In 2011 I was lucky to get a three week residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (housed at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida) for the first research/rehearsal development of what would become And lose the name of action. I spent the first week by myself and, amongst other things, wrote this piece. On April 6, 2011 I delivered it as a kind of lecture in the FSU dance theater to the staff of MANCC, and the Dance Department students and faculty. I asked everyone to come onto the stage and sit in a big circle and started with a short solo improvisation. After that I delivered this lecture, periodically moving from place to place in the circle and improvising at least one other time.
My introduction to dance was through going to my sister’s cheerleading practices. I was probably about five and she was ten. I would watch in total fascination at the arrangements of the young girls’ bodies and, like Nomi Malone in the movie Showgirls, I would teach myself the routines silently, methodically, just by watching. One fateful day a girl didn’t show up for practice and everyone looked at each other, not knowing what to do or how to proceed. I volunteered that I could help, and to the surprise of everyone in the room I got up and did the routine perfectly. I don’t remember a lot about this event other than the excitement I felt as I revealed what I had secretly been teaching myself, and of course, I have a distant memory of the pleasure of moving.
It was also through my sister that I was introduced to the art of dance improvisation. On Friday nights when we were little, we would clear out the living room dining room area to make a big open rectangular space. One of us would then go and put a song on the record player and rush to jump on the sofa to watch, as the other person waited for the song to begin. Once the music started you had to instantly improvise a fantastic dance. Yet again, in these extraordinary performances that we did for each other, I experienced the sheer joy and ecstasy in moving.
When I was nine years old this pleasure drove me to beg my parents to let me take acrobatics and musical comedy classes at the Verne Fowler School of Performing Arts in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Being one of the few boys in the school, I was asked to participate in their yearly production of the Nutcracker. I was thrilled, and upon seeing my enthusiasm for dancing the school director offered me a scholarship to take ballet classes, which made it impossible for my parents to protest that they couldn’t afford them. One day in ballet class I told the teacher that I had, in fact, taught myself all of the choreography from the Nutcracker, and she called Auntie Verne in and they watched, mouths agape, as I burned through the Spanish dance, the Chinese dance, doll’s dance, and all of my favorites from that strange ballet.
At the same time, I would like to point out that, though my birth name is Miguel, a lot of people in my life called me Michael, because there were just so MANY Miguels in my family. Both of my grandfathers, my dad, one of my uncles and two of my cousins are named Miguel. As a result, the American born Miguels were Mike, Michael or Mikey, depending on who was talking to us. Strangely enough, I was called Miguel at my academic school throughout the day and Michael at my dance school in the evenings. I was like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance with her two identities, welder by day, stripper by night. As the child of immigrants who just expected me to do well, I was a very good student in school. However, it was in the evenings, at my dance school, that I really felt a sense of ownership over my learning and my body, just because I loved dancing so much, way more than academics, which for whatever reason came sort of easily.
I bring these stories up for a number of reasons. First, to point out that it was my pleasure and desire that led me to dancing. Second, to show that I had the ability, early on, to experience intelligence through my body. Third, to demonstrate that I felt divided, split on an axis of alleged opposites: my parents’ expectations of me vs. what I unconsciously wanted, my burgeoning masculinity versus the feminine environment of my dance classes, and my good boy, Latino, golden-son-of-immigrants, mind-enriched academic self (Miguel) versus my American, assimilated, pleasure seeking, moving self (Michael).
This division between my academic pursuits and my dancing ambitions would dog me throughout my teens into my early 20’s. In essence, I was early on caught up in the classic dualism of mind and body that is most often attributed to the French Renaissance philosopher, Rene Descartes. Little did I know that I was trapped inside one of the most enduring questions of philosophy: Is there a division between the mind and the body?
I'm not a scholar but I’m aware of some general trajectories in the history of this question. To make some HUGE generalizations, my understanding is that up until the time of the Renaissance, it was believed that the body possessed a soul or spirit, an invisible, immaterial thing distinct from the flesh and that this soul was the essential constant of every human being. Déscartes believed that the soul made contact with the body through the pineal gland, because it is the one unpaired structure in the brain. So it has been argued that it’s during this time that we switch from believing in the immaterial constancy of the soul to the corporeal location of the mind, in the brain. And yet somehow the mind manages to be both related to the body and transcendent of it at the same time. We think of the mind as being in the brain but we also think of it as being in the ether somehow.
Now to get back to my personal history – for most of my teenage years I struggled to get my parents excited about my dancing. Granted, they drove me to dance classes, which was no small commitment. However, I always got the sense that they disapproved of my obsession. I think that what upset my parents was a couple of things. One, dancing was not a respectable, intellectual, useful, or economically profitable pursuit, and two, if I pursued this interest, it would make me gay.
Now let’s look at these two proposals and what they mean in the context of mind/body dualism. The idea that dancing is a questionable pursuit has its roots, perhaps, in conservative Christianity, which recommends, in Peter 2:11 “to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Dancing is an activity of the flesh, the flesh is sexual and we all know the flesh and sex are bad and that the soul is good. If you’ve ever seen the movie Footloose you’ll know what I’m talking about. In philosophical traditions this equation is paralleled in the notion that the mind is pure, uncomplicated by the fallibility, or banality of the unintelligent body. This equation, I would argue, is perhaps also what has guided many philosophers to propose that the body’s senses are an unreliable way of perceiving the world, because they’re just too subjective. From Déscartes, to George Berkeley, and even, one could argue, to the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the body is unreliable and incapable of knowing itself, without a beautiful mind to guide it.
Now let’s go back to my personal biography. We left off with my parents’ fear of dance and my sexuality. I want to use this as an introduction to the idea of what I'm going to call “somatic truth.” Now, when I was a kid, I had no clear sense of the immigrant struggle, the socio-economic implications of vocational choice, the distinctions between social dance, folk dance, concert dance, ballet, modern, Broadway, contact improv, etc. All I “knew” was that I liked to dance. Note the use of the word “know.” Dancing gave me pleasure, and it gave me a sense of my whole body. This was as basic a truth as “I like chocolate”, or “I like the way the rain feels on a hot summer day.” I made no conscious decision to like dance, it just WAS the case. It had been that felt sense, that persistent knowing that I had to participate in a physical, performative process, that had given me the courage to speak up at that cheerleading practice so many years ago.
If we are to adhere to the theory of the body/mind split, where did my desire come from? From my body or my mind? I was not particularly conscious of anything other than this imperious urge from within that I had to move, to express myself in movement. Looking back at this now, can’t we argue that this was a kind of “knowledge” that I had without mind-led consciousness in the traditional sense? I KNEW what I had to do and I pressed forward with this knowledge. I KNEW that my desire was more important than my parents’ resistance.
Similarly, I had a sense, very early on, of my desire for other guys. At first, I tried to tell myself that I was interested in looking at men just because I wanted to look like them. But soon enough it became clear that what I felt for men was romantic and sexual desire. In my early teens I felt this somatic truth but certainly had no ability to articulate it in any public way. I didn’t really even have the words for what I felt. I remember the internal drama I experienced after another boy at my dance school confessed to me that he liked me. I was terrified to admit that I was queer. I tried to convince myself that if I didn’t THINK about my sexuality, it would either go away or not cause so many problems. Of course, that was not the case, and eventually, at the age of seventeen, I came out of the closet and I'm happy to report that – it gets better!
In the case of my sexuality I think that it is useful to note that the absence of language did not equal an absence of knowledge. As opposed to linguistic and philosophical traditions that argue that we can only know that which we can name, I would say no, I KNEW something, I felt it and I felt its truth, its somatic reality, without having the adequate vocabulary for its expression. Not having the words or the knowledge of the history did not mean that I didn’t have the feelings or the truth.
Today, I would argue that my desire to dance, and my knowledge of myself as a young gay person were two early, concrete examples that I have of the unity of the body and mind. I would also say that these were early examples of my body’s ability to hold intelligence or knowledge that I, the “I” as “ego” or “self-conscious self” might not readily be aware of. So clearly there are some mysteries about the workings of the body and mind.
Now, when I was a kid, I was also obsessed with telepathy, ESP, and telekinesis. I read all of the appropriate books, Escape From Witch Mountain, RETURN to Witch Mountain, The Girl With The Silver Eyes, and Firestarter. I was desperate to have special powers. When I was about 10 or 11, one of my cousins from Colombia came to live with us for the summer. We would hole up in my parents bedroom and I’d sit on one side of the room and she’d sit on the other side of the room and I’d try to telepathically transmit a number between 1 and 20 to her and SHE ALWAYS GOT IT RIGHT and that just blew me away. But it didn’t work in reverse, so I decided that some people are obviously senders and some are receivers. Similarly, when accompanying my mother on her errands at the bank or store or whatever, I would desperately try to make things move with my mind, staring at inanimate objects, waiting for them to move. Somehow I knew that these powers had to do with concentration of the mind, so I’d be still and I try to shut out everything else and my body would almost get hot while I assembled all of my magical powers to just make something happen. I’m sure I learned these techniques by watching movies or TV shows about telepathy, telekinesis or whatever. I mean, it’s rare that you’d see a psychic multi-tasking as they sent out their mind messages, right? You’re never gonna see a psychic sort of like, bake bread, hold a baby in their arm or check their messages on their smart phone as they make that candelabra fly across the room. NO, we all know mind powers are about making the body quiet, so that the mind, again, mind as brain, can do its work. I’m sorry to report that I was never able to make something move just by staring at it for a long time, and after my cousin Adriana went home to Colombia, I never managed to find an accurate receiver for my numeric messages ever again. But the feeling has always lingered – if I could just try hard enough, I could make something happen just by thinking about it.
In the summer of 2008, while vacationing in Europe, my sister called to tell me that our father had had a stroke. A few weeks earlier, my uncle Armando, my father’s closest brother, had died and so my dad had gone to Colombia for the funeral. The night before he was supposed to come back home to the States, as he was saying goodbye to some relatives, his speech suddenly became muddled and one of his other brothers immediately realized that something was wrong and took him to the hospital, where he quickly lost consciousness and ended up in the intensive care unit. I called my mother, who had just gone down to Colombia to join him in the hospital. She was very upset and asked me to come.
In the intervening days that it took to get there, I had lots of time to freak out about what was happening. First, of course, I was afraid that my father was going to die, or that he was going to end up paralyzed, mute or with some other combination of disabilities. I went to the Internet to read about stroke, and found that it’s the “leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Europe and the second leading cause of death worldwide.” On my flight to Colombia I pored over the pages I had printed out from Wikipedia and learned about the two basic kinds of stroke: ischemic and hemorraghic. In ischemic stroke a blockage in a vessel causes a loss of blood flow to the brain. In hemorrhagic stroke, a weakened blood vessel bursts in the brain, causing blood to spill out into the surrounding tissue. Of course, within this there are all kinds of variations of stroke. One in particular caught my eye – a “last meadow” stroke, where due to weakness of the heart, the brain experiences hypoperfusion, a reduction of blood flow, and is essentially starved of oxygen. The term itself – last meadow – comes from agriculture where, in irrigation, the last meadow receives the least amount of water. This term, so poetic in its suggestion and so horrible in its reality, became the name for the new group piece I had just begun making the month prior. (And which is playing on a loop in the lobby outside of this theater.)
When I got to Colombia my father was already getting better and he got out of the hospital the day after I arrived. We resolved to stay in Colombia for another week before going home to Florida so that he could re-gain strength and recuperate a bit. Out of a sense of desperation and a need to “fix” the situation, I began doing some hands on work with him in the mornings. I would cover the floor with a comforter, have him lie down, support his head and limbs with various pillows and cushions and perform a series of exercises that were a mishmosh of gentle movements and massage techniques drawn from my studies in Alexander Technique, Skinner Releasing, Feldenkrais Method, Klein Technique, Tai Chi, Body-Mind Centering and the various bits of information that fall under the generic headline of “Release Technique.” I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I figured that if anybody could mystically heal my father it was me. We had had a lifetime of fighting, talking, laughing, and revealing ourselves to each other and I was convinced of our special connection. It was like I had this messianic need to be the one who could make everything right, who could penetrate through the barbarism of medical practices and my family’s dysfunctional emotional dynamics to offer a knowing, quintessentially “human” personal touch. Through my experience in dance, I was convinced that I had access to a wisdom of the body, something that couldn’t be explained in words or diagnostic tests.
As it turned out, this event was only the beginning for my dad. He began to have a series of neurological problems, from other stroke-like events to, eventually, seizures. He would not be correctly diagnosed for two years. After a massive seizure in August of 2010, my father was finally diagnosed as having multiple AVF’s – arteriovenous fistulae, a very rare condition where the arteries and the veins fuse together to create a kind of blood clot. My father had multiple AVF’s in his brain. Arterial flow moves fast and with great pressure as it’s pumped away from the heart. This flow usually gets dispersed by the capillaries, and then the veins, in a slower, less pressured flow, draw the blood back to the heart. In the case of AVF, the intermediary dispersal doesn’t happen, and so the arteries flow right into the veins at a rate of pressure that the veins can’t handle and so the veins swell up and all kinds of problems can result. One of the problems that can happen when there are AVF’s in the brain is that intra-cranial fluid pressure can rise, which explained my dad’s seizures. According to my father’s neuroradiologist, most people’s intra-cranial fluid pressure measures on a scale from 10 to 20. When my father was admitted to the hospital in August, his pressure measured out at an unprecedented 53. To offer some perspective, head trauma patients who come to the hospital with a measurement of 40 tend to die. It was a total medical anomaly that my father had even been alive for the past few years, let alone been able to walk into the hospital. The only thing the doctor could surmise as to how he was still alive was that since the pressure had been gradually building over the course of many years, my father’s brain and body had adjusted accordingly. To my mother, my sister and I, this finally explained why my father had, for a while now, seemed increasingly out of it: dull in the eyes, weak, increasingly uncoördinated and unmotivated.
Unfortunately, this knowledge only came as a result of the arteriogram that caused a massive seizure. This led to a four month stay in the hospital, where my father shuttled between the neuro intensive care unit and the neuro “step-down” unit as he underwent a series of procedures, called “coilings,” where a micro-catheter is inserted via the femoral artery to introduce tiny platinum coils which can shut down the AVF’s and lessen the intra-cranial fluid pressure. After the success of multiple procedures my father was discharged from the hospital into a rehabilitation facility, where he spent an additional six weeks to regain his ability to eat, walk, and communicate. He is now back home, and continuing his process of cognitive and physical recovery.
I could easily divert us now in this lecture to talk volumes about what the experiences in the hospital and the rehab were like, and the multitude of grievances I have with the entire medical community’s approach to illness. That would become another lecture entirely probably. However, I do feel compelled to offer a few things that I learned. You probably already know most of this but it was news to me. In medicine, the body is seen as a machine, more or less like a car, with things that go in and out to make sure it can still basically run, and you try to keep those points of contact relatively clean so that the car doesn’t rust. You have a different doctor for each “issue”– my father had no less than seven: a neurologist, a neuroradiologist, an infectious disease doctor, a urologist, an endocrinologist, a respiratory specialist, and the overseeing physician. The doctors never, ever, meet all at once. They only communicate via the patient’s chart and through the information that the nurses give them. The staff of nurses changes every 12 hours, and it’s really the nurses who keep the patients alive. When the doctors come to pay a “visit,” one that they’ll happily charge you full price for, you’re lucky if they even enter the room, and I would say that the average duration of a doctor’s in room visit was at best 45 seconds to a minute.
One of the other things I quickly realized in the hospital was that it doesn’t matter who you are, that you’ve traveled the world to perform your work, that you have a Guggenheim or multiple awards, or that people tell you you’re “famous” in the dance world. This doesn’t hold shit for weight when you’re dealing with a nurse and her unwillingness to re-tape your father’s ventilator tube attachment so that it doesn’t suffocate him. Never in my life have I felt as humbled and helpless as I did when I alternated with my mother and my sister for 12 hour shifts at my father’s bedside in the ICU. Mortality, age, and illness truly are the great equalizers, as they are inevitable and no amount of ego or achievement can make it otherwise.
It is equally cliché to talk about how people don’t know how to talk about illness. I learned this lesson again and again last fall, when people asked me “How are you?” and I foolishly told them what was actually going on with me and with my dad and then I witnessed the various ways in which they either didn’t hear me, chose not to hear me, or responded with bizarre advice or projections of their own fears about illness or death.
But my point is this: Our culture is confused by bodies that it cannot understand. Or maybe it’s better to say that WE are confused by bodies that we do not understand. We often turn away from, or avoid bodies that are frail, disabled, weak, or dying. Perhaps we can extend the metaphor to say that we also, often, turn away from the weakness, frailty, confusion and mystery of our own bodies.
My father’s situation made me ask myself: where do we exist inside our bodies? Who or what determines who the “I” in my body is? Are we merely dominated by the unpredictable processes of the brain? Déscartes stated that “If I should cease from all thinking I would then utterly cease to exist….. I am a thing that thinks.” What would Déscartes have said about my father while he was in the hospital? What would he have to say about the many people who are in comas or who undergo neurological debilitation, but then who “come back,” as they say, who re-awaken from a long sleep or whose capacities for becoming self-sufficient suddenly re-emerge? When we encounter someone unconscious in a hospital, where is that person and how do we determine our experience of his or her presence? What are the markers of consciousness? According to my father’s doctor, electrical activity of the nervous system equals consciousness. How does this definition stand up to the history of philosophy or to the way that you or I would define consciousness right now?
From my experience in dance and through teaching dance, I have come to believe that we reveal ourselves even when we’re not intending to. We don’t have to consciously consider what we are doing to have an effect on others. When I’m teaching, I can usually tell, very quickly, the way that a young dancer works with their breath, or their weight, or how they even think about themselves as a dancer, just by noticing basic actions, posture, the way they walk, how they look right before we start doing a phrase of movement.
During those many hours in the hospital alongside my “unconscious” father, I kept feeling that he was, in fact, still there. In Body-Mind Centering, a somatic approach to anatomy and physiological process developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, there is the concept of resonance, of being able to “communicate” with another person’s vibrational energy by becoming aware of your own. It sounds esoteric, but you could just as easily argue that this is what feel when we’re near someone we love. When I touched my dad’s arms or legs, I could feel that he was still energetically present, even if he wasn’t awake. And, being a dancer, I couldn’t help but see that when he moved, it was HIS way of moving. When he did eventually open his eyes and make gestures, they were undeniably indicative of HIS pattern of action. So what does it mean that someone’s movement habits, idiosyncratic speech patterns and unintentional gestures give us as much of a sense of their “personhood” as their capacity to reason and make decisions in the world? Philosopher Alva Noë has argued that if we really want to make effective robots, robots that are like humans, we should “make robots with habits. Only a being with habits could have a mind like ours.” (Noë. Out of Our Heads. P.98)
At this point you may be asking yourself, what the hell does any of this have to do with dance? I promise, I’m making my way there. Let me tell you yet another story.
In the spring of 2009 Michelle Boulé, Tarek Halaby and I spent a few weeks in residence at Hollins University to work on Last Meadow. That piece was constructed by appropriating texts and actions from James Dean’s three films, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. These texts and actions are stolen and re-configured, set against a cinematic sound design created by Neal Medlyn and housed inside Lenore Doxsee’s lighting environment, which also serves as the set. The piece neither “deconstructs” the James Dean films, nor does it re-constitute them into an experimental narrative, despite the fact that it uses elements of narrative. Rather, the performance uses all of these interacting elements as textures that offer sensation, whose colliding or layering over each other create a new situation, somehow constitutive of their component elements while effecting another experience altogether.
It’s easy to write about it now in retrospect. But in that spring of 2009 I was so fucking confused. I didn’t really know what I was doing with this material, it was so strange and impersonal in a way. I only had my gut to go on to know how to link all of this disparate shit together.
Upon hearing about my confusion and struggle, the dance department chair – the legendary Donna Faye – recommended a book, Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body – An Aesthetics of Human Understanding. To make a long story short, Johnson takes the mind/body split to task and argues that we have to conceive of perception, the way that we encounter the world, as an embodied, corporeal practice. Sure, we experience what we see, feel, hear, etc, as a process of mind. But that mind, and the meaning that we encounter or develop through our perceptions, are embodied, and we only experience these perceptions and meanings because we have bodies and these bodies are contextualized in environments. In this sense, our experience of the world is not analytic but aesthetic, we encounter situations and meaning emerges from them from an intricate interplay of form, content, and our physical relationship to them. In his book, Johnson charts the way that philosophers such as John Dewey or William James attempted to bring these arguments into the discourse of philosophy at the end of the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th.
When I read this I had two immediate reactions. The first was, wow this is really beautiful writing and a beautiful way to articulate the problem of body/mind duality. The second reaction I had was DUH. Of course perception is embodied. As a dancer, choreographer, teacher of dance, and avid fan of multiple somatic practices it almost seemed laughable that this guy had to write a book about it when he was talking about stuff that just seemed obvious to me and which, I imagined, would seem obvious to most people working in my field. I kept waiting to find passages in the book that dealt with the development of somatic practices in 20th century, or about Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, or Steve Paxton and Contact Improvisation, or about the many developments, all over the world, in contemporary dance regarding perception and action. But as I made my way through that book, and through other books that talked about the role of the body in perception, I was surprised, no actually I was shocked to find that, despite the vast bodies of knowledge that exist in somatic practice over the past one hundred years, or in contemporary dance and for that matter, the field of dance studies, none of these contemporary philosophers of embodiment were writing sophisticatedly about dance.
This phenomenon was easily encapsulated in a recent conversation I had with New York choreographer Juliana May, when she said, “Don’t you feel like when you talk to people from other disciplines, and they talk about their work, you get it, but they don’t get you?” I have long been aware of people’s inability to talk about dance. How many of us have endured statements after performances like “I don’t understand what that was, I don’t know how to talk about it, I don’t know what it means, I don’t know enough about the history to say anything about it.” Even people who are steeped in intellectual discourse, or who are abstract visual artists, or who have an opinion on everything from the news to what they just ate to how they feel about that building over there to the last movie they saw become blank and mute when confronted with a conversation about dance.
It’s useful now to echo something I said earlier: We are confused by bodies that we don’t understand. Dance confounds people. It’s these….BODIES doing things, and why are they DOING them and why should we pay attention? And if they’re doing these actions, are those actions a kind of language that we should figure out or decode so that we can understand what the hell they’re trying to actually say? Why didn’t they just say it? Because after all, isn’t the point of art to communicate?
I’ve always noticed how quickly those of us who work in dance feel like we have to apologize for what we do. Like you almost feel embarrassed, sometimes, for being excited about doing something that you know that a lot of people, in fact, maybe most people, don’t really understand. A few years ago I decided to stop feeling bad about this and instead, to embrace the fact that I do something that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Specifically I became interested in thinking about how the misinterpretation that plagues dance is actually one of its strengths. I used to call it misinterpretation but we could also call it the impossibility to assign fixed meaning to how we perceive dance. It’s exciting, in 2011, to actually work in a medium that nobody really understands! To borrow a term from the locavore movement: It’s “slow” art, a space of contemplation for inconvenient, perhaps contradictory ideas.
Last Meadow gave me the opportunity to see how I use movement, text, sound, light, and content in relationship to each other to create a mode of perception that I’ve been calling “the choreographic.” In this mode, the full range of one’s senses is awakened to notice relationships among the various elements in a performance, to “feel” meaning rather than to decode it rationally. It’s as if the entire body becomes an antenna for experience, able to receive information continuously and from a multiplicity of directions. This “information” aggregates and diminishes, rolls over itself like waves, effects space and time and my cellular experience of myself.
As such, I expanded the meaning of the word “dance” to include this way of experiencing performance. Even in a piece that includes text, recognizable iconic characters, fragments of story – things we associate with either narrative/experimental theater, or visual art appropriations of popular culture – I think we can call this a dance, and one of the reasons why is that dance doesn’t have to satisfy the logic of traditional language or visual representation. Instead of thinking about dance as language without words, I propose that dance is a way of activating a non-linguistic, corporeal process of comprehension, where what is being understood is an interplay of sensation, association, colliding and overlapping thoughts and a new understanding of time. Dance constantly unfolds, it resists arrival or singular image, it confounds people, which (ideally) engages them to develop a relationship with their confusion. It prioritizes a full-bodied approach to sensation.
I have been on a mission of sorts ever since Last Meadow to continue and deepen my understanding of the various topics that emerged during that piece’s process, and the many topics I’ve laid out today in this lecture. My father’s situation compelled me into an admittedly naïve study of neurology to understand better the anatomy and workings of the brain, which, good luck Miguel, has turned out to be an endlessly confusing topic of research. However, one definition of the brain that I love is that it’s an organ that contains systems of systems. While there are some general hemispheric properties that we can talk about, it quickly becomes difficult to talk about one part of the brain without discussing all of its connecting parts. There is an undeniably interconnectedness in the brain and by extension, the nervous system that proposes elliptical washes of information traveling throughout the entire body. Mistakenly perhaps, we often think about it as a governing computer, or we think of it as this internal gallery where we re-create the world outside of us. One thing we definitely think, and which neurology itself proposes, is that it’s the seat of the mind. In this neurology matches up with much of the western philosophy of the past hundreds of years. However, again, if we turn to a different system, again, Body Mind Centering is a great one to look at here, there’s the idea that the nervous system is just the recorder of experience, that it is not what governs everything. It’s the interaction of all of the physical systems of the body, in non-hierarchical ways, that govern the total conception of the body. In BMC, rather than one mind you encounter many minds, as each system, the fluid system, the skeletal system, the organic system, etcetera, expresses itself in a way that is particular to its form and function in the body. Now you might think this is bullshit or it sounds crazy and unscientific, but I ask you, is it any crazier than playing roulette with a person’s bio-chemistry by jacking them up with a host of synthetic medications, which happens all around the country, all of the time? Is it crazier to learn about a body by coming into direct contact with it through touch, spending time with it, observing it carefully, versus making a quick assessment from some words on paper and a cursory glance at someone who’s asleep?
One of the first things that I learned about the brain has persistently bugged me. In a lecture about motor movement neuroscientist Dr. Jeanette Norden explains that one area of the motor cortex brain sends a message to another area of the cortex and so on and the body moves. But, what neurology can’t explain is, what initiates the initiator? What gives that first area of the brain the signal to fire at all? Are we back to thinking about spirits, or is this an explanation of the presence of a higher power? What if the brain isn’t in charge? What if we conceive of mind and perception as a two way street between an integrated body and its environment, which is the argument proposed by choreographers such as William Forsythe, Steve Paxton, or Deborah Hay?
Thus, hello MANCC. This is where I am now. I am trying to look at the overlaps and divergences in the conception of body/mind in the fields of neurology, embodied philosophy, improvisation, somatic practice, and the paranormal. Mark Johnson’s book opened up a vast body of literature that looks at mind/body connection, and the conundrum, seductive power, and instability of dualistic thought. My dad’s situation led me to seek out other kinds of physical practitioners, and eventually I came across Richard Shusterman, a philosopher, writer, educator and Feldenkrais practitioner, who works with a holistic conception of body and mind in work that he calls Somaesthetics.
In late 2009 I began what has become a series of interviews with dance artists, somatic practitioners, and a dance theorist to ask them how they approach what they do and how they conceive of the body/mind relationship in their work. In many cases I have spent time dancing with the different people I interview, thus creating a parallel process of research in movement. As I’ve said, people working in dance, improvisation and somatic forms have been acutely aware of this two-way direction in action/thought matrices for many years. Yet because of dance’s relatively lower cultural standing, these contributions have been ignored by the neurology and philosophy establishment. However, I am interested in seeing how an approach to choreography that is highly informed by the practice of improvisation can be a bridge between these various fields of study. Because of the way that imagination, thinking and action interact when performing, dance is uniquely positioned to level the playing field between these disciplines.
I’ve been holed up in studio 404 looking at DVD’s and videos of other people’s work to uncover what it is about abstraction and movement that compels me to watch it? How does choreography propose a way of experiencing itself? What are the things that have to be in place in order to make that possible? When is the esoteric nature of bodies moving in space feel appropriate, relevant, and yet intriguingly mysterious enough rather than easily legible or obvious? How does meaning emerge from a dance, and where does it resonate in a room or in the body of the viewer? What is the mind of performance?
Despite dance’s power to jump over the hurdles of logic with its power to confuse, it, too, can get mired in conventional language that supports the body/mind split. Think of how often you’ve said, or a teacher has said, “Hold your arm in front of you…” as if there is a difference between your arm and you. Or we say, “let the body go and just let your feelings or spirit take over,” as if feelings or spirit don’t exist in your body. There are many more examples like this. I am intrigued by these paradoxes in language or thinking. I love it that it shows that we get tripped up by our own need to believe something in order to make it happen. I think that that’s just another way of saying that we are alive and we are muddling through life however we can. In my performance work, I incorporate these multiple truths, these contradictions, because at the end of the day, life doesn’t play out like a logical proof in a philosophy class and in art you don’t have to justify things according to the boring rules of “reason.“
To this end I have become interested in going back, also, to my early interest in paranormal experience. In retrospect it’s easy to realize that a lot of why I was so invested in that stuff was that I was desperate to find a way out of New Jersey. And I was desperate to find a way out of my own body, and I wanted, like every kid does, to be special and different, not different in a “bad” way but different in a more-powerful-than-your-neighbor’s-kid kind of way. As an adult, I am interested in how experiences of the paranormal suggest the presence of immateriality, non-”stuff”, either through the immaterial energetic transmissions that occur in telepathy or telekinesis, or the immaterial bodies of ghosts, or spirits of the dead that communicate with the living via mediums. Get a neurologist and a ghost hunter in the same room (which we’re hoping to do next Tuesday at our mind/body panel) and ask them to define what a body is, or what consciousness is and let’s see the sparks fly! What compels us to believe in what we believe and why? Aren’t all of these fields – neurology, philosophy, dance, etc… just belief systems that are dynamic and constantly in flux? Isn’t it interesting how those of us who are drawn to a field as weird and obscure as dance are often such crazy believers in its power? I love this hopefulness, this initial, passionate naïveté that exists in all dancers, the belief that what we do is important and special.
How all of this research will result in an evening-length piece remains to be seen. The title of my new project is And lose the name of action. It’s a quote from Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, where he contemplates the values and frustrations of living in relationship to dying. The full quote is:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
I am intrigued by how that quote creates a tension between words and movement, a tension that has surfaced multiple times in my research. The quote also reminds me to not get too caught up in my head, which may seem an impossible task to all of us now after hearing me talk ad nauseam for the past however long this has been…
With my collaborators I plan to articulate a physical practice that prioritizes sensation and somatic truth, and that allows us to unearth a fluid grammar of time, where importance rises and wanes, re-forms and dissipates. I am fully aware of how my research locates me in a long line of people and practices that value process, confusion, intuition and inscrutability– from the time experiments in the work of Merce Cunningham to the Zen koans of Buddhism to the phenomenon of ecstatic experiences to the mysterious body centered work of Kiki Smith and many others – and how suddenly, the body is being healed and analyzed all the time – from the omni-presence in urban centers of “15 minute massages” to the fact that suddenly, everywhere you look, you encounter a “brain article” in a magazine, or “brain food” at the health food store or “brain exercises” online. And just the other day I noticed the “Paranormal Teen Romance” section at Barnes and Noble, so clearly I’m on to something.