Alejandro Karasik: On Presence and Dance

I was invited to answer the question “What happens to me when I see dance". I want to appeal to certain key points of mindfulness the way they were coined by Daniel J. Siegel in The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (2010, W. W. Norton & Company).
The term mindful—being conscientious and intentional in what we do, being open and creative with possibilities, or being aware of the present moment without grasping onto judgments—is a state of awareness that might or might not be useful while approaching to dance or watching dance.
I find it can provoke a bit of a headache to try to think of a mindful state as something to reach in life to witness a dance piece, an objective or something we should reach to be good spectators.
But I do find the idea of having slight moments of those useful as something that can come and visit me from time to time while sitting in the grades.
There are some very useful things I can take from a mindfulness approach.
All of them are quite useful for both watching dance and dancing. Even more, since mindfulness is very much also about transitions inside the mind and in flow with the external world, these concepts can easily be translated into the transition between observing dance and performing it.
The first concept I want to bring in is the concept of Presence. I have heard this term —presence— so much in my early training as a dancer that I have developed a certain allergy to it when ever mentioned regarding dance. Somehow it seemed as an empty concept that could be used whenever someone looked with templance on stage, or something we should know beforehand what it is as students, or some cultural appropriation from eastern meditation techniques. And I have seen some performances where people were trying to embody something they called presence on stage whith not so happy results. 
But since I found Siegel’s definition of presence I have developed a certain respect for the idea of presence and a practical use of the concept when facing dance, teaching or thinking about myself.
For Siegel, a state of presence would happen when we are able to move in between several states of probability. My antenas have already made a big step towards curiosity when I read about probability in the notion of presence. Mathematical tools were something I was not expecting.
Presence is a skill that allows us to move freely among states of probability. We can find three levels of states of mind regarding the probability of having a thought, memory, image or emotion about something.
First we find an open plane of possibilities where anything can happen. This state of mind might happen when as many as neuronal connection can be fired indistinctly. This is one level of states our minds can be.
A second one is when a certain group of neuron firing can occur and not others. Then we are not anymore in an indistinct plane of possibilities, but in a plateau of probabilities where certain things can take place in our minds and not others.
And there is a third case, this is when we actually have a thought, memory, image or emotion. The third case is when the probability of a certain response equals one. This is when we actually activate one thought, memory or emotion about something. We can represent that state as a peak.
Siegel's conceptualization is quite a three dimensional topographic representation, isn’t it? So let's take a look at a graphic and explanation in detail.


In Siegel’s own words about this graphic we can state that “A peak represents a specific activation of mind or brain instantiated in that instant—activations that are committed to manifest as that particular activity in that moment of time. A plateau represents a state of mind or profile of neural firing that may have various shapes and degrees of height and broadness: Lower means less certainty of which firings might be possible and wider signifies more variety, a wider set of propensities; higher indicates a greater probability of firing of those options that are primed or made more likely to occur in that state or profile, and narrower indicates a more restricted set of choices of which peaks might arise from that particular plateau. The open plane of possibility reveals a zero probability that any particular peak or plateau will arise and thus represents an open state of mindful awareness and a receptive neural profile at that moment.” (Siegel, 2010)

This metaphor of the plane also helps us see how our patterns of ideas will change just as our subjective inner sea will be altered in response to the signals from the dance we are performing or watching. If we have preconceived ideas, if we are taken over by judgments, our plateaus of probability or our peaks of activation will block us from being open, from having open presence. Presence happens when we can freely move in and out of the open plane of possibility.Learning to monitor these aspects of reality and then to modify them toward the open plane of possibility is a visual image of what it means to be mindful. (Siegel, 2010)

What is my own experience of watching dance while I have all these aspects in consideration?

I find that inhabiting my plane of possibilities is when I am surprised by the development of a piece, curious about what is going to come next, involved fully with what is coming to my eyes, ears and skin as sensations. It is when I can experience a legitimate open state of interest in what is happening, feeling alive in each little detail and  responsive to the moods and moves of the dancers.
For me in my experience, this is a state only approachable asymptotically, not quite realistic. When I am in the surroundings of it, it feels ephemeral and fleeting, ungraspable.
And yet it feels like a cool place where I can imagine going whenever I feel I am too rigid about a dance and want to expand and shake my notions about it.
Inhabiting the plateau seems more likely to happen for me. It is the state of being crisscrossed by different cultural, political, moral, aesthetic, classist, race, gender categories and movement patterns. It is unavoidable to present ourselves as social subjects, and the plateaus reflect that for me. And it is more likely to have memories, past experiences and expectations coming to us while watching dance or repeat a movement pattern while dancing than inhabit an empty state of mind.
The last group in the representation above shows three peaks without plateaus. My personal experience with these is whenever I am too obsequent with a piece, or the opposite, totally neglected to it. It happens when either I have arrived at the theater with the idea that I am going to love a piece or hate it. When my mind is done beforehand about it.
The mixed states of plateaus and peaks is when I can play with my preconceived and new ideas, agitate them, inhabit contradictions and complementary thoughts, positions or emotions about a piece. I can conceive several readings and feelings toward a single piece and having Dan Siegel’s model in mind enables me to navigate them with presence, meaning that I can move among all of them.  Presence can be viewed as the flexible motion back and forth from within the plane to plateaus and peaks as we move from possibility to probability to activation, and back again down to possibility. (Siegel, 2010).

How can I actively appeal to my presence while watching a dance piece? Dan Siegel shares some tools about how to do so. He calls them Tracking.  “A crucial way that we have to stay present is to track moment by moment our inner state. Again, tracking is the moment-by-moment “staying with” the other so that we are present with how events change within awareness.” (Siegel, 2010). He coined the term SOCK to refer to four different streams of presence. I would like to invite you to practice them while dancing or watching dance.
  1. S comes from Sensory. Is to experience the present moment—sensing our body, perceiving the external world. This would include the five senses: to watch, to listen, to touch, to smell and to taste plus the sixth sense of proprioception. Sensation is the most direct input of inner or outer data into our awareness.
  2. O is from Observing. The feeling of observing is not the same as that of sensing with our eyes. In the observation there is somewhat of a distance, a kind of knowing that feels like a narrator is witnessing an event as it takes place over time. Observation is the capacity to sense ourselves as witness to unfolding experience.
  3. C is from Concepts. These are constructed ideas and models of how the inner or outer world works and include facts and memories of past events as well as images of imagined future possibilities. We can have a more constructed concept, a frame through which our awareness is filtered. These are things like concepts, thoughts, judgements, preconceived ideas and associations.
  4. K is from Knowing. Knowing is a nonconceptual inner sense of truth, an intuitive and non-language-based way of perceiving the nature of reality and our place in the larger world and the continuity within the flow of life in which we live. To know is to form a coherent impression of what we see as it is.

So while watching a dance or performing a dance I can move my awareness along the four letters of SOCK. And this will widen my possibility of presence as well. 

Another aspect of Daniel Siegel theory that is applicable to watching dance, is attunement. And the idea of attunement between spectator and dancer has a physical correspondence, as explained in the theory of mirror neurons. When we perceive an action that has intention behind it—one that has a predictable sequence of behavioral motions—a set of neurons in our cortex responds by getting us ready to act in a similar fashion. These mirror neurons are called this because they function as a bridge between sensory input and motor output that allows us to mirror the behavior we see someone else enact. Here’s the fascinating finding: If we were to drink from a cup, these specific neurons that were firing when we saw someone else drinking would also become activated. We see a behavior and get ready to imitate it (Siegel, 2010).

In this sense the theory of neural mirroring is hardly of interest for me in the field of dance. Assuming that the spectator is physically involved while watching a piece is not such a transcendent statement for me. But I would like to regard it —as an intellectual exercise— the other way around: how the dancer neurons can mirror the train of thoughts of a spectator. While composing we are doing this exercise of guessing or conducting the attention of the viewer by assuming that certains parts of the work will lead them to an open plane of possibility, a plateau or peak, and we have our preferences for each of them. But I wonder how much of an influence is the mind state of the spectator on the dancer in real time, while performing. Can the senses of the performer perceive neuronal states of the viewer by glimpses of information such as gaze, position, tension, etc? If the spectator is present in the terms stated before, does it have an influence on the dancers? Can the spectator influence the state of presence of a dancer, restricting or widening probabilities while being watched in a certain way? These kinds of questions carry a lot of artistic curiosity about bodies communicating in a very subtle way. They would be an interesting topic for future dance research. So much more to dance, think and feel about it.

Alejandro Karasik. Dancer, choreographer. Certified sexological bodyworker
IG: @sexualidadysomatica. 


Choreographic Turn was made with financial support of Ministry of Culture of Slovenia and with financial and logistical support of Nomad Dance Academy Slovenija.