mind, body & the evolution of a dance work

garry stewart: be your self, adelaide festival 2010

Garry Stewart with dancers

Garry Stewart with dancers

Garry Stewart with dancers


The initial impetus for Be Your Self came from a series of discussions between myself, the dancers and a Buddhist teacher Jampa Gendun on notions of self and ‘I’. Central to Buddhist philosophy is an ontological deconstruction of the self. It questions the very existence of a permanent ongoing self and an inherent ‘I’. Buddhism employs a mind training system through analytical meditation to attempt to dissolve the centrality of ‘I’ in our world. The questions ‘What is the self? What is the ‘I’?’ arose repeatedly in these sessions. These questions naturally lead me down a path to this new project.

In terms of ordering the flows of points of view on this, my first decision was to start with the body itself. The body is the most evident and obvious extension of the subject into the world. Our identity is recognized through the spatio-temporal continuity of the possession of one body over a lifetime, despite the radical transformations of our individual morphology—from embryo to inevitable senescence.

Working with a local physiologist, Michael Heynen, we developed text delivered by an actor which describes, via the most dense, physiological jargon imaginable, a series of simple physical manipulations of a dancer’s body. The vast schism between the simplicity of the dancer’s movement and the complexity of scientific language is intriguing and ironic; however the behaviour of the body becomes increasingly complex and unpredictable leaving the limitations of language well behind.

On this new creation I am working closely with Professor Julie Hollege from the Drama Department Flinders University in her capacity as dramaturg. Be Your Self quickly splintered away from Cartesian mind/body dualism into a discourse on the gulf between the rationalism of the biological, scientific body and a body that is volatile and disordered and escapes finite scientific descriptors.

At times, the tone of the work is jagged and chaotic with seemingly illogical stops, starts, interruptions and repetitions, moving through vast shifts in timbre. The work alludes to the multiplicity and fluidity of selfhood. The self is not necessarily a continuous, unified, unfolding logical progression but can be viewed as a complex bundle of competing, negotiating ‘selves’ that we subconsciously edit in order to achieve narrative continuity.

The sound score to Be Your Self evokes the internal function of the body. Working with Sydney based composer Brendan Whoite (formerly of Supersonic) we are developing a composition that turns the body inside out—blood rushing through valves, the electricity of nerves synapsing, gasps of breath and the heart beating as the dancers exert themselves. But rather than treating our emotions, our psyche and our moods as a separate domain from the body, we’ve contextualised consciousness as yet another corporeal system like digestion or respiration.

Be Yourself, ADT

Be Yourself, ADT

Be Yourself, ADT

Further to the task of collapsing the separation of mind and body, I have been working with Professor Ian Gibbons, a specialist in neurobiology at Flinders Medical Centre. For this project he has developed text similar in intention to the physiological description that will be recited at the beginning of Be Your Self to the corresponding moves of the solo dancer. Utilising dense jargon from neurobiology the audience is offered a description of various emotional states and moods that occur as a result, at least partly, via complex neuronal and hormonal processes.

Owing to the deeply fundamental way in which we have internalised Cartesian duality and also the prevailing rationalism inherent in western philosophy and scientific thinking, human emotions have been relegated to a secondary status. Conventionally, emotions and feelings are the antithesis of logos and are associated with the feminine and hence are subordinate to the objective logic of rational, male line of thinking. In Be Your Self emotions are reframed within the scientific schemata. But as any neurobiologist would attest, the current understanding of exactly how emotions are generated falls way short of a fully comprehensive articulation.

Yet current developments in neurobiology are slowly bridging the mind/body gap. It is thought that the brain continuously holds a representation of the body and updates this representation through a constant flow of corporeal feedback. Our somasensory system formulates a multitude of neurological ‘bodymaps’ through which we orientate ourselves within the world. When we drive a car for instance these bodymaps envelop the steering wheel as well as the length, width and volume of the car. Through our bodies we have a sense of the wholeness of the car and the pressure of its wheels on the road as well as its velocity and power.

The neurobiologist/writer Antonio Damasio believes that in seeing, we don’t just register the world with our eyes but our entire body “senses our seeing of the world through our eyes.” Our perception of our world is fully corporeal, not just through specific sensory faculties.

This ability applies particularly to dancers who generally possess an advanced degree of proprioception—the process by which we can automatically register the position of our muscles and joints in three dimensional space. It seems like an unusual statement, but without the body our minds would be completely different. Our bodies create our moods and emotions and these in turn monumentally shape and affect physical behaviour and development of the body.

Lurking beneath the shallows of Be Your Self is the unsettling presence of the body’s liquidity. The integrity of our body as a consistent form is held tight by the largest organ, the skin. Our viscera—our organs and blood—and the internal structures of the body generally remain occluded from our perception or our will to perceive them. Feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Elizabeth Grosz have drawn attention to the leakages of the body that women are so familiar with through childbirth, menstruation and lactation. But associated with this liquidity and the breaching of containment is a barely contained horror, an angst that pervades our relationship with our vulnerable bodies.

Finally, there is the derivation of pleasure from the body through transmuting into an aesthetic domain. The set designed by the New York based architectural firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) for Be Your Self allows us to obscure the totality of the body and to reveal random, singular body parts. When various limbs and torsos are articulated in concert with each other through this device we enter into a probable world where the body is liberated from its structural limitations. In doing so we are participating in a primordial ritual where humans are drawn to re-present the things of the world in a purely aesthetic form.

Perhaps this impulse toward representation in an allegorical schemata is a survival strategy in order to attain another understanding of the world through its re-articulation in a creative form, thus opening up possibilities that don’t exist yet. Or perhaps it is simply a neurologically pleasurable act that momentarily provides us windows through which to escape the self consciousness of our existence.

ADT, Be Your Self, a co-production with Grand Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg, La Rose des Vents Villeneuve d’Ascq and Le Rive Gauche Centre Culturel de Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in association with Adelaide Festival Centre Pivot(al) program and Adelaide Festival 2010; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Feb 20-28

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 14

© Garry Stewart; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 December 2009