Dialogues on blindness II.

Alexander Baervoets, Andrew L. Harwood, Lin Snelling

Dance Theatre Journal Jan 2005English
Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 21 no. 1, 2005, pp. 13-16

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The word 'blindness' refers to a range of visual impairments that cause a severe to total reduction of the experience of sight. It is also charged as a metaphor, 'blindness' being a synonym of ignorance or not-knowing. Over the ages, both meanings got also mixed up, whether deliberately or out of convenience, blindness was romanticised and invested with misconceptions. And more recently in cultural theory, the 'blind spot' has become an omnipresent metaphor to reflect upon the limitations of our perception, knowledge and opinions. Yet it is not my aim here to deconstruct the term blindness and apply a strategy 'against interpretation' to it. Rather to explore its potential within the field of the performing arts, through a series of dialogues with artists. Interestingly, a large number of dancers and choreographers have broached the issue in the past decades: through working with blind people, as Anne Kilcoyne and Steve Paxton in Touchdown Dance (since 1986) or Wim Vandekeybus in Her Body Doesn't Fit Her Soul (1993), or through working 'unsighted', as a tool to map out alternative perceptual abilities and their choreographic potential.

In Spring 2003, the Flemish choreographer Alexander Baervoets invited his Canadian colleagues Andrew L. Harwood and Lin Snelling to collaborate on the improvisation project Blind. It was to become the final chapter in Baervoets' quest to develop alternative strategies of composition, based on the 'neomodernist' refusal to accept choreography as an art of pinning down movement. In addition to a removal of the theatre machinery, the purpose of this research was also the withdrawal of the choreographer as author, in order to create a minimal setting in which movement can happen. Flexible frames and improvisation have been companions on Baervoets' journey, which ran over a decade. In Blind, Baervoets seemed to have reached a 'zero degree' of his research in several respects, after which he embarked on the exploration of different artistic questions.

The starting point for both the working process and the performance of Blind was as simple as it was radical: in a marked-out space with just a few objects, the three dancers would improvise blindfolded for about fifty minutes, to a soundscape created live. Working always with blindfolds, Baervoets, Harwood and Snelling actually never danced together with their eyes open, nor did Baervoets give any extra indications to adjust the dynamics or the quality of the movement: the understanding between the blindfolded dancers on the stage grew in the course of their work.

During the first month of work, in arts centre Monty in Antwerp in March 2003, I attended the rehearsals regularly. Besides preparing, watching video documentation and discussing, every afternoon a blindfolded improvisation was done in the ~setting. Unexpectedly, my role as an observer became a crucial one: I actually was one of the few witnesses of a process in where the artists themselves were involved unsighted. I started to take part in their discussions and interviewed the three artists after one month of work, before they moved to Montreal for another month of work. Based on a similar set of questions, the interviews were conducted separately, of which excerpts are juxtaposed here. Halfway the process, Baervoets, Harwood and Snelling were mainly sharing the confusions and fascinations of working blindfolded; issues of dramaturgy and addressing spectators were not at stake yet.



Experienced in dance improvisation, although with different skills and backgrounds, working with the eyes closed was not a totally uncovered ground for Baervoets, Harwood and Snelling. Did they revisit their experience in this? And how did it change whilst working on Blind?

Baervoets: 'Working with a blindfold was the only issue for this process. We put it on and observed whether we could walk on a straight line, whether we could walk backwards, whether we could run, so very basic exercises. And that turned out to be hard, when I chose this topic I couldn't foresee what the problems would be, and they're manifold. I thought it would be simply as improvising with my eyes closed, and as I dance a lot with my eyes closed in improvisation, the question was how that would be with more people. But there was a lot more to find out. With a blindfold, you are caught in a complete loss of orientation, you cannot take decisions the way you're used to, meeting other people is completely different. It went much deeper than I expected. Now I realise how I normally use my eyes within the process and what all the consequences are.'

'I find out that to stay as honest as possible to being blindfolded and what it does to me, it was almost impossible to give any specific task. If you want an honest choreography of being blind, you cannot really compose, you rather find yourself in a situation:We start running on the spot, but are soon drifting around the whole space, and that's an incentive for the rest of the improvisation. There is the acceptance that you cannot compose, but strangely enough, what you see is sort of a composition with an absurd quality to it, and yet it is all random procedures, not foreseen, not planned, not even deliberate at any point. And even while doing it, you don't know what you are doing, you don't know what it looks like, you don't know how it could possibly be read, and so on. There is no focus for the audience, nor is there a focus for us dancers. Still, I am convinced that every spectator will read what we are doing in his own way; that is one of my convictions since years, but it becomes really obvious now. I've always had the intention of creating unintentional work well, here it is.'

Snelling: 'Next to choreography, which is limiting on some level, I've always been improvising. In improvisation I found a language that I could communicate with, I was close to something that I could pursue and investigate for a long time: my own body language, my relationship to the public, my interest in the anatomy of the body, memory, all those things. Over the years I discovered experiential anatomy, a technique of interior mappings of the body. It is a language that gives me a time structure that I can work with and understand from, which I use a lot in my own choreography. I am very interested in the intelligence of the body and its sentience.'

'The idea to work blind was very appealing to me, since I thought I already did that; often you close your eyes in improvisation in order to see better, in a moment when it is difficult. But it was completely different than I imagined. With a blindfold you are covering the eyes completely, so you are covering the organ that brings light to your whole body. And you don't have the option to open your eyes, it wasn't anything like I expected. So I began with mapping a real interiority, rather than investigating what is around me: mapping my sacrum, working along my spine, discovering my breathing pattern. And then developing gestures from those places in the body; so it was an interior mapping.'

Harwood: 'Moving with eyes closed is not a totally unfamiliar world for me. There is a movement therapy form, authentic movement, in which one person moves with eyes closed, and one person sits on the side and watches that as a witness. Then those roles are reversed. And there is a verbal exchange, the person who has moved has the chance to write or draw and then get together with the witness to talk about it. I practised this form a number of times. And of course, in all these years of improvising, I've spent a good deal of moving with eyes closed i~ all kinds of contexts. Still, the premise for authentic movement is very specific in that you're not seeking primarily to relate to other people. You are seeking to source from your own inner world and be very patient and await any true impulse or true desire to move. And if there is none, you wait, you do nothing. That's where the term "authentic" comes from: being true.'

'Here, working on Blind, I feel it's different in that I'm not only listening to my own impulses, but I am mapping up the space. I also try to perceive and imagine what is going on in the space around me. With my eyes open that would all be pretty accurate, now I have to trust it, whereas it could not be the case at all. I definitively have the feeling that I am not only working for myself, but also working with the others and with the environment, with the space and with the energy in it. It's different when you close your eyes and you move in a room; there is light, you can still see the light, you can see shadow, the light comes through your eyelids. Here, wearing a mask blocks all the light completely; there isabsolutely no reference to the outside world in terms of light. The only reference is the objects in the space and the delineation of the rope, like "oh, this is the end." Interesting.'


Reduction of space

Evidently, a blindfold changes the dancers' understanding of visuality. This includes their visual and physical presence, and also their perception of space, linked with notions such as distance, proximity and touch. What is the experience of physicality and of space like, working on Blind?

Baervoets: 'Funnily enough, I've always thought of myself as a natural mover. But when I see myself now on the video documentation, I find it much more natural than in any of my previous pieces. Speaking about my spatial awareness, this almost ends at my skin, at the tips of my fingers and my feet. You try to keep mapping the space, which is changing because positions are shifting all the time, and eventually you end up in a state that you don't care anymore where you are. When I take off my blindfold after a session, it is like you awake out of a dream in a strange bedroom. After fifty minutes of time, the reality of the space has completely dissolved. Even after a month of work, I seem to forget every time again that I am in the dance studio of Monty. So it has something dreamlike; you get so internal that you forget about what is going on outside, until the surprising moment you take off your blindfold.'

Snelling: 'Your physicality changes because you develop a way of moving in which you can be softer in your skin, so that you're ready in case you bump into something. You are not tense, rather agile, almost like an animal. We had this quality in the beginning, because it was all new, but it is a difficult thing to deal with in the rehearsal process. I don't know very well what we should rehearse: should we get better at it? I don't know. Do we want to show how familiar we are? Or to show what we can do while we are blind? I don't think that's what we are after. It's a question I have.'

'I remember that running blindfolded was very frightening, because you think you're going to hit something all the time. It's a small fear, but it is very deep in the body; your body really resists that, going somewhere full out without knowing what's there in front ofyou. Your notion of space gets condensed when you can't see, you can't measure distance. It was interesting to know how alarming and frightening that was. Or take the notion of falling: before you hit the floor it feels like a thousand feet and it's just an inch: or somebody grabs you and takes you to the floor, which seems to take forever but it's only a small distance.

'This is very powerful for the imagination; it is as if you are building a dream when you do this kind of work. You get these real dream feelings of falling or depth that are completely exaggerated and have a lot of volume. So that's material to work with for your construction. In your world you imagine you are in a certain corner, but you're actually in a totally different one. There is a strange wilfulness that is completely misplaced but that becomes very powerful in your own story. There is the reality and then what your sensing and imagination is giving you. Those two worlds are always different, but sometimes they come together, when you bang into something. You are building this inner world and then, suddenly, you're brought back really quickly to the here and now.'

Harwood: 'After three weeks, I am becoming more comfortable with the process of moving with eyes closed. We are all moving more boldly, taking risks that we weren't taking in the beginning. Simply because our bodies have become more sensitive to be able to deal with not seeing. You develop a certain quality so that when you run into something it's not going to hurt you. And that's something that really needs to be learned by doing it; in three weeks you see an evolution. I think I am growing more comfortable to the touch with eyes closed, and yet coming into contact with someone can be so accidental that you don't realise it. At other times, I come into contact with someone and it just happens to me that my whole body is ready for a shift, a modulation. Then there is an opportunity for a kind of dissolving of the individuals into a unit, that the individual egos dissolve into a stronger system of two minds and two bodies together, interacting. It's like imagining of having four arms and four legs and two heads and two hearts, everything is double. It's very intimate that way, and because we don't have our eyes,you feel much more a part of someone else's world.'

'One of the things I like to do normally when I improvise, is to use my eyes. I look at someone in the audience really directly and catch their eyes. When improvising with other people I am constantly watching, as moving under surveillance, and that could be with a sharp or a softer focus in the eyes, but still see what's going on. Now I realise how much I do play with these elements when I improvise with eyes open. So they are really an important source for me; they send energy out like beams of light and also connect you to the outside world. Here it's a different premise, a reversed situation - so I can't do all that. I feel that the presence of my body is shining in a very different kind of way, I can't rely on my habitual and familiar way of composing.'


Internal time structures

The condensation of space entails a strong internal focus and a heightened awareness of interior spaces and time structures. How does blindness influence the dancer's perception of time?

Snelling: 'Time in the body is endless, it doesn't have seconds or hours - it just is, it is continuing all the time. And there is a myriad of time structures: the pulse of your heart, the pulse of your veins, the pulse of your fluids, the pulse of your bones, everything has its own time dimension. It's like this movie from the seventies, The Fantastic Voyage, where a spaceship goes inside the human body, through all the veins. To me, that's the most interesting sense of time in contemporary dance; and now working blindfolded, we are really in that time zone, time ends at our skin. Until you run into somebody or into an object, it's all these bumps that are constantly reminding us of where we really are. It's a huge paradox: doing a performance, but really being blind; offering it to somebody watching, and at the same time not really. But I like the sense of time that is installed when you close off the eyes and go into the time that is ever present in the body on many different levels.'

'The other sense of time that is evident, is the time frame we are given through the music. We're given rhythm and we're given silence, so it's another sense of time that comes directly to us through the music. It frames our own internal timings. And the great thing is that each one of us has a certain way of mapping and navigating and timing that is completely different, so then you have these interactions between us when we are all in our own time zones.'

'You can't choreograph a dream, but this really feels like the choreography of this sensing of dreaming. The weight given to you by the body is that weight of dreaming, and when you come out of it, you feel like you've come out of a dream. I mean really physically, not mentally, the weight in the body of that kind of unknown, absurd sense of time, that kind of sensation of falling backwards and not knowing where you are going. Watching the video, you get a sense of that as well, and probably we are composing with certain qualities of this absurdity. And yet, the improvisation always feels like a whole entity rather than a series of random events. You close your eyes and open them again at the end: so that is clearly the beginning and the end. That makes it an entity with a wholeness to it.'

Baervoets: 'My perception of time is shifting, although I can sense now more or less what is fifty minutes. Looking at the video, I think I am more faithful to the action, and this not for the sake of composition but for the sake of the action - more faithful than I would be with my eyes open, and that's the unintentional moment: you just continue until you get bored with it, until the music changes drastically or until you meet somebody. Improvising for fifty minutes with eyes closed feels relatively short, which probably has got to do with this internal feeling and dreamlike situation. It looks like a film of three hours en actually it lasts for twenty seconds. You also forget about the time of the day.'

'I remember Lin taking off her blindfold and just standing there, because there was nothing to say. Sometimes she tries to describe the action and becomes senseless as well. It's a problem of communication, of the impossibility to express what is going on. Isolation and lack of communication are very much the topics in this work. When you take off the blindfold in the middle of a situation, you have a certain power, but it makes you very vulnerable as well. You expect that when you can see you would know what to do, but it is completely the opposite. You take off the blindfold and you don't have a past. You see something that is just there, you don't know where the action you see came from and how you related to that. With your eyes open it's almost impossible to relate to that. So you put just on your blindfold again and continue.'