The following is a context statement and reflection about our BiP/WiP 2022 written for Wilson College's MFA Program.
Written by Bodies in Play Founder, Andrew Pearson.
The work in progress developed over the past several months emerged from a process I facilitated to create ensemble-devised, collectively-directed choreography. The practice-led research questions for the process first came to me through the book Perception: How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds by Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer. The introduction of this book ends with the question “What kind of body do we have and how does it shape what we do, what we know, and how we connect with others?” (Proffitt, 2020, p. 8). For our work, I extrapolated upon this, curious how we might make room for each of our multifaceted identities within a choreographed work. How do we honor and celebrate the individual while simultaneously honoring and creating a communal experience? How do we invite and embrace the various realities and hurdles we face as individuals – such as differing privileges and access needs, conflicting schedules and job juggling, Los Angeles traffic, and more – in ways that make us each feel supported, acknowledged and maximally utilized? To answer these questions, I began from a place of shared leadership, transparency, and a non-hierarchical valuing of differing dance and movement aesthetics. As such, I invited only 3 of the 5 dancers who would join me in the process, asking one of them to be my co-director and the other two to each invite an additional dancer to make an ensemble of 6. We met for a total of 4 weeks on Monday and Thursday evenings, with Mondays being “creative exploration” facilitated with prompts and directives I proposed, then shaping these explorations into performable sections on Thursdays.
From the beginning, the process embraced the balancing of multiple truths and contradictions in order to create a cohesive piece built from 6 different voices in a relatively short amount of time. We not only had to honor the various needs of each individual, but also the complexities that come with living and dancing in Los Angeles such as: navigating traffic and commutes; working multiple jobs; and a dance presenting model built mostly on entrepreneurship, self-funding, and crowd sourcing. The guiding principle of this process was that each of us were entirely in charge of our own body at all times. This meant we, individually, got to decide what movement we would ultimately perform and whether or not we created variations or modifications of any given movement. Part of this was to allocate at least 30 minutes of rehearsal to individual warmups – a time when each dancer could care for their own body however they needed to. In our first rehearsal, as we individually warmed up, I also offered a series of contradictory prompts including: “Allow yourself to be bored with your warmup / Allow yourself to be interested in your warmup”; “Allow yourself to be silly / Allow yourself to be sincere”; “Allow yourself to not know / Allow yourself to be sure”. This set the tone for the remainder of the process.
From here, each week had a different focus. Week one was devoted to each of us creating our own short solos based on the following prompts: “What does my body know?”; “What does my body love?”; “Showcase your superpowers”; “Embody or physicalize your culture or identity”; “Who am I?”; “Who do I want to be?” After working independently for about an hour, we each shared the solo we had created and had an opportunity to ask each other questions to gain deeper understanding of one another’s process. We then shared directorship duties and took turns juxtaposing different solos to make new duets and trios that would be solidified in the Thursday rehearsal. In week 2, we focused on developing duets. I paired us up based on which couples had the deepest existing working relationship. We started with 15 minutes of an improvised physical “conversation”, taking mental notes of what our partner was communicating with their body. We then took turns offering choreography to each other based on what we had seen, still upholding the principle that we are each in charge of our own body and what movements it performs. This process eventually devolved into each partnership working together to create their final duet material. As with the first week, this material was then juxtaposed and remixed to create ensemble-directed sections. In the third week, we created a group devised sextet. I prompted each dancer to create a short solo to either showcase something we haven’t yet shared and/or to demonstrate what virtuosity means to us. From there, we each performed this new solo while the other 5 dancers responded with our own movements to shape the full sextet. We went through this process with each dancer until we had a six-person ensemble phrase. This would conclude the development of raw material and choreography for the piece.
For the last week, we started piecing everything we had created into a set 30-minute performance. My co-director developed an outline from the material that had been made over the previous three weeks based on a list of favorite moments we had all agreed on. As we moved through the outline, we’d pause to discuss options, choices, or edits as a group. We also started to bring spoken text into the composition. All text was pulled from journals we had been keeping throughout the process, but it was decided that rather than reading our own words, we would dance to our words as another cast member read. In the final composition, everyone spoke at least once, each person’s first solo phrase was showcased in different ways, and we concluded with the sextet. In our very final rehearsal, we also devised a way to include the audience in the process. As they arrived for the performance, they were invited to write their own answers to the day-one rehearsal prompts onto a sticky note and place it onto a mirror for everyone to read. This all took place in the happy hour that preceded the performance. Then, within the performance, prior to the finale-sextet, we took turns pulling a sticky note from the mirror, reading it aloud, and physically improvising a response. This added a great amount of levity to the work and welcomed a deeper involvement and participation for the audience while still maintaining a sense of anonymity and spectatorship.
In the Context of My Own Work:
Though this work was decidedly ensemble driven, the project is an extension of my solo practice as I utilized 10-years of self-research to devise the prompts and creative tasks. As with all of my work, this project affirms the individual’s lived experience as a source of knowledge and inspiration through the use of queer magic. The magic of queerness is the ability to open emotional and psychological doors and offer ourselves permission to exist outside of expectation. Simply existing as a queer person in this world suggests an alternative to the norm. While this particular piece doesn’t necessarily depict overt queer narratives or themes as my solo work does, it still utilizes a queer sensibility that helps even a heteronormative cis-gendered person see the world in a new way or give themselves permission to be or express themselves more authentically. This all stems from my solo process, rooted in giving myself permission to make the choices I want even if when those choices fall outside the “approved canon” of dance or theater, in addition to giving myself the permission to be exactly where I’m at, at any given moment – pain, fatigue, anxiety or indifference included. This process of permission-giving was the cornerstone for the entire ensemble process. However, unlike past work, I intentionally deferred to the ensemble for major decision making. My creative role was to facilitate the initiation of choreography, but I wanted the co-director and the ensemble to ultimately shape the piece and feel ownership of what we presented. This did present certain challenges, such as learning to shut off my internal creative process when I leave the studio. For projects where I maintain full authorship, I typically continue creating and editing outside of the rehearsal space, so it was hard to force myself to turn this instinct off as to not move forward without the dialogue and considerations of my collaborators. Once I was able to surrender to this way of working, it became quite liberating, and I was able to channel that energy toward the creative production of the live presentation.
In the Context of the Broader Artworld:
Within the larger performance world, this experiment is an extension of the legacy of Contact Improvisation, as developed by Steve Paxton and collaborators in the 1970’s. As chronicled in Cynthia Novack’s Sharing the Dance, Contact Improvisation was both an artform and social movement invested in dismantling hierarchy and infusing egalitarianism and democracy throughout its process (Loc 249). Paxton, specifically, was invested in creating dances by sparking each individual’s impulse to move without ever feeling the need to copy him, look like him, or receive explicit direction from him (Loc 953). These ethos have also influenced the work of Liz Lerman, Anne Bogart, Urban Bush Women, and Bill T. Jones in various ways. Lerman has built a company that foundationally recognizes her cast as simultaneous performer and choreographer. As she puts it, her company the Dance Exchange is a “think tank and action lab” (2011, p. xv) designed to find “common purpose amid individual vision and action” and “allow for multiple perspectives” (2011, p. xvi). Anne Bogart takes this a step further, noting that “being a director is a function rather than a person”, meaning that all production roles can be shared and filled by any member of the creative team and any given moment (2008, p. 33). Urban Bush Women use this approach to tell culturally and politically relevant stories for the performers who are telling them (George-Graves, 2010, p. 186) and Bill T. Jones embraces a multicultural cast and dialogical interrogation within his process. Jones’s “Still/Here” provides a great example of the power of questions as prompts to draw out lived bodily knowledge as source material (Grubin, 1994). However, unlike many of these artists who are actively working with communities of non-dancers, all of our source material came from the performers themselves. Rather than the dancers being instruments to interpret other people’s lived experiences, we unveiled our own lived experiences as an invitation for audiences to consider their own. Additional community engagement came in the final presentation, through use of the sticky notes as well as a pre-performance happy hour and post-performance talk back.
Having now presented the work for an audience and received feedback from both audience and the ensemble, it’s exciting to hear that every goal I had for the project was achieved. The work was well received by both audiences very familiar with watching dance as well as those brand new to viewing dance. Members of the ensemble noted how welcomed they felt to be their full selves – tired, annoyed, silly, or whatever it might be. They also noted that no matter how much they had going on outside of our process, the container of our process was always stress free and rehearsals were a welcomed respite from their hectic lives. I hypothesize that the cohesion experienced while watching the movement vocabulary comes from a group of people authentically and genuinely expressing themselves and the ability to feel calm and present within the process. The parameters set up for the work had less to do with aesthetics or product, and more to do with how we approach our bodies and each other.
Beyond building parameters and facilitating creativity, the ability to listen to myself, my body and the ensemble in order to pivot, as necessary, within the process was a crucial part of the practice. There were several rehearsals in which what I had originally planned had to be scrapped based on the needs or responses of the folks in the room. Sometimes I would initiate this pivot based on nonverbal feedback I was picking up, but sometimes these pivots would come directly from the ensemble, either reinterpreting my instructions on their own accord, or vocalizing a different option. I found it wonderful that they felt they had the agency to advocate for themselves as well as take the initiative to devise their own process despite what the initial instructions had been. Even so, within the current limitations, there’s simply not enough time to implement a truly democratic process, so one of the biggest lessons I’m taking from this process is to continue develop and own my role as leader while simultaneously distribute power and ownership.