December 21st, 2011
When we gather to create art, we create a microcosm model of society. The nature of this grouping allows a reforming of culture for the duration of the project at hand. In the performing arts arena, not only do we get the opportunity to create the structure from which we wish to operate, we also have the privilege of showing the fruits of our experiments, the subject of our collaborations and the transient illuminations on ways of gathering to an audience. In the case of contemporary dance theatre, part of the magic occurs in the process and part of it occurs in the act of presentation, when the everyday consciousness is suspended in lieu of the liminal. I argue in this paper for a readdressing of the purpose of dance theatre in the context of a society struggling to find a respectful way to collaborate on coexisting cross-culturally. The nature of dance performance art is such that a transformation between creator, created and witness is taking place; the roles are blurred and the aura is embedded within the entire creation, presentation and viewing process. In his description of the history of dance as it is differentiated from theatre, Eli Rozak contends that “..wheras acting produces a description of a world, usually fictional, by deflecting imprinted images to characters, image dancing, if it reflects ritual action, is fundamentally self-referential, reflecting on the dancers themselves.” (Rozak, 326) Without sacrificing the tradition of theatricality, I argue that community-engaged, collaborative and cross-cultural dance art utilizes the forms and functions of ritual, physical and mental therapy, and anthropological discourse to propose a working microcosm model for social communications through self-reflexivity.
Collision is the name of a dance piece presented at the Roundhouse Community Centre as a site-specific performance by Karen Jamieson Dance, the Roundhouse community dancers, and members of the Squamish Nation. This piece, while rehearsed and researched over three years; culminated in a performance that took place in various public spaces within the Roundhouse itself. Site-specific and community-engaged in nature, it turned its eye on the process of contact between First Nations people, European settlers and Chinese immigrants that has occurred in Canada. The Roundhouse was once the end stop of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. False Creek area was once “laden with mythology and place names, with village sites and burial grounds, resource gathering areas, it was once a very abundant area, it was like our supermarket” and the Roundhouse itself “is actually built atop one of our graveyards” (Chief Ian Campbell, Interview) for the Squamish First Nation. The CP rail saw thousands of Chinese immigrants working in dire conditions, and as the story goes, for every body’s length of rail a Chinese laborer died. Here we see the threefold way that the concept of “collision” has occurred on a political, physical and spiritual level. Couched in Karen’s own experience and context of collision, the professional dancers ‘decolonized’ their movement out of proscribed technique into a highly visceral and virtuosic form of performing colliding relationships. Chief Ian Campbell told the story of the land of the Roundhouse before the settlers arrived. We followed a journey of the community dancers on stairs, looking towards the professional dancers as they moved into the space as though they were giants, into the space where the Squamish dancers held their cultural traditions behind glass. Once in the great hall, the community dancers moved as a collective around the space as the professional dancers moved through the intricacies of the visceral nature of and ripples of collisions. The piece portrayed the histories of Vancouver through both symbolism and story and ended on an open note: the dancers exited the space into the outdoors and shone large flashlights into the courtyard, suggesting that the future is unknown and we must move together, as the dancers did, to discover it.
The concept that theatre and the performing arts grew out of ritual is contested in the academic world. What is being brought to the forefront is primarily its form and how this form ignites its function. Arnold van Gennep’s articulation of rites de passage influenced Victor Turner’s idea of the liminal space that is created when a work of art is performed, and stated that we as an audience (and even more so as a performer) can touch a state that transcends our everyday consciousness in the social landscape through this liminality. Supporting this argument are the theories of Victor Turner, specifically utilizing his term ‘liminal’:
“It is through access to the liminal that collective, holistic cultures encounter the sacred and contact the promise of restitution and reintegration. In the ritual province, brokenness of body and spirit may be healed and reunified. Before returning to a revivified daily sociality, soma and psyche are annealed again as one resilient alloy.” (Turner)
I argue that the nature of the creative process in the world of modern dance preserves the aura of meaning through this liminal space both for the choreographer and the audience. The openness of the approach lends for a unique art, in which there is space for the choreographer, collaborators and audience to draw from personal experience and histories. By utilizing the semiotics of the body, the dance allows for a suspension of the linear mind, into an empathic kinesthetic understanding of experience. The fact that dance is contagious, in the way that a yawn is contagious, we as audience can vicariously achieve understanding through the journeys performers take onstage. (Highwater) In Collision, we experience a liberating theatre, as opposed to a cathartic theatre, wherein we are not given concrete answers to what is being addressed, we are shown a depth of experience to engage with and with that we are changed forever, carrying the experience of the liminal in order to gain understanding on our own. The process to achieve this translation begins with the solidity of the creative space. In the case of Collision, Karan Jamieson as director deliberately created an atmosphere that encouraged the authenticity required for this sort of transmission of meaning.
A choreographer enters a space to experience her dancers from where they are in the process in their lives to work with that context to best present their humanity in the face of inquiry: “The choreographer here works in ways analogous to those Maugh posits for the scientist when he speaks of forging anomalous and apparently unrelated facts into new chains of theory.” (Hanna, 183) In this particular process, Karen was referred to on several accounts as being a gracious leader. She engendered respect in her pupils and collaborators because she wanted to be present with the reality her dancers brought to the piece.
"She was very respectful in seeking ways to include our Squamish Nation, considering that, we're still here and that the city's built right on top of us, our villages, our history and our way of life certainly has been altered. Finding ways to incorporate that into a production such as Collision at the Roundhouse with the professional dancers, and community dancers has been an awesome journey to allow me to grow personally, finding new ways to draw forward our traditional knowledge and apply it in a modern context, the continuity tradition - that what we do today will someday be traditional." (Chief Ian Campbell, interview)
By building a repertoire from her personal experiences, the professional dancers refined technical interpretation of act of colliding, the honest and authentic movement of a diverse group of community dancers, and the collaborative composition of technical and artistic design and musical elements, as an artistic director she created something that can achieve longevity in tradition. She thus preserved not only the aura and authenticity of what was to be exposed, but she also preserved the aura of the performers and collaborators by drawing on their authentic and present bodies. She cited that her process has evolved from the feelings of: “I don’t know where to begin, I don’t know where this piece is going, I don’t know what it’s about….and it be really difficult because human beings being such as they are, people would feel a power vacuum and want to leap in and take charge…. Till I found out that that’s my modus operandi” (Karen, Interview), and that once she accepted this, it became a strong point of departure that allowed her to create great work in diverse groups.
The group structure was often cited by dancers as a large part in the power and ability to not only access their own healing paths respectively, but also to learn the subtleties of working with a diverse group of people that artistic director Karen Jamieson calls a ‘self-selecting’ group. This means that the group of people engaged in the work may come and go until they whittle down to the number that is ready to commit to the performance. In this case, this whittling down action also occurred with the group of professional dancers, as the process was spread out over three years and some dancers necessarily took other jobs. Along the path of this whittling, many of the community dancers cited their inhibitive thoughts at the beginning of the process as giving them judgments on what dance is in actuality. Karen’s process challenged them to think beyond what is traditionally seen as a dance movement and to engage more consciously with an aware and open moving body. One dancer said that she was confronted with ideas of wondering what the end goal was at the beginning; she was challenged by the somatic approach. As the process matured and she continually ‘gave it a chance’ she found the creative process enriching. She also cited that the communal nature of the group allowed her to expand her ability to be in a multicultural and diverse social sphere outside of the dance space. Here we see how what Karen calls the ‘don’t know mind’ (Karen Jamieson, Interview) put into practice. When describing her creative process and how it relates to the larger ideas and people she is encountering, Karen cited this apparent weakness as her strength, saying that in a community that she collaborated with: “a very significant person in the community [said], ‘Don’t go having visions for us, don’t come into our community with visions, we don’t want that, we’ve had enough of that, what we need is people who are ready to learn and open their minds and find out what they don’t know,’ so the don’t know mind, empty mind is perhaps my strength.” (Karen Jamieson, Interview). It is this attitude, in combination with the unknown of how to be in an unconventional performance space and the diversity of the artists involved that I argue faces the idea of colonization by suggesting an alternative way of working together. This is an alternative to a pattern in society, and in anthropology, to think about diverse peoples as ‘others’.
In the anthropological literature, the term ‘othering’ has been used to describe the relationship between the ethnographer, or one who studies a culture, and the studied, or cultural other. In the case of the performing arts, and particularly dance, the collaborative format necessitates a suspension of the idea of the other. Through the site-specific format of Collision, this colonizing manner is suspended even further by giving the audience the freedom to move about the space, and to physically and mentally change ones perspective of the piece of art on display. The traditional proscenium relationship of performer to audience dictates a history of social norms rooted in the elitism of performers being put on a separate platform and the audience being under strict behavioral rules like sitting and watching from one viewpoint. In Collision, this relationship is challenged without merging with the audience so as to preserve the distance required to allow the audience to see the art as a different version of reality: “The uneasy distance between performers and audience seems intended to prevent either of the two from being colonized for total appropriation as the exotic other.” (Martin, 120-121) By witnessing a dance piece that addresses the violence of past colonizing narratives and the inherent violence of collisions in general, the audience absorbs the aura of the piece and the original moment becomes theirs to negotiate.
In the anthropological literature on the art of dance, I draw on two specific examples of how culturally specific dance forms are used to expand the consciousness of audiences through the healing modalities of two different artists: Lata Pada’s Revealed by Fire, and the shamanic trance dance of Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe. The decolonizing narratives that accompany the stories of these two artists serve to bolster the argument of cross-cultural performance and its practical applicability to social change as seen in Collision. Revealed by Fire challenged the traditionally held notions in Bharatanatyam of not putting personal stories on stage, and allowed choreographer and dancer Lata Pada to heal from the death of her husband and two children in the Air India crash of the 1980’s:
“It was in the solo that the narrative reached an apex, a beginning and an end of mourning, a search for loved ones who cannot be recalled, except partially. These lost loved ones were not only family but places and even ways of inhabiting the world. It was in the creation of personal symbols Pada was able to overcome the terrors of the past: privation, guilt and loss. Such healing of the past is a necessity that can occur within both cultural and personal life (Epp 1996:69).” (McNaughton, 26-27)
Here we see a transformation of what one might call cultural preservation. When the cultural practitioner recognizes a need for a change in context of their traditional practices, such transformations can occur in collision with the rules of engagement of such a culture. Lata Pada was faced with this predicament, but was also ready to see the power that she held in exposing the truths that she endured in the face of trauma. The process of creation and performance not only allowed her to address her trauma in a condensed and brave manner, but the audience was brought on an emotional journey that allowed them to understand loss in a profound way. It is in this way that she not only presented her work on her own terms, in effect decolonizing herself as an artist from what is expected of her by her home culture, but also decolonizing how the audience perceives Bharatanatyam. Bridget E. Cauthery’s article on the trance process of Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe provides clarification of this theory of decolonizing methodologies in dance: “…Mantsoe is engaged in decolonizing his own subjectivity through his performance of trance……[he] questions the relationship he has with his multiple audiences—the spirits, spectators, the cosmos, and his own consciousness—challenging both how he sees and is seen” (Cauthery, 330). We are exposed to an artist who comes from a world that combines both shamanic practice and traditional teachings of his native Zulu culture, and contemporary Western dance forms. He is described here as actively taking part in his performance as a cultural subject, always negotiating the culturally authentic with the modern experience as a performer.
These examples of decolonizing the representation of culturally specific dance modalities in Collision as the process engaged with cultural ambassadors from the Squamish Nation and a Chinese dancer. In the first case, Karen as director encouraged the active participation of Chief Ian Campbell and partner Amanda Nahanee to tell their stories in their way. They returned that respect to Karen and acknowledged her goal of incorporating this story into the piece by artistically bolstering and supporting their story and emphasis with movement and visual cues. Amanda Nahanee, a traditional dancer from a long line of dancers who led her two young nieces in performing the dances, spent time teaching the professional dancers her moves. She mentioned how she felt that the traditional dances were respected and was inspired by how they transferred into their bodies: “…by sharing the traditional dances with the professional dancers and to see them bring our traditional dances to a higher level, for me that's super exciting! And I'm learning lots here. I think it's a mutual thing." (Amanda Nahanee, interview) She further stated how she saw the professional dancers as embracing and respecting the traditional dances and as doing the best they could to bring it to a theatrical level while maintaining this respect. By being active in cultural preservation through being adaptive towards the context that is being shared, cultural representatives used the power to engage audiences in an expansive model of community, showing that learning can be accentuated when we approach viewing an art form or a cultural form through the concept of ‘don’t know mind’ as Karen put it.
In terms of how dance has been used and acknowledged in a cross-cultural setting in Canada, it is salient to note the case of the Delgamuukw case. In this case for the rights to land, the Wet’suwet’en peoples admitted their kungax (songs, dances and performances) into the trial as evidence tying them to the land. Through many tribulations and returns to court over the years, finally this evidence was accepted as valid historical data. Though the outcome of the trials was not ideal, this shift towards acknowledging dance as not dismissed as mere performance was revolutionary in terms of cross-cultural understanding: “Admitting it into the halls of official memory forces a rethinking of how performance functions as historical document and suggests that performance such as dancing enacted, and continues to enact, effect on the world.” (Murphy, 220) This fact brings much credence to Collision as having the power to effect the observer with a multi-dimensional experience of history; history not as mere didactic fact but as lived experience. Amanda Nahanee also stated a little known fact that as Europeans settled onto the land, Chinese immigrants and First Nations people were linked and that there was mutual help being given between the two cultures. We are exposed in Collision to a different mode of accounting for history, where these subtle relationships can take form. The site-specific nature of Collision, performed in the Roundhouse Community Centre, also acts as a living metaphor of the experience of histories and social discourses inherent in public spaces and the changes that they have gone through. Embodied history, as seen in the Delgamuukw case, allows for a sharing of information that is not detached from a holistic sense of truth. As per Walter Benjamin, human experience is valued in the artistic representation of history: “As communications technology proliferates, he argued, information becomes fragmented and detached from the moral philosophical guidance we think of as knowledge and might once even have called wisdom.” (Cruikshank, 64)
It is through the systems approach that I wish to synthesize my arguments here. “A systems approach to aesthetics, then, is a multileveled, highly contextual approach for understanding art. Art is seen as a product of a certain social environment, but also as a way that social order is created.” (Leuthold, 204) As Leuthold articulates, art reflects social order just as social order can reflect art. It is in this context that the art of dance has the power to heal the dancer through experience, to constantly reset the modes of production through the ‘don’t know mind’, and to recreate cross-cultural relationships through artistic medium. The microcosm truly was the macrocosm in the way that the rehearsals were conducted and how that practice related to what was being portrayed in the actual performance art. When referencing dancing on concrete floors in the non-traditional performance space, Karen had thoughts of “..this is a really dangerous environment and what you are doing is very on-the-edge. And when they would stay there and not get sloppy is when they were so exciting and so safe…..you can sort of up the stakes that way without people getting hurt, if you’ve got the support of some kind of practice”. (Karen Jamieson, personal interview) The process of training the dancers with a standing meditation before every rehearsal (both community dancers and professional dancers, though mostly in separate rehearsals) allowed the boundaries to be safely broken without injury, just as the topic of healing from trauma and violence on the personal and cultural level was also engaged with on a deep level without interpersonal injury.
The systems approach also allows us to see how healing on many planes took place in the Collision process. The healing that dance engenders touches the multi-dimensional body and the cultural body is but one part of our physical reality. When the body works through a healing process, all of the bodies are engaged. It was reported by many of the community dancers that they were aided in their particular journey towards health through their participation in Collision. When I sat down to interview one dancer, she mentioned quite pertinently that she was under the impression that a number of the twelve community dancers were dealing with health problems. After doing numerous interviews, I discovered that this was true. By engaging deeply with the physical reality of the body through mindful movement, participants were able to negotiate more honestly with their health: "I think the whole process really helped me with my healing [health issues], because there was this huge conflict that I had with my body...by maintaining it, that structure, knowing that no matter what I could do that moment, with the pain that I was going through, I could still be present there, I was still welcome." (Loretta Hands, Interview) Some participants were dealing with mental health issues, others were sustaining chronic diseases, and still others were enduring chronic pain from past traumas or injuries. In every case they cited Karen’s instruction as an invaluable resource for them to learn how to have a deepened sense of groundedness, stillness, or spark in their life. The ability that dance has to encourage endorphins to do their good work in a body in pain is paramount. So too is the capacity to feel connected in a group that is sharing a similar journey, both artistic and physical, and to expand their awareness of how they live in their bodies: “Just as someone who has never seen the color yellow has no way of conceiving what the color is like, people bound into specific body controls cannot experience the vivacity of physical freedom until they break those controls.” (Halprin, 251) A news article about Parkinson’s disease and the benefits of dance describes a husband and wife duo who speaks of the healing potential of gathering in a space where non-verbal communication is shared by a community: "We check our Parkinson's at the door and we're all one community, mutually supportive and we dance together," said her 71-year-old husband. "It's just a marvelous experience." (Huh) I encountered a similar sentiment with the community dancers in the Karen Jamieson Collision process, only they went further by saying that the journey spanning time culminating in a performance allowed them to not only be inspired by their own capabilities, but also see themselves situated in an art form with those who have dedicated their lives to the passion of creating art. One dancer stated that at the beginning she had a tough time with stillness in the body; she was hyperactive and at times anxious. This same dancer stated that she was dealing with chronic pain and injury, and had endured many auto collisions. She cited that at the end of the process she had achieved an ability to not only access stillness and relief of pain through dance rehearsal, but also to access it in everyday life in the way that she dealt with herself and the people she chose to be around. It is salient to note that dance therapy has been utilized for healing trauma:
“ ‘Utilizing drawings or psychodrama may help [these indi- viduals] develop a language that is essential for effective communication and for the symbolic transformation that can occur in psychotherapy.’ As Van der Kolk suggests, the language of creative arts expression may indeed compensate for or even overcome difficulties in using words to convey feelings. This difficulty, alexithymia, is a common occurrence after exposure to extreme stres- sors, and one that this prominent trauma researcher and others have found ‘mirrored in actual changes in brain activity.’” (Harris, 140)
In my interview with Karen, she stated her belief in the capacity dance has to engender healing of trauma: “it’s a non-verbal encounter/engagement with what’s unacceptable to oneself, I think that’s the basic problem of trauma is people shut it away somewhere where it’s no longer available but it’s working at them in a negative way”. She further stated that in trauma therapy, one is attempting to get two sides of the brain to dialogue, which further bolsters the power of dance in this area, as dance requires a cooperation of the right and left brain. In the case of dance theatre performance, trauma is healed in several arenas through the modernized version of a ritual community healing; the act of being witnessed allows for the performers to transcend everyday consciousness in order to access a deepening layer of the experience, while the audience is privy to this experience. For First Nations people, being heard is an integral part of the cross-cultural healing process, as delineated by modern and traditional dancer Penny Couchie: “Dance is part of our families and a celebration of the people, and her it’s part of political activism. It’s part of us saying, ‘We are the people who genocide has been performed upon’. It’s our voice.” (Doolittle)
The process of making art is like decolonizing one’s mind. In the act of making art, that is to distinguish art from the replication of a stylized form, we extract our programs to make space for an embodied perception of knowledge rooted in the present. When we make art, we cannot use proscribed ways of being to understand a thing. Just like the world and what is happening in it informs the direction we take in life, so the creative process is informed by the present. When we walk to work in the morning, we may be stopped by a car crash, or we may drop our scarf. These acts and occurrences influence our trajectory in ways that we cannot predict and effect the way we see the world. While we may be taught that it is imperative that we govern our lives by certain values and rules, these values and rules can be challenged by a mind that experiences the present. I argue that it is through learning how to approach the creative process and through concentrating on a defined issue in the process of making art; we open our capacity to allow our brains to be elastic. We may not get the answer to our questions. Most likely we enter into a realm of interest with inquiry, with wondering about the nature of something. But unless we actively regulate our inquiry in order to control our audience, then what we suggest will be incomplete. I argue that it is the nature of this incompleteness which serves to liberate our bodies, and thus our minds from the barriers we put upon ourselves. How can we create solutions to present day problems with programs we have learnt in the past? The head composer of music for Collision articulated this stretching of ones abilities and knowledge of the self’s patterns with an interesting description of his experience in many collaborative art projects: “there’s an old joke that musician’s always rewrite the same two pieces over and over and over again, and I think it’s kind of true; one of the things I like about collaboration is that it forces you to explore a different side of my brain I wouldn’t normally explore, as a producer of music, I didn’t know it was inside of me.” (John Korsrud, Interview)
We can move forward more creatively in society if we apply a true embodied presence, a body that comes into a space to experience what is living in the space and move from that point: “Theatre only has a meaning if it allows us to transcend our stereotyped vision, our conventional feelings and customs, our standards of judgment – not just for the sake of doing so, but so that we may experience what is real and, having already given up all daily escapes and pretenses, in a state of complete defenselessness unveil, give, discover ourselves.” (Grotowski, 188) It has the capacity to take us beyond discovering ourselves, to assist us in discovering our past selves in context with our future selves in consideration of what it is that we want to see outside of ourselves. When we dance, we dance with the body we have now. We may feel a possible future inside of ourselves to transcend the limitations of our present abilities or disabilities, and we may also be aware of the limitations we were working with yesterday. The interesting aspect to focus on here is that though we may feel the possibility of that future body, we cannot know what it is actually like to be in that body until we are there. We also are trapped if we allow the thought of our former body inform our movement today. With the moving body, we literally will become stuck if we become too dominated with what we think we may be today (the body’s limitations of the past) and what we may think we are capable of (the body of the future). If we took this concept and applied it to the mind, we may be able to dislodge ourselves from the idea that we “know” what outcomes are meant to look like. When we dislodge this, we make room for what may be, which could be diverse permutations of peaceful co-existence.
In an interview with Chief Ian Campbell, he describes the history of the area around the Roundhouse as being full of slews and freshwater springs and describes their cultural meanings and spiritual significance “Fresh water is very sacred, so going through that portal, you reappear in a spirit realm, and that’s kind of what we’re showing as we come down the stairs and dance across the floor…we come to the collision with the dance studio which represents the reserve system”. It is here that he describes the healing symbolism embedded in the artistic form. Though the translation of these symbols may take many forms and may require time and reflection, it is my belief that Collision successfully shared an embodied history, a present possibility for cross-cultural healing and future collaboration by exposing the unknown nature of the artistic path and how it relates to the everyday existence of society. Young states in his book Intercultural Communication that misunderstanding is not reserved for intercultural settings, but that it is a constant of the human condition. We see this in the translation of dance, but we are liberated from the confines of the need to understand into the realm of the need to explore, search, ask questions and wonder. Chief Ian Campbell articulated that as the dancers and collaborators neared the doors to exit the space, they were symbolizing the responsibility we all have to contribute to our collective strength. Through describing the art process, production and performance of Collision, it is clear that “through access to the liminal that collective, holistic cultures encounter the sacred and contact the promise of restitution and reintegration. In the ritual province, brokenness of body and spirit may be healed and reunified.” (Turner)
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