GRAVITY AND GRACE

A year of reflection on love and gravity. 
In 1970 Trisha Brown created a choreographic work called Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, writes Ruth Little. Strapped into a harness and lowered by another man invisible to the small crowd in Wooster Street, New York, Joseph Schlichter made his way purposefully and perpendicularly down the side of a seven-storey building from top to bottom. The title said it all. Or did it?

Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Walking on the Wall, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY. Photo - Carol Goodden 1971

THERE IS, OF COURSE, NO RENEGING GRAVITY. IT’S THE FUNDAMENTAL FORCE ACTING ON ALL THINGS..

Brown described the work as ‘gravity reneged’, and created a related piece for the Whitney Museum in 1971, in which she took part. But the description is ironic; there is, of course, no reneging gravity. It’s the fundamental force acting on all things and the force most relevant and observable at the human scale. In mid-air, it’s the only force acting on a body. To defy it requires technology, energy and costly effort, and even then such defiance can only be briefly sustained. Joseph Schlichter wasn’t walking – he was falling, and Brown knew that the most she could do was control the rate at which he fell.

We fall asleep, and dream of falling. Falling dreams are among the most common of our dreams. It’s not surprising, given that some 6 million years of our evolutionary history, since we first rose to our feet, has been an accommodation to the risk of falling.

‘Bipedalism is a unique and bizarre form of locomotion’ says anthropologist Craig Stanford. He argues that bipedalism is the defining feature of being human, and that our large brains evolved much later than our upright posture note 1. Upright locomotion is an extraordinary feat of balance, coordination and efficiency, and our bodies have evolved through millions of years of tinkering and adjustment – a sort of global market research – to make possible and energetically sustainable vertical posture and motion. But the cost has been high: to support our weight over our hip joints and lower limbs the vertebral column evolved a series of S curves, including a deep forward curve in the lower back. Excessive pressure and oblique force in this area leads to widespread problems among humans; unprecedented forces also operate on the knee, ankle and foot. Human beings are ‘exquisitely capable and deeply flawed’. note 2 Our uprightness allows for quick positional changes in all directions, rapid acceleration and deceleration, and it minimizes the energy expenditure of movement. It allows us to dance. But in exposing us to gravity, it condemns us to strain and pain and demands endless adjustment of joint position and muscle length to maintain balance.

All these problems are compounded by ageing. Over one third of all people aged 70 or older have at least one fall per year. Any known disease can cause falls, and with an ageing population falling has reached epidemic proportions. Fear of Falling (FOF) is a specific health problem among older adults, though it’s present in both humans and animals from an early age. And fear of falling increases the likelihood of falling.

SOME 6 MILLION YEARS OF OUR EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY, SINCE WE FIRST ROSE TO OUR FEET, HAS BEEN AN ACCOMMODATION TO THE RISK OF FALLING.

21st-century Western culture was indelibly marked by the fear of falling on 11 September 2001, when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre dropped so suddenly and uncompromisingly into the streets of Manhattan. Once the tallest buildings in the world, the structures were in the end subject to the same physical laws that had pitched the earth from the centre of the universe in the 16th and 17th centuries. That morning photographer Richard Drew captured a sequence of images of a man falling from the North Tower. Reflecting on the anguish and controversy surrounding, and perhaps suppressing, the identity of the ‘jumper’, Tom Junod wrote that ‘now the Falling Man is falling through more than the blank blue sky. He is falling through the vast spaces of memory and picking up speed.’ note 3This was not the sure-footed defiance of gravity which wirewalker Philippe Petit had achieved in his 1974 walk between the Twin Towers; this was a terrible delivery of the self to vertical oblivion. In an essay on the events of 9/11, Don DeLillo argued that Americans had, until this time, been comfortable with the future, confident in the prospect of growth which capitalism insists must continue indefinitely. But 9/11 changed all that; it infected the future with dread, and our fears began to fall towards us at 32 feet per second per second. In response, DeLillo argued, some of us looked for hope in the rubble and dust, for a ‘glimpse of elevated being’. We strove through the imaginative gestures of art to create and believe a counter-narrative. But the truth is in the falling, and it is, by and large, our downward trajectory with which 21st-century movement-making is concerned.

When artist Kerry Skarbakka staged a number of precipitous falls from the roof of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005 as part of a series of photographs of his own falling body (‘The Struggle to Right Oneself’), he received death threats from some who saw the event as disrespectful to the victims of 9/11. Americans may be pushed, but they don’t jump, they don’t seek death, the cultural narrative insisted. But another, momentary, experience lies between leaping and landing. The sister of one of the possible candidates for the falling man photographed by Richard Drew found consolation in the thought that perhaps, for a moment, her brother had felt himself to be flying. Base jumpers, parachutists and parkour practitioners pursue the exhilaration and ambiguity of falling by choice, briefly opening up time between commitment and calamity, as if in flight, before moving to control their falls.

But just as falling is momentarily, subjectively, indistinguishable from flight, so flying contains the fate of Icarus, and the virtuosity of actively rising against gravity demands a suspension of disbelief – or an ideology – that has, of late, become much harder to sustain in a modern world predicated on limitless growth but subject to resource depletion, natural shocks and human irrationality: ‘Potent flights’, argues choreographer Michael Klien, ‘are brought crashing to earth by the grave and heavy spirits of mechanistic modelling’. note 4 Skarbakka points out in his statement on ‘The Struggle to Right Oneself’, that ‘War and rumors of war, issues of security, effects of globalization, and the politics of identity are external gravities turned inward, serving to further threaten the precarious balance of self, exaggerating negative feelings of control.’ note 5

We’re going down, and bringing living things down with us – our damaging interference in natural systems is characterised by declines everywhere in ecological resilience and cultural- and bio-diversity. Knowing that we are falling, consumer cultures pour energy and attention into the attempt to control the rate of fall – seeking, at the outer limit, to deny age and entropy, to sustain the illusion of flight, to escape miraculously from the plunge. But falling itself isn’t only about failure, decay and death; the inevitable outcome of pride or self-delusion. It can, under certain circumstances, be a source of enlightenment, a profound and complex metaphor, and a learned skill. In the anxious realm of gravity, fragility and hard landings, contemporary dance, with its abiding interest in the relationship between movement and meaning, has found rich sources of inspiration, challenge and new material.

Falling and dance: Falling itself is perhaps the fundamental process to which contemporary dance alludes, and which it, too, at times eludes, briefly, at the cost of immense energy and effort, and in the knowledge that the overarching narrative of life ends with a fall. The narrative of Christianity, by contrast, begins with a fall into sin, suffering and mortality, and dreams of an ultimate ascent of the soul which the living body will never experience. But in the material world, as Merce Cunningham pointed out, ‘our action is here on our two legs. That’s what our life is about.’ And falling, Cunningham insisted, ‘ is one of the ways of moving’. note 6

A choreographer is a maker of movement in dialogue with gravity, expressive at every level of scale of the human will to rise up, and the human physical and social propensity to fall or be brought down to earth. Dance ties meaning to patterns of feeling, according to philosopher Mark Johnson: ‘We know the meanings of various bodily movements and gestures in dance precisely because we know the feeling and meaning of our own bodily gestures. We know how it feels when our bodies sway gracefully and rhythmically versus when we slip and fall.’ note 7 Johnson argues that because ‘we exist within a gravitational field at the earth’s surface, and because of our ability to stand erect, we give great significance to standing up, rising, and falling down.’

FALLING CAN BE A SOURCE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, A PROFOUND AND COMPLEX METAPHOR, AND A LEARNED SKILL.

To fall unprepared and unprotected from a height expresses devastating loss of control; it is so completely against the nature of our lifelong intimacy with the earth. And yet its terrible potential remains within us as a premonition: ‘We don’t fall in rows like hay,’ wrote Annie Dillard, ‘but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass.’ note 8 Thus even the acts of breathing and standing are assertions of time and form that delay the inevitability of death and shift our attention to the present. They are, in a sense, small acts of virtuosity and defiance, of complex and subtle skill and accommodation with context which can only be maintained, in a universe ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, through effort and energy expenditure. Virtuosity in classical dance – the dramatic extension of the miraculous acts of standing and breathing – arouses a thrill in an audience, according to Jonathan Burrows, precisely because the performer risks falling, failing. Virtuosity is a ‘negotiation with disaster’ note 9 which suspends time in the midst of risk. But Burrows argues that contemporary dance, in conscious opposition to the ‘anti-gravity’ world of ballet, ‘has always been interested in the idea of weight falling in response to gravity.’

And so we fall in dance, not only as a challenge to a virtuosity in which we struggle to believe, but to become more intimate with our vulnerability and its implications; to arouse what Alain Badiou calls an ‘exact vertigo’ note 10 which has a physical, political and psychological dimension. Belgian choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez’s Forever Overhead (2007) is built around a suspended body wearing ‘incomplete wings’ which overcome gravity for just ‘a split second’. Elsewhere, she moves awkwardly in space, encumbered by a heavy crash helmet. If pride (and risk-aversion) comes before a fall, Gruwez asks, what comes after a fall?

Being brought to our knees may be as much a constructive gesture of humility (from L. humus, earth) and self-knowledge as one of fatalism or despair. And it may presage other ways of moving: ‘My dancers fall’, said Martha Graham, ‘so that they can rise.’ note 11 Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and a number of contemporary choreographers have consistently emphasised falling, imbalance and recovery in their work. The interest is less in the completed postures of uprightness versus collapse, but in the partial fall, the recurrent misstep, the perpetual adjustment – processes of maintenance in response to the shocks of misalignment between body and world, intention and outcome. Falling isn’t necessarily the ‘end’ – the conclusion of a process, but a kind of beginning, or part of an unending cycle. Khan’s choreography of falling emphasises the rebound, the moment after the blow or the fall, the conversion of kinetic to potential energy and vice versa. In his work, too, suspension and disorientation play a significant role – as a prologue to falling, which not only suspend breath and time (in the moment of risk or vertigo), but generate entirely new perspectives.

Desh. Photo - Richard Haughton.

THIS IS FALLING AS A WAY OF KNOWING, AS A CONDITION OF BEING IN THE WORLD.

Things don’t only fall; they also fall away. Human dignity is upheld too by social structures of family, kinship and community; by connection with place, by sense of self in context, by culture and communication. If, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggested, culture is the web of significance which human beings have spun and in which we are suspended, then a tear in the web threatens that suspension and safety. A number of contemporary British movement makers including Rosemary Lee (Square Dances), Dan Canham/Still House (Ours Was the Fen Country) and Charlotte Spencer (Walking Stories) have extended our participatory experience of choreography into public space and the realm of the ‘commons’, seeking to articulate the meaning and value of what we stand to lose in the privatisation, alienation and transformation of shared space and its acts and languages.

Choreography is a relational art – the study of influence, change and becoming. Its language is the language of patterns, material and energy flow; its objects form assemblages within vibrant social fields. Falling, then, is not only (or always) a metaphor for something else but is also an expression of (social) knowledge inherent in the body. Multi-disciplinary performer and choreographer Claire Cunningham (Give Me A Reason To Live) works with crutches as a means of extending and challenging the moving body and our accompanying notions of virtuosity, ability, difference and dignity. This is falling as a way of knowing, as a condition of being in the world. To fall or risk falling is a mode of understanding the capacities and limits of the body as well as the physical and political field in which the body moves and is propelled.

Photo - Brian Hartley.

The body in motion federates the senses, in the words of Michel Serres. Movement and its breath-based rhythms brings our faculties into collaboration, coordinates our perception of ourselves in the world. But falling is a kind of sensory derangement, a dislocation, a breathlessness. Falling is an emergency. Pina Bausch’s Fall Dance strips the emergency to its roots: the dancer walks, then pauses, and falls headlong, to be caught by her partner in the breathless moment before her face strikes the ground. The process is repeated, and repeated. It is imbued with anxiety and senselessness, and yet, in the endless rhythmic completion of its own cycle, it becomes dance. It is both the embodiment and the abstraction of the human condition.

But an emergency may also be, in Rebecca Solnit’s terms, an emergence, a moment without rhythm, a fibrillation, in which the future is unknown and in which, fleetingly, the space of possibility is enlarged. Imperfection and imbalance, claims physicist Marcelo Gleiser, ‘are the seeds of becoming’, because they result in change and novelty. note 12 The emergency and ambiguity of falling, the human potential to topple and our resistance or accommodation to it, is the disturbing, thrilling and democratising energy source of choreographed movement.

Street art by Levalet, Paris, France (http://levalet.org).

© Ruth Little, 2015


NOTES

 

  1. Jennifer Ackerman
  2. Jennifer Ackerman
  3. http://amlit.mssd14.wikispaces.net/file/view/Junod-Tom-The+Falling+Man+-+Esquire.pdf
  4. Michael Klien, Steve Falk, Jeffrey Gormley. Book of Recommendations: Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change (Limerick: 2008), 20.
  5. Retrieved from http://www.skarbakka.com/portfolios/struggle_statement.htm
  6. Retrieved from http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/03/merce-cunningham-the-creative-experience/
  7. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 2007)
  8. Dillard, Annie, For the Time Being (Vintage: eBooks)
  9. A Choreographer’s Handbook
  10. The Handbook of Inaesthetics, p.16
  11. Ellen Graf, ‘When Your Heart Falls: The Drama of Descent in Martha Graham’s Technique and Theatre’ Retrieved from www.marthagraham.org
  12. Marcelo Gleiser, A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Dartmouth College Press, 2013. p. 128.