Traces of Places is a dance for camera work by filmmaker Roddy Simpson and myself as choreographer, with dancer Freya Jeffs. Research and development took place at The Work Room, Glasgow, and it was filmed at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh. This is a collaborative project; I write here from my perspective as choreographer.
The work reflects themes that have interested me throughout my career in dance and bodywork, and which I explored in my practice-led Ph.D, concepts such as thinking in movement, embodied knowledge, enactive mind and physical thought. I am fascinated by the way habits, memories and stories pattern our bodies and movement and, if we accept that mind can be embodied, the idea that the shape we are (may) shape how we think. The final work of my Ph.D portfolio, haptic_dance, is a dancework received by touch by an audience of one, the aim being to offer a close-up haptic impression of the dancer’s experience. Freya worked with me to develop the choreography and Roddy helped out with documenting the process through video and photos. Documentation of dance is something I always find problematic, especially as I am not a filmmaker; my own efforts generally reflect this lack, while professionally produced material reflects the presence, perspective and creative input of the person behind the camera. To address this concern I wanted for some time to make a piece specifically for camera. Discussions about this with Roddy and Freya during rehearsals for haptic_dance led to a decision to collaborate. I knew I wanted to explore the idea of the corporeal blueprint; tacit knowledge it might hold of the kinaesthetic and kinetic dynamics of moving in familiar spaces. With haptic_dance in mind, and as a dancer, I envisioned lots of close-ups, the camera allowing the viewer perspectives that are usually not available. But I am not the filmmaker! Roddy engaged the theme by proposing to create a ‘window’, long and narrow like a letter-box slot, through which the dancers is observed by a fixed camera, and a ‘slit’ through which her image seemingly disappears and reappears. The shape of his film space then impacted on my choreographic choices, elongating the material, causing it to double back and overlap onto itself, which I then redoubled using choreographic devices such as retrograde and interweaving phrases.
My starting point was the theme of embodied memory, and specifically the kinaesthetic and kinetic processes of ‘inhabiting’ (and being inhabited by) the mnemonic traces of places. This focus emerged from ideas developed in haptic_dance. A significant inspiration was a extract from a poem, ‘Her House’, by Michael Oondatje;
I have never been into a home that is a revelation of character and time as much as hers. It contains those she knows and has known and has distilled all of her journey […] When you can move through a house blindfolded it belongs to you. You are moving like blood calmly within your own body … As if you were a blueprint of your house.
Oondatje, M. (1989) The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. London: Picador.
I wanted to explore the idea of the corporeal blueprint, the kinaesthetic and kinetic dynamics of places embodied, and what might be revealed by those dynamics. The choreographic material was developed through imaginative and physical inhabiting and orienting in a remembered place ‒ ‘there-and-then’ ‒ juxtaposed with material developed by observation of the current space ‒ ‘here-and-now’. For the there-and then-material, I asked Freya to choose a location personal to her that she felt comfortable sharing with us during the studio process, although in the final filmwork it is not identified. It is vital to the quality of the piece that the location is meaningful to her but the work is not ‘about’ the actual place, nor is it necessary for the audience to know where it is. In many ways it is the very invisibility of this ingredient and the fact that it is revealed through the quality and idiosyncracies of the choreographic form that interests me. Freya decided upon a place that she still often visits but which she has known for many years. Her memory of it therefore has a layered quality, at times referring back to her childhood while still being a part of her current adult experience.
The here-and-now material derives from The Work Room studio. Initially I assumed that the observation of the dance studio would function like a preparatory exercise prior to working in a more interesting, ‘real world’ location, although we didn’t yet know where this would be, or why. We considered using The Hidden Garden, a delightful sanctuary at the back of Tramway, and spent an afternoon taking some test video and photos until inclement weather pushed us back indoors. This then usefully prompted discussions as to why The Hidden Gardens, or any other specific site, were suitable or necessary. The here-and-now surely is wherever it happens to be, and the most important thing we can do is to pay attention. And so we paid greater attention to the studio we found ourselves in ‒ to the roof windows, the metal roof-beams, the folds of the curtains covering the mirrors, the door onto the balcony, and the amazing angular shadows cast by the afternoon sun. Careful observation of The Work Room space generated linear and ‘architectural’ choreographic material which, serendipitously, contrasted well with the introspective qualities of the material relating to Freya’s remembered location.
In one section of the choreography, material from both the remembered space and The Work Room are woven together, requiring Freya to shift her attention rapidly between distinct movement qualities and senses of presence, as she passes between times and places. During later rehearsals working in different studios, and the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh where we filmed the piece, she had to adapt her attentional focus again to take into account that The Work Room had now become another remembered place. I found this particularly interesting. It was as if a mnemonic palimpsest was being established; her kinaesthetic memory of each place was becoming overlaid with other aspects of memory, together with the kinaesthetic memory of the choreography referring to kinaesthetic memory of place. In another iteration, Freya performed live during the screening of the film (at the Jump Cut screendance festival in Dundee 2012), emphasising her corporeal presence in relation to her virtual time-zoned selves. We began referring to each presence of Freya as distinct individuals; Work Room Freya wears black dance practice clothes, the there-and-then remembered material is danced by Dress Freya, while Real Freya, dances the live material.
practices of inhabiting
The aim of specifically recapturing the kinaesthetic and kinetic memories of moving in a remembered place is surprisingly hard to achieve. Visual, narrative and associative elements tend to flood in, creating a polyphony of episodic memory resonances. To facilitate the kinetic/kinaesthetic focus I engaged various ‘practices of inhabiting’ during the choreographic process. These practices aim to encourage paying attention to the places of the past, orienting oneself as if re-occupying, or of being occupied by them. Many aspects of the practices require focusing the attention inward toward a felt-sense of embodied presence, and then extending it outwardly to the physical qualities of the present surroundings. I used exercises to encourage a sensation of re-occupying the mnemonic spaces that contribute to the shape of current movement patterning. These included methods for bringing attention first to the skeletal structure ‒ the bones ‒ then to the skin boundary and its meeting with the environment, and finally to the environment. The physical sensations elicited by these practices aimed to facilitate her transposition, through the use of imagination, into a remembered place. To heighten awareness of the bones we used exercises drawing on the Klein Technique. Many of the exercises in this technique developed by Susan Klein offer situations for scrutinising and reassessing structural patterning at the skeletal level, such as rolling down the spine, or lying with the legs up a wall to encourage lengthening and engagement of the bones and deepest muscles of postural support. Klein describes the focus of the work:
Structure is the solid aspect of our body, our container, which holds us together in the connections that create our stability. Energy is the movement within our body that enlivens us and represents our mobility through our life force. In Klein Technique™, by uniquely working on the level of the bone we bring our structure and energy together. Bone is our deepest, densest structural tissue that also conducts the most energy through the body.
To bring attention to the surface of the skin, I used practices such as an exercise drawing on the Body Weather training of Butoh dancer Min Tanaka, called Wind, in which participants work with partners to explore and exchange movement information through touch. This begins with single touch-points which give information about movement direction and dynamics. The moved person stands anchored but flexible, like a reed blown in the wind. She responds by yielding to the impulse of the touch, allowing it to follow through in her own body and then dissipate so that she returns to a neutral stance, ready to receive the next touch-instruction. One or both dancers work with the eyes closed to enhance haptic perception. After some time exploring this very minimal engagement with touch, the constraint of the anchored stance which delimits the receiver to one position is gradually freed up, enabling the dancer to follow-through her movement into space. She then begins to elaborate upon the original impulse with her own expressive movement, thereby investing her response with her own agency.
To bring attention to and explore the meeting with the environment, we engaged a practice similar to Pushing Hands from T’ai Chi Ch’uan which involves pushing-while-yeilding. The partners stand facing one another, touch the palms of the hands together and stick so that they maintain constant contact. One partner leads the other, who has to apply enough force to stay in contact whilst at the same time yielding in order to follow. Once both partners become attuned to either leading or following, the roles are gradually folded into a shared intention to both lead and follow. The contact at the palms becomes the interface for anticipating the action and intention of the other. Throughout, the centre of balance and force is in the lower abdomen at the Tan T’ien and the integration of the limbs to the axial spine is emphasised. I also drew on an exercise used in the Feldenkrais Method which establishes an ‘artificial floor’. The receiver places her foot on a flat board or book, which acts like a small floor, and her partner applies subtle pressure to the sole of the foot through this floor giving proprioceptive cues to simulate walking and standing. I employed these techniques into the practice of inhabiting for two purposes. Firstly, they enliven the feet and hands and the connections to the core. Secondly, they highlight the agency of the receiver through the choices of where to create fixed points in the joints between the proximal and distal points, and therefore the contingent relationship with the surfaces where we meet the environment (whether a partner’s hand, small artificial floors, the actual floor, or remembered imagined terrain). A push at the hand is received differently if the elbow bends or not, for example. In order to stay connected to their partner, the receiver needs to both push and yield, to reach out to the stimulus and remain anchored to their own centre. We specifically used the sensations awakened by the exercises of pushing hands and artificial floor to fuel an image of the hydroscopic pressure of each of the cells of the body pressing out against the space. This led to a felt-sensation of the space having density, which became a physical tool in the process of recapturing and inhabiting the kinaesthetic memory of an imagined place.
Another device I used was ‘marking’. I asked Freya to make marks on herself about the dance, thereby creating physical mnemonics or (re)inscribing the stories onto her body. (This marked version is distinct from marking in the sense dancers that dancers generally understand it, to mean a minimal run-through of the choreographic material for memory purposes). As she explored this idea, Freya began to adapt and incorporate some of the mark touches into her danced material, lending depth to the quality of introspection evoked by her execution of these movements, and highlighted the contrast to the externalised focus of The Work Room material.
I asked Freya about her experience of engaging these practices of inhabiting, in particular how the physical image of hydroscopic pressure worked for her:
I found that it was very hard to get into that state of mind and body without doing the Klein work and working through the stages. It was very hard to just snap into one of the stages … The hydroscopic pressure pushing out thing ‒ we did some improvisation before we went in to the remembered space ‒ that felt very grounding. Just as grounding as the foot on the book weight. The pushing out hydroscopically against the air rather than the air pushing against me ‒ I was thinking of me pushing against the air ‒ that resulted in wider positions, less curling in and internal space, much more length and external use of space … Then when we brought that into looking in the memory space, I felt much more aware of the room and the air on me, rather than me pressing out against it. Because I was in the studio … I’d been pressing out against everything there, and then I was in a remembered space and suddenly everything closes in around you, which was the whole thing about the here-and-now and the there-and-then. In the here-and-now there was a nice big light studio, and then actually in my remembered space it was much more restricted and the light was different. Internally, in my body, the light was different in that remembered space and everything was smaller. It wasn’t such a gigantic light space. So I then had to try and find a way to press out against that enclosed space and I found that very difficult, even though we’d been working for a long time on being expansive and pushing against air.
When she used the technique of marking her perceptual memory of the inhabited space onto her own body, Freya noted:
I found myself using internal pressure out against space much more for the touch version. Because I was giving pressure against my own self, rather than someone touching me … I know what pressure I need to respond to my own touch, then it’s much easier to hydroscopically expand and then inhabit the [remembered space] in a bigger way, because I know what pressure I need for that very same thing.
For Freya, the inward focus of the practice was initially emotionally very intense as if she was inhabited, almost possessed, by the remembered space, rather than inhabiting it. The process of marking in some ways helped her to give substance to the here-body of herself as rememberer, and seemed to enable her to adopt not exactly an observer perspective, but a more objective sense of the memory:
It’s nice to be able to do the [remembered space] material without feeling like I need to internalise it so much … more ability to use my eyeline and really see it externally, rather than have to go into an internal space and feel it. I’ve done that and now I can externalise it.
The marking technique seemed to offer her the possibility to choose and control more specifically which perspective she adopted. Actively engaging the kinaesthetic and proprioceptive systems seemed to make the perception of the memory more concrete; a re-inscribing of the specific bodily dynamics of the kinaesthetic memory.
The filming and editing of Traces of Places create a window through which we view the subtle presence of places that inhabit the dancer’s presence as she reinhabits them. For me, it is very significant that Roddy chose to situate the figure in the film on a plain black background, extracting her from any specific place and time. In Traces of Places we seek to bring to attention and evoke the embodied presence of place. Perhaps in some ways, the kinaesthetic patterns of the there-and-then reveal the presence of ghost gestures that haunt the here-and-now, wherever that may be. In this instance it was the Workroom and the camera which, as the spaces for our exploration of inhabiting past places made their presence felt, and inhabited and shaped the present dance.
Traces of Places was premiered at Dance: Film 11, Edinburgh. It has since been selected for screening at Jump Cut screendance festival, Dundee, GLOW dance festival Hereford, and U Dance Fresh Takes, Southbank Centre, London.