Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tormented by the Body

What is the potential for close, critical reading of the language used by the participants?

In an earlier post I quoted this line by Peter, one of the participants in the dance watching group. Here he is discussing 'Awakenings' in his second piece of free flow writing about 'things he saw':

Tormented by the body, frozen in stilted motion, a world in which normal
movement has become an unfamiliar thing.

This is something that I suspect we can quite readily agree is an evocative phrase, it is full of affecting imagery, it encourages us to feel what it describes – emotionally and/or physically – rather than that simply see it. Importantly it encourages us to engage in this emotional /physical affect whether or not we have seen the performance that is being described. In terms of our engagement with this phrase, the performance itself is no longer relevant as we instead draw on the connotative substance and heft of the words and our own cultural and personal experiences.

In the tradition of ekphrastic writing however, the phrase seeks to translate some of the experiential properties of one thing to another – from the dance into language. That is a translation of sympathy rather that equivalency – not identical, but the same in its difference.
This affective engagement operates through a process of empathy. When looking at this phrase I first thought, well he is simply describing what he saw, dancers performing in a tormented, stilted manner, alienated from their own bodies and from our familiar sense of normal movement. Yes, I thought, I saw that too. Yet there is nothing particularly simple in that description or in that perception, it is particular to us watching in an embodied manner, with and through awareness of human bodilyness.

Equally for anybody reading the line the response is rooted, I'd suggest, in reading it with and through awareness of human bodilyness.

What, however, can we say about the extent or exact nature of this empathetic relationship to the performance? I think we can very comfortably say that neither the writer when he was watching the dance, nor the dancers when they were performing, nor you when you are reading the sentence feel tormented. However, there is a feeling of tormentedness that was first projected by the qualities of the movement to the writer and then (in a translated form) by the qualities of the language to the reader, which we can connect with and be affected by without actually succumbing to it.

From first to second writing

In preperation for the workshops the participants were asked to write free flow one two occasions. First immediately after the performance; and second the following day. I naturally found it valuable to look at this unedited free flow material for any noticeable habits or features. One thing that emerged was difference between the first and second sets of writing, which might result from a combination of the time period elapsing and (perhaps more significantly) that this was the second time in which the participants had engaged in writing and in consciously reflecting on the performance. For example, there was a tendency for the descriptions of things seen in the first piece of writing to be fairly literal, often in a list format, while in the second piece of writing this developed into more constructed phrases and had a looser and more imagistic relationship with what had been seen. So in the first piece of writing Mike (from the writers group) writes a list of things seen:

Clocks, bodies, people controlled by music and time. Wasps, insects, wild
animals, stars and silver helium-filled balloons. Giant shadows, darker than the
back wall. [etc]

In the second piece of writing he writes of things seen in this manner:

Lovers connected by the skin of their faces, moving together because they were
stuck together. […] Clowns turning into animals, both reptile and mammal. […]
Boneless clowns, elastic men. [etc]

For other participants again it is in the second set of writing that these more evocative, imagistic, metaphorical phrases develop. As for example with:

Tormented by the body, frozen in stilted motion, a world in which normal
movement has become an unfamiliar thing (Peter – dance spectators group)
Bodies rippling like waves from top to bottom (Susan – writers group)

Just as the second pieces of writing have a freer or more developed voice in terms of their imagery so do their in terms of their interpretative and analytical engagement. For example, it is largely in the second pieces of writing that participants start making comparisons to other art forms or experiences (such as Waiting for Godot, David Bowie, Kurt Vonnegut, Brian Aldiss, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Buster Keaton) and largely in the second pieces of writing that they start speculating on the nature of dance or dance watching in a general sense.

Generally, therefore, the second pieces of writing have not a looser connection to the performance but somehow a freer connection. The writing, the reflection, the language, the phrases and reflective engagement have all developed, are all richer and more insightful.

Language is always inadequate

In some ways the impossibility of the task given to the participants, of accounting for their experience of dance in writing, almost becomes the point. Meaning and insight were produced through the struggle and within the gaps and the failures as well as the successes. I find the following articulation of this impossibility in relation to linguistic expression of feeling or experience is particularly useful:

Language is always inadequate. We dance with the impossible each time we put
words on the page. It is far better to dance with impossibility than to accept
the first ordinary word that comes to mind, the easy cliché. (Neilsen cited in
Prendergast 2009: xxvi)

There is of course nothing particular to the experience of inadequacy, ineffability or simple frustration to the challenge of writing or speaking about dance. As Neilsen indicates, this is the challenge of accounting for any kind of lived experience of the world. Secondly, that while accepting this impossibility, rather than avoiding the challenge it is valuable to try to go beyond the first draft and to engage with the craft and practice of writing.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Thinking and Writing

The relationship between what we think and the process of articulating thought through writing or speech is not linear or determined. We are all familiar with the process whereby thinking off the cuff or from the top of one's head doesn't just manifest thought but constructs thought. The process of writing or talking, therefore, doesn't necessarily communication prior thoughts but constructs them. I particularly like these two quotations:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Seamus Heaney

How can I know what I think till I see what I say?
E. M. Forster

The implications of this for our sense of what people say or write about their experiences of dance (or art in general) is extremely complex. In this context, however, I think it is valid to suggest that the process of thought making cannot be simply dismissed as distorting an original experience that exists outside of thought. Rather the process of consciously digging with the pen or with our mind is what makes the experience an experience and the thought a thought.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Right into her seat

As ever, the prospect of an evening watching dance provided a sense of anticipation, combined with the feeling: why did my own body not let me be able to do this? It is my favourite way to spend an evening, thought it has to be said that on seeing the absolute hoards of children there my emotions are mixed.

I fight past the kids blocking the aisle into a hot, poor seat with a restricted view and contemplate that it is a good job this is a free ticket. The Lowry really should segregate the paying customer from the school party to a greater extent.

Please let me kids be quiet, switch off their phones and let us concentrate. Glory be, to a greater extent this seems to be happening.

I wonder if after the Rain Forest piece the kids attention will have wandered and they wont be able to grasp the meaning in Awakenings?

I cannot bear the pain of the first dancer to move. It is hitting me so forcibly I want to put my arms around him. He has such a dreadful tic. I wonder if Fraser’s tic is like that? They are so isolated from each other, but on the outside look like a bunch of ordinary people when they are frozen.

I am being emotionally dragged into this faster and harder than I expect. The music – it is staccato and chaotic at times - aren’t they moving well to it? Hasn’t the choreographer done his homework well and felt the rhythm and the emotion. I can hardly bear to watch – the man is walking up and down into glass walls. The girl is imagining her jacket fastenings.

Well, well, two people are trying to dance together, more lyric movement and music and a hint of communication and empathy… but, oh no, she has frozen. And again I wish I could help her communicate with the man.

I wish I could see the whole stage – this seat is awful - why are the speakers arrayed there so they maximise the intrusion on the sight line?

Now where are we going? Oh yes, repetition. Good. That is so relevant here. More repetition of movement. Clever stuff and I love the interpretation of the music. The girls sitting next to me are being so good. They are sunk down in their chairs. Is that because teenagers slouch or because of the power of live performance?

Oh Janet, why did they keep you alive so long after your stroke? This is why we went through what we did to go and talk to you, just in case you could hear.

There are progressively more dancers on stage now, so I think we are building to the finale. I wonder what the lady who wrote in the programme would think of this? I think they are really picking up on her moving world of consciousness that shifts near and far from her. It turns back in on her all the time and never stops. Yes! They have got it, the lone male turning and turning amongst the static dancers. And so it goes on and on.

My god I am tired. I have to write about this when I get back and how am I going just to say what I saw and keep it separate from my emotions? This is not going to be straightforward.

Thank god there will be a lot of coaches in the car park should be ok to get out of. I am so glad I had a chance to engage with this piece.

This is a really interesting piece of writing by Sheila, an experienced dance spectator and non-writer. It clearly draws upon both the free writing exercises she did immediately after the performance and the chart exercise recording the performance, thoughts of the performance and distractions. What it very powerfully does is place the reader into her mind as if at the moment of watching, with all the thoughts and feelings that go through ones head at that moment. I say as if for this is inevitably a consciously and selective reconstruction of that experience - it adopts the literary device of stream of consciousness but is not literally such from the moment itself.

What makes it so evocative, however, is its construction of a sense of honesty. Whether Sheila is slightly exaggerating or sending up or being entirely truthful in her portray of herself we cannot know, probably all three at once. Either way the character presented is at moments unsympathetic (if understandable) in her somewhat snotty depiction of the 'children' in the audience and yet at the same piece of writing utterly sympathetic and clearly moved in a really heartfelt manner by the performance. The blurring and moving between idle thoughts about the car park; evaluative comments on the choreography; personal connotations with friends or family who have been in a similar situation; bitchy comments about the theatre or rest of the audience all feels utterly true and utterly persuasive.

Indeed, Sheila's writing was truly persuasive, particularly in its rendering of such an emotional and intelligent response to Awakenings. As the workshop ended one of the other participants, who had largely dismissed Awakenings, commented to Sheila that listening to her had changed his mind about the piece. 'I think I missed it entirely' he said. Listening to somebody so entirely engaged and responsive to a piece of art is an experience that has something of the qualities of perceiving an evocative piece of art for oneself.


Memory unspools from us.
We’re a troupe of clowns
distracted by the buzzing
of an invisible wasp,

clapping our hands
in the vague direction of the noise
unaware of the cassette player
squatting like an elephant in the corner.

Our bones must be electric:
even as we sit here
perfectly still, our shadows
convulse on the walls behind us.

We’ve discovered the secret:
we’re not really animals
but facsimiles of animals.
We are broken machines,

have always been broken machines,
though we played at being real
for so long we were beginning
to believe it ourselves. Please,

you who loved us, don’t feel cheated.
Console yourselves with the thought
that if there is a last laugh here,
we’re not the ones having it.

In this piece of writing Michael, a creative writing student for whom this was his first experience of watching live dance, developed further a text he had started earlier in the workshop. Again this is primarily a response to - although also equally a departure from - 'Hush'. There are moments that are clearly recognisable to somebody else who saw the performance, the distracting buzzing of an invisible wasp, the grotesque crowds at once both comic and horrifying and of course the general tone and atmosphere. All this, however, is transposed through the prism of language and Michael's own poetic imagination. Some of the results include a noticable darker the emotional palette and a stress upon distopian imagery of people as machines or animals.

Entering into the characters of 'Hush'

We’ve arrived – and it’s still the same… it’s always the same. They always find the place… Mum and Dad. (Well, that’s what I call them… I can’t remember a time when they weren’t there.) It’s beautiful – the stars, the tent reaching up to the sky, the circus ring, and the space to dance.

And us… Mum and Dad, Estrella (who’s almost grown up), John (definitely not Johnny any more), little Bobby (she just wont come if you say Roberta) and me – the youngest. And now it’s starting: the music… they always find the music… I think they must have had it specially made for us… and we dance. We all have a sort of turn at it… and it’s so much fun, it makes us so happy… and it’s always the same.

Now it’s time for us, the little ones, to sleep. And sometimes we really do, but sometimes we’re allowed to peek, and tonight I’m going to join in… Mum and Dad together, trying to find some space for themselves… Estrella, then Johnny, but then that last bit… the ho-down it’s called, and it’s here and we’re all dancing together and it’s wonderful and we all feel so happy and so safe.

It’s over… we line up, time to go out into the night… where?

But we’ll always come back…. Or usually… and now we can’t. I’m sitting and reading this and it brings it all back… the ritual, the joy, the wonderful protected feeling of that children’s time, long ago. And now, we can’t be together anymore… we can’t go back. With them both gone we’ll never be able to find that place again.

And that, perhaps, is what makes this even sadder.

In this piece of writing Meic, an experienced dance spectator and non-writer, elected to imaginative construct an inner world and background narrative for the characters in 'Hush'. Focusing on elements of the scenario sketched out by the costumes, music and set he constructs an image of itinerant fair ground people. Interestingly there is very little description of the movement, beyond the labelling at one point of a communal ho-down. Instead his writing focusing on communicates the moods and feelings of piece, the sense of family and the moments of both light and emotional darkness. It is the use of details - the names, the nicknames, the relationships - that are evocative for the reader and provoke investment with the emotions and final sense of loss.

Developed Writing

For the last third of the workshops the participants were asked to spend a longer period of time on a final exercise that would produce a more extensive, or more edited, piece of writing.

The instructions for this task varied slightly between the two groups, but fundamentally involved the following two suggestions.

First, to write from the perspective of an individual connected to the performance, writing in the first person as either a dancer in character; or a dancer as a dancer; or as a member of the audience.

Second, to write a narrative, in the third person past-tense inspired by the dance.

Interpretation of these was left open to the participants, as was the degree to which they wrote something literally connected to the dance, something more evocatively connected to the experience, or something departing from the performance but maintaining it as a central inspiration. Across the group each of these possibilities was demonstrated, with some pieces of writing clearly emerging from the exercises that had gone before while others started from entirely different places.

The next few posts reproduced, and briefly comment upon, some of these pieces of writing.

Memory Exercise

The next exercise that both the groups participated in was a paper memory exercise designed to deepen recall of the experience. Dividing a paper into three participants were asked to jot down memories under the following headings: The performance; My thoughts; Distractions.

Primarily intended as material for further writing this exercise doesn't need reflecting on or illustrating here in detail except to note the inevitable difficulty of seperating out these three elements. Where does a description of the performance end and a spectator's commentary on their thoughts begin? What is a distraction to one person is a central element of their performance related thoughts for somebody else.

In other words our sense of what a spectator's experience of a performance is needs to go beyond conceiving it as simply what happens on the stage.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Free Verse Poems

The next exercise that the participants did involved them using their 10 words as a basis for a free verse poem. For this exercise they were allowed to add words and could also either stay close to the dance performances or begin to move away to a different but connected experience. Some of the poems written by the participants are presented here (it is worth noting that these are unedited and unrevised).

Pre-planned symmetry
Couples move in synchronicity
Performing in their disparate parts
Love as a performing art
A strange crash of themes
Alienated all of what we dreamed
And brought us back into the physical
And my own inner spaciousness alone

When representing 'family'
There will always be room for comedy
An un-matched move may lead to frustration,
Soothed by the satisfaction, the repetition,
Of the mechanical; once, twice, again.

To show melancholy, you need not be
Alone; misery loves company.

Which catches the eye, and keeps it?
Something jagged and confrontational?
Or something hypnotically slooooow....

Loneliness needn't mean stillness, just as
Rivalry needn't mean hate.
Poetry is emotion in motion, a dance,
Always keep moving,
Even when you're lost.

Matrimony equals control
has it forgotten what originally led its participants to attract?
does it speak of itself as utterly cliched?

First eye contact
it was like we were .... reflections
and when we talked we had so much in common!
We made opportunities to become intimate
We made opportunities to get to know each other
We forgave and forgot
Those things that repelled

We scoured each other with touches
and looks
and words
pinpointing with ever-increasing certainty
the future co-ordinates of our relationship

We got engaged because there seemed
to be enough evidence to support the grid references in our heads
Is matrimony subject to inflation?
Can it manage the space between income and
interest repayment?

Knife-edge tension
ticking, tocking
minaturised movement
encapsulated in the fixation on
obsessively compulsive

Building slowly towards release
The embodiment of action and reaction
And when it comes the sheer joy of
Unfettered fluidity

In the raw, feral state,

Lowry people alone
Inhabit a stark landscape
Bewildered, strange country
Agonising, painful sadness
bleak desolation
Lowry people together.

Motherless and muted,
automata floating in space,
the imbeciles of a dying order.
Tired children,
mortherless and muted.

We were always machines
but we played at being real
so convincingly and for so long
we began to believe it ourselves.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Awakenings Unmasked

A unique look at the creative process behind Rambert Dance Company's Awakenings, as captured by FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology).

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

First Writing Exercises

Between watching the performance and the workshop on the Saturday we asked each of the participants to complete a short writing exercise. For this we asked them to find somewhere peaceful to sit down for a moment and think about the performance, then write ‘free flow’ in response to the following prompts:

On the evening after the performance:
Write for two minutes about things you saw in the performance
Write for two minutes about things you thought in response to the performance
Write for two minutes about how you felt while you were watching the performance

On the following day:
Do these exercises again without looking at your writing from the previous occasion.

By ‘free flow’ writing we meant that participants should aim to keep their pen
moving for the whole time, try not to analyse what they were writing as they
were doing it, not worrying about punctuation or spelling, not correct mistake
and so forth.

In the workshops Sherry then asked participants to each select from their free flow writing the ten words that had the most resonance or significance to them. These were then read out, going round the circle of seven people out, one word at a time. This was entirely intended as a warm up exercise but became something interesting, a kind of collaborative 70 word poem (with resemblances perhaps to Tristan Tzara's Dada poems). As each word has its roots, its motivation and stimulaton from the evening of dance performances it somehow speaks of that performance. I've reproduced the two 70 texts, one from each workshop, here and it is noticable the similarities in word choices both within each text and across the two texts. Each contains a fair spread of descriptive, thematic and evaluative words:

Flow family symmetry charged control clocks pierrot
Posture comedy synchronicity movement spaces convulsions discordant
Gestures frustration disparate dispatching gridlines control frozen
Relationships mechanical crash spirals inflatables imitation blossoms
Interpretation melancholy alienated intentionality reflections machines relationships
Gasps hypnotic physical opposed attracts animals nostalgia
Space confrontational fluid form repel shadows station
Reason loneliness creative flowing clichéd clowns frenzy
Variable rivalry spaciousness naturalness engaged nightmare narrative
Preparedness loss narrative express between elastic physicality

Childlike stark repetitive tension children fluid alien Pierrot
Play lowry frozen release automata relationships twee music
Virtuosity desolation pain joyful muted reflection movement stars
Fluid agonising frustration exultation dying childlike disconnected gymnastics
Individuals sadness cyclical primal aching inclusive moonlit tinfoil
Repetition painful trapped feral tired rhythms hostile reflections
Timeless bleakness sadness fluidity floating lightness frustrated awakenings
Obsessive jerky restrictions fixation imbeciles airy distracting changes
Poignant bewildered anger embodiment order siblings history movements
Innocence strange helplessness raw motherless contrasts distorted control

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Most Sublime Noise

Sherry recalled the chapter in Forster's Howards End featuring a concert of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the Queen's Hall and read the opening passage to both groups - its description of how everybody brings themselves, and their own particular way of listening/watching/responding, to performances of whatever kind is very apposite.

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come--of course, not so as to disturb the others--; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music's flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fräulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is "echt Deutsch"; or like Fräulein Mosebach's young man, who can remember nothing but Fräulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen's Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap.

Post-Workshop Thank You

Well, we all saw the performance by Rambert on Wednesday last week and then held the two writing workshops yesterday. They went very well, very interesting, still digesting things and over the next few weeks I will post details about what we did along with some of the writing that was produced and my own reflections on the process.

Very initial thoughts include some elements that are obvious: such as the writers group being much more familiar and comfortable with the task of writing in response to exercises design to produce writing; while the dance goers were much more fluent (and opinionated!) when it came to talking about the dances.

For now, however, thank you to all the participants for taking part and also to Sherry for running the day, and remember if you want to post anything by way of reflections or feedback or further writing on this blog you are very welcome.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Welcome to Participants

As the performance on the 22nd Sept and the workshops on the 25th Sept come closer I will be inviting the people who will be taking part in this research project to read and possibly contribute to this blog.

So if you are one of the participants, then Welcome!

Whether you are an experienced dance spectator who is new to creative writing, or an experienced writer new to dance, the workshops are intended to be a fun, rewarding and revealling experience. This blog runs alongside the workshops and we'd like you to contribute to the extent you feel comfortable, including posting comments, thoughts and initial responses, material that you develop during the workshops and also any writing that you subsequently develop or polish after they are over.

The blog will allow you to see material written by participants from the other workshop running alongside the one you are participating it.

The blog will follow the normal rules of politeness and respectfulness and any inappropriate material or comments will be removed (although of course we are not expecting that there will be any).

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

First Steps!

Matthew and I met yesterday to discuss the creative writing workshops and the theory behind them. I was fascinated. My background is as a writer and teacher of creative writing, and I've never thought about the theory of audience, except insofar as I hope my readers like my writing!
Writing is one thing - performance is another. Writing fiction is a 1 to 1 communication. Performance involves a great number of people. And dance is wordless. How, then, do we understand what is meant by dance? Can we experience dance in a 'pure' way, or do we get sidetracked by human emotions such as envy of the dancers' agility or our own feelings of inadequacy in not knowing how we are supposed to respond? Can dance convey an experience which can be transmuted into another art form?
All these are fascinating questions and I'm hoping the project will suggest some answers. I'll come clean and say it's many, many years since I've seen a dance performance. I hardly know how I'm going to respond, let alone the workshop participants. For that reason I'm holding off constructing the workshops until I've seen the performance. The way I develop workshops is by thinking, what would I like to do, what would I like to write? I know a workshop won't be successful unless I wish I was doing it too.
Which makes me reflect ... I think of dance as a communal activity - something we do together at celebrations, parties, on the dance floor. Dance as a performance seems alien - what is the audience supposed to be doing? Admiring? Thinking? Not thinking?
We shall see!!

Sherry Ashworth

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Poetry as Method

Sandra Faulkner's book Poetry as Method explores a range of issues relating to the use of poetry within social research, although her emphasis is on the potential for 'reporting' social research through verse. Her reasons for this include the ability of poetry to evoked emobided experiences and to manifest the complexity of the social world.

A sizable element of the book is concern with poetic craft and the study as poetry as a form, which Faulkner argues is essential for an researcher wanting to use poetry as a methodology. In one interesting passage she writes:

My interest in poetic craft was born out of frustration with some poetry published as academic research that seemed sloppy, ill-conceived, and unconsidered. Just because research poetry is published in academic journals, read at academic conferences, or merely labeled academic, does this mean there should not be a concomitant interest in poetic craft? (2009: 19)

If considering the reporting of research through poetry this is perhaps fair enough: poetric research needs to be good research and good poetry. However, when considering participant written poems this is potentially problematic, as it appear to devalue responses on literary grounds that are nothing to do with the integraty of the individuals response.

However, thinking about this project there is an element of this suggestion that participants' ekphrastic or literary responses to dance should be as 'good' - as crafted - as possible that I think is worth holding in mind. And that is that if we believe in the ability of poetry, or any form of creative writing, to communicate and embody thoughts, feels and ideas in a powerful and meaningful way then this ability is (obviously) enhanced when the writing is as good as it can be.

This is why the workshops and process that we are engaging in here is more than simply another form of focus group where the motivation is to gather responses that can then be analysed or sifted through for meaning. It is also why the often held methodological imperative not to influence or interfer with the way participants respond is being discarded. Instead the objective is to work with the participants and with their writing to craft and hone their responses and enable their deeper or more refined sensibilities to emerge.


Ekphrasis is the literary description or recounting of an event, thing or experience in the world. More commonly, as in ekphrastic poetry, it relates to the description of a work of art. "The goal of this literary form", writes Marjorie Munsterberg, "is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were actually present."

As an intial point, writing about an art work experienced, this could be seen as what we are engaged with in this project. Particularly we are interested in what happens if we pay particular attention to this act of writing and work on this writing being the 'best' or most 'crafted' that it can be. Crucially with ekphrastic poetry the interest is not on the impossible, the poem cannot make present again the art work that is not there, but on the act of translation that allows the reader to imaginatively see something new which is informed by not just the original art work but also the sensativity of the poet.

As a research methodology it is this last point that is crucial.

At the same time it is worth thinking about in what ways could the writing about dance that this project is engaging in not be considered ekphrasis? What is the relation, for example, between descriptive evocation and other modes of written resposnes - such as a critical, reflective, personal and evaluative?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Pragmatics

Moving on from the successful experience of the visual arts workshops, and with an interest in how spectators' abilities to talk about their dance watching experiences might be enhanced, the idea of using creative writing based research workshops developed.

All research with people is determined as much by pragmatics - what can be done and how - as by more conceptual methodological questions. In this instance the pragmatic proposal is to do the following:

Conduct two creative writing based workshops, one with participants who are experienced in or students of creative writing; the other with participants who are experienced dance spectators.

Each workshop would be half a day long and co-facilitated by Sherry Ashworth, a lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. The workshops would take place soon after the participant attended a dance performance, which was to be Rambert Dance Company at the Lowry Theatre, Manchester in September 2010.

Writing exercises might begin before the workshop and continue afterwards and the writing would be both a window into the participants' experiences in their own right and a focus for conversation about the performance. Beyond that however, the exact nature, feel and content of the workshops is still to be developed.

Drawing and Dance

In previously projects I have used visual arts based research methodologies. For these I would take a group of participants to a dance performance and then as them to draw or paint in response to their exprience in visual arts based research workshops.

The workshop were run by myself alongside
Brian Hartley, a Glasgow based artist and teacher with whom I have worked in the past on similar projects. In designing the sessions we decided to structure the workshops to move from more directed exercises at the beginning before moving on to freer responses. We were also conscious that for some of the participants there might be a hesitancy over drawing and a need to “loosen-up” or overcome inhibitions about making marks on paper. The initial exercises, therefore, were designed to gather responses to the performance in a manner that disrupted perception of drawing as a skill-based activity. So the participants were asked to draw something they remembered from the performance using a pen taped to the end of a long bamboo cane; to make a drawing with their eyes closed; and to draw with their “wrong” hand.

The objective with such exercises was to allow the participants to forget about their own particular artistic abilities and simply start making marks on paper. The externally imposed limitations provided a focus separate from the overall “quality” of the art works and separate also from the content. Additionally the limitation often results in pictures that are less inhibited by a desire to “get it right” and allows for more expressive and communicative drawing and engagement.
These directed tasks were followed by a period of “free drawing”, where participants were asked to draw anything they remembered from the performance. There was no instruction here as to whether the drawings should be figurative, expressive or conceptual. As they drew, Brian and I went round the room talking to the participants about their drawings and their memories of the performance. These conversations were recorded and transcribed. The subsequent analysis made use of both the transcribed conversations and the documented art works, reading from one to the other and back again in a manner that allowed the words to affirm an interpretation of the art works but still allowed readings to be made of the materiality and visual qualities of the drawings.

Creative Research

Over recent years there has been increasing interest in the use of creative and arts-based research methodologies that mediate or focus participants' responses through a particular medium or activity - most prominently drawing and painting but also things such as creative writing, model making, collage and video diaries.

These approaches draw on traditions of art therapy and the use of 'projective techniques' within market research. A good example of their employment with audiences is the work of David Gauntlett and his Art Lab website. Here Gauntlett writes:

The ArtLab studies represent a new type of research in which media consumers' own creativity, reflexivity and knowingness is harnessed, rather than ignored. In these studies, individuals are asked to produce media or visual material themselves, as a way of exploring their relationship with particular issues or dimensions of media.

The use of creative writing within this project is within this tradition and also continues my own work using drawing as a creative and reflective research methodology.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Watching Dance Project

This blog, and the research it records, is produced as part of the 'Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy' project, which uses a mixed-ecology of research methodologies, including audience research and neuroscience, to explore how spectators respond to, and empathise with, dance.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Introduction: Audiences and Writing Research Experiment

After watching a dance performance with friends we often leave the theatre and find ourselves asking each other, 'What did you think?' Or perhaps, alternatively, 'Did you enjoy it?'

That we often willingly and eagerly engage in such conversations, however, does not necessarily make them satisfactory. There is a particular difficulty in talking about non-linguistic experiences such as of dance or music through the medium of language. As Maxine Sheet-Johnstone declares, it is possible to argue that the experience of dance is 'ineffable.'

The ineffable refers to things we might know (perhaps sensually, kinaesthetically, somatically, experientially) but are unable to put into words. This presents a challenge for a research looking to find out how audiences experience, remember and make sense of their dance watching experiences. In the past I have sourght to address aspects of this difficult through using visual arts workshops with audience members, asking them to draw what they saw or felt as a way of mediating and communicating their experience - which I'll say more about in another post.

For this project the objective is to explore the use of creative writing workshops with audience members as a way of enhancing, supporting and transforming the kinds of languages that audience members use to describe their experiences of watching dance.

This blog will chart the course of this research experiment, including describing the pragmatical and methodological preperations for the workshops, later present some of the writings that participants produce and allow researchers and participants to comments on both the processes and the results.