writing: an introduction

This page introduces some of the senstions/questions that I examined and reflected on as part of my practice-based PhD research with Prof. Susan Melrose, at Middlesex University.

The overall research undertaking comprised two primary stands of inquiry, one of which was studio-based and the other text –based. It’s overall aim was to render the decisions I make in process of inventing original choreographic works more transparent and to simultaneously investigate into if and how writing, in a range of registers, might be integrated as a strand of my overall choreographic and performance practice. Outcomes of the studio-based process of inventing “Return Journey” and “HaH” were included, in DVD format, as part of the final submission.

The text-based strand of the research comprises four chapters/ Strands. The first Strand investigates the epistemic issues clustering around higher degree practice-based research in the arts, focusing specifically on what is argued as the privileged status of writing in knowledge/theory production in the academy.  It proposes my primarily studio-based choreographic practice is a “theory” producing practice and argues that the two primary strands of inquiry cannot therefore be delimited, separated yet simultaneously co-joined, into the hierarchical relationship inherent in the categorization “theory and practice”.  I protest this configuration, which implies according to Bannerman, “conscious theory versus inchoate practice” (Bannerman 2006), as a central and critical problematic for this specific research undertaking arguing that it would not only cause the epistemic status of my studio-based research to be undermined but also require me to examine and account for my arts practice, from the perspective of conceptual paradigms appropriated from disciplinary perspectives predicated on the logic of conventional academic writing.

In this Strand I argue, after Carter, that the appropriation of theoretical frame predicated on the latter can lead to dance being used to simply support pre-existing arguments or paradigms (Carter 1998), and/or to dance being “colonized” by the word (Dempster 1988). And I ask why, despite what is increasingly being acknowledged as the limitations of the “theory and practice’ paradigm for higher degree practice-based research there remains, to date, a dearth of “alternative” formal academic research models to support artists to examine and reflect on through writing, the practice-theoretical underpinnings of their own creative, epistemic process of invention (Bannerman 2006). Because of this situation one of the aims of this research undertaking, borne out of necessity, became that of inventing one.

This Strand of text then identifies the many “knowledge-political” issues that I negotiate as part of the process of inventing a research frame to support me to cross what is, according to Melrose (2003), the ideologically- charged threshold implicit in the term “theory and practice”.  As part of this crossing, I argue, on the basis of my expertise as an artist, that the concept of theory production be decoupled from the apparatus of the alphabet so that the phenomenon of critical thinking achievable through other modes of codification, including dance and choreography, can be more appropriately integrated into this research undertaking.  The multi-disciplinary interpraxiological mixed-mode heuristic framework that emerges from this process sets out to provide for the studio-based and text-based strands of inquiry to be integrated non-hierarchically, and function interdependently, as strands of equal epistemic value rather than separated out and opposed.

The primary focus of the studio-based strand is to invent choreographic “theories” and the primary focus of the text-based strand is to support me to examine and reflect on the studio-based process of inventing these “theories’ and to simultaneously investigate if, and how, I might integrate writing as a generative strand of the latter. The text-based strands includes new modes of academic writing, beyond those positioned on the side of already know methodologies towards modes of inquiry more suitable for discovery and “theoretical curiosity” resonant with those proposed in Ulmer’s pedagogic model “mystory”; the latter does not stop with analysis or comparative study but conducts such scholarship in preparation for the design of a rhetoric/poetics leading to the production of new work (Ulmer 1994).

In this heuristic framework neither the studio-based nor the text-based strands of inquiry are underpinned by pre-determined, teleological qualitative and quantitative methodologies. It provides, instead, for questions/sensations to emerge and become clarified through the non-linear, relational positioning and re-positioning of a number of carefully selected methods and modes of inquiry. This, in turn, renders the overall research undertaking “tele-illogical” (Ulmer 1989,p.19) by which I understand, goal directed without knowing where it is going.

Strand Two examines and reflects on how methods and modes of inquiry appropriated from the tradition of contemporary and post-modern dance, the Somatic practice of Authentic Movement and Body-Mind Centering and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation function, as critical meta-practices, within my studio-based practice. It argues that their distinct, and distinctive, methods and modes of inquiry, variously and collectively contribute to the on-going refinement of my “expert, arts-disciplinary mastery” (Melrose 2003) as a contemporary dancer, performer and choreographer and support me to develop the non-linguistic “qualitative reasoning” (Siegesmund 2004, 80) processes and “research-professional intuitive operations” (Melrose 2003) that underlie the decisions I make in the process of inventing “signature” choreographic works.

In Strand Two I examine and reflect on how modes and methods of inquiry appropriated from the above disciplinary practices support me in developing the skills and sensitivity necessary to remain ‘present with’ sensations, emotions and thoughts as they arise and inflect the operations of decision-making in my process of invention. This subtle layer of processing is seldom visible, and difficult to discern, on the surface of the practice, and this has particular implications in turn for a research enquiry. As the writing spirals and slides across, and through, the fluid membranous surfaces and the distinct and distinctive boundaries that defines each of the above disciplinary practices it allows me to make their inter-related role and function in my choreographic practice more transparent and also more visible.

In my studio-based research, investigations into sensations and experiences of being ‘present with’ thoughts and emotions as they arise in the process of decision-making lead inexorably to questions about the relationship between the former and the notion of my ‘self’ as an artist-researcher. In Strand Two I extend my investigation into the question of ‘self’. In doing so I focus on research within the fields of Philosophy, Science, Cognitive Science and Psychology which compares and contrasts the methods by which Western and Eastern philosophical traditions (including the Buddhist meditative tradition of mindfulness/ awareness) carry out their respective examinations into whether ‘I’ exists as a single, independent, truly existing ‘self’ or ego. (Varela et al 1993; Wallace 1998; 2003; Galin 2003; Watson et al 1999; Guenther and Kawamura 1975; Rosch 1997; Pickering 1997).

The role and function of writing, in this Strand, is not limited to the production of analytico-referential discourse alone but includes other genres of writing in first person registers. My aim in including these genres – stories, images and memories – is to reveal aspects of my choreographic process which may be overlooked, and indeed erased, if the focus of the research were only ideological interpretations, as such interpretations tend to highlight general issues and eliminate the particular person.  Journal extracts are also threaded throughout the text to evoke, and account for, experiences of present practice; to write the experience of reflective judgment/decision-making rather than write about the experience.

Strand Three examines and reflects on how experiences of  “knowing” and “not-knowing” inform my decision-making processes and my overall choreographic practice.  It includes engagement with Practice Theorist Karin Knorr-Cetina’s research, in the field of Science, into reflexive and affective properties, specifically the sense of longing, at play in the relationship between researcher and research “object” in epistemic practices.  In this Strand I hold my choreographic practice, up to the light of Knorr-Cetina’s investigations, turning it this way and that, and find some dimensions of my relationship with the “finished’ choreographic “objects’ that comprise my body of work becoming more fully revealed in terms of their status as research-driven, creative and expert. When viewed in this light it becomes clear how each “finished” choreography functions as a “punctuation” (Knorr Cetina 2001) in the flow of my overall practice and as a resistive research “object’ against which I can push in my desire to satisfy the research drive. The latter is multi-dimensional and very complex and revolves around my desire, my longing and indeed my need to embrace the space of “non-knowing” in each process of invention.

This Strand examines and reflects on how my commitment to expand into the space of “non-knowing” requires me to relinquish, at certain stages in process of invention, not only what, and indeed how, I know. It reveals why the methods and modes of inquiry that I use to invent each choreographic work can never be entirely predetermined, why each choreographic work or “choreographic-theoretical model” – inescapably requires me to find the sensation/question and the method by which it can be made manifest simultaneously; they both emerge and become articulated progressively in a significant part, and in the ways that I relate to them, in the process of invention.

This Strand of text continues to simultaneously explore if, an how, the integration of writing, as a generative strand of my studio-based inquiry, might also play its part in supporting me to “dance” beyond what I “know” in my process of invention even as the text itself is slowly revealing that this is in fact happening; the structure and the content of the writing is becoming subtly transformed and also playing its part in transforming the questions/sensations that are emerging as I attempt to climb down to a space beyond thought “where the treasure of writing lies, where it is formed, where it has stayed since the beginning of creation: down below” (Cixous 1994, p.203).

The process of writing supports me to affirm, without apology, that I do not know exactly how I invent original choreographic works and that my desire to invent them is, in fact, “impassioned by the passion of that non-knowing” (Caputo 2008 p.5).  It is this passionate not-knowing that makes the processes of invention surprising and exciting even to its inventor, and it is, I argue, appropriate thus to say that the artist’s expertise contains ‘not-knowing’ within it.  This passion for “not-knowing” is not a passion for ignorance or avoidance.  Instead, it is a passion for an expanding awareness, in the process of invention, beyond “known” habitual patterns of thinking and judging.

In this Strand I discuss my need as an artist to follow sensations, rather than a specific methodological formula in the process of invention. I call these sensations “red threads”. Each process of invention turns and returns around these deeply felt but always – essentially-not-yet-and-perhaps-never-to be worded- sensations.  In writing out of my “passion for non-knowing” and my experiences, real and imagined, of inventing original choreographic works, I am setting out, to surrender, to the best of my ability, as I do in my studio-based process of invention, any over-reliance on predetermined methods and modes of inquiry so that I am not bound to tread pathways which are pre-determined by discipline-specific methodological tools and apparatuses – except in so much as the page itself, and its lines, impose here.  Nonetheless, I propose to set out to find new paths by following while being open and responsive to, the sensations of the red threads.  Threads might seem to be linear, and to go from there to there, but they can also bend, turn around, go slack or break.

The structure of the writing in Strand Three therefore does not echo, what is, according to Chandler the “closed textual structures”of conventional academic writing, which he argues, use univocal textural closure as a way of both controlling the reader and subordinating the topic to the authors purposes (Chandler 2006).  It proposes instead a number of layers, and it follows, and indeed it weaves and is woven by, a number of red threads, some of which emerge, after a certain time, to be identified in terms of thematic strands.  These threads each have a beginning, middle and end but do not, after Goddard, unfold in this order.

My commitment to follow “red-threads” in both the studio and text-based strands of this research reflects my desire to expand awareness beyond “known” habitual patterns of thinking and judging. However, in my process of invention, as I am seeking to account for it in writing, I do not experience “knowing” and “ not-knowing” as binary/oppositional forces, but rather as layered and overlapping impulses that continuously pass through each other. When they meet/collide by apparent “accident” I have an opportunity to experience moments of intuitive insight which can allow me to go forward. Bannerman’s account of how at such moments one can “recognize” something not previously seen (Bannerman 2006) resonates with my experience.

In this research undertaking I have come to recognize the difficulty of capturing these fragile moments through the “backward looking process of writing”, an endeavour that, Melrose suggests, is like “chasing angels” ( Melrose 2003).  With that I recognise that the writing in this strand cannot be simply backward looking, it’s function, as a generative strand of my process of invention is also to support me to look forwards to imagine, to intuit, to look from side to side to get support and inspiration from other artists and scholars.  Looking and leaping upwards, imagining; sensing and feeling downwards for safety and security in landing it turns and turns and turns inside and out, and…

I look to writing to support me in creating a space where the angel of ‘real’ time can be sensed and felt in her luminosity, like the surface of breath, moist and warm on the space it touches; to support me to turn, in the process of invention, in the space and to turn the space; to experience the space of revolution, redolent, after Kristeva and Hawkins, Cohen, Adler and Sogyal Rinpoche of intimacy, sensation and mindfulness.

In this Strand of text I imagine the heart of my process of invention as a space of receptivity and also a receptacle in all my experiences of “knowing” and “non-knowing” circulate. I imagine it as a space that reflects the Platonic concept of Chora. I imagine Chora as the spacious consciousness of Shunyatha which is, according to Buddhist tradition, empty of “I” and empty of “other”; it is absolutely empty. I imagine Chora as a space that supports me to be “present with” the emergence of new work; an asymmetrical space of openness and discernment; a relational space. I imagine it as a sacred space, where the qualifier “sacred” is understood to mean in Cixous’ terms, the celebration of “mystery and the mystery of the emergence of meaning”(Cixous 2001 p.13).

The Fourth and final Strand of writing examines and reflects on how each decision I make, in the process of invention, is always progressively modulated through the complex relational circumstances that surround, and indeed permeate what Melrose  (2003) calls ‘the fleeting knowledge practices of intuition and performance conceptualization and the macro-and micro-logics of performance production’. ‘Dance’, or choreographic invention, by implication, is invented as though for the first time, and it is ‘already there’, and subject to logical procedures. These dimensions of ‘knowing’, ‘pre-knowing’, ‘not knowing’ and ‘knowing again’, reflect my constantly evolving relationship with past choreographic works, some of which I carry in me, with the canon of contemporary dance performance, with collaborating artists from other disciplinary practices, with the audience in each performance and now, also, with reading and writing. They permeate the relatively fine feedback/feedforward ‘red’ threads, capillaries, that variously and collectively inflect the subtle layers of my ‘disciplinary-specific expert-intuitive unknowing’ (Melrose 2005) and strongly inform the possibilities that emerge, the options available, the decisions I make.

And so I move across, and through, the many layers of my arts-disciplinary practice and they move in, and through, me as I make decisions, throughout the process of inventing each choreographic work, about space (including performing area, location/venues), time (including dates/duration), costume (including colour/ shape, texture), choreography (including of my ‘past’ works, the canon of contemporary dance performance, and the structure, content, form of the emerging work), composition (including movement/stillness, space, weight, time, flow), lighting, sound (including music, text, rhythm, dynamics, silence), rehearsal (repetition, memory, dramaturgy), audience (publicity, programme notes, relationship, critical response) and, of course, the budget. I go back and forth, deciding, un-deciding, finding and losing and finding again, one thread, many threads, no thread, one thread again, and again and again in each process of invention. It is through this process that each element catalyses and transforms the other and provides for the whole work to emerge as more than the sum of its parts.  How to ‘write these’, in terms accepted by the wider research community/ies?

In this space/time of invention everything is fluid and little is fixed, even if – in apparent contradiction – dance is ‘already there’ (in micro- and macro-logical terms), as well as in memory.  I set it aside.  Even ‘past’ works are not past anymore but progressively/ schematically viewed and reviewed as some of the resistive ‘objects’ against which I push in my desire to make the new, to effect a ‘qualitative transformation’ (Massumi 2002) in terms of my own past as a maker.  In the process of creating ‘Audience (1) Waltzers’, ‘Return Journey’ and ‘HaH’ I experience this desire to find the new, as a desire to create environment(s) that can support members of the audience to experience the ‘dance’, and the space within which the ‘dance’ unfolds, in the first instance, somatically rather than through the sense of sight, through primarily seeing – or in academic terms, ‘reading’ – the movement of the dancer and its relationship with the choreographer’s way of seeing, doing and knowing.

Strand Four extends my studio-based reflection into how, and indeed why, my work as an artist is becoming increasingly driven by my longing to provide the possibility for the ‘dance’ to be experienced directly as a non-dualist sensation arising in the space between, and around, the audience and the performer(s); to create the conditions for the dancer(s) and the audience to simultaneously experience the ‘dance’ as neither ‘in something’ nor belonging to someone.

The three choreographic works at the centre of this research undertaking ‘Audience (1) Waltzers’, ‘Return Journey’ and ‘HaH’ – with which the written strands necessarily engage – each set out to propose that the relationship between audience and performer goes beyond the identificatory that appears, to me, to be central to those linear and visual ‘narratives’ that are performed in traditional dance/theatre settings.  The also reflect my desire to challenge/push against, the notion of the dancer being synonymous with the dance.  Therefore in each piece I set out to explore if, and how, the revolving movement of the performer(s) on the periphery of the space might, by subverting the primarily ‘visual/narrative’ reading of the choreography, create the space for ‘non-dualist’ experiences of ‘the dance’ to emerge.  This is a choreographic device intended to transport both the performer and the audience ‘down’ into ‘the dance’; to provide for them to ‘return to’ and feel ‘the dance’ as an experience of ‘somatically-revolving-empathy’; I name it as such to distinguish my research undertaking from investigations into so called ‘kinaesthetic empathy’  (Leigh-Foster 2010). Every decision I make and every judgment that I form at every stage of the process of inventing is carefully ‘weighed’ against my aspiration to create the conditions so that performers and audiences can be touched by ‘the dance’ in this way.

‘Audience (1) Waltzers’,  ‘Return Journey’ and ‘HaH’ all function in my overall practice as both ‘finished’ and at the same time ‘incomplete’ choreographic works.  As open, question generating processes, punctuations in the flow of the overall practice they are the surfaces and sensations against which I will inevitably push again and again in my desire (in each process of invention) to increase my receptivity to experiences of ‘somatically-revolving-empathy’, to experiences of ‘the dance, so that I might be able, in turn, to invent choreographic spaces/environments in which the latter might be sensed, with the audience, again and again. And the written Strands of this research undertaking need to be read, always, in terms of the material I make available to the reader from these three instances of choreographic invention.  To this end, I maximize visual references within the written text, while the fuller documents of ‘Audience (1) Waltzers, ‘Return Journey’ and ‘HaH’ are available on DVD and on this web-page.

Throughout this research undertaking the process of distilling the mixed-mode heuristic framework has provided for the emergence of a relational space between its studio-based and text-based Strands. And in this space the subtle, layered and always evolving sub- strands of both have become more transparent, thereby providing for questions/sensations at the heart of my choreographic practice, and specifically ‘Audience (1) Waltzers’, ‘Return Journey’ and ‘HaH’ to surface and become more fully revealed; what is ‘the dance’, where does it come from, where does it go and how can I, as a choreographer, create the space for it to enter the choreography and be circulated through the dancer(s) and the audience in performance?

What do we see when we feel the dance?

And so it seems that I only finally ‘find’ the question(s) at the heart of my practice just as the research is drawing to a close.  However, is not as though the question was not there at the beginning, it was, it is, it will be, beckoning always; but now more affirmed and affirming.  And so it seems, as this research draws to a close, I have arrived not a happy ending, rather a happy beginning, and better still both, together, momentarily poised.

My commitment as an artist is to endlessly begin again and again, afresh, to endlessly return again and again in, and through, the work; to extend my capacity to be aware of experiences of “almost” sensation, where the path and the goal are not separate….  the sensation where both with the path and the goal are one, yes.

This has to be the space of “ always and endlessly almost”, otherwise it becomes the space of either, or.

……..to be present to sensations of “almost”………….  to know the sensation of “almost” as the sensation of presence… always endlessly………present to sensations of “almost”………

And so I open the door of the studio and enter the space. Today I begin by walking. Feeling sensation of my foot surface touching the ground. Soft sensation in the ankle joint, yielding into the floor surface pushing into the space …..