the 'sciencing' of dance?

This paper was presented at the Australasian Drama & Performance Studies Association (ADSA) conference in Sydney (June 2015) and at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies Friday Seminar series, (August 2015)

Hallelujah (2015) by The Rubens (watch this video to begin)

This single is from The Rubens’ second album Hoops. Featured in the clip is Sydney based dancer and choreographer Martin del Amo.

There are some interesting elements in the clip, and I want to mention, and then dispense with, one or two right up front.  The whole aesthetic is what I had been calling derro chic, that was until I discovered it is actually called hobo chic. Hobo chic is defined in the urban dictionary as “looking like a bum. Synonymous to dressing in 'boho chic’.” Boho chic is:

a fashion trend that is part bohemian and part chic. It is tied to the vintage phenomenom in fashion where the trend was to bring back vintage styles for the modern era. The trend is said to have been started by actress Sienna Miller in 2005. She wore bohemian-style clothing in the movie Alfie and continued to sport the garb regularly in London. People began to imitate this style, and fashion designers took notice. Boho chic may be hot now, but it'll be dead by 2007. (Urban dictionary

If that is true, someone should tell our late 2015 hipsters who congregate in Bondi.

There are probably other things you noticed in the clip as well. As one self styled reviewer commented on YouTube:

That chair in the opening scene is one of the best props I have ever seen in a video. A stark dichotomy is created between 'home' and 'homeless' as the excessive cushioning and reclining features of the chair beautifully juxtapose the hard surfaces and sharp geometric industrial environment. The pale colouring allows…

…and on it goes… . An (unkind) responder quipped: “somebody has their English HSC exam in a few months”.

Others were touched by the “the abiding mystery of the slowly-stripping tramp.” Some were a little confused as to whether Martin del Amo was a real ‘homeless dude’, and asked what this ‘weird’ dance style was. Could you call it ‘interpretative’ dance?

But putting the social, aesthetic and stylistic aspects of the Hallelujah clip to one side, I want to concentrate on what its like to watch the video. I want to talk, briefly, about the movement … the dance; to explore for a moment Martin’s flinging arms, his thrusting chest, his ricocheting head, and jiggling ribs, and the affect that they had on me when I first saw the clip.

I watched it at home and then I strode up to the bus stop on my way to work singing (to myself) “I’m saved, hallelujah, hallelujah” and itching to expand my chest, fling my arms in that open-shoulder kind of way, roll my ribs and release my head in the manner of Martin. It made me want to dance, fling myself about, throw myself around. This was of course enhanced by the music which was in turn emphasised by Martin’s well-chosen actions. The driving hums at the beginning, Zaac Margin or William Zeglis’s guitar strokes, and Scott Baldwin’s hard drums, and the phrasing of the songs words sung by the Sam Margin were made real, for me, through Martin’s actions.

When interviewed at the singles release, Sam Margin said that the lyrics for Hallelujah are “about people trying to force their […] beliefs or ideas upon you, and in the process destroying what it is they’re plugging.” This has some resonance with the other word in the title of this paper: ‘sciencing’ (which is of course not really a word but it serves my purposes here).

There has been a lot of interest, over the last 15 years in the relationship between science and dance, and there is a history to that interest.  I’m not going to talk about all the pairings between these two fields of practice. What I will concentrate on here, is one form of these current pairings: that between dance and neuroscience. The main things I want to ask are: why are those in the dance field so attracted to those who work in the neuroscience field and vis versa? Why do these artists and sciences want to collaborate? Why do they need each other? What attracts them to each other?

Basically, from my survey of the field, there seem to be two forms of collaboration between neuroscientists and dancers. One group of studies are interested in how what a dancer does ‘makes’ a dancers brain, and, by association, what sort of affect dancing has, or could have, on the human brain. Some interesting work has emerged in this area – particularly as it has been applied to beneficial health outcomes regarding the symptoms of some diseases. One example of this is American choreographer Mark Morris’s support for research into the affect that organised movement can have for those with Parkinson’s disease. 

The other group of studies examine bodily reactions within expert and non-expert audiences when watch dancing. These projects search for the impact of movement on others and, ultimately, seek an explanation for empathic reactions, or the lack there of, in the watcher for what the doer is doing. One famous study in this area was done by Calvo-Merino, Grèzes, Glaser, Passingham and Haggard (2006): "Seeing or Doing? Influence of Visual and Motor Familiarity in Action Observation"

Many of these collaborations are looking for a link between neurons and behavior. When such a link is located, the scientific and dancerly collaborators attempt, often very cautiously, to  speculate on inter-subjective moments between humans. I borrow this term, inter-subjective, from Australian philosopher Philipa Rothfield. Rothfield differentiates between what she calls intra-subjective experiences and inter-subjective experiences. Both emerge from the experience of moving. The intra-subject, is defined as “a pleasure that circulates the body of the individual”, a “pleasure in moving”. The inter-subjective is related to the intra- but is “a connective possibility” based on “the existence of at least two bodies”, and “arise[s] through a corporeal connection between” bodies as one watches another move, a bit like my explanation of watching Martin move in the Hallelujah clip. Rothfield then borrows the idea of “corporeal connectivity” from Maurice Merleu-Ponty, who attributes the connectivity between ourselves and others as that which “makes a sense of one’s own body possible” (Rothfield, 1994, 63-64)

When scientists discovered mirror/motor neurons they thought they had located the material source of this affect, the source of empathy. If you have never encountered this work before, the NOVA programme Mirror Neurons explains the early findings of scientists like Giacomo Rizzolatti, and is an interesting (often amusing) explanation to watch.

As the NOVA team suggest, the main discovery by Rizzolatti and his team was not only that one area of the brain registered activity when a monkey reached for a peanut, but that there was also activity, or ‘firing’, in the same area of the brain when someone else reached for a peanut and the monkey observed the action. As the NOVA programme shows, it doesn’t take long for scientists to get excited, and move from monkeys to humans and from firing neurons to a claim to have discovered the source of our empathy. Once this was established, researchers leapt to work with expert movers in order to test their theories. They began to put dancers under anatomical and neurological scrutiny. Many scientists did this, during the first decade of the 2000s, by placing dancers under observation, hooking them up to devises:  functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI) machines, and/or electroencephalography machines (EEGs) (the Calvo-Merino experiment was one of these). 10 years later, in their summary of the interest in the relationships established between dancers and science, Karpati, Giacosa, Foster, Penhune, & Hyde (2015) suggest that: “Taken together [these] studies point to the critical role and plasticity of the premotor cortex in dance observation.” (p. 141)

The […] EEG studies add to the fMRI evidence of functional brain differences of the action observation network in dancers, particularly in terms of temporal brain dynamics in motor and temporal regions.

PET (positron emission tomography - a special camera and a computer to help evaluate your organ and tissue functions), fMRI and EEG "findings point to a network of brain regions implicated in various aspects of dance performance, in particular the superior temporal gyrus, superior parietal lobule, frontopolar cortex, and middle temporal gyrus.” (Karpati, F. J., Giacosa, C., Foster, N. Penhune, V. B., & Hyde, K. L., 2015, p. 142)  

So, this all sounds well and good…but what I am interested in are the motivations for these studies? Dance and dancers are interesting, and dance and dancers are interested in what they have to offer a world interested in them. We are all interested in finding out how we are similar and how we are unique.

From the science side: “[d]ance provides a unique model to investigate how the brain integrates movement and sound as well as the development of motor expertise combined with artistic creativity and performance”. Dance also “offers a unique window to study human brain plasticity and the interaction between the brain and behavior”, (Karpati, F. J., Giacosa, C., Foster, N. E., Penhune, V. B., & Hyde, K. L. (2015), p. 140). Dance is, to quote Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011), “a useful tool […] in the search for understanding the functional properties of equivalent neurons in the human brain” (p. 19).

And of course, it is a way toward making things knowable because, as Kaufer and Chemero (2015) suggest, for some researchers: “[m]ind-world interactions […] are no more mysterious than program-world interactions: very complicated, of course, but not unknowable.” (p. 173) Such scientists want to bridge “the gaps between abstract theorizing and concrete data that can be gathered in the lab”.

In a 2012 edition of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences (11, no. 1), the editor, Ivar Hagendoorn, stated the obvious:

Of course one may ask whether there is any point […]. Does it matter, in any way, what happens where in the brain when one watches dance or learns a dance phrase? How does this knowledge enhance our understanding of dance and choreography? Who cares whether it is the insula rather than the amygdala that is activated in a particular task? This might be of interest to neuroscientists, neurologists and neurosurgeons, but why should artists and audiences care about these findings? (Hagendoorm, 2012, p. 1)

So…if ‘so what’ then why?

I’ll speculate here on three possibilities. The first is money: science has it and artists need and/or want it.

I can’t blame us – it's a seductive road. I remember myself being lured down this kind of yellow-brick-road-following-the-cash when all this 'sciencing' of art first hit the fan. I was working for the One Extra Dance Company. Dancer/choreographer Michael Whaites, who had been a dancer with ADT in Adelaide, Twyla Tharp in the US, and Pina Bausch in Germany, had returned to Australia with the hope of making his own work. Michael and I worked together in the early 2000s. We did Achtung Honey! and Oysterland (2001) and Waiting for Michael (2004). One day, some time in between 2001 and 2004, we were driving from the city to Sydney’s western suburbs, discussing how to get more money to finance the making of more work. The question came up: how could we get in on the ground floor of this burgeoning interest in science and dance? What about an association with the Institute of Sport, someone said. They have machines that measure speed, action, etc etc in cricket players…batters and bowlers…perhaps we could do something with them, about speed, action, reaction, dance and dancers? We got all excited – back and forth – we could do this/do that/do something else. Then we both stopped…looked at each other and said: what for? What for? …for the money…and we decided to talk about something else

The second answer to ‘if so what they why’, could be explained through an examination of a well-developed inferiority complex.

Scientists have shown an interest in dance. Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011) want to “facilitate[…] and promote [an] understanding of dance as a sophisticated practice demanding highly developed perceptual, cognitive and action systems.” (p. 261) This sounds great. Dancers don’t get a lot of respect, and even when they do, it is often a confused appreciation of extra-ordinary physical capacities at the expense of an acknowledgement of intellectual abilities and the rigour it takes to produce and maintain both. So, when someone wants to offer you the status of expert, it is no wonder dancers move forward to occupy that space. Some dancers don’t do it very well, others, like British choreographer Wayne McGregor, are experts at it. McGregor has created a space for himself where he, as an expert mover and creator of movement, works with scientists and academics in a multitude of fields, on projects that attract a lot of attention and money. (Miller, 2010)

Another explanation for this collaboration between dance and science is a little more Orwellian.

Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011) are convinced that we need to, in their words, “explain the very individual responses [people have] to one performance?” (p. 18). If we do that, we then might, as Karpati, Giacosa, Foster, Penhune, & Hyde (2015) suggest, “find methodological solutions to enhance the ability to measure […] valid dance performance” (p. 143). The data produced, to return to Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011), could be “analysed quantitatively [and] posted online and distributed at theatres” (p. 33).

The implications are clear. If the illusive source of kinesthetic empathy could be tapped into and tamed/defined/catagorised through measurement, then artists could make art that would be accepted by, of interest to, stimulate empathetic responses in, audiences – the magic formula could be known.

Lets take this to its logical conclusion. If this is our brave new world, then theatres could ask/encourage/provoke/insist/cajole artists, explicitly or implicitly, into making work that brings in punters. Why not? If we know what works, we can make work that ‘works’ more of the time.

This idea reminds me of a work done by Gideon Oberzanek in 2002 for his then company Chunky Move. It was called Wanted: Ballet for a Contemporary Democracy.

The Sydney Morning Herald critic Jill Sykes thought this work “could have been subtitled Gideon's Revenge”. The research had been carried out through a survey. A questionnaire was sent out to dance enthusiasts, sourced through the dance advocacy agency Ausdance in each state and territory, asking what dance audiences liked and what they didn’t like in the dance they saw.

To quote Sykes: “The survey questioned them closely on dance styles, structures, steps, moods, music, costumes and sets. Their answers were grouped by age, gender and state to provide a voice-over script for Wanted”.

Flexed feet (compared with pointed) and erratic and spasmodic movement are among the least wanted. High legs and partnering get much higher scores. Everyone wants [things to be] ‘expressive’ […]. Nobody, it seems, wants the fashionably expressionless faces that suggests a lack of engagement with an audience. Tight clothes are preferred to revealing costumes, though modest[y] is the overall preference. 

As Sykes concluded: “The result is often very funny, but underneath the laughter there is the awful knowledge that most of what his eight dancers are performing has been selected by dance goers as their favourite aspects of dance.”  (Sykes, SMH, 28 April 2003)

I saw this work and I must say I got a few laughs out of it, initially, but I also became a little tired of watching it in the end – as Sykes did too judging from her review. This was a one-joke work, and the joke was a bit of an insider’s one at that, but I do think you get the point, even if you were not there. Gideon was complaining about the very thing that could emerge from the kinds of experiments that have been going on in these dance/neuroscience collaborations. If we take source and production of kinesthetic empathy as given, what sort of work will we end up being given?

To be fair, even the scientists and dance scholars have their concerns. Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011) worry about how they can get any authentic data on audience experience when the mode of collecting that data is so intrusive, so cumbersome, so invasive on the experience itself. But they do not entirely despair in relation to the potential of this mode of inquiry. They hope that the future will bring more and more subtle machines or processes of collecting quantitative data, modes that, in their words, can match the quality of their qualitative collecting systems (surveys, interviews etc etc).

But my biggest problem with this research – qualitative or quantitative – is the underlying assumptions about what an audience is and how an audience should arrive at, be with and exist within a theatre/performance experience. As an audience member I don’t want to be catered for. I don’t think I should be that important.

It seems to me that this kind of relationship between cognitive science and art making promises to trivialise the developing and developed expertise of artists. I am not interested in someone finding out what makes my neurons fire, whether I am dancing or watching dancing, and then providing me with something that caters to those firings (or the firings of homo sapiens like me). I go to see dance, or at least I go to see the dance I like to go to see, to be offered someone else’s vision, an expert’s take on what a body can do. I want to ask “what the hell is/was that?” I want to be baffled, weirder out, challenged, provoked, made to feel, made to think...not catered for.

This is why I find Martin del Amo’s work so stimulating. It rattles me. His chest expansions, rolled into flung shoulders and responding arms, juxtaposed with a roaming head – as seen in The Rubens clip that began this paper and even more acutely expressed in his live solo works – Severe Insult to the Body (1997-2012), Under Attack (2005), Never Been this far from Home (2007), It’s a Jungle Out There (2009), or his solos for others Anatomy of an Afternoon (2012) and Slow Dancing for Fast Times (2013) – leave me searching for a way to articulate their impact.

I know as a former dancer I have the access, the background and the competency to see the action, but the mood that it generates in me can only be described as something akin to…for want of a better word…freedom. And the struggle to articulate these reactions in words is, I would contend, far more illuminating to me (and potentially to others) than all the articulation of firing neuron responses in the world. Referencing the actions and reaction of my frontopolar cortex does not, will not, reveal anything more than a functional association between stimulation and action, missing all the experiential reactions that are produced through engagement. All this ‘sciencing’ of dance, particularly in relation to empathy, kinaesthesia, artists and audiences, is just a weird kind of project to my way of thinking. My state, my mood, is created by the research, the practice, the expertise of an artist whose competency in this arena far outstrips my own. It is my role, my goal, my obligation as an audience member to work with what I am given, to be as open as I can to the offering, and then…grapple with that on my way home.  

Selected References

Hagendoorn, I. (2012). Introduction to the special issue on dance and cognitive science. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(1), 1-3

Jola, C., Ehrenberg, S., & Reynolds, D. (2011). The experience of watching dance: Phenomenological–neuroscience duets. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(1), 17-37

Karpati, Falisha J, Chiara Giacosa, Nicholas E V Foster, Virginia B Penhune, and Krista L Hyde. (2014) "Dance and the Brain: A Review." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, No. 1337

Käufer, S., & Chemero, A. (2015). Phenomenology : An introduction. Polity Press.

Reynolds, D et al (2011). Dance research electronic-introduction dance and neuroscience-new partnerships . Dance Research: The Journal of the Society of Dance Research, 29(2), 259-269

Suggested further reading/watching

Foster, Susan Leigh (2011). Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance, Routledge

McGregor, Wayne (2012) "A choreographer's creative process in real time" TED.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2011). Movement and mirror neurons: A challenging and choice conversation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1-17

Brolga 36, June 2012 (journal dedicated to an exploration of the research, development and presentation of Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon