Body of Text is a research project funded by a Discovery Grant from the Pew Center for Arts And Heritage. The project was conceived to move us towards a new method of working with its ensemble, one driven by the intersection and overlap of verbal and physical meaning. This project focused on research time for us to think about formal approaches to language in performance and build a bank of shared knowledge among the company of dancers. We envisioned this process leading to new ways of working and to the start of layered dance-based work in which multiple narrative threads are poetically woven together — harmonizing, contrasting, colliding, and co-existing to form new meta-narratives.
An ensemble of six dancers and I worked with oral historian Suzanne Snider to explore methods of collecting spoken stories that arise from embodied experience, with writer Karinne Keithley Syers on approaches to organizing and writing language for performance and with vocal teacher Jean-Rene Toussaint to improve and expand the quality of our vocal presence and our connection to emotion of sound. The six performers all come from a background in ensemble driven processes and have experience with a range of performance forms. (Meg Foley, Jennifer Kidwell, Guillermo Ortega, Scott McPheeters, Helen Hale, Eun Jung Choi). The performers were generous with their skills, their curiosity and their personal histories which fed the depth of the exploration and led to rich conversation.
Ellen Chenoweth was an integral part of the project, collecting reflections from participants at several points throughout the process. Click HERE for her writings which combine those reflections with her own observations.
We began working with oral historian Suzanne Snider. Suzanne instructed the dancers methods of conducting interviews, and the philosophy of oral history work so that they could weave aspects of this practice into the research. Suzanne then familiarized the dancers with the theoretical underpinnings of the work as well as methodology, to support their exploration in terms of interviewing but also in terms of making connections between different forms of narrative. We discussed ideas from the field such as “reciprocity,” “shared authority,” and “collective memory,” while also focusing on ways to put an interviewee at ease. Karinne was also present for this workshop. Photos taken at The Whole Shebang by Stephen Metzger.
Oral History interview training with Suzanne Snider
After this period of work with Suzanne the dancers and I transferred some of the philosophy and methods behind the oral history work into movement scores. In one exercise we translated the roles of interviewer, narrator and witness into physical modes of attention and action. Some things we discussed – how does silence translate? It doesn’t have to be stillness. There is kinetic silence. – What is the difference between open questions and listening in this physical structure. Can listening include “joining” in this context? We decided yes. – In this context the narrator is not recalling a past event or telling a “story”, they are instead navigating the present and accepting the listener into the sphere of their narrative. – The interviewer is providing the conditions for the narrator to discover the next thing. We worked on scores of empathy and embodiment. What does it mean to voice for the body of someone else. Exploring both the generosity and the oppression inherent in the act. Also found humor when both work together to find a guiding force that is somewhere between the two.
Tranferring Oral History concepts into movement scores
JANUARY INTENSIVE (RESONATING IN THE CONTINUOUS PRESENT)
The focus of the first two weeks of January was on vocal work with visiting artist Jean-Rene Toussaint. Interspersed with those workshops were sessions with Karinne and me exploring language, movement, and improvisational interview structures. We put aside the recording devices used in the oral history work for this 2 week intensive.
Vocal workshops with Jean-Rene Toussaint
Jean-Rene placed a great deal of emphasis on listening. Our voices travel through other bodies and return to us, delivering information about others and reflections of ourselves. We embraced listening as more important than expressing. “The more we are listening the more we understand the starting point of our own speaking.”… This sentiment resonates with much of the philosophy behind the oral history training. We explored the difference between the social voice, the primal voice and the internal voice, working alone, in pairs and as a group.
With Karinne we talked about the difference between plot, wild time, and the continuous present. We did some reading from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons observing the economy of her sentences, packed with energy. We practiced seeing and describing without the violence of “naming” things. We then returned to the empathy/embodiment work from November exploring a wider lens on descriptions and use of language. We began drawing maps from memory and using those as guides for writing stories that collide truth and fiction. Colliding memories, inventing fiction and balancing the focus on content and form.
Creative writing workshops with Karinne Keithley Syers
Also in January the dancers and I explored a structure we’re calling Loop of We – an attempt at physical and emotional unison. An impossible task that is alight with the energy of the attempt.
During this week long retreat the full team worked together to combine these areas of inquiry. We recorded 40 minute oral history interviews with each of the 6 performers. These interviews were preceded by the creation of visual maps which became instrumental in interview processes. Both the interviews and the maps fed subsequent movement scores and creative writing exercises. Interspersed with these focused experiments were shared meals, long walks and late night chats during which the information marinated, echoed, deepened.
This was the first time Suzanne Karinne and I were all in a co-leadership mode, allowing us to find overlap in our curiosities. For instance the dancers and I shared our physical interview structures, inviting Suzanne and Karinne to witness and get involved in this research. Karinne was interested in helping us find language to continue to help us transfer the ideas of Oral History interviews to the body. For example “affordance”; Affording your partner a situation, the way a chair affords one to sit.
Mapping memory, spaces, sensations, fears, expectations. As a group we listed categories that could be useful: (Scenes of Education; Scenes of Relationship; Brushes with Death; Kinds of Kisses; Beginnings/Births; Endings/Deaths; Transformations; moments of solitude) Then alone, we each chose one of these categories to map out on our own large piece of paper. Using words, names, images, lines we each mapped our memories through the filter of that one category, using a single colored pencil. We then chose a different colored pencil to draw the next category allowing the two maps to intermingle and overlap on the page; inviting time and geography to reorganize themselves. Eventually we each had a personal map with four colored filters intermingling on the page. A houseplant in Berkley nestles beside a hill in Japan; the ache of solitude in Massachusetts hovers above the devastation of a car wreck on the B/Q/E; dirty dishes from Italy are scattered along train tracks in Vermont; Wall paper in Maine overlays a college campus in Pennsylvania; an orange road filled with traffic connects the meeting place of two lovers and the birth of a boy. Each map was unique, not just in color and content but in style: Some maps were delicately drawn, some chaotic and circular, some abstract and suggestive and others meticulously detailed. We each dove deeply into our own solo explorations of memory before then interviewing one another. The maps allowed us to ponder and provoke.
These maps became the springboard for explorations (physical, verbal and written) throughout retreat and forward into the rest of the research period.
A few weeks after the Hudson Retreat, I met up with Karinne to focus on editing the interviews. We spend a few days at the computer listening through all the interviews and exploring the possibility of creating an aural score that could co-inside with a physical score. It was a painful process to alter the purity of the long-form interviews, but it felt like an essential inquiry: How (if at all) can these conversations be repurposed and reframed for performance. A few of the dancers met up with us in a studio New York to test some of these new recordings.
Accumulating. Layering. Embracing Abundance before essentializing. Throughout the month of March the performers and I continued our research and prepared to share aspects of the work with an invited audience. Knowing there is a showing approaching can alter a process in ways that reduce exploration and promote editing and polishing. We worked to resist those urges and instead find ways of framing our questions and carving windows into our ongoing exploration for an audience to peer through. It is a luxury to know (and trust) that we are on a road that is long. The type of exploring we did would not have been possible if the endpoint was fixed, if the showing were meant to be a draft of a performance.
on March 31st we held an invited showing at the Performance Garage. We shared a range of performance excerpts, offering a short introduction of process before each one.
One Voice/One Body
Loop of We
There are Lions in these woods