iLand: First Dialogue

iLAB Collaborative Residency 
Q1: What is your starting point?
Michelle: Hope emailed me. The series of questions Hope sent me was a starting point. There are ideas in this that I have been thinking about for some time, but H’s list of questions focused my thinking, specifically about movement and the impact of sound on movement. 
Hope: I don’t remember what the questions were. 
Michelle: I have them: PRELIMINARY QUESTION SET The Listening Body How does your body respond to noise? Do certain parts of the body register sound differently? How do different sounds produce different tones or qualities in the body? How can you express these tones and qualities through movement? Can you choose a body part to receive sound? Can you choose a body part to respond to sound? How might you express the experience of listening through movement? How does your movement language, and your experience of it, change according to what you hear? How can/does your movement influence the way you listen to the city? How can/does your listening influence your movement? Filtering and Numbing Behaviors What kinds of filtering behaviors do we have in response to sound? How do we experience filtering noise in different situations? Explore filtering behaviors while doing movement language. How do we become numb to noise? Explore numbness while doing movement language. Re-Sensitizing: Choosing Modes of Listening How can we be more conscious of how we hear? What does it feel like to un-numb or re-sensitize to sound? Steve Paxton has written that improvisation is “a question of choosing a sense to focus through.” What if, within listening, the stimulus for improvisation is a matter of choosing a mode of listening? Explore the application of Barbara Dilley’s “5 eye practices” to listening: Explore movement language in different modes of listening. How do different modes of listening influence your movement vocabulary? Your pathway through space? Your breathing? Experience of Time and Space in Different Modes of Listening How does heightened listening affect your sense of the passage of time? How does heightened listening affect your sense of space and spatial relationships? Explore modes of listening while moving/dancing with others. Explore modes of listening in announced periods of time. How does our sense of self change in different soundscapes and in different modes of listening? (i.e., small and fragile when an ambulance wails by in direct listening; expansive and grounded in a noisy crowd in soft focus listening) Silence, Self, Presence How does listening force us to confront the mind? How does our sense of self respond to silence? How does your body respond to silence? How does a group traveling in silence interact with each other and the environment? Different kinds of silence and sanctuary. ....... 
Michelle: I distilled these questions: What role does the physical body serve in listening? Where is the place of the sensing self in auditory experience and meaning making? How do we express our experience of listening through movement? How can movement influence the way we listen? In what ways do moving and listening transform one another? Hope: Do you want to talk about your starting point for this project personally? 
Michelle: My performance work is so much about listening in the moment. Being in a space and creating something just based on being in that space in the moment, and physically responding to the sensory input I am collecting. I do these pieces where I sit with someone in a room. We don’t do anything, we just sit and observe and listen. There’s not much movement there, but there’s tiny movement. There’s a physical relationship between two people in the space. That’s something I’ve been exploring recently. Hope: My starting point for the residency was when I heard Jennifer announce a call for proposals at the MR Festival. I had just left Trisha Brown. I was in transition and re-thinking my relationship to dance. When I heard Jennifer announce the iLAND residency, my ears perked up. For a long time I have had a double life as an environmental lawyer, a life that has been on the shelf for many years. The residency seemed like a way to bridge my interest in environmental action and dancing. I didn’t really know how, but I intuitively felt like the residency could connect the two. I’ve done the “dancing for a choreographer” thing. I’m looking for terrain where I can find my own voice as a moving body, a voice that encompasses more than just learning and performing phrases. I want to bring my whole self into the process, a self that includes interests beyond the studio/stage. I spent awhile thinking about what issue or concept could possibly be the basis of research. I thought a lot about global warming, about dancing in heated rooms. But I questioned how interesting the somatic experience of heat would be. So then I began thinking about other urban environmental issues—I’ve done a lot of work on them through NRDC and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. I thought about sewage treatment plants, recycling, power plants…and noise. Noise had the most obvious links to somatics and sensory awareness. I have a history of Buddhist practice; I used to live in a zen center. So I already had an interest in awareness practice. I’d also studied a little with Barbara Dilley, whose 5 Eye Practices really resonated with me. I wondered about applying her eye practices to listening. I asked Jennifer for a referral to someone who worked with sound, and Jennifer gave me Michelle’s name. I like to write as a way of thinking, so I immediately began to write about ideas relating listening and moving. I sent that first document to Michelle and our dialogue started from there. Michelle: We also have a series of back and forth emails where we discuss and work out these questions and our ideas. There were some ideas that got left behind and some new things that emerged. Hope: I think we should mention that we didn’t meet in person. Our dialogue began over the phone and email. We knew nothing of each other’s work (and we still don’t to some extent). It’s not like we knew of each other professionally. Michelle: For me, that’s often the way I have been working with people. I’m often in situations where I don’t know much about the person I’m collaborating with and it’s really interesting but challenging to find where the collaboration meets and to learn how to communicate. Hope: I think collaboration, especially with someone you don’t know, forces you to say “ok, these are the things I need to assert as core to my interests, and these are the areas I’m willing to let go.” Michelle: Because you approached me with some ideas, I felt like I had a lot of space to just pick and choose and be genuinely interested in something rather than feeling pressure to come up with an idea myself that I would have to be attached to. It felt like a ready opening to explore something in a way I wouldn’t by myself. Hope: And I felt I could explore something beyond my expertise—sound—because you brought that to the table. Q2: What are your goals for the residency? Michelle: One is personal—to get better at facilitating group process, strengthen my ability to convey concepts. To be more confident that what I am talking about, and what I’m thinking about, is of interest to someone other than myself and that it’s worth sharing. Also, I really want to have a sense of understanding the sound-movement relationship. I’ve had moments of understanding the relationship, and they have been thrilling and enlightening, but always very personal and intimate. I want to be able to get at the essence of that relationship (sound and movement) and to have other people experience it, and to see it in other people’s bodies. And I want to develop some kind of language to be able to talk about this experience. Hope: In terms of our collaboration, I’d like to feel at the end of it that we were both able to bring our interests and passions to the experience and that we were both able to have a fulfilling creative process. Another goal of mine for the collaboration is that we are both able to feed each other, to cross-pollinate creatively. I’d like for us to be able to not only invest in the process, but also receive—new source material and skills.. There’s that quote from Pauline Oliveros that I really like: “Collaboration is understanding, accepting and resonating with another's process. Each person should be able to walk his or her own path independently, either parallel, across, circling or encircling or whatever appropriate combinations need occur. In such independence each person can be him or herself and perceive the other.” –Pauline Oliveros My goal in terms of the dancers we’ll be working with…I’d like to create an environment where people can have an authentic experience of a physical moment (I’m lifting that phrase from Randy Warshaw). I want to sink into movement as experiential or awareness-based, less based on “moves”. My creative goals for the residency….I want to explore a movement language based in listening practices, so that the form is coming from awareness, not coming from a set of aesthetics or visual preferences. But at the same time I want the movement to be connected to the outside world, not just a solipsistic, navel-gazing, sensual thing. One of my teachers talks about “studying the self to go beyond the self.” I really want to practice that through movement, to get good at holding internal awareness as I go out into movement, or into the world. Michelle: When you go beyond the self, where is that? Hope: Study the self to go beyond the self…It’s like saying, practice awareness so that you can go out into the world rooted in awareness. Beyond the self can mean dancing, going out into movement, or it can mean going out into the world, into the street, into a conversation. I think my teacher was ultimately talking about going beyond the self to help other people. You can dance from a place of awareness until you do it without thinking. For me that requires practice. I guess in any situation you can go beyond the self. Michelle: I ask because it makes me think, in this context, about the physical self and the physical space beyond the self as literal spaces, places you could actually go… Hope: Yes…I have a judgment that environmental art lacks rigor, that it’s a bunch of people running around naked, hugging trees. I want to explore a creative process related to the environment that is rigorous, rooted in disciplined exploration. Michelle: Me too. And, sometimes I experience artwork that’s inspired by nature as falling short of the actual experience of being out in the nature that inspired it. As if the work tries to bring the whole natural situation into the gallery or performance space, which I think is impossible. What I am interested in doing is finding the essence the experience (how it felt, emotionally, physically etc. to be there, out in nature) and having that translate into the creative work. Hope: Experiencing the environment is inherently non-presentational. Individual experience of the environment is so elusive, personal, intimate. That’s why it’s so important that one of our goals is to find a language, a way of sharing what we’re experiencing. Michelle: It’s a language in performance and also an intellectual language to discuss this. Hope: I think it’s great that there is no requirement of a performance or a product in this residency. Performance is a whole different set of expectations and requirements. It’s one thing to communicate the listening experience, it’s another to communicate it to an audience. Michelle: One of my interests is kind of transforming who an audience can be, so it may be that the participants in the soundwalk are an audience, and the people on the street are an audience, and the dancers are as well. I mean, I think when we walk down the street and we hear something, it’s kind of a performer-audience relationship that takes place, when you bring your attention to listening to it. There is something “special” about performance. I think if the same quality of specialness can be given to everyday listening experience then the potential arises to actually cause a shift, for the better, in how people experience the world. Frame your individual listening experience as something special. Hope: I’ve always liked performing because it is a transcendent experience, and the necessary chapter to close the creative process. But I’ve been thinking lately about all the time I spend when I’m not on stage (which is most the rest of my life!). How can I access that heightened sense of being alive in daily life? Q3: What is your relationship between your own kinetic and ecological perspective? Michelle: There was a time when I was recording a river in Minnesota. I had headphones on plugged into the microphone, so all the sounds were amplified in my ears. I was totally immersed in the sounds around me. I did feel like I was performing, doing a dance, even though no one was watching. I was being really careful, walking in the river, careful not to upset the river, and very much connected to the rhythms of the surrounding wilderness. One foot in front of the next, slow turns, bending down to the water, lifting the microphone up toward the sky, moving out of the wind, etc. It was a lovely experience, a lovely soundscape. Every motion was significant. But it was a very private kinetic experience. I often have a related sonic experience while lying in bed in the morning. I hear all of the routines of the day…the buses, the delivery trucks, the store downstairs opening for business, the traffic gradually starting up, the birds with their dawn calls, the baby’s cry...and I am listening as PART of this soundscape. I am within the action of it, as a being that not only listens but is capable of sounding as well. But again, it’s very particular to my experience. It’s a pretty cliché metaphor that the sounds of the natural world are like a symphony. When I say the natural world is symphonic, I mean it literally – it actually IS a musical composition in my experience of it. No one else is hearing it the way I am, in that moment, of course, but recognizing that I am not only a witness to it but also a participant in it means I am both performer and audience. In that realization, there is a certain kind of ecology - a balance that is required for systems to coexist and a move away from passive consumption and toward active participation in the creation of art and experience. Hope: You were moving carefully because you were aware of how you were affecting the sound… Michelle: I move more slowly when listening. I tune into the baseline, the foundational tone, the pedal tone. As I listen, things get layered on top of that. Hope: It makes sense to me that you would move slowly when tuning. You wouldn’t tune an instrument quickly. Michelle: There’s so much to hear. If you move quickly, you add to the commotion. Your footsteps, clothes rustling, your energy will add to the noise. On one soundwalk in Williamsburg, we got to this place by an electrical substation that was humming. It was really quiet except for this hum from the substation. Everyone got really slow. The energy of the group in that moment got really still. And so many sounds came into my ear. As we slowed down, I looked around and everyone had their mouth hanging open, having the same experience. Listening is partly about being receptive. If you have a lot of tension or energy focused on other things, you can’t be receptive to the listening experience. Hope: How does that relate to your ecological perspective? Michelle: I think most people don’t listen well. Part of the reason for that is how much noise there is—culturally, socially, and emotionally. It’s really important for people to find ways to feel safe enough, or interested enough (or whatever it takes) to actually open up and be receptive and listen. The impact of people not doing that is that we live in a world where it’s really easy to destroy things—each other, the environment and so on. It’s easy not to notice problems, and not to be aware of our destructive tendencies, because the lack of receptivity in physical listening carries over to a lack of listening as a social practice. Listening can be a barometer of tolerance. Listening has a larger impact, of course. Everybody needs to practice listening. Ultimately, I believe that a lack of awareness – a general state of not noticing, not looking, not listening - is at the root of so many of the problems we face ecologically and socially. Hope: I used to do a lot of activism, community organizing, work in non-profits. I got really burnt out. I got to a point where I felt that many activists I worked with, including myself, their activism wasn’t authentic. The activism wasn’t really about whatever issue they claimed it was about, it was about their parents, whatever. In contrast, dance for me has always been an authentic place, a refuge, a place where I felt I could be truthful. All those famous sayings by Martha and James Baldwin about how the body doesn’t lie I’ve taken a long break from activism because of the disconnect I experienced between my authentic self and the work I was doing in the world. I would like to be more engaged in the environment, but I want to come from a place of peaceful relationship. I would love to be able to bring the same kind of energy into environmental activism as I do when I come into the studio and warm up. If I’m going to be totally honest, I don’t always live my life according to the convictions I hold. I get lazy. I won’t recycle something. There are lots of disconnections between what I know intellectually and the way I actually live. On the other hand, I’m a very disciplined dancer. Most dancers are. It would be so great if I could bring that commitment into my relationship with the environment. So being an environmentalist isn’t an abstraction. It’s related to who we are, our physical, daily lives.
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Hope Mohr, iLAND, Michelle Nagai


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