Johanna Gilje responds to Shelly Senter’s intensive at Velocity’s 2013 Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation (SFDI).

There is no “self” without the “other”. We create each other. Performance is necessarily an act of collaboration: a complex communication between bodies in time and space. Isn’t this also the thing we call “Community”?, “Being together?” Or according to Heidegger’s poorly translated “Dasein”: “Being (together) in the world…ness”…?

When I was growing up in an intentional community in the Cascade mountains I thought that community had a simple definition. When you eat meals together, that is your community. When you shovel out the pathways to your house with your neighbor, there is community. When you line up in a row with a firehose in your pajamas at the sound of an alarm at three in the morning…there is your community. It wasn’t until I left the mountains and found out about the internet that I started getting confused about this word. Suddenly my friends were in distant places but I talked to them daily. Suddenly I was sharing meals with people on a screen.

Shelly Senter’s dance intensive at Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation offered me an experience of community that is not easily articulated in words. I will try to offer a glimpse of what I felt in her workshops…bringing into question a definition of community that excludes physical presence, that removes lived experience, that does not allow for the transformative opportunity of touch.

Throughout the week in Shelly’s intensive we returned to relationship as a fundamental component of presence in performance. During one class we were taught a brief phrase of Trisha Brown material and asked to perform it for each other in a typical dance class formation. We were to perform with the awareness that we are being watched. At the end of the exercise students reported that they had felt their body tense with so many eyes on them. To me the dancers seemed to have shrunk with the sense that their bodies were objects of observation.

We repeated the exercise, switching from the idea of being watched, to the idea that we were looking out at the people who were watching us. Both the dancers and the witnesses reported a noticeable shift in the quality and ease of movement. Everything became more spacious. Something about seeing the space and each other changed the experience and the use of our bodies within the same choreographic material.

Shelley teaches by example. In the roundtable discussion she spoke to a kind of “transmission” that a student experiences when learning a new technique. This process is possible through physical awareness. During class Shelley worked with a woman who appeared to have chronic tension in her hips and abdomen. Her back was arched and I could see the stress that it caused in her neck and arms. As Shelley put her hand gently on the woman’s body her muscles relaxed noticeably and her skeleton shifted out of its rigid posture. The woman described the sensation of falling backwards, though to all who witnessed, it was clear that she was actually easing into balance.

Shelley said, “You don’t have to fix anything. You are already perfect.” As the woman absorbed those words her face filled with emotion. From where I stood I thought I saw a jet of energy spurt out of her head. I thought of the tension that I had seen just moments before as she had tried to pull herself into alignment. Now that I saw the change I wondered if all of that effort had just been kinking the hose. When Shelley lay her hands on this woman it was not to correct an imperfection. The transformation happened through a moment of simultaneous presence, an instance of kinetic communication between two bodies in a room.

When sharing movement with another person a dancer learns to stay present with their own body while maintaining a refined awareness to the body of their partner. This kind of relationship requires what is referred to as “intersubjectivity”: An ability to be simultaneously with oneself and with another as the moments spontaneously unfold. When Shelley is teaching she refers to the community of people who are in the room during her class…many of whom may never have met each other beforeand who, after this week, will fly back across the country, re-dispersing a momentary gathering of bodies across far distances. When we are in a room together, Shelley encourages us to really see. To see means to open yourself to receiving other people in their entirety, not reaching to take, but rather, accepting exactly what is there in that space.

When Shelley speaks of community in class I am reminded of the way she mentioned her family in the SFDI lightning talks. As she spoke to a crowd of dancers she said that her daughter was, at that moment, flying across the ocean and that her mother was sick and far away. She spoke to the difficulty of applying what she valued so much in her practice to real life relationships. The truth is that “it’s just hard”. Shelley knows and teaches the importance of being present, both with oneself, and with others. This “presence,” however, is difficult. How can you truly be with someone you love? Is this even possible when the person is not in the room?

The notion of community complexifies greatly when extended beyond the limits of physical space. What happens to community when the ties are kept not through physical contact and shared lived experience, but rather through technological communication or “holding one in your thoughts”? If community, fundamentally, means a connection with other bodies, what happens when those bodies are displaced from context? Do the ties between bodies become less about proximity and more about attention? What does it mean to “Be With” in “Body”? “Mind”? “Spirit”?

Modern culture has made it easier than ever to export attention to distant locations, to manufacture a sense of community with people who are not in the room. I happened to have a very unique childhood, removed from phone, internet, and television but I believe that my experience—of being startled by the introduction of technological interfaces—is actually not all that unique. Laptops, cellphones, internet, facebook, and Skype all became prevalent in my generation. I am twenty two years old. I am not the only person experiencing this change.

As the social networks of our global culture continue to expand and disperse it is crucial to remember the moments of presence which form our lives, our bodies and our relationships. In Shelley Senter’s intensive and throughout SFDI there was a tangible feeling of “community”: A community that had everything to do with bodies…everything to do with sharing a precise time and space. There is something lost in a definition of community that excludes this physical presence. Shelley reminds us to come back to the moment and come back to each other. Most importantly, Shelley reminds us to preserve a sense of wonder: “Sleep enough to really dream. Fall in love with the world around you.”

Johanna Gilje is a multidisciplinary artist bridging visual and conceptual art, video installation and experimental dance theater. Her degree, “Body in Context: Somatic Psychology and Performing Art,” is a self-designed interdisciplinary study from Fairhaven and Evergreen Colleges emphasizing somatic practice, collaboration and creative process to address themes of desire and authority in charged social context.

Photo of Shelley Senter and Andrew Wass onstage in SFDI’s Dance Innovators in Performance 2013. Image copyright Tim Summers. Top left photo by Jeff Emtman.

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