“Research as Embodied Practice: Emotion and the dancing self” – Sebastian Kann
In mainstream culture, emotions almost always seem to be connected to an object, image, or speech act – that is, to an ‘other’ – which makes the subject feel a certain way. So, for example, ‘it makes me feel sad to see images of suffering’, or ‘it makes me feel happy that my friends threw me a surprise party’. During my research at SMASH, however, I noticed that we were talking about emotion in a quite unusual way. In the particular dance culture in which I was participating in Berlin in the fall of 2017, people would commonly say: ‘this exercise released anger in me’, ‘your support helped me access joy’, or even ‘I think I have a lot of sadness stored in my sternum’. For us, emotion was not something definitely attached to a particular object, but rather a property imprinted in the body of the subject, which could be triggered through certain physical experiences. Although these emotions were sometimes attached to dramatic narrative or imaginary scenarios, sometimes they were also ‘purely physical’, as for example when, in Maria Scaroni’s workshop, attempting to moves my limbs while keeping my chest muscles totally relaxed (in her words, “strong legs carry a soft heart”) made me feel definitively sad, but about nothing in particular. What are the implications of explicitly moving the site of emotionality into the body of the experiencer? Why and how has emotion become an issue again in some corners of contemporary dance?
Emotionality was of course one of the main contentious issues at play when choreographers in the mid-20th century began to problematize the discourse of Modern dance: the so-called ‘Post-modern’ dance epitomized by the choreographers of Judson Dance Theater attempted to present pure movement by separating dance from the obligation to either represent the emotions of a dancer or deliver emotions to the spectator. From a contemporary perspective, we can understand the rejection of emotionality as a rejection of “[neoliberal] ideas of freedom and individualism which – understood as an emotional experience of one’s body and its freedom of movement – are traded as a value that dance holds for its audience” (Cvejić 2015, 163). In other words, the appeal of metakinetic dramaturgies – after John Martin’s ‘metakinesis’, the empathetic process by which the emotions of the expressive dancer correspond to emotions lived by the spectator – lessens when the persuasive performance of a unique and original interiority becomes, under post-Fordist working conditions, no longer emancipatory but actually a systematic requirement.
In the practices shared at SMASH, however, emotions played a very different role. We did not imagine ourselves discovering our ‘authentic’ selves, nor were we trying to expose those selves before the eyes of others; rather, emotion figured as something we could produce or activate through specific practices, and which could be tapped into as a possible impetus for movement. In Anna Nowicka’s improvisation practice, for example, the dancer is simultaneously moving in space, visualizing imagery, and scanning the body for emotional response; these three elements form a kind of feedback loop that produces a dance. This is not a feedback loop into which one ‘naturally’ slips; it took weeks of training to be able to sustain an even attentiveness and openness to all three activities, and to be able to experience them holistically (I would compare it to viewing Magic Eye autostereograms, which appear three dimensional only to those who have mastered a certain technique of looking, and whose three-dimensionality is always on the verge of slipping away). So while there is a certain activity of introspection at play here, emotions are lived as inseparable from the specific technique of observation which mediates their perception.
On the one hand, then, practices such as Nowicka’s destabilize the Romantic notion of the authentic ‘deep self’ (after Richard Sennett), rebuilding the subjective experience of the self as something produced and continually re-made in the fold of interiority and exteriority. On the other, the habit of discussing these emotions as lodging in and emanating from the body make the proposed emotional ontology somewhat ambiguous: if these emotions needs such an elaborate process of mediation to be released, is it not incoherent to imagine them as deposits, lying in wait in the liver or the esophagus?
My theory is rather than the dancer’s specific experience of the body as something constantly in process makes this way of imagining emotionality less essentialist than it might seem to a non-dancer. In Nowicka’s practice, for example, we dealt with any painful emotion continuing to resonate in the body after the dance was supposedly ‘finished’ by visualizing its shape, location, color, and texture, and then inviting it to transform into something more comfortable. We tried different imaginary techniques (breathing new color into it, picturing ourselves physically moving it around, imaging a change of temperature or state, and so forth) and until the problematic emotion was resolved. Maria Scaroni taught a similar technique for dealing with the emotional consequences of her practice, advising us to notice the way we embodied our emotions (in terms of posture, muscular tension, gesture, and so forth) and to attend to this embodiment as something which could be consciously mastered and modified. For a dancer, then, imagining emotion as a property of the physical body doesn’t necessarily mean that emotion is reified as authentic truth; rather, emotion, like her body, comes to be understood as produced through and mediated by skillful activity, and thus subject to skillful manipulation.
If the self of modern dance sought authenticity through the expression of a hidden emotional interiority, and the self of postmodern dance looked for truth through becoming objective (serving as a kind of neutral channel for choreography understood as an objective entity), the self of these contemporary practices is a self which assumes both its own irreducible specificity and the fact that that specificity is not given but processual. This is a self that works on and with itself in order to continually produce new truths and worlds (‘overwriting’ itself, to use Armen Avenessian’s term). It seems important to me to keep the ambivalence of such an understanding of self in the foreground; this could be the ethical self of poietic speculation just as easily as the normalised or optimised self of psychotherapy. And as far as emotions go, I think it’s interesting to ask to what extent becoming aware of the socio-cultural techniques which mediate and produce emotionality make us the ironic observers of our own feelings: Eva Illouz’s account of the contemporary ‘cooling of desire’ brought about by the proliferation of therapeutic techniques for emotional management (in Why Love Hurts, 2012) forces me to wonder whether it is worth trading the experience of immediate feeling for the power of autonomy granted by the knowledge of emotion’s constructedness. In any case, what’s clear is that emotional dancing can no longer be written off as old-fashioned; indeed, the ambiguity at the heart of these new approaches to emotional experience demands further examination and articulation.
- Avenessian, Armen. 2017. Overwrite: Ethics of Knowledge – Poetics of Existence. Trans. N.F. Schott. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
- Cvejić, Bojana. 2015. Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance. New York and Basingstoke (UK): Palgrave Macmillan.
- Illouz, Eva. 2012. Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press.
- Sennett, Richard. 2002 . The Fall of Public Man. New York and London: Penguin Books.