Dance and Philosophy : Movement in Space and Time

Dance workshop with Eva Burghardt. Photo: Inasa Bibic
Dance workshop with Eva Burghardt. Photo: Inasa Bibic

Dancer and choreographer Eva Burghardt gave an intensive dance workshop on campus the weekend of 25th-26th of April. Body Space Landscape was a «movement-based» workshop which mainly aimed at exploring all three categories through questioning the conservative understanding of dance as an artistic medium for certain types of corporeal expression. After two days of thinking bodies in movement, whether in the space of the studio or the architecture of a factory, or the topography of a park, I am still stupefied (almost ashamedly) by what I have considered to be a qualitatively different philosophical experience. Never before have I seen dance and philosophy — two distinct modalities of experiencing the world (as I previously thought) — converge in such a spontaneous and highly effective fashion. How does one think movement? I am convinced that both dance and philosophy (and here, dance will be privileged) are helpful in (beginning to) answering this question.

The first distinction to be established in order to proceed with this investigation is between dance and movement. All dancing is moving but not all moving is dancing (or so we think). Dancing seems to be an activity impregnated with a history of ballet-inspired disciplinary ethics, technical rules, formal organizations, set choreographies, order and répétition (which in french means both repetition and rehearsal). This, in a sense, communicates fixity in contrast to movement. However, movement could be easily thought of as the basic matter of dance as an artistic practice. Hence, a movement-based approach to thinking and practising dance distances the medium from its historicity, its identifications throughout its history, and shifts the focus onto the phenomenon itself. If the attempt is to think dance philosophically, one needs to succumb to the philosophical tendencies, namely, think dance universally beside its historical condition. Also, let’s be honest… movement is just more hospitable, less formal and, one could indeed argue, ‘primordial’.

I am usually conservative, somewhat realist or maybe simply moderate about art, its methods and praxis. But in the case at hand, I must admit I am attracted to the post-modernist spirit of experimentation and the utopic language of the fantastic. Movement is universal — and everyone is a dancer. “Everyone” includes those of us who lack the technique and fear the stage, in addition to those of us who do not have the body, nor are interested in the craft, and evidently those of us who cannot partake in the tradition of dance simply because of certain limitations; so-called ‘disabilities’. Disclaimer: this is not a humanist attempt to show the harmony of people in movement, nor should this be taken as a ‘radical’ postmodern attack aiming at breaking the boundaries of the medium and destroying its aesthetic identity. I have simply realized that thinking dance as movement deflects and dissipates prejudices, and opens a space for new ideas and different channels for thoughts.

In the two-day workshop we explored—what seemed to me—unique channels for thinking and effecting corporeal and temporal potentials. Primarily in relation to the category of the body, exercises of improvisation (and I would say of imagination) inspired thinking of different qualities in and via the body. Eva would say: «imagine your body is filled with air and see how it moves» and then «take whatever comes, embrace it». Be it air, oil, water, or lightness, intensity and weight, we thought the Body via the medium of movement. We contemplated the body not as what it is, but rather as something not unfamiliar, uncommon, yet real, visible and felt. In that sense, thinking the Body through motion, the body exposed the infinite possibilities of what qualities could be found and understood in its presence and motion. With these hypothetical propositions, the body becomes a site for knowledge, and as such, its movement could be understood as that which is determined or figured through the interplay between improvised gestures and floating ideas in the concreteness of the space and in the duration of the motion.

This first subject of exploration, i.e. the Body, was mostly supported by a correlative and simultaneous exploration of the second category – Space. This meant paying attention to the necessary connection of a moving body to other bodies, entities and elements in the same surrounding. Hence, the individual improvisation was now played out in duos or trios, gradually engaging with different spatial levels, forms and objects. Whether on the wooden floor of the studio room or underneath the blue sky of the park, these connected movements instantaneously created artistic situations… earthly constellations. Earthly, for all the potential spaces discovered and created in and between the surroundings were always in the here and now.  

Two examples might help make this somewhat more intelligible. In one exercise, we looked at the body’s anatomy and were reminded by Eva about three central coordinates: the head, the torso, the pelvis. Each point acts as a container; the skull contains the brain, the rib-cage (or the friendlier German version “rib-basket”) contains the lungs and the heart, and finally the pelvis contains the sexual and digestive organs. The task was to first imagine and feel these containers on their own, independently from their content. The second task was to experience both the content and the container together through allowing a transmission of the spontaneous movement which is now informed by this epistemological reminder, namely, the distinction between the ‘content’ and the ‘container’ — or as they say in Philosophy, the content and the form. Next, we made trios where one moves as a ‘content’ and the other two move around the content as its ‘container’. The results were magical!

The other exercise that underlined the intersection between imagining, moving, knowing and understanding was related to the category of Time. We were asked to move in slow motion on a pathway in a park for about 10 minutes. It was sunny, the park was full, everything seemed to be normal, going according to plan. Once we started slow-moving, a change unfolded. For some minutes, we were simply walking in an excessively slow fashion. However, to the people in the park (who were indeed looking strangely at us) the motion must have appeared bizarre, somewhat abnormal or simply «out of context». I stepped outside the slow motion and looked at what the rest of the group was doing in order to confirm this hypothesis. And yes, it was indeed strange — it was a performance. The people, without knowing it, were the ‘audience’.  Simply… fantastic!

I realized that a performance is a matter of effecting or subverting a norm (linear time, for example, as it was the case in the previous exercise). Or of a use, a habit, a behavior (the body as content and container for one’s own body and for others). Or simply playing around in the landscape of the present reality; almost an effortless de-contextualization — whether temporal, spatial or corporeal — which necessarily creates an alternative context within the same environment without having to destroy the landscape or ‘deconstruct’ it as such. A space of infinite possibilities and alternative realities; and I believe that the magic lies in understanding movement properly. In dance this translates to vision (cognitive or imaginary) and the reception of the present experience (idea, feeling, impulse, etc.) that always finds its ways to emerge out of the body, always somehow on time.

There are of course obstacles. In dance too, the question of the form or the ‘container’ seemed to be very challenging. As the content, the moving-body is unfolding its movement, the imposition of a form that contains and supports the content from the outside is a difficult decision in general — and to do it while moving is worse, for it must be immediate, improvised, spontaneous and yet productive of continuity, of rhythm and association. To circle the dancing-content, to frame it without determining it, support it, while leaving sufficient space for the free breathing of the movement to take its course, to co-constitute a choreography and to perform with no previous agreement whatsoever, is not an easy matter even for the greatest dancer or philosopher. To embrace the incompleteness of any movement as it unfolds in space and time and to leave a common gap for a duo or trio to collectively co-inhabit is a common struggle for all. Is not this magic or what? Thinking dance as movement makes knowledge tactile, felt and understood.

Many philosophers worked with the metaphor of dance. However, (unfortunately) few were the ones who decided to take it seriously as a medium of thought and as a paradigm for philosophical creation. If the medium of dance is not capable of speech, in thinking movement while dance, meaning, expression and language are still at work, you would be only speaking a different language, not that of your body, or the Body abstracted and universalized, but of movement itself, which anyone can feel, interpret and transmit. Movement might not be textual, but it is nonetheless resourceful for thinking meaning, relations, and time, for it carries with it a capacity for communication, coordination and understanding despite lacking characters, words or text. As a medium, it has the potential of being infinitely different, concrete yet incomplete: you never repeat the same movement twice. But is not the production of infinite possibilities for thought a crucial philosophical concern too?

Yes, however, in Philosophy, you do repeat the same move (and sometimes the same mistake) twice and then it is a matter of counts and accounts. Maybe I should refine my previous statement: Dance is universal and everyone can be a dancer. To preserve the aesthetic allure of dance, one also needs to preserve the pedagogy, the practice, motivation  and commitment. If we can all move, then let’s learn how to dance (philosophers included) — at some point, maybe reality itself will become a stage and life would turn into a performance, a sort of a spontaneous act, and philosophers will be there to make sure, as they do, that the show goes on.  

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