Porous and Present Bodies: Site-responsive performance in an era of environmental crisis

Issue #12.2: New Topographies of the Body

Email to someonePin on PinterestTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponshare on TumblrBuffer this pagePrint this pageShare on FacebookShare on LinkedIn

As the world gingerly emerges from COVID lockdowns, outdoor performance is likely to become a more popular form whilst we are still unable to sit next to each other in a theatre. This emergence coincides with the impending likelihood of global warming reaching a catastrophic five or six degrees by 2100 if humanity continues with ‘business as usual’.[1] At this time, it is worth performance practitioners reconsidering practices of site-specific, environmental dance. How might the embodied philosophy of the Japanese-originated practice of ‘Body Weather’ be re-examined in an era of increasingly frequent ‘extreme weather’ events? What can performance offer in the face of now almost-inevitable catastrophic environmental change, which our governments and their constituents continue to wilfully ignore? The answer, you might reasonably retort, is: ‘too little, too late, to too few people who might give a damn’. But performance and dance communities, like any thinking communities, cannot give up and bury our heads in the sand. We need to galvanise our resources; harness our knowledges and capacities. In this paper I hope to offer a topography of the body, which is situated at the complicated vortex of a global tipping point and our colonial space in Australia.

I am reminded of dance scholar, Ann Cooper Allbright[2], questioning the point of somatic practice at a time of crisis, in the aftermath of September 11 attack on New York City:

‘Why, in the midst of our rude awakening to the meaning of global antagonism, and a subsequent re-evaluation of national priorities, I still believe that the practice of opening one’s physical and psychic being to the unknown can be both personally useful and politically profound’.

Cooper Allbright describes how on the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, she took an improvisation class out into Tappan Square and they performed a simple series of movements: ‘we sink to the ground, roll and then rise up into a standing position, playing with the soft balance of muscles and bones that makes maintaining a most simple position into an intricate dance…’.


Cooper Allbright’s approach to the shock of destruction by terrorism can be applied similarly to the situation of environmental change that we are now becoming conscious of, not through a singular event like 9/11, but through the creeping realisation via scientific observations, predictions and the increasing extreme weather events globally. The shock is not so sudden, but nonetheless amounts to a reality deeply devastating for us all. Scholars and practitioners from all disciplinary areas need to focus their specific skills and capacities to aspects of this global crisis. Performance and Dance Studies alone cannot save us, but they might offer some different perspectives. Cooper Allbright justifies bringing her dance practice into a space of large-scale catastrophe: ‘Because improvisation leads us to imagine other ways of being-with-one-another-in-the-world. Because improvisation is one of the few experiences which cultivates a self-open to possibility. Because improvisation can teach us how to dwell in our bodies and live in an unpredictable world’.


This article will discuss how dance and performance practices, and particularly those that relate to environments/sites/places, might offer insights at this poignant, teetering moment for humanity and the planet we live on and are part of. I suggest that these practices have the potential to open up questions and connections between sensory perception, care, behaviour, access and responsibility. Following political theorist Jane Bennett’s call for ‘more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things’ (2010) to impel more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption, I propose that site-specific performance practices might aim to facilitate such ‘lively’ engagements. Becoming more consciously present in our places offers a starting point to locate ourselves – our bodies – with the matter that is crucially in flux.

A practice of affect by place

During my PhD, I evolved an improvisational practice in relation to place that I called ‘locating’. Today I think of it also as kinaesthetic empathy with place. We all have embodied responses to our surrounding world. When we look at a waterfall, we feel something: our ribcages may soften and perhaps the falling watery action has an effect of making our skin feel like melting in a kind of reflective echo. When witnessing a vast expansive landscape, we might unconsciously broaden our gaze and shoulders to mimic its openness, and when we look up at tall trees, we feel lifted through our spines, becoming a bit taller ourselves. I have developed this embodied empathy or relationship with place and made it my dance practice, which I often perform in situ.


As well as this mainly-solo locating, empathetic body-place practice, I am a core member of a Melbourne-based group called Environmental Performance Authority (which cheekily shares the acronym EPA). Formed in 2013, the EPA brings together performers and other artists and academics with an interest in place, site-specificity and ecological performance. We have created many site-specific works around Melbourne’s central city, suburbs and outer regions, responding to sites which interest us for various reasons: ecological, historical, social, aesthetic and conceptual. EPA have developed a genre of walking performance, which combines elements of experiential workshop, guided walking tour and site-specific performance.


My approach, and that of EPA, to site-based performance employs archival research, local knowledge and stories of place, as well as a physical practice drawing strongly from Body Weather.  Body Weather was conceived by Japanese dancer Min Tanaka in the 1970s and 80s. as a philosophy and physical training that rigorously investigates the body in relation to its environment. The part of Body Weather practice that most directly relates to place is an open-ended investigation and development of sensory perception, which heightens the body/mind’s awareness to its affective experience.  Practitioners note our bodies’ affects by place through embodied research processes: subjective observations of this place generate a repertoire of embodied material, or site-specific ‘dictionary of atmospheres’ (a term borrowed from Bodyweather practitioner Tess de Quincey).   Examples of Body Weather sensory training include blindfolded explorations to observe haptic sensations; a partner giving stimulations of varied pressure and direction to body parts to emulate the wind’s influence upon the body; and reducing the pace of movement to one millimetre per second in the practice of ‘bisoku’. These activities radically shift one’s perception of one’s surroundings. The intense engagement required to maintain the extremely slow pace in bisoku seems to bring us deeply into a co-presence with the place. Slowing down to this extreme, with this disciplined self-awareness, brings us into a hyper-present state, whereby we might notice such minute movements as ants walking in a line down a tree trunk, the flicker of wind in grass, even a flower’s bud slightly opening to reveal its petals.


Min Tanaka once asked the workshop group I was part of to ‘explore the sensations’ atop a snow-covered mountain, blindfolded for an hour. Tactile engagement with features of the surrounding environment without the usual dominance of sight over that period of time produced a deeply felt immersion in place. A practice called ‘bag of bones’ involves giving over the weight of one’s body to the other practitioners who move the recipient in ways which may be beneficial for enabling subtle muscular release, as well as experimenting with being supported on angles and orientations to the space that would be difficult or impossible to achieve on one’s own. When practising this bag of bones activity in outdoor environments, the recipient’s body becomes consciously relational with the surrounding features – leaning into, dragging across, brushing over, surfaces of varied textures and temperatures. The effect of these Body Weather tasks is to experience one’s body and surroundings in detailed and unfamiliar ways. Such qualities and observations compose evocative aesthetic and kinaesthetic experiences for our audiences: choreography crafted from the surroundings invites their attention to these qualities of the place.


Bodies and Weather

Although he did not explicitly deal with climate change in his 2002 thesis on Body Weather practice in Australia, Melbourne-based theatre academic/practitioner Peter Snow[3] proposed that both weather and bodies are characterised by change. He described weather as a system of unpredictable yet cyclic forces that course through the world and through bodies. Weather, in Peter Snow’s expansive interpretation, is ‘all pervading and omnipresent’ and tending ‘toward the sacred, that which is beyond and yet which concerns us all.’ Relating these notions of weather to the physical training of Body Weather, Peter Snow quotes a characteristically ambiguous statement by Min Tanaka: ‘Body Weather diagram does not have solid lines but dotted lines with continuous lines in and out.’ Tanaka may be suggesting a fluidity between interiority and exteriority—that the borders of the body are not fixed, but permeable or mutable. He could also be referring to the changeability of Body Weather training itself—that its tasks and methods, like the weather, are ever in process, adapting.


In the context of climate change, I find the sensitising tasks derived from Body Weather which research the relationship of our human bodies to our surrounding landscapes and atmospheres to be more poignant than ever.  The malleability of the tasks themselves, and Tanaka’s philosophy, which refuses to become formed, but rather is always opening out new questions, is important too – in this environment which is in flux in new ways.  In rendering similarity between bodies, weather and place, the practice aligns with anti-anthropocentric philosophies—that the human is not the center of the world, nor is she separate from the world, but that her body, the physical features of place and the cosmos are all inter-related and of similar substance. Body Weather explores the interstices between these elements and attempts to dissolve our rigidly construed bodily boundaries.


The notion of permeability suggests seepage between my body and the world that surrounds it, a softening of the margins—acknowledging the body’s role as a ‘threshold between the social and the natural’, as feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz noted[4]. The fluid inter-relation between the body and its surrounds that this notion encourages aligns with monistic views of material being—from Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘flesh’ to Spinoza’s ‘conative bodies’ to the vibrant materialism explicated by Jane Bennett[5]. Bennett theorises ‘a vital materiality that runs through and across bodies, both human and non-human’. Bennett’s materialism repositions humans in amongst the other ‘things’ of the world, recognising that agency is ‘not solely the province of humans.’ Apprehending the world through highly sensitised bodies, Body Weather practitioners perceive the ‘things’, both animate and inanimate, as vibrant, vital. From a body that has consciously permeable borders to that which surrounds it, our perceived separateness from the ‘things’ of the world softens and is replaced by a sense of similarity of substance.

Encountering the uncanny

Freud used the German word ‘unheimlich’ to define the uncanny as the unfamiliar, strange, inaccessible, unhomely, and the opposite of ‘heimlich’ meaning home, familiar, accessible place. It is specifically the combined presence of familiar and unfamiliar that generates the anxiety of uncanny: ‘the way one seems to inhabit the other.’

Whilst Freud was referring to the uncanny sense of place in war-torn Europe in 1919, Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs in Uncanny Australia apply his notion to postcolonial Australia and their identification of the white experience. Since the 1992 Mabo precedent and 1993 Native Title Act overturned the notion of terra nullius, colonial assumption of governing right[6], entitlement to land and blindness to the presence of Aboriginal people is gradually becoming de-institutionalised[7]. Over the past two decades the familiar Australia has, on some level, become strange for Anglo or ‘white’ Australians: ‘a condition of unsettledness folds into [their/our] taken-for-granted mode of occupation’(idem). The implications of violence, dispossession and genocide are inescapable when facing this history of colonisation, which is not easy to bear and exacerbates white Australians’ sense of disjunction from place. As I have written about elsewhere, this dislocation manifests in our bodies and our relationships to the environment.  The increasingly culturally diverse population of Australia has further complexified the picture, even unsettling Anglo Australians’ demographic majority. The Australian (post)colonial context is an already dense and uncanny space to live and perform with/in. And now reluctantly, the changing climate is unsettling any firm ideas anyone may still have harboured about this country and our relationships to it.


At this tipping point in environmental history, humans globally are grasping at the memory of our familiar physical world, and grappling with the unfamiliar instability of its climatic systems. Bruno Latour[8] has elucidated that the ‘land of old’ we long to return to is no longer there. Like the ‘uncanny valley’ effect usually discussed in relation to human-like robots or dolls, we can barely even look at the scale of impending ecological disaster and its ensuing social, political and economic issues, although it is encroaching from all angles. Like the colonial ‘unsettledness’, a degree of guilt is implied (particularly for the so-called ‘Baby Boomers’’ generation) and adds horror to this bombshell, in the knowledge that humans have caused this gross imbalance.  It gives us such a vertiginous sense of unease, it is easier to deny, repress or minimise our knowledge of it. Our nostalgic longing for the past pre-climate change world is so extreme there is a reluctance to accept imminent realities, such as recent projections through Climate Central’s 2019 satellite cartographic study, whereby much of earth’s land mass including highly populated areas and major cities of the world will be erased by sea level rise by 2050 (with a conservative two degrees of warming), resulting in 150 million displaced people.


When the landscapes we knew are ripped apart by storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, burnt to become unrecognisable or disappear under water, how do these sudden dramatic changes affect our bodies (provided we survived the extreme event), or the bodies of those who inhabit the affected places? As well as attending to basic means of survival and physical recovery, responses might include shock and trauma, which have psychological and physical repercussions for individuals and collectively. A common response to traumatic situations of major change is the tendency to detach; to disassociate from our bodies and become literally numb to our situation.


Research into the sensory experience of asylum seekers and immigrants on arrival in Australia has found many examples of the depreciation of sensory perception. The loss of family, community and home coupled with the shock of foreign terrain, where the world of everyday life is incomprehensible on multiple levels, paralyses some people to literal de-sensitisation. Some refugees reported that their skin felt numb, an inability to taste food, muteness, anxiety, vertigo, agoraphobia and reduced bodily orientation, haptic and proprioceptive senses. Researcher Mandy Thomas explained these responses as a psychological evasion of experiencing their new unfamiliar world. She emphasised that the body is often the site of ‘disjuncture between the known and the unknown. […] Living in another country may be an uncanny experience, which can shatter one’s spatial world’[9].


Living in an age of changing climate could be compared to this kind of uncanny experience whereby the known place may literally become a different place. To me this indicates the importance of embodied practices in maintaining or re-finding a physical sense of presence in times of extreme change.

Towards presence in place

As well as opening new coal mines, the current right-wing Australian government has also effectively taken off the table the possibility of any meaningful acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty and institutionalisation of an Indigenous political voice, as requested in the Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017). This Statement also sought a ‘Makarrata’; ‘the coming together after a struggle’, which ‘captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination’. In the light of the climate crisis, these words also ring true: we urgently need to come together and change our behaviours to mitigate the catastrophe for our children, future generations of humans and all lifeforms on earth.


Although successive governments have failed to appropriately acknowledge sovereignty or indeed improve current situations of Indigenous incarceration, health and education, the last couple of decades have seen gradual shifts in Australia’s sense of itself to incorporate Indigenous presence and history. Performance in many forms has been instrumental to this cultural shift, from Welcome to Country ceremonies at official events; to the phenomenal Tanderrum annual public dance gathering of the tribes of the Kulin nation at Federation Square; the immense contribution of Bangarra Dance Theatre and popularity of musicians such as Archie Roach, Gurrumul and Jessica Mauboy, to name but a few. Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 publication of Dark Emu[10] compiling carefully researched accounts from early colonists, has catalysed recent reappraisals of how we perceive pre-colonial land management and agriculture, transforming profoundly the prior generally-accepted view of Aboriginal Australians as hunter-gatherers. Indigenous knowledge of sustainable environmental practice offers much to discussions about how to reorganize land use and food production, as well as listening and responding with sensitivity to ecological patterns.


In a recent lecture, humanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti calls for a broader perspective than that of climate change or the Anthropocene, and reminds us that ‘human’ is not a neutral term. She notes, “Human’ indexes access to rights, entitlement to visibility, to credibility…’ As such, Braidotti continues, ‘the human has to be situated very carefully: which human, where, in which context?’ because ‘entire categories of inhabitants of this earth never qualified as human’, listing examples as women, gender diverse, people of colour.


The politics of location espoused by Braidotti correlates to my acknowledgement of and attention to the particularity, and privileged and loaded position of my whiteness in seeking to redress its normativity in many of my performance works. My locating dance in relation to Australian places problematises my presence, referencing colonial violence as cause of disjuncture between my body and place, whilst simultaneously longing to belong.


In recent years there has been some mainstream groundswell and, in spite of the lack of governmental reforms, many Australians are coming to new assumed understandings and moving beyond questions of ‘whose place is it?’ (Of course, it is ancient Indigenous Country that was forcibly invaded by Europeans and is now occupied by many cultural groups from across the world), to asking: ‘who is responsible for it now and into the future?’


(All of us).


I have barely touched upon cultural complexities which deserve more space than I have here, but can merely point out that becoming present in place in Australia requires these considerations, and, I would argue, a certain embodied integration of these awarenesses. In any performance about place in Australia, I attempt to include Indigenous people, by inviting them to represent themselves in person if possible, and otherwise through consultation during the process and acknowledgement of them in the performance. First Nations dancers were also, of course, the first site-specific dance artists.


The story of place in Australia, already thickly complicated by the repressed history of colonisation, is now further thickened by climate change. Whilst part of survival in extreme weather events may encompass temporary sensory repression, at this stage we cannot afford to close over our senses, to become numb or mute.  Those of us who are able (for I also acknowledge my privilege in having physical, social and cultural access to such choices) need to learn to encounter that which we do not wish to see, feel or know because it is profoundly unsettling. We need to be able to engage with contradiction– to translocate between the familiar world and that which is newly unpredictable. Body Weather and other site-specific dance and performance practices now take on a new potential. There is an urgent need to find ways to inhabit the uncanny new world of global warming.

Part of any mitigation may be to re-sensitise people to their environments. Links from the close-range relationship of an audience member to the specific site of performance, to the meta ‘site’ of human relationships to global ecosystems in dramatic change may seem a leap, but as Bennett and others have suggested, these kinds of engagements may be key to a reconceptualisation of matter. I suggest that site-responsive performance, whereby the performer’s role is to ‘point to’ aspects of the place and (re-)sensitise audience/participants to their surroundings, decenters the performer, which could conceptually extrapolate to repositioning the human in relation to the environment.

The works I create are usually promoted to and draw audiences from networks of people interested in public art, contemporary performance and dance, as well as environmental interests, from a range of ages from students to seniors, and increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds. Audiences for performance have become accustomed to (and indeed COVID-19 has exacerbated the demand for) events based beyond the frames of conventional cultural venues, giving rise to adventurous, participatory formats.  In EPA works, we invite the audiences to take greater responsibility for their own experience: to ‘pay attention to what they pay attention to’; and offer them playful sensory activities to immerse in and perceive both the site and the performance in their own ways. We endeavour to re-situate humans (performers and audience) with/in the world (at least in the microcosm of this performance), in a non-hierarchical relation to the things around them.


Performing site-based work in urban or suburban environments, the pedestrians and usual users of the place become incidental audience members, or even incidental performers. When we work in outer suburban and regional areas, audiences often include curious local people who do not usually frequent contemporary performance, nor necessarily share the same eco-political worldviews as inner city art-viewers. Not being regular ‘trained’ performance attendees, passers-by and local residents can have the most interesting audience responses and expand the impact of our artistic and non-polemical yet eco-political aims beyond ‘preaching to the converted’.


Sites of Performance

In 2015, EPA took audiences on a two-hour guided walking performance, Distal Fragments,  through coastal parkland at Altona, an under-appreciated area west of Melbourne, Victoria. Welcomed and introduced to Bunurung Country by Indigenous elder and custodian N’arweet Carolyn Briggs, audiences were then led by performers through landscapes of creek, estuary, wetlands, saltpans, sandy sclerophyll forest and down a grassy hillside. Performers placed our bodies in aesthetic as well as kinaesthetic relation to these landscapes to draw attention to certain features, such as the contour of a large rock, or evoking an abject response by legs emerging out of slimey green mud, or mimicking the calls of local existing and extinct birds. Comic scenes alluded to human practices within this parkland: a dysfunctional family banged percussively with found objects on a dumped car wreck to try to restart the car. Audiences encountered a leaf-covered body in a ditch and a horizon demarcated by a line of pink-caped figures. In one scene performers shed our plastic rain ponchos to be swept into the dunes by the wind, and audience members scrambled to grab the plastic, in an almost involuntary impulse of agency and ecological responsibility. (We had stationed assistants to catch the ponchos before they got subsumed by the environment, but they were hidden from view.)


As part of (during or after) EPA’s performances, we facilitate discussions with audiences about local and global ecological phenomena, and the role of art and performance in activating awareness, which audience members of all ages have been very engaged in. From their responses we realise that just being there, in a place, paying attention to a performance that draws out aspects of the site, seems to ‘do something’. Audience members have the opportunity to have their own subjective, sensory, playful experiences in relation to that place, to become present in their own bodies, in their own ways.


Unlike the real EPA, the Environmental Performance Authority does not project value judgements on the degrees of ‘naturalness’ of features of a given environment: the disused industrial concrete pylons are ‘fair game’ for us as much as a tree, for example. These new ecologies in states of becoming are revealing and of interest. We dance in and with these sites and these non-human others to explore what we might also be becoming. Through Body Weather training, we also encounter extremes of temperature and textures that might be construed as uncomfortable, without deeming these sensations as positive or negative. We attempt to simply ‘experience the sensations’ (Min Tanaka). These performance contexts aspire, like  Cooper Allbright’s description of improvisation at a time of crisis, to offer ‘a space in which to change our habitual responses, thereby expanding the possibility of dwelling in the world’. Drawing attention to the potentials of local, often undervalued places, we hope to activate in our audiences an intensified awareness of the multiple layers of place: starting with multi-sensory listening in this moment and expanding to consider the (Indigenous, ecologically sustainable) past, and ponder our roles in the uncertain future. This is becoming present with a full sense of context.


In apprehending the world through highly sensitised bodies, Body Weather performers perceive the ‘things’ of the sites in which we work as vibrant, vital, and ourselves as affective and responsive in relation to them. We ‘model’, if you like, this sensitivity and porosity to place to our audiences, whilst also stepping back as performers and allowing the audiences to experience the place for themselves. Despite the lag of governments to adequately act to respond to the emergency of climate crisis, there is a groundswell of human momentum, including among artistic and academic communities, to look to how we can all contribute from our specialised perspectives.  The worth of site-responsive performance work in these complex contexts may be to proffer courage, creativity and inclusion in meeting the unknown as our places become unfamiliar.  Such performance might set its goal as to propel us – via engaged presence in place – towards collective responsibility to navigate ways forward.




A longer version of this paper is also published as ‘Present in Place: Lively potentials of site-responsive performance in an era of environmental change’ in Performing Ecologies, a special issue by Performance of the Real, University of Otago, New Zealand, 2020

Image: Laki Sideris

Exclusively commissioned for the Dancehouse Diary



[1] See also Alan Buis, A Degree of Concern: Why Global Temperatures Matter, NASA’s Global Climate Change Website

[2] Anne Cooper Albright, Living the Gap: Improvisation as Political Practice, International Dance Conference proceedings, Theatre Academy Helsinki (2004).

[3] Peter Snow, Imaging the In-between: training becomes performance in Body Weather practice in Australia, PhD thesis, University of Sydney (2002).

[4] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW (1994).

[5] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things, Duke University Press, USA (2010).

[6] Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Annandale, NSW (1998).

[7] Jane M. Jacobs and Ken Gelder, Uncanny Australia, Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press (1994).

[8] Bruno Latour ‘On Sensitivity: Arts, science and the new climatic regime’, Keynote, Performance Studies International Conference, University of Melbourne, (2016).

[9] Mandy Thomas, Sensory displacements: migration and Australian space, in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Spaces. Barbara Holloway & Jennifer Rutherford, Jennifer (Eds.) UWA Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, (2010).

[10] Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?,  Magabala Books, Broome (2014).