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Dance is hard to see ... the purest form of knowledge?

Paul Grobstein's picture

A month ago I spent  several hours watching an opening session in the development of the dance piece "Dance is Hard to See," and talking with choreographer Kathryn Tebordo and the dancers about what I had seen and what dance was, or might be, all about.  "Dance is the purest form of knowledge" emerged from that conversation, which was a rich experience for me, one I have been mulling ever since.  I'm very much looking forward to this coming Sunday's performance of "Dance is Hard to See," to seeing how it has evolved and talking more with Kathryn, the performers, and other audience members about, among other things, what it says about what dance is (see Facebook announcement).

"Dance is hard to see" has idiosyncratic significance for me.  I've spent most of my life thinking about the brain, how it works, and how that relates to a variety of human activities including painting and performance art.  Oddly though, it now seems to me, I've never had much interest in dance.  For some reason, I've found it "hard to see."   I have, over the years, become increasingly convinced that knowledge, in its forms, is "embodied," that knowledge is not something located in some ephemeral realm but rather is an expression of the physical organization of a physical structure, the brain.  The oddness is that I had not made a connection between that and dance as an expression of knowledge, indeed perhaps (or at least potentially) the "purest" form of expression of knowledge (despite having as colleagues Mark Lord and Linda Haviland  who know better: "as a woman and as a dancer in western society I'm keenly aware that I spent a long time being removed as any sort of valid epistemic subject ...").  If its the body that "knows," then shouldn't it be through the actions of the body that we have the most direct route to discovering and sharing what we know?  And to discovering new ways of being?

Watching and talking with Kathryn and the other dancers not only triggered these questions in my mind but expanded them to thinking about conscious knowledge, unconscious knowledge, and the relation between them.  In one set of exercises, the dancers were asked to perform a movement and then "halve" it, perhaps in space, perhaps in time, perhaps in other ways.   In another exercise, dancers were asked to remain in one spot and locate themselves in, among other things, "social space," "personal space," and "interior space."  It was fascinating to see the ways in which different states of consciousness were reflected, without consciousness, in different bodily expressions.  And how "thinking" about movement led to new possibilities of moving, surprising to the dancers themselves.  

The conscious/unconscious interplay was a major part of our conversation after the dancing.  Like skilled performers in a variety of realms, dancers recognize that consciousness gets in the way of dance performance, that they dance best when they can get into a "flow state," one in which movement occurs without thinking about it.  And yet clearly, "thinking about it" plays a role in performance as well, giving one some preparation/wherewithal that supports a spontaneous and creative expression of new knowledge?

Indeed knowledge is "embodied," at least twice, once in the unconscious and once in the conscious part of the brain.  And knowledge is fluid, changing all the time, in part from the interplay between unconscious and conscious knowledge.  Could one convey that set of understandings in dance?  Imagine two dancers, at two different locations in a performance space, each performing at the outset carefully choreographed dance.  As the performance proceeds, each does less and less "thinking about it" and begins to move more and more spontaneously, reflecting more and more simply unconscious knowledge.  They also move closer to one another in the performance space, so that the movements of each become more significant to the movements of the other, creating for each new movement possibilities, new knowledge?  They then move apart, beginning to think about what was created in duet, and end with separate more choreographed expressions of new understandings.  A dance that reflects not only dance as embodied knowledge but as the generator of new knowledge? 

The idea that a primary concern of dance is to be a generator of new knowledge may help to explain why many great choreographers are more interested in creating new dances than in finding ways to archive existing ones (see Can Modern Dance Be Preserved?).  And perhaps that in turn explains why I (and others) sometimes find dance hard to see?  It, like knowledge itself, is always in progress?  I'm looking forward to continuing to explore my new found interest in dance with the performance of Dance is Hard to See and conversation about it this coming Sunday