An Experimentation with Communicative Processes in Dance
Screenshot by Mollie Wolf.
I started this process with an open inquiry about body to body transmission. In Sensational Knowledge, Tomie Hahn discusses what she terms “‘dance speak’…a metalanguage, a unique dance instructional language reflecting a varied and deeply complex matrix of information. This ‘dance speak’ comprises a fragmented yet completely fluid combination of the musical vocal line, instrumental vocables, emotive exclamations, and instructive speech” (Hahn 2007, p. 119). I can recall within my own teaching and directing experience a fluid switching between verbal movement description, stage direction, emotional direction, and sound effects in order to coach a dancer through a movement sequence. The layering of these simultaneous multi-dimensional verbal descriptions as well as kinesthetic demonstration and cueing through physical contact creates a multi-sensorial mode of knowledge transmission which seems normal in the dance setting, but in my experience, is far from a given in all learning environments. I began to wonder about which modes of transmission upon which I relied most, and which ones were perhaps more unfamiliar. Do my preferences in mode of transmission communicate to dancers preferences about performing movement and choreography? Do these preferences in mode of transmission reveal something about the choreography or about my process of making as the choreographer? Does choice in transmission modality respond to the preferred learning modalities of each dancer, or that of the choreographer? How would a piece of choreography change body by body if each body learned it through a different combination of transmission modalities?
I began with these questions and decided to experiment with the final question, asking four friends/dancers/collaborators to learn a movement phrase through a limited mode of transmission. Below I introduce each dancer and their mode of transmission, and discuss the experiences of each transmission modality. The chosen modalities were selected in response to who I know each dancer to be, taking into account their strengths as performers, our previously established ways of working together, and each dancer’s current curiosities about transmission and embodiment.
Yukina. Screenshot by Mollie Wolf.
Yukina – All non-verbal communication. Dancing with. Kinesthetic transmission. Breath, sound effects, and live bodies moving in space together.
Yukina has spent the last four years in Oklahoma, but she was born and raised in Tokyo. English is Yukina’s second language. She has voiced to me that she frequently misunderstands or misinterprets meaning when verbal communication in English is the primary mode of transmission. She was relieved when I told her that I wanted to experiment will a fully non-verbal mode of transmission. Yukina has an adept ability to notice and absorb nuance and detail in movement by watching and moving with other dancers. I imagine that her 4 years of experience working with choreographers and dancers who speak a foreign language provided her with ample time to practice and hone this mode of learning. She answered most of her questions herself, by observing me in repetition, sometimes from different angles, sometimes with me performing the movement at a slower speed. The times when she asked a clarifying question, I would answer by physically demonstrating a specific element of the movement and exaggerating the quality or position in question to make it more visible from an outside eye. In order to communicate a correction, I would embody the movement along side her, making sound effects with my voice to highlight the timing, sonically communicate intension, or indicate that there was a difference between her movement and mine. This mode of transmission felt familiar to me. It was an important transmission modality when I taught English language learners in public schools in LA. I value non-verbal communication and use it regularly as a teacher and choreographer, even when working with dancers who speak the same language as me. This experiment felt like a confirmation of something I already believed to be true: that movement is most easily learned by moving in tandem with the person teaching, and that translating movement into language is largely unnecessary.
Jackie. Screenshot by Mollie Wolf.
Jackie – Movement encapsulated by video. A single recording of me performing the choreography. The ability to pause and replay as much as needed. No live interactive feedback.
Jackie has a lot of recent experience teaching and learning through video (as, I suppose, have a lot of working dance artists in the times of Covid-19). I was relieved when she agreed to be the dancer/collaborator learning through video in this experiment, however I felt a bit guilty leaving her on her own to do the work of transmission. Generally, leaving people alone is not my preferred method of collaboration. I was unsettled with this transmission modality, partially because I felt lazy simply videoing myself and then asking Jackie to take time out of her schedule to learn it without me present, and partially because I had less control over the process. While my preferred approach to creative process is collaborative, relinquishing control has always been difficult for me. As I watch the video of Jackie’s version of the choreography, I notice two general observations: first, that she picked up on some details about timing and position that were difficult to communicate to the other dancers, especially those who were learning by responding only to my verbal direction; and second, that there is a difficult-to-name essence of embodiment that is missing in her understanding of the choreography. Jackie discussed this missing element as a ‘logic’—she said that she had a hard time understanding the logic of a certain focus, position, or sequence of gestures. She told me that she would often get ‘stuck’ in the same place because she could not glean from the video my reasoning or rationale for moving from one movement to the next. During our follow up discussion, Jackie spoke mostly about gestures, positions, facing and direction in the movement; and very little about quality, emotionality or sensation. These missing layers of embodied performativity within Jackie’s version point to the limitations of translating dance to video. Dance film makers often employ tricks of editing and multiple, if not many, dynamic camera angles in order to convey the embodied experience that is diluted when live dance performance is translated into the two-dimensional medium of film/video. Perhaps had my video included close-up shots and dynamic rather than static camera operation, then some of the emotional or sensational layers of the choreography would have been easier for Jackie to see. However as a mode of transmission, hiring a videographer and editing together a dance-film-like video to learn from seems like a rather laborious approach. There is a reason that learning dance from video is often paired with many conversations and rehearsals with a choreographer or rehearsal director who has experience with the choreography.
Cody. Screenshot by Mollie Wolf.
Cody – Only verbal communication. Emphasis on imagined scene, character, story, emotion, performance quality. Little to no movement description.
Cody trained in theatre for years before pursuing dance as a career path. They have always struck me as a performer who can access emotional extremes as well as expressive nuances with honesty and clarity. Cody and I have trained and worked together frequently in LA over the past 5 years, usually with me as the choreographer/director, and them as the right hand performer/collaborator. They consistently engage with the making process, asking questions, voicing experiences, and offering bits of feedback that widen, focus, deepen, or redirect the collective processing, always seemingly at just the right moment. They assumed this role naturally as we experimented with transmission based primarily in communicating emotional performativity through language. This was the transmission that felt the least comfortable to me. I am very physical while making, so limiting myself to simply sitting in my desk chair, speaking to Cody through a zoom call on my computer screen felt stifling. I frequently fought the urge to jump up and do it with them. Often, in my normal creative processing, I use my body to find language, moving through a physical expression until the right word or phrase for the embodied experience presents itself. However in order to honor the limitation I defined at the onset of our rehearsal, I could not express or demonstrate using movement. Cody, as usual was generous in the process, asking questions to lead me to directive language that was specific enough for them to experiment with and embody. While cultivating the language for emotional description was difficult to do without embodying the movement in real time, there also was a freedom about this mode of transmission. Even before beginning the rehearsal, I had already accepted that Cody’s version of the choreography would likely be drastically different from mine in shape, pathway and timing. While finding the language was difficult, the results of this transmission modality were generative, creating an entirely new version of the choreography that gave voice to Cody’s interpretation of the narrative circumstances and embodied experience. Our rehearsal together inspired in me ideas about integrating this type of transmission more into future creative processes.
Jadd. Screenshot by Mollie Wolf.
Jadd – Only verbal communication. Emphasis on movement description, imagery, and sound effects. Little to no description of emotionality or character.
Jadd is a philosophically curious political scientist, turned creative writer, turned dancer who began his formal dance training in college. He and I have worked intimately with each other in collaborative processes since 2010. It has been a while since our last collaboration, as he has been living in Beirut and I in LA, but we have a friendship and working rapport that seems to instantly return whenever we begin again together in making. While each process is different, Jadd and I have roles that we tend to fall into with each other: him leaning more heavily into the conceptual and narrative aspects of the work, and me leaning more heavily into the movement and staging aspects of the work. Our past experiences together assisted in this process of transmission primarily through movement description. Jadd knows (or at least once knew) my movement tendencies well – my use of weight, momentum, focus, etc. Throughout our transmission rehearsal over zoom, he frequently asked questions about these aspects of the choreography, and voiced moments when he was making assumptions about these aspects based on his memory of my tendencies—often though, the assumptions were valid and worked to bring his approximation of the choreography closer to my original version. In this transmission modality, my ability to remember and communicate the mechanical and technical aspects of my choreography was put to the test. When describing a particularly complex motion that involved multiple layers of energetic direction, balance, focus and timing; I would ask Jadd to do the motion over and over, adding descriptions of each layer with each repetition, inching our way together toward the full layered complexity through iteration. This process was tedious for both of us, and multiple times during the rehearsal each of us exclaimed something to the effect of, “I wish you(I) could just show me(you)!” This mode of transmission felt like a work-out of sorts—an exercise to stretch my ability to communicate movement sequences, pathways, and mechanics using spoken language. While I see the value of developing language for movement description for the purposes of writing about dance and perhaps in circumstances (like those during a pandemic) that prevent dancers and choreographers from being in the same physical space together, I find movement description alone to be an inadequate mode of transmission for movement. However, paired with kinesthetic dancing alongside each other, movement description can function to add layers of embodied nuance that are not readily visible from an outside eye.
Some thoughts in conclusion…
I enjoyed this experimentation with transmission. I learned about my preferences within modes of transmission and how those corresponded with my strengths and weakness within each modality. I acknowledge that a huge portion of any success or failure of each experimented mode of transmission depended upon the working relationship and social rapport that I have with each dancer. For example, perhaps learning from video would have been easier for Cody or Jadd, both of whom have worked with me for years, than it was for Jackie, who has only known me for two months. Though defining success and failure were never the point of this project. I found the context of an experiment to be freeing. The low stakes associated with an ‘experiment’ as opposed to the higher stakes of an ongoing ‘creative process’ provided the dancers and me with a willingness to be confused and an acceptance of getting it wrong. I hope to bring that quality of experimentation into future creative processes, as well as the use of limited modes of transmission to generate varied performative responses to the same choreographed embodied experiences. While I have learned a lot, this experience brought up more questions: What is choreography—a sequence of positions; a transformation of a character; an experience of crafted, witnessed embodiment? What elements of choreography do we prioritize over others, in which circumstances, with which collaborators, and for which audiences?
Hahn, Tomie. Sensational Knowledge: embodying culture through japanese dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.