Thinking about watching and dancing a choreography

Sarma Feb 2013

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Contextual note
This text was written in July 2011 during the planning phase of 'Gaze is a Ghost is a Gap'. It was first published on Sarma as part of the Anthology walk+talk in February 2013.

Thinking about watching a choreography

Let's imagine ourselves as absent, only our gaze still existing. We can see, but we have no body. This is the very definition of a ghost. A ghost is a gaze.

Body Body+Gaze Gaze = Object Human Ghost

Why do I call the gaze a "ghost"? In order to emphasize its intangibility, the uncanny feeling that the gaze can be detached from the body. This sensation that my gaze is disembodied is certainly subjective, certainly not objective, certainly real. The gaze is the primary form of imagination. Why? Because a gaze without a body is the very form of our dreams. In a dream, we can see, but we have no sensation of our body. Think of the commonplace saying which goes "Pinch me to see if I'm dreaming." The feeling of a pinch proves that the body is actually present, which is impossible in a dream, in which the body is absent and only the gaze is present. Think of one of the traditional ways of imagining God—a bodiless being who sees everything, an omnipresent gaze with no tangibility. Why does one imagine that such a being would have any kind of power? It would seem that the ability to see everything serves only an aesthetic function—there is indeed a pleasure in the simple act of seeing, and there would be an absolute bliss in the ability to see all. But this image of God is in fact completely anaesthetic/unfeeling. There is an omnipresent gaze, but there is absolutely no bodily sensation. This is true power—the power to see all, without the pain that comes from participation. Participation implies a lack of power: if I act, it must mean that I am lacking something that I want to re-gain through action. The (impossible) ideal power lacks nothing, so it has the privilege of remaining an observer who is entirely absent from the scene.

This ideal of an absent observer is of course related to the traditional role of the audience at a theater in the Western tradition. In Shakespeare's history plays, for example, the audience can watch history unfold before their eyes without the pressure to participate, without the expectation to do anything, as if the audience had a God's-eye view. That is how traditional theater serves as a mode of escapism. It is not exactly an escape away from oneself, but more precisely an escape away from one's body and into one's bodiless gaze. Though it is not uncommon today in contemporary performance to make the audience aware of their own bodies, it is still our first impulse as viewers of art and performance to lose awareness of our body and enter into our gaze.

Perhaps this a general goal of contemporary dance performance: to nudge the audience back into an awareness of their own bodies, an awareness of their perceptions and physical sensations. But why should this be our goal? What is problematic about a temporary escape into the gaze, like falling asleep and dreaming for a while? I suppose there are so many other aspects of our culture that already offer this kind of escape, so we are trying to offer something else which is only achievable through dance. But then why don't we just throw parties and ask the audience to come and dance with us, or lead dance workshops for audiences? Why should choreography be watched?


Thinking about dancing a choreography

Choreography seems to be about a fixed unchanging future, but in fact, the solidity of choreography opens up a virtual space of new possibilities. The contrast between choreography versus improvisation is not a contrast between the fixed versus the open-ended. In fact, it is choreography which is more likely to generate unpredictability. Because anything is possible in improvisation, unpredictability is expected, and so it becomes predictable. Choreography, by contrast, intentionally creates pattern and predictability so as to make deviations from the pattern more unexpected. Paradoxically, the fixedness and the pattern of choreography give rise to a sense of surprise and possibility, whereas the open-ended aspect of improvisation gives rise to a sense of stasis and impossibility.

Let me be more precise so as not to completely disparage all forms of improvisation. To the extent that improvisation has specific guidelines and a specific approach (in other words, to the extent that improvisation is like choreography), it can indeed generate surprise and possibility. But to the extent that improvisation means that "anything is possible," then in fact, nothing unexpected can really happen. In pure improvisation, the lack of a structure means that nothing can disturb the structure, and if there are no disturbances, then there is no element of surprise. I have often surprised myself during improvisations in which "anything goes," but not until I have generated a structure within the improvisation from which deviation can generate surprise. On the other hand, whenever I repeat a choreography, I keep on being surprised that I am able to surprise myself in such a supposedly limited situation.

It could seem that being constrained to follow the choreography to the letter is not a burden but rather the realization of a fantasy: the dancer is free of the burden of choice and the responsibility that comes with it, and can just fall back on the comfort of doing the choreography. And yet, there is the potential to find a sense of autonomy while dancing inside a choreography, to avoid being inexorably tied to the structure of it. But what do I mean by that? That a dancer would break out at some moment and say, "FUCK IT. I CAN'T DO THIS ANYMORE. I CAN'T JUST ENACT THIS SET MATERIAL WITHOUT TRYING TO CHANGE IT"? Or is it more subtle, that the dancer can still think her own thoughts even if the shape of her bodily motion is prescribed? Or is it about the fact of enacting something in the present moment – that there is an agency which must desire the repetition in order for it to be enacted right now? I've experienced this as a dancer, that I am not merely following the necessary motions when I am doing the choreography, but I am willfully enacting the choreography in the moment. Perhaps true action does not require a novel break from routine, nor the ability to spontaneously respond to a singular moment. Perhaps a spontaneous response is merely a reaction, whereas repetition is the highest form of action.

But maybe I am only seeking a justification for the work of a dancer, searching for a beautiful idea that would alleviate the repetitive misery of dancing a choreography. The misery of being a dancer is that, as a piece of art, your work is always being erased the moment it is created. Unlike the product of a sculptor or writer whose creation has a certain degree of durability, a dance requires the futile labor of ceaseless repetition in order to continue to exist in the world.

Nonetheless, I am compelled to think that far from being a conservative force, repetition really is a progressive principle. I used to think that the purpose of rehearsal was to repeat something enough times so that it would become more and more reliably the same thing each time. But what if repetition is not about making things more and more the same, but instead about making things more and more different? What if constant novelty only leads to constant stasis? In order to bring about real and lasting change, isn't it necessary to engage in repetition of action, the difficult and persistent work of repetition?