Places of allowance: untwining mind and body in writing, gestures and speech

Notes to Vera Mantero’s workshop 'Thought, poetry and the body in action' at ImPulsTanz Vienna 2002

Sarma 1 Aug 2002English

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Contextual note
This text was commissioned in summer 2002 by the festival ImPulsTanz in Vienna and part of the research archive of Danceweb.

Besides performances, ImPulsTanz presents every year a serious amount of dance workshops during five weeks and is well-known for this pedagogical unit. The program includes different technique classes, intensive coaching projects and durational research-based workshops, called Pro series. One of them was Thought, poetry and the body in action, led by the Portuguese choreographer Vera Mantero from 23 to 31 July 2002. This text results from a series of intensive observations during this period, although not all the sessions were attended. A strict coverage is not my aim here, since a spectator can never claim to present a story fully representative of a workshop – which is partly about watching but mainly about doing, about participation. I will trace nevertheless several exercises and make some remarks, in awareness of the paradox just drawn. This means tracing in words what already existed in words, whether in spoken, written or mental form, more concretely: tasks, discussions and concepts.


A physical awakening?

The workshop doesn’t start with the usual self-presentation of all the participants; there will be enough time later to find out what the others do. So a warm up, one person lying on the floor as a foetus, being enveloped by four others, a living envelope tightened after a while, demanding the underlying person to escape out of it. It’s a physical awakening, to relax, take time, feel warmth, energy and textures, to release the voice by breathing, murmuring, laughing, yawning, moaning, singing.

Relating this exercise to a friend that evening, she replied ironically, "So the workshop is about being natural, about the body in a natural state?" It was not; if ever a fiction has been unmasked, it’s probably the one of ‘naturalness’. The term itself was never at stake, but apparently it is a common notion and a goal often set by artists. Mantero didn’t set a clear goal, a point to arrive to, but rather the opposite: an endless series of tasks, questions and their accumulation in complex procedures selected to lead both body and mind to a point "where you normally don’t find yourself", a point that was not to be recognised as common, known, or comfortable. A state of ignorance, discomfort and doubt, of allowance, discovery and surprise, not to be perceived as ‘natural’ or preceding language. As the title Thought, poetry and the body in action suggests, language was even a main tool to question a common approach of both mind and body in everyday life and in art, to enter different states.


Free writing

A recurring exercise has to do with language: "Take pen and paper and start writing automatically, until I say stop." Ecriture automatique, a procedure developed in the twenties by surrealist writers to open up their minds to the realm of the unconscious, in that time newly discovered in psychoanalysis. Try to write in the moment, keep a flow of associations without thinking if it makes sense or not, just write whatever comes to your mind.

The subsequent task is twofold: reread your text and look for an image that appears to be meaningful, and secondly analyse your writing, see what happens in the text. The strategies found in this automatic writing could be useful as tools in dance itself, in improvisations or elsewhere. After discussion, they could be listed as follows:

  • A mere juxtaposition of words. This is a principle of horizontality, giving an equal value to all elements, erasing along with the hierarchy the common meaning, although one can still recognise the result as language, as writing, as something articulated.
  • Superposition. Thinking about two different things at once, merging them into a single image.
  • Non-redundant combinations. The opposite of redundant, as for example "black coal". Non-redundancy is often used in poetry, and especially interesting when transposed to performance, to detach movement and speech.
  • Writing about writing itself. A self-reflexive moment, almost inevitable, for your brain is always working faster than your hand is able to write. Also writing about the connection between thinking and writing.
  • A text writing itself. When the hand actually takes over.
  • Jumping back and forth in the text, pursuing a thread that was left open before but appears suddenly again as meaningful.
  • The intertwining of memory and imagination. Free writing allows to fictionalise certain personal memories to find out what they are about, or create at least a different approach to them. Or the other way around: imagination is nurtured by personal experiences.
  • Appropriation of everyday images.
  • An unclear status of truth, lies and fantasy.
  • Rhyme of different temporalities.
  • Rhythm of language, musicality of words.
  • Arriving to mere nonsense. In free writing where one is haunted by a brain running fast, incessantly producing meaning and eager to produce meaning, this is a relief.
  • Invention of new words. For the fans of James Joyce.
  • Nothing happens. Free writing can be disappointing as well, stay banal and reveal nothing unexpected.


Free writing in space

A series of tasks. First, the same task as free writing, but this time by bodies in space, improvising, trying not to censor themselves. Second task: take a minute, try to recall the path you have been pursuing, figure out what you did, if it was precise or not. Following that, report on both tasks: redraw your route and explain meanwhile what you are doing. This task is to be executed two by two, as a dialogue, where each monitors the other, taking care not to impose your own speech the whole time. All the others watch and comment afterwards.

From time to time, Mantero directs the group to articulate and clearly express, to use extra gestures, to also allow for the play of random memories, to make one’s statements here and now, whatever they refer to. The story has to be told in words and in motions; it is not a mere explanatory task, both activities are connected although two different moments are being unveiled, two different events or even universes – of movement and speech, of body and mind, of event and repetition. ‘Untwining’ seems to be an accurate word to describe the processes happening during the workshop: it is by articulating body and mind separately, and modifying them separately through tasks, that new states of both mind and body can be discovered and appear at once in a pronounced way – in a broadened variety of movement and speech. Necessarily intertwined, mind and body drive each other to surprise when seemingly separated. A process of detachment allows imbalance, and tracing this imbalance permits a different flow to occur.

As the participants share their experiences in a group discussion, several questions pop up. Is this improvisation? No, rather, it is a quest to be in a certain state. It is research, in the first place for oneself, since the performance aspect and its particular consciousness about visibility is not the aim. Searching for specific things and touching them (or not), one has to leave behind the idea that ‘it has to be there’, this exercise is all about trial and error. Or how to resist logic, first having movements and afterwards thoughts – instead of suffering from the fact that thoughts are always going quicker and haunting the moving body. Is it possible to do automatic writing in a slower fashion and maintain the flow of associations?

"It’s different from reasoning, a different flow. It’s playing with sounds, a game with words that look alike. It has to do with rhythm – a place where things can start mixing," in Mantero’s words. A central term in this research is ‘allowance’: one tries out different modes and ways, randomness, one breaks patterns to go to a place where one usually doesn’t find oneself. An observation: video is an interesting tool to explore this realm of allowance, for one can work in the studio in a state of forgetting and unawareness, and still have a trace afterwards.


Characteristics and opposites

Back to the first day in the afternoon: everyone has to present some personal characteristic movements. The others have to write down what they see, as precisely as possible, if necessary in their native language. A second round: everyone has to present something personal, to characterise him/herself. Again the others have to write: "What do you think the person wants to tell us?" As homework the comments have to be copied in proper handwriting and in decent English on a piece of paper. The next day, these strips with text were handed out to the respective persons. "This was a mirror, and that is not easy to deal with," one participant said at the end of the nine days – welcome to psychoanalysis. Indeed, a lot of information was gathered and studied carefully. The task was to look for repeated remarks or remarks one could recognise oneself in, choose four things, and define their exact opposite (in both movement and characterisation). Everyone had time to test these opposites in space, to find out what they could be like when performed. The movements were subsequently presented one by one. "Try to figure out how this opposite can mean something for yourself and the people watching. Think about the different possibilities to develop something within the set constraints, don’t reject it, try to make it your own." Afterwards the results were discussed by the group.

A main question is how and to what extent ‘discomfort’ can be utilised as a tool to arrive at a different state, to enlarge and enrich one’s personal movement language and modes of expression. In a research arrangement, focussing on work and attempts, failure is a central notion or phenomenon. Still, the question of failure raises an interesting point, since both the level of movement and the person him/herself is being worked on. When one can’t identify with a certain opposite, can’t appropriate it, can’t enjoy it, so that it affects the quality of one’s presence, and discomfort doesn’t occur anymore as a mere tool nor as a state, isn’t that failure as such? It’s an open question, one suggested by the peculiar results of twisting personal characteristics and subsequent discussions about being fake, false or simply lying.



After researching movement, expressions and even stories, these aspects were merged in a new exercise: "Use gestures to articulate what is going on in this moment." This task unfolded in several steps: first a try for oneself, further development in the form of dialogues, and a discussion two by two about the investigations. Finally new dialogues were presented for the group, with commentary afterwards.

What are ‘gestures’ precisely? Movements with the arms, aiming to tell something, they are used in a rather concrete way, as an expressive tool. Gestures eventually involve the face and also the body. Avoiding readable mimetic stuff was important, for one had to be ‘in the moment’– another term that touches on the question of ‘naturalness’. This time we speak of a certain performance quality, to be ‘here and now’, which is probably already a process. In Mantero’s words, somehow referring back to the work with the opposites described above: "Being in the moment, you are dealing with your person, what you are and what you do are attached in this moment." In gesturalising this moment, one can’t take distance and propose merely movement material; it’s beyond indifference, demanding concentration on oneself. One can’t merely show a personal state as a body attitude either, for then the very process of gesturalising is left behind. There is a subtle balance at stake between an inner attitude and the meaning of a gesture – a crucial question of visibility.

Another exercise based on texts, literary, theoretical or whatever: "Take a short excerpt and translate this text literally into gestures, word by word." Translations with the whole body or only gestures? Do you have to communicate the text? Problems and questions pop up quickly, and Mantero gives extra indications. The principle of non-redundancy has to be used to avoid ‘illustrating’, which is not the same as gesturalising, which detaches form and meaning. "Try to find out what things do to you, avoid showing just the shape of things, then there wouldn’t be a difference between an orange and the world." A way to define the right rhythm is learning the text by heart and repeating it internally while moving.



A warm up, growing into an exercise. Two by two, one person lying down passively, the other wanting to initiate a talk, a play, start a dance even. Changing roles. Next steps are a slight modification from passivity into responding, steadily growing until mixed dynamics occur in the dialogue. In the meantime, gestures, movements and voice work emerge and enrich the conversations. "Try to keep up a spirit of playfulness, curiosity and discovery, look for surprise and exploration, be in a different state, take the moment in your conversations," Mantero suggests. Afterwards, a talk with the partner to check points of investigation and experience. Three couples at once present a dialogue to the group, the others watch and discuss.

Some reactions. Often sensory duets, with eyes closed, exploring tactility. After discussion and with spectators around, the dance appears more speedy, since a lot of knowledge is involved and has been articulated. What is uncomfortable, what familiar? Making connections with your partners and living them through the body. Metamorphose without pausing to make mental decisions. And suddenly a gendered duet pops up – haunted by memory it simply happens that one ends up constructing stories sometimes. It seems as if the changing active/passive rhythm doesn’t only apply to the two partners but also to an ongoing body/mind dialogue.


Free writing in speech

Two groups in a circle, performing free writing, one person after the other, but this time spoken. "Open the circle a bit, use your body actively while speaking. Also, the listeners have to be aware of their bodies. Allow your body to support the speech, you can play with your voice itself, don’t think only about what you are saying, disconnect your gestures from your speech."

A second exercise: "Explore speech and gestures in duets, choosing whatever kind of relation. Take care not to impose your speech all the time, but you can speak/sing/… simultaneously to create a musical rhythm, or play games." Central question: "What does the verbal mood do to my body?" Presented two by two while the others watch, Mantero comments: "Listen and answer. Take time, don’t make too much volume. Try to keep the atmosphere nourishing your dialogues. Use your native language, even when it is hard to see how it affects you body and motions because you don’t understand the other. Answer musically, revisiting earlier elements. Try out different types of voice leading to different bodies. Try to detach speech and body to create non-redundant relations between speech and gesture."


An awakening of writing?

At this point, it might be interesting to say a word about the rhythm of the workshop itself. Often, exercises where initiated and then left aside for a while, to be picked up again after one or two days. Through that, an alternating structure came into being, whereby different exercises started to resonate and affect others, ultimately resulting in a complex accumulation of information by the end of the workshop.

If one mentally makes a similar accumulation based on the descriptions made, it should be clear that we are far from the initial question of the ‘natural’, but somewhere in a realm of allowance. Moreover, the process of description apparently has moved to a more limited and dry conveyance of tasks and discussions, almost detached from the visible events that were growing into less readable forms. They still provoke fascination and questions for the eye but seem to leave language behind, although bursting with language-based procedures. For the participants of the workshop, this might be a good sign. For someone writing a report, it traces an interesting paradox: the fact that watching and writing are two, and that they have different preconditions.