Dance, Multi-media & Improvisation Research Week (16, 17, 19 Nov 2015)

by Joanna Lee

Research Week took place from 16 to 21 November, 2015, during which there were three days of studio practice. Participants included Alexandra BATTAGLIA, Ellen GERDES, Christine HE, Victor MA, Edmund LEUNG, Mimi LO, Daniel Navarro LORENZO, Gilles POLET, Joana Silva, Wilfred WONG, Paul YIP, Yuenjie Maru and Mandy YIM.

Session 1 of Day 1: led by Victor MA (Hong Kong)
Victor’s session started with the reflection on the different interpretation of “space,” such as architectural space, inner space, the space in between objects, the space within our body. How does the body perceive the space, which can be positive or negative? The layout of space and its utilization reflect the identity of its user. Some space welcomes users, some users are rejected from using a space.

The inside and outside of space is connected via inlets and outlets. Architectural space is connected by windows, doors, or bridges. Eyes, noses, mouths, ears, vagina, anuses connect the inside of our bodies with the outside. How these connecting points feel changes our perception of our surroundings. The change of our internal space, for example pregnancy, enacts the agent for maintaining continuous relationship between the body and the world.

Victor asked the participants to scan their bodies to feel the inner space, to identify the stream of energy that travelled within the body. Follow that stream of energy and let it lead the body to move, externalize that stream of energy, from the invisible to the visible, from the inner to outer space, as if there was a ball travelling in the veins. Then the ball duplicated into two, four, or more. How could one identify and follow the simultaneously flowing streams of energy and let the body be moved by the energy streams?

While invisible to the eyes, the space is forever packed with particles. Every movement of ours cuts through the particles like a blade, leaving a mark. It is like cutting a piece of bean curd. The blade moves through the bean curd, the surface of which remains somewhat intact but its inside has been separated. The body as moving space, the architectural space, and the moving others together leave mark in the space. While Victor encouraged the participants to observe these particles with their minds’ eyes, it seemed to me that the sensitivity was limited. For example, there was the sound of somebody answering the phone and striking on the keyboard. Was that not part of the space also? All participants diligently remained inside the area with plastic flooring. Why were they shutting out the extended part of the studio which is obviously part of the space? Can one not agree with the space?

The world is getting more and more urbanized. People prefer to live in cities. They are confined by limited physical distance while trying their best to maintain a large mental distance. The relation between the body and the space creates in us a perpetual internal conflict.

A couple further reflections I would like to suggest:

Gravity holds us down to the floor. How does it impact our reading of verticality and horizontality?

How can one simultaneously be conscious of the inner space and the placement of the body as an objectified entity in the architectural space?

Also worth considering is the employment of verbal instructions in exercises as such. The instruction terminology (scan, copy etc) can be superfluous and means differently to different people, coupled with the complexity of having both native and non-native English speakers in the group. In an exercise as such, do these instructions place the participants on the same platform, or do they come in their ways?


Session 2 of Day 1: led by Daniel Navarro LORENZO (Barcelona)
LORENZO draws energy from cities and from the people quickly moving them. To him, everything in the city is natural because they have been built by human beings.

The session started with all participants lying flat on the floor, eyes closed. Then came small movements of their heads, followed by their necks, their fingers, their hands, as if drawing in the space. They drew with the heads and the arms while the remainder of their bodies stayed relaxed. They gradually pulled themselves off the ground, against gravity. From here on movements became expansive. Participants moved between lying and standing positions, then from one end of the studio to the other, pelvis remaining on respectively low, middle and high horizontal levels. Next, as pairs, one participants moved with his/her eyes closed, following the instructions felt through the touch of the partner’s palm on his/her body. At this point, the pelvis’ sense of direction has waked up. The pelvis is the source of life and of primitive energy. It orients and stabilizes the moving body.

LORENZO’s admiration for the city seems to have shaped the pace of the exercise. I propose that research exercises as such are better conducted slowly than fast, because we need time to feel and understand a partner who is a stranger to us. Only by slowing down from the pace of the city can we do that. As POLET remarked, “You don’t always have to propose materials and take the space. You can give the space to others, sit back and let things happen.”

The theme of Day 1’s showing is “drawing in the space with the pelvis.” Participants took good care of the high and low levels but they did not well complement each other to fill out the middle level. Yuenjie Maru made tennis balls roll across the studio floor but few people noticed how they changed the space or their relation with the moving bodies.


Session 1 of Day 2, led by Gilles POLET (Brussels)
The research started with an observation exercise: As pairs, one of the partners has his/her eyes closed and provided movement materials for the duration of two minutes. The other person observed. Close attention to each body part was required. After observation, the partner should playback the materials with as much precision as possible. The partner should copy rather than interpret. The same exercise was repeated but expanded to groups of four: four people provided materials along one end of the studio, the other four observed. Then the observers chose to copy from one of the “performers” and repeated the materials, without verbalizing their choices before they repeated.

The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate the importance of intention. Materials that are readable, clear, and functional attract attention. To POLET, improvisation is not only for the one doing but for the ones watching. The performer should respect the audiences’ reading process.

POLET also introduced the “Spatial Game” which was devised from the improvisation score Passing Through by David ZAMBRANO. Participants will be moving around the studios while observing the following rules:

  1. Always follow paths in curves, never take sharp corners.
  2. Choose between walking, running and standing.
  3. Either lead or follow. If one is not following then one must be leading. The distance for following is flexible. You can be following another person at the other corner of the studio.
  4. Always take in the whole space, never look down.
  5. One can go forward or backward but always look before moving.
  6. The body should follow a spiral path. Use the hands to take in both front and back space.
  7. Be generous; consider how to include the whole space and others even if the movement is very personal.
  8. Use spiral movements to enter or leave the pathway, to invite or to reject invitations.

The most frequently-remarked rule during the exercise was “never look down.” As POLET himself pointed out, contemporary dancers tend to have the tendency of closing off the surroundings and focus only on the inner self. This works in contrary to engaging co-performers, audience, and the space. I also noticed that it is not that easy to always follow, especially from a distance. Skillful bodies and the urge to move soon take one’s attention from the others back to how the self should/ could move. The implication from “copying” to “following” on the awareness of the surroundings is something worth further exploring.


Session 2 of Day 2, led by Yuenjie Maru and Mimi LO
This session is based on an abstract of Nancy Stark SMITH’s Underscore.

The sequence to developing an improvisation score:

  1. Arriving physically and energetically. The notion of continuity, in-the-making, as in “arriving” instead of “arrive”, is the key.
  2. From “Skinesphere” to “Kinesphere”: “Skinesphere” is to explore the space under our skin and between our breathing. It emphasizes the connection with the earth and the mobilization of the mass. “Kinesphere” is about expanding/ travelling/ overlapping of the space one touches during the improvisation.
  3. Types of connection include: grazing, engagement, development, resolution, end, disengagement, recirculation
  4. There should be disengagement, reflection and sharing when the final resolution of the score has been achieved.

Non-sequential aspects of Underscore include streaming/ gap/ observing/ listening/ noticing composition/ and “idiot button” which serves as a reboot mechanism.

Some participants found the value, or the specific procedure, of Underscore hard to take in. Unarguably Underscore may look straight forward. Its methodology is not exactly unique either. So the question is why would one find it hard to take in if it is not vastly different from one’s usual habit? I would suggest that Underscore describes a self-reflection framework that has been frequently overlooked by dancers, dancers who spent all the time in the studio moving, designing movements without looking deep enough into the motifs. The value of Underscore lays exactly in its stipulation of a process comprising of observation, hiatus, engagement, and the space for idiots to “reboot” when a movement motif is nowhere to be found.


Session 1 of Day 3, led by Victor MA (Hong Kong)
This session was a continuation of the exploration of body-space relationship which took place on Day 1, with a new focus on the sensitivity to “pathway.” Imagine there was an elastic band that attached a body part to a spot in the studio. How could one move around without tangling up with the elastic band of another person? Can one attach one end of the band to a body part that is rarely noticed? On the clap of the hands by the leader, participants would find another body part to which the imaginary band was “attached.” The intervals between the claps became shorter and shorter. Then, more bands were added: 2, 3, 4. Can one sees his awareness intensifying as the number of imaginary bands increase?

Watching the participants make use of as many body parts as possible clearly reminds me of the complex structure of the human body. There are so many muscles and joints that can move and twist and respond to the surroundings. Movement possibilities are almost infinite. Yet it can be tempting for dancers to submit to limitations: gravity, flexibility, forms or techniques. This exercise brings intense awareness to limitations which actually should serve as the reason for dancers to further expand their abilities.


Session 2 of Day 3, led by Alexandra BATTAGLIA (Portugal)
BATTAGLIA started the session by asking the participants, “What is creation? What is body? What is limitation?” For her, it is critical that dancers have a clear position of those concepts before jumping into movements. Technique is only the means. To her, how technique is taught is critical because technique not only minimizes our physical limitation but also inspires.

There are two keywords to describe BATTAGLIA’s exercises: “body” and “awareness.” To start, she asked all participants to walk around the studio, paying special attention to how the feet felt on the floor. Then, whoever raised his/her hand received touch from the rest. Both the givers and the receiver of the touch were encouraged to carefully taste the touches and the impressions they made. Moving on, whoever raised his/her hand did a free fall while others made their best effort to catch the falling body. Then lift this flat-lying body from the ground with the help of the arm. As the exercise proceeded, more than one person maybe raising their arms concurrently and participants were required to open up their ability to peripheral awareness.

Next on the training of awareness, participants were asked to move very close to one another, keep moving while not touching another person. BATTAGLIA described this as “dancing inside and outside of the self.” One dances, one also senses and respects the next dancing body and creates space for that body to move in a way it wants to.

The training then moved on to building the awareness to the different levels of the space. Participants were required to move from the highest level of the body (standing) to the lowest level (lying flat on the floor) on counts of 8, 4, 2 and 1. As two groups, they moved from one end of the studio to the other, one group rolling on the floor, the other group walking with their eyes looking forward. Those walking could only “see” the rollers coming with their senses while they had to make sure they did not step on their bodies. When the participants beautifully fulfilled the requirements, BATTAGLIA remarked, “People all move differently but somehow there are something which connects them all. Is it levels? Spirals? Contacts? Or it is intention? Breathing? A sense of direction?”


Session 3 of Day 3, led by Christine HE (Germany/ HK)
Christine brought some bean bags as props. Participants were asked to move the bean bags with a body part, or transferred the bag placed at a spot on another person’s body to his/hers, without using the hands. This exercise brings back memories of the freedom of a child’s movements, which is easily forgotten by adults but extremely important for us to stay connected with our minds and the surroundings. The final session was a time of relaxation led by Paul YIP (HK), who played music to accompany the group’s rest while finally woke the participants up one by one with the sound of the Himalayan singing bowl. This was a much-needed rest after strenuous exercises. This was also the respect to the physicality of the human body. We move, we rest. We strive for a balance, we strive for freedom.

*Continue Reading notes on the programme by Ellen Gerdes, Ph.D. of UCLA in Worlds Arts Culture/Dance:*