Body think

Rachel Fensham on Philipa Rothfield’s Pensive and desoxy’s DNA 98.4%

Philipa Rothfield & Elizabeth Keen, Pensive

Philipa Rothfield & Elizabeth Keen, Pensive

Philipa Rothfield & Elizabeth Keen, Pensive

The primacy of the body as matter for thought has become a tenet of poststructuralism. Likewise the notion that embodiment is a form of knowing. Philipa Rothfield’s ‘thought experiment’ at Dancehouse was to bodily explore these ideas, by allowing a little ‘Pensive’ reflection to take place in performance. She and dancer Elizabeth Keen began with a right turn logic that marked out a progression of squares on the floor—their soft footfalls diminishing lines to perimeters. Keen speaks of Descartes, who else? For isn’t he the man who caused the problems…He asks “what then am I?” Keen watches. Rothfield is an arm/arc/archipelago. She is more beautiful than Descartes in her shimmering shot fabric, fake fur and leopard spots. She is a lioness while ‘he’ observes and speaks—utterance seems to defy movement.

Soon the 2 find moments of overlap. There is a licking, sliding, pawing—they become a conjoined woman. A Siamese twin with 2 heads, 2 hearts, 2 hands, 2 feet—how does she think? This is a problem for psychology—‘both hands are holding the mouse of the computer’—but would philosophy have them torn apart? The dancers are locked and knotted through and around until their heads appear to rest, one against the other. They are like-in-like with a certain coyness about their private discoveries. Their gaze is direct and beyond reach but not far away. I am struck by an intentionality in their looking which suggests a certain kinesphere—a thought realm that can be held in and around the body. It stays quite constant throughout, the way that thoughts venture forth only so far and then return.

Dancing separately, there begins greater variation—thoughts exist in contradistinction, thinking like no other, thought in a hand held up or thought holding itself in a cupping at the back of the head. The body and mind we are told is a ‘fissure’, a word-sound. Possibly a wound, or possibly something to be filled. Their final duet is a reply to this gap in thought—but it is filled with ugly words that end with -ity or -acy or -ility and -ation. They hook toes and elbows, they investigate ‘incorporation.’

The piece was like a hieroglyphic—sketches of women, eagles and crescents drawn in sandstone and therefore, a little flat, following a single narrative line leading us from proposition to proposition with interludes of wonder in between. I am very fond of Descartes’ thought meditations and although we might be troubled by his conclusion “I think therefore I am”, there is a wonderful delirium in his questioning of self, of God and of reality—in his writing he lets himself go to the limits of thinking through his body. Pensive suggests a more measured contribution to thought and it seems that Rothfield’s work was the preliminary sketch of a meditation that is still to ‘hallucinate’ the dialogue between an I and a body. The conclusion with its postmodern emphasis—an incantatory resolution drawing the binaries of bodies and thought together—arrived too soon, historically and artistically, to shift the influence of Descartes from this self-conscious dance work.

Another approach to the problems of the cogito, the defining of the human subject by the thinking I, is evident in desoxy Theatre’s DNA 98.4% (being human). This major work asks the questions ‘what thinking has made the human species regard itself as above all others?’ or more directly ‘what makes the human genetically different from other animals?’ Their answer is not so pretty, in fact what you watch is disturbing, if also funny peculiar, as Teresa Blake and Dan Whitton become ape, reptile, bird and transhuman. This project has been reworked over 4 years and the complexity of the research shows in the extraordinary bodies of the artists, androgynous but even less than sexual, andromorphic. What they do on the horizontal and vertical planes of movement confounds categories—climbing walls as a body of upper or lower legs or looping over themselves in a spiral of links in the chain between DNA and the exoskeleton. At one point they put on genitalia to distinguish man from woman, with their converse heights presenting a further confusion of sexual roles. They enact a courtship dance—the fundamentals of mating are necessary after all to further the species but the distance between our socialistion of those needs and their function is immense. The more disturbing reality is that it could be dispensed with altogether if the scientists of the human genome project advance their supremacist biological thinking. Suspended in cocoons, desoxy await their dying so that the human DNA can be incubated for future generations. I am confronted by the work to consider evolution, its inexorable hold on science and its relationship to humanness.

There is too much to take in, to absorb in ideas and in looking from desoxy’s sometimes didactic presentation of this material; but I am grateful that they are artists whose living is to make art that asks seriously hard questions. It seemed ironic that this production which played to small audiences was pitted against the Melbourne Comedy Festival—will we really laugh ourselves into oblivion.

For more on 98.4%DNA, see Mary-Ann Robinson, “Double helix of tricks and ideas”, page 32

Pensive, Writer/deviser/performer Philipa Rothfield, performer Elizabeth Keen, designer Like Pither, costume design Heidi Wharton, Dancehouse, April 23 -25; 98.4% DNA (being human), desoxy Theatre, David Williamson Theatre, Swinburne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, April 13 – May 1

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 39

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1999