The body is thinking

Form, vision, discipline and dancing

Denken in Bewegung 2004English
in Gerald Siegmund (ed.), William Forsythe: Denken in Bewegung, Berlin: Henschel Verlag, 2004

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Contextual note
This text was written in English and published in German in 2004, and first published in English on Sarma in March 2014.

The body is thinking; it is form thinking its way through time. For the past sixteen years I have been part of the Ballett Frankfurt, a group of artists whose work has been an ongoing research into the nature of the body’s thinking – how allow its fluency and intricacy, its articulation.

As a company, we engage in a delicate and powerful ensemble sensing. We notice, not always consciously, when it is time to move into a new area or revisit an old, when to correct something that is going the wrong way or when to let it fail and collapse. We practice remaining consistently curious, understanding that freedom is not an absence of external pressure, but an internal ability to remain fluid and engaged under demanding circumstances. We practice the skill of discipline: using a situation containing many rules as a vehicle to enter into areas that a less rigorous situation could not accommodate.

In my own experience of the body, I have had very powerful lessons regarding the nature of this freedom. I have several structural deformities in my back, which for many years caused me substantial and constant pain. These deformities have the effect of disintegrating my body, causing it to act in separate parts. Through studying the Alexander Technique, I have learned that it is possible to remain fluid and integrated in the presence of these potentially immobilizing structural situations. This technique teaches practical methods whereby one learns to recognize the habitual patterns of use in the body that are causing pain, to inhibit the impulse to engage in those patterns, and to choose alternative ways of thinking the body into relationship with itself. Through practice, I discovered that it was not the ‘faulty’ structure of my body that was causing the problem, but my unskilled thinking. I needed to learn the skill of thinking my body into a whole.

In the Ballett Frankfurt, we practice a similar skill during the creation process of a new work. We practice being in the state that allows the work to move through us most cleanly, with the least interference; the state where we can collectively create the work by thinking it into our bodies, by thinking the parts into a whole, by releasing ourselves into its energetic structure.

During a creation period with William Forsythe, the work often begins as a broad concept. Over the course of the process, we clarify the focus of the concept through our individual interpretations of the ideas. Together with Bill, we create and assimilate an immense amount of information, such as movement, text, rules, etc. We develop characters, try out innumerable forms of relationship and states of being, we articulate fine details, investigate large structures, and then we practice the art of discernment. We practice committing completely to what is being developed at the moment, while remaining prepared to jettison whatever doesn’t work out. Sometimes it is the case that certain things are created are effective on their own, but don’t function within the context of the piece. In that case, both the dancers and the choreographer need to be able to let go of their own achievements, if they are no longer pertinent to the work.

Pieces can start from any point and every point within them contains the nature of the whole. Pieces can arise through years of deep research and months of work, or sometimes they just sneak up on you, fully formed.


This is what it has often been like in our working processes:

Imagine a series of scenes: that you are in a room, or that someone is standing on a street, or that there is a section of running creek, or a voice – close, intimate – which has just taken a breath and begun to speak.

Imagine that in each of these instances there is one point, one tiny juncture of information: a turn of the head, a set of physical rules, an angle of light, a texture of skin, or a configuration of objects. Imagine that one of these points is noticed, and that the noticing, the sensing, of this point is the beginning of the thought process that will lead to the emergence of the new work.

Imagine that there is a period of several years following the moment when this tiny juncture is noticed. In this time you, and the others you are with, have cast out a wide net of inquiry. You have gathered together a broad collection of information, music, movements, words and spatial configurations. You have considered how these things might be connected. You have followed each lead, and developed a drastically vibrant and divergent group of events, which expands until it reaches the point where it needs to integrate, to transform, or to explode.

Then, imagine that there is a moment when you feel the new work – the not-yet-existent-whole, the piece that you have come together to make – begin to move. The moment when the whirling of information reaches a critical mass and, out of nowhere, a thinking space appears. Now, instead of thinking the parts, you begin to think the whole. It begins to precipitate, to coalesce.


A new piece is not something that can be forced into being, but rather is a thing that has its own internal systems of logic, of functioning, which determine what can successfully occur within it. It is like a weather system, where clouds are the visible result of the interaction of force and matter. A new piece has its inherent forces, which interact with the thoughts, energy and body of each performer, to shape the nature of its flow, and the events that occur within it. The process of creation can feel like failure, struggle, or like exultation. For a piece to function, each performer must be willing to experience its inherent energies. The performers and the choreographer need to be willing to wait, to fail, to not know, to be outrageous, disciplined, clairvoyant. They must be willing to change, to abandon what they understood to be right.


The second version of The Loss of Small Detail (1991) marked a change in the direction that Bill was taking, with regard to understanding the body as a state of thought. We began to investigate the nature of trance states and to work on a kind of movement that achieved speed and complexity without force. We began to develop what we called ‘dis-focus’, a kind of seeing that is not a diminishing of vision, but rather a widening of vision, backwards.

In some pieces, such as Limb’s Theorem (1990), Artifact (1984), In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (1987) or the first act of Loss, called The Second Detail (1991), gaze is used as a kind of compass. This kind of gaze forms the basis of classical ballet’s épaulement; a set of complex relationships between the eyes, head, shoulders, hips, arms, hands and feet in the balletic form. The body, in épaulement, is a series of curvilinear forms – or directed lines or volumes – in angled relationships. The strong, outwardly directed, linear gaze of épaulement emerges as the result of the body’s inner directional refractions. The angle of the gaze reflects the angles upon which the body orients itself. By focusing strongly in one direction, this gaze, or directed seeing, illuminates all the other directions that exist in relationship to it. It exteriorizes the geometries that dancers intuit through their experience of having a body. It extends this geometry past the body into the room, and it expands and delineates the space and the relationships between the dancers, the stage and the audience.

In Loss, we began to consider a different kind of gaze, one that was not outwardly directed, and that moved at inverted angles to the coordinations in the body: an inverse épaulement. Using proprioception (the body’s ability to sense where it is in space) and the learned reflexes of épaulement, we began to create a situation that enhanced the dancer’s sense of the kinetic potential of space. Dancers develop a very keen proprioceptive ability, which enables them both to sense and to imagine their bodies with a high degree of exactness. The kinesphere is the space that the body’s movement occupies. Taking in information within this sphere involves sensing the body where it cannot be seen. For example, you cannot see your shoulder blade, but you can sense where it is in space and in relationship to the rest of your body. This ability of the body to create an internal image of itself also allows for the possibility that the body can create an image of itself where it does not exist, or to imagine itself orienting along lines, planes, or volumes in ways that are not actually possible. When we dis-align our eyes from their usual functional relationship to the body, as in the method of dis-focus, we experience a phantom proprioception – the sense of an extra-corporeal body that acts in relationship to our disassociated eyes. In Loss, this new, imagined body is intuited and filtered through the complex, internal refractions that are the learned reflex of épaulement: it is an inverse body that flows backward from the gaze. Each movement that the body makes is then also experienced as occurring in this other, projected body, in the space outside of the real body. We have the sense that our proprioceptive field has expanded to include the space that our bodies do not actually occupy. This creates a situation in which space seems to be densely inhabited by a complex, fluid matrix of potential motion and form, of which the body is part


Imagine that you are onstage in Loss. Imagine that you are experiencing two kinds of vision at once: that of your usual eyes and that of your disfocus eyes. You see the stage, with its visible objects and empty space, and, at the same time, you see the space around you as seething with potential form and motion. The character that I perform in Loss is one who is continually ambushed by, caught up in, this welter of doubled vision. I am often being moved by other people onstage, and at the same time being pulled by the events that I perceive as occurring in this expanded area of my proprioceptive imagination. I have the sense of seeing these two visual worlds at once, and always speaking of one in the other. My real and imagined bodies are in a constant state of exchange, through the medium of the eyes; they incorporate the ideas of motion present in one visual world and express them in the other. This is what it is like to dance in Loss. The stage is full of dancers in a state of ecstatic translation.


This quality of being in multiple states at the same time is one that is often present in Bill’s work, and has been developing throughout the years. It has lately come to a new level in our most recent full-length piece, Decreation (2003).

Decreation, in particular, was a tricky process; it was full of deep-dwelling things that were reluctant to surface. It seemed to be composed of impossible things: contradictory and divided things. We began by thinking about the nature of the contiguous and the singular, the nature of restraint and communication. We started working on a language of indirectness and fragmentation. We tried to set up situations where it would be impossible to coordinate our bodies in the usual, instinctive ways. For example, Bill created the task of walking while setting in motion a sort of diachronic physical ricochet in the body. This was accomplished by sending the eyes in one direction, jaw in the other, rib cage in one, hips in the other, etc. These tasks tended to involve extreme isometric tensions, and, in my case, because of my back, it was virtually impossible to do any of the things that Bill was suggesting without ending up in a cramped heap on the floor.

So, in this Decreation process I encountered these things that I could not do. I had to abandon several desires: to be good, to be fast, to be right and, in general, to know what was going on. I needed to re-think what it was that the piece required from me. I began to consider that the piece itself necessarily contained within it these junctures of struggle/obstruction. I considered how my own body, with its many areas of twisting and physical impossibilities, can only function in a state of integration with its whole self, which, in my case, means integration through thought, as the actual physical functioning is disturbed. I stopped trying to achieve things and let myself be in the state of impossibility.

In rehearsals, we bound ourselves together with ropes and tried to move. We each created what we called a ‘10 point’ sequence, where we tried to connect and observe ten points on our body while adhering to impossibly restrictive rules of behavior. We engaged in various impossible experiments to see how two bodies could be in complete and constant contact with one another. We made ridiculous operas, sang for days in a seamless flow of evolving scenes, finally creating physical ‘arias’, which were the result of the body voicing its attempts to see itself within these restricted states.

This began with the impossible idea of creating a catalog of all conceivable body movements in 60 seconds, as a way to bridge the past and future, to become a ball of memory, to become everything at once. We tried to make a book of the body. We covered our bodies in charcoal and, remaining in these states of restricted behavior, approached a paper-covered wall in the studio, making a huge mural of markings, drawings, imprints of the body. Using text from a book by Marguerite Porette, a 12th century mystic, we thought about the state of jealousy that arises from fragmentation, and created various dynamic situations around three questions that Porette imagines herself being asked by God:


How would you react if you knew that it could be that I might prefer that you love another more than you love me? That it could be that I might prefer to love another more than I love you? That it could be that I might prefer that another love you more than I love you?

(Marguerite Porette, The mirror of simple souls, 1998)


We made scenes where one text moves through many people, where the body speaks what the voice cannot, where one person speaks what another cannot. We tried all these things, and many others. We failed constantly in whole new ways, and slowly it became clear to me that this was about exactly the kind of inner ricochet that is always going on in my own body. This piece could only be present where this state of constant, oblique tension was the norm. In order for the piece to speak, each instance of communication needed to take place in a state of mediation or translation. The body of the piece spoke through its impossibilities.

One movement method that came out of this we refer to as ‘shearing’. It is a state that the body enters into where no approach, neither vocally nor physically, is ever made directly. For example, as we approach a microphone, or a person, our thoughts might move in that direction, but our bodies ricochet backward, off of the thought, in a series of oblique refractions. The body becomes a proliferation of angular currents, a state of complex, fragmented reaction.

Eventually, I noticed that in order to enter into the torqued states that the piece required, which would normally be disastrous for my body, I had to understand what my body was thinking. I had to understand that it was already engaged in thinking about the whole room: about the form and direction of the body of the piece and the nature of the information that I was receiving from the bodies and the voices of the other performers. I realized, for example, that the task of creating this physical ricochet of eyes, jaw, rib cage, hips, and so on, actually became possible if I allowed it in my thought to be not an activity, but a state that traveled through my body and connected me to the room. The first scene of the piece eventually grew out of this. In this scene, I am engaged in a text dialogue in which I speak both of the roles. I let the idea of the two separate voices move through me in a kind of sheared way, so that my body is kept in a state of tense counter-twist, facilitated by the device of pulling my clothes to affect distortion in my face. This ricocheting of text and movement passes through my body, and sets the piece in motion.

This is my experience of my body, and of Decreation: imagine that your interior pressure and knottedness is so great that in order to speak it has to be done like a ventriloquist, but in reverse. You have to pull your body in the opposite direction of your voice, your thought, until there is enough distance and tension that it is possible for your voice to slip out before your body snaps back to its usual configuration of twist. Imagine that you are possessed by several voices that all require this release and are acting simultaneously. Imagine that this is happening not just within your own body, but also between all of the bodies on stage – that you are all engaged in the transference of voice from one person to the next, through the sheared, pulling, torque of the body. Imagine that you discover that this happens not through muscular construction, but by releasing yourself into the flow of the piece. Imagine that you, all together, think the slippery, tight fragments of the piece into a whole, you think so deeply into its nature that it is possible for it to speak through you, and for you to move through it. Imagine that, suddenly, what you saw as areas of obstruction in your body, in the piece, now appear only as areas of highly directed flow. Imagine that you discover the nature of the piece’s wholeness: the body thinking itself into the flow of the world, and the world flowing into the thinking of the body.