|Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds:|
Research with Communities of Creative Minds. By Shirley McKechnie.
This is an edited extract. The full text was published in Brolga, Issue No. 27, December 2007, edited by Robin Grove. (It is available from Ausdance National)
Background: The dynamic and spatial relationships that characterise a fine choreographic creation are evidence of complex thinking in four dimensions. In seminal investigations researchers from the Victorian College of the Arts and the Universities of Melbourne and Western Sydney collaborated with dance artists and scholars to explore the nature of thinking in the making of dance works. The project was funded by the Australian Research Council and included a study of fifty-five adolescent boys and girls who took part in an intensive dance enrichment program at the Australian Choreographic Centre in Canberra. The implications of the findings of our research will not be lost on educators.
The Quantum Leap Experience.
In 2004 and 2005 our attention was focused on the participation of over fifty young and inexperienced dancers in a longitudinal and intensive out- of- school ‘dance enrichment program'. This activity was one of several supported by the Australian Choreographic Centre (ACC) in Canberra. As part of this commitment young choreographers with established reputations are invited to work with the Quantum Leap Youth Choreographic Ensemble, a group that consists of talented young people with a potential for undertaking creative explorations in the medium of dance, and for developing or increasing dance and movement skills. The group studied was composed of equal numbers of boys and girls. Many of the participants came from a non-dance background, bringing talents for martial arts, gymnastics, ballroom dancing, circus, and other physical disciplines into a contemporary dance milieu.
Our study of these young people has been a rewarding and enlightening experience. It has led, we believe, to ever more fruitful insights into the role of embodied cognition and non-verbal communication in the growth of human consciousness. It has also refocused attention on earlier studies which connected a sense of personal identity to a growing understanding of meaning and purpose in the adolescent years.
Themes, processes, methods.
Although the structure of the Quantum Leap program follows the traditional dance practice of class, rehearsal and performance, the social interventions that inform and guide these activities extend well beyond this structure. All participants are valued for their uniqueness - their contributions to the building of a supportive community and risk taking in a safe environment. A significant element in these processes is the belief that young people can contribute to the choreographic enquiry or research in the same way as older, more experienced professionals. Skills, imagination and a willingness to consider the ideas of others are vital factors, as is the experience and quality of the leadership within democratic processes that value the contributions of all members of the group.
In 2004 the Quantum Leap ensemble focussed on the Eternity Exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The exhibition provided a basis for the themes that were to inspire the development of the year's work and a final performance in the Canberra Theatre Centre's Playhouse. Several visits to the museum led to ongoing studio discussions about the individual lives and experiences that were brought together under the overarching theme of ‘eternity'. Through improvisation and set tasks the young dancers explored with their mentors and each other the ten emotional states around which the eventual performance would be structured.
A Community of Creative Minds at Work
February 2004 sees the beginning of the working process. The girls and boys meet with the choreographers and begin in small groups. Under the experienced eye of Artistic Director, Ruth Osborne, a group of eleven boys and young men work with choreographer, Darren Green. Their theme is ‘fear'. They have wondered at the stories of fearful episodes told by the subjects of the Eternity exhibition.
They talk about it in the studio, tell their own stories, listen to the experiences of others in the group. They improvise to find movement ideas while the stories still grip the imagination. These are strategies used by actors too, but the dancers at this stage have only words and images in the mind: now their bodies must find images powerful enough to convey all this without words. The choreographer demonstrates a slow sustained crawl across the floor; he encourages Charlie to find a similar quality: ‘disembodied tortoise fluid' he says earnestly as he concentrates on the young dancer's effort. Nobody finds this funny. The absorption in the group is intense as Charlie, now the subject of their entire focus, melts his body into the floor, slows the pace of the backwards motion, mysteriously finds a quality of creepiness and fluidity. ‘That's great' says the choreographer. Everyone relaxes.
They have all learned something, just by observing the process. It is repeated many times. They build a pyramid of bodies: bigger stronger bodies supporting the younger, lighter ones. ‘Wider and longer' urges the choreographer as a group advances menacingly, ‘keep it muscular, keep it tense'. And then, when the boys are encouraged to recall what it is like to be truly intimidated, he asks them to find the postures of intimidation in their own bodies. ‘What does it look like? Show me.' Two fourteen-year-olds struggle to find it. We observe that this is difficult; shoulders lift and chins jut, small chests struggle to expand. No words can easily convey the endearing quality of the effort to find the threatening stance they have often observed in the schoolyard. Fortunately the filmmaker has recorded it all.
Comparisons and questions.
Was the creative process we observed in the youth ensemble in Canberra different to that practised by the professional dance artists we had studied over the previous five years? We think not. Emotional and intellectual engagement with an idea or image was central to the processes pursued by both groups. The key to this engagement was often provided by a choreographer who could find gestures or words that bridged the distance between the intellectually understood and the range of feelings elicited by this understanding. Sometimes this process worked in reverse: the choreographer recognising in a dancer the kinaesthetic subtlety and refinement that illuminated the idea.
Our research into ‘Choreographic Cognition' began in 1999. The dance work Red Rain was created for the Unspoken Knowledges research project over a period of nine months and won Melbourne's Green Room Award for original choreography in that year. The choreographer and the dancers were both researchers and the subjects of the research.
Like the young dancers in Eternity, these highly skilled and experienced dance artists found the movement material via an exploration of their own thoughts and feelings and their observations of all the movement material invented or discovered during the creative process. Discussions were lively, sometimes profound, the work continued to evolve as the choreographer made decisions about the design required for each section of the structure. She is the final arbiter of the work's overall form and shape, for the dance takes place in time; the rhythmic and dynamic complexities of music apply in the spatial realm and are amplified by dramatic time scales, breath rhythms, and natural physical time-scales enhanced by dancerly skills. These are basic understandings shared by all choreographers.
The complex of imagery oscillating in a fine choreographic or poetic mind can be likened to the harmonics that shimmer around a single note played on a violin. Musicians draw on acoustic knowledge and music theory to explain this phenomenon. We ask ‘what kind of theoretical framework will help us to elucidate the ‘shimmer' that surrounds the kinaesthetic image or idea?' The lived experience of each dancer contributes to the work. Dance in this context can be thought of as heightened movement, as poetry is heightened speech. The concept of embodied cognition or embodied thought now presents a challenge for cognitive scientists, psychologists and philosophers, as defined by Dr Catherine Stevens. one of the Chief Investigators in our research team.
During our research the inextricable connections between mind and body, thought and action were observed in the studio and the video camera captured and held the processes for our reflection. We continue to ponder the evidence provided by the group of inexperienced youngsters on the one hand and the professional dancers on the other. While forms of contemporary dance are conceived as works of art they may also be seen as examples of embodied cognition or ‘thought in action' - thought made visible. In the young ‘Quantum Leapers' and among the experienced dance artists of Red Rain we saw how quickly individual experience and perceptions were enlarged by the understandings and insights shared within the collaborative group.
Discoveries that give meaning to one's life are often those that are profoundly felt and not always easily shared. In each of our case studies the leadership of a mature and sensitive teacher and choreographer ensured respect for the ideas of others and established a climate where risk-taking was encouraged and the creative ideas that emerged belonged to all.
Does this process require a shared verbal language? Probably. Does it require a shared social history? Not necessarily. The individuals in each of the groups studied came from a wide spectrum of social and cultural experience. What was learned and understood could not be separated from how the learning took place. In an educational context this concept is still not well understood. It is not so much an established body of knowledge to be absorbed as a journey along a pathway of discovery.
Grove, R., Stevens, C.J., McKechnie S., (eds.) Thinking in Four Dimensions: Creativity and Cognition in Contemporary Dance, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne 2005.