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© Nita Little - December 17, 2009

Articulating Presence

I like to stretch out and take space.  I like to feel the full expanse of my being when it fills a room – a really big room – touching all the walls. I struggle when I need to remain one “size” – especially when that size is small. As a female being raised in the culture of a protestant family, I started out small, scared, and intent upon being a good girl, invisible if possible. I have overcompensated for this fact from the moment that I was taught how to have spatial wings by my Mom’s friend - big, bold, Joanne Crane. Her unbound laugh would overwhelm the doors of any room that attempted to contain her. Her stride would scare a horse. She was not tidy, she was not petit, and she definitely was not restrained. In a sense, she gave me my first lesson in dance. With her gift I got big too, as I learned to stretch out and take flight differently than she. And yet, I can retreat back into the little one, the little nita, easily – but by now changing size is an art. It is part of a skill set that modulates presence.

My project looks at the performative nature of presence as it is enacted broadly in the living of life, generally in dance performance, and specifically in Post-Judson dance improvisation. My argument is that presence, as a critical element of any performed action, is consequential and meaning making and that this determines its ethical implications. These implications become more pronounced when this term is understood as an act of agency, a verb rather than simply a noun. As a verb, we “presence’ ourselves as an act of “taking” space, but we are also “presenced” by those within a shared spatiality, people (and  horses) either within a performing arena, or those witnesses of the performance. What I mean here is that as performers we both construct our presence (with greater and lesser intention and skill) and we are constructed, “made to be known” in the simple sense that can be understood by noticing that an inanimate object has no presence until attention is drawn to it. But, at the point it is noticed, as Walter Benjamin has duly noted, much can be found within its ‘aura.’ An object’s aura, I would argue, is not distinct from its spatial presence and is in part a virtue of our valuation of it (as in its ‘cultural value’, which can be lost or gained). {Benjamin, 1938: 5, 10} People are more complex, of course, because we complicate attention, and so, as a socially interactive function it is important to have an ethical recognition of our active participation in the presencing of others. The boundaries we establish between our self-knowing and “others” in the act of living and dancing, are vital sites for this engagement. Philosopher/cognitive scientist, Alva Noë asks, “Where do we stop and the rest of the world begin?” {Noë, 2009: 80} This significant question is one that we as dancers are continually asking and refining in the act of dance making. It is simplistic to imagine that our fleshy boundary limits and defines us. Noë’s answer is “We are in the world and of it. We are patterns of active engagement with fluid boundaries and changing components. We are distributed.” {Noë, 2009: 184} Somewhere between being embodied and  “intended toward the world” as phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack has described our relationship to the world {Sobchack, 2004: 6}, and being ‘distributed”, we find ourselves vitally presencing with others and the world. This is how we know ourselves to be.

1.  In this paper, I will attempt to engage with two concepts of presencing which reflect distinct orders of embodiment. Both are states of presencing, however the first is more phenomenologically normative in the sense that we, who live socially and historically conditioned states of presence, can grasp its immaterial impact as a recognizable condition of being; we understand when a horse shies away from a “powerful” presence, even when it is many yards off. The other is more difficult to articulate and hold, because it is slippery the way a skill that is just being learned or just being lost is slippery to both cognition and corporeality. This presence arises as a result of a paradigm shift in one’s understanding of not only the boundaries of selfhood and being/becoming, but of the ground of conscious beingness/ becomingness including its embodied state. When, later in this paper, I speak of presence and its absence I am speaking of the first order of presence. This second order I understand arises when the borders that demarcate distinct presences become insignificant in their definition. I refer to it as invisibility, as when we no longer see individuated dancers because what we see is a dance. Arising into one’s being and becoming a dance (or other phenomenon) to the extent that one’s identification extends beyond the boundaries of the flesh is a complex interplay of possible presencings that is not a loss of self, and here I am reflecting Susan Leigh Foster’s voicing in Dances that Describe Themselves, {Foster, 2002:15}but is, rather, an act of agency.

            I am looking at a cloudy sky. Typically, the expanse is spread out above and before me like a tableau. Each cloud colossus lifts higher than my arm’s mind can fathom distances and I am joyful at its reach. But, as I look, my view shifts from one which holds a point of perspective, a place to reach from, to one which is itself the complete reach in multiples of trajectories so that the cloud relief is now a state of movement known to me as both cloud and space - a unitive and direct experiencing of space. Neither reach nor distance is an issue now, as I have changed the scale as well as the mode of my perception/participation in this landscape. It  “feels” as if I am now seeing in three dimensions where before I had only two. “I”, little being on the earth, am not left behind or separate. The space of the clouds is the space of myself.

I use this story to exemplify the two ways of being present in the world. Initially, I am located and placed,

viewing the world from a fixed position in which I am the dominator of my experience by the fact of “having” it. Awed by that which I am framing as my sight, I am sited. In the second instance, domination is not a factor; positionality even is no longer a factor. I am in a continually flexible relative motion with the things I am coexistent with, as much a part of the action of my knowing as are the space/cloud(s) with which I am dancing. I am engaged in action many magnitudes larger than any I could experience within my arm’s 25.5 inch reach. Am I merely in an irrational trance, or is this “real”? Is the first instance more real than the second? Turning to Merleau-Ponty, I take seriously his analysis of the phenomenological position with regard to the rational.

“Rationality is not ‘given’ by some preordained origin of ‘the real’, but rather rests solely upon its effectiveness and our willingness to adhere to that effect. … Rationality is not a problem. There is behind it no unknown quantity which has to be determined by deduction, or, beginning with it, demonstrated inductively. We witness every minute the miracle of related experience, and yet nobody knows better than we do how this miracle is worked, for we are ourselves this network of relationships. The world and reason are not problematical. We may say, if we wish, that they are mysterious, but their mystery defines them: there can be no question of dispelling it by some ‘solution’, it is on the hither side of all solutions. … We take our fate in our hands, we become responsible for our history through reflection, but equally by a decision on which we stake our life, and in both cases what is involved is a violent act which is validated by being performed.” {Merleau-Ponty, 1945: xxi, xxii}

 If the ‘rational’ and the ‘real’ is formed through a relationship with the world (the world not being pre-ordained) as a phenomenological event, then, as Merleau-Ponty would have it, staking our life on what we bring to the act of its making and our effectiveness within this engagement, would suggest that we consider our part in the experience of its arrival. The world as we conceive it works or it doesn’t and we live and die by that fact. Thus, choosing life can be equated with choosing to be effective, a skill that requires not merely cognitive and physical capability, but choice. The greater our choice of possibilities for functioning within any circumstance, the more likely is our effectiveness. Therefore, I advocate opening up the means to possible modes and modalities of knowing through our ‘being/becoming’ acting in a spectrum of presencings, because how we are present is coeval with what we experience and the ground of consciousness itself. Suggesting that presence is functionally agential as the action of presencing is also to suggest that how we are conscious in knowing the world is agential to the same degree and informs our interaction with, in and as the world. Not only does each new means produce new knowledge, but the act of moving between means is yet again, another quality of knowing. As performers, our creative skills are defined by this movement.

I am speaking about presencing here by drawing a superficial binary, present and invisibly present, located and not, as a means to consider a spectrum of possibilities. Do I think this represents the totality of presencings? Not nearly, the field is far larger. But it serves me in the span of this paper to limit the discussion within this range in order that I might consider their agentiality and the resulting consequences, particularly in dance making. Thus, on the one end we can refer to more conventionally situated individuals enacting and interacting negotiated space, and on the other, non-locatable presences arising in an arc between place and space, outside and within the material and the immaterial. Personally, I live in multiple paradigms; they serve different purposes, create different knowledge forms and call forward different skills altering the construction of ‘reality’ and my being in or of the world. The flexibility of boundary definitions that marks presence is difficult within a single plane of reference. Boundary flexibilities between planes of definition asks that one not only be willing to be different one moment from another as in a dynamic flow, but that one be willing to be embodied in self-knowing differently. This spectrum asks one to be locatable as a presencing subjectivity, a source, in one moment and an un-locatable presence in the next. The one arrives within the flesh and moves, as Merleau Ponty states it, “as a current of activity that flows toward the world” becoming what Alva Noë and I understand as an extended bodymind. {Noë, 2009: 76-80} It is known within locatable places whereas the other has no home where self can reside. Of these two identified modalities, the more common one will take up much of our initial attention; we live this one, and with skill, we dance it, too.

2. As a subjectivity my presence has intention: I show up in “this way,” or “that.” In my everyday life, with awareness or not, I may have a “battle of the presences” with someone who wants to overwhelm, diminish, or eliminate the impact of my presence or I may discover myself doing the same. The negotiations of power that are enacted in spatial domination are a crude dance of presence borne through such means as sound (volume, tonality), size (mass and volume), action (speed, weight), sight (hard looks, darting eyes) and the variety of physical language made purposeful and communicative. Acculturation informs these means as the hegemony determines our positioning within its moments. My self-sense is dynamic and forms as much within the realm of identity as of presence. As a woman, I have known myself to be complicit in the diminishment of my self-sense, despite my belief systems, as my presence can shift depending upon who is observing me, even when that observer is me. I recently witnessed contrasting dynamics of this action as I walked past a woman at an intersection. I interpreted her tight physicality to be a culturally and personally imposed intention to take up less space than her body consumed while mine, also cultural and personally informed, loose and exansive, defined the whole intersection. The concentration of her movement past me marked my buoyant self-knowing like an arrow through a pillow. What was remarkable to me was not the one nor the other, but the difference, arrows and pillows.

Presence is of the body, its actions and its attitude, and yet it acts, as described, on the social space around the body, altering that space, causing heads to turn or not, constructing others or not, and to that extent it projects or is a function of being projected upon. This territory is fertile as there is power in the agency that constructs and acts as presence. Do I choose to be seen or do I not, do I choose to be bigger and more dominant within the space than another or not. Am I a big person within a small space? Am I a small person within the big? Am I, as dancer Deborah Hay has identified herself at one time, many conscious cells {Foster, 1986: 14} or am I identified as a singular being? Most importantly, do I have a choice in how I identify my presence in the world? Taken to the level of art making, this power becomes a fabulous tool for creative acts. As a choreographer my interest is in exploring the spatiality of, the dynamic that is, and the agency that conditions presence, giving it texture and form. Two stories come to mind:

I am camping in a desert valley, a dried seabed, in the middle of winter. The dimensions of the valley are so barren of vegetation that I can see from mountain range on one side to mountain range on the other. My map says the expanse is 80 miles. Nobody is around … or so I think. It is dark and I have a campfire going. Then, there is a moving light 40 miles away – a car! I “feel” it moving in my space. It is carving a path through my expansive breadth. I am elated – my felt self-sense includes the whole valley. I am alarmed, what is it doing here?

Teaching at a retreat for residents of a Buddhist Monastery in Northern California, I am stumped for a moment by a question a young man asks me about how to deal with someone’s presence when he meets them in the kitchen early in the morning. I have been teaching them how to change the “size” of their “felt” self-sense. I have invited them to consider increasing their size but when getting larger one eventually bumps up against someone else’s growing size. They have been acculturated to politely negotiate the impact of their presence and thus they maintain their size somewhere in the intervening spaces between themselves and others. Rather than building walls and boundaries, I suggest that they move into and through the space contained by the other, co-habiting space, albeit with care. I suggest that they can absorb one another into the experience of self. It is this suggestion that later prompted the question about someone’s annoying presence.  I remember rattling at the question - not quite sure how to answer but trying anyway.  Were I to meet the query now, I would probably suggest that the sufferer practice emptiness rather than substance. I would suggest that he expand and lighten his presence so that there would be little for the other to meet – there would be less friction – because it is the friction between boundaries of presences that annoys. How do you become empty?

The means by which we construct and deconstruct presence are performative. Ann Cooper Albright notes, “This act of a performing presence, – the power of physical beingness – is an integral part of dance. Unfortunately, it has often been romanticized as a magical, ineffable quality that can transcend the specificities of movement style, cultural context, and historical moment to posit a universal aesthetic communitas between audience and performer … for it seems to me that presence is a word that covers (and sometimes covers over) the interrelationship of bodies and gazes in dance.”{Albright, 1997: 17} Not a preordained quantum, presence is ecological as an interactive movement “between,” producers and the produced as the one is critical to the existence of the other. This adds to its dimension as a quality of being /becoming. Presence is one of those words, which like the word “being” is finely knit between functions in both space and time and is simultaneously an event and a motion. In foregrounding presence it is possible to emphasize either one or the other – and for my purposes I speak of it both ways. In making dances I note presence as it arises as interactive/interrelated events. Dancing, I seek the transparency of an unmasked moving presence and its environmental ecology as consciousness being/becoming that can be recognized as the embodiment of ephemeral experience. For this to work in ensemble, there is an ethics of human respect and care that is called into place.

3. A part of my project with Divisidero Dance Research (DDR) – the collective of dance artists that are working with me in San Francisco – is to distinguish the tools by which we articulate presence and to question their use, since there are power dynamics and thus ethics involved. My choreographic preference is geared toward complexity in a multi-modal performance that emphasizes modulating presence in our collaborative dance improvisations. As performers, we have a unique opportunity to develop and explore skillful acts of this articulation in defining embodied moments. I wish to study how this modulation has practical applications in dance making as an art as well as in the ethics of making collaborative meaning. Phenomenologically speaking, the interweaving of my non-subjected selfhood with my current environment including the people in it, as well as with my social, historical and cultural context together form a “gestalt [1]” in the making of presence. This “gestalt” is a veritable infinity of exchanges that form malleable waves of agreements and responses. As situated actions, presencings unequally generate intra-personal as well as inter-personal, psychic as well as social movement by which dancers engage collaboratively in an interplay of made meanings and also moments that move outside of meaning making. Dancing, we explore the movement of presence from the perspective of a spectral range of stages and states as we energize, expand, concentrate or dissolve into mere traces of presence. Borders are a way of activating the space and engaging in the act of meaning making. Being able to define strong spatial delineations, marks and inscriptions, is a dancer’s skill - a creative act as well as a function that serves technical movement capabilities. Grasping the various modalities of active presencing and increasing its variation becomes for me a choreographic tool that brings meaning to moments not through the materiality of gestures but rather through an endless bridging and interplay of boundaries and modalities. The impact of bodies never stops at the skin, and the repercussions of every action define a playground of possibilities.

As I situate my analysis of this work between my function as the director/choreographer of DDR, externally positioned to the activities of the dancers in the performing space, and as a dancer/performer – both as an individual with a partial perspective and as a situated part of a collaborative effort – I try to keep my ways of knowing in motion. I swing between the many branches of this experiential tree in order to bring dimensional depth to my inquiry and its application to meaning making and knowledge acquisition. For me, invisibility is one of the more important facets of presencing even as merely a conceptual canvas rather than as an actuality. We live in a culture of celebrity that honors visibility and demands, especially of its performers, a pronounced presence; we reward those who practice loud presence and minimize those who don’t. My understanding is that this preference produces a limitation in access to knowledge similar to an inability to hear the harmonics in a scale or identify parts, tonalities and variations within the complexity of a symphony. Knowledge is tied to accessibility, since, unless it is accessible, it can’t be known. {Noë, 2009: 83}When we ask questions about the modulation of presence we are asking to bring the world into different kinds of access and knowledge. We are asking for our experience to adjust both in the self-knowing of our individuated presence (or how we know ourselves to be in the world), and in our recognition that we are within another’s presence (or what we are making of the world). It is on this second point that the variety of presencings can become especially interesting for me. When I turn my attention to an awareness of your knowing of my presence (not only thatI impact you but how you know my impact on you) what modalities of perception you are using to know me, then together we begin to experience an interactive ‘web of presence’. Through webs of presence an ensemble of dancers can be “in touch” and in communication. Attention to experiential states is essential in building these webs.

Experience is the flip side of presence. Experience is articulated/ing and expressed/ing presence. What you hold in your embodied mind, the way you know the world, configures your experience, and this in

turn (it is one coin) is presenced/ing. Reading from Stephen Nachmanovitch’s celebrated book on Improvisation, Free Play:

            “For art to appear, we have to disappear. The elementary case … is when our eye or ear is “caught” by something: a tree, a rock, a cloud, a beautiful person … Mind and sense are arrested for a moment, fully in the experience. Nothing else exists … Self and environment unite.  Attention and intention fuse.  We see things just as we and they are, yet we are able to guide and direct them to become just the way we want them. This lively and vigorous state of mind is the most favorable to the germination of original work of any kind.” {Nachmanovitch, 1990: 51}

What can be said of experience can be said of presence; my availability in the sense of accessibility to my present experience is functional in the formation of my presence in that experience. When I am bounded around an idea of myself it is the boundaries that form my self-knowing that become known, that show up as my presence. When I am immersed in the world, the world is what shows up. So, on the dance floor, the more I am able to be present to the active construction of my experience, not only will I be more articulate, but I will also be more aware of its effect within the world of which I am a part. Taking artistic license with philosophy, I note Heidegger’s use of the term, Dasein: “Da” (the site) and “Sein” (for the disclosure of being). {Korab-Karpowicz, 2007} There is something naked about dasein. It is by this naked disclosure that presencing can tap, both in space and time, the genuine expression of being – the exposed mind/body. Dance moves presence beyond the physically defined body into the relational space [2] where it touches and is touched and where it becomes alive as it changes, both as a participant and as a witness – a veritable dance of experiences.

To look at the dancing body is to see a subjective consciousness that is also an objective body. Vivian Sobchack in her book, “Carnal Thoughts” quotes Merleau-Ponty analyst, Gary Bent as saying “Consciousness … is not a pure self-presence; the subject is present to and knows itself only through the mediation of the body, which is to say that this presence is always mediated, i.e., is indirect and incomplete.” {Sobchack, 2004: 6} This mediation is happening not only on the intra-personal level, but also on an inter-personal one, as Sobchack notes,

“… our experience is not only mediated by the lived bodies we are, but our lived bodies (and our experience of them) is always also mediated and qualified by our engagements with other bodies and things. Thus, our experiences are mediated and qualified not only through the various transformative technologies of perception and expression but also by historical and cultural systems that constrain both the inner limits of our perception and the outer limits of our world … so that what is given us in experience is taken for granted rather than taken up as potentially open engagement with the world and others.” {Sobchack, 2004: 6}

It is precisely this “open engagement” that is the subject of our interactive presencing. Allowing for the interpenetration of being and environment, being and history, being and society without resistance to the non-corporeal touch of the presence of the other, is to allow oneself to be presenced, to be lived as well as live, to be experienced as well as to experience. The nuance here is that “being experienced” takes place on the inside of one’s self-experience, not externally to the self. It is an action of allowing and/or acknowledging the movement of the affect within that is not simply self-generated. It is this movement within and without that allows the weaving of mutually creating dancers to collaboratively compose the fabric of their art and manifest ‘webs of presence.’ It is also through an interpenetration of knowing, feeling, and being/becoming(s) that meaning can be derived collaboratively. I open myself to make and be made by my collaborators. With this, presence can be known as not merely present now but dialogically with what has been and what will be. The choreographer in me appreciates the possibilities; my eye likes the complexity and the clarity, and my heart likes the generosity.

Judith Butler notes that one is changed by loss – and that in this fact we realize that we are not merely singular beings, but that we are necessarily multiply composed in the fabric of our relations. Taking Butler’s lead, we can push the idea of a multiply interactive I-you out of a social/hegemonic structure and into one that is situated, out of cultural “fit” {Hunter, 1999: 151} and into presence. “When we lose some of these ties [through loss of the other] by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well.” {Butler, 2003: 12} I argue that this mutuality of our composition has an ephemeral as well as a constitutional form and that it is contained within the content of my presence as that which I convey to you as we meet within space and time. I compose you as I am composed by you whenever we share space, whether I move within, upon and around your spatial kinesphere, your body, or simply within your creative arena. “Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life …”  {Butler, 2003: 15} We are mutually composing of one another through our coaptation and continuous physical, affective, and historicized adjustment, making and unmaking moments as solos, duets, quartets, and so on. You touch my hand and the hand is not the same as the one I would have, had you not. The meeting of you is presenced within and through me. This vulnerability to another’s presence, and the willingness to be changed or even made by another is essential to an ensemble’s ability to mutually build meaning within the creative arena.

I draw meaning from the spatial context your being provides as you alter the qualitative aspects of the space you and I are in. I am in a continual conversation with your presence as a tactile, visual, and auditory phenomenon within my own being and without. I reference my location in space by your presence and by my relationship to it. I am coextensive with you as space whether I like it or not, and that can be a joy or a difficulty. You conveyed, through your movement, your understanding of me in this moment. That can be creative play (as in interplay) for me, and within the context of making dances it is. At the conclusion of Butler’s paper, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, she writes, “You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know.” {Butler, 2003: 36} We arrive into our humanity through the condition of our vulnerability to one another, the part of you that, within me is ‘other’ and unknown, as you can never be fully known  – and thus neither can I, even to myself: being/becoming, and its departure/absence, the dark side of the light, the full immeasurability of presence.

There is a conundrum here: we need to be individuated in order to have the strength to defend ourselves when necessary (as well as to be good playmates). Yet, we also need to be touched by the other, vulnerable in the sense of changeable, in order to either play or protect well; the more easily open to change the better the play … but also the better the ability to act defensively and this resolves our conundrum. Responsiveness is greater with a very light “touch,” an ability to be moved by the other on multiple levels of being. It is not a surprise that this is also the state that enables us to move ourselves easily as well. When we define ourselves too tightly we lose this freedom as we do when we define the other tightly. It is from this base that an ethics of mutual respect and creative engagement can arise. This is an ethics that is as ready to cross or disturb as to sustain a boundary.

This vulnerability to change and being changed, to motion and the action of being moved is core to the ethical essence of dance. The vitality that exists in the making of one another, the fact of mutually arriving, making and revealing experiences and their meanings, is a power-share that unites rather than divides. Knowing together, we create more knowing … and at that moment we are ‘in’ (rather than ‘on’) the space of ‘the playground.’

Any conversation that we have about experience must also be a conversation about the application of attention that goes into the making of that experience. An interesting example of applied attention would be Deborah Hay and her dancers performing one of Hay’s ‘Circle Dances’ (circa 1970’s). When Susan Leigh Foster speaks of Hay’s process she says,  “She tunes her being to the dance image by redefining her subjectivity as neither more nor less than the cells of the body. The lack of transitions between dance movements only reaffirms this discontinuous sense of self. There is no consistent being to whom the dance is happening. Hay and her dancers are simply the sum total of the body’s cells, each of which participates fully in the moment of the dance.” {Foster, 1986: 13} To dance, as Hay did here, is to modulate one’s attention from a differentiated position of a single to “the many” cells moving. The information contained in the fact of the dancer’s cellular based experiential action is a shift from a normative scale of attention. Doing this in an ensemble, embodied at this unique scale and level of consciousness would dramatically shift their movement choices and intra/interrelatedness. This shift would be felt within the focus of their attention and the extension of their presence/ing. Thus, Foster says, “… the dancer’s manifest an extraordinary presence, a willingness to be seen moving that results from complete commitment, even surrender, to the movement.” {Foster, 1986: 9} But the movement where? If one is focused on the very small, and the multiply small, then movement is derived and presenced from that/those locations. Presenting people moving with their attention at these variable depths of sensing while utilizing modalities that were unique was to extend the definition of dancing into the movement of states of experience and actions of presencing.

4. Ann Cooper Albright references the Derridian presence/absence dyad as she explores the visceral and meaningful relational space of presence as it, and its erasure, impacts the viewer when she says,

“In the midst … is the dancer’s own physical body, whose movement constructs a presence as well as a continual absence.  Derrida leaves no room to discuss the way this presence can be palpable, indeed, powerful, in the midst of its own erasure. As the dancing body evolves from, say crawling on the floor to standing upright, the cultural meanings usually attached to those actions shift, but at the very moment that these meanings are displaced, another current of meaning is constituted by the very act of moving. What becomes visible, then, is the movement between two moments marked by recognizable images … This process of making (presence) in the midst of unmaking (absence) allows for an intricate layering of visual, kinesthetic, and cultural meanings in which bodies, sexualities and identities can begin to restage the terms of their alliance.” {Albright, 1997: 98}

Albright distinguishing absence from presence is like separating the painting from the canvas. They can be spoken of separately, and yet, when made, they are one. Yet, the fact of dance perpetually dissolving within one’s experience is what allows dancers to play in its meaning making and to distinguish one moment from the next; dancers carry their canvas with them. As an action in time and space, the dissolving of becoming enables them to continue to turn to the well of experience anew. Performing, I am more successful when I taste the disappearance of a felt moment as acutely as I taste the arrival of a new one. However, that duration of each present moment is not static. It is not a fixed sum. A dancing moment is analogous to a ship moving through water. The distance between each moment’s prow and its dissolving wake is not a fixed distance in its temporal aspect. Moments vary in duration and character as the experience of time and space are mutable – thus, so is my presence, its emergence and departure. I am interested in exploring the character of moments as choreographic and experiential matter, as the material of dance.

In researching presence with the purpose of looking for “presencing tools”, I sought to actively engage in an intentional attempt to disappear to the other, whomever that may be, the other dancers or the viewers of the dance. I was in hopes that performing while choosing to be invisible – not only an oxymoron but also a double bind – would bring us greater articulation of presence and incite us to a more expansive modulation of it. I initially learned about the art of invisibility from Tom Brown Jr in the early 1980s and so I returned to him when designing the task. Tom was trained to be a tracker and a scout in the woods between the ages of 7 to 17 by Grandfather Stalking Wolf. Grandfather was a full-blooded Apache raised at the end of the 19 th century in the desert mountains of northern Mexico, escaping extermination by the white man. Grandfather’s great grandfather raised and trained him to be invisible, to make no mark, leave no trace - a form of presence antithetical to normative western culture. I insert this passage from his second book on his early training, The Search:

        Stalking Wolf told Rick and me to follow him into the woods.  We did, following him by about two paces.  At one point he disappeared behind a pine, for no more than two seconds, but when we turned the corner, he was gone. We stood perfectly still and held our breath in order to hear his movement, but we could not.  We strained our eyes on the path and the bushes before beside, and behind us, but we could not see any movement.  We stood perfectly still for five minutes and could see or hear nothing but the occasional song of a bird or the buzz of an insect. 

        When suddenly a hand rested on my shoulder, I assumed it was Rick’s, except for the squeal which came from his lip when he was touched at the same time. 

         It was Stalking Wolf.  He had come up on us silently. We asked him a dozen questions: “Where were you, where did you come from, how long have you been here, why couldn’t we see or hear you?”  … He smiled and answered, “Follow the snake, listen to the birds” With those words he crouched and literally slid off the path into the bush.  Laurel leaves closed behind him, and he disappeared.  He couldn’t have been two feet from us but we couldn’t see him or hear him.  I looked at Rick and began to walk in the direction Stalking Wolf had gone – and almost fell on top of him. Rick and I lay in the bush beside him and moved when he moved, picking carefully where we would place our hands, and looked all about us for obstacles or avenues of movement that would receive our bodies without revealing to anyone standing that we were below the surface.  We moved like snakes or fish in the water, twisting our bodies around branches and under plants that most people would crush. 

          We noticed that Stalking Wolf moved only when there was some other sound in the woods.  A bird calling or an insect buzzing or the wind blowing though the leaves were sounds he would pick up and move with. Most people talk of the peace and quiet of the woods. In reality it is full of sounds that all but drown the sounds of movement if you’re careful. We also noticed that he moved rhythmically and tried not to break the rhythm, like a raindrop flowing over leaves. {Brown, 1980: 44}

What can be noticed in Tom’s training is that Stalking Wolfe aligns himself with the environment, the context. His ability to de-subjectify himself through this alliance requires a deep mental and physical awareness of the environment on many levels. In order to hear a bird and move within the duration of its call or its landing, its hop, (or even more exacting would be a dew drop) – to move at one time and as one action – there cannot be hearing first and moving second. They need to be concurrent. To camouflage in water as Tom later describes, hear fish and move with their sound or in water with a current or an eddy in such a way that you make no interruption, leave no trace – these are practices that work the essence of presence and how we actively presence, which is to modulate the boundary definitions of my self-knowing and the world. To accomplish the possibility of invisibility, the self has to be what I would call “very thin” or less substantial, dissolving and dislocating from the definitions of the flesh and into the experience. This action is enigmatic in that it does not eliminate the articulations of the flesh but even can heighten them. The action of attention is not to arrive in the moment as embodied human being, but to dissolve into the possibility of also being/becoming embodied branch, worm, earth, creature. This does not imply something supernatural, but rather some totally unpracticed consideration of the natural; it is a mutable presence that in this form defines itself as an environment and thus decentralizes, disperses the motivating language of its engagement. To do this, one has to hold one’s “self” very lightly.

There are practical reasons to choose invisibility. For one, it enables a different kind of knowledge to be gained or explored.

“When most of us are taught to look at nature, we are taught to observe it from a certain perspective.  We view it for its beauty or its oddness.  We look at it through microscopes or field glasses… I was taught to flow with my surroundings and discover the purpose of something through being as close to that object or animal as the spirit would allow.” {Brown, 1980: 46}

This ability to know by becoming part of what is knowable necessarily results in moving past surface boundaries and into a unique involvement. It produces a different knowledge than can be had by interacting surfaces. Having a presence that blends rather than pronounces is a skill worth practicing toward knowledge production. In improvisational dance, whether it is Contact Improvisation or another form, what one knows is critical to what one does. Therefore, when I train myself and other dancers to create in “real time”, I am interested in knowledge acquisition in its most immediate sense. What I find interesting is that we can miss the possibility of invisibility because we are noisy in our ways of being. Filling our advancing edge with all of our attention we engage the prow of the ship, and not its stern, nor its wake, acting merely as a surface and not a depth or volume.

The greater number of things in this world are not predators but prey, and must defend themselves by making themselves invisible. Man, the greatest predator, has lost his ability to be invisible or silent. {Brown, 1980: 45}

I can’t help but wonder what we could know if we allowed knowledge acquisition to be derived through more and different observational forms. I am curious how this might influence collaborative work.

Being invisible while on stage seems an impossible task. Divisadero Dance Research has worked with various aspects of presence in the past, but in accord with one particular project, I set up situational exercises to develop elements of invisibility in order to heighten tactile sensation through the extended body/mind and visual/tactile synesthesia. Knowing that visible presence is what has been previously expected of them in their dance lives, I purposefully wanted to increase the bottom depth of their presence, to disburse it out so that they would ultimately have a greater reach or modulating breadth. This is similar to tai chi practice in preparation for a powerful thrust that lightens the corporal carrier of life force producing a readiness practice that is fully and ecologically engaged. What empties out is any excess generated by the mind/ego/preconception and attachment of the moment.

“Most people don’t step over or around, they step through. It’s our pride, I guess. We say to the plants, ”Don’t get in my way, or I’ll bowl you over.” We have no need to be quiet, because everything is afraid of us … If we want to see more, we must learn how to walk silently and how to be seen less.” {Brown, 1980: 45}

DDR is composed of dancers who are already greatly practiced in the art of Contact Improvisation and so their physical listening skills are well honed. We generally are not presentational in their performance by comparison to many Western theatrical practices. However, I was in hopes that this would teach us all to listen to one another differently and with more articulation. I was interested in what new knowledge might emerge. I developed simple scores by which we could collectively practice these skills. These studies were not only interesting, they were quite remarkable for the effect that the attempt to practice invisibility had on us. Some of us were more readily able to meet the challenge than others and we began to understand the degree of held form we generally moved with. Our bodies softened as we strove to incorporate the possibilities that arose when we were visibly unseen. We wanted and used a spectrum of presencings - a more full range with which to make our dances. This was accomplished well in the studio without an audience. With an audience it was much more difficult to activate the spectrum and we have work to do there. The force of habit intervened, as did lights and the energy of excitement. We more easily created boundaries and definitions which is a part of the dance of presence, just not the whole of it. With boundaries it is easier to be external to and control the forming work. It feels safer if only in that it is more known. In the making of collaborative work there is a shifting ground of selfhood and otherness as we form, re-form and articulate presence. We could be a band of “others.”

On a final note, I tell you a deeply personal story about mutual presencing in order to highlight the two different ways we enact it that I mentioned early in this paper. But more significantly, I tell it to you to bring forward a more complex understanding of the word, “other”.

In 2007 my mother died. Alone with her, I listened as she spoke from some liminal zone, neither quite in her body, yet not “not there”. She had sent the nurse out of the room, saying, “Tell ‘that one’ to leave”. She was lacking an ability to name the people in the room. She also lacked pronouns since she said, speaking of my siblings and myself, “Love Eric, Love Carl, Love Other.” This was the second time I had been referred to as “Other” so, I said, “Mom, do you mean Nita?” and she said, “Ooh, Yes! Love!”. And in the way that music intones its meaning, so did my mother’s words. I heard her speaking to me from a state so unbound that I was indistinguishably identifiable, me but also a part of her, I was “other her”, not “other child.” I was “other” not because I didn’t exist as equal to my siblings, but because at that moment I was the only other being in the room. I was another side of beingness of which she was also. It was as if she were speaking from the position of a coin that has two sides, of which she was other and so was I. This ‘other’ did not define a boundary between. I was the other of a united being that was in a body, a state she could articulate only as she was leaving embodiment, leaving me behind. “Other” was the deepest word for love.

……………………………………………….

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[1] This word is not used here as a philosophical or psychological concept but rather as a description of an irreducible unity composed of many parts.

[2] In this instance I am speaking of the relational space as David Harvey identifies it. The relational space is distinct from either absolute or relative space, although the space of the dancers is, otherwise speaking, also relative. However, its relational configuration is of more significance in this instance. {Castree, 2006: 283}




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