Matthew Day’s Mass: An observation of practising

Issue #05: Body Social. Body Political.

I also noticed that Day’s body changed over the time of his practising. I became aware that Day’s body had become more open, more available to me as its witness. I am unsure if this change was wrought through my gaze, or if the body was becoming, softer, weightier through its own physical exertion.

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Matthew Day, Melbourne based dance maker and performer is currently undertaking the creation of a new work at Dancehouse. He is the recipient of an Australia council Early career Artist commission Grant and he will be in residence at Dancehouse for this project, working with various collaborators over several months. He will perform his new work in 2014. Over the past few years, Day has made and performed a trilogy of solo works. Each solo exists as a single entity yet they are also linked. He has performed these solos several times in various Australian cities as well as in Europe.

In the very early stage of this new creative process, I saw Day regularly outside of the studio. I formed the impression that, in undertaking the creation of a completely new work, following on from what could be perceived as ‘success’ in the presentation of his previous work, that Day was facing challenges: How does one begin to ‘make’ something new? What should be left behind and what should be held on to in embarking on a new creative journey?

Day very generously offered me the opportunity to observe his practising. I spent about an hour with him in the studio. He did not ‘tell’ or ‘show’ me anything. Rather, I was a witness to a wandering series of physical and performative trials and immersions. In the studio Day practised with objects which were of similar or equal weight to his own: a bag of sand and a huge stick of wood which was flat on three sides and hollowed out, somewhat irregularly on one side. Following are some of my impressions from watching Matthew Day practising.

A watched body

I walked downstairs with Day and into the theatre at Dancehouse. Even though I am very familiar with the space, I felt an immediate shift as I was entering the space, that I was arriving in Day’s domain. He immediately began to prepare himself to practise. He scooped some clothes and shoes from under the seating bank and, after removing the ones he was wearing, put them on. He moved the stereo system to the main part of the room and set it up. He moved a chair next to me to retrieve a large, heavy bag which I could see, from the spilling of its contents, contained sand. From the stage at the back of the space, he brought down a huge, heavy stick of wood.

Having prepared himself and gathered his various implements, and without any perceptible change in his demeanour, Day proceeded to ‘practise’ with them. This practising consisted of moving the heavy objects around by various means such as pushing them with his head (sand bag), dragging them across the space, balancing and resting various portions of his body on them. At times he left the objects alone and in these moments seemed, at most times, to be in contact with physical elements of the space, (the floor or the walls), with parts of his body other than his feet. Either that or he was pacing or running.

After a while watching, I began to feel aware that although there had been no ‘beginning’, I was very much playing the role of the observer. Day had slipped into being a watched body with extreme ease and almost a lack of deliberateness.

I also noticed that Day’s body changed over the time of his practising. Although impossible to discern while it was happening, I became aware that Day’s body had become more open, more available to me as its witness. I am unsure if this change was wrought through my gaze, or if the body was becoming, softer, weightier through its own physical exertion. It was probably both of those things.

No Why

A few times during his practice, I observed Day in situations which I will describe as having ‘no why’. One example of this is, having left the sand bag behind him, and perhaps on the way to do something else, he knelt to the ground and rolled over his head, shoulders, back. And then he doubled back on himself and did exactly the same thing again. After that he repeated this roll many times. It was in the second roll that my interest lay. The first roll felt like a searching for something, maybe something to do or something to find an interest in. The many repeated rolls were exactly that: repetition. Once the repetition was established, I settled down into watching repetition. In the second roll however, Day was neither searching for ‘something’ nor was he yet committed (as I perceived) to a lengthy series of repeating rolls. He simply had no reason for executing the second roll and because of that my interest was piqued. It seemed that Day was in a momentary state of not knowing why he was doing what he was doing.

There were other moments throughout Day’s period of practising which I perceived as having no why. Another example is a setting up of the objects in a way which led to Day tipping the stick off the edge of the stage while riding on it. Again it was not the conclusion of this episode which enlivened my attention, but the arranging, which included various permutations of manipulating the objects, before a purpose began to emerge. Those moments came from a deliberate willingness on Day’s part to not know why he might be doing something. To allow this not knowing requires courage from the performer, especially in the presence of a witness and especially in Day’s case, so early in his period of practising.

It is through being witnessed, however, that that moment of not knowing can become a moment of significance. Stuart Grant writes, “Audience and performance are fundamentally, in their essence, intentional relations”. (2012, p.68) Both Day and I were able to rely on this intentional relationship as practitioner and observer. I was able to watch Day as a performer as he wilfully allowed me to perceive his moments of not knowing. And through my presence, the need to be doing ‘something’ was heightened, therefore allowing the moments of no why to be perceivable.

Observing Practising

Being given the opportunity to watch Day practise at such an early stage in his creative process enabled me to observe not the making of a work, but the searching for possibilities, the trying on of ideas, the willingness to not know what he was undertaking in order to begin practising. In my role as an observer, I was not present to offer critical feedback or even to ask questions but merely to watch. this freedom to watch allowed me the possibility to see what was unfolding in the present. I could ‘not know’ while I was watching and while I was ‘not knowing’ I was able to look at what I was seeing without the need to imagine what it might or should mean. I was able to observe Matthew Day practising.

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