becoming otherwise: a symposium of images

philipa rothfield: where the image meets the body

Peter Fraser

Peter Fraser

Peter Fraser

IF SPINOZA IS RIGHT, THAT WE DON’T KNOW WHAT A BODY CAN DO, THEN THE IMAGE MAY HELP. NOT AS THE SOLUTION, THE RIGHTEOUS PATHWAY, BUT AS A PROVOCATION—TO BECOME OTHERWISE. THE IMAGE LURES THE BODY, OFFERING THOUGHTS BEYOND THE KEN OF THE PERFORMER. IN THIS CONTEXT, THOUGHT IS LESS A PROPERTY OF CONSCIOUSNESS THAN SOMETHING EMBEDDED WITHIN THE BODY. BODY AND THOUGHT GO TOGETHER. THE IMAGE IS A MEANS OF EXPERIMENTATION, ITS COALESCENCE. THE IMAGE EXCEEDS US.

the image is historical

Peter Eckersall (Associate Professor in Theatre Studies in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne) has a cultural, historical understanding of Tatsumi Hijikata’s performative corporeality, articulated through the experimental medium of film. Film is a manner of experimentation, especially so in 1960s Japan. Temporalities clash: tradition and modernity collide in the emergent chaosmos of Butoh. Much later—now in fact—there are generations of Butoh inspired performers not yet born in the 1960s, nor born in Japan, but for whom Butoh is nonetheless a performative trope.

The performance-symposium, Where the Image Meets the Body, Performing Images in Butoh and Other Dance Forms, emerges from this younger generation. Not that there aren’t genealogies spanning from Hijikata through Min Tanaka, Kasuo Ohno and others. What makes a work Butoh is a complex question of authenticity, corporeal transmission and bodily discipline. It is an issue upon which I have no authority whatsoever. But I can say the following. I witnessed a debate in one of the symposium breaks, between two views: a more historically informed perspective and a freer attitude, less concerned with authenticity, discipline, than inspiration, fun even. The issue leads to the question: can any performance practice call itself Butoh? What is at stake in the name, articulated across the Pacific, over decades? Would a performance work have the same resonance were it not to call itself Butoh? Given my ignorance, I must remain agnostic, save to raise the question of role tradition and transmission within corporeal art, even with respect to an avant-garde art form such as Butoh. By imaginatively exploring Min Tanaka’s visit to Dehli, Saumya Liyanage (University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sri Lanka) looked at issues of intercultural transmission, through phenomenology’s lived body, including Liyanage’s own performative body.

Peter Eckersall‘s turn of phrase, “militant alterity”, combines politics and culture in Hijikata’s corporeal becoming. Eckersall speaks of activating instability as a means to produce difference within performance. The performer is not in control. If the militant arises from a specific historical milieu (in 1960s Japan), what kind of possibilities for radical otherness exist today? If a radical otherness is a possibility, it will perforce be different. Hence, the notion of the image for this symposium, as a strategic device to produce difference within performance.

the image is a strategy

Three dance papers look at the image in strategic terms, apart from the influence of Butoh. Oldest in origin is the Buddhist trope of the elements. Kim Sargent-Wishart (a movement artist, educator and researcher working on a Practice-Based PhD in Performance at Victoria University) looks at the five elements (earth, water, fire, air/wind and space) as metaphysical modes of transformation which were utilised in the studio in the manner of research-creation (as promoted by Erin Manning and Brian Massumi). Sargent-Wishart worked with a number of dancers at an embodied level, to give the body an opportunity to lead investigation. Elizabeth Dempster (Lecturer, Performance Studies, Victoria University) referred to Mabel Todd’s seminal work on the image which first found expression in The Thinking Body and ultimately founded ideokinesis. Dempster noted the importance of the way the image is introduced—as always becoming, active, never finished. It is a gerund, an event which becomes in the body. My own paper referred to Nietzsche’s critique of subjectivity (as habit) and the way in which the image may be used to strategically overcome the tendency towards habit. Alexander Technique offers an illustration of the way in which direction, as image, is used to inhibit/overcome habit. In all three papers, the image, whether anatomical or elemental or directional, invites a kind of becoming in the body.

the image in performance

Where the Image Meets the Body combined performance and spoken word, Peter Snow (Professor and Director of the Centre for Theatre and Performance, Monash University) took the domain of performance as his object of investigation, speaking as an observer of images, as one who investigates the activity of performance, its intensity, fragility, its relation to culture. Snow does not enclose performance but rather looks to its specificity, its relation to the flicker of memory. The actress Billie Whitelaw is cited in close proximity to Samuel Beckett’s work. She speaks of performance in the mode of being “not I.” I am reminded of Beckett’s Film, where the protagonist scuttles evasively so as to avoid being caught. As if the film-image would immobilise the butterfly-subject, sticking it in a frame for all time.

The image in this context is more mutable than that. It is a figure of transformation and transmutation. Several performers spoke of their relationship to their own work and the function of the image. In many cases, the work is seen to offer something beyond the performer’s understanding. Choreographer and performer Frances Barbe spoke of her performance as not quite her own, as offering a kind of displacement or decentring. Indeed, Barbe’s movement suggested a degree of alterity within, a commitment to quality as intensity. Alice Cummins (dance artist, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner and movement educator) evokes the multiplicity of relations that lie beyond the performer’s distinct being. Body Weather-trained performer Linda Luke allows the image to inaugurate a series of questions, openings. And performer Helen Smith orients her performance to the several Japanese masters with whom she trained, orienting different moments through the seasons. Choreographer Sarah Neville works with new media, remaining open to improvising, to the vicissitudes of performance, allowing technology to open up new possibilities.

Coming to perform, Body Weather-trained Peter Fraser flickered between a kind of becoming-animal and becoming-human. The lizard is our ontogenetic ancestor. Sinuous homolateral slitherings eke out the lizard’s progress. But the lizard becomes human through courtly gesture, within a space pre-determined by the Renaissance grid. Man is a cultural being yet animal still, occupying a liminal space between the two. The lizard perches on a desk, like anthropologist Mary Douglas’ matter out of place. Performer Nikki Heywood also worked with the animal-human nexus, playing with a fabricated head made for the theatre. Heywood’s combination of formal attire and dead animal parts is disturbing. It disturbs the identity of the performer and makes me uneasy, sad for the spectre of the animal head.

The solos of Linda Luke and Alice Cummins both made visible the performer’s effort to create difference, to do more than repeat the familiar. Luke spoke of the image as a means of overcoming. Her fine work had an intensity, a dedication in movement. Cummins’ piece was a dark intensity, in contrast to the luminosity of film, images of Cummins from another time and place. The work flickered, recalling Snow’s discussion of fragility as the risk inherent in all live performance. Robert Lewis (Lecturer in Voice and Movement, Academy of the Arts, University of Tasmania) presented two committed performers, Laura Bishop and Chris Jackson, grappling live with the demands of the moment. Finally, Helen Smith, with A Dance for All Seasons, presented the affect of time, taken through the seasons and the inflexions of her multiple Butoh masters—an appropriate way to end the performance component of the afternoon.

Thanks to convenors Stuart Grant and Ellen Rijs, whose positive energy extended throughout. While I am probably no clearer on what is an image, I have seen a little of what an image can do. And that’s what counts.

Where the Image Meets the Body, Performing Images in Butoh and Other Dance Forms, Centre for Theatre and Performance, Monash University, Melbourne, Nov 3-4, 2011

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 30

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

21 February 2012