FALLING AWAY: DISAPPEARANCE, RESISTANCE AND REMEMBERING IN CONTEMPORARY DANCE

FALLING IS RELATIONAL – IF THERE IS NOTHING TO FALL TOWARD, YOU MAY NOT EVEN BE AWARE THAT YOU’RE FALLING…WHOLE SOCIETIES AROUND YOU MAY BE FALLING JUST AS YOU ARE…

HITO STEYERL, ‘IN FREE FALL: A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT ON VERTICAL PERSPECTIVE’

Ruth Little writes: Traditional dance is in decline. Around the world, folk dance, social dance and forms of indigenous dance are under threat or face extinction, and their loss diminishes our knowledge and understanding of ourselves: ‘With every dance that dies, another source of data about the nature of human communities dies with it.’[i] But the dwindling of traditional dance is just one aspect of a far greater contraction of cultural diversity produced by globalisation’s encroachment on what anthropologist Wade Davis calls the ‘ethnosphere’ – the cultural and spiritual web of life.[ii]

Dan Canham, Ours Was the Fen Country. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Injustice and inequality everywhere are key drivers of cultural diminishment – the sudden or incremental loss of a people’s physical and imaginative resources and life patterns. Culture lives and evolves through iteration, adaptation and transmission (as the Scottish Gaels say) ‘bho ghlùin gu glùin’ -from knee to knee. Cultural acts – including rituals, traditions, social practices, language and art-making – are embodied acts. Cultural memory is muscle memory.

I want to know whether contemporary dance has a role to play in recognising and resisting – through movement – the widespread and accelerating loss of cultural diversity. Can contemporary dance, rather than reproducing specific and formalised ancient movement patterns as traditional dance does, tell affective stories about the ethnosphere? Can it, through movement, draw attention to – articulate – forms of cultural diminishment in such a way that they might be witnessed, acknowledged, even halted? Can movement, as choreographer Jill Sigman has asked, ‘make people think?’

Dan Canham’s Ours Was the Fen Country (Still House, 2013) reflects on the waning of a culture intimately shaped to the East Anglian fens. The work links environmental decline (in particular, the drying and depletion of the fenland peat) to cultural decline, to a loss of resources, communal practices and traditions and the forms of knowledge they embody. It foregrounds the integral connection between climate, economic and social change, and so is a profoundly political work, though its form is poetic.

BODIES WHICH HAVE BEEN ‘PLACE-FAITHFUL’… HOLD THE HISTORIES OF THE WAYS AND PLACES WHERE THEY HAVE MOVED, AND WITHOUT THEM WE KNOW LESS, UNDERSTAND LESS, ABOUT OUR WORLD.

Ours Was the Fen Country is based on an archive of interviews with inhabitants of the fens, spoken or lip-synched to by 4 performers. These are interwoven with music and dance to produce an evocative study of the intimate relationship between people and place. The work gives voice and form to accounts of threatened ways of life such as willow-trap eel catching, small-scale family farming and Shire horse breeding. It was in part inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s 2008 essay on the Norfolk fens, ‘Ghost Species’.[iii] There Macfarlane wrote of small-holding at the edge of extinction, of farmers whose ways of knowing and tending to the land will soon disappear with them. Bodies which have been ‘place-faithful’, he argues, here and elsewhere, hold the histories of the ways and places where they have moved, and without them we know less, understand less, about our world.

Ours Was the Fen Country doesn’t try to enact or illustrate those lives and livelihoods which it acknowledges; Canham sought rather to embody the words of the interviewees in the dancers while shifting both voice and body into a poetic, subconscious realm, ‘so that words and movement both flourish’ in the same place and in the same way. Its movement language is unique, idiomatic and suggestive, reflecting what one interviewee describes as ‘the cussedness, the awkwardness, the independence of the fen people’. ‘How do we express this vulnerability and sensitivity and tenderness?’ asks Canham. In response to the testimony of a farmer who remained ‘idealistic and optimistic, despite all the loss’, the company created a low, skipping dance which has the quality of an ancient private ritual or game. Elsewhere the dancers jump with backs arched and arms and legs flung back in an antithesis of the virtuosic classical leap, as though pressed between the vast planes of earth and sky.

Ours Was the Fen Country doesn’t try to enact or illustrate those lives and livelihoods which it acknowledges; Canham sought rather to embody the words of the interviewees in the dancers while shifting both voice and body into a poetic, subconscious realm, ‘so that words and movement both flourish’ in the same place and in the same way. Its movement language is unique, idiomatic and suggestive, reflecting what one interviewee describes as ‘the cussedness, the awkwardness, the independence of the fen people’. ‘How do we express this vulnerability and sensitivity and tenderness?’ asks Canham. In response to the testimony of a farmer who remained ‘idealistic and optimistic, despite all the loss’, the company created a low, skipping dance which has the quality of an ancient private ritual or game. Elsewhere the dancers jump with backs arched and arms and legs flung back in an antithesis of the virtuosic classical leap, as though pressed between the vast planes of earth and sky.

Photo: Camilla Greenwell

IT’S GOOD TO THINK ABOUT REMEMBERING IN THIS WAY, AS AN ACT OF LIVELY RESTORATION, A WHOLE BODY RESPONSIBILITY.

Canham describes the place-faithful self as both ‘carrier and custodian’ of other ways, and acknowledges that though he expected to find beauty and poetry in the descriptions his interviewees gave of the landscape, it was there instead in the unadorned lists of bird and plant species, in the rhythms of working hands and accents. His job, he says, was ‘to get out of the way’, to allow dance, voice and music to reveal rather than overlay the simple poetry of human belonging. The resulting allegory is at once culturally specific and universal in its implications, its rituals and its elegiac nature.

When considering the loss of tradition and cultural practices, the line between traditional dance and dance concerning tradition is sometimes inevitably blurred. Some dance artists deliberately take up residence on the dynamic and unstable threshold between the classical and the contemporary, in part as a means of sustaining and maintaining ancient story traditions in the present, and in part in recognition of the fact that tradition itself becomes brittle and vulnerable when it is not adapted, extended, played upon like an instrument. Akram Khan, Shobana Jeyasingh and Aditi Mangaldas are each deeply trained in classical Indian dance traditions (Khan and Mangaldas in kathak, Jeyasingh in bharatanatyam), but each carries custom into new contexts, adapting and refracting their heritage and using it to expand the range of meaning and the field of time in their work.

Elsewhere, by contrast, new dance forms have in a sense been created or revealed through the falling away of their original contexts. Scottish waulking songs still contain the rhythmic hand and arm movements of the women who worked the cloth together, though the politics and economics of its production and the social sources of the songs are largely absences now. Waulking was a form of labour, not of dance, but it survives now as a choreographic thought, a whole body poem which doesn’t so much remind us of the past as re-member it – return it to bodies and limbs (in opposition to dismembering, which is a form of destruction and forgetting).

GREGORY MAQOMA’S OWN RESISTANCE TO HIS ANCESTOR’S FATE IS EXPRESSED IN THE FACT AND FORM OF THE WORK – A DANCE PIECE WHICH RE-MEMBERS, RESTORING MOBILITY, DIGNITY AND SELF-EXPRESSION TO A SILENCED MAN AND HIS CULTURE.

It’s good to think about remembering in this way, as an act of lively restoration, a whole body responsibility. Once, family, kinship and community kept us from falling. Now, as philosopher Hito Steyerl argues, we may be in free fall without knowing it. The disappearances from the 21st-century ethnosphere are not just emptying out what Wade Davis calls the ‘old growth forests of the mind’; they risk making our bodies inarticulate too. Our movement vocabularies in developed and post-industrial societies have arguably been depleted by the loss of embodied knowledge associated with ritual, labour, communal activity and familiarity with the otherness of non-human species. We understand our bodies and the bodies of other organisms less and less as we professionalise and privatise their management, commercialise their capacities and so estrange them from the old rhythms of intimacy and interconnection with place and with one another.

Many forms of contemporary dance, however, actively resist these and other losses through reinvigoration and adaptation of traditional forms, or through new acts of embodiment which have political as well as aesthetic impact. Hip hop, in all its vast array of dance manifestations, samples, absorbs and transforms elements from a huge range of movement traditions, including classical and African dance, martial arts and gymnastics, jazz, Latino, rock, tap, 1930s street dance, American, and, increasingly, indigenous dance styles. Its emphasis, in both its musical context and its street performance, is often on issues of social justice and exclusion. And it is constantly evolving, fluidly incorporating new forms and social rituals, interrogating its own culture and the mainstream culture with which it is now globally interwoven.

Many forms of contemporary dance, however, actively resist these and other losses through reinvigoration and adaptation of traditional forms, or through new acts of embodiment which have political as well as aesthetic impact. Hip hop, in all its vast array of dance manifestations, samples, absorbs and transforms elements from a huge range of movement traditions, including classical and African dance, martial arts and gymnastics, jazz, Latino, rock, tap, 1930s street dance, American, and, increasingly, indigenous dance styles. Its emphasis, in both its musical context and its street performance, is often on issues of social justice and exclusion. And it is constantly evolving, fluidly incorporating new forms and social rituals, interrogating its own culture and the mainstream culture with which it is now globally interwoven.

In traditional societies, dance remains closely connected to its sympathetic forms of imagining – it is an act of empathy with other beings or states of being. Like non-industrial labour and all kinds of sacred and social ritual, culturally specific forms of movement create connections between our bodies and their contexts, including the tools and materials they use, and the stories and histories they carry within them.

In Exit/Exist (Dance Umbrella, 2015) South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma considers the body as story, a place where events happen and are recorded. The body holds not only the stories of the present, but also those of the ancestral past. Maqoma’s 18th-century forbear Chief Jongum-sobomvu Maqoma was a respected Xhosa warrior whose land and cattle were appropriated by the British before his imprisonment and eventual death on Robben Island. Exit/Exist opens with Maqoma dancing in a silver suit with his back to the audience, disconnected from culture and context. But he sheds his contemporary garb to inhabit his ancestor’s body and mind via the tools and symbols of his culture and traditions. Exit/Exist doesn’t recreate traditional Xhosa dance and movement, but interprets those remnants of Chief Maqoma’s story that survive in order to explore, empathically, the warrior’s experience of colonisation and loss. Maqoma dances for several minutes with an empty plate on his head, adjusting his body minutely to preserve the assemblage, until the plate falls clattering to the floor, silencing the accompanying singing voices and heralding the warrior’s own demise, or fall. Chief Maqoma’s resistance to the colonisation of his land and body ends with incarceration – the replacement of his ceremonial cloak with leg irons which render free movement, and dance itself, impossible. But Gregory Maqoma’s own resistance to his ancestor’s fate is expressed in the fact and form of the work – a dance piece which re-members, restoring mobility, dignity and self-expression to a silenced man and his culture.

THEY DANCED TOGETHER, AND DISAPPEARED, LEAVING THE EMPTY SQUARES RESONANT WITH, AND PROVOKING REFLECTION ON, THE VANISHING SPACES OF FESTIVAL, GATHERING, COMMUNAL DANCE AND MOVEMENT.

There are other – less tangible – experiences of falling away which contemporary dance makes visible and palpable, and which it resists both bodily and metaphorically. Our cultural losses extend to ideas and concepts as well as materials and habits. Rosemary Lee’s Common Dance (Dance Umbrella, 2009) is a tribute to the endangered idea of the ‘commons’: those spaces and places where people have historically been free to gather and to share resources through patterns of rituals and responsibilities. Such spaces are under increasing threat of privatisation and alienation, and they include both actual and virtual environments such as the information space of the World Wide Web. Lee, an East Anglian like Dan Canham (‘so horizons and expanses are in my bones’), brought together trained and untrained dancers from the ages of 8 to 83, along with a choir of 70 young people, in the symbolic civic space of Greenwich’s Borough Hall, to revivify the idea of the commons. In a place resonant with the echoes/ghosts of former social gatherings and tea dances, the participants explored folk dances and communal dance, developing confidence and new forms of articulation. They shed their separateness in patterns found in nature: ‘swarming, flocking, scattering, opening, closing, flying, falling, planting’. Though large in scale, the work was characterised by its intimacy; Lee emphasised the commons as a place of connection rather than spectacle: ‘it is a community dancing itself out for people’. The soundscape for Common Dance included a live piper and the songs of endangered British birds, and the libretto for Terry Mann’s score contained poetic fragments from many cultures, including the threatened cultures of the Inuit and Pueblo Indians.

Rosemary Lee, Common Dance

Common Dance was followed by Square Dances (Dance Umbrella, 2011), in which Lee worked with 200 professional and non-professional dancers in 4 London squares. Accompanied by the tolling and ringing of bells, groups of dancers gathered unexpectedly in these public spaces, ringing in the echoes of past ceremonies and rituals, commemorating the loved and the lost. They danced together, and disappeared, leaving the empty squares resonant with, and provoking reflection on, the vanishing spaces of festival, gathering, communal dance and movement.

UNNINGHAM … GIVES PERMISSION TO BE SEEN AS A DISABLED PERFORMER AND AT THE SAME TIME CHALLENGES US TO RECOGNISE THE PRESENCE OF NON-NORMATIVE BODIES AS SOMETHING MORE THAN AN ‘UNTHOUGHT’ ISSUE

Contemporary dance itself has its own histories of falling away. These periods of letting go began with the shedding of virtuosic classical technique in the gravity-bound experiments of Martha Graham and early 20th century modernist choreographers. This was followed by the pedestrian postmodernism and minimalism of artists like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton (Judson Dance Theater), who stripped away spectacle and technique and replaced them with tasks, routines and improvisations as a means of exposing the ordinary body. But even this body, according to choreographer Jérôme Bel, is a cultural artefact rather than a ‘natural’ phenomenon. For Bel, the body moves and is moved according to overt or covert forces which determine its forms of expression and their interpretation. It is ‘deeply subjugated to culture, politics and history’. So Bel has developed the choreographic style of ‘non-dance’, with work more akin to performance art than mainstream dance. Dance movement is set aside in favour of other forms of presentation and communication, and at times the dancers themselves are dispensed with.

Jérôme Bel/Theater Hora, Disabled Theatre http://www.sgt.gr/eng/SPG1110/

Scottish choreographer and performer Claire Cunningham argues that movement can make us think, but that the kind of movement itself deserves more thought than much mainstream contemporary dance entails. Cunningham is herself disabled, and the use of crutches in her work has generated a movement vocabulary and a performance ethic based on visibility, articulation and extension. In Give Me A Reason To Live (Dance Umbrella, 2015), Cunningham pushes this vocabulary to its edge, testing her own limitations by allowing her crutches to fall away as she stands, half-naked, facing the audience under house lights. Without the crutches, the dancer’s vulnerability becomes apparent and her body trembles with the exertion of standing upright and unaided. But just as important as the act of letting go is the act of witnessing. Cunningham invites – insists on – the audience’s active observation of her trial. She gives permission to be seen as a disabled performer and at the same time challenges us to recognise the presence of non-normative bodies as something more than an ‘unthought’ issue. The question at the heart of the work is one for the whole of society, not just for the disabled artist: what unique forms of knowledge and capability does the individual possess? What can you do with the body that you have? What will you do, and for whom?

Claire Cunningham, Give Me a Reason to Live. Photo: Ben Nienhuis

For Claire Cunningham and Jerome Bel, non-dance reveals both the expressive capacities of the human body and the presumptions and prejudices that have led, for many, to its repression or invisibility. For Rosemary Lee, Gregory Maqoma and Dan Canham, the movement possibilities of remembering are a form of action and agency in a world of loss and forgetting. In diverse ways, all the works referred to above are processes of restoration which return voice, presence and dignity to marginalised forms of knowledge and experience. They oppose disappearance with simple visibility, and the falling away of human diversity with commitment to the value of difference, awkwardness, liveliness, ritual, play, and the profound knowledge held in common in all our bodies.

Author Ruth Little, 2016

 


 

[i] Sangita Shresthova, ‘What is Endangered Dance?’ (http://www.coreofculture.org/what-is-endangered-dance.html) Accessed 22 Mar 2016

[ii] Cultural diminishment is most starkly represented in the loss of the world’s living languages, 50-90% of which are predicted to be extinct by the end of the century.

[iii] http://granta.com/ghost-species/