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Choreographic and somatic strategies for navigating bodyscapes and tensegrity schemata


Choreographic and somatic strategies for navigating bodyscapes and tensegrity schemata
Sue Hawksley, University of Edinburgh

This article reflects upon the psychophysical patterning and layered nature of phenomenal experience, and the interconnectedness of bodymind and environment. These are conceptualized as 'bodyscape' and 'tensegrity schema' and explored by engaging the principles of tensegrity (tensional integrity) with reference to dance, performance and somatic practices. In some performance environments, performers may be called on to bring in and out of focus, or simultaneously hold in attention, multiple layers and shifting perspectives of bodily experience. Giving examples I suggest that such situations, together with some choreographic and somatic practices, may facilitate an attitude of embodied reflection and skills of perceptual alertness. These can develop awareness of and capacity to 'navigate' bodyscape and tensegrity schema, and support the performer to better cope with the often conflicting multisensory and polyattentional demands of complex environments, whether highly specialized performance modes or everyday. The discussion derives theoretical flavour from dance and performance studies, phenomenology, somaesthetics and cognitive science, and is informed by my current practice-led Ph.D. research in dance and choreography enquiring into notions of embodiment.

Keywords: embodiment, attention, tensegrity, bodyscape, choreography, somatics

In the course of a piece, performers may be called upon to be singularly or simultaneously aware of their in-depth body, of peripersonal space, of interpersonal space between self, co-performers and performance environment, of projection to an audience, of extension through virtual environments, and of distantiation from oneself through adopting a character or generating an external viewpoint as if from the audience's perspective. Such situations make often conflicting multisensory and polyattentional demands on the performer that could seem to approach states resembling the schizoid or delusional. Giving examples of performance as practice and of practices for performance, I suggest these may facilitate an attitude of embodied reflection and skills of perceptual alertness, which I term attentional alacrity. These can develop awareness of and capacity to 'navigate' bodyscape and tensegrity schema, and support the performer to better cope with the conflicting demands of complex environments, whether highly specialized performance modes or everyday, and thereby possesses therapeutic potential.

I offer the notion of bodyscape to indicate the psychophysical patterning and 'layered' nature of phenomenal experience, and use the principles of tensegrity—the word is 'an invention: a contraction of "tensional integrity"' (Fuller 1997)—to conceptualize the interconnectedness of bodyscape, movement and the environment as a tensegrity schema. The discussion of these terms and the concepts they hold derives theoretical flavour from dance and performance studies, phenomenology, somaesthetics and cognitive science. It is informed by my own practice as a dance artist and bodywork therapist, which draws on approaches including Release, Cunningham and Ballet techniques in dance, holistic massage, the Eyerman Technique (itself a synthesis of influences including Feldenkrais, yoga and deep-tissue massage), myofascial techniques and Bartenieff fundamentals.

Setting the scene
To set the scene for this discussion, I offer an example from my own experience as a performer with the Paris-based Compagnie Philippe Genty in the early 1990s, working in two visual theatre works Dérives and Désirs Parades. The company members included contemporary dancers such as myself, and actors, many of whom had studied at the Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School. Our training and creative practices incorporated aspects of the 'mimo-dynamic' methods of Lecoq that advocate analysing and embodying the character, qualities or transformative processes undergone by creatures, materials or foods. Genty's visual performance works employ materials, objects and marionettes, often within théâtre noir lighting (literally 'black theatre'), which uses precisely directed lanterns to create a sharp corridor of light in front and behind of which is extreme darkness. This establishes a clear demarcation for the performers between being in and out of the light. The performers' black costumes allow them to 'disappear' into the dark area behind the light-line and thereby effect seemingly magical illusions. They are required to move with physical precision in order to manipulate puppets or objects in the light without themselves crossing the line. Performers work either individually or collectively to manipulate the marionettes - often Bunraku style rod manipulated characters - with up to three actors coordinating their actions to enliven one puppet. Manipulation requires an objective analysis of movement, and paying constant attention to aspects such as mass, fixed points, breaking inertia and anchoring to gravity. Performers have to establish emotional distance from the puppet or from a character so that anger manifested in the puppet, for example, does not cause the actor to manifest angry movements, or vice versa. If the performers do deliberately enter the light and become visible to the audience, they must outwardly project either as themselves or embodying a character, whilst also maintaining inwardly focused attention to kinaesthetic and proprioceptive awareness for precise articulation of the marionette. A colleague in the company, actor Harry Holtzman, described his experience of performing within théâtre noir and of working with the marionettes,

It was as if you placed yourself into that which you were manipulating at the end of your fingertips. I think I'd call it 'extrospection' … it's applying yourself, or just self without the 'your', to an architecture outside of you, something that is physically real, materially real … You do not take possession of the marionette and oblige it to do your bidding, but you allow yourself to be dis-possessed, to move house as it were, into new digs. And in the moving you are no longer you, but you are just the animating presence. The other exists because you were able to move out of the way… You become little more than a shadow. The being in the light is all there is. At best, you are able to let go or get out of the way and truly inspire, breathe life into the object at the end of your black-gloved fingertips. (personal e-mail communication, 22 August 2010)

Holtzman described the experience of working within théâtre noir as 'a huge lesson in humility… and as a result a very practical lesson in performing' (personal e-mail communication, 22 August 2010). For myself, the moment of entering the light from working behind it was paradigmatic. From being 'absent', a shadow breathing life into a marionette, the performer has to instantly become fully 'present' when she enters the light. The phenomenal experience of coping with the multiple levels and modes of attention and awareness demanded by this performance environment served to kindle my interest in the 'layered' (De Preester 2007) attentional aspects of the body in performance. This has become a central theme in my subsequent movement research, whether approached through somatic or choreographic practices. The next section of this article discusses these phenomena, with a particular focus on the interconnectedness and interdependency of body, mind, movement and the environment, conceptualized through the metaphors of 'bodyscape' and 'tensegrity schema'. First, I outline these terms and the concepts they hold.

Bodyscape and tensegrity schemata
I use the term bodyscape as a metaphor for bodymind as both terrrain and traveller in 'physical thought' (Fulkerson 1975: 11). It indicates vista and territory, encapsulating subjective and objective perspectives of the dynamically felt bodily experience of movement. For anthropologist Pamela Geller, the concept of bodyscape is fluid, perspectival and multi-scalar and encourages thinking about the body 'as a space unto itself, a microlandscape of individual bodily differences' (2009: 505). I employ the term to embrace these aspects of spatiality, fluidity and difference. Bodyscape is multilayered and performative, emphasizing activity, multiplicity and inter-relationality. The psychophysical patternings and intentionalities that inform the ways in which bodymind organizes and is organized for acting in the world are conceived according to the principles of tensegrity. The term tensegrity was coined by architect, engineer and cosmologist Buckminster Fuller, working at Black Mountain College with sculptor and photographer Kenneth Snelson. Tensegrity 'describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors' (Fuller 1997). Fuller notably used this structural-relationship principle in the architectural structure of the geodesic dome. Thomas Myers and other bodywork practitioners have more recently applied the principles of tensegrity to anatomy and bodywork. Approaches such as Anatomy Trains (Myers 2009) and Biotensegrity (Levin 2002) offer alternatives to traditional 'lever-based' anatomies of the body. They focus on the crucial role played by connective tissue (myofascia) and neural networks in maintaining bodily tensional-integrity, and in establishing the hereditary and learned postural and movement patterns that characterize and inform bodyscape. The interconnecting nature of connective tissue is such that,

A tug in the fascial net is communicated across the entire system like a snag in a sweater … This communication happens below our level of awareness for the most part, but through it we create a shape for ourselves, registered in the liquid crystal of the connective tissue, a recognizable pattern of posture and 'acture' (defined as 'posture in action'—our characteristic patterns of doing—by Feldenkrais), which we tend to keep unless altered for better or worse. (Myers 2009: 33)

Myers notes that according to Fuller's principles of tensegrity, the structures of moving animals must be finitely closed to be capable of remaining intact (at least under normal atmospheric conditions) whether upright, inverted or flying. The sweater image helps us understand this and to visualize the boundaries of bodyscape. However, certain animals are extended and anchored to the outside by situation dependent elements, such as spiders and their webs (Myers 2009: 45). The tensional and compressional behaviours of this extended system are not finitely closed, as they are contingent on changes in the environment; the application of tensegrity principles therefore becomes more conceptual. It is this extended system that I conceive as a 'tensegrity schema', in which the meshwork [i] of intercorporeal, sociocultural and environmental 'connective tissues' interconnecting bodyscape and environment is emphasized. This approach engages concepts of distributed mind, agency and authorship, and draws on theories of Enactivism, Extended Mind and Actor-Network Theory.[ii]

Choreographic and somatic strategies
I suggest that bodyscape is fluid, multi-scalar and multi-perspectival and tensegrity schema is a meshwork of intra- and intercorporeal, sociocultural and environmental connections and exchanges. The next section of this article reflects upon these concepts through examples of choreographic and somatic strategies that demand and develop perceptual alertness that in turn facilitates navigation of the terrain of this scape and schema. I call this perceptual alertness attentional alacrity; the lightness, quickness and positivity evoked by the term alacrity suggests a skillful but playful approach to polyattentiveness—something like juggling—and an attitude of dynamic mindful engagement.

An example from my own choreographic practice is of InTensions (2010). This performance work resulted from collaborative creative enquiry between myself as choreographer, dance-artist Skye Reynolds, and sound artists Barney Strachan and Nik Paget-Tomlinson, as part of my practice-led Ph.D. research. For this work I engaged choreographic strategies deliberately aimed at creating 'snags in the sweater' of bodyscape, in order to explore the potential traumatic impact of imbalances. I employed choreographic devices such as imagining dances, writing scores, and the artificial imposition of 'trauma', together with devising choreographic taskscapes that make multiple and often conflicting attentional demands. The rehearsal process took into account the ethical issues raised by such approaches, and was underpinned by somatic principles and by practices, including Authentic Movement and the Bodyweather work of Min Tanaka, to ensure that Reynolds maintained a safe boundary between artifice and actual. One choreographic device I explored as a means to introduce 'artificial trauma' was to ask Reynolds to watch scenes from a horror movie (Ridley Scott's Hannibal 2001)—the rationale for using the film is that while it may be disturbing, it is fictional and depersonalized, thereby helping to create distance for the performer—then immediately afterwards to express her response through a danced improvisation. She then gave a spoken report of her experience of this dance;

… trying to think about that [the movie] and then move … the dance started getting quite heavy and kind of really rounded, as if it was inside my organs, and it was all about mushiness, insideness, like underneath the protective coating of the skin and the security of the bones. It was about that sort of vulnerable flesh state that is inside you, that I was trying to wrap myself around because I was feeling exposed because of what I'd just seen. (personal communication, 23 October 2009)

Watching her danced improvisation, it seemed to me as if the choreographic device had affected the manner of her movement and her sense of self by temporarily dis-integrating the patterning of her bodyscape. In a different iteration of the same choreographic device I asked Reynolds to watch a movie scene and then to recall and re-dance an earlier, enjoyable improvisation at the same time as thinking about the film. This splitting of attention again resulted in a curious, awkward tension patterning of her bodyscape and movement. This device of watching movies to induce 'artificial trauma' was initially powerful, but quite quickly became empty for Reynolds as she became accustomed to the filmic horror. To help us recapture her first responses, we reviewed video footage of those rehearsals and some of the movement material from those improvisations was then composed into a set dance phrase. This phrase is then performed on two metallic-tape 'tracks' or 'rails' that are laid on the floor and connected to a synthesizer to create an interactive sound system. Sounds or spoken texts (some of which are recordings of Reynolds speaking, derived from the 'artificial trauma' exercise) are triggered when she closes a single loop circuit by making contact with both tracks.

The choreographic process and performance environment of InTensions highlights complexity, fluidity and multiplicity. They demand and promote attentional alacrity for coping within them. The narrowness of the rails demands movement precision—this task is made more difficult because the choreographic material is awkward and dis-integrated—while the sounds they emit act to disrupt the flow of the choreography. The dancer has to split her attention. She has to almost 'listen through the feet' and then make choices to adjust the timing of her steps so as to determine the length of revealed sounds or texts. She may then improvise and adapt her movement material in response to the words of the texts. These are often quite emotionally affecting and require her to inwardly focus her attention. At the same time she must maintain precision and control so that her dance material remains on the rails, while outwardly projecting to the audience.

Like the théâtre noir situation described at the start of this article, this performance environment can serve as its own training ground—performance as practice. For practical reasons the amount of time available to rehearse in the system for InTensions was limited, and so it was necessary to explore suitable strategies that could be practised outside of the performance environment—practice for performance. Somatic practices and related psychophysical practices are of particular relevance to this question, being characterized by an emphasis on a non-dualist perspective of bodymind, on the valuing of sensorial and perceptual experience, and of thinking in-and-through movement. My personal experience of practices such as Yoga, the Eyerman Technique and Bartenieff Fundamentals have played a significant part in the development of my proposals for connectivity and multiplicity in bodyscape and tensegrity schema. Theatre practitioner Phillip Zarrilli has developed actor training methods incorporating the Indian martial art of kalarippayattu, T'ai Chi Chuan, performance practices, and dance forms such as kathakali. Through this work he encounters bodily experience as performative and multiplicitous,

the body I call mine is not a body, or the body, but rather a process of embodying the several bodies one encounters in everyday experience as well as highly specialized modes of non-everyday or extra-daily bodies of practices such as acting or training in psychophysical disciplines to act. (Zarrilli 2004: 655)

For Zarrilli, this embodying process involves 'modulation of the four modes of bodily experience … the ecstatic surface, the depth/visceral recessive, the subtle inner bodies, and the fictive body of the actor's score' (Zarrilli 2004: 665). Philosopher and Feldenkrais practitioner Richard Shusterman also proposes we can conceive of at least four modes or levels of consciousness for bodily understandings and perceptions (2008: 54). First, primitive, pre-reflective levels of awareness, as in deep sleep (although as Shusterman points out, even in deep sleep we seem to know when turn over to avoid a pillow restricting breathing); second, conscious perception without explicit awareness, such as walking through the frame of an open-door without specifically registering its presence; third, conscious and explicit awareness of what we perceive. At the fourth level, Shusterman suggests, 'we are not only conscious of what we perceive as an explicit object of awareness but we are also mindfully conscious of this focused consciousness as we monitor our awareness of our awareness through its representation in our consciousness' (2008: 55). For Shusterman the Feldenkrais Method is a valuable practice through which to modulate these levels of bodily understandings and perceptions. It encourages awareness through movement, often by establishing physical 'riddles' that can present challenges to, help identify, and reassess felt-understandings and habitual movement patterns. The methods are equally valued and integrated into dance practice, through the work of dance artists and certified Feldenkrais practitioners such as Scott Clark, Libby Worth, Sondra Fraleigh and Thomas Kampe.

Within dance, philosopher Dorothée Legrand and dance researcher Susanne Ravn conducted a phenomenologically based study comparing dancers from three different approaches—Butoh, Contemporary and Ballet—focusing on the perceptual modes of interoception, exteroception and proprioception. They suggest that different dance forms lead to different experiences of 'embodied reflection', whereby the body 'can be experienced as subjective, both in perception and action, while being taken as an attentional/intentional object of perception' (Legrand and Ravn 2009: 404). In the case of classical ballet dancers the regular use of mirrors in training and rehearsals facilitated their felt understanding of bodily form-in-space informed by an ability to create a strong mental picture of movement. The contemporary dancers commonly reported that they developed a sense of the feel of the movement by flowing between proprioceptive and visual information; they 'externalize inside sensing and internalize the external eye' (Legrand and Ravn 2009: 400). The dancers working within Butoh-related techniques tended towards the use of imagination, allowing bodily sensation to emerge before, and then to lead into, movement. Dance and performance practitioners today often work across a diversity of dance forms as well as somatic practices. The range and synergies of methods and approaches currently offered on the programme of Independent Dance in London, for example, is testament to this trend. This diversity, I suggest, potentially offers dancers a broader range of strategies that engage the multilayered experience of the lived body.

One approach that I have found to be of particular relevance to working within performance environments that make multiple demands on attention, such as théâtre noir or the interactive system of InTensions, is that developed by Miranda Tufnell. Evolving through her experience as a dance artist, Alexander teacher and cranio-sacral therapist Tufnell's practice explores the body, the environment, and use of imagination, speech and writing to offer improvisational starting points for creative exploration. What I find pertinent in her approach is how it promotes the capacity for 'shifting between the poetry of metaphor and language, the sensuousness of making and materials and the feeling world of the body, to make visible the elusive multi-layered nature of our experience' (Tufnell n.d.). My own engagement with Tufnell's practice [iii] suggests that it establishes something of a 'perception gym' well suited for developing attentional alacrity.

Therapeutic potential
Contemporary performers increasingly work within performance environments that are technologically mediated and/or interactive, in which aspects of performers' experience may be augmented or extended in novel or extreme ways. Such complex environments make often conflicting multisensory and polyattentional demands of performers that have the potential to approach a fragmented or distanced sense of agency. As philosopher Helena De Preester argues, some '[p]erformative actions situate the body in a very specific way—a way that often oddly resembles situations of disease/deficiency as met in clinical contexts or changed bodily and/or mental functioning' (2007: 351). [iv] Equally for theatre director, actor and playwright Antonin Artaud, the theatre 'permits the imaginative reconfiguration of [these] bodily forms, comportments and behaviours and allows the body to act in ways that are profoundly anti-social' (Scheer 2009: 42).

Neuroscientist Olaf Blanke and neuropsychologist Christine Mohr describe examples of clinical contexts and reconfigured bodily forms, including hallucinatory phenomena such as autoscopic hallucination and out-of-body experiences (OBE). In OBE states, patients may experience feelings of disembodiment, of seeing their body from a distanced and elevated perspective, or of confusion as whether they are 'disembodied or not and whether the self is localized in the physical body or the autoscopic body' (Blanke and Mohr 2005: 187). At the disfunctional level, OBE or autoscopic hallucination may result in dis-integration of body and self processing, or between personal and extrapersonal space, due to conflicting multisensory information (Blanke and Mohr 2005). We see in the case of Artaud a tragic example of an artist for whom it became difficult to distinguish between artifice or reality, sanity or madness. When he was interred in an asylum in Rodez, electroshock therapy was administered 'despite his claims that he was assuming roles, playing out positions, acting out the symptoms of mental anguish as any good writer would do' (Scheer 2009: 48).

The application of somatic practices and principles to the training and education of dancers (e.g. within Higher Education) may serve to develop awareness and attentional skills, while mediated and augmented performance situations can offer 'safe' environments for learning to cope with conflicting multisensory information. There is potential therapeutic value too in performatively embodying states that approach situations of disease/deficiency. Choreographic processes such as those used in InTensions, aiming to deliberately create 'snags' in the tensegrity schema, create physical riddles. If approached with an attitude of embodied reflection these may function in ways similar to the riddles proposed in Feldenkrais practice, and help reveal tendencies towards fixity in the patterns that characterize bodyscape. Learning to understand bodily experience as performative and multiplicitous can augment rather than fragment the sense of ownership and agency. As such choreographic strategies can add to the somatic and psychophysical tools that support the performer in navigating bodyscape and tensegrity schema, mindfully and with alacrity.

Concluding remarks
The multilayered and performative nature of lived experience, and the bodyscape-environment meshwork have been conceptualized through the metaphors of bodyscape and tensegrity schema. The example of théâtre noir that sets the scene for this discussion illuminates the polyattentional and multisensory demands framed by some performance situations, and illustrates aspects of the interconnectedness of bodyscape and tensegrity schema. Choreographic and somatic strategies are presented that may facilitate apprehension and navigation of this scape and schema through promoting skills of reflection and attention. Learning to better cope in environments that make multiple attentional demands may enrich awareness of bodyscape and tensegrity schema, whether encountered in highly specialized performance situations or everyday experience.

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Contributor details
Sue Hawksley is a dance artist and artistic director of articulate animal, which she established in 2007 as a vehicle for interdisciplinary performance practice and research. She has performed with Rambert Dance Company, Mantis, Scottish Ballet and Philippe Genty, among others, and worked on numerous freelance projects as performer, choreographer or educator. Sue's practice as a massage and bodywork therapist is integral to her exploration of dance and movement. Her academic experience includes Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Scottish School of Contemporary Dance and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She is completing a practice-led Ph.D. at Edinburgh College of Art. Her research engages questions of embodiment through choreographic practice, somatics, philosophy and technological mediation.

i. I use the term meshwork in the sense proposed by social anthropolgist Tim Ingold (himself referring to philosopher Henri Lefebvre) to indicate 'the texture of the world' (2010) which is conceived in terms of a meshwork of interwoven and entangled lines of flight, rather than as a network of interconnected points.

ii. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss these in depth, but a brief outline and references may be useful. Enactivist approaches, developed by Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, emphasise the dynamic relationship between individuals and environment. (e.g. Maturana and Varela 1980; Varela et al. 1993). Related works include Lakoff and Johnson (1999) and Noë (2004). The Extended Mind Hypothesis of Clark and Chalmers (1998) contends that mind is not boundaried by skin and skull and argues for active externalism (see also e.g. Clark 2008; Menary 2010). External objects or environmental factors such as notebooks or iPhones may be incorporated into and exploited as part of cognitive processing to such an extent as to be considered a part of mind. Actor-Network Theory (Latour 2007) is an approach to social theory that examines how relationships are formed between people, objects and concepts, and controversially insists on the agency of non-human actors.

iii. I have experience of this work through a workshop with Tufnell, and working with many dance practitioners who integrate her practices. The book Body, Space, Image: Notes towards Improvisations and Performance by Tufnell and Chris Crickmay is also an invaluable studio resource.

iv. De Preester offers a mixing of philosophical and neuroscienti´Čüc frames of reference as a means to encounter and consider the 'layered' nature of bodily experience. She explores performance in terms of the bodily operations at work in it, alongside a number of experiments and findings from neuroscientific-clinical contexts. The examples she gives from performance illustrate often quite extreme splittings of attention and sensation, such as Third Hand by the Australian artist Stelarc.