Almost a week on from our performance, I am finally beginning to feel the haze of effort lift from both my body and mind. Performing, for me, often leaves such haunting traces, traces in which the performance still in some way inhabits us and refuses to let go. These are embodied traces, in which — through a shared experience — our bodies are actively transformed, as the result of doing and witnessing merge into our corporeal schema and become an innate part of our being. Leylines was for me a deeply personal performance, demonstrating a working through of certain recurrent issues in my recent work that I am as yet unable to fully grasp. It is often stated that artists keep re-making the same piece in different ways throughout their lifetime – and this has certainly been the case for the first ten years of my practice, which were almost exclusively centered on pianos. The beginning of this year marked a new phase through a collaboration with sound-artist Ross Whyte for a piece entitled Earth Sounds for dancer and amplified soil. In this performance, the themes of rebirth, death and struggle — as well as of slowness — came to the fore as qualities I was grappling with choreographically. Often this grappling is tied to a deeper reason, one which the artist is not able to fully identify and one that will keep re-emerging until whatever the question is that is being asked has been fully answered.
During our post-performance talk many highlighted the theme of birthing — as well as that of slowness, repetition and effort — themes that in Leylines became the bedrock for a performance that was also tacitly centered upon the relationship between the old and the new. Our constructed pathway, delineating materials from seaweed to slate and gravel, seemed to inaugurate a passageway from the archaic to the industrial, which was framed by the frequent interruption of every day sound into an otherwise gradually evolving landscape of humming and drones by sound-artist Suk-Jun Kim. Among the comments made after the performance was a tribute to zen, and the nature of stillness within chaos that is often so hard to find within a city of blaring traffic, rhythmic footsteps and faint electronic hums. So it was that the performance produced a relationship between sound and movement that was somewhat contradictory, the intense and often dramatically diverse sound material working in contrast to the slow, repetitive and often arduous movement on stage.
There is certainly an argument to make Leylines a durational piece, with all the sense of its protracted and repetitive action – yet, to do this would I think give our audience an easy route out. Duration, by its very definition, is about endurance — and perhaps it is unfortunate that the fashion in which durational performance has evolved is one in which the audience can come and go as they please, thereby missing the effect that experiencing the full progression of a piece can elicit. This has to do with an audience being willing to work through moments of dis-attention and discomfort. And while as individuals we may not actively choose to participate as witnesses to a performance that is inherently challenging, sometimes these are the performances that in the long run still have us thinking about them weeks or even months later.
Framing Leylines as a dance piece rather than as an installation or piece of performance art is therefore something that I have yet to decide. On the one hand, the action on stage is derived from dance forms such as Butoh and Contact Improvisation — two disciplines that I think deserve much more attention in the commercial arena. These are forms that subvert our expectation of what dance is and who should be doing the dancing. On the other hand, the qualities and the concepts preserved in Leylines are more typical of what one would find in an art gallery than on a public stage, and, as such, could be enacted in a more loose fashion, outside the theatre within a natural landscape, or as a piece of physical art into which one strays and ponders for as long or as little as one wants. Indeed, the place where dance and performance converge is often where we stumble across terms like live art and art action; terms that to the general public may have a different connotation — and indeed, expectation — about what it is they are about to see.
Coming away from our performance, I felt myself returning to all the originating premises of working when I began to evolve my practice fifteen years ago – the sense of wanting to create a challenging environment, moving away from ‘spoon feeding’ audiences by filling their senses with something that was complete, polished and understandable. The work I have enjoyed seeing, and that has left a lasting impression on me over the years, is work that does not provide clear answers, but rather leaves one wondering. I refer to works such as the films of Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, and to a lesser extent work coming out of French New Wave cinema (Michael Haneke, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and Leo Carax) as well as the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. In Five, a series of five short films, Kiarostami provides static shots that evolve extremely slowly, preserving a temporality that we rarely encounter in modern day living. In one such film, the framing of a beach scene provides the backdrop of a bare and hazy line between sea and sky, which in turn depicts distant moving figures, eerily redistributing themselves in a series of minimal but highly intriguing arrangements. The observer cannot decipher what these moving beings are — humans, dogs or birds — since the perception of distance is left unresolved by the absence of a referent. In watching such films, one faces the challenge of having to maintain the attention to a framework that habitually does the complete opposite — bombarding us with umpteen frames per second and smearing the screen with more than most brains can imaginably process. By contrast, Kiarostami’s work invites us into a meditation, one not only of trained observation, but also of self-reflection as we witness our own responses to what we see before us.
When interviewed about Five, Kiarostami memorably talks about his process by describing how he set up his video camera and promptly fell asleep. The emergence of the figures in the distance were therefore created in the film purely by chance. This is an element that seems important to Kiarostami in another of the five shorts where a piece of wood is left to drift in the sea and is eventually split into two by the force of the tide. He describes how the wood-splitting could have been orchestrated for a precise moment, using explosives. For Kiarostami, however, the process was more poetic by awaiting a response from his collaborators ‘the wind and the sea’. In Leylines it was thus not only the sense of a slow progression to our performance that was important, but also maintaining such elements of chance. The movement, being almost entirely improvised, meant that moments occur that are unexpected for the performer, bringing to the material a freshness, and dare I say realness, that could not I think be achieved in an extensively rehearsed piece. Such moments in our performance occurred, for example, when I strained to resist the weight of the rock as I lifted it over a two inch lip — the first time it caused me to unexpectedly vocalise as the weight of the rock became too much and it yielded to gravity — the second in which I myself yielded to gravity from the final effort of meeting the rock with its resting place.
Yet, in Leylines it is not just the sense of endurance for an audience — as they realise that there is a long pathway full of dead ends to transverse and it is all happening rather slowly — but it is also the sense of effort invested in moving the rock itself. I recall here choreographer and dance theorist Emylin Claid’s writing on illusion in dance, in which she describes how effort is habitually concealed during ballet performance so that the observer is constantly in search of a ‘real’ (i.e. non-illusory) body that is hidden from view. To do the antithesis in dance — to deliberately choose to manifest effort — is difficult territory in which, if we are not careful, we can easily fall into fakery, mime and hamming. So in wishing to manifest effort in Leylines we were careful to choose an action that was impossible to ham – the effort of moving the rock was genuinely difficult and, rather than choosing to hide this quality of effort, we chose to frame it as a central premise of the work. This, perhaps more so than the sense of duration, was uncomfortable for the audience as, in all performance, we have a certain sense of going through something together — with all the physical empathy that this can evoke. The spectator struggles to hold their attention to an object that is interesting enough to engage with in moments but is difficult to sustain. However, through this process they experience a very real identification with the body of the performer, whose physically exhausting act triggers an empathetic pathway in their bodies as if they were executing the act themselves (Reynolds & Reason, 2012). This sense of identification frames Leylines as a performance that is as much about the spectator as it is about the performers as well as by presenting the observer with their own critical self-reflection as an object of performance.
The action of moving a heavy rock at a more or less constant speed is in itself limiting. One cannot do much in the way of dynamic movement — or indeed convey much contact with the environment outside of the physical objective of moving the rock — to diversify the watching experience. I feel quite strongly than any attempt to diversify the movement material in this way would have resulted in something that was false: we were clear from the outset that all movement should be directly derived from the act of moving the rock itself and in fact my wish was that the rock, rather than the performer, should become the focus of the piece. Through the act of moving, the rock begins to take on a life of its own: by the end of the performance, the body of the performer is no longer moving the rock but has rather become an accessory to it, following it, as if it had somehow acquired its own volition. So it was that the performance in fact became about this transforming relationship between body and rock, as well as between the old and the new, the archaic and the industrial, the static and the fluid. This was not a performance of enacting, but a performance of doing, a performance of reflection rather than a performance of predetermined thought. In this sense, the legacy of Leylines is an embodied one, not only for those who executed the performance itself, but also for all those who entered into a kinaesthetic dialogue with an as yet unfinished process of empathetic observation, physiological endurance and self-reflection.
— Imogene Newland
Claid, Emilyn (2006) Yes? No! Maybe … Seductive Ambiguity in Dance (London: Routledge)
Reynolds, Dee & Reason, Matthew (2012) Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices (Chicago, IL: Intellect Ltd.)