On Stillness

Keyword Sessions with Daniel Lepkoff & Lisa Nelson triggered by Myriam Van Imschoot

Contact Quarterly 2004English
Contact Quarterly Vol. 29 No.2 (Summer/Fall, 2004): 26-29.

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A note on the keyword session: 

In the fall of 1998, I embarked on a research project on postwar (WWII) improvisation in dance performance with a fellowship from the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research. For a subject that is as sparsely documented as improvisation, it was an obvious choice to turn to the interview as a way to retrieve information directly from practitioners in the field. However, as If elt increasingly dissatisfied with the constraints of the conventional interview techniques, I started to experi­ment with what I call the "keyword session interview." 

A keyword session is basically an attempt to escape the implicit time constraints, the dynamics of interference, and the fiction of a spontaneous personal encounter that I find operating in the genre of the interview. Inspired by an "attentional" score of Lisa Nelsons (that she describes below as a stillness practice), the keyword session prompts people to compose their thoughts around a keyword (a word, phrase, question) for as long as their attention can keep it alive, without any intervention from the interviewer. The keyword is settled upon by mutual consent right before the session. Once the interviewee has finished a first run, questions can be asked, leading to a second run (and so on). Though in the end, transcripts may be edited for clarity, the attempt is made to preserve the fact of their being spoken pieces-not comprehensive, and somewhat stream of consciousness. 

Included here are the results of keyword sessions on "stillness" with Lisa Nelson in the spring of 2001 in Bennington, Vermont, and shortly afterward with Daniel Lepkoff in New York City. Knowing that they were longtime collaborators, it interested me to see the differences in what came first to their minds when thinking aloud on this subject. Another motivation was the conversation I'd had on stillness with the Conversations on Choreography group in Ireland six months earlier [see article pg. 21]. The idea was to refract the insights of the theoreticians through the viewpoints of dancers for whom stillness has been a practice. If coincidences are what ignite encounters, connections what make up their substance, then differences are what keep our attention alert. 

Myriam Van Imschoot


Daniel Lepkoff, On Stillness, NYC, April 2001

When I started to dance in 1970, I didn't think about "movements," I just got into "states of being in motion." A state of motion: something like a color, a texture, a timbre; an attraction to the way one's movement feels as one is moving. For example, one state of motion I liked was to be "constantly falling," another was "shaking," another, "playing with running." The first dance techniques I studied-Anatomical Release with Mary Fulkerson and Contact Improvi­sation with Steve Paxton-had an emphasis on sensing, observing, and analyzing the unimpeded functioning of the body 

During the 1980s, in NYC, I began to work with the collaborative performance group Channel Z. Three of the dancers in the group, Diane Madden, Stephen Petronio, and Randy Warshaw, were members of Trisha Brown's company. The way Diane, Stephen, and Randy generated movement was unfamiliar to me. I could not feel or understand the source of their movement invention. I felt challenged and attracted and began to imitate how they moved. It was during this time that I realized I did not have a concept of "a single movement." I did not understand movement as composed of distinct actions linked together to form longer phrases. This seemed to me a big gap in my understanding of how dances were often composed. 

I formulated a private project to answer the question: What is one movement? The way I approached this problem was to work with stillness. Stillness was something I did under­stand. I practiced "becoming still": starting in stillness, moving, and then returning to stillness, and watching that process. The time from one stillness to the next was often on the order of seconds, possibly as long as one minute. I moved for short intervals, looking to trigger an awareness of when a single movement was completed. I taught other people to do this so I could see it from the outside. I began to construct reasons, physical motivations, for entering motion and returning to stillness. I was teaching myself to understand dancing as a series of movements by inserting stillness as punctuation in the flow. I used the word "punctuation," but maybe "interruption" would be better-first you stop, and then you start the interrupted thing again. Once you're still, you realize only the physical movement has stopped; one's sense of what one's next action would have been continues. There is the time to scan for possible other intentions than the one you were having when you stopped. The moment opens to new options: one could continue what one was doing or choose a contrary or skewed direction. One may feel that the moment has no compelling future and is actually an ending point. I practiced stillness as a deconstruction of a flow of action. The idea was to impose a kind of "super consciousness" on one's way of making decisions that, until you figure out how to do it, can seem painstaking. 

Through this exercise, I began to appreciate the design of a movement in space and developed a feeling for the composition of bodies in space. When dancing with others, the act of becoming still works as a communication-letting other dancers in the space know that you have completed a single movement. I used this idea as a mechanism for building an ensemble. Using that score, often a strong rhythm or phrasing develops within a group. When you become aware of that, you can start to shape the duration of things. It's like a game; you begin to read other people's minds and sense how long a particular movement or stillness will last. Working this way, with a limited number of options, you can get on somebody else:s wavelength, which is a nice way of communicating. 

Stillness ... When I think of stillness I see the image of a pool of water. This image reminds me of my experiences of stillness in my early work with Mary Fulkerson lying in the constructive rest position. When there is no wind and everything is still, gravity brings the surface of a body of water into a perfectly flat and even surface; you can see the bottom underneath with no distortion. While lying in constructive rest, when the body wants to go some­where or do something, the muscle cells trigger; they ready themselves to carry out this intention. To give oneself to gravity, one needs to let go of all intention; gravity knows where down is. When something relaxes, it releases its shape and takes the shape that gravity gives it. This is the architecture of the body that is revealed when absolutely nothing is happening, when only gravity acts upon the body Theoretically, this is a state in which the whole body-mind and body-is really receptive to suggestion. 

This deep state of stillness was a place to work with movement, only we worked with simply imagining making a movement. For example: imagining lifting your leg but not moving it, just feeling the physical triggering caused by the act of imagining this movement. I think it's hard to know what this kind of activity feels like unless you have tried it, because there is a subtlety to this level of sensation that one needs to get accustomed to. 

I practiced lying in the rest position a lot, with many other people. Getting into ever deeper states was a shared fascination. Could one maintain the sensitivity to subtle sensations while in daily life? I remember the experience of letting something go, and only realizing I was holding it after I let it go. How is this possible? How can you let some­thing go if you hadn't noticed you were holding it? The nature of this work requires a lot of patience and a lot of gentleness, waiting for the currents of things. It's like making something visible that is already there. Very confusing, because it's not actually being inactive, not even physically inactive. You need to adapt to this way of working; you really have to live in the room to realize that it's not about passivity. 

I remember being able to use what I had learned with Mary in the stillness practice of "lying on the floor" when Steve [Paxton] came along and did "standing." A standing stillness is completely different than lying still because you can't stand up without using your muscles. It was interesting but could be very uncomfortable. If you're not aligned right, your muscles will start to ache after a while. Lying on the floor is not as demanding. Anyway, the idea was to let go of every muscle that you didn't need in order to keep standing, an exercise designed to make simply standing up a total risk. You got the feeling you were approaching an edge, experiencing a dialogue of forces that is not occurring when you're in a state of rest while lying on the floor. Each of these states of deep stillness offers different information. 

The deeply released, sustained stillness of lying on the floor or standing is a different kind of stillness than. a stillness of suddenly interrupting some­thing in mid-action. There may be a lot of tension and holding in the body when you suddenly suspend a flow of movement; the openness and softness is in the motion of the observing self within one's stillness. 

I just thought of another analogy. When you're in a small boat moving on the water, you don't feel the motion of the water. But if the boat becomes still, you feel the water moving beside you. When your body becomes still, the moving water is like all the passing impulses and observations that you have as your observation moves. Physical stillness provides a contrast that reveals the underlying movement of one's attention. Perhaps the essence of stillness is having time to perceive. I think it is possible to maintain the transparency of stillness while one is moving. 


Lisa Nelson, On Stillness, Bennington, Vermont, April 2001

Stillness is so basic. It would be a subtext to anything you might say about movement. I use the activity of stillness in an attentional way in practicing dancing. 

I remember first becoming interested in the idea of stillness during a rehearsal with Daniel Nagrin's improvisation company, the Workgroup, in 1971 or 1972. We each were constructing a score that focussed on space. When I entered the space to work, perhaps because there were many others moving in the space, stillness is what occurred to me. I became aware that to focus on space, I somehow had to become space myself. So I assumed a stillness which I maintained for as long as I could until I felt it begin to decay. Then I simply moved into another stillness for as long as I could and repeated that process throughout the session. That score became a stillness practice that I've continued to explore to this day, often as a warm-up for dancing. 

When I still my body, I can more easily track the movement of my interior life-the movements of my attention, imagination, my desire-and suspend myself in a potentialized state, some­where next to the past, next to the present, next to the future, vacillating, never settling. Suspending desire can be a very sexy state to dance from. 

There is stillness in space and stillness in movement. Certain dancers embody stillness in their movement. In the same way that dark needs light to be perceptible, and vice versa, movement needs stillness. This equation gets complex when you talk about looking at dancing. The eyes are hardwired by the nervous system to follow movement in the environment, and they are usually carried by and coordinated with the movement of the head. Then again, when you are looking at something that is still, you have to move your eyes in order to examine it. So when you are looking at dancing, even though you might be sitting in a seat, in actuality you are obliged to be in motion at all times. One's eye-movement translates into a kinesthetic experience. 

Stillness-the idea that things come to a rest-is a relative perception for both the dancer and the observer. If I still my outer form while dancing, I become more aware of the sensation of my attention moving, the movement of my senses reaching inward and out into space, and the movement in the environ­ment around me. This awareness is important to the dancer, but not of particular use to the observer. 

The relative perception of stillness was brought strongly to my awareness when working with a video camera, and sparked my investigation of the relation­ship between an observer and a mover. How do we actually look at things-and in particular, such a curious thing as dancing? 

When I move the camera, it adds or subtracts movement from the dance, the moving subject. An extreme example is if you pan with a camera to keep a running person in the center of the frame in a white space. With no back­ground to give clues of relative speed, the runner can appear to be still in space. Or, if the dancer is still and you move the camera very quickly along the surfaces of her body, you are creating a kind of negotiated perception of the stillness of the dancer related to the stability or stillness of the frame. And I think that happens without the camera too. If I am speedy or anxious in my looking, I experience stillness in a different way than when I am relaxed in my looking. So there is always a relation­ship with stillness, in the dancer and in the observer. 

One consequence for me of working with vision was that if l stilled my eyes, I would get into a kind of semi-hypnotic state after a certain amount of time. I felt I came to a still point. My definition of a "still point" is a state where I have no motivation to move. It is as if I have left my body. I've funneled out into some disembodied existence. This is an interesting state, but not a very useful state for dancing. 

I translated my body stillness practice into an investigation of looking at still­ness in the environment. I was interested in the state of attention induced by the stillness of sitting somewhere and look­ing at something. Looking into a quiet space for a long time, I would wait to see if a desire arose to move, let's say, a chair that was in the space to another place. I found that the environmental stillness was a canvas for my imagina­tion, which would eventually prompt my desire for a new relationship, or for movement in or of the space. A sense of potential for change would slowly build up, layer by layer. I would watch the environment become animated with potential without any motivation to take action until at some point, some­times, my curiosity moved me to get up and move the chair, or simply move myself to look from another angle. Then I'd begin again. Looking. 

So, sitting still and watching ... If an observer is activated to explore what is in front of her on the stage, that is one kind of innervation, and I believe that audiences want that to a certain extent. Like a detective exploring the action of a performance, you are very alive in your mind, in your imagination and your associations, and possibly also in your intellect if the performance has a kind of formal puzzle to it. 

Then there is another level of enjoyment: when the audience becomes entranced. This bears some relationship to the semi-hypnosis of the still point. It is an attentional state where you are no longer actively perceiving; you are just letting the event wash over you in torrents, taking you on a journey at once through and, in some instances, out of your body. Your body becomes so entrained with the action that you leave your sitting body and become what you are looking at. You don't notice that your leg is falling asleep underneath you. 

So, those are two poles of being in a highly attentional state. l think of them as equally heightened observer experiences. 

As a dancer and a performer, those states have a different value. If they are both happening together-activated in your mind and imagination while being entranced or entrained in your actions-that is the highest state for me in performing dancing. It is most interesting when those two states meet. I find, as an observer, it is harder to be in both at once and most often I'm not in either for very long [laughs]. But, OK, that's an ideal state of theater, that engagement and transportation that you can feel as an observer.