Monday, 17 December 2012

Thoughts from Dance on Film workshops: December 2012, week 1

Last week I spent some time at Clarence Mews researching the ideas feeding into my Dance on Film project ( with independent dance scientist and educator Elsa Urmston and a small group of dancers. We will have a little more time in the studio this week too, but here is a run-down of key thoughts so far. I will also edit the video footage over the Christmas break and post further updates in the New Year.

As I described to the dancers, I do not have any expectations about producing anything at the end of the research workshops; this is an opportunity for experimenting, finding out more about ‘flow theory’ and about how different people experience ‘flow’, and for becoming clearer about how I might represent that in the final film. It is also an opportunity to investigate how I might be able to support the dancers to access ‘flow’ in the choreographic process itself, although I am very clear at this stage that we cannot simply orchestrate a flow experience whenever we want.

“We cannot manufacture a state of ‘joy’ – it is the state that sometimes visits us when conditions are right” (John Britton, ‘The pursuit of pleasure’, p.49)

However, many of the things the dancers are telling me when describing their experience in the workshops, such as:
“it was just happening”
“other things didn’t exist at all”
“it was like letting go but not letting go totally of your body”

suggest that there have been times when they have felt free to give themselves over to the moment, without thinking, and they have found these times enjoyable and/or satisfying. I have been trying to practice this myself, by not planning too much or too far ahead, and this is a welcome exercise after spending a great deal of time in front of my computer planning and writing applications! We have also discovered in our sessions so far that everyone describes the state of being ‘in flow’ or ‘in the zone’ differently, although there are some common themes.

My key questions going forward include:
  • Does a choreographic exploration of the psychology of optimal experience (‘flow theory’) produce an interesting choreographic output (which, for me, means that it tells a story)? What does it look like? What do I want to say about it?
  • From John Britton, writing about ‘The pursuit of pleasure’, “How might we explain the decision by individuals to engage in activities...that threaten their immediate sense of ‘safety, belongingness, love, respect and self-esteem’”? Or, what motivates us to do what we do, even in the face of great risk, unknown outcomes and the potential of irreversible change?
  • How can I draw together the different strands of the project (e.g. choreography, science, film, music, text)?
  • What will the role of film be in this project? What can I do differently through dance on film that would not be possible if I was making a live piece?
Key themes/ideas/discoveries:

I am finding Daniel Marcus Clark’s short story Fly useful as a starting point for the workshops: it provides a narrative structure within which we can explore what happens in the mind of someone getting ready to make a big decision, but as the story is only 100 words long, it also leaves a lot of imaginative space for us to consider different possibilities. Very simply, the main character in Fly wants to learn how to fly; he makes himself some wings, he goes to the top of a cliff and he launches himself off. The story doesn’t tell us what happens after he jumps.

We keep returning to the image of a central character being constantly in flux, battling with a range of different emotions or intentions as he/she tries to decide what to do (e.g. ambition versus doubt, motivation versus limitation). 

Different intentions can get stronger or weaker depending on time pressure or how soon a decision has to be made, as well as in response to other external motivating factors for example.
We have been experimenting with ways to embody the internal struggle through the interaction of 2 or 3 dancers (so, for example, a central character might have sufficient determination to move forward to the edge of the cliff, but a second dancer might physically prevent them from moving forwards by blocking them, or giving them an initiation in a different direction).
We have also been exploring the movement that is created when 2 or more intentions are embodied at the same time by a single dancer, which sometimes results in the body being twisted or contorted in strong indecision.
Given the opportunity to work with film, I would be interested to see whether we could create sequences representing internal struggle, in which a single character is effectively seen to be interacting with themselves; so we see them carrying out the 2 or 3 parts of a duet/trio that they make by working with other dancers, but they play all of the parts themselves. In this way they would be seen to be entering into a dialogue with the different parts of their psyche, and our experiments so far have shown that this dialogue can have many qualities – it can be nurturing, antagonistic, sometimes quite playful for example.
Given the opportunity to represent the inner workings of the main character’s mind on film, we could also integrate moments where the movement is much simpler, or more pedestrian, choosing to focus in on the eyes for example, where we can see so much activity when an individual is trying to make a decision, or preparing themselves to take the next big step.

We are beginning to develop a sense of the overall ‘storyboard’ for the film (which I anticipate will be no more than 15 minutes long) which correlates with what the dancers are describing as the different stages of the approach to the ‘top of the cliff’, or the moment of decision. At the moment these seem to be:
a) psyching yourself up before starting the ascent
b) the ascent itself, which can also be composed of many parts, depending on when the moments of doubt occur (which also have an impact on the direction and pace of the ascent)
c) arriving at the edge of the cliff
d) whatever happens next
When improvising, we’ve come up with lots of possible outcomes for what happens at d) – when we use the short story Fly as a starting point, the dancers always launch themselves upwards off the cliff, because whatever the interplay between courage and doubt in the short story, the fact that the main character chooses to jump at the end indicates his belief that he will be able to defy gravity. When we don’t use the short story as a starting point, more often than not the dancers are prevented from making that leap, because limitation seems stronger than motivation. Even though I am not actually asking the dancers to jump off a cliff, they still find it challenging to consider doing so, which perhaps says something about the strength of the survival instinct, our fear of losing control and our tendency to avoid risk. It also says something about the extraordinary faith of the main character in Fly.
Where this decision to ‘jump off a cliff’ might be said to be representative of any big decision we have to make in our lives, we could say that choosing to jump, to make the tough decision, or to take a risk is always an extraordinary act. I am interested in what enables us to get to the point where we can carry out this extraordinary act.

As well as this linear ‘storyboard’, I am also interested in exploring what some non-chronological deviations might contribute to the story-telling in the final film e.g. being able to ‘flashback’ or cut away to another influential or preparatory event that has already taken place, while the main character is in the middle of their ascent to the top of the hill. This would:
-        be another way of representing the internal struggle that happens at the moment of decision, when we might take into account our previous experiences and how they have made us feel
-        prevent us from thinking that there is only one way of ‘reading’ flow experience and that this is a chronological reading
-        enable us to distort the overall sense of time in the film, which is one of the things that many people associate with their experience of ‘flow’ (e.g. many people experience the sensation of time slowing down or stopping altogether when they are ‘in flow’)

-        enable us to introduce other possible outcomes into the telling of the story, which would universalise the experience, because it would stop the film from becoming an account of one individual’s decision-making, and focus more on the process of decision-making itself, and the infinite number of ways in which different people would make the same decision

Some things I want to look at this week:
  • a greater range of scales of movement: so far I have been focussing on full-body large-scale movement, and trying to use the body as fully as possible, including articulating in unusual ways (or breaking the body’s familiar patterns of movement). It seems to be easier to achieve these kinds of full-body movement when dancing with someone else, and giving that other person responsibility for initiating movement. Relinquishing control in this way (whilst also remaining physically in control i.e. not entirely passive) can lead to flow experience, and is very compelling to watch.
  • risk-taking: the feeling of invincibility and what it takes to get to the point where you feel invincible
  • integrating feedback: self-reflective feedback, physical feedback from someone else and verbal feedback from someone else; How does feedback feel different when it is internal/external, and how does delivery of feedback impact on the outcome of that feedback?

As usual, there’s a lot here! Plenty to think about...

With thanks to Caroline Salem for having us in the studio, plus Elsa Urmston and the dancers who have given their time to the research so far: Marie Chabert, Morgan Cloud, Thomas Hands, Hamish MacPherson, Samantha McCormick, Jess Williams.

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