Watching “Touch”

February 28, 2013 · Print This Article

Introduction

Full Radius Dance, a physically-integrated dance company based in Atlanta, premiered its work Touch in January 2013. The piece was inspired by executive director and choreographer Douglas Scott’s decision to retire from professional performance, causing him to feel depression, which he realized was the result of no longer having physical contact everyday in the studio. He began to ask himself why touch, the physical act of making contact, was so important to him. What does it mean to touch and be touched? What does it do physiologically to the body? What does touch mean in gaining understanding of one’s own body and the bodies of others?

Touch, in its multiple parts involved dancers of varying bodies and abilities. As a physically-integrated dance company, Full Radius’ dancers are both abled and disabled, some use wheelchairs in their everyday lives. Scott first became engaged in this practice through a workshop offered at the Atlanta Civic Center where he realized that all bodies do not move the same way that his does and that there was opportunity to explore the “limits of physicality” with various bodies. [1] He now teaches classes and workshops at the Shepherd Center, a hospital and rehabilitation center located in Atlanta that specializes in medical treatment, research, and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord and brain injuries.

Full Radius Dance, “Touch”, danceinforma.com, AMN Photography

Watching Touch

The theater is dark and quiet. A rustling begins to grow louder. Shapes of bodies start to come into focus in the dark as they move across the stage. It sounds as if someone is sliding across the floor. Music begins. Light, pouring in from stage right, begins to grow brighter, illuminating the mass of bodies arranged organismically stage left.

When the lights are finally up, I see three of the dancers seated on the ground, two of which were in wheelchairs in the previous piece. This piece, titled There Is No Such Thing As Mistakes and choreographed by Lori Teague, explores “the situations we find ourselves in and the situations we put ourselves in.” The dancers in this piece arrange themselves almost as if they are part of one body, one organism, with interrelated parts; the mass of bodies on the stage writhes and moves together. As the dance progresses, the breath of each dancer becomes more audible, another rhythmic element to the accompanying music. Teague explained that her interest in this piece was reaction time; how does the body respond in the moment of contact or confrontation? While watching the piece, a growing sense of physicality presents itself. While watching the bodies roll across the stage, one of the dancers gets up and staggers toward another dancer, using the other’s body for stability, resting her weight on his shoulders, my body began to move itself. I noticed my feet were responding to these movements; during tense moments, my leg would extend outwards toward the stage; during moments of relative calm, I was able to relax my feet to the ground. This aesthetic experience not only registered in my eyes, but my muscles registered the movements of the dancers.

In this aesthetic experience, my body phenomenologically responds. This response, though potentially activated through mirror neurons, may lead to particular perceptions of the body that carry with them particular associative meanings. If my body can “feel” the weight of the other’s body on me for support, or if my body can “feel” the need to rest upon another, does this experience open possibilities of bodily awareness?

Does this awareness carry forward after I leave the theater? Edward Warburton, a dance theorist writes about what happens when we observe another’s movement. He describes it as “observing others’ actions involves both a covert simulation of the very same action—a process crucial in imitative motor learning—and a modulation of resonant action systems that seem to be important in superior perceptual abilities” [2]. Interestingly, during the section the “Science of Touch,” Scott is on stage with the dancers and describes some of the physiological mechanisms of touch, including that of mirror neurons. In some way, the attention to mirror neurons allows for an empathic response to even the viewing of someone being touched.

Full Radius Dance, “Touch,” danceinforma.com, AMN photography

In watching dance, the viewer’s visual experience coalesces with a visceral experience, but is opticality necessarily primary in the “viewing” of dance? If the dancer’s body does not reach out and make contact with my skin, is it possible for me to still feel her body? In the dance, can I begin to “know” the dancer’s body as it moves across the stage, at times making contact with other bodies? Erin Manning, a cultural theorist and political philosopher who writes on tango as a cultural practice, writes that “movement can be felt before it actualizes.” [3] In order to view a dance as dance, a piece that uses bodily movement as material, the viewer has to come to the performance with an understanding of her own sense of bodily movement. For the philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, movement is the primary vehicle for sense-making and knowledge-making of our world. In her book The Primacy of Movement, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone writes:

“In making kinetic sense of ourselves, we progressively attain complex conceptual understandings having to do with containment, with consequential relationships, with weight, with effort, and with myriad other bodily-anchored happenings and phenomena that in turn anchor our sense of the world and its happenings and phenomena.” [4]

Other bodies are included in this world’s happenings and phenomena.

During the final piece of the performance, the featured piece titled Touch, there were moments when dancers in chairs would balance their weight on an edge of one wheel over dancers lying underneath the chair. Hands reached out to grasp each other, distributing the weight through the arm muscles, from one shoulder to the next. Watching the performance, I was sitting in anticipation of a sudden shift in gravity, a moment of almost catastrophe. Reflecting on the piece now, I ask myself, how am I supposed to see these bodies that were moving before me?

In the case of Full Radius Dance, which presents the viewer with bodies that she does not typically see in a dance performance, what does the viewer and the viewer’s body learn? I leave the theater and the reverberations of rhythm remain. What do these vibrations unhinge within my body? Are they making new connections with any of the mixed-up material that was disturbed by the vibrations? Making sense of the dancers’ movements and bodies requires me to make sense of my own – this is a reciprocal movement. The question remains whether the origin of this movement and knowledge exists in myself or in the dancer’s body that I watch roll across the floor.

— Meredith Kooi; meredith [dot] kooi [at] gmail [dot] com

Notes:

[1] Personal conversation with Douglas Scott

[2] Edward C. Warburton, “Of Meanings and Movements: Re-Languaging Embodiment in Dance Phenomenology and Cognition,” Dance Research Journal, vol. 43, no. 2 (Winter 2011), 72.

[3] Erin Manning, Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2009), 6.

[4] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement, 2nd Ed (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011), 118.

 

Images:

DANCE informa. danceinforma.com. Photos by AMN photography. http://www.danceinforma.com/USA_magazine/2013/01/20/full-radius-dance-premieres-three-contemporary-works/