It’s a few weeks now since I spent an afternoon at the Barbican seeing different works in the performative exhibition material / rearranged / to / be. In a previous post I talked about the two themes underlying the exhibition: the kinds of associations between seemingly unconnected works that the art historian Aby Warburg looked for; and the anti-dualistic ideas about embodied subjectivity emerging from the discipline of neuroscience. What has stayed with me from my afternoon at the Barbican is the memory of being in an art gallery and watching, close up, some exceptional dancing. Here are my memories of three dance pieces.
Matthias Sperling’s Loop Atlas consists of a repeating movement that starts on the right side of the body and progresses to the left changing slightly with each reiteration. This might sound simple but the beauty and complexity of what Sperling does is quite compelling. In effect he turns, transferring weight from one side to the other, starting at waist height and ending around shoulder height.
Each turn takes more or less the same time and uses the same amount of energy but what gradually changes is the path his hands and wrists take. The changes are clearly deliberate; they’re small but this is not a minimalist performance. For me, the precision and sensitivity of the movement and Matthias’s intense focus on it, right up to the final delicate gestural detail at its finish, is compelling.
The effect of these reiterations, their rhythm, becomes almost hypnotic. On many levels, Loop Atlas is about turning. Matthias turns from one side to another. The movement he performs gradually turns and transforms itself over time – an evolving creative process. And, in an almost mesmeric way, it turns the everyday into something transcendent – more beautiful, more intense, affective, and vital.
This is the simple version of Loop Atlas, but there is also one with a video loop projection. In this Matthias dances before a screen in front of a camera and projector. He records a couple of minutes of his material, then presses a pedal so that what he’s just danced appears on the screen behind him as he continues to develop further his movement material. Gradually more and more video loops appear behind him, going back in a tunnel of time. Here I’m seeing the history of my own spectatorship. I remember what I was thinking at each earlier stage in the performance. The effect is visually rich and the performance as compelling as the simple version. Both versions are great but looking back now, I prefer the simple one perhaps because I saw it first but also because for me simpler is often stronger.
Andrea Buckley’s contribution is two live pieces and a video loop, all titled In Tension, suggesting both something intended, and also being held in a state of tension. These pieces seem to me to be a personal exploration into how she moves both through actually moving and through an informed, scientific understanding of what happens in the body when we move. How we necessarily, without having to think about it, are continually putting ourselves off balance and then balancing ourselves again when we move, and how fundamental the anatomy of the foot is to this on-going process.
In one of the two live pieces, Andrea shows slides of the bone structure and musculature of the foot and calf, while a live video feed projects onto another screen a close up of her foot when she dances. In the other, she performs around two screens on which videos are playing that relate to balancing and wobbling.
I took a short series of photographs of about 20 seconds of Andrea’s dancing.
Looking at these brings back memories of sitting on the floor in the gallery, watching her elegantly sure-footed progress around the two screens. I remember her thoughtfully turning and reaching, reconsidering and turning another way. Her feet press firmly on the ground yet she seems so light and limber. Andrea has a wonderful sense of balance. Her movements are so sure, have an inevitability about them, and yet I don’t know where or how she’s going to move in the moment about to come. I remember sitting there entranced.
Charlie Morrissey’s performance is called Actions from the Encyclopaedia of Experience. I suppose it is like Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas; but, instead of gestures, it consists of all Charlie’s different bits of movement knowledge, muscle memory and so on, juxtaposed together. Apparently the conceptual frame for the piece arose from discussions with neuroscientist Anil Seth about the role of the imagination in the process of developing new movement potentials.
As with Matthias and Andrea, I always find the experience of watching Charlie move very special. In Actions from the Encyclopaedia … he performs in front of white screens on which are projected in plain black type, one after another, a series of descriptions of actions. E.g. actions governed by an external focus; confused actions; actions controlled by the projected thoughts of an observer. Charlie’s own body becomes a partial, temporary moving surface on which part of the video is projected so that his silhouetted shadow on the screen behind sometimes dances a duet with him.
While I could see that Charlie was turning to see what the next ‘action’ was and responding to it, it wasn’t clear exactly how the action and his re-action were related. If it had been obvious, of course, it wouldn’t have been interesting. I could see that something had changed without being able to identify what was different, what had turned into what. As I sat there watching, I was totally absorbed by the way Charlie’s movements – which looked so ordinary, everyday, un-emphatic – seemed to have such gravitas.
Dancing is at its roots about showing the spectator things by focusing their gaze on the body’s ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. What is ‘to-be-looked-at’ in Charlie’s dancing is so subtle. It’s what’s going on inside as he turns his focus into himself. Looking hard I can just catch tiny shifts in his focus and attention, tinier than one would have believed yet clearly, transparently there before my eyes. There is something deeply resonant about seeing someone moving simply and thoughtfully with such economy and making such seemingly ordinary actions look so profound.
Writing about these three dancers’ contributions to material / rearranged / to / be, I have kept coming back to the idea of turning. I have remembered physical acts of turning, processes where I see one thing turning into another, the returning of repetition and reiteration, the turning inside to make me focus more deeply and realise how little we expect or understand about what the body can potentially do. Maybe that’s what’s so special about Warburg’s library and his Atlas, which was the starting point for material / rearranged / to / be, the way that putting one action or gesture beside another turns them into something new that gives one a deeper understanding about who we are and what potentials are out there waiting for us to discover.