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Kinesthetic Experience And Stillness In Dance Performances

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Stillness is a somatic based technique in dance performances that allows performers to investigate deeply the sensations and complexities of the human body. The aim of the first chapter is to provide a quick but reliable description on stillness as choreographic practice, starting from the experiments in modern dance that questioned the identity of dance and dancing techniques and furthermore to search the kinesthetic understanding of stillness in dance.

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In the early 1960s the American choreographers of Judson Dance Theatre turned away from the traditional systems of modern dance and moved further expanding the choreographic methods by creating revolutionary works and mapping unconventional ways of moving. Their innovative tendencies enabled the emergence of postmodern dance that stand out from the conventional approaches of modern dance. Choreographers expressed with their research methods unfamiliar aspects of movement and actions of the body. Their experimentations were boosted by improvisations, spontaneous movements based on chance (randomness) and experiments with repetition, weight, and falling the body down on the ground.

The conventional practices of modern dance replaced by unprecedented choreographic works and performance practices setting new forms of creativity and productivity. The choreographers inspired by other art fields such as music, painting, literature, film, and focused on approaches based on soma -Contact Improvisation, Alexander Technique and Release Technique-, they emphasized deeply on bodywork and somatic experience by learning and creating a new movement vocabulary. The choreographic processes were driven by a spirit of liberty and powerlessness that aloud possible practices to arise. Shifting from studios to outdoor spaces and to new re-fashioned aesthetics, postmodern choreographers used common everyday movements as inspiration for their artistic projects. Through the act of creation and experimentation the practices of stillness and slow motion emerged as essential elements of the new physical vocabulary.

The foundational methods of meditation, Zen philosophy, Asian theatre and martial arts, -such as Tai Chi and Aikido-, encouraged the practice of stillness and slow movement to arise. The avant-garde choreographers motivated by the practice of stillness and slow- moving as choreographic methods accomplished a systematic inquiry based on the physicality of the body and its ‘raw materiality’. Although postmodern choreographers followed unusual practices of dance movement, they incorporated elements from the modern dance aesthetics, which transferred into their artistic projects and creations. The action of using chance techniques as a form of improvisation, the interplay of musical compositions with dance movement, the feeling of losing control during performances and the practice of stillness have long been used as practices of action in dance performances.

Addressing the influence of the modern dance culture, the practice of stillness and randomness as a choreographic tool had the greatest effect on the work of the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Merce Cunningham used chance processes in different ways but mostly to address the impact of dance techniques on the dancer’s way of moving. On the 66 years of being a professional choreographer, the practice of stillness became essential to his choreographies and style of movement. Cunningham argued that still and moving bodies occupy the same space and time at the moment of the performance. Cunningham detested flow as method of dance practice arguing that “the nature of dancing is stillness in movement and movement in stillness […] No stillness exists without movement and no movement is fully expressed without stillness”.

Alastair Macaulay on his article The Body’s War Within: Stillness Versus Motion, highlights Cunningham’s long term interest in ‘motion in stillness and stillness in motion’. Macaulay punctuates the duality of stillness and motion in Cunningham’s choreographies, describing the characteristics of stillness in his work. In Cunningham’s choreographies the dancers are moving almost motionless using different speeds or they are dancing while taking static poses. As he argues “what seems newer to Mr. Cunningham’s work […] are some striking mixtures of stillness and motion as opposed forces operating simultaneously within separate parts of the same body”. The dancers get difficult positions while trying to remain still. However, their stillness is filled with a magnificent energy which reveals the movement that exists in their bodies. It is important to highlight that Cunningham’s interest on stillness followed by his systematic study in Zen philosophy. For a long period in his life Cunningham influenced by the practice of mediating as an extension of his research around stillness. One of Cunningham’s characteristics is the fusion of stillness and movement in his choreographies, a strategy he discovered by learning the Zen Buddhist way of living. Cunningham argued “even when we are still we are moving, we are not waiting for something, we are in action when we are still”. In Cunningham’s choreographies stillness and movement are being united transforming into a powerful action that spreads to the dancer’s body.

Steve Paxton’s “Small Dance”

In the 1970s choreographers and dancers in Judson Dance Theatre experiment with new forms of movement such as slow movement and stillness, and used unexampled techniques to investigate the falling of the body. Steve Paxton’s research on bodily functions shaped and influenced the form of Judson’s Dance Theatre. Steve Paxton became a part of the Judson’s family and concerned deeply for the complexities of the body. For Paxton the dancer’s body engages with a series of social, political, cultural and physical powers which are communicated to the public at the time of the performance. He investigated the physicality of the body and presented choreographies where the body became a significant and well – respected medium of expression. Steve Paxton rejected the aesthetics of modernism and dealt with pioneering practices based on action and body’s movement. He explored bodily movements and focused his attention mainly on the common movements that the human body produces every day. Pedestrian movement became the basis of his research through which he explored gravity, horizontality, momentum, slow motion and inertia (the tendency of the body of doing nothing or remain always the same). In each project these actions / qualities were used differently.

The result of these experiments was the development of a new dance form called contact improvisation that Paxton initiated in 1972. In contact improvisation the dancers use physical touching in order to develop improvised movements. With this dance technique Paxton continued his investigation on gravity, stillness, slowness, falling and shifting weight from the one part of the body to other. Contact improvisation based on the mutual exchange of weight, flow and energy from one performer to another. Paxton worked for weeks with a group of dancers using multiple ways of dancing and exploring new modes of contacting one another. Through this experiment he developed his interest on standing still as a mode of dancing expression. Noticing that the body is making a tremendous effort to remain motionless, Paxton asked his dancers to observe the small energies that the body produces in order to keep its uprightness. By studying these small adjustments, he began his investigation referring to this as “Small Dance”. With “Small dance” he developed his investigation on still standing. Paxton understood the meaning of this exercise as follows:

Well, first of all, it’s a fairly easy perception: all you have to do is stand up and then relax – you know – and at a certain point you realize that you’ve relaxed everything and that you can relax but you’re still standing and in that standing is quite a lot of minute movement […] Call it the “small dance” […] It was a name chosen largely because it’s quite descriptive of the situation and because while you’re doing the stand and feeling the “small dance” you’re aware that you’re not “doing” it, so in a way, you’re watching yourself perform; watching your body perform its function. And your mind is not figuring anything out and not searching for any answers or being used as an active instrument but is being used as a lens to focus on certain perception.

Using the technique of standing still, Paxton realized that the act of standing still is not a simple action at all. He became aware of the fact that the body stands because of the several micro movements that prevent it for falling. Paxton researched the static postures and the action of standing still highlighting the complexities of this activity. In addition, he studied the action of what he called ‘The Stand’, explaining in detail the small energies that the body performs in its attempt to remain static. A prerequisite for this experimentation is for the body to remain relaxed in neutral position and slow breathing. The body performs small movements letting the energy run out. Paxton requested for his dancers to not block their body and minds by thought but instead to surrounded in this exploration. By softly moving the weight from one foot to the other, the performer perceives through the ‘speed of the body’ its attempt to be still. Paxton explained: “the standing is happening all over the body, so you get a full body event that you are watching, and one that you are not seeking it is just happening. You have a thing to focus the mind on”. Shifting the mind’s attention to somatic sensations requires an active consciousness, an attentiveness of the body’s changes, how the body adapts to space, how it is influenced by the space, as well as the transformation of the breath, joints and muscles.

To observe the movement of the body within this process, a highly awareness is needed. As a Japanese teacher on this action observes:“standing, that’s it. Standing still and looking inside the body. As you are standing still, numerous parts of the body begin moving autonomously. Observe and be aware of them”. To observe, is to experience the shifting of the energy on the lower and upper levels of the body and the physical effort that the body does for standing still. Supporting the body against gravity and stabilize the body in a static position/ posture demands a series of bodily adjustments that are highly activated by that moment. The body achieves to maintain in an upright position against gravity and the naturals forces that stress the body to move. Trying to maintain on a static posture, the body activates its musculoskeletal components. The musculoskeletal functions allow the body to existing on stillness, always against the natural tendency of change and movement that affects it. Steve Paxton researched the “Small Dance” taking place in “The Stand”, by researching the dynamics of the body which are activated at the moment of stillness, and focusing on the internal forces of the body and the basic mechanics of the static attitude as part of the performance.

Kinesthetic experience and stillness

In a dance work a kinesthetic experience is determined from the way audiences perceive and interact with one’s body in motion. When we are talking about kinesthesia, we refer to people’s perception of their bodies and internal organs. Through kinesthesia people are able to perceive and feel movements of the body and the way limbs are held and operated. Kinesthesia is a complex system that allows people to have a sense experience of the moving body. Specifically in theories of performance, scholars are witnessing kinesthesia as an aesthetic event during the performance where dancers and spectators share a bodily experience. A kinesthetic experience emerges when the dancers’ movement penetrates into the spectator’s body. We regard the body of the dancer as an organ that produces movement, but what is really interesting is to investigate performances and choreographic processes that reduce movement and ‘danciness’ and explore the perspective of a new kinesthetic awareness.

In dance performances a still body is able to create a language through different ways of movement. What we consider here is that a still body is never motionless but full of vital energy and drive. Witnessing a still body in dance gives access to particular fields of kinesthetic experience. The strategy of stillness challenges the visible part of the performance offering a new perception of bodily movement. Susan Foster argues that in dance performances the spectator perceives through a sensory faculty the sense and motion of the dancer’s movement. But the difficulty is to explore what a spectator feels when the movement is absent and what kind of kinesthetic empathy arises witnessing still acts. Stillness and slow movement allow a creation of an emotional and corporeal association with the dancer’s body. In dance performances the dynamics of the static bodies are so intense that can directly affect the perception of the spectator by creating a kinesthetic experience. In still acts the spectator is able to turn his intention to the muscles, positions of the limbs and rhythm of the breathing. The spectator’s gaze manages to approach stillness and to observe the effort required to keep the dancers still. Focusing on the muscular system of the body brings a kinesthetic connection between the viewer and the dancers. Within this ‘intercorporeal exchange’, Matthew Reason considers the spectator as ‘an active embodied subject’ that perceives physically and emotionally a fulfilling experience of stillness that encourages actively ‘a reflexive awareness of the spectator’s own corporeal materiality’.

Studying the theories for kinesthesia we observe the increasing interest on the human muscular system. In the theories of kinesthesia, the muscular system is not only responsible for achieving movement but it is also presented as an instrument that has sense and is responsible for the way our senses are coordinated. In the human brain there is a system that detects motion. This system allows us to understand the movement produced by the actor’s muscular skeletal system and, as a result, to develop a sympathetic communication with him.

Ivan Hagendoorn explains that experiments made in the early 1970s showed that there are brain structures related to motion control so that the person can perceive human movement directly and without difficulty. The person as hard as tries is unlikely to keep his body in absolute stillness. As long as one tries to maintain still, he/she realizes soon that there are parameters that interrupt this desire. The way we regulate the posture, the shift of weight from one foot to the other, swallowing and especially breathing, always puts the body in motion. The muscular system is responsible for the motion and posture of the body, which makes possible the moving between living organisms. The way the muscular system controls the movements of the body, makes a close relation between the muscular behavior and the modern way of expression. John Martin first used the term “contagious” to refer on how dancers’ movements and muscles activity can directly affect the perception of the audience. We are able to develop a kinesthetic – physical intelligence by observing the muscular system of the dancers and by trying to understand the muscular sensation of their bodies, motives and energies.

John Martin claims that when a viewer observes a moving body he/she receives a strong stimulus, developing as a result a similar kinesthetic feeling. The viewer’s perception is influenced by the way the body is moving -and in our case by the static body- and the relation that develops with that body. Martin calls this process “inner mimicry”, a process that is responsible for the way people connect and imitate the movements of the bodies in motion. Seeing the actions performed by the dancers, the viewers feel according to Martin’s theory, their own muscular system so active that is able to imitate the actions of the dancers. Through “inner mimicry” process, the viewer has the ability to develop an emotional relationship with the dancer and to feel the dancer’s emotions, stillness and body energy. While watching the still acts and slow movements of the dancers, the viewer feels his own muscular sensations and connects emotionally or experiences a particular emotional affair.

Through this kinesthetic experience the activation of certain brain tools give us the sense of movement. In 1990, Alain Berthoz discovered that “mirror neurons” are responsible for the way our brain perceives movement and suggested that kinesthesia is a central factor on how we orient, perceive and organize our senses.

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