No-Place Choreography and Corporeal Topographies
Moving Spaces: Making Dances in London, Hong Kong and New York
After seeing a performance of Chinese dance by the Hong Kong Dance Company at the Hong Kong Cultural Center’s Grand Theatre, I went backstage to see some friends who had performed. The back curtain had been pulled up after the performance exposing the rear back wall of this large and deep stage. In the middle of this back wall there was a brightly painted green door with an exit sign above it in both English and Chinese. I felt as if a light had gone on in my head. Here was the door to the dance I had begun to create in my head. At the time I didn’t know how I would use this image but I did know it connected and in some way would become a part of my new dance’s world. It seemed an exit to another time and another place, yet even more as a metaphor for a passage from one state of being into another. In his writings the philosopher, Brian Massumi explores the concept of the ‘biogram,’ examining the ways our bodies become sites of our identities and histories. A body, he suggests, is defined by what capacities it carries from step to step and these are constantly changing. The body’s ability to affect or be affected is not fixed and bounded. Massumi states that, “the present boundaries are never a closed door. It is an open threshold- a threshold of potential. You are only ever in the present in passing.” (“Navigating Movements” 21c magazine). The door I saw that day in 1997 living in Hong Kong, far from my “homeland,” just before Hong Kong’s handover to China, perhaps came to represent that threshold.
In her essay, “Soundwalking, Race and Gender”, Karen Shinakawa states that when the normal ways we move through the world are disrupted, we become more aware that we are no longer comfortably located within our own ‘biograms”(34). It is at these moments we begin to sense new possibilities and new configurations. Shinakawa’s essay discusses walking tours through others’ “biograms” and although during my period of living away from America I was not a ‘tourist,’ my sense of my biogram was interrupted, opening a sense of new possibilities and potentials. I am an American choreographer and teacher who was born and brought up in New York City. From 1978 through 1989 I toured and performed with my New York based company, Rosalind Newman and Dancers in the United States and Europe. In 1989 I relocated to Hong Kong with my family, to teach and choreograph at the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts, returning to New York City after my contract finished in August 1991. In 1993 I returned to HK to resume my post of senior lecturer at the Academy and remained there until July 2002. In August of that year I moved to London to become Course Leader for the Masters of Choreography program at Laban. After this intense time of moving through different places and spaces, in winter, 2004 I returned to a much changed New York City.
Oftentimes friends and colleagues have asked me how my time in Asia has changed my choreography. I answer that it is complex and not quite the way one might expect. I have not used Chinese music (or just not yet) or conventional Chinese dance steps, yet my ways of conceiving dance and the spaces of my work has shifted. As I influenced the thinking/dancing of my students and colleagues, the places and spaces of their world deeply affected me as well. Brian Massumi proposes that “when you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn …… you have made a transition (“Navigating Movements” 21c magazine). In this paper I explore some of the dances I created during this period when I was far from my “home(land)” and the ways these works, through their intermingling of energies, created a new space, or what the cultural geographer Doreen Massey would call a ‘meeting place.’ As the dancers and I stepped into these new spaces we were both changing them, as well as being changed by them.
I created Scenes from a Mirage whilst I was living and working in Hong Kong, in the period preceding Hong Kong’s handover to China. On June 30th 1997, Hong Kong which had been a British colony since 1898, was returned to mainland China. As my students, colleagues and friends grappled with the prospect of Hong Kong returning to the “motherland” after almost 100 years of British rule, too was affected by this momentous and historic change. The majority of Hong Kong’s people, although ethnically Chinese, had never lived in China. China was the country their ancestors had left, often under harsh circumstances. How would the handover affect their lives, as well as my own, and that of my family in residence in Hong Kong? It was a time of uncertainty and we were all trying to understand Hong Kong and our relation to it even as we sensed its eminent change. How did my Hong Kong friends, and I as well, relate to the idea of losing this city we knew? What would be lost? What would be found in its place?
As the city and the people of Hong Kong searched for their identity, I explored my own as well. Hong Kong is mostly Chinese in population and culture, and although I was never treated as an outsider and felt accepted during my time in Hong Kong, I could never truly be part of traditional Chinese culture. I was always an expatriate, and felt at times the ‘other’ or out of my place. Living half way around the world from my “home” I experienced what Doreen Massey calls a sense of disruption and fragmentation and I yearned to become located. Uncharacteristically, I joined a Jewish Community Center (they also had a great swimming pool), and it was in the library housed within this Jewish Center attached to the Oheh Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, that I researched the Jewish diaspora providing inspiration for Scenes from a Mirage. It is a dance referring to Jews in the late 19th century in Poland and Russia, choreographed by myself, an American Jewish choreographer in Hong Kong in the late 20th century, danced by Chinese dancers from Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Taiwan. Within this geographic fragmentation and spatial disruption, there appeared a longing for place or community, even if it was one which existed within the imagination (“A Global Sense of Place”).
As I reflected upon these ideas of identity, transition and loss, I felt the need to create a very specific place within this work. It was as if the the uncertainty of the world around me propelled me to create a space of safety, of the known. In many of my other works although using recognizable elements, such as folk or popular dance motifs, I had built more abstract worlds. In Scenes from Mirage I wanted to create a world that was more concrete. In his book Space and Place, Yi fu Tuan states, “Human places become vividly real through dramatization. Identity of a place is achieved by dramatizing the aspiration, needs and functional rhythms of personal and group life” (178). What were the specifics of the world I wished to create in this work? These concerns led me to reflect upon my relation to the places I had lived, as well as to the lands of my ancestors. As a Jew whose grandparents had emigrated to the United States in the early part of the century from the ghettos of Russia and Poland, I asked myself what I knew of my roots. What did it mean to be Jewish, to be an American? I could only know of the spaces of those ghettos in my imagination. I became fascinated with the idea of rootedness and ‘home’. How did I relate to it? How did others? These were some of my inspirations as I began to create Scenes from a Mirage.
In the beginning of Scenes from a Mirage, the dancers move out of the upstage darkness advancing towards the audience as if descending upon them, bring with them an atmosphere of another time and place. To create a world that was more concrete, I based many of the dancers’ movements, rhythms, costumes and gestures on elements of an Eastern European village in the late 19th century, early 20th century. Drawing from a range of other cultures as well, the work has a strong ethnic, folk quality. I was inspired by Hungarian male folk dances as well as Chinese folk dance forms, and even Chinese martial arts forms such as Bak Qua. This mixture of cultures allowed me to create a whole world with its own inner logic and internal integrity.
More than many of my other works Scenes from a Mirage seems to have a narrative line. Unfolding like a dream, however, its story does not follow a logical sequence. Ideas overlap, splice together, moving in fast forward and then rewinding back on themselves. A series of events occur; meetings and partings, a wedding perhaps, a celebration, a drunken reverie, like the day in the life of a village. In the middle of the work the dancers form a circle which wraps in upon itself as the members of the group face each other. In this section of the work I used the music of the American group the Klezmatics, which fuses klezmer traditions with more contemporary new music processes. There is the suggestion of a Jewish wedding as a male and female dancer are lifted high by the group and carried . Three male dancers begin a staggering stumbling dance while the rest of the dancers look on. The movements were drawn from male Hungarian folk dances as well as a Chinese martial arts technique known as the Drunken form. As the group of dancers interact in these circle and line dances, these diverse elements come together and establish a sense of community, of a socially connected unit.
At the end of this ‘wedding’ dance, the dancers create a pyramid with their bodies, pausing for a final photo. They fall out of this shape and it is as if a picture were decomposing. Their movements slow down and soften, becoming slightly out of focus and distorted. We are watching not only the structures of this dance disintegrate and decay but also its world. In 1993, I had taken a workshop with the well known dance composition teacher, Robert Dunn, at Columbia Teacher’s College in which he proposed that choreography is always in constant tension between the lining up, and passing through of spatial concepts; rhythms and ideas; time and energy. I often thought of his words as I constructed and deconstructed the worlds of this dance, viewing these transformations as a metaphor for the changes going on in my personal life as well as the world around me. In Scenes there are many instances in which spatial relationships, images and concepts build up and then dissipate, to appear again in new ways. Groups of dancers make formations which decay, break apart and reform. A circle dance breaks open and transforms into a line dance. The dancers literally climb one on top of the other to build structures with their bodies only to have them break apart and then reform in another way.
The idea of dance as a dynamic process is discussed by Maxime Sheets-Johnstone in her book Illuminating Dance. She views the world as a process of becoming, which can be seen in the “rhythms and organic maturation’s and decay of growing things” and movement is part of this dynamic process (63). These ideas are valuable in thinking about the spaces of Scenes from a Mirage which are in a dynamic state of transformation as they illuminate a place and a people. In the dance, as in our world, there is always dynamic process and energy, for as Massumi states “the present ‘boundary condition’ ….is never a closed door. It is an open threshold – a threshold of potential. You are only ever in the present in passing”(2). Society breaks down and then reforms in the same place or in new places, dissolving again to give way to new peoples and new societies. Families are created and change and disperse over time, people live and die, buildings spring up, change and then decay or are torn down. Cities emerge, transform, and then reform again perhaps in the same place or in new places. The structures of the dance come together forming and reforming as well. Echoing our worlds, the dance comes together and falls apart as do the people and places of our lives.
Other works I created during this period also bring together many disparate elements, Eastern and Western dance, sounds, concepts, energies, and people. While there was a longing for me to find my place, there was also within the process of creation a feeling of community; between the dancers, myself, the costume, set and lighting designers. As I watch these works they express a strong sense of place, a new kind of place made through the synergies of these various elements. Doreen Massey’s writings about the nature of space and place in the contemporary global world are relevant to the ways space takes on meanings in these choreographies. She states, “space isn’t something we live in, in the sense that it is a volume which we carve up and move about in: rather it is something which is socially created by the way in which we live our lives. We create space through our interactions… It means you start thinking of space not as something divided up but as something formed out of an incredibly complex network of intersections, interconnections, relations, contacts and so forth.” For Massey, place is something that be can be viewed as open and porous. Massey’s ideas seem especially germane in viewing Scenes, whose places were constructed through interconnections, formed through a blending of varied elements. For Massey writes of the places of our world, “it is place, precisely as meeting place” (“A Global Sense of Place”).
Our dancing is made up of the multiplicity of the ways we perceive the world. In reflecting upon these dancing places created across borders, it has been important to recognize diversity and particularity as well as commonality. Our dancing places as well as the places of our lives are always in production, in a process of becoming. Through time we change, and are affected by the world around us. Being There, a work I first created in 2002 was produced during a period of intense transition and change in my life as I was moving with my family from Hong Kong to London. I chose to work with tennis balls which propelled the movement, driving the work forward, giving the piece its thrust. With their precarious balance and instability, the balls made it necessary for the dancers to deal with the actuality of the situation in real time. In working with the unpredictability of these objects, the dancers needed to find ways to cope with their environment within the moment. These props occupy the ‘real’ spaces of the work and at the same time imaginary spaces which reverberate within the mind’s eye. In Being There, the balls become a metaphor for continuity, for the twists and turns of our fortunes, for flow and flux. It is interesting to me that I chose to work with an object that was guided by chance as I was leaving Hong Kong. In Chinese culture there is much emphasis on the idea of luck, and the unpredictably of life’s road. I feel that in choosing to work with balls, and their curving, spiraling motions, I was coming to terms with my own relationship to Chinese culture, and the kinds of spatial concepts that I had imbued during my time there. In his book, The Geography of Thought, the cultural psychologist Richard Nisbett has written of the differences between Asians and Westerners in their world views. In writing about people living in an ‘other’ culture he notes that “the social psychological characteristics of people raised in very different cultures are far from completely immutable, there is plasticity to their world views”(68). Nisbett points out a distinction between Eastern cultures as relatively interdependent societies and Western as relatively independent societies. He feels the cultures of the East are based on a shared sense of community and those of the West are based on community joined to achieve certain goals. My work was affected by these cultural influences and an increased awareness of the interdependence between aspects of our world.
In Being There, I was exploring ideas of balance and harmony in space. The rolls of the movement of the balls, the interactions between the dancers to each other as well as to the environment, reflected a sense of interdependencies and correspondences. The spatial pathways within the work flowed one into another, also reflecting the Eastern concept of harmony or the ‘Middle Way’. Nisbett describes the “Middle Way” as a kind of Chinese dialecticism, which seeks to perceive things in their contexts. He states “that events do not occur in isolation from other events, but are always embedded in a meaningful whole in which elements are constantly changing and rearranging themselves.” (27) Within this world view one sees a wholeness, seeing people, events and objects within their context. This concept allows for the existence of contradictory qualities which can exist within and because of the other. The Tao Te Ching says “the heavy is the root of the light…..The unmoved is the source of all movement” (Nisbett, 14). These influences are apparent in Being There as its sections flow one into the next. In one of the thematic movement patterns of the work, a dancer gathers the energy of the ball into her center only to let it move out again in fluid spirals, the outward action existing within and because of the inward action.
I was, of course, influenced by the wonderful dancers with whom I first created this work. I had worked with each of them intensively and intimately over my period of time in Hong Kong. Many of them had been trained in classical Chinese dance as well as contemporary dance forms and that vocabulary, plus the world views of their culture, were embedded within their bodies. In addition, they had all studied with me extensively and danced in my company over many years and there were mutual and profound influences going in both directions, an almost cross-pollination. The basic thematic movement phrases of the work used a convergence of contemporary dance practices and traditional Chinese dance. For instance, towards the end of the work a female dancer enters the stage winding and unwinding a ball up, under, and around her body. She rolled it across her body surfaces in motions reminiscent of the many traditional Chinese dances which use props such as fans or cups. Another dancer enters and the repetitions of the movement, and the spatial relationship between the two dancers brings to mind post-modern choreographic techniques. And as a third and then a fourth dancer enters, the formalist patterns of their movements, the lines and shapes they create in space, their spatial relationships with sudden stops and starts, further these impressions of both Western and Eastern sensibilities.
There was a moment during my 5th or 6th year of living in Hong Kong while sitting in a School Board meeting when I noticed a change in my own manner of thinking. There had always been a tension in these meetings between the ‘Westerners’ and ‘Easterners’. The Western faculty, largely British, American and Australian, would speak out, expressing their opinions, trying to convey their individual ideas to solve a problem. The Chinese faculty, on the other hand, would be more reticent, quietly observing. I knew my Chinese colleagues held strong opinions, but why were they holding back? Was it a result of years of colonial rule as part of the British empire? Yes, partially, but there also existed a difference in worldview and in styles of conflict and negotiation. These generalizations didn’t apply equally to all members of each of these groups, and appear in varying degrees within each of us, changing even within different situations and over time. Yet there were real differences between my Chinese and Western colleagues’ perspectives. As I watched my Western colleagues speak I began to see them as if through different eyes. My worldview had changed and the individualistic values and independence of thought I had held so highly became more tempered with an understanding of the value of looking at these issues in a more holistic way, seeing the whole picture, trying to find the context and the nature of the different relationships at play. The cultural psychologist, Richard Nisbett asserts, “the social psychological characteristics of people raised in a very different cultures are far from completely immutable.” (68) As I and other of my ‘expat’ colleagues lived in the ‘other’ culture over a period of time the cues from the society around us began to change the ways we understood the world. I was no longer the tourist or interested observer walking through this ‘other’ world but part of the fabric of that place. I relate these observations to Brian Massumi’s view that we are defined by the capacities we carry as we journey through life. Our body’s ability to affect or be affected isn’t fixed.
As I reflect upon these ideas of “home” and “no-place” two points seem relevant. I feel it is important to recognize the particularity of the elements and people of these ‘transnational’ works. Our world is made of a multitude of ways of thinking and living, yet these ideas and places are not bounded and unchanging. These diverse elements come together to create not a ‘no place’ but what Doreen Massey calls “a meeting place..a place as the intersection of trajectories.” Our lives, as well as our dancing, are always in production, in a process of becoming. I have affected as well as been affected as I have stepped through these dancing places far from my homeland.
Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. Illinois: University Of Chicago Press, 1980.
Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” The Cultural Geography Reader. Eds. Timothy Oakes and Patricia Price. London (England): Routledge, 2008. 257-263.
Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003.Rescen Seminar, 12 January 2005.
Doreen Massey speaker. http://www.rescen.net/archive/making_space05.html 22 October, 2006.
Sheets-Johnstone, M. Illuminating Dance. London: Associated University Press, 1984.
Shimakawa, Karen. “Mind Yourself: On Soundwalking, Race and Gender.”. Staging International Feminisms. Eds. Elaine Aston and Sue-Ellen Case Basingstoke (England): Palgrave MacMillan, 2007; 23-36.
Tuan, Y.F. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.
Zournazi, Mary. “Navigating Movements: An Interview with Brian Massumi.” http://www.21emagazine.com/issue2/massumi.html 15 October 2008.