Speaking Dancer is a ‘persona’. She is not entirely me, and I am not only her. She emerged from my practice, from years of moving, and speaking, but perhaps she also emerged from my art/life relations. As a female, brown, immigrant, independent dance-theatre artist I am of multiple belongings. I feel allegiances with more than one place, inhabit more than one ‘home’, more than one social, cultural, disciplinary belonging. My experience of ‘home’ – as a person, and as a dance practitioner – is not fixed, it is continually made and unmade by relations.
My practice of dancing relies on duration, repetition and embodied memory. Or another way to say it is that dancing for me is attending to ghosts in my body, mapping all too familiar patterns onto air, or ground, or other bodies that might be watching, listening. As a dancer my training is in Western somatic dance practices. As an orator, and writer I work only in English but English is not my mother-tongue. I abandoned my mother-tongue aged nine years old standing in Melbourne airport, having arrived into a country after a civil war broke out in my birth-land. It was a surprising migration, made quickly, in the dark. In Australia I breathed in new horizons, I breathed out all the words and grammar I knew from a language dating back to 3rd century BCE.
As a choreographer and performer I chose to situate my practice-research in a different discipline, in the field of Architecture & Urban Design. Why? One reason is that I think it’s a contribution to interdisciplinary practice to articulate ‘choreographic thinking’ in disciplines outside of dance. Another is that in order to know a ‘home’ – or a body of practice – I must migrate.
I’d like to introduce you to Speaking Dancer. Sometimes she speaks (or sings) sometimes she dances but mostly she is a strange balance of both.
I can’t tell you when she appeared, the exact day and time she entered my living room and sat down on the blue couch facing the frosted window. Actually, perhaps it was the winter of 2011 but I feel that she surfaced before then, perhaps more like a sound, a whirrrrr spinning. But maybe I could also say that in that winter I first noticed her footprints left in the snow and now that I recall, from time to time beside me along the studio floor glided not one shadow, but two.
What I know, or think I know, is that Speaking Dancer came into being after years of practicing performance. She is made of a thousand gestures, and arrivals (physical and energetic), a million agitations of my mass, a billion attractions and repulsions. Speaking Dancer is numerically intense, and fluctuating. Sometime she is bent at an angle twenty-degrees or less, her voice a murmur, and other times she is a sharp wedge like splinters in a block of wood, cheering. But as I work with her, and she with me, we are becoming more and more finely attuned; our body clocks modulating like tide charts, submerged in the same oceanic swell. But that said, we are different and our differences are very important, very productive. I am Speaking Dancer but I am not always Speaking Dancer and sometimes there are things I do not want to do, or places I’d rather not go to and Speaking Dancer insists, she demands it.
I brought Speaking Dancer with me from London to Melbourne when I returned ‘home’ in 2015, after fifteen years of living in Europe to begin a practice-based PhD at the School of Architecture & Urban Design, RMIT University. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that very early on when I was dancing on the tenth floor of the Design Hub I caught a glimpse of her in the tail of my eye.
It was a late Tuesday afternoon and I thought, “ah, she has swung around to meet me, like a sail.” But I didn’t say anything out loud because that is not how we communicate.
I concentrate my attention, I become aware of my inhalation and exhalation, I try to make them the same length. I relax my feet, my hands, my tongue. I imagine threads attached to the top of my ears and I gather them in my fingers and lightly tug them upwards. These skull strings float towards the tree-tops swaying the vertebrae of my spine into a gently floating alignment; undulating rise and fall. I find the roots in the arches of my feet and I drop them deep into the ground. I imagine them pulling me beyond the linoleum, into ground, into earth, into river, molten rock. I stand in this clear, untroubled space between upward and downward feeling the pull of my height and the fact of gravity. Suddenly, I hear the wind rustling through the curtains and I feel the sun has rolled in from behind a cloud. I begin riding, cantering westward, steering backwards and forwards into the habit of silence. I am proceeding into becoming Speaking Dancer, and Speaking Dancer is a portal.
Speaking Dancer is a field of action and enquiry She quivers and hangs
Speaking Dancer is call+response She gathers and recollects
Speaking Dancer is an echo of my own voice reflected back in many chambers She swims falling into the waves
Speaking Dancer is another viewpoint perched on top of the telephone wire, no, She is hiding between the blinds
Speaking Dancer is a dressing and an undressing She pulls
Speaking Dancer is a threshold She curls
Speaking Dancer is a pile of bones made of fog, She is quick, quicker
Speaking Dancer is a body of movements, orientations, transitions accumulated over years of dancing
She is here, she is past
Speaking Dancer is a body of sounds, words, segways accumulated over years of speaking while dancing, performing
one, two; one, two; one, two
Speaking Dancer is an ongoing investigation of slippages and tensions in relations between moving and speaking; the embodiment of that which emerges when movement and words resonate, collide
When I am Speaking Dancer I am myself becoming Speaking Dancer, continuously on the brink
When I am Speaking Dancer I am myself becoming Speaking Dancer I notice that I notice things differently, details I might otherwise have missed
Now I smell the geraniums
Speaking Dancer multiplies my senses or sometimes reduces them. She inhabits my skinesphere a space very close to my body but just beyond my body. She is a vital force field sometimes solid, sometimes blurred. To the outside eye I might not look any different, move any different, sound any different than usual however, we might anticipate that something else is present is available to our listening, sensing bodies, our empathetic feeling, and collective imagining. Something like this:
‘I hold a stalk in my hand. I am the stalk’ (Woolf 1934, 4).
In the winter of 2014, I packed up my home in London, putting all the things I desired to take with me to Melbourne into five cardboard tea chests. These things were to sail aboard a cargo ship across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans to meet me in my new home in approximately three months. One afternoon I took a break from all the sorting, wrapping, taping, labelling, made myself a cup of tea, sat amidst the apparatus of my life that signified fifteen years in Europe, and scrolled through Facebook. There I stumbled upon an international Call for Submissions which stated that Access Gallery, located in Vancouver, Canada, were seeking applications for an unusual travelling artist’s residency – Twenty-Three Days at Sea – offering selected emergent and experimental artists passage aboard cargo ships sailing from Vancouver to Shanghai. Crossing the Pacific Ocean on a freighter would take approximately twenty-three days during which time artists would be considered “in residence” aboard the vessel. Their stated aim was for selected artists to maintain a log for the duration of their crossing, and to generate a new body of work in response to the voyage, which would then be exhibited before audiences at Access in the following months. In that moment I felt that I needed to apply for this residency, so I sat down on the last remaining chair and wrote and sent an application in two-hours.
In the spring of 2016 I found myself in Vancouver’s shipping port walking toward an enormous freighter – the Hanjin Geneva – steadying myself to climb up a huge metal ladder and step through a silver cargo bay door into a world invisible to most. This passage – a complex, challenging, humbling, life-changing, profound, courageous experience – took Speaking Dancer right out to sea. Upon reflection it produced the term ‘in-residence’ as a choreographic, architectural, and social technique in my practice-led research.
Here then are some floating propositions that emerged from drifting twenty-three days at sea. They are offered as a tug; a small boat to guide us into (and out of) this enormous experience, or a trail of that liquid wandering, or the memory of the two-stroke, or Speaking Dancer’s slippery singing as the ship disappeared into the night:
Some Floating Propositions:
Pack for every climate.
Bring waterproof rubber bags.
Bring watercolour pigments, pens, and brushes
Bring reams of paper (plain brown).
Bring a wind-resistant microphone, anti-slip shoes, and ginger.
Bring silk thread, a medical kit, two dozen durable pencils.
In the beginning time works in shifts.
In the beginning you can allow yourself to sleep a little more.
Towards the end, stay up all night.
At some point this experience will transform into a mammoth structure that will take up your entire field of vision.
You will not see it.
You will have no perspective at all.
You cannot tell where your practice begins, or ends, except when you’re on the bridge, 9 storeys above the deck, 100ft in the air.
There you will find a long bench and a pair of binoculars where you can watch information come in. Like, weather reports.
There are a lot of rules on the bridge.
It will be very quiet up there.
At night the bridge is the only place that is kept black.
As you open the door the light in the stairwell will go out.
When you announce your name to the Officers you will talk to darkness.
What’s important is to feel comfortable about living this experience.
This intellectual experience.
Once you enter the schedule you won’t think that much about time.
Don’t worry about being present.
Don’t worry about time.
In the end that time is not there.
Be excited for all the things you don’t know.
You already know that you’re doing something exceptional.
You will be positioned in a certain type of power.
Observe through your dancing, listen through your out-breath.
Don’t take small things for granted. Catch the details.
Relationships can be very awkward.
Remember that your knowledge of yourself is partial.
Be careful how you impose your presence.
Your daily practice is not a place for making.
Your daily practice is for a different type of alertness.
There will be storms.
Not big ones other sailors will say, but it will be big for you.
You’ll be pitching and rolling for days. No, never in any real danger.
They will give you a big cabin, with lots of desk space, so you can lay things out but when the ship rolls, things will come off the table.
You will get into a habit of packing and unpacking.
The situation you’re in will be huge, and overwhelming.
It will be very easy to be drawn into the interior, the question is how to go beyond it?
Don’t submerge your feelings.
Use plain paper for plotting.
You will wait alot, spending hours and hours on watch.
You might become psychic. You might see things, stepping between worlds.
Be wakeful and watchful.
Listen to the wind.
There will be days when you run from one side of your practice to the other.
On one side it will be gold and on the other, silver.
Amaara Raheem is a choreographer, performer, researcher and writer based in Melbourne. Her work takes multiple modes – live events, video, text, and song/spoken word – and has been presented in Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Canada, UK, and throughout Europe. She collaborates with artists and researchers from other fields to make work that is assembled in and through the body. Her primary materials are movement, and words. She is completing a practice-based PhD at School of Architecture & Urban Design, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.