A truncated version of a conversation between Eleanor Bauer and Ellen Söderhult
Eleanor Bauer: As agreed, we’ll take my PhD research as a point of departure for our conversation. That’s so weird to say those words, PhD, it’s real, it’s happening.
Ellen Söderhult: It is quite crazy.
EB: But when I start to write pretentious books like A lot of moving parts I really feel it’s getting real, (laughter), speaking with authority.
EB: Just taking it. Riding it. (typing notes) Hammering on this keyboard.
ES: That’s the way, going with it. ‘No time for judgement,’ as Deborah (Hay) once said.
ES: It’s a good quote. When you are dancing, you can’t judge, there is no time. Doing, articulating and coordinating or sensing while doing, feels like a different process than judging. I think when she said it (Deborah Hay) she was referring to being so busy with dancing that there is nothing of you left to be the judge. Because you are in that flow state, busy with the doing.
EB: That’s true. Well, I guess, there is a time for judgement, that’s called editing. Going back later and applying judgement, because not everything is great, you know.
ES: That’s true. Everything is really not great. Maybe there should be more time for judgement. Maybe more editing will be the way to go.
EB: No time for judgement slash more time for judgement. That’s a good start.
ES: I think paradoxes like it in contemporary dance.
EB: Paradoxes and dance, they get along well. My PhD research, choreo|graphy, it’s built on a kind of paradox. The paradox being the separation and relation between thought in dance and thought in language.
ES: Thought in dance?
EB: Yeah, so the premise of the PhD research is that there are several media of thought, of which language is only one. And this idea that language speaks through you as much as you speak through it. So, when I speak in English, the codes, the culture, the histories, the grammar, the syntax, the rules, the structures of thinking that are implied in the organisation of the English language express themselves in all the utterances I make. They limit and define – facilitate as much as limit, but define, contain – what is possible to think. People that have the experience of speaking several languages pretty fluently might feel like different thinkers in each language. Like you might find yourself even being quite a different thinker in English than in Swedish, just because of what is possible to think in Swedish because of the construction of the words or how they relate to each other, and what is possible to think in English or how you think in those two languages just being different because of the culture that you’ve lived inside of in those two languages being different from each other, belonging to different people, places, times… So it’s a social, cultural, anthropological thing but it’s also a structural thing. Which is to say that we can extend this structural difference in thought beyond natural or spoken and written languages, to other media of thought. I don’t say ‘languages of thought’ to avoid the metaphor getting confused, and also to avoid considering all thought as language. Language is not the medium of thought, but there are several varied media of thought. A medium of thought, in my mind at least, is basically any vehicle through which one organises, synthesises and processes experience, whether it’s representational, metaphorical, a modelling system, or some other kind of reflection or rumination. It usually involves some system of signs or surrogate containers which allow the thought to be modelled and moved around.
So, what are media of thought? Math is a medium of thought. Math has its own structures; with it you can reach levels of abstraction or logic that you can’t in language. Even within mathematics, the diagram representing the equation and the numeric or symbolic formula that is the equation itself are completely different media that can express a similar thing but express different aspects about the thing they model, and make thinking through the thing possible in different ways. As such, drawing is a medium of thought. It can be super abstract, or it can be super representational, but it has ways of dealing with composition, time and space, differently than one can do in three dimensions, or in language, or mathematical equations, or whatever.
So what is dance as a medium of thought? Because I think dance is a medium of thought. Thinking is taking place in dance, big time. So I ask myself what is specific about dance as a medium of thought, that is maybe not translatable to other media of thought. There are many things: It is radically synthetic. It coordinates all the intelligences, senses and sensibilities at once in a simultaneous, nonlinear, non-hierarchical way. It calibrates imagination and observation. It’s full of meaning but non-indexical, there is no dictionary for most movements. With the exception of a few folk dances or ballet gestures, it has almost no fixed meanings or representations. So what is specific about dance, and then, how can that specificity be expressed in language, with all of language’s own untranslatable medium-specificities? Is that even possible?
Why the relationship between language-thought and dance-thought in particular – and not math and dance, or drawing and language – is because I think language is still the primary medium of ‘knowledge production’ in a conventional sense. We live in a logocentric world. Even in a hyper-textual and image-oriented society, or an experience-based affect economy, language is still a very strong force in determining our agreements about what we consider real and true. Which is interesting because it’s all up for grabs right now, in the so-called ‘post-truth era’. There is an interesting relationship here to my choreo|graphy idea. As my research proposes a split between these two media of thought, dance and language, and investigates their relation to each other, translation problems included, and given that the logos side of things is very fractured in this chaotic ‘post-truth’ moment, the unitary ways that language has typically made coherent sense of the world is not working anymore. So we could say that language is having a little crisis that brings it into relation with what I think is specific to how dance thinks. I experience dance-thinking as diffracted and inventive and subjective, which is maybe how people are experiencing language right now. In that way, dance can offer us ways of thinking through post-truth (laughs) with different sensibilities. So that’s something that I am interested in, and that is maybe where this piece I’m working on for 2019 called New Joy lives, is in this strange meeting place between a fractured post-truth world and a dancing mind that in a way already knows what post-truth means, a mind that’s all synthetic and complex and full of contradictions, but without conflict. Dance is psychedelic. Everything is true at once in dance. Fiction and reality, imagination and observation, they are friends in dance, necessary collaborators. As you say, paradoxes like it in dance.
The relationship between these two media is what I’m busy with in choreo|graphy. For example, I work a lot with scores. Languaging situations and conditions for dance has been something that has allowed me to situate the choreography in the thinking and decision making. The dancer’s own interpretation or translation of a language score or instruction has been used as a means of giving the dancer’s body more autonomy, more freedom of interpretation, by sharing instructions instead of conforming to the same movements. That is not the only way to produce a thinking dancer obviously, when we say that thinking happens in movement itself. But language is always hanging around the studio, even if we don’t work with scores, we still talk about what we are doing, we sometimes compare what we are doing with what we say we are doing, constantly negotiating with language in the studio, to clarify what the thing is. So thinking about what language we hang out with is important.
In trying to language danced experience I am also reacting to a huge importation of language from theory into the studio. I’m interested to find more precise language that is not appropriated from a productive misunderstanding of theory or some kind of legitimation wherein e-flux or universities or whoever decides that if we say ‘Deleuze’ then we have the golden ticket. Put it aside for a second, stop borrowing language that wasn’t intended for dance, and then ask what is the specificity of dance thought. If I can bring language closer to this thought, if I can harass my language brain with my dance brain, what happens?
So, step one of my research is establishing dance as an epistemology, asking how does dance think. Step two is looking for ways to translate that to language thought. Maybe it’s a question of poetry, of formulating different poetics, different word constructions, different grammars, syntaxes and spacing, of using the materiality of the language. Maybe it’s also a question of really granular vocabulary, or a new form of expository writing, a new kind of essay, for getting closer to what is dance-thinking.
Why even do this translation at all? For me, it’s about producing a relationship to discourse in the field that’s really grounded in dance experience, and comes from the knowledge that is specific to dance, and from the thinking that is specific to dance, in order to foster some kind of shift in theoretical discourse. If only just for me, being someone who has been influenced a lot by theory in the last decade, step three would then ask: how would such a shift in articulation, as step one and two prescribe, influence choreographic practice? If choreography is the writing of the dance, that always involves some languaging at some point – whether it’s literally in scores that are very precisely languaged, like Deborah Hay’s or Alice Chauchat’s, or just in the way we talk about what we are doing and name sections of things when we are in the studio, or how we write a program text, or even how we gossip – what new ways of choreographing could come from new ways of wording what we do? Question. I don’t know, that’s not even a hypothesis, it’s just ‘let’s find out.’ Gotta do to find out. That’s a dance research, movement research, do-to-find-out approach to a PhD in Choreography. So yeah. That’s the whole summary.
ES: Quite fast!
EB: That was actually the slow version.
ES: Alright. Intense. But I was thinking about this Deleuze-writing for example. I totally get this problem of using theory as a legitimation, but don’t you think it’s also because that was someone whose writing actually brought something else into the picture?
EB: Yes! I think his way of writing is almost hallucinogenic.
ES: Yes, it proposes another logic somehow.
EB: It does. People don’t just bring in whatever theory because it’s gonna help them sound clever. For example, it’s because Bergson had a way of describing experience that resonates with what I experience, that it’s been useful for me, he offers me words for something.
ES: It’s funny because a lot of language that I’ve heard in a dance training context is almost repressive, or conservative somehow. In contrast to such traditional dance training, it might actually even be liberating or emancipating to read Deleuze rather than to listen to supposed truths about form or discipline or authentic self-expression.
Language in my experience has a big influence on how dance is practiced, or vice versa. For example, I have heard so many times, ‘now you have the steps, make it yours. Express yourself,’ or ‘follow your impulses,’ but the teacher actually more often in those situations wants you to look like A) her/himself, B) a commercial music video, or C) like you are having strong experiences while flopping your limbs. (laughs) Or for example, ‘really dance the warm up,’ presuming that some things are clearly not considered dancing despite the students following the steps. But the comment in my experience is never elaborated into what would make it dancing. All this language turns dance into a very introspective, removed expression with a lot of trust in authority and an obsession with self-expression, or ‘authenticity’, or, as Lepecki once put it, ‘the charisma’ of the dancer. In that light, is your project also one of changing or influencing spoken and written language?
ES: Or how else would you make those non-linguistic intelligences or ways of thinking communicable, if not through language?
EB: They are communicable in dances. It’s also about giving people tools to feel permitted to understand what they are looking at (laughs) or to honour their own thoughts and feelings as ‘understanding.’ Developing the sensibilities for understanding art I think is ultimately subjective. It requires a lot of confidence in your own process, trust in your experience as valid. Developing aesthetic, cognitive, receptive skills and then just noticing what shows up. We don’t need language to explain that, or to explain dance, but that is definitely one of the considerations, it has to be. Like the whole vocabulary around wine tasting can be super intimidating but that’s just people giving names to things anyone can taste if they open up their tongues and noses. Calling it ‘oaky’ or ‘floral’ is a way to make a private taste-experience common. It’s a translation, it’s not the taste itself, but it’s useful for people not to be totally isolated in their experience of wine, crying all alone into their glass (laughter).
ES: When you talk about scores, it also reminds me of other forms of dance vocabulary, and how those sometimes require receptive skills. For example, the first time I watched a Trisha Brown dance I did not have the tools to see the skills. They were not recognisable to me, and now I think of that movement as a vocabulary but I don’t know if it’s a mode of thinking or if it… what would it otherwise be? Becoming more precise in articulation, yes, but why would I want to use the notion of thinking instead of bodying or whatever. Dancing. In a way it feels like a reduction of all of this (points to whole body) to this (points to head).
EB: Yeah. That’s not what I mean by thinking. I consider thinking more in the way that (Édouard) Glissant talks about it as something that’s always in relation, not as a removed, disembodied act of distancing oneself. Or the way Alva Noë writes about thinking and perceiving as completely ‘out of our heads.’ Or phenomenological relationships to thinking. Or Elizabeth Grosz. Thought is totally embodied. That’s just a given for me. So when I say thinking, I don’t propose that it happens in your brain alone, but that thinking is absolutely stimulated by relationships to an entire environment and context outside of your brain, through sensory stimuli that move through your whole body, that thinking even takes place beyond you or what you consider ‘you.’ Thinking is not just cognitive reflection and representation but also the affective ‘skin faster than the mind,’ stuff that goes on way below or beyond the tip of the iceberg of consciousness, identification, and representation.
ES: And how do you think in terms of score versus, I don’t know, vocabulary? I guess that would be also a ‘study.’
EB: Score versus vocabulary. You mean the vocabulary for understanding a Trisha Brown piece versus a score for an audience to read along?
ES: I am trying to wrap my head around how to differentiate between a dance vocabulary that one maybe could think of as a language to study in itself, let’s say Trisha Brown vocabulary or ballet vocabulary or flamenco vocabulary, and a score which, in the interpretation or execution of it, is translated into dance from written language. I’m wondering if the thinking inside a language, inside a specific movement vocabulary and its organising system, could be considered ‘Trisha-Brown-dance-thinking’ or ‘ballet-thinking’ or ‘flamenco-thinking.’ And then there is trans-media thinking, that I would say is the practice of, for example, a Deborah Hay score, or for that matter any translation through metaphor, from language to dance. I think the word ‘vocabulary’ might be a bit insufficient for some less formalised kinds of dancing, like BMC (Body-Mind Centering®) or Authentic Movement, and I wonder if the use of language in relation to the practice of those forms is so implicated in the articulation of the dance that it becomes part of the thinking through or within those forms.
EB: That’s a very astute distinction. Exciting! It’s the difference between language as structural metaphor, where the idea of ‘thinking’ is analogous to language as a vocabulary plus a system of organisation, and language as direct metaphor, where you basically translate words into action. They are very different practices, different methods of dance-making and dance-practising also. Also different cultures. I mean of course flamenco and ballet and Trisha Brown dances are all of very different cultures, in the basic sense of the word culture, but what I mean is that in the realm of dance cultures – the ways of working, training, transmitting, performing, understanding – we could say flamenco-thinking, ballet-thinking, and Trisha-Brown-thinking are maybe of a similar genus, similar values even, in a broad sense, but are really different species from ‘BMC-thinking’ or ‘Authentic-Movement-thinking’ or any score-based dance-thinking. Very different animals. I mean cultures. Animals, cultures, my metaphors are a wreck. (But the word culture referred to animal farming in its first sense so it’s maybe not a far reach after all). The structural metaphor of dance as a language is really explicit, developed, and consistent for both ballet and flamenco, if I think about it, they have logics, syntaxes, grammars, common phrases built out of vocabulary. Maybe Trisha Brown too but less formalised. Which maybe has to do with age, I mean time, the time to develop a vocabulary. The time for a culture to set, to develop serious codes. Language, like proper language, written and spoken, it forms over time and needs repetition to take purchase.
Interesting that the latter category, the second category you delineated, what I was calling the language as direct metaphor kind of dance-thinking, the words-as-choreography group, is pretty new, historically speaking at least in Euro-centric dance canons. I think a lot of these language-based instructional practices in dance come from healing or somatic practices that maybe weren’t intended for dance first and foremost, like Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, BMC, even Authentic Movement, none of them have explicit aesthetic means or end. Maybe Alexander Technique proposes an aesthetic ideal in terms of posture, but I mean as an identity-(per)forming culture, these practices are not rooted in an aesthetic vision, or at least they claim not to be! I mean, with Deborah (Hay)’s work, and many others who use language scores, the visual aesthetic values and taste judgements of these language-based or language-instruction-based practices are usually implicit rather than explicit. Which is dangerous, I think, it can get fishy in there. It can produce a real aesthetic regime under the guise of freedom. As vaguely oppressive as your other examples of ‘authenticity’ or ‘charisma.’
ES: It’s the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ as Jo Freeman so nicely put it.1 I’m thinking maybe it also has to do with the difference between reading and writing. In the sense that one could for example study a vocabulary and then that would be a way of getting more articulate.
1 Freeman, Jo. The Tyranny of Structurelessness. (Essay, 1970)
EB: Right, internalisation and externalisation in learning.
ES: Is externalisation in your case like making your own poems?
EB: Well, maybe yeah. But I mean to propose that in every media of thought, you have a media specific loop of internalisation and externalisation. Like in language it’s reading and writing, or listening and speaking. Which are the primary ways of learning anything in language, or even of learning a language itself. It’s like you read and write and read and write, or speak and listen and speak and listen and through these mediated loops the patterns are engrained and stuff gets learned, memorised. Not just memorised but placed in a framework, a cognitive framework where it becomes a tool and is movable, you can do stuff with it.
ES: That’s cool.
EB: But then in dance, the internalisation and externalisation loop of learning movement is mostly imitation. Seeing and copying. Watching performances and making them. Very performative, our learning, or internalisation and externalisation in dance. There is a whole stratum of that which doesn’t need any words. But language is often present. It’s all around, language is like iron fuzz to a magnet. There is all this stuff that is happening without language, but we are still sitting here explaining it before and after, with more or less success or accuracy. The inverse is also true: in reading and writing or speaking and listening my body is always present, and affect is present. So when I say ‘media-specificity,’ we also have to acknowledge that there is no medium that is ever alone and pure. Each of us is always a complex human who has all of these skills at once.
ES: With the reading, or the internalisation half of the loop, I’m wondering if there is actually space for it to happen, in terms of research.
EB: Is there space for it to happen on a physical level?
ES: Yes. I’m thinking maybe there has been an over-emphasis on externalisation in dance recently, that considers the externalisation half of the loop to be more empowering. Like you ‘should not’ do forms that somebody else has already decided, but rather ‘find your own.’ It feels so appropriate to the personality-centred culture of self-expression in the ‘century of the self.’2 I am referring here to a shift I noticed in my BA in Dance education at DOCH as compared to my earlier training in more conservative or less ‘experimental’ forms. In the BA in dance, most work was ‘practice-based,’ also the repertory work. A lot of the teaching was based on improvisation and movement exploration, although short phrases and exercises were sometimes used as objects of study. In my previous dance, circus, and music training, most of our time was used to study existing forms, learn pre-written pieces of music, specific (circus) tricks or (ballet) steps. I connect this move away from studying specific forms to general changes in how to think of an artist, in history, and how the idea of universal truths of beauty or value were rejected. I see it all connected to how studying set material went out of fashion, in a search for a more ‘emancipated’ dancer role.
2 Curtis, Adam. The Century of the Self. (Documentary, 2002)
EB: Dance is late catching that memo if you think about Art History. The temporal lag of dance in relation to other cultural movements is a whole other conversation. But the time it takes for dance to change is related to its process of internalisation and externalisation. When habit-formation is our vocabulary-building, the time it takes to undo or learn new physical practices is much longer than whatever it takes to throw a urinal on a pedestal. Disruptive innovation is hard in dance. You can shoot a bullet through a canvas and still have an art piece, even boost your career. But if Niki de Saint Phalle were a choreographer and shot a dancer, well, she’d just have a law suit on her hands (laughter).
ES: It is also time consuming to set material, which makes me ask myself: when do I rely on improvisation or practice-based choreography because I think it is the best choice, and when is it because I do not have time for the amount of editing, memorisation, and study that set material requires? Does the rejection of discipline in dance training liberate me when the rejection of such discipline or clear structure in a teaching situation brings more hidden agendas or ‘tyranny of structurelessness?’
I see a counter-movement (in the dance field), away from the hyper-productivity, efficiency, and speed implied by the demands of current working conditions, towards the other extreme, wherein the artist must be (but most often only appears as) lazy; one should never struggle, push, or have pain. I see a connection between the current conditions of production and artistic expressions becoming less about the labor or effort of mastery and more about just making things, or more about externalisation than internalisation, about expression and creativity rather than study. It is interesting to compare this to the move in music from, for example, huge orchestras and live bands to more and more sampling and DJ-ing and music that can be made and performed by one person and one computer.
Next to individualism, I think obsession with the new is at work. Together, they obscure the ongoing and collective aspects of invention; as well as that, most creation emerges through making derivatives, elemental arrangement of or variation on existing things.
Or, at least I feel like I have been educated within and part of a paradigm that was very much about producing new things all the time, or finding new exciting ways to move. Relatively little has relied on learning through studying ‘old’ or existing forms.
EB: And a lot of unlearning patterns instead of learning patterns.
ES: Exactly. I have these movement loops that I got from Rasmus (Ölme) years ago and I still find them very informative and they are in a way super simple but I can still learn so much from them. I think that internalisation like that – repeating, returning to the same, studying through practising, allowing the material to ‘teach you through the doing’ – is very undervalued in the experimental dance field, maybe even in educations that have some form of proximity to research. I wonder why the study, the reading, or the internalisation doesn’t feel valued or valid. Of course it has something to do with having to be super productive and commodify the new and ‘be creative’ all the time.
EB: I think it’s nice that you bring up the societal level of values because it’s not only in dance or art that you are encouraged to make your thing, make your mark, make it up, express yourself. That’s generational. People are internalising and externalising at different rates on different scales. Twitter, Facebook, all social media, encourage people to talk more than read, or at least talk as much as they read. That’s the only way to generate content. The feed. You gotta feed the feed. Whereas before social media, maybe trying to sell books for example, book sellers didn’t necessarily profit from or care about everyone who read a book having something to say about it. Now that’s all that matters.
EB: We need to keep making noise so that they can keep understanding what to sell us. All of our utterances on the internet, they know. THEY. I mean like the political, financial complex knows what we are thinking.
EB: What we are saying, what we are doing, what we like, who we are. It’s nice (with research or study) to have the time to digest what’s coming in instead of being in the feed all the time. It’s a time thing.
ES: It’s totally a time thing, which makes study even more valuable to me, ideologically or politically. When hyper-productivity, workaholism, and self-exploitation is the norm and so common especially among artists, it feels valuable to insist on taking time for precision, staying with the craft aspect of art-making, as opposed to proposing laziness as resistance.
EB: Internalisation demands time.
ES: Exactly. I am thinking a lot about this.
EB: Time for reception.
ES: Time for reception or even synthesis. Or what is the word that Chrysa (Parkinson) uses? Rendering. What does that mean?
EB: Yeah, she talks a lot about rendering. When something is rendered it’s formed, it’s a word from drawing I think. (reading from dictionary) ‘To provide or give, to submit or provide for inspection or consideration, to deliver, to give up, to surrender.’ Oh! I didn’t know it meant surrender! Huh. I thought she meant it like to shape something over time but the word seems more about making visible. We’ll have to ask her what she meant!
ES: To be honest, it was interesting to me because of this text I was writing with Ana (Vujanović)3 about artistic research. At one point we had a discussion that sprung out of her proposing something along the lines that if you would research, for example, ballet it would be easier to report or share your findings since it is so codified. (We used this as a thought-experiment in comparison with dances that are more reliant on sensation or less codified. We were considering different dance practices in function of research as a way to make things sharable.) While I absolutely see her point, especially in relation to more contemporary forms and techniques that are so reliant on internal sensation, at the same time I disagree. I would instead argue that a research within ballet would most probably in my world not be about, I don’t know, finding new steps, but it would be about engaging with and closely studying this vocabulary and going really deep into this dance form and its place, role and function in the world or something. It feels like a lot of artistic research seems to be about finding something new, going to the outer edges rather than in. It makes me wonder if that is what research is, or if it’s supposed to be about diving deeper somehow.
3 This text has not been published but is (among other disparate topics) about art and study, and re-search as a looking-again.
I’m thinking of ground research, grundforskning in Swedish. You don’t even know what it is good for when you are doing it. That’s what I would like to see in artistic research, more ground research! (laughs) I think this wish springs from working within projects, applying for funding by describing what you hope or think is going to happen and then trying to execute it according that plan, when in my eyes, this so obviously reduces what art is and could be or could do.
EB: I absolutely relate. There is an expectation that research can change something in discourse and practice, but actually, what is really interesting sometimes is to go right back to the beginning, the ground, the base, the epistemological roots. In my case, that’s where I say if dance is a medium of thought then how, precisely, does it think. That could be a whole PhD in itself. I could do just that for a lifetime. There are plenty of people probably thinking about it, talking about it, and practising it to talk to and work with.
- Freeman, Jo. The Tyranny of Structurelessness. (Essay, 1970)
- Curtis, Adam. The Century of the Self. (Documentary, 2002)
- This text has not been published but is (among other disparate topics) about art and study, and re-search as a looking-again.
Eleanor Bauer is a choreographer, dancer, and performer from Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. She studied at Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and P.A.R.T.S. (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios) in Brussels. She has been collaborating with dancers, visual artists, composers, musicians, singers, actors, and filmmakers to create performances of varied genre, context, and scale for the last 15 years. In 2017 she moved to Stockholm where she is based as a PhD Candidate in Choreography at Stockholm University of the Arts.
Ellen Söderhult is a dancer, choreographer, and writer based in Stockholm with an educational background in music, circus, and athletetics. She holds two BA’s from SKH/DOCH: in contemporary dance performance, and in contemporary circus/acrobatics. She makes her own works, collaborates with others, performs in the work of other authors, sits on several advisory boards and participates frequently in educational and research projects for the furthering of knowledge and practice exchange and development in the field.