Body of Text is a learning and 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 envision this process leading to a 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 five dancers and I worked with oral historian Suzanne Snider to explore methods of collecting spoken stories that arise from embodied experience, and writer Karinne Keithley Syers on approaches to organizing and writing language for performance. We also worked with vocal teacher Jean-Rene Toussaint to improve and expand the quality of our vocal presence and to . The five performers all come from a background in ensemble driven processes and have experience with a range of performance works. (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.
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.
JANUARY INTENSIVE (RESONATING IN THE CONTINUOUS PRESENT)
The focus of these two weeks was primarily 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.
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.
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.
On the first day we gathered in an old gymnasium in the center of town. We began by collectively recalling our understanding of the oral history work we did in the Fall; our take away from that workshop and our curiosities about its form and possible application. We moved into verbal exercises in pairs. Asking each other open questions and then exploring closed questions that can slowly be opened.
We then moved into the physical interview structure, inviting Suzanne and Karinne to witness our work with it 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.
For the remainder of our time we worked in the beautiful setting of Jonah Baker’s converted church.
Mapping memory, spaces, sensations, fears, expectations. Both Karinne and I have each used physical map making in past work. With this research project the use of mapping was designed to respond to and deepen the path of inquiry we were already on. As a group we first 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 single category, using a single colored pencil. We then chose another colored pencil and another category allowing the two maps to intermingle and overlap on the page and inviting time and geography to reorganize themselves. Eventually we each had our own 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. It was interesting to dive so deeply into our own solo explorations of memory before 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.