Illustration/Design: Katerina Vlahbey

the function of dance_draft09

by Jurij Konjar


I write from the perspective of a dancer who works with performance of improvisation. I study by watching dance, as well as when being watched while dancing. Dance is the prism through which I perceive life, and as such it is as broad as life itself. It's also something very normal, like morning coffee.

So I was bemused when Dragana first proposed that we take a look at the function of dance in our society today. At the same time I liked the premise–what function could dance, as we practice it, have?

Dance has a function

Dance could be seen as pre-verbal communication on an energetic level. Especially with contemporary dance, which departs from story-telling and even from the display of technical virtuosity, dance focuses on the human psyche, the human condition, the discovering of ourselves. It's clear that for humanity, after harvesting nature, shuffling the seasons, the times of harvest and the hours of the day, after creating weapons of mass destruction so strong they could blow us away in hours and a new, a digital universe that keeps expanding, the frontier that still remains is ourselves, our personal growth. This is where dance comes in to play. It's true that words can be tamed, to be used as means to any end. But the body language is much clearer and easier to read, if words don't cloud the physicality.

About the title

Michel Odent wrote a book called The Function of the Orgasms. The two words in the title make for an unusual couple. Orgasms are considered to be a rather private thing and are culturally something to be shy about. Until very recently the female orgasm was a taboo.

The notion of orgasms having a function puts them within the reach of the primary-school textbook and empowers us to speak about them. They become a part of life, with their biological, social, relational, personal functions. While making them a taboo wrongly degrades them to the domain of pornography and prostitution, embracing them makes them a part of normality and essential to health.

Dance too is functional in our lives. It reconnects us with our own body, as we close our eyes and give way to how we feel, to what we need. It gets us moving, interpreting, not knowing, not caring, joining and hopefully touching, sharing. It offers a way to balance the headiness of the modern life. Dance just is, has always been. Dance communicates–not necessarily by conveying meaning through pantomime, for which words were invented, but by tuning to one's own and each other's feelings, tuning within the community, with nature. As such, dance is inseparable from life and it resides in that sector of our existence that gives meaning to life. 

After and besides that, dance is also a form of art and as such it develops along with the society and has the capacity and responsibility to question: the society, the artist, and itself.

So it is many terms within one, which often leads to confusion.

Since I'll be using words a lot here I had some fun putting together an emergency glossary. Dance is too big of a word to define. And so its many definitions, which are probably all true, change depending on the context. Dance can be synonymous with life. Performance is a situation of at least one auditor and at least one performer giving each other with mutual attention. A performer is someone who deals with being observed while showing what they prepared for a performance. An auditoris a member of the audience. Improvisationis one of the words used in contemporary dance, and it has been used a lot especially in the last fifteen years. It can be synonymous with life. While an interesting vessel for an array of meanings, it's generally a term best left alone. When appearing in conversation it's better left undisputed, since that moment of self-control will allow everyone present to move on to some actual content. As S. Paxton puts it: "I don't think if we were to speak about improvisation that you and I would speak remotely about the same thing". Apractice is a set of daily exercises, and/or tasks, and/or states that one would revisit and do even if all art would stop today and if one was not paid to do it. Inseparable from oneself and, as such, prone to change and development. CI stands for contact improvisation, an art sport which began in USA in the 1970s and which has thousands of practitioners from all walks of life all over the world. A CI jam, (short for contact improvisation jam) is a particular space and time shared by a group of people who agree to work on their own practice of Contact Improvisation, and in doing so offering others an environment to do the same. Habitat is the name of a shared, continuously responsive nomadic working space, where for about a week a group of people, familiar with the creative process, agree to follow their own needs and interests while observing others and enabling them to do the same. Y.I.P. stands for Your Improvised Performances, a weekend score where the audience and performers alternate in instantly performing for each other, as imagined and explained moments before by any one person who gets up first. The Walkaround is an afternoon score where through a series of improvised performances in outdoor spaces we show each other how we see space. It's inspired by the Single Image score of L. Nelson. The 4th wall setup is a classical stage performance situation, where the public sits in the auditorium in rows on one side of the stage, facing the stage.

How I warm up for a dance

I don't. I just start. Nothing I do right after I started falls outside of the scope of dancing... 

In her Tuning Scores Practice, Lisa Nelson often takes off the pressure of needing to dance. It's all about the approach–the whole day is just one big warmup, a preparation for a dance. It's about tuning, it's all looking-for and coming together. One cannot force the moment where things come together, where one gets to ride the wave. One can just train towards it, warm up for it, be open for it should it come. Then when it does, one better be there to savor it. It can take an extremely long time, it should be given all the time it needs. It doesn't need to end, and there is no pressure of something else happening at the end of the warmup. There is also no pressure to invent other, better forms/ways, to practice, to look for content. Meeting in what they called Image Lab, which took place over periods in the 1980s, Lisa Nelson and her team worked on something very simple called Single Imagescore for 10 years. One score... many repetitions. That lack-of-expectation/pressure creates a comfort where a coming together can happen.

So this warmup state is what I enter when I start dancing. And yet it is not a warmup state, because there is nothing you are warming up for. There is nothing but warmup. It is already what we do. 

At this stage of its evolution, dance is not a fixed destination at the end of the always-the-same path. Dance is always different, as is my starting point, from which I approach it.

How I warm up for a performance

I do however warm up for doing a dance performance.

That tends to be something of a ritual in itself, some of which is related to what takes place on the stage in the hours just before a show. Before the performance there's usually much talk and much work done by all the people involved, myself included. Once the setup is done the commotion often does not stop, and some fellow performers welcome it and keep it going, for a number of reasons.

So my preparation on a noisy stage before the show is to turn my attention inwards. I often put on a sleeping mask to block out all light. This brings my attention to how I feel, the space becomes spherical, such as it is for our ears and not as it naturally is for our eyes. I often also use colorful ear plugs, which block out about two thirds of the sound, especially the high-pitch frequencies. This reduces my hearing, but makes the sound of my own breathing louder for myself. Or else I might put some minimalist music on my headphones, music I know so well it's more silent to me than silence.

This behavior communicates to my surroundings, that I am taking some space for myself, and that I can probably not hear or see them. It communicates I probably want to be alone and not disturbed. Also, that I am more fragile, since I cannot respond to threats (and practical jokes) as easily. Also, that I myself choose this fragility.

And this behavior also communicates something to myself. It gives me a clear break from the previous time, and it gives me an empty time. I'm letting myself know, that I have now entered my inner world and that I can allow myself to focus on it. Suddenly I feel the space behind my body, and the volume of my limbs, body, and head. After some minutes later, after the memory of my spacial orientation has had the time to dissolve, my body becomes more aware of the danger of hitting someone or of being hit, tilting over, falling off the stage. My sense of verticality is fine-tuning. My movement becomes denser, more detailed, intentional. I hold my breath to listen... and hear my breathing at times grow even louder.

An hour or so before the show I'll try to get a nap in. Then twenty minutes before the show I'll be doing a very physical movement, to get the body really warm and agile. Just before the show I prefer silence, and not moving much.

At least this is how this sequence went the last time I performed. Next time it will be a different situation.

The Stage

The stage is where the inner sensing and inner dialogue are joined by the attention from the outside, coming from the public. I often experience heightened states of being on stage. The fact of being watched by so many pairs of eyes provides a sort of hyper-reality. I become aware of so many more things than usual. The public is a foreboding of a mass of bodies and eyes, facing here the semi-darkness, observing what will happen. I am at the center of a loud silence and perceive an intense two way flow–of energy, life, attention.

What I describe is the classical theatre situation, the 4th wall setup. As performing arts keep looking for new constellations of audience/performers and theatre architecture; as audiences keep growing smaller, and keep coming closer, to the point of mingling with the artists, becoming the artists... I still find the old, 4th wall setup has a value. If the audience know they will be allowed to relax into the personal, but anonymous darkness of their seat, they will relax into the role of watching, and their soul will travel. That is, if the performer finds a way to bring them there. Also, they will invest their attention, hopes, into the performer, enhancing their (the performers’) performance in the process. The performer becomes a medium.

A Jam Battle, a dance at a Greek wedding, a performance in a Western-style theatre… they all share the same mechanics of a ritual. But the traditional theatre setup–sitting the dark, being lost in the crowd... allows the audience to enter their own intimate world. By wanting the performer to take them somewhere magical, the audience contribute energetically, by their interest and the energy they send by reacting...

This view from the outside also lends itself to me as the performer. On stage, I experience seeing myself simultaneously from the inside and from the outside–through the eyes and bodies of the audience. Everything you do and were not aware of previously gains meaning and is seen by the audience as intentional. It creates a very thick present. I struggle to keep my inner dialogue going and feel present in-real-time.

It's like nothing else, really. Even when I'm doing an outdoor activity where I might potentially get hurt, it feels very different than when I'm on stage. It's not more or less real, more or less dangerous, it's just very different. You can't get the same adrenalin, or especially the same concentration, the same high definition of experience.

This dialogue, between what I bring with me, being observed and observing myself, is what creates the heightened reality of the performance. For this particular state the audience is a requirement, as we create what is happening together.

The audience starts preparing for the performance moments before the show begins, or the moment the show begins. They have the opportunity to enter the show in an easy way, as it begins. At that point, the performer’s energy, their capacity to transform and their physicality are already at 100%. That's what the preparation does.

Was that really improvised?

After a performance of improvisation I often hear: "But was that really all improvised?" Well, I guess it can be an amusing thing to know...  But with so many questions to choose from, could another not precede the most obvious, and most banal one? For example: What was it Happened on the stage tonight? Or: Was this performance interesting? Did it work?

Who or what promotes that very first question? And what is that question a symptom of? The debate we culture is the debate we end up having...

Let's break it down. If I have an improvised performance coming up and I want to prepare for it, I don't necessarily need (or want!) to practice with the people I'll be performing with, not necessarily in the dance studio. I train my attention, and I practice finding connections. I practice not becoming predictable to myself in how I respond, act, make choices–which allows me to keep calling what I do improvisation. Since dance is at the moment my language of choice I practice the many aspects of the body.

Or, I can also take a walk down to the city bus stop, wait for it, hop on, ride to the center and get off, and that is my half-hour rehearsal, because of the focus I had.

I choose not to try to perfect particular steps, or a particular technique, or particular anything, though that could also be my material. Instead I choose to practice the craft of noticing, connecting, reacting, you name it.

I do all these so that, once I enter a stage situation with someone else, a situation we have not designed in advance, me and my co-performer are able to establish connections. We are connected because it's what we practiced.

Was this a performance of improvisation? What is a performance, and what makes a performance, or a part of a performance improvised?

Talking about dance is a discipline in itself, requiring vigorous practice. Translating movement, which is essentially abstract, into words is a demanding task. Let alone translating experience.

So yes, the question: "Was that really all improvised? It happened so well..." should really not be a central question. The surprise would be amusing, if it wouldn't be sad. It reveals the standards we hold and is reminiscent of saying for example "For a woman, that wasn't bad." Not taking it seriously, instead we create special measures for quantifying improvised performance, but we don't put it side to side with serious work. What if all performances would be measured with the same meter?

Having said that, the way a performance is seen also depends on the culture/experience of the audience–that is true for any performance. In an improvised performance one cannot look for what one finds in a classically staged work, simply because the focus of the work is different. The confusion grows because one can never be sure if you're not familiar with the development in the field, or if the performance one stumbled upon is simply a bad one. And here is where we come to the way of watching and to the active viewer, who brings his own approach, decides, what he is watching, and in this way builds his performance.

It's all a bit the same: compositions, improvisation, choreography. The differences are no longer essential. It serves the argument to look at the other extreme: "Was that really set?" When seeing Mesh by Deborah Hay and the Cullberg Ballet, I really did not know what, if anything, was set and what, if anything, was improvised. And I didn't care. Wanting to honor the good experience I had during the show I didn't bother to ask, but rather congratulated the performers.

There's other questions, too: "Did you really not agree on anything?" It points to the abyss between the performer and the public.

Of course not everybody is fascinated by these first-choice questions; especially now, as L. Nelson puts it, when improvisation has become a currency on stage.

Another question worth asking: When I go improvise on a stage, what is it that I do there? How can I practice for an improvised performance? I can't. Because performance can only be practiced on stage, with an audience. But I can practice everything else I might need there, so that on stage I can focus on performing.

If I'm improvising a show I often start from zero. That, too, needs to be practiced. Because of course it's not zero that we usually start from, but from everything we have ever done before. The so called "zero" is exactly that point of present, with all the knowledge, experience and memories gathered. The present can then be built upon this. Though it's so tempting to instead start constructing concrete plans for the future. It's the human condition, that we'd rather not feel lost.  While in reality, the future always inevitably happens; and the zero doesn't even exist when we are only two cells–even then we carry the genes and the memories of our ancestors. Although it depends on who you listen to about this...

So talking about performances is talking about a certain maturity. And maturity needs to be fought for, each time again. This is also where the critic and the theoretician can help, by not starting phrases with "Considering the performance was improvised..."

There seems to be an idea present, that when something is improvised on stage this will be recognizable in the aesthetic. The responsibility for this assumption is shared among the performers, theoreticians and the public.

But sometimes something is trying to look like it is improvised. Here too there might be a confusion. We can talk of an aesthetic of improvisation, but the concept is somewhat dated. At this point it already belongs to the tradition of improvisation.

The aesthetics of improvisation might come from an idea that improvisation should not look like choreography. It should not have any form, as a matter of fact. The idea is that improvisation does not allow for repetitions, that all in it should look "weird", that in it one always looks for something new... All this seems like self-limitation without a purpose. It's so clear that the what could be anything; and that the juice is in the how. Running away from what one has already done takes so much energy, and finally, it's also impossible; since only seldom we do anything else than what we have already done. Even Paxton says, that in a one-hour show  he has sometimes managed to surprise himself once, or maybe twice.

Challenging the idea of the watcher

Instead of focusing and working on our way of dancing we can focus on our role as observers. Observing something or someone changes our way of being. We become less concerned with doing, with the view of ourselves from the outside. Instead, we follow our inner interest. This relaxes us and gives us a focus. If a practitioner looks at something with interest, I will look at it with interest as well. So will the audience. If at the same time we can embody movement, we win.

Practicing observation also allows others to practice their behavior-while-being-observed, which is a way towards practicing performance.

I found this is best practiced in non-performative situations, such as a Habitat or a CI jam, where people share an environment in order to learn from each other. 

In the 4th-wall theatre setup, the audience is hidden in anonymity and can watch in any way they like. They know they will not enter the stage. It's the easiest position to fall asleep, or to be judgemental from, to write a message on one's phone...

But if you're watching someone as an accomplice, as a supporter, it is like a mother watching her child learning how to ride the bike. Or a doula, a supportive presence in a room with a woman, who is preparing herself to give birth. In these situations, giving attention that is too direct might make the other person nervous, so they might fall and break their teeth. Or they'll make them self-conscious so the natural flow of hormones will stop and this will inhibit the Ferguson reflex.

This could correspond to something which in CI we sometimes call witnessing; although I like to downplay it and just call it observing or watching, to emphasize the fact that simply watching already influences the doer... and that the watchers can decide how to watch and in that way support the doer. Watching (and not observing, or witnessing) is also what the public does in a performance, and they, too, can choose howto do it.

In structures such as Y.I.P. or The Walkaround I encourage people to keep interchanging both roles. I find one watches differently if afterwards the roles will be inversed. There's more solidarity, more understanding, through identifying with the situation of the practitioner. While In Still, an improvised duet performance, the audience is first invited to watch a dance duet, then watch the same two performers speak to each other about the inner dynamics of their improvised dance in a casual way, and then watch them dance again, now from an accomplice (or connaisseurs) point of view.

So at some point I proposed an active role of observer in which we are aware of the power of directly influencing what we are observing. [Even more, inverting the roles, I have invited the doers to create an environment for the observers to practice their role.] And that attentiveness is reflected in the way of sitting, the orientation, the facial expression... So I bring bodily attention to the act of observing. Whereas the observers are often just watching through their eyes and forgetting about the body, I suggest the way one places and positions oneself is important.

One step further: I encourage movement in the observer. To explore the limits, how active they can get, while still maintaining the role of supportive observers.

And, to start observing a situation when you're inside a jam, whether with an outside audience or not, you do not have to go outside to start observing. Being an observer is a state, as is being a doer. They are distinct from each other. So find the state of observation, and test the limits of what it has to offer.

This is of course what we explore in a Habitat–being observed but still focusing on our work while allowing the observers to see us in order to learn. The observation of the dance is a real exchange where I'm actually learning about the practice of another person even though I'm not hearing the words or the analysis of the practice of that practitioner. Instead I'm creating my own mind about what it is that I'm watching.

Which was also my role when I was watching a recording of Steve Paxton doing his Goldberg Variations 12 years ago. I had no idea what he was doing and yet I imagined I can read him, or anyway I tried to read him, so that I could do it myself. I explored what he was doing by doing it myself. And I filled the gaps with my own ideas. So I was being an observer, but I was also, as Steve himself later put it, "choreographing" him. I was putting words in his mouth as to what he was doing and "he" was giving me instructions, through my own mouth. That became the base. I was lucky to later be able to compare what I thought he was doing with what he remembered he was actually doing. We concluded both were valid instructions–one true, the other imagined.

And because I'm not sure, I stay attentive, and open... as if I was dancing with my eyes and ears covered. And I learn about what is there. Instead of googling it and filling it with knowledge, answers, things to reproduce and repeat. Empty space, or space zero, is important. But there is no such thing as empty and zero. It's just a continuously responsive space. And so the language that attempts to name experience keeps developing, and becoming more concise, as during our practice we discover new phenomena.

What I learned from this is that the empty space of not knowing within what we see (what we "know", the direction we are following) is essential for our own ability to create. We as the doers, performers, watchers, the audience... in all these roles we need to know and not to know. We need to explore what it is that we are being/doing.

The Gravity of Watching

I named the work on the position and the role of the observer The Gravity of Watching. Watching has a gravity, a pull, not unlike the pull of the Earth, or of another body. Being watched by someone changes our behavior, we see ourselves differently and it becomes harder to focus on what we are doing. I've heard it called mammalian behavior, though I also notice a similar change in insects as they becomes aware of my presence.

Learning how to work while being watched is at the core of improvisational performance, which pretends to expose the processes as they are happening. This is one of the bases of the Habitat concept, and it is also at the base of the Gravity of Watching proposal.

Gravity of Watching was first done at the Contactfestival Freiburg 2016 as a performance and a practice of introducing performances of CI dance duets inside of CI jams (an article on that subject, published in the CQ newsletter, can be found here). What happens, when dancers, dancing together in a CI jam, acknowledge to themselves and to each other verbally, that they are performing? Does their dance change? Can a change of tension in their bodies be perceived: by themselves, by their partner, by the watchers? 

In Lisa Nelson's Tuning Score Practice  she proposes, that we are always the watchers and the doers simultaneously. Whether we are the public, the performers or anything in-between, we are always going through the same process of editing the dance. The audience edits the dance by choosing what they watch and for how long, by how their attention shifts between what's before them.


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