The overwhelming emphasis on the representation of the body asks us to look more closely and critically at assumptions of the body in the ways in which we teach and perform dance. Following this, perhaps more productive curatorial strategies can emerge.
Ways of Seeing to Recover the Relational Body
jackï job: Most dancers feel that their technique makes them feel safe and capable, even becoming a measurement of their worth. With reference to my class, which introduced principles of Butoh, one dancer mentioned how the exercises “made space for deep introspection and observation.” Yet, it also made them feel extremely anxious and physically uncomfortable. This is interesting, as you and I were talking about the relational body and how Western dance shapes the body very specifically, dictating a particular form that has to be safeguarded and upheld. As my methodologies have no obvious Western point of reference, they are often described as requiring no physical technique, yet, somehow, deeply impress on both conscious and unconscious levels. I often talk about the body as having multiple centres—a dancer I worked with referred to pain radiating out from the sides of their body, as if they are unconsciously becoming aware of their peripheries.
Rolando Vázquez Melken: Maybe what you do in your pedagogy is uncover other forms of being in a body, instead of treating the body as representational, or merely a technical body, an anatomical body. If you could provide some detail on the principles or techniques that you use in teaching, such as the body with multiple centres, the peripheral gaze, and the sensing of corners, then we can begin to unravel that search for recovering a relational body that has been erased or disabled by the normative anatomical body. Which body lies under the pretended certainties of representation?
jj: I define technique as the body’s ability to manifest what the mind is imagining. One of the Butoh principles I use is related to how we see. It aims to find multiple eyes all over the body, as well as develop a sense of their peripheral vision. The exercise begins with closed eyes, and a sense of looking into the corners. My next prompt would be to peer around the corner and allow the body to follow that intention. After a short while, everyone opens their eyes minimally to prevent them from bumping into things. Usually, everyone moves very uneasily and feels unfamiliar sensations in the body. I then relate the term “seeing” to 1) having vision, and 2) to understand. By extension, therefore, as soon as we start looking peripherally, we begin to understand things that are not directly in front of us. We begin to relate to things that are not obvious and are reminded that it merely requires a shift in our focus to make this connection.
On reflection, participants are often aware of multiple sensations, as well as a measure of discomfort. At this point, I mention the importance of tension, and how states of attention necessitate tension. If the tension between two different parts pulling away from each other is released, they collapse on each other and their difference is not noticed. Difference and the importance of moving through tension thus becomes important. Philosophically, we need to think through things differently to understand and see the world differently. And then, for me, we begin to develop a technique that manifests deep connections between the imagination and the body, and pays attention to the multiple lateral connections that lie in between. But of course, these exercises merely tickle the surface. I have been getting frustrated as people sense the difficulty of sustaining principles of difference, tension, and peripheral vision. This kind of work requires endurance, and that, I believe, frightens people.
RVM: One of the most important methodological principles of decolonial thinking is coming from Black feminism and has to do with positionality. In a way, positionality is a response to the claim of abstraction of the dominant position of enunciation; the self-centred and sovereign self. How can we accept being placed in bodies without position? How can we live a life of separation and indifference. I am thinking about this abstract body that is just a form and a representation, and not the body that is in position, or, in relation to others and to the multiple selves. It seems like this practice in your teaching of transforming the ways of seeing of the body and going beyond the central gaze and opening other forms of perception into the multiple eyes has to do with the idea of the multiple self that Maria Lugones speaks about.
And I am thinking, how can we exit that single self that we are forced into being and inhabit a multiple self that may pursue different things at the same time, and also inhabit different times? How do we experience different times in one time? I think this pedagogy of seeing through multiple eyes is an experiential practice of that multiple self because you might be able to perceive things in the periphery that don't come from your dominant mind, or in the case of the dancer, through conventional technique. Rather, it comes from other forms of perception and understandings that are not necessarily vocal or trained but are also part of who we are capable of being with others. So, one of the things I wonder is how that multiple self is embodied in other forms of perception to create possibilities of movement and connection.
jj: Imagining multiple selves is a very interesting concept, especially as the body is physically configured in a particular way. But with imagination, we need not be limited to that configuration. I have an exercise that finds the lion’s power within ourselves. I talk about the sense of power that the lion has but does not show off. When it looks all relaxed lying under a tree, its power is hidden. Similarly, we can try to hold power without having the need to put it on display. In the exercise, the body is balanced between the balls of both feet and the hands on the floor. The knees are slightly raised, with the head hanging in between the two arms, giving the impression of walking with four limbs. The exercise seems simple, but once we begin to move at various tempi, it requires a fair amount of strength and concentration. I insist that the abdomen region is held inwards and towards the back. One has to get oneself out of the way, in order to move forward. So, in thinking about imagining multiple selves, I consider what the lion is teaching me about being in power.
The Teachings of Material and Animate Worlds
RVM: As you were talking about the lion, perhaps you could talk about the power you learned from the praying mantis in your performance And Then…
jj: I learnt to relinquish the self. As a dancer, this means letting go of Western representations of dance that celebrates the body through balance and being upright. Relinquishing the self creates a different kind of vibration within the body and activates a power that would ordinarily remain invisible, thereby revealing an unconventional quality and strength in performance.
RVM: I am also interested in how your pedagogical practices are moving from training a body to be in space as an abstract form, to the training of the body to be in a place. Instead of the body being the centre of space, I think you are speaking of that place that is hosting the body, thereby setting the body in a place that is broader than the self, and has peripheries, corners, margins, and opacities. You are shifting the body that is self-centred and secure in the abstraction of space, into a place that is constructed of things beyond the body, and that connects to all those realities that elude the central gaze. And this body that senses that there is much more than that self-certainty or abstraction of space, is a body, as you call it, in attention. This also means being in tension or entering the tension of attention. For me, that tension that you are speaking of is about our relation to difference. So, how can we be with difference instead of remaining in the in-difference of the sovereign self, of its being as representation, as form in space?
jj: There is another simple exercise I do at the start of a class which aims for people to sense the space as being alive, and thus, ever-changing. Holding an ordinary cleaning cloth in their hand, I guide them into a posture similar to the lion exercise. Instead of cleaning the floor, I ask for a mindful clearing of the space, so as to find a place for themselves within it. This creates an awareness of the complexities of the space itself and the air that inhabits it. If one is asking for permission to be in the space, it loses its abstraction. In terms of dance, a different sensitivity develops as it becomes impossible to boldly leap across the floor. Perceiving meaning in the material world is especially enhanced when the notions of multiple eyes and peripheral vision are applied to this exercise. Nothing can be taken for granted, and a wonderful relationship that brings attention to how one attends to elements in the world begins. If the space itself has multiple entities, then you will touch it differently. Touch then moves from being manipulative or requiring evidence of things that are obvious. For me, to cause something else to touch me and move through me creates a lovely sensation in the body that takes me away from an egotistical self. This comes back to how the relinquishing of self opens oneself up to the vibrational frequency of what may otherwise be thought of as being inanimate.
RVM: There are so many things to talk about. One has to do with the post-anthropocentric. For many, anthropocentrism is a way to understand that there are non-human actors. I think it does some of that, but still remains far away from the idea of what we can learn from, for example, in relation to insects, as you are doing. This connects to cosmovisions and philosophies in which insects and animals are considered our ancestors and our teachers. Learning the language of movement of insects is a kind of connection that is beyond this Western invention of the human. It is a deep relation to other forms of life that connects us to other vibrations of life. So, for example, in your performance, you had all these branches that you collected intuitively and then put them in the scene. The mantis made that connection between the moving human and the branches evident. It was as if the mantis had learned these vibrations from the trees, and then you in turn, learnt that vibration from the mantis. Raimon Panikkar speaks of vibration as being one of the principles of life. Yes, I think you sense that connection with the relation to the insect's power that touches you and that is in turn transmitted through you.
jj: For me, a vibrational connection is being touched by something else.
Transforming by Touching the Invisible
RVM: I would like to talk with you about how the act of offering is the reverse of consumption. While we have been fixated on consuming the world, we have lost the capacity of offering. I think that the movement of relinquishing the self that you speak of is connected to the capacity of offering. It allows for the relation to enter into that place of vibration and honouring. It moves into that place of care, of the intimacy of touch, that is not a selfish gesture of appropriation, but that is selfless. Overcoming the self is a strange type of transformation. It is not the transformation into something that you want to be, but that of stopping to be that thing which you have been made to be.
jj: My performance in And Then… is quite meditative, as you know, and it feels like everyone and everything is also affected by a vibrational energy. Audiences are either quiet or emotional. Often, tears are shed and in trying to find a reason for their emotions, they relate traumatic experiences or remember something of their childhood. Like you are saying, we inhabit these bodies that we have been made into, and then it is as if the body itself begins to remember something else that is only perceived peripherally. It can only be sensed when we embody other ways of seeing and understanding the world. As those principles are applied in the way I craft my dance, this kind of vibration happens in performance and is also a real and practical way of being in the world.
RVM: That has to do with the question of being touched. So, when the audience is not just seeing as a spectator that is consuming an image, but being touched, there is a moment of remembrance, of weaving-in and weaving-back. It brings about a memory that is not there in the amnesic condition of the spectator. This moment of touch is a key moment of connecting, of the weaving of relations.
I was also thinking about the question of multiple eyes and its connection to listening. Can we think of the technical use of the multiple eyes as a training for listening? I use the term listening not just for the ears, but as shifting from the logic of gaze into the logic of reception. This creates an opening towards the difference and multiplicity that is all around us. Instead of the consuming gaze of the spectator, listening opens a peripheral reception of the times that hold us, and that in holding us, calls upon us.
Finally, let me say a few words in relation to offering, and what you referred to as opening up place. Or, what I would call, the making of place. So, the exercise where you open up place, instead of taking, invading or controlling the space, is a mode of offering, it is a way in which space is practiced as a place for the hosting of others, the hosting and weaving of difference. It is a place where offering, relinquishing, and being touched can happen. It is a place where memories can come and be hosted, instead of merely being a space of representation. I think that turning out of the order of representation is present in your work.
jj: What is interesting about listening is how hearing is heightened when one cannot see. I have an exercise where one person stands with their eyes closed and allows another to look at them. I then ask them to allow a similar gaze from the space itself. We then begin to play with a sense of closing and opening the body’s multiple eyes whilst the space gazes back. Then, another kind of listening starts to happen. It is as if the soul is aware of other vibrations. This makes sense as hearing is the vibration of little hairs rapidly beating against each other deep inside the ear. Soul listening is felt inside the body, as well as on the skin, and everything becomes alive. We have so much potential within ourselves when we realize that we are not just this body. When we embrace this realisation, the potential for intimate relationships with other humans, our children, families and with society become wide open. There are so many possibilities, and everything becomes creative and filled with imagination. Everything becomes play and has a quality of lightness.
Recovering Joy Through the Relational Body
RVM: Maybe we could close with a reflection on how the opening towards a relational body is also the opening towards a body that is capable of joy in the way of play. Maria Lugones speaks about how the notion of games in the West has to do with competition and who wins. Whereas here, the notion of joy and play is about the enjoyment with others that you cannot have on your own. So, we can understand the relational as a form of recovering the joy of life and, for me, something that is key here as well, is in the relinquishing of what I would call, the suffering self. Relinquishing this normative self that seems to be so powerful, that everybody has to attain to be recognised as human and dignified. In relinquishing that desire to become that normative self, in order to be human, there is a great freedom. It is that freedom of being, of we-ing with difference by connecting to more than the humanness. That freedom of being able to open places, so that places can host you, and embrace you, and to recover the joy of life. It is not about being seen and consumed. It is about touching and transforming others. There is deep hope in the search for pedagogies of decolonizing dance that search for the multiple relational body.
jj: It is also important to allow the offering of others, so there is this perpetual sense of acceptance and offering, where the energy constantly shifts and moves us into another place.
RVM: Yes, you enter a grammar of reception, which is different from the language of exchange. The trade, knowledge, and aesthetic economies of the West are always economies of exchange, the exchange of “equivalence.” We seem to apply that to our personal relations, too. Instead, a sense of offering implies opening space and being in that vibration of co-existence in which the relational is what makes possible the joy of life.
jj: Yes, this relinquishing of the self brings joy.
RVM: The struggle for freedom is not to gain control over the means of power. The struggle for freedom is to regain our relational selves and the possibilities of joy.
jackï job is a dancer and choreographer, theatre-maker, director, producer, and academic researcher at the University of Cape Town. Her PhD animates and philosophically analyses a personal oeuvre which in its crafting, expands the meaning of personhood and transformation in “post-apartheid” South Africa. The academic translations of her performance processes have been published in journals related to feminist decolonial discourse, soma-aesthetics, philosophy, theatre and Butoh.
Rolando Vázquez Melken is a teacher and decolonial thinker. Vázquez Melken is currently Associate Professor of Sociology at the University College Utrecht. Since 2010, he co-directs with Walter Mignolo the annual Maria Lugones Decolonial Summer School. His most recent publication is Vistas of Modernity: Decolonial Aesthesis and the End of the Contemporary (Mondriaan Fund 2020).