CHOREOGRAPHIC NOTES 5: EMBODIED SPACE

 

To compose space in choreography means to guide the eyes of the audience so that they perceive not only the bodies of the dancers, but are also able to notice, at least in some moments, the space that is made visible by the movement of the bodies. The dance thus reveals a fascinating phenomenon: embodied space. As long as there is no movement in the space, it is neutral, inanimate for us. The dancers animate the space with their bodies and make it present with their receptivity to it. It is a peculiar metaphysical play that reminds the audience through empathy of their own spatial experience of their own bodies.

 

Dance describes space – literally!

In one of the previous blogs, Elements of Movement (here), I have included space among the visual elements of movement, because we perceive movement primarily through the pathways that body parts “draw” in space, thereby shaping the body as a whole. In doing so, the body continuously creates spatial relationships to itself (more specifically to its center), to the floor, and to gravity (the vertical). These three points of reference are crucial in embodying space in movement, and they also encompass an intrinsic meaning. Of course, there can be more reference points, but more on that later.

The movement of different parts of the body renders different patterns of paths in space creating an image (design) that can have a powerful effect on the viewer although this image usually fades quickly. The extent to which the movement-space image makes sense in dance depends on the intention of the choreographer. The creation of meaning is by no means mechanical in the sense of, if I do this movement, it will have this particular meaning. Some of the basic relationships of the body to the spatial reference points mentioned above (the center of the body, the floor, gravity) have inherent meanings, but at the same time, the relationship of the body to space in dance is primarily created with aesthetic intent and is therefore entirely dependent on the imagination of the choreographer as much as that of the audience.

It seems to me that there is a certain proportionality between the degree of abstractness of the dance (in terms of content) and the visuality of the dance images, i.e., the more abstract the dance, the more its visual aspect comes to the forefront – for example, the spatial qualities of the movement become more visible. On the contrary, the concrete meanings in the movement seem to suppress the visuality of the dance – the spatial qualities of the movement are not visible in themselves, but as an intrinsic part of the meaning of the movement. However, there are many choreographers who are able to make both visible at the same time – dance conveys content while being visually very powerful. (Who are they for you?)

It is very interesting that certain relationships of body and space (often taken for granted) carry inherent meanings, and the choreographer can either deliberately emphasize them (and thus encourage the imagination of the audience) or not emphasize them at all. For example, a body lying on the floor can evoke sleep, rest, death, fatigue, and similar meanings without lying on the bed. However, this happens especially when the choreographer works with this meaning deliberately. The meaning of movement is not created by a single movement action alone, but by the overall context that stimulates the imagination of the audience. In relation to the theme of space, the question of how the spatial properties of movement work with imagination and evoke the creation of meaning is an interesting one.

Sondra Horton Fraleigh writes about this: “We live space in the placement of the movement in space, where it goes, and how it is designed; but we live it as more than this. We live it wholly, as embodied space. The arch of a dancer´s back imparts a totally different feeling than an arch of steel, plastic, or concrete. The arch of a dancer´s back is formed of our own body-of-space. We feel the lifting and arching through our own embodiment – through which, in our lifted, back-arched leaning, we also feel the upward soaring and backward leaning arch of steel. Our body-of-space is the origin for our perception and understanding of space in general.” (Sondra Horton Fraleigh: Dance and the Lived Body, p. 181.)

How to develop a sense of the spatial qualities of movement so that the movement/dance embodies a space with a visual and meaningful effect on the viewer? In this blog, I discuss several insights that can help choreographers as well as dancers in this regard. For unless dancers consciously work with the spatial qualities of movement (embodying them with full attention and infusing them with their own meaning), the spatial compositional intentions of the choreographer are likely to remain formal – which is also fine, if they choose to do so. However, in order to engage the audience, they must be composed with a great deal of skill.

 

Embodied space

Is the spatial sense of movement the same as the sense of space? Perhaps we can agree that each phrase expresses a slightly different aspect: the conscious perception of the spatial qualities of movement and the perception of the environment in which the movement takes place. Just as we overlook our bodies in everyday life (I wrote about the strange phenomenon of our bodies becoming invisible to us in a previous blog), space does not exist for us until we become aware of it and, through movement, perceive it. The body, however, is inseparable from space at every moment – in stillness it rests in a place, in movement it moves through it.

The inseparability of the body’s relationship to space was captured by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty when he said: “To be a body is to be bound to a certain world; our body is not primarily in space, it is of space.” Merleau-Ponty reminds us that when we think of space as an object that is separate from us, we miss out on some part of the reality of our being. The embodied space we are concerned with in dance means the space present in the perception of the body and movement – whether by the dancers themselves or by the audience. Our bodies make spatial forms, relationships, and qualities visible with great precision – we pay full attention to them – thus giving meaning to our movement. This is not only true in dance, although in dance this focus is crucial. The ability to exist in physical space is one of life’s basic competencies that each of us learns in childhood.

Figure 1: The perception of the spatial qualities of movement is paradoxically aided when the dancers close their eyes and feel their bodies in motion spreading out into space from within.

Being (living) in three-dimensional space is a deeply innate human bodily experience, which is reflected in both verbal and graphic language, which make abundant use of spatial metaphors. Spatial metaphors are thought constructs that transfer the bodily experience of perceiving space to non-spatial concepts such as time, similarity, or emotional value. For example, we think of vacations as long or short, feeling “down” implies fatigue or frustration, an icon of a thumb pointing upward implies that we feel great, or that we place a positive value on the thing to which we are referring with this sign. One also intuitively understands that the left arrow (not the right arrow) in the browser means going back to the previous page (to the past). We learn these metaphors at an early age and use them subconsciously, just as we move through space with complete familiarity and precision in everyday life.

However, it is interesting to observe that the moment we learn a new movement (dance or non-dance), the spatial properties of the movement need to be carefully fine-tuned, which is not always easy. The nervous system is working at full speed to meet the desired intention, using the stored and at the same time creating new perceptual maps of movement. The purpose of this activity in everyday life is the functionality of movement – the achievement of a particular intention, which is both the motive and the goal of the movement act or activity.

But what happens in dance, where the functional aspect of movement in the sense of performing some utilitarian activity is not the goal?

 

Physical versus poetic space in dance

In dance we create an imaginative space in which visual images take place that have only a partial (rather metaphorical) connection with real life. The shaping of space in choreography is therefore not functional, but imaginative activity – the dance image stimulates the audience to create an imaginative situation. Imaginative images are created in choreography by all the elements of movement together, but space has a special position among them because it can transform the stage, or other performative space, into “another place” (similar to what we experience in dreams). However, it is essential for the audience to understand this “game” and let the dance images work on themselves and co-create them with their own imagination. I think the choreographer’s job is to get them into that state. (In this, I consider the role of the choreographer to be similar to that of a film director.)

We perceive physical space mainly through the relationships of the objects in it. Empty space (Laban reminds us that it doesn’t really exist, but we sometimes experience it in dreams) frightens us mainly because it provides us with no point of reference to which we can relate as a fixed point of departure. Dance very often takes place in a space with no specific relations to the objects that exist in it. To what, then, does the body relate when dancing?

This question is particularly interesting when we consider that dance is a continuous flow of changes of movement. It is clear that the spatial element plays a key role in navigating this constant flow of change. Laban offered several reference points that both facilitate this orientation and make the movement more precise in space. He considered the main reference points of physical space to be the invisible principles of space that determine the structure of the human body and the trajectories of its movement. He constructed his spatial theory as a living architecture of the body’s movement built on the basis of these principles. These are the physical laws that the human body in motion must necessarily respect. I am always thrilled to see that a choreographer is able to express the poetic side of movement just by using the basic physical laws of space.

Here again an interesting question arises, how to transfer the functional experience of body and space into a poetic metaphor, or how to combine the intuitive feeling of space and its deliberate shaping in the creation of choreography?

 

Why we need the concept of space-object in dance?

In a previous blog, I discussed the concepts of body-object and body-subject introduced by phenomenology. When we consciously work with space when choreographing, i.e., choose from many possibilities where and how the body will move in space, we take an objective attitude towards space. We consider different spatial perspectives or spatial properties of movement. Space becomes an object that we model/shape in and through dance. In order to do this, we have to, as it were, “step out” of dancing, where we perceive space as integral to the quality of the movement, and we have to look at it “from the outside” (objectively), to see which of the spatial possibilities manifest or underline the intention we want to achieve in the choreography.

In developing sensitivity to the spatial properties of movement, Laban’s spatial concepts are very useful. They provide precise reference points through which we can orient ourselves accurately and at the same time go further – directing movement into space that we don’t usually use. Analysis, however, requires that we “step out” of the experience of the dance, and with distance, at some point, we can look in more detail at: a) where the movement is going, b) what path it is taking to get there, c) at what level relative to the ground the movement is taking place, d) possibly what distance the body/body parts will travel in space (based on which we recognize the extent of the movement). Thus, analysis is a tool for refining the properties of movement and for a deeper understanding of their interplay in movement. When dancers then re-immerses themselves in the experience of the dance with this understanding, the quality of this experience is more complex – supporting, for example, the maintenance of body balance or the rhythmic-dynamic phrasing of movement. It is an understood and embodied complexity (not a complexity that overwhelms and destabilizes) that allows dancers to reveal something of themselves through dance. This is where I see the meaning of the poetics of dance.

 

Primary spatial relationships of the body

The primary spatial reference of the human body is gravity and its vertical action. The human body develops from birth towards an upright posture – it is this spatial orientation that is characteristic of the human body. Nevertheless, the dancers’ perception of their own body’s vertical axis is not always completely clear. It requires training that engages the imagination and develops kinesthetic perception in aligning the different parts of the body (the vertical axis is the geometric principle by which physical matter is organized). Sometimes dancers find that perceiving the horizontal axis (and aligning the body or its parts in movement with it) is much easier. Maybe it has to do with the fact that we have a clear idea of the horizontal axis also thanks to visual perception – the horizontal is the water level, the horizon of a landscape, a table, a chair, etc.. Thanks to this, we can easily create a horizontal line by moving different parts of the body, or we can imagine it inside our body and use it to feel, for example, the width of our shoulders or pelvis. The third basic orientation of the body in space is the sagittal axis, along which our primary movement in space – walking – takes place. Directing the forward movement of any part of the body is therefore not a problem, although we have to be more attentive when moving backwards, because we cannot see the back space of the body. Therefore, we tend to forget this space when dancing. The choreographer must work with it consciously, so that when moving, he*she can use the body’s potential to encompass the whole three-dimensional space.

Figure 2: The dancer’s body in this position makes visible the vertical dimension of space. Because it is quite challenging to balance on half-feet, which adds to the verticality of the movement, her upper limb naturally balances the body by spreading out wide (horizontal dimension).

The idea of three perpendicular axes placed in the center of the body allows us to clearly recognize six basic reference directions in space, which can be understood as a spatial alphabet of body movement (up, down, right, left, forward, backward). It is both a challenge and a creative game to create an improvised composition or choreography using only these basic directions of movement. If you don’t like minimalism, it might not be much fun, but it’s worth a try.

The perception of all spatial axes in the inner space of the body promotes the achievement of a stable balance. When the body begins to move out of it, there is a moment when the weight of the body propels the body into motion, and it must maintain a dynamic balance. Otherwise, it will succumb to the force of gravity and begin to fall to the ground. Dance is in fact a play with gravity – a constant falling and catching of the body’s falling weight, in the course of which the body is formed in countless shapes using all spatial directions.

Figure 3: This position of the dancer makes the sagittal dimension visible. The body seeks dynamic balance as it directs the upper body backwards by balancing the pelvis forward. The upper limb supports the body’s balance by stretching forward and up (sagittal plane).

 

Geometric functionality of space and lived space in dance

Understanding the objective relationships between the body (its parts) and space is aided by applying knowledge of the geometric principles of our physical space in motion. Laban built his spatial theory on the universally operating principles of geometrical relationships. He used various regular geometric solids as visual references to refine the orientation of the body’s movement in space. They also allow one to understand the dimensional properties of motion (one-dimensional, two-dimensional, and three-dimensional movements), which manifest themselves in space with an expressively different quality. Moving the perception of motion from 1D through 2D to 3D requires a broadening of perspective and a development of spatial imagination, but it is a fascinating exploration in which space becomes more alive, more organic. Understanding these qualities develops an architectural quality of movement that has a particular aesthetic effect in dance.

Figure 4 The subtle shift in viewpoint and the addition of lines allows our imagination to capture the difference between a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional shape (a hexagon and a cube). The same shift in perception occurs in understanding the differences between one-, two- and three-dimensional movements.

Due to its characteristic structure, the body and its individual parts move mostly along curved pathways that give it an organic character (circles, waves, loops, etc.). The straight pathways are mainly made during deliberate action (e.g., manipulation of objects). The geometric solids that Laban used in his spatial theory provide reference points for the flow of both organic and geometric trajectories of the body’s movement in space. Working with them brings several benefits to dancers: it develops spatial imagination, refines spatial perception of movement, and increases orientation in space. Understanding these qualities of movement subsequently has a significant impact on the dynamic qualities of movement. I only became fully aware of this fact when I began to explore Laban’s spatial theory.

But what does the spatial feeling of movement mean? How do we experience the spatial qualities of movement? Using the example of the basic spatial frame of reference I gave above, I will try to explain how one can translate strict geometry into an embodied poetics of dance. The perception of movement along the vertical axis allows for the experience of rising and falling, similarly movement along the horizontal axis manifests as widening and narrowing, and finally movement along the sagittal axis manifests as advancing and receding. Each of these movements shapes the body differently and is associated with a certain sensation that it allows to embody. Thus, movement along each spatial axis can be performed by the body as a functional movement up, down, etc., or it can be experienced by the dancer as an action of floating, plunging, flying, thinning, darting, or reversing. It is the subtle change in sensation in movement stimulated by imagination where I see the difference between formal and poetic movement.

 

Choreographic sketch – video

I shot this video with the intention of making the spatial element of movement visible. I chose environments where the space is open and expressive, although it was clear to me that each environment has its own distinct atmosphere that strongly influences the perception of the overall image. Sometimes the body can seem to disappear a little in the environment, but since movement cannot be separated from the body and from space, I tried – together with the dancer Silvia – to create images (and situations) that make visible the relationship between body and space. I also used different camera angles to capture different aspects of the spatial qualities of movement in a way that seemed most appropriate. Thinking about how to find a way for each spatial idea to be made visible opened up a new perception of space in dance for me. Therefore, I recommend choreographers to practice such “camera exercises” – they increase sensitivity in the perception of space, which in turn inspires new discoveries and conceptions of space through choreography.

 

 

Notes:
  1. Laban’s view of the perception of space in terms of the movement of the human body is complex. It combines knowledge he gained from the study of many seemingly distant fields (architecture, crystallography, quantum physics, music, psychology). In each of them he found an interesting aspect that became an important building block of his spatial theory. The discoveries of quantum physics at the beginning of the 20th century confirmed that space is not empty, as it appears to us, but full of potential motion in the sense of vibrations or varying tension. Architecture taught him about the forces that exist in our physical space, and the human body must respond to them as it moves. Crystallography revealed to him geometric principles, which he used to name the key relationships of body and space in terms of the body’s stability and mobility. The insight of psychology revealed to him inner space (the landscape of the soul) and the relationship between inner feeling or state and the way we use space.
  2. Movement is aesthetic when it is not a manifestation of a functional need – it doesn’t have to go somewhere, it doesn’t have a destination in space (and thus it can go anywhere). For me, poetic movement means the possibility to play with it creatively in response to the experience of what is happening in and around me, and thus to stimulate the audience’s experience, their imagination, memory, bodily experience.

Dear readers, if you would like to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic with me, I would be delighted if you would do so. Thank you for your comments J.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Marta

3 thoughts on “CHOREOGRAPHIC NOTES 5: EMBODIED SPACE”

  1. Pingback: CHOREOGRAPHIC NOTES 6: LIVED TIME - Marta Poláková

  2. Pingback: CHOREOGRAPHIC NOTES 8: COMMUNICATION IN DANCE - Marta Poláková

  3. Pingback: CHOREOGRAPHIC NOTES 9: WHEN BREATH SHAPES THE DANCE - Marta Poláková

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *