time. If I learn to fully interrupt that
pattern, then I am effectively permitting myself to enter a block of time-space that is neither conditioned by past experiences, nor lured by any anticipated outcome. Recent publications by Philipa Rothfield provide a pithy phenomenology of Alexander work from a dance- movement perspective. Inhibition, in these accounts, is rightly understood as a “stopping [that] creates a gap, between intention and action”.1 Successful inhibition can, in turn, provide “a gateway for the introduction of new kinaesthetic experiences”.2
Aldous Huxley was another long-time student of the Alexander work, who also wrote about it with great clarity and insight. In a foreword written for a book on piano playing heavily informed by Ideo-kinetics,3 Huxley came up with his own inspired term to describe the way in which this voluntary act of inhibition opens up a “lucid interval” within which “the self can be taught to use the right means of doing what it wants to do”.4 This lucid interval is akin to a creative space between impulse and action, within which a potentially infinite range of options become present and available. Inhabiting this fecund space can liberate us from both past and future influences, while presenting an array of possible responses not previously known or considered. Enhanced creative expression and/or a fine-tuning of our aesthetic sensibilities, are not uncommon fruits of this engagement.
The hands-on work offered by the skilled Alexander teacher is, directly and concretely, the medium through which the pupil receives both the support and subtle suggestions for engaging creatively with/in the lucid interval of inhibition and direction. Through a form of touch combining enormous receptivity with delicate strength, the Alexander teacher is able to assist the pupil to check their habitual tendencies and preconceptions and permit some different possibilities (of thought, awareness, and movement) to emerge. It is from within the array of fresh possibilities that we become free to choose our course of action, whether more deliberately or spontaneously. Consciously registering this freedom, and making a choice as to how we proceed into movement/ action, generates more constructive control5 over our immediate destiny.
Such freedom and control, generated by the initial interruption of our habitual response, is intrinsically ethical, in that we are exercising our response-ability, in the moment, and from moment to moment. With the unambiguous consent of the pupil, and an openness to receiving the tactile input from the teacher, a dynamic of trust works to encourage the release of unnecessary impediments to natural, easy and integrated actions or movements. At the heart of this dynamic and trusting contact is an attitude of care and tenderness that “does not resign from its respect for the ethical”.6 The ethical is, therefore, more implicit and given than spelt out, or superimposed.
Nevertheless, once the form of touch is properly received, it can be experienced and (mutually) understood as one that, “allows [a] turning back to oneself, in the dwelling of an intimate light. But which also goes to encounter the other, illuminated-illuminating, overflowing one’s own world in order to taste another brightness”.7 This encounter may well be the point at which ethics and aesthetics also coalesce or reunite.
Cultivating and enacting this (inherently ethical) way of proceeding has, at its core, a commitment to self- care and integrity that permeates, equally (and with equanimity) both our interiors, and our external relations. This kind of integrity flows directly out of effective inhibition. And the flow of direction is something we learn more about during a course of Alexander lessons. Suffice to say, our direction pertains to no less than the natural conditions of our use and functioning; the quality of attention given to our whole selves; and the degree to which we successfully allow the vital force (or call it what you will) to move, and move through us.
Dr Gary levy has been a student of the Alexander work since 1985 and a qualified and practicing teacher since 1992. He consults privately, as well as conducting group classes at the CAE (Centre for Adult Education). Gary also works as a research fellow in the School of Education at Deakin University, Melbourne.
1 Philipa Rothfield, Beyond habit, the cultivation of corporeal difference. Parrhesia (2013)
2 Philipa Rothfield, Playing the Subject Card. Strategies of the Subjective. In M. Bleeker, J.F. Sherman and E. Nedelkopoulou (Eds). Performance and Phenomenology: Traditions and Transformations. London: Routledge (2015)
3 Luigi Bonpensiere, New Pathways to Piano Technique. A Study of the Relations Between Mind and Body wit Special Reference to Piano Playing. New York: Philosophical Library (1953)
4 Op Cit. p. xi 5 F.Matthias Alexander,Constructive Conscious Control of
the Individual. London: Methuen (1923)
6 Luce Irigaray, The Fecundity of the Caress: A Reading of Levinas, Totality and Infinity section IV, B, ‘The Phenomenology of Eros’. Richard A. Cohen (Ed). Face to Face with Levinas. New York: State University of New York Press (1986)
7 Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, translated by Heidi Bostic and Stephan Pluhacek, London: Continuum (2002)