The Future is Unknown, The Future is Past

Issue #02: What's Coming?

While ‘we’ may not know what a body can do, we can nonetheless seek the body as that which will lead us into the future.

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The Future is Unknown

According to Baruch Spinoza, “we don’t know what a body can do”. Spinoza refused to separate the mind from the body (like Descartes did). For Spinoza, there is no primacy of mind over body or vice-versa. An implication of this refusal is the view that understanding does not extend beyond the body, but develops apace with it. In other words, the mind moves with the body and not independently of it. Our ignorance of the body’s potential (what a body can do) is thus an indication of our own finitude in the face of the future.

On the other hand, moving into the future offers the possibility of greater understanding. For Spinoza, a body that becomes better, more capable or more powerful expresses an improved manner of thinking. We learn from becoming more capable. And we become more capable in action, through, for example, dancing. Spinoza puts his faith in what a body does. It’s what the body does that generates greater understanding. From this point of view, of course, we don’t know what a body can do. Only time will tell. Or rather, time may tell. There is no crystal ball for us finite beings, just the sense that the body is able to take us into new places.

The greater the power a body exhibits, the more it expresses its unique and singular essence.

There is a spirit of optimism to this line of thought, in the sense that the body is capable of developing by way of its own agency or activity. Everything turns on what the body does. Spinoza puts this as a form of difference (or affect). An affect is a transitional state, it involves a shift or movement that produces difference (change) in the body. A body that becomes more capable through this transition is said to experience an increase of power. This is something that happens in action. Power in this context is not power over others, rather it’s about the extent to which a body exercises and therefore manifests its inherent potential. The greater the power a body exhibits, the more it expresses its unique and singular essence. Increasing capacity is not about becoming better than others but about becoming better in relation to oneself. This happens in action, at the level of what a body does. This changes all the time, since power is not something to hold onto—it’s pure manifestation. In other words, it’s all in the dancing. For example, Ramsay Burt describes a moment in an early contact improvisation piece, called Magnesium(dir. Steve Paxton, 1972). During the course of the piece, one performer (Curt Sidall) apparently dropped another (Nancy Stark Smith). According to Burt, instead of trying to take responsibility for a ‘mistake’, Siddall allowed the body of the other to deal with the encounter, to find a safe way to roll onto and over the ground. This happened quickly. Burt argues that the performer’s getting out of the way enabled the bodies involved to respond in the moment and to take the lead. In other words, Siddall did not try to consciously ‘fix’ the situation. Rather, he allowed Stark Smith to negotiate her own body’s dynamic response. Stark Smith in turn let her body respond. Burt speaks of the body’s “relatively autonomous motor actions” as something beyond conscious control. He draws on the distinction between the dancer’s subjectivity (as conscious control) and the body’s skilful expression, arguing that the latter came into play through this encounter. We might say that, for Burt, the body which rolls out of the fall becomes more capable in virtue of the encounter.

No-one knew what was going to happen. Things looked bad for a moment but the body drew on its own skill to become something more in the moment. Contact Improvisation is full of these felicitous moments, encounters that generate surprising results. When it works, it can also produce surprising results, well beyond the preconceptions of the performer. According to Kim Sargent-Wishart, the trick is to open oneself up to that space of possibility in performance. Deleuze sees this as a devaluation of consciousness in favour of thought (in the body). In other words, “we” are ignorant, but the body keeps moving, keeps changing:

One seeks to acquire a knowledge of the powers of the body in order to discover, in a parallel fashion, the powers of the mind that elude consciousness…(Deleuze, Practical Philosophy, p.18)

There’s a look I’ve seen on a few faces recently, where the performer was in the dark, yet poised to go on. One was on Fiona Bryant’s visage as she performed a solo in Deborah Hay’s In the Dark (Dancehouse, June 2010), the other was Ros Crisp (Dancehouse, March 2011). In both cases, the performer’s not-knowing made space for the body’s subsequent articulation. To have ‘known’ what was to come would have imposed an artificial constraint on the action. To return to Spinoza, in these examples, the dancer modulated something in herself at the edge of movement, at the abyss. Nancy Stark Smith writes:

Where you are when you don’t know where you are is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is a place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else. I call this place the Gap. The more I improvise, the more I’m convinced that it is through the medium of these gaps— this momentary suspension of reference point—that comes the unexpected and much sought after “original” material. It’s “original” because its origin is the current moment and because it comes from outside our usual frame of reference.” Nancy Stark Smith (p.3)

According to Stark Smith, the dancer must give up his/her usual anchors in order to make space for new material. This is difficult for the trained dancer. In Dancehouse Diary #1, Russell Dumas wrote about a process he calls ‘slow rendering’. Like the Gap in Stark Smith’s work, ‘slow rendering’ does not depend upon the dancer’s knowing what to do. In these instances, it’s the body that takes the lead, so that development occurs ‘behind your back’. For Dumas, consciousness stands in the way of corporeal development, and must be strategically redeployed (employed) while the body learns. The suggestion is that, given the right conditions, it’s the body that learns. In Trisha Brown’s Accumulation with Talking plus Watermotor (1978), Brown speaks while performing a complex series of actions. Within the work itself, she claims that when she started talking in performance, she couldn’t keep track of her dancing while talking and vice-versa. There is a sense in which the body takes over, that we cannot keep track. According to Sarah Rudner: “When it came right down to it, and you were there to do the dance, the best thing that happened was the body took over and the dance happened”.

So, while ‘we’ may not know what a body can do, we can nonetheless seek the body as that which will lead us into the future.

The Future is Past

What happens when the body takes over? That’s a tricky question which depends on so many factors—training, technique, facility, history, socio-economic milieu, performance habitus and kinaesthetic context. Elizabeth Grosz writes of ‘habit-memory’ in Bergson’s work. A great deal of dance training could be seen as the production of habit- memory in the body. The ballet dancer’s daily barre cultivates habit memory through the repetition of its familiar lexicon. But many other practices equally operate through the production of habitual preferences, images and qualities. There is pleasure in repetition of the familiar, in the feel of facility. How much energy do we put into cultivating and reproducing our corporeal habits? Consider the rituals of warming up, all those favoured moves, physical sensations, preferred stretches and rhythms. I was watching a season of The Dance Card at Dancehouse one year. Its participants were to improvise, along with changing music and lighting states. It became apparent to me how dancers tended to fall into patterns of movement, modes of physical organisation and rhythms that counted as dancing for that particular person. One dancer performed a kind of phrase material along the length of the room. It looked like class. Another bounced up and down in quick succession, slipping into a recognisable rhythmic expenditure of energy. In these moments, each performer fell into what felt to them like dancing. Those feelings clearly came from prior experiences, dispositions and tendencies. There is a sense in which kinaesthetic taste is also a child of the past. I was speaking with one of Melbourne’s improvisers, who said that he likes to watch people make decisions in the moment, to see how they deal with the challenges and possibilities of improvisation. This is an acquired taste, like the taste for a good red wine.

The current socio-political milieu, the cost and availability of space, funding models and their embedded norms also condition what follows. Dumas speaks of the (im)possibility of a future dance practice in relation to the conditions of today. And yet, he makes work in the interstices of today and tomorrow—dance for the time being. Dumas knows that dance exists in the passing moment. Nothing to hold onto, yet plenty to do. Camus has another take on the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the Greek hero condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again. Sisyphus is condemned to repeatedly roll that boulder uphill. Camus argues that we must imagine Sisyphus happy in that moment between rolling the boulder up the hill and watching it inevitably roll down again. This is the existentialist hero embracing the absurdity of human existence, finding a way to go on. What about the boulder? How does it feel being rolled up and rolling down? Is its future set? Maybe it will do something else next time.

Read More:

Burt, Ramsay, Reflections on Steve Paxton’s Magnesium, 1989, Online here.
Deleuze, Gilles, Practical Philosophy, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988 [1970].
Dumas, Russell, Dance for the Time Being, Dancehouse Diary #1, March – May 2012.
Grosz, Elizabeth, The Nick of Time, Politics, Evolution and the Untimely, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2004.
Rudner, Sara, in Post-modern Dance: Judson Theater and the Grand Union, dir. Richard Sheridan. New York: ARC on Videodance, 1990.
Spinoza, Baruch, Ethics, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994.
Stark Smith, Nancy, Dedication to the moment: Contact Quarterly 12:3, 1987.