Looking at being looked at dancing

Eleanor Brickill talks with Graeme Watson

Felice Burns  The Ant Watchers

Felice Burns The Ant Watchers

Felice Burns The Ant Watchers

Graeme Watson explains to Eleanor Brickill the ideas and processes behind The Antwatchers for the One Extra Dance Company

GW I’ve often thought about the notion of surveillance and how it establishes criteria for ‘normal’ behaviour. Anything breaking from normality is questioned, maybe disciplined or punished. Surveillance can be used as a protective device but there’s also a predatory aspect, and there’s the pleasure in looking as well. We enjoy watching a baby grow, protecting that child as it develops. A child’s curiosity might lead to unacceptable behaviour followed by a chastising, but you could be chastising them over a lot of nonsense.

EB You’re talking about a kind of behavioural web or shell whereby somebody’s power to watch another person might limit their experience too severely?

GW That surveillance disconnects us from our senses and they become as if fossilised. We can’t fully explore them and our behaviour alters. Sometimes I feel when I’m trying to make dance, that the dancing body itself has become fossilised.

EB Is it only an issue of the sense of sight?

GW The most difficult sense for the dancers in Antwatchers to work with was smell as a form of surveillance and protection and territoriality. It carries such huge memories of both good and bad behaviour. As they explored ideas of self-surveillance through smell, it started to look the same as self-surveillance with the eyes.

EB Connecting the senses?

GW In public spaces, there’s a certain privacy in, say, walking down the street in a crowd. As an individual you don’t feel totally revealed. But now there are cameras up on the buildings and people accept that intrusion.

EB But it can be very personal even in a crowd: passing a busker, say, who’s playing something with a rhythm that you can’t avoid walking to. You think the busker’s watching you do it, because inviting that response is one thing that buskers occasionally do. Suddenly it’s intrusive. A camera on a wall isn’t like that.

GW A camera can “steal” your image because you’re not aware of it. But if a busker does it, that’s like kleptomania. Surveillance has become insidious in our lives. Dance itself has become increasingly market driven: surveillance of the type of material you create. If it fits within the prescribed image then you’re fine. If you depart from it, challenge the criteria set up, you feel like the right for your body to have an imagination is being questioned, that it’s suspect, or perverse.

So we’re basing the work very deliberately on the idea of morphing movement. How do you establish something that’s public, and then how do you discreetly morph it so that the surveillance system can’t identify it any more?

EB You mean that change from one thing to another is not able to be tracked?

GW Yes, you can’t track a human image morphing into being an ant because attached to that human image are all these behavioural criteria. And an ant doesn’t behave like a human being.

EB The paradigm’s changed?

GW Yes, but rather than using video-image-making, I’ve turned back to the body and its extraordinarily rich imagination. In one exercise we looked at the idea of shifting scale, how an ant moves through space, its speed, its definition of time. We define the ant by our sense of time. If you were to bring it up to human scale, it would be four times the size of a cheetah and be able to travel at the speed of a cheetah. The dancers tried to morph their human movement into ant time.

Also, if you look at ant motion, really you’re just looking at the top of it. To examine it you might have to get down to the ant’s level, still maintaining the visual scale. However, if you bring in some technology like a magnifying glass you can see more detail and so forth, but in doing that you start to separate that individual from the larger picture. You might see someone behaving in a particular way, and surveillance says, well look, this is not normal, or this doesn’t meet the criteria, but that’s looking at an individual out of context. You have to understand that the video frame is very selective. It only shows you part of the picture.

One thing that we are trying to do is to turn that surveillance onto the process of making dance itself. I’m trying not to go into a storytelling narrative process; I’m letting the body establish its own feeling, do its own thinking.

EB But even then, the body has already been created in the image of the watcher.

GW Here’s a question I was asked yesterday: “Do you want it to be dancey or pedestrian?” Another comment was: “You know that section there? Well, we’re only improvising”. You just have to hear the words “We’re only improvising” to know that fixed material is seen as much more important.

So this week, I created a little eight pulse phrase. I made it very “Graeme Watson”, my idea of how I approach space and movement. I said to the dancers, “This is the public version. Now, you escape from it. One dancer’s response suggested to me that she was feeling torment. Then there was a vomiting motif. When I looked at another dancer I felt like I was intruding. In breaking the phrase down, they were making a comment about my categorisation of myself: “You’ve set this so I have to move in a particular way. Now I have to break it down and make it invisible, re-assess it.”. In this process, they seem to have developed an extraordinary sense of the internal, as though that is the area of the body that feels most protected from surveillance.

The One Extra Company, Antwatchers with dancers Felice Burns, Lisa Ffrench, Rachel Roberts, Alison Dredge, Taryn Drummond, Charlotte Moar. Choreography and direction by Graeme Watson, music by Antony Partos, set by Eamon D’Arcy, lighting by Rory Dempster, costumes by Jacques Tong. Live music by Ju Ju Space Jazz and DJ Zeitgeist. St George’s Hall, Newtown, from Thursday March 7.

RealTime issue #11 Feb-March 1996 pg. 41

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1996