Two Sides of History, and a Phenomenological Bridge

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I was walking out of the Yale Art Gallery into the sunshine, carrying a bundle of ten-foot long sticks, when I suddenly knew what I was going to write about. During those three hours in the gallery space, I unknowingly began to understand something. After the performance, I realized that the conceptual gap I previously wedged between Brown’s early works and her later choreography had narrowed considerably. For three hours I felt like I was able to enter Brown’s artistic world and glimpse the concepts and questions that resided there. Discovering this mindset bridged the decades; I found in the Early Works an altogether unexpected congruity with the choreography we’ve been rehearsing for weeks. Like the faces of our audience pressed against the glass of the gallery windows, from the outside I can only see things. From the inside, I feel them. In feeling, in doing, there resides an understanding of the artist that cannot be uncovered from the outside. Today I came to terms with this realization, and from the inside I’ve begun to discover foundations that underlie both the Early Works and “Newark” (New Work).

 

Above all, there is patience. Without patience, there can be no discovery. Patience is an allowance to work through things, rather than towards things. Patience relieves the anxiety of “getting it,” the goal-directed anticipation that clouds my efforts with frustration. By accepting patience, repetition and simplicity become first bearable, then pleasurable. I am patient with the weight of my body as my arm drops, feeling its directionality and momentum. When accustomed to instantaneity, patience feels like “no.” But now, willingness unto openness, responsiveness, and patience is a resounding, “yes.”

 

In my last blog post, I focused a good deal on the notions of activity and passivity, and how this choreography throws the specious binary into flux. Patience is the implication of waiting, of passivity, and implying non-action—a deferral of action. In this choreography, however, I find an active patience; much like active feeling, the phenomenological vocabulary of the choreography does not fall into two easy categories. Experiencing can be “agentive” (consciousness directed towards phenomena), and directing can be “passive” (saying yes to physical force), so the two blur together inextricably. Implicit to the distinction is the tacit assumption that agency is closed and passivity is open. Given the deeply experiential nature of YDT’s work, I want to pause and consider consciousness as a topic of discussion.

 

I will cursorily sketch out some of the main philosophical ideas relevant to consciousness, and later on see how my own experiences depart from or align with them. Consciousness forms the foundation of phenomenology, and learning choreography is often an experiment in consciousness. Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenology relies on the consciousness as intentionality, emphasizing the subject’s intentional direction awareness of objects. From this, objective conclusions can be drawn about first-person experience and its relationship to knowledge. Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty propose a more dialogical process, in which the subject is contextualized in the greater world of objects and consciousness cannot be reduced to its knowable components, focusing more on being than knowing. Whereas Husserl focused mainly on the mind, Merleau-Ponty’s idea corporeity proposed that the body is always inherent in lived experience.

 

Buddhist philosophies of mind and body, particularly mind-body theorist Yasuo Yuasa’s thought, bypass the Cartesian mind-body dualism/spirit-material idealism all together, an alternative to the metaphysical basis of Western philosophies of consciousness. There are several reasons why I think Yuasa’s philosophies are particularly suitable for dance:

 

1)    The basis of non-dualism avoids the need for material/spiritual, subjective/objective, and theoretical/practical distinctions.

2)    Consciousness is not static in an innate form. Rather, the body-mind can train latent consciousness through cultivation (including physical practice).

3)    Physical practice, by virtue of non-dualism, develops the undifferentiated body-mind.

 

 

Keeping in mind Yuasa’s ideas, my experience studying this choreography has been a journey from the feeling of mind encountering body as two separate entities to a sense of unity working united, facilitating focus and responsiveness. To bring the discussion back to the gallery, while performing I discovered that the philosophy of patience serves as a way to train consciousness, which carries over into Brown’s dances. My goal is to provide a phenomenological analysis of how they are the same.

 

Lying on the ground of the art gallery sculpture courtyard, cool stone and leaves under my back, I wait for the cue to lift my stick and proceed to lift it up and slide underneath it. In “Horizontal Sticks,” five dancers slide under their sticks to the other side, sit up, swing their leg over to straddle the stick, change their grip, and then sit back down on the original side to slide back underneath it. Sounds simple, right? The catch is that the dancers have to keep the ends of their sticks in contact the entire time. If the connection breaks, the dancers must fix it before moving on.

 

The horizontal sticks can be maddening. My hands cramp as I painstakingly try to meet the end of the stick in front of me, shaking all the while. A single break in the line has a domino effect, requiring us all to regroup. The exercise can be taxing, but it also brought about an amazing realization. At the gallery, it struck me that the stick game ends exactly as it begins. The point is not just getting it done; it’s the moments of sheer satisfaction when the sticks stay together, and the exhilarating concentration of working as a group. “Sticks” requires us to move together and sense one another’s actions in a concrete, tangible way. We are not putting out our magical antennae to pick up on each other’s “energy.” It truly is a fantastic exercise in learning to overcome frustration and come into responsive awareness.

 

Our excerpt of Newark is just like the sticks. Where I am affects Christine’s entrance, which affects Holly when she comes to push us; we keep the points connected just like the sticks. I must reach center to sweep my arm over Christine, and then join Caroline before weaving through Lila and Naomi. Newark and the sticks from Early Works may seem disparate, but they share a similar underlying choreographic ethos. The early studies are exercises in consciousness—of a group, of one’s actions, of a task—and the same kind of consciousness extends to later stage work. This discovery, accessed from inside the material, felt like a breakthrough for me in understanding Trisha Brown as an artist.

 

Another Early Work in the gallery, Primary Accumulation, requires similar patience. Four dancers lying in a line perform a sequence of 30 movements as an accumulation (1; 1,2; 1,2,3 and so forth), and then repeat the sequence 3 additional times in its entirety.

 

I was astounded when I added up the discrete movements; we do the first movement 30 times, the second 29 times, the third 28 times, and so on. Then we repeat every movement an additional three times. The sum was 555 individual movements! Like John Cage’s observation about repetition, the sequence initially took my mind through frustration and boredom, but ultimately became elucidating and beautiful. It’s a gorgeous piece to watch, and time felt slower, more measured, when we performed it in the gallery.

 

More notably, while the repetitions become engrained until they are almost automatic, I never feel that my execution is complacent. Each movement, though fairly even in time and energy, takes on its own flavor and color; I feel like I get to know them. Their idiosyncrasy, I realized forms the basis of where I find emotion in the Trisha Brown material. While my mind is devoid of any prescribed emotionality, there is something compelling and ambiguously narrative in the gestural movements of Newark. Movements are treated individually, almost as if with great care, in their details—a step forward on the right, a gentle break at wrist, another step, the hand approaches the foot (like a little boat).

 

Accumulation is also a reflection on the “naturalness” of movement. Discussing the experience of Trisha Brown’s choreography, words like “ease,” “flow,” and “efficiency” often arise. Returning to Yuasa, perhaps the phenomenon of flow is more of a practiced consciousness than an inherent state of things. Perhaps the experience of ease is actually a process of building kinetic chain reactions into the body, as well as a process of discovering objective movement efficiency from an anatomical vantage point.

 

What makes a string of disparate motions more or less “connected?” At the beginning of a phrase in Newark, we shoot our right arm into a diagonal arabesque, and then twist the plane of the body to face the wall, collapsing the back leg and dropping the arm in a single smooth unfolding. When I felt I could tap into that series of kinesthetic chain reactions, if felt like a discovery. Primary Accumulation, however, made me entertain the thought that perhaps flow is in part created as well. It’s tempting to speak of the movement as if it comes from a natural place, but the range of human movement is much broader than one kind of choreography. Primary Accumulation develops a feeling of natural flow, even though the movements themselves discrete. In the Newark material, arriving at the smooth kinesthetic fascia is as much a process of ACCUMULATION as it is an innate musculoskeletal fact. It is an accumulation of information as we negotiate with physical forces—a building up as much as a paring down.

 

In short, flow, as a conscious activity, can be cultivated, not simply found as an inherent or objective quality in the movement. As an exercise in consciousness, Primary Accumulation, like sticks, grounded me in my environment. My memories of the sequence are especially vivid: I remember how my head pressed into the stone terrace on #24, and the way Maddie’s toes pointed in my peripheral vision on #11, the only time I could open my eyes due to the bright sunlight on that day.

 

Again, patience for process fosters an ability to experience actively. If I interrogate the purpose of the movement, or even focus excessively on how it feels, my responsiveness is impeded. Repetition breeds the kind of mindlessness that is, paradoxically, utter mindfulness. The key to understanding this is tweaking the definition of mindful and mindless activities. Mindfulness, referring to analysis in the humanities, is more often continuous critical engagement. Repetition of an arbitrary series of movements may not seem like active engagement (i.e. mindless), but that level of familiarity is necessary to access information about the choreography. In this way, YDT’s research process aligns more with the laboratory approach of science experiments that are repeated to gain information.

 

The way I have been trained to think often makes repetitive or painstaking tasks extremely boring. As a student, a critical voice in my head often asks, “What’s the point? What’s the point?” and this is reified all the time. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling this way.

 

All too often, I see ideas as things to be discovered, not cultivated. Even as a dancer, I often link mindfulness with stillness. Trisha Brown’s choreography is challenging me, challenging me to see that the world is movement, and nothing has to be still for me to truly understand it. The world will not slow down for me to find focus, so my focus readjusts. Consciousness is a dance—sweeping arms, flinging legs, dives into gravity, losing my balance and finding it again, and again, and again.