Saturday, 9 May 2015

Moving Without a Body - Digital Philosophy and Choreographic Thought

Stamatia Portanova, Moving Without a Body – Digital Philosophy and ChoreographicThoughts, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2013.

Odette from Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballet roles in dance history and is paramount of this art. The unusual port de bras, the pondered gestures, the finitude of pointwork. Dance is about moving bodies, but what if dance and movement could be re-thought in their absence? What if movement took a life of its own and stepped away from the muscles and bones that usually create it? Odette could be captured by a camera and her movement remastered through digital technology. What would the result be? Her body parts could be altered, the pace of her solo transformed and the spatio-temporal sequence of her phrase changed.  

Before the digital revolution, there have been attempts to conceive of movement in the absence of bodies. One fascinating example is the ballet Feu d’artfice (1917), set by Giacomo Balla, music by Igor Stravinsky, a ballet that consisted of geometric solids of different colours animated by forty-nine polychromous lights, which were being turned on and off as the music score proceeded. No dancers at all, the kinetic element being created by the interplay between lights and solids. As a Futurist artist, Balla was interested in exploring the relationship between artificial landscapes and speed, and this ballet was a particularly experimental example.

With the digital revolution, the idea of movement without a body has become a multifaceted and changing reality and Stamatia Portanova’s book is an example of how this question can be addressed from a philosophical point of view. It is a challenging and significant work at the same time. Challenging, because it destabilizes, at times even in the writing style, the reader accustomed to think of dance as an embodied art form, and significant, because sometimes we need to move and, in this case, re-move the given for granted aspects of dance to see what is there to be further discovered. Drawing from the theories of scholars like Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the choreographic work of William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham among others, Portanova asks its readers to think and envision movement according to different parameters such as numbers and the idea of the cut. In other words, “the aim is to give to conceptual reflection another capacity: not as an in-depth excavation of subjective, bodily, human experience, but as a superficial abstraction of concepts beyond subjects, humans, and even (human or technological) bodies”. 

According to Portanova, we have to “think choreography as a movement-thought” in order to focus on “how [movement] is thought”, thus recalling Rudolf Laban’s “movement-thinking”, a notion that he described as “a gathering of impressions of happenings in one’s own mind” and as a way to focus on thought in movement terms. In both cases, we have a momentous approach that attempts to go beyond the mind/body dual system to re-consider the way we think and act.

For example, numbers can be a viable method “to capture, store, and manipulate movement, abstracting it from the body”. They offer a new way to focus on movement because they represent “a data flow that can be used to activate further physical or mental, technical or creative processes”. In this sense, numbers, as well as technology, are not cold and sterile, but “can reveal a sign of aliveness and affective potential”. According to Deleuze and Felix Guattari, numbers can be considered “as a counting and measuring tool”, which they call “numbered numbers” and which connect movement with geometry and physics. This all becomes particularly interesting when thinking of Cunningham’s chance procedure in his choreographic creation. Taking inspiration from the I Ching, Cunningham based his compositional process on numbers and their combination, such as in Torse (1976), where he focused on the different movements of the torso. On the I Ching Cunnigham said ,“it’s the element of chance bringing up something my own experience might not produce. Even though I have made the movements that will be utilized in the dance, I use chance operations to devise the continuity so that what comes after what can be a new experience”. 

Linked with the resourceful importance of numbers, there is the idea of the cut. Gestures are “always an aggregate of microgestures” and, digitally, these microgestures can be rearranged in a creative way according to a cut and paste process. Montage rightly comes to mind; I would add collage and photomontage come to mind too, as they both imply the act (virtual or real) of cutting and rearranging an image. According to Marta Magaglini, photomontage has the ability to “activate the imagination”, in that its space is multiple and dynamic. Similarly, Portanova believes that the idea of the cut can contribute to the way we think movement in the digitalised era. She notes that this idea is well defined by Whitehead’s “nexus”, i.e. “a series of disconnected occasions held together by the uniqueness of an idea”. There are various kinds of nexuses, like the “presentational nexus” or the “digital nexus” where the idea of the cut can be exemplified in different ways. In the former, it “determines the disappearance of the sequential form”, while in the latter it “implies a cutting out and a magnification, in the image, of that quantum divisibility and extensive relationality”. An example of the idea of the cut and its “intuitive logic” is Antonin De Bemels’s Il s’agit (2003), a video where a man stands against a black background moving and mainly articulating his arms in a digitally reworked choreographic pattern. It is hypnotic in the way it perpetrates the “microscopic cutting of the digital and its endless repetition”. 

Numbers, cuts, and also objects and softwares are some of the thought-provoking concepts explored in the book, a prodigious achievement where movement, devoid of  the body presence, acquires an unconventionally abstract connotation in the light of a mathematical and philosophical approach. 

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