In a world where movement is the vocabulary of the art, dance performance lives within the physicality of its dancers. Choreographers are known for creating transitions between individual movements. Dancers are employed because of their ability to move through multiple types of choreography with intention. And though this constant movement will always be the definition of dance, my current interest lies in the role of stillness in performance.
In a time when parts of our lives, like gathering together with family and friends, is at a halt during this global pandemic, so many other aspects of our lives are ever changing and moving. How we work at home may seem more “still” that traveling to and from an office, but while at home we have the ability to constantly move between work, cooking, playing with the dog and closing doors on loud family members in order to focus on our work. Even our shift of focus to personal wellness is more movement driven, including exercise, breathing exercises, and digital communication with our support circles. In this time of blurred frenzy of masks, hand sanitizer, and unintentional distant-dances with others at the grocery stores, stillness is hard to come by. More importantly, stillness is hard to embody.
All too often, stillness is not viewed as productive.
And, similarly in so much of contemporary dance performance, stillness is a rarity.
I am fortunate to be in graduate school researching dance and how it will live during and after this pandemic. Live performances with groups of audience members seem years away. So, in reflection of past performances, viewing stillness then and looking at stillness in performance now are two different conversations.
I recently watched a documentation of Cynthia Oliver’s 2017 evening-length piece Virgo-Man Dem. The introduction includes a lengthy stillness embodied by four dancers onstage. There are other elements to engage the audience’s eye like projection and light, but the essence of the first ten minutes is stillness. In 2017 and today, stillness as performance continuously challenges the viewer with these questions such as “What do I see?”, “What do I not see?” and “What is inside of this stillness?”
Screenshot from Virago-Man by COCo. Dance Theater.
Now we see live performances through our computer screen and photos of empty performance spaces and audience seating. We often now worry if we see others be still. I have been asking myself how this time will impact our bodies, and I am finding my own need for a physical pause.
In a recent group class exercise led by dance Professor Norah Zuinga Shaw, peers and I created an interactive dance with our computer cameras through Zoom, which allowed us to play with focus, intentionality, visibility, invisibility and framing. At a time when my body seeks nonmovement, it can take deep motivation to physically participate in movement, especially movement that is communicated virtually through a screen. During our movement time, a group decision occurred in which participants would choose to cover their computer video camera with their hand or finger, covering their image in Zoom. By making this choice, we were able to “pause” our own image. This led to a cascade of results. It directed the eye to others on the screen who were moving. It inspired others to do the same. Variations of light and flesh were projected in small rectangles.
In our current mostly virtual dance space, we are all provided choice and power in how we present ourselves on screen, or how and when we cover our cameras. If we were dancers on stage or in a studio, we would hold less control of what others see. But before commenting on someone’s home office painting or physical appearance that day, should we consider calling to mind Liz Lerman’s critique theory of asking permission for opinions? At a time when tensions are heightened and stress is weaving its way through all parts of our lives, should we bring to mind asking others if ours is an opinion they want to hear? As dance educators, should we evaluate how we constantly provide critiques and corrections in a virtual dance class amid this pandemic? What kind of corrections are most valuable to our students at this time?
A teacher asks, “Would you like a comment?”
Pause. Stillness. Response.
Lerman’s critique theory gives power to the artist, the maker, the student. She flips the classical role of authority that the critic holds over the critique of a work, from the teacher to the student. From “Permissioned Opinions” in which the maker holds more control of what is and is not said, to “Neutral Questions” from the responders, Lerman’s approach to critique can create more productive, less frustrating, and more insightful discussions among artists and critics.
Maybe students don’t need more corrections. Maybe they need more space.
Maybe our peers don’t need all of our opinions, maybe they need room to process.
We are always presented with choices, but we often forget that one of our choices can include saying no. We can choose to pause. We can choose stillness. Saying “no, thank you” does not solely deny a request from another person, it provides space and authority to whoever decides that “no” is the best call.
My current choreographic research plays with stillness and pause within the movement. I am working with a group of 10 dancers to create a dance film titled “This Year’s Game” in which we explore how our bodies and minds are being affected by the world we live in. Rehearsing through online platforms such as Zoom, we are exploring what making work is like today. In comparison to pre-pandemic life, this choreographic product will be different, as will the movement vocabulary, communication between dancers and myself, and scope of what is produced. And though the frenzy of breath, increased heart rates and dancers moving, we will also pause within a movement phrase. We will stand six feet apart. We will show the effort and the exhaustion that comes with movement, that can truly be seen through a pause.
In this ever-moving world, I choose to be still.
COCo. Dance Theater. 2017. Virago-Man. Video 1:15.28. https://vimeo.com/243411184/4ab0c93f20
Lerman, Liz and John Borstel. 2008. “Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process.” Contact Quarterly.
“Intermedia untethered” taught by Norah Zuniga Shaw and Oded Huberman. Graduate Course Work at Ohio State University. Fall 2020.