A PhD demands languaging.
One of many challenges is to write from my maker’s point of view, about and from practice – in my case, a series of performances, which have themselves been informed by many other makers and thinkers. As researchers, as practice-based researchers, our work is always already imbricated with a complex layering of materials, processes, and persons imbued with their own ideologies and positionings.
As creative practitioner-researchers, we may draw upon writings and ideas from a wide range of transdisciplinary sources to assist us, inevitably (in at least some small part) making connections not previously made, in order to frame our own concerns and analysis. In my case, sources broadly categorised, through an interest in lived-experience (either within or outside of performance), with an inclination towards embodiment.
Throughout my practice-as-research, I was concerned with the employment of stillness as a compositional tool, both in my own making and with how I could share this developing understanding of stillness with other makers and those who work alongside makers of movement. The stillness that I have been concerned with is above all human, corporeal, and sometimes beyond the conscious. I share these details only to provide a little context. The real task was to find the words that, as practitioner-academic Jane Bacon suggests, enabled me to develop a language that could ‘speak from, through and with the body’ (Bacon 2006b, 136). Perhaps you may agree with me that there continues to be a need, from both within and outside academia, to strengthen ways to articulate such experiential somatically-based practices, so that the body doesn’t simply disappear. As makers and researchers, we must find ways that speak of, alongside, and out of the body, particularly within a text-based academic economy. How might we do this?
I became committed to writing from this maker’s point of view, and naming it as such, rather than from an informed audience point of view, as so much dance analysis does.1
1 Susan Melrose’s writing (2003, 2009) invites those writing about performance to ‘declare’ their ‘expert spectator perspective’ (Melrose 2003, 4). She calls for her ‘colleagues in the wider university context’ (Melrose 2003, 2), and I take this to include me as a PhD student, practising artist and lecturer, ‘to engage in critical auto-reflection with’ their ‘own discourse-production’ (Melrose 2003, 2). Melrose’s apparently deliberatively provocative writing positions ‘institutionally-dominant discourses and practices’ (Melrose 2003, 2) in contrast to ‘the arts-disciplinary professional experience of performance-making’ and ‘the expert-practitioner ethos’, which she then imbues with the characteristics of ‘ethical engagement’, of ‘sensing’, and with ‘intuitive play, drive and attitude’ (Melrose 2003, 2).
Writing around Nottdance – March 2011
This is ridiculous, but I am not even that sure anymore whether I ever had put myself in the frame as a choreographer watching this dance.
Yes, a lover of moving and movement, witnessing and experiencing dance.
Have I ever really considered how my experience of these works might be different, because I am so fully and wholly located in this dance base?
Through these recent experiences at Nottdance, I have come to know (to re-know), to practise, if you like, becoming a maker-spectator.
It’s not difficult to imagine how all this ‘new’ (to me) knowledge will render making impossible just as easily as more possible!
I endeavoured within my writing – as my long-term collaborator with Bodies in Flight, Simon Jones, suggests in “The Courage of Complementarity” (Jones 2009), his chapter for the book Practice-as-Research: in performance and screen – to firmly acknowledge my role as an expert, located within a network of complementarity.2 I brought, as you will do, my particular mix of roles and voices, of thoughts, moves, influences, and registers to the thesis as I inevitably made ‘new links between the already understood’ and ‘approach the yet-to-be understood’, through an employment of ‘the already phrased’, in order ‘to approach the yet-to-be phrased’ (Jones 2009, 25). In doing so, I was often reminded of the American psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin’s advice as I found myself working and writing from what I sensed, from that which this choreographer implicitly knew and felt, towards that which was yet ‘unknown’ or at least ‘unspoken’ (Gendlin 2002). Such philosophers became my friends, my relationship to their writings gave me support when I was wondering.
2 This complementarity (Jones 2009) contains many challenges and should not be misconstrued and coupled with ease.
I did a lot of wondering.
I made a choice, (one of many, many choices you will have to make).
A choice to allow different registers to appear throughout the writing. These included: formal academic writing, my own journal reflections, and the words of other writers, makers, and participants involved in a complementary studio-based practice. These different voices were interwoven throughout, in order to point to the complexity of the range of voices from disciplines within and without dance-based practices who have been involved in and contributed to my unique, alike, and different-from-your-own, practice-as-research. My own journal writings appeared as personal pauses for reflection and operated, if only for me, like some of the moments of stillness I was trying to write about. They became punctuations in my day and in my writing. The page layout I used to signpost these different voices reflected such decisions, showing quotations from participants directly involved in the research justified to the left, and my journal entries justified to the right, both set at fifty percent grey.
Stillness is … not an absence of movement but a creation of space.
– defining stillness with small contained and repetitive movement.
– space to think and allow thoughts to wander.
– comfortable and reassuring and calm.
Once again, here I am dancing in the shadows
trying to articulate my place through this stillness,
and trying to find mutually appropriate ways of writing
from this my movement-maker’s point of view.
How do I find stillness?
How can I write about this?
I don’t need to be swept up in the flow,
sometimes I need to stop.
Look inward as well as outward – stop avoiding that little local difficulty.
Stillness does not have a ‘comfortable’ relationship with language, and perhaps especially within largely linear and hierarchical forms of writing. Stillness is hard to pin down. Nevertheless, the writing of others and writing as a practice encouraged and supported my own reflections. This, inevitably, became part of my praxis and continues to be a way to help communicate complex ideas to others. That said, I struggled to find words that could help me to adequately describe the territory of being still in all its delicate complexity. By words, I mean words that even vaguely come close to offering a shared understanding of stillness, for as the French philosopher Helen Cixous reflects, I did not ‘write to keep’. I tried to write ‘to touch the body of the instant with the tips of the words’ (Cixous 1998, 146). I was repeatedly frustrated in my attempts to find the words – out of and alongside stillness – so I could hold on to them long enough to write them down, but I continued to try. This quest was certainly a marathon rather than a sprint. Dwelling in and with such difficulties became a very significant part of the process.
I was mid-sentence, and my eyes closed again in order to feel the sensation
in order to try and write about it.
Bring yourself into the self, the here and now present moment acknowledging all the thoughts that want to take you away from this moment, here and now,
acknowledging but not judging.
(That way madness lies and the chattering mind takes control.)
Allow all your attention to come into your breath.
Watch the breath.
Stillness is …
being present in the moment.
letting go of past and future, before and after.
an awareness of breath, body and mind, fluidity, ebb and flow.
welcoming fear and resistance and letting them sit with you.
Perhaps inevitably, in order to acknowledge and articulate such a subjective experience as stillness and to invite being and becoming stiller for performers and spectators, I could only ever move towards revealing how much remains ‘unavowable’ (Cixous 1993, 53), hidden, and unrevealable with such a topic. Adequate definitions still sometimes escape me; they remain so fleeting and personal. Yet this lack of finite knowing is its own kind of knowing. Looking back, I find myself not quite back in the place where I began, though another one of my sages – T.S. Eliot – suggests, ‘in my beginning is my end’ (Eliot 1974, 196), and the end of all exploring is, ‘to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time’’ (Eliot 1974, 209). I am indeed now surer in the certainty that one (spoken or written) word from any language could not possibly capture all that is felt and experienced and remembered in being still or approaching stillness. This, too, has been a fundamental part of my journey. A PhD can only ever be part of an inquiry; by its very nature, it can never be a place where you can capture everything you want to articulate, or via the means you may really want to articulate it through.
Keep one eye on your audience…
The process of trying to hold on to these
traces of stillness,
through words and images, through documenting
requires that I remember.
I pause for a moment,
maybe an instant to remember.
I dwell and recall.
My stillness, like the act of documentation through words and images itself,
is bound together, like a hardback book,
Oftentimes, as I attempted to share experiences of stillness and still-ing, – my own and others – I was thwarted. Thwarted due to the difficulty of trying to disseminate a practice that is experiential and felt and ultimately subjectively embodied from my point of view as a choreographer (that is not as a performer). And yes, thwarted also because I was working within a largely academic, tightly timetabled and resourced context that could not readily enable the often necessary extended space-times for experiencing stillness and stilling.
Similarly, the dissemination of such a multi-modal practice sometimes sat rather uncomfortably alongside the actual creation of space-times for stillness. No one register was ever enough. Although the making of the video documents of the performances, submitted alongside the words, folded back into the practice and even revealed things forgotten or not noticed in the actual making and experiencing of the works, the digital and audio technology did not necessarily help in getting any closer to sharing the experience of experiencing stillness. Although these making and documenting practices converged, each could only ever be a trace of the other. How far do you compromise within such a very specific context?
However, I have been – and continue to be – buoyed by employing writing as another kind of thinking practice, although I found it difficult to allow myself to write from a place that is not solely located in a mind that censors, before the words even make it to the page. This required me to take the kinds of risks in writing that I was and am readily prepared to take in (to) the studio, knowing the final ‘outcome’ had to be read, be readable, and fulfil rigorous academic requirements. As you will have grasped by now, it remained important for me to hold on to the range of voices that were part of my research and that consistently surprised me with, as the Canadian political theorist Brian Massumi writes, their ‘unexpected’ and often pertinent ‘digressions’ (2002, 18), so much so that I ended up writing many, many things I ‘didn’t think’ I ‘thought’ (Massumi 2002, 18). My best intention was to attempt to do justice to the range of significant others in my thinking and to include, or at least touch upon, the delicate multitude of nuances that they brought to my developing practice. My advice, keep open to non-knowing.
Stillness is …
– A moment when life is heightened.
– Flight in my chest.
– When gravity seemingly allows space and breath.
– Chaotic, dizzy!
– Fractured space and time – freeing – fearing – feeling.
– Realising life.
Practice-as-research, such as ours, will and should push at a range of doors as we step through, alongside, and outside of our own boundaries. While thinking through the practice, and through the documents and traces, the practice radically informed my thinking. Your practice will radically inform your thinking. Even as I concluded in 2015, a part of me was still wondering where the edges of my practice would eventually reside. The writing itself, or at least the completed submission becomes a somewhat artificial end, as each part continues to seep and bleed from one part to another, and from my/our-selves to others. As I reflect back upon such a life-changing, and affirming experience, I hear the words I used quietly in the studio many times to invite stillness resonating strongly, alongside the memories of moments in the public performances in the galleries and out on the streets, scattered throughout this writing. Horizons have blurred and seem set to continue to do so.
I wish you good luck, good heart, and above all, time to dwell.
Dialoguing Questions: December 2011
When do you last remember stillness or being still?
Where were you?
Why were you still?
What does stillness mean to you?
How does it feel?
How do our senses invite stillness?
What does nature teach us about stillness?
When can you remember stillness in dance performance?
Does stillness have to be earned?
A question or two to consider…
As practitioners, how can we remain committed to the rich and diverse experiences of practice, whilst working within the academic imperative, which still privileges the written and then spoken word?
How can we honour the complexity of the range of voices within and alongside our work?
stillness – like millions
of bubbles ever
through my being,
through the space,
of being in
the presence of
- Susan Melrose’s writing (2003, 2009) invites those writing about performance to ‘declare’ their ‘expert spectator perspective’ (Melrose 2003, 4). She calls for her ‘colleagues in the wider university context’ (Melrose 2003, 2), and I take this to include me as a PhD student, practising artist and lecturer, ‘to engage in critical auto-reflection with’ their ‘own discourse-production’ (Melrose 2003, 2). Melrose’s apparently deliberatively provocative writing positions ‘institutionally-dominant discourses and practices’ (Melrose 2003, 2) in contrast to ‘the arts-disciplinary professional experience of performance-making’ and ‘the expert-practitioner ethos’, which she then imbues with the characteristics of ‘ethical engagement’, of ‘sensing’, and with ‘intuitive play, drive and attitude’ (Melrose 2003, 2).
- This complementarity (Jones 2009) contains many challenges and should not be misconstrued and coupled with ease.
Reference List and Additional Resources
Bacon, J. 2006b. “The feeling of the experience: A methodology for performance ethnography.” In Research Methodologies for Drama Education, edited by J. Ackroyd, 215–227. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books Limited.
Bacon, J. 2010. “The voice of her body: somatic practices as a basis for creative research methodology.” Dance and Somatics Journal, 2(1): 63–74.
Bodies in Flight. 1996. Do the Wild Thing! [Live performance] performed by Jon Carnall, Jane Devoy and Dan Elloway. [Arnolfini, Bristol. 8–9th November].
Bodies in Flight. 2008. Model Love. [Live performance] performed by Catherine Dyson, Graeme Rose and Tom Wainwright. [Arnolfini, Bristol. 1st–2nd February].
Bodies in Flight. 2009. Dream-work. [Live performance] performed by Polly Frame and Sam Halmarack. [Singapore. 24–29th June].
Bodies in Flight. 2011. Dream-walk. [Live performance] performed by Neil Johnson and Graeme Rose. [Wirksworth. 18th September].
Bodies in Flight. 2012. Dream-walk. [Live performance] performed by Neil Johnson and Graeme Rose. [Skegness. 30th June–1st July].
Cixous, H. 1993. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Translated by S. Cornell and S. Sellers. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cixous, H. 1998. Stigmata: Escaping Texts. London and New York: Routledge.
Eliot, T. S. 1974 . The Four Quartets. London: Faber.
Gendlin, E.T. 1961. “Experiencing: A variable in the process of therapeutic change.” American Journal of Psychotherapy, 15(2): 233–245.
Gendlin, E.T. 1978. Focusing. New York: Everest House.
Gendlin, E.T. 1992. The wider role of bodily sense in thought and language. In Giving the body its due, edited by M. Sheets-Johnstone, 192–207. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Gendlin, E.T. 2002. “Thinking at the Edge in 14 Steps [DVD].” Accessed March 26, 2012. [online] www.focusing.org/tae.html.
Jones, S. 2009. “The courage of complementarity: Practice-as-Research as a Paradigm Shift in Performance Studies.” In Practice-as-Research in performance and screen, edited by L. Allegue, S. Jones, B. Kershaw, and A. Piccini, 19–32. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Massumi, B. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Melrose, S. 2003. “The Eventful Articulation of Singularities – or, ‘Chasing Angels’.” New Alignments and Emergent Forms: dance-making, theory and knowledge conference. University of Surrey: UK. December 13.
Melrose, S. 2009. “Expert-intuitive processing and the logics of production: Struggles in (the wording of) creative decision-making in dance.” In Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader, edited by J. Butterworth, and L. Wildschut. London and New York: Routledge. 23–37.
Dr Sara Giddens (Reader in Choreographic Practice) is a choreographer and creative facilitator. She also teaches on the Dance Performance and Teaching course at the University of Central Lancashire. Having worked on the Articulating Dance project, as part of Choreographic Lab, Sara completed a practice-based PhD entitled Still Small Acts in 2015, co-hosted by Dance4 and Middlesex University. She continues to develop, make and tour performance-based work with Prof Simon Jones (Bristol University) through their company Bodies in Flight (1990). Bodies in Flight are celebrating 30 years of making performance with exhibitions and performances at The Wickham Bristol (February 9th) and at Lakeside Arts Centre (Nottingham) on June 21st 2019 prior to an international tour www.bodiesinflight.co.uk