Nottdance 9: Body of Knowledge

A series of reviews in response to Dance4′s biennial festival of dance.

Body of Knowledge | Doughty, Kendall & Krische | Nottingham Castle | 12.03.17

I’d seen Sally Doughty perform earlier at Nottdance, and Rachel Krische a couple of years earlier ago in Siobhan Davies Dance’s Table of Contents. Their dancing is so particularly theirs, and so un-fake-ably intelligent – saturated in their particular moods, questions and wit. These practices have developed and refined over years through the sedimentation of diverse teachers, research projects, collaborations, and performances. Here, with Lisa Kendall, they’re proposing this dancing, their dancing bodies, and their knowledge, as an archive.

This proposal starts with each of them dancing a solo. They watch each other, and take it in turns to type. The words appear on a large monitor, and include both literal description of the body’s movements and poetic metaphor. Rather than restricting what we see, this text makes clear the limits of language to capture and preserve a movement practice. The dancer is (more or less) improvising: moving ‘in response’ to their memories. Or maybe they’re ‘dancing’ their memories; or ‘dancing their archive’; or ‘letting us peer through their archive of dance, as they dance it’. I doubt they’d settle for any one of these descriptions. I’m unsure if they’d describe Body of Knowledge as a ‘show’; it seems to sit somewhere between a performance, a presentation of scholarly research, and an informal exhibition. All these ambiguities follow from their initial provocation: placing not only (contradictory?) demands on themselves as performers/researchers/archivists/artists/hosts, but also in the diverse kinds of expectations, values and modes of spectatorship required from us as an audience.

Their movements are presented as moments of past performances – I’m not sure if I got that from the dancing itself, or how the event was framed; or if they just directly said it before starting. What struck me while watching was the dancing’s sense of melancholy;  persisting fragments of absent performances evoking a sense of ruins. But more specifically, this figure of the dancer-as-archive (dancer-as-archivist?) made me think of the figure of the melancholy artist – whose artwork offers only a trace of a private vision of transcendent truth or beauty to the viewer. These memories of performances continually refer to an experience held in the performer’s past – and I’m not sure whether their invocation in the present moment invites or demands our viewing of them as performance. In watching, I’m reminded of a mode of dancing I see quite often across somatic practice; a dancer working in response to a private experience or sensation, which is only indirectly perceivable to us through certain rhythms, gestures, and looks of concentration that evidence their reflection and attention. We’re not perceiving the experience itself, but rather their experiencing.

Or at least: I was thinking about this melancholic figure, but then in the discussion afterwards someone said they were able to recognise the performances referenced in Krische’s solo (with at least one of them being their own choreography). So my understanding of this dancing-in-relation-to-an-absent-thing had to pivot; and become a question of who in the room had the knowledge or familiarity of these cited performances such that this archival/archiving dancing could become a clear and tangible signal, rather than a private and melancholic fragment.

In the second half, Doughty, Kendall & Krische perform together. This group improvisation returns to and reuses the gestures and propositions the previous solos had laid out, but the dancing feels a bit more located in the ‘present’. The performers’ decisions are made more clearly in relation to what the others were doing, and their relationships with their audience. The melancholy feeling dissipates, with the performers ‘responding’ to the more perceptible demands of ‘good’ improvisational composition and form. It’s worth saying; they’re very skilled and playful improvisers, and tantalisingly lead us through all sorts of surprising and ridiculous places – stupid wriggles across the floor; genial commentary on their clothing while delicately and precariously balancing on each other – constructing and disassembling their encounters in all sorts of oblique directions.

In the talk afterwards, someone asked whether we can understand this archival practice as a way of preserving (& disseminating) choreographic knowledge. For example, could we understand Rosemary Butcher’s archive as being partly located in/with the dancers with whom she worked? I was unsure of the possibilities of this archive: while the particular tone of the dancers that Butcher might have been interested in could remain perceptible, the other facets of her choreography practice seemed beyond this archive’s reach. But if we were to shift the emphasis from the choreographer’s work to an autonomous dancers’ archive, we could think that this archive compliments (rather than compete with) the existing ways in which dance and choreography is preserved. Others raise interested questions: what power dynamics might be at play when the archivist and archive are one and the same person – who is this archive for, and how might it tangibly offer a critical purchase to a viewer in relation to the dancers themselves? While my limited understanding of archival practice makes me blind to the the nuance with which Doughty, Kendall & Krische have undertaken this research, there’s an evident rigour and playfulness to their thinking throughout the morning. The complexity and contradictions of the project are met with an openness and a geniality, a strategy that clearly resonates across the legacies that they continue to dance.

11.06.2017

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