Movement Research was founded on a tension. A tension that has remained embedded in this organization for most of its 25 year history. At times this tension has been incredibly productive; but it has also been frequently ignored, like an irksome old injury one hopes will go away on its own. Thinking about what I might contribute to this issue of the journal honoring Movement Research’s legacy, I decided to out the tension. Why not? Any reckoning of an arts organization’s contributions at the end of a quarter century of service to experimental dance and dancers should include airing a little dirty laundry, don’t you think?
Before I continue, however, allow me a moment of personal reflection. I moved to NYC in the fall of 1984 with a B.A. in philosophy and French literature and an M.F.A. in dance and choreography, and about $500 in cash. As I went looking for work and dance classes that first week, I happened upon an ad in the Village Voice for a workshop with Simone Forti, and one for an ongoing series of classes in Contact Improvisation. I glanced up to see what organization was hosting these classes, and there it was, at the top of the advertisement, “Movement Research, Inc.” Eureka! Suddenly, I felt like I was home! Because that’s exactly what I wanted to do at the ripe old age of 23, research movement – in all its manifestations. Research, the dictionary tells us, is the “investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of [in this case, dance].” For that inquiring mindset, for bringing to New York an incredible roster of teachers, and for its beloved focus on improvisation as a physical and performative practice, I will always be grateful to Movement Research, Inc. Twenty years later, I am still involved in researching movement in ways that were fundamentally informed by my time studying under the auspices of this organization.
Nonetheless, (note the rhetorical shift, here comes the tough love part) I feel that it is important for Movement Research, Inc. to come to terms with its internal contradictions, not in order to erase them, but rather as a point of departure for a dialogue about them. As a multi-faceted arts organization, MR sponsors workshops in experimental dance (including a wonderful focus on improvisation), presents the work of emerging artists, hosts Open Movement, and produces The Studies Project as well as the Movement Research Performance Journal. I was thinking about Movement Research while at a conference entitled “Perceiving Gender and Performance” at Denison University last month. Intriguingly enough, most of the performers who were a part of the conference were Movement Research alumni: dancers such as K.J. Holmes, Chris Aiken, David Beadle, Peter Bingham, and Angie Hauser. Even though they were performing under the auspices of this focused inquiry, most of the dancers weren’t really all that interested in thinking about gender in their performances. In fact, a few thought that their training in forms such as Contact Improvisation had neutralized any internalized gender training they may have grown up with. While the program order was consciously organized in terms of a range of gender dynamics – a male-male duet, a female-female duet, and a male-female duet – there was a significant refusal among the dancers to engage with gender as a conscious element within the improvisation. That’s when I realized how much the tension between movement exploration as a product of a natural body, and dance as a form of cultural representation (and therefore necessarily a discourse about social identity and political power) lay underneath the workings of Movement Research.
Tension is an interesting concept, especially in light of the emphasis in American contemporary dance on release techniques. In the midst of our efforts to yield (into the floor, into our partners), tension gets a bad rap – somehow it smacks of corporate ambition. And yet the word itself doesn’t just imply hardness, or blocked energy, it can also mean a stretch, or a state of balance, something along the lines of what it takes to engage a half-moon pose in yoga. In other words, it can connote a “productive tension.”
There have been moments in the history of Movement Research Inc. where experiences of the body’s physicality and how those experiences operate in representation – either visual, written, or performed – polarized the organization. One such moment was the December 1983 Studies Project with Bill T. Jones and Steve Paxton. Another was the brouhaha surrounding the 1991 Gender Performance issue of Movement Research Performance Journal. Instead of sweeping those uncomfortable moments under the proverbial carpet, I think there is something to be gained by considering those lines of tension more fully.
In both these situations, the issues at stake revolved around the tension between cultural meaning and personal experience, between politics and art. For instance, the Studies Project was designed as an opportunity to see artists’ work and hear them discuss their conceptual and physical processes. But when Steve Paxton and Bill T. Jones got together, the dialogue got a bit dicey as Bill T. started pressing Steve on the question of audience reception. Bill T. was asking Steve to shift perspectives from one of process and investigation into one of representation. At the time, Bill T. was highly focused on how his own body – black and gay – was read by an audience. (Remember all those early solos with texts that confronted the audience with their own racialized gaze?) Paxton, whose identity had never been at stake in his dancing (a result of both privilege and choice), resisted and things got a bit personal. A lot was learned during that afternoon, but it did heat up. In an editor’s note describing her experience that afternoon in Contact Quarterly (Fall 1984), Nancy Stark Smith wrote a telling comment: “What I saw light up in the heat of that friction was each man as an individual; his unique perspective came into focus as it was forced to narrow from a more general field of vision to a distinct point of view, teased and poked and pushed into the light. And though I squirmed in the heat of that confrontation, I was at the same time struck by the commitment behind the stand.”
Both Bill T. and Steve warm to resistance, they like a feisty interaction. But after their afternoon session, each went back to their own corners. This was unfortunate, because that afternoon held a challenge for Movement Research to understand its own point of view. Like whiteness, the primary focus on experimental dance within Movement Research has been unexamined ideologically. Being a liberal organization, MR supports the artistic focus of individual artists on their specific identity (i.e. if you are black or queer), but that kind of work is seen as separate from much of the physical investigations done in workshops and classes.
I think a lot about this dichotomy these days, because my artistic and critical work straddles both the realms of internal investigations of movement possibilities informed by Contact Improvisation, release work, Body-Mind Centering, Authentic Movement, as well as questions of identity and cultural representation fomented by studies in feminist and queer theory. Each area carries a certain truth for me, and I like the tension between them. Interestingly enough, my willingness to submit to that pull in both directions at once, comes directly from my improvisational training and practice which was formed and informed by MR. Yet, I believe the potency of improvisational practices today lies less in the opening up of more movement options, but rather in understanding how to encourage a willingness to cross over into uncomfortable territories, to move in the face of what is unknown. Improvisation can lead us out of our habitual responses by opening up alternative experiences, encouraging dancers to explore new possibilities and desires not only physically, but critically too. Why not let our improvisational practice, as well as the physicalities that experimental dance cultivates, lead us into an engagement with the world instead of away from it? On the eve of its silver anniversary, I challenge Movement Research, Inc. to start teaching attention to the political and the cultural, as well as the personal, meanings that bodies carry. Only then do I believe that Movement Research will really be able to realize their mission into the 21st century.
A performer, choreographer and feminist scholar, Ann Cooper Albright teaches in the dance and theater program at Oberlin College. Combining her interests in dancing and cultural theory, she is involved in teaching a variety of dance, performance studies and gender studies courses which seek to engage students in both practices and theories of the body. She is the author of Choreographing Difference: the Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance, and co-editor of Moving History/Dancing Cultures, and Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind (both by Wesleyan University Press). In addition to making dances these days, she is currently working on a new book entitled Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loie Fuller.