Monday, March 25, 2013

Physical Beats: The Phenomenological Study of Abstract Choreography

My positionalities as an African American dancer, political arts activist, scholar and movement inventor substantiate my performativity. The critical stance of my performativity is a resistance to being marked. I advocate for making and valuing differences and subverting the oppression of the marked. I am against the “natural assumption” of Black dance as a practice done by and for Black people. In this case being marked is being a stereotype. In that regard my works aim to promote non-stereotypical assumptions about the Black dance aesthetic. My work seeks to go against the mark of Black dance since I am a Black choreographer employing the practice of non-human dancing I am essentially negating the “natural assumption” of Black dance. My resistance to being marked is not an attempt to being perceived as unmarked --“normal”- white, male, etc.-- but to undermine the oppression of this concept. While being “normal” warrants acceptance it also hinders uniqueness and for this reason I’d rather my artistic expressions not blend in. Blending in takes away from my purpose for achieving agency in my field and this is why I believe inventing an authentic movement practice --one that does not re-present any existing movement practices-- is required for attaining my goal.
My approach to accessing agency in my field manifests itself in my practice as research. If the works I produce aim to represent and or re-present what is currently popularized, then authenticity is impossible. Currently I am investigating the efficacy of Merce Cunningham and Steve Paxton’s choreographic process chance as a non-human dancer articulates it and exploring the various aesthetic interpretations of phenomenology for this process. The mode of production I am employing to do so is the appropriation of choreographic devices, which does not involve danced movement. This is my approach to establishing an authentic movement practice.
This paper begins with a description of my sound dance project using chance choreography with Oobleck (matter transformation), media and sound. Then I will discuss the functions of the American dance education system and the Westernized dance production system and how their practices have influenced my practice as research. Next I discuss my mode of production in terms of nation state art and how my subjectivity/positionality informed my own hegemonic practices in this project. Finally I outline my plans for substantiating the aesthetic merit of my mode of production.
Project Description
My approach to experimenting with tactile bodies employs a collaborative open structured choreographic process with Oobleck (matter transformation), media and sound. My objective is to innovate a movement practice I refer to as physical beats, a sound dance. Initially I set out to develop sound patterns that emulated and mimicked movement patterns by employing the choreographic devices used for developing dances. I imagined the choreographic devices I applied such as timing, ABA and canon, would be recognized by the Oobleck’s kinesthetic response to the sound patterns I designed. However, that was an extremely presumptuous expectation to have of a non-human dancer subject, especially since choreographic devices and sound patterns can’t always be recognized by the human dancers stylistic interpretations of either. Regrettably my expectations were too high and immediately I was compelled to steer the project in a different direction.
Since the Oobleck reacts best to sustained vibratory sounds at a frequency above 30hz, I saw no point in continuing to design sound patterns independent of the Oobleck’s interpretative kinesthetic and auditory responses. I might not have ever realized that the non-human dancer deserves access to agency similarly to the human dancer, had I not experienced the Oobleck’s reaction to my choreographic authority. I do not maintain that the non-human dancer subject represents or re-presents the dancer and or the choreographer; still it is necessary that I anthropomorphize the Oobleck to acknowledge its performance independent of my ideologies. By anthropomorphizing the Oobleck I am able to make the supposition that the role of the non-human dancer is just as essential to the phenomenological study of abstract choreography as the human dancer. Perhaps the Oobleck’s reaction to sound waves could be perceived as mimetic behavior and interpreted as dancing. This is already evident by the numerous youtube clips entitled “Dancing Oobleck,” depicting non-Newtonian fluid (matter transformation) reacting to the sound waves emanating from a sub woofer speaker.
I expected the Oobleck to react to my subjugation the way it did in the youtube clips I’d studied. When reacting to sustained high frequency sound waves, the Oobleck rises up from its puddle about an inch or so and begins to slowly morph into and out of various distorted shapes that collect and separate before descending back to its puddle. Also I hoped that it might do more than what I’d been witnessing it do in the video clips, such as morph at the same pace of the music or morph in the same repetitive manner as the music’s repetitive pattern. However, in my experiences with the Oobleck, it did nothing more than spread out to the edges of the speaker and splatter up and out, and I have yet to witness it do much else.
After several unsuccessful attempts at appropriating the Oobleck’s “sound dance,” I recognized that my proposed recontexualization of the youtube clips I was borrowing from did not lend itself to possibilities beyond my imposed aesthetic preferences. Thus leading me to my new methodological approach: 1) play sustained sound waves at length for the Oobleck to react to. 2) Video its reactions. 3) Compose recorded sounds that mimic the rhythmic patterns of the Oobleck’s reactions. 4) Add the sound to the video. I intend to investigate the effects of this multilayered mode of production and use the outcomes to interpret the phenomenological aesthetics of physical beats.
Westernized Dance and Education
The American dance education system continues to function with an archaic model. One that specifically caters to both 19th century and racially marginalized hierarchies. Stemming from the historically recognized “high art” (European) vs. “low art” (Black/African) dichotomy evident in Westernized dance productions, this hegemonic structure is imported into and persists in the curriculum model for dance education. The apparent hegemony of this system is further implicated by its methodical integration practices via tokenism - the policy and practice of making only a perfunctory effort to desegregate. While progress within this system has been made, segregation and discrimination have yet to be fully dismantled. The current inclusion of Black dance styles in Westernized dance productions is superficial and that does not explore the genres' complexity and sophistication in proportion to its influence within American and world cultures.
Subsequently Westernized dance productions does not require the study and or practice of Black dance techniques and vernaculars because its primarily preferred dance aesthetic is limited to the focus of European dance practices. Consequently, non-Black dancing bodies (white and visibilized) are not developing the skills necessary to emulate or mimic the aesthetic quality of the Black dancing body (Other and invisibilized) but offensively attempting to do so anyways. Yet due to the predominately cultivated and practiced European (dominant) dance aesthetic, Black dancing bodies maintain the skill and ability to emulate or mimic the aesthetic quality of non-Black dancing bodies.
Although components of African American dance techniques such as Jazz, Hip Hop and African derived styles are being offered, they are typically not a central part of the curriculum but rather exist as electives. Learning classical ballet and modern dance techniques are essential to the development of any trained dancer, yet other cultural and innovative approaches are generally overlooked and or considered non-essential to a foundation of the well-trained 21st century dancer and dance studies major.
Interrogating the ideology of Westernized dance and education, which misappropriates and segregates the practice and performance of Black dance is the stimulus for my desire to achieve agency in this medium and to offer a more inclusive alternative dance curriculum. Thus my approach to accessing agency is vested in my present sound dance project physical beats.
Prior to this endeavor, I did not consider myself an abstract dance choreographer; I have always been a narrative choreographer. And while I do consider myself a movement inventor, I believed my choreographic innovations were exclusively for the human dancer/non-dancer. The hegemonic cultivation of my subjectivity as a choreographer/dance educator unconsciously caused me not to consider the possibility of choreographic collaboration with a non-human dancer, in the same way that Westernized dance productions and education do not consider viable approaches to proper appropriation and integration of the Black dance aesthetic.
The Role Of Hegemony
Originally I was mostly interested in my independent choreographic agency and unintentionally subverting the Oobleck’s choreographic agency. I was never concerned with anthropomorphizing the Oobleck until my manipulative process failed. My approach to this project was completely autonomous. I am the human, I am the choreographer, I operate the music, I make the Oobleck, and this afforded me sovereignty. What I had yet to realize was that I couldn’t make the Oobleck dance the way I wanted it to. In this regard the Oobleck has autonomy of its kinesthetic and sensory responses and most importantly its choreographic interpretation of both. It is this reality that makes the Oobleck simultaneously anthropomorphic and mimetic. My failure to acknowledge the other elements (Oobleck, electronic equipment and sound) as my partners working with me and for me, not against me, compromised the desired functionality of my project. In this instance I realized the hegemonic positionality/subjectivity I’d unconsciously assumed.
Upon the realization of my hegemonic subjectivity and distaste for its oppression, I was suddenly propelled to think of my project as nation state art in the way that the non-human dancer and Black dancer are minorities in the Westernized dance production medium. The marginalization and exclusion we are subjected to by this medium allows us to join forces and combat these injustices, utilizing our collective aesthetic qualities to transgress and transcend the universals we are bounded by, thereby affording us mutually exclusive agency.
This project does not and cannot function as nation state art because of the non-human dancer and human dancer relationship clash. Yet there is some peripheral relevance to the affects of nation state art apparent in the commonalities we (the Oobleck and I) do share, such as the disempowerment we have been subjected to and the misappropriation, discredit and disrespect for our mutually exclusive artistic expressions. As Dr. Hunter pointed out, “the Oobleck did dance and something really interesting was happening” (Dr. Lynette Hunter, personal communication, December 5, 2012). From my ideological vantage point, I was unable to recognize this aesthetic interpretation. Ideology is the very stronghold that affects phenomenology and often times fails to recognize the existence of aesthetics in any medium.
I am certain Dr. Hunter would interject here and proclaim, well it’s a bit more complicated than that. And I would have to agree, because no matter how you arrive at your phenomenological attitude about this project, the reality is that I have anthropomorphized the Oobleck because it can be considered humanlike. Nevertheless, it will always be non-human. And with the exception of its autonomous kinesthetic and auditory responses, it maintains no corporeal agency. Furthermore, its choreographic interpretation of both is chance. While chance is a legitimate choreographic device --a process in which elements are specifically chosen and defined but randomly structured to create a dance or movement phrase-- the choreographer who is conscious of it can only utilize it. Since the Oobleck is a non-human subject, it is unconscious of its use of chance and consequently maintains no awareness of affecting transgression or transcendence.
Much like ‘Carnival,’ my mode of production inadvertently “feeds ideology and allows the hegemonic human dancer [my emphasis] to momentarily pretend that he/she has got the same issues with representation that the non-human dancer [my emphasis] has, and can enjoy transgressing and transcending in the same way.”[1] The only difference between my positionality and the positionality of the hegemonic human dancer is that as an African American human dancer I can only benefit from hegemony over the non-human dancer. Therefore, like matter transformation, I have the ability to morph in an out of hegemony over the Oobleck while transgressing and transcending with the Oobleck. Therein lies the complication.
Ironically my hegemony has only adversely affected me, since the remaining elements existent in my project have not been frustrated with our working relationship the way I have been. However, once I anthropomorphized the Oobleck, I was then able to argue that the Oobleck has been resistant to my hegemony and perhaps has been just as frustrated with our working relationship as I. Relinquishing my desire to manipulate the Oobleck’s reaction to my choreographic autonomy and opting to share control of the process to learn from its reactions further proved the importance of granting the disenfranchised access to agency.
The Plan
I am questioning the aesthetic interpretations, values and preferences in dance practice, performance and development. Most specifically I am exploring the ways in which appropriation can stimulate innovation. I am primarily interested in how all of these factors linked together inform and affect my performativity and how my engagement with these exchanges might grant me access to agency in the hegemonic system of Westernized dance productions.
In the area of dance studies, practice and performance, efficacy is crucial to accessing agency. Attention to creating visceral effects when in the developmental stages of the work will aid in the dance practitioner’s successful mode of production. For instance, my choice to work with Oobleck was a direct reflection of my aesthetic awareness of its visceral effect. The apparent challenges with this mode of production are often in defending its aesthetic merit. How long can one’s attention be arrested by the image of solid particles suspended in liquid quickly morphing between states? The results of my experimentations thus far tell me approximately 2-3 minutes.
If I am seriously attempting to establish an authentic movement practice utilizing this process as my medium, I suspect that I will have to aim higher. The primary concept of visualizing beat composition via matter transformation is an ambitious endeavor; still it yields a superimposed approach.
Some examples I am currently exploring include the following: phase 2 – I will dance a duet with the Oobleck. In this phase I will grant the Oobleck choreographic agency by setting choreograph on myself that mimics its matter transformation. Then I will seek the assistance of a musician, more skilled in the area of music composition than I, to collaboratively and organically set music to the choreography. Next I will video the Oobleck’s performance and superimpose the music in the way that I described earlier in phase 1. Finally I will produce this duet in a performance space with a stage and a backdrop. I will dance on stage in front of the backdrop with the video of the Oobleck dancing behind me projected on the backdrop. What is important here is the rhetorical interaction that will be generated between a human and an object, by the human. That is, what you dance and why you dance it is the medium for the rhetoric of interaction that is potentially a new way of thinking about human-world interactions.
Phase 3 - Upon achieving success with phases 1 and 2, I’d like to then solicit the services of a game developer to build a device that can be attached to the body inconspicuously and used remotely via movement articulation. To this end, I will create the work in real time using improvisation and chance. Acting as a human remote control, my movements will signal a response from the music, which will in tandem signal a response from the Oobleck. This trio performance will on some level imitate Charles Sanders Peirce’s classification of triadic signs. Again I will produce my method of performance on a stage with a backdrop. I will dance on stage in front of the backdrop with the video of the Oobleck dancing (also in real time) behind me projected on the backdrop. From a solo to a duet to a trio, my multilayered mode of production illustrates what happens when the choreographer/dancer allows their fantasies full play.
Phase 4 – I will attempt to establish The Oobleck Dance Ensemble in collaboration with LJ Boogie & Company. I hope to work with a group of dancers who are convinced of the aesthetic merit of my work and wish to join me in further developing my performativity and their own. I am interested in how the human dancer’s mimetic representation of the Oobleck affects the aesthetics of my performativity. Ultimately I am interested in whether or not this total endeavor will grant me access to agency in the realm of Westernized dance productions and if my performativity will be manifested as an authentic movement practice.
What I have already learned from the Oobleck has allowed me to draw the comparison between the functionalities of non-Black dancing bodies and Black dancing bodies with non-human dancers and human dancers. In the same way my dance training and education has not expected me to study the movement practices of Black dance techniques and vernaculars, it has also not expected me to study the phenomena of non-human dancer object orientations. Historically the ideology of Westernized dance productions not only oppressed “uncivilized” dance aesthetics, but also it also rejected abstract dance or any movement practice that wasn’t ballet.
Over time, dance innovators sought to disrupt the normative of Westernized dance productions by rebelling against its hegemonic structure. Subsequently abstract dance emerged and widened the scope of choreographic concepts along with “multicultural” dance, which afforded the dance world a grander appreciation for varied aesthetic interpretations of dance and dance making. Abstract dance choreographers and many non-white dance choreographers revolutionized this art form and area of study by challenging the assumption that dancers and choreographers must adhere to the dominant dance aesthetic to access and or maintain agency in this medium. My sound dance project, physical beats, is intending to advance the art of dance by challenging the dominant dance aesthetic practices of Westernized dance productions.

[1] Hunter, Lynette. (2012). PFS 265a Beginning Guide. Unpublished raw data.

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