CHOREOGRAPHIC NOTES 6: LIVED TIME

Living time is in itself a unique life experience. Dance engages with time poetically, shaping the duration of movement akin to spatial qualities, while embodying it in a way that makes it visible. In the realm of dance, time transcends abstraction, becoming a tangible, lived experience. Perhaps it is this quality that captivates both dancers and audiences alike, especially in today´s era where virtual reality is fundamentally reshaping our perception of time.

In this blog, I delve into various philosophical and artistic perspectives on the comprehension of time. My particular focus is on exploring how diverse conceptions, when applied in choreography, yield effects that can be categorized as objective/neutral/abstract on one hand and subjective/intuitive/expressive on the other.

 

Numeric time

“Time can be considered to be the fourth dimension of reality, used to describe events in three-dimensional space. It is not something we can see, touch, or taste, but we can measure its passage.” Anne Marie Helmenstine: What is Time? A Simple Explanation, available from: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-time-4156799

Space and time are inseparable facets of our existence. We perceive space through reference points, typically objects situated in space, around which we navigate in “empty” space. In dance, beyond relying on tangible reference points, we also incorporate imaginary ones. These imaginary points enable the execution of intricate movements in space, encompassing paths, directional shifts, and the creation of perspective through techniques such as zooming in and out.

With time, however, it is quite different. Our memory retains spatial “traces” of movement for a certain duration, and simultaneously, we observe that after dancing the space often remains charged with energy – as if it has either condensed or, conversely, become more ethereal, purified. Yet, we lack a bodily sense that enables us to directly perceive time. While we can visually apprehend space, making it seem more “material” to us, time remains invisible, though we encounter it in a unique manner. The act of sensing or experiencing time in dance is a particularly intriguing phenomenon for me, likely because through dance, time becomes more palpable compared to when it is quantified by segmenting and numbering its intervals.

The concept of dividing time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, or millennia and marking them with numbers is a social construct that effectively helps humanity to organize its life and coordinate with others, providing highly beneficial for both the individual and the functioning of society. (The first calendar was compiled by the Egyptians approximately seven thousand years ago, based on astrological calculations.)

Newtonian mechanics supported the numerical understanding of time through the notion of constant time, assumed to by uniform for everyone. However, it was only Einstein’s brilliant insight that affirmed the notion that time is far more intricate. Even after more than a century, we still grapple with the realization that the passage of time is relative to the motion of the observer and gravity. It seems as though we have not yet discovered the key to bridging this scientific fact with our everyday experience. Nevertheless, it is evident that grasping the concept time extends beyond the confines of numerical measurements.

A quantitative understanding of time fails to enhance our experience of it. In reality, measuring time distances us from the actual experience – we must adopt the role of observers, often from a detached standpoint, to gain insight into time or the activities unfolding at a specific measured moment. This approach proves advantageous when, for instance, we can effectively manage our energy by aligning it with external time indicators to achieve our goals. However, complications arise when these external markers adversely shape our internal experiences, such as the sensation of “chasing time” leading to exhaustion. It is during these moments that we typically need to set aside external indicators and allow ourselves to fully engage with our own experience. This enables us to appreciate the unique quality of individual moments, extracting meaning from them.

This also applies to dancing. When we move, observing spatial properties and space itself from a distance is relatively straightforward – we can objectively understand it as a distinct entity (I discussed the concept of a space-object in a previous blog here). However, grasping time in a similar manner is not as effortless; it demands practice in creating distance and abstracting time in motion. This becomes evident when working with small children who are not accustomed to an objective perception of time. They take significantly longer to adopt an externally imposed rhythm of movement. Conversely, when they can experience time in motion freely, they effortlessly create diverse rhythms without encountering any difficulties.

 

Linear and cyclic time

Our Western culture (and science) comprehends time in a linear progression and labels it arrow of time. This concept encapsulates the unfolding of events and our lives, tracing a path from the past (encompassing experience and knowledge) through the present (the ongoing experience) into the future (with its array of possibilities). It also signifies the acknowledgment that our physical world adheres to the principles of thermodynamics and causality, preventing the reversal of specific processes in time.

The arrow of time in dance signifies the linear progression of choreography development, unfolding from the inception, traversing the middle (where significant events occur, sometimes climaxing and sometimes not), to its culmination. Choreographers thus contemplate not only the pivotal moments in the evolution of a piece – the beginning and the end – but also the commencements and terminations of individual images or sequences and their interconnections. As works of art predominantly convey subjective experiences of time, creators intentionally disrupt the linear flow of events in literature, film, music or dance to craft more experiential structures. This involves playing with the memory and attention of readers, viewers, or listeners.

Artistic expression sometimes mirrors a distinct perception of time – cyclical passage—prevalent especially in Eastern cultures. This concept is grounded in the immediate experience of observing the repetition of events in recognizable patterns, often tied to natural cycles like seasons. These cultures prioritize the PRESENT over the future, emphasizing making sense of each moment – BEING in the present – as a component of various spiritual practices, such as meditation. The objective of meditation is to cultivate the ability to LIVE fully in the present. Due to its capacity to alter consciousness, many artists employ meditation as a tool for fostering creativity. Renowned American director David Lynch, recognized not only for his acclaimed films but also for practicing transcendental meditation, intriguingly discusses his approach in a podcast available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6byLQVR6od0.

It is intriguing that time serves as a subject of exploration for visual artists as well. The American visual artist Sarah Sze, with a focus on emotional time, endeavors to capture a captivating perspective on time in her artworks. “During the pandemic, measuring time became very challenging. For many of us, our spontaneous interactions with others were significantly reduced. These moments hold emotional weight. What you were wearing, what it smelled like, what it sounded like – these aspects helped us mark time. Art has the capacity to depict how time is recorded through emotion in a way that no other medium can, as that is how we, as human beings, measure time. I believe that on my deathbed, I will reflect on the timeline of my life emotionally. Art provides us with that unique perspective.” Sarah Sze: Emotional Time available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spvIkvIcWf8&t=392s.

 

Subjective time

The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) delved deeply into the phenomenon of time. In contrast to the concept of chronological (linear) time, he presented another perspective on temporality – DURATION. Bergson argued that human perception does not fragment time into discrete moments; instead, perception is primarily marked by a continuously flowing stream of consciousness. He underscored the significance of intuition and lived experience in comprehending the true nature of time. Therefore, Bergson emphasized the subjective perception of time, asserting that each moment carries its own unique quality of experience. (For instance, we perceive the passage of time differently in moments of happiness than in moments of stress or frustration.) The concept of time as duration is not flat, as seen in numerical representations of time, but possesses the complexity and depth akin to an individual’s experience of life.

For Bergson, the true essence of time resides in the lived experience of the flow of bodily movements, thoughts, and emotions within our consciousness. Interpreted in this manner, time holds particular significance for dance as it is intricately linked to the body and bodily experiences, where movement constantly manifests as presence.

Viewed as a subjective encounter, lived time is closely intertwined with INTUITION. In both movement and life, decisions are often made intuitively, in the moment. Rudolf Laban, in his Effort Theory, also connected the dynamic factor of time with intuition as one of the functions of consciousness defined by Carl Gustav Jung.

Engaging with time intuitively in dance offers profound freedom to experience movement not only in time but also spatially. Conversely, the sensation or demand for a swift pace restricts the movement in space (to fit within a short timeframe), inevitably requires more control over the movement than when it unfolds without internal or external pressure.

Reflex movements are also intriguing in dance. They are rapid as they serve as our body’s defense mechanism against danger. For instance, when we hear an unpleasant sound, the first reaction is to quickly withdraw the body away from the sound. Only then do we look in the direction from which it is coming to assess if there is a threat. These reflexive movements are executed with minimal tension, as excessive tension would impede the speed of the defensive reaction. This quality becomes inspirational when seeking to incorporate extremely fast movements into choreography. The concept of executing all movements, even those that are choreographed, reflexively can significantly conserve energy for dancers during the rehearsal of a new piece.

 

Time in dance

We primarily perceive time through the observation of changes that unfold over a period of time. Based on these changes, we comprehend the principles of biological or physical time. In choreography, we actively construct time. The choreographer engages in a creative manipulation of time, intentionally deciding the duration of specific movement actions and rhythmic structure in which they will unfold. This process allows for the lengthening or shortening of the overall duration of performance. French dance theorist Laurence Louppe contends that through this creative manipulation, time evolves into a poetic force within dance. (Laurence Louppe: Poetics of Contemporary Dance)

This process involves creating some distance from time within the movement during the early stages of the work, allowing for objective manipulated. The choreographer divides and measures when changes in the movement are to occur. Alternatively, s/he provides performers with a timeframe during which they can subjectively manipulate the timing of their movements based on their momentary feelings.

This “momentary sense of time” significantly contributes to the development of improvisation as a key dance skill. It entails cultivating an intuitive perception of the timing of one’s own actions or reactions to the environment or group. Intuition, understood as sensing the right time for an action or its completion, stands out as one of the crucial compositional factors in improvisation.

The difference in working with time in improvisation and choreography lies in the former being free and momentary. Improvisers make intuitive decisions in the moment based on their feelings, as there is no predetermined time structure. In choreography, however, there exists the opportunity to explore various timing possibilities for movement, considering the overall structure of the composition. Choreographers, in this context, shape movement timing patterns concurrently with decisions about form and space.

Through the modeling of time, movement transforms into an artistic medium. Dancers cease to merely measure time (or rhythm) within movement; instead, they experience it as a qualitative property inseparable from other components. Then body, space and time then amalgamate into a qualitative whole, communicating through a time-space figurative language.

How do we achieve this outcome when choreographing? How do we search for the most suitable timing of movement actions and formulas that enable us to create the desired images? There are several possibilities and different choreographers have adopted various, often contradictory, strategies.

The most commonly employed strategy in working with the time component is for choreographers to determine the duration of movement actions accordance with the music. The metrical or rhythmic arrangement of the music serves as the foundation upon which the choreographer builds the temporal structure of the movement actions. However, aligning dancers with the music does not necessarily mean they can genuinely experience the time of the dance movement simultaneously. There exists a significant distinction between measuring the duration of movements and feeling their duration. In dance, time is internally experienced as the flow of movement. When dancing to music, it becomes necessary to reconcile this internal experience with the external cues dictated by the music, a task that is not always authentically successful. Nevertheless, when achieved, audiences can have an aesthetically gratifying experience, perceiving rhythms that are both seen and heard. The most intriguing instances occur when these rhythms are not identical but unique and harmoniously aligned with each other.

Merce Cunningham, influenced by composer John Cage, adopted a unique approach to determining the duration of movements in dance. Cage incorporated his groundbreaking compositional principle called indeterminacy into music composition, employing various methods, predominantly random selection, and graphic scores. Noteworthy examples of graphic scores can be explored in David Hall’s article: Graphic notation: a brief history of visualizing music available at https://davidhall.io/visualising-music-graphic-scores/.

Inspired by these concepts, I crafted the main image for this blog post as a graphic score, assigning the yellow color to represent upper body movement and the cyclamen color for lower body movement. Would you like to attempt dancing to it?

Samples of simple graphic scores for hand movement that might capture children´s interest

Merce Cunningham, drawing inspiration from Chinese philosophy as outlined in The Book of Transformations (I Ching), initiated experiments aimed at liberating dance from psychological content and established compositional practices dictated by music, prevalent in the modern dance works of that era. One of his approaches involved specifying the total duration of a choreographic section, such as four minutes, which could be expanded by an additional number of minutes in the subsequent phase of the work. He did not leave the overall timing entirely unstructured, but instead employed various formulas to determine the number of counts in the dance phrases.

The dancers’ meticulously directed focus on quantitatively measured time, often utilizing stopwatches in rehearsals as favored by Cunningham, aimed to eliminate the subjective experience of movement, and substitute it with a neutral perception. His dancers’ engagement with “objective” time reached a heightened level of awareness, introducing a novel dimension to the movement by disrupting the inherent duration of specific movements. This disruption was notable as spatially large movements naturally endure longer than spatially small ones.

The pursuit of neutrality not only stripped movement of its subjective experience but also of its natural organicity. External timing does not consistently align with inherent muscular tension responding to changes in body weight and the inherent duration of movement. It is noteworthy that John Cage afforded significantly more interpretative freedom in his graphic scores for his musical compositions than Merce Cunningham allowed for his dancers.

Cunningham’s distinctive approach to time in choreography raised questions of the freedom of the dancer’s individual perception of time, prompting a robust response from the subsequent generation of postmodern dancers. They were adamant about retaining this freedom and carried the concept of indeterminacy to the extent of embracing improvisation as performance practice.

An alternative method of handling time in choreography contrasts with establishing an external framework, whether through music or counting, and leans subjectively towards the inner sensations of choreographers or dancers. To cultivate this internal sense of time in movement, choreographers frequently discard music, focusing on the body’s responses. Consequently, the perception of time becomes intertwined with kinesthesis, giving rise to what is termed “body music”. This approach was adopted by both modernists (such as Duncan, Laban, Wigman) as postmodernists. Trisha Brown, for instance, incorporated music (Laurie Anderson) into Set and Reset for the first time after two decades of choreographing. This decision stemmed from her belief that her movement had evolved to a point where it could stand as an equal partner to the music rather than merely following it.

When the choreographer endeavors to explore embodied time in her/his work, she/he often employs imaginative imagery that encourages the dancers to qualitatively experience time in movement, resonating with the choreographic image without relying on external measurements (such as counting time). In this approach, the choreographer not only models the movement, but also guides the dancers toward a qualitative experience of time in motion that aligns with their feelings.

The third and perhaps the most liberated method of working with time is facilitated through improvisation. In this scenario, the dancer creates the timing of movement actions freely, responding to the immediate experience of self-perception in a given situation. Since improvisation lacks a pre-given external framework, content, or structure that must be precisely adhered to, the dancer is guided solely by an internal perception of time. When creating an instant composition performed in front of an audience (which may have a pre-arranged theme or an open score), the dancer must, in addition to an intuitive perception of time, possess the highly developed skill of simultaneously considering the audience’s perception of time.

Through various compositional devices such as repetition, variation (different variations of the original event), simultaneous events, etc., the choreography has the capacity to disrupt the linearity of the arrow of time, akin to the ways it occurs in literature, film, or music. This creates the illusion of a multidimensional experience. In real life, the law of cause and effect prohibits us from going back in time. Nevertheless, artists, crafting their own reality, often succeed in achieving the illusion of “time travel” in a distinctive manner. Concurrently, they navigate skillfully with the understanding that “you never enter the same river”.

 

The approach choreographers take in working with is  contingent upon whether their intention is to convey a narrative, an emotion, an abstract idea, or if they are operating within a conceptual framework. Consequently, they select compositional tools to model the movement´s tempo for eliciting a specific mood, structure the rhythm of movement to introduce surprise or capture attention, and, last but not least, employ the strategic use of pauses.

 

Stillness and presence

“If a system is immutable, it is essentially timeless,” writes Anne Marie Helmenstine in the above article. Stillness represents the most striking contrast to movement, making it inherently fascinating, especially when it is incorporated into choreography at the “right time”. Stillness, acting as the antithesis to movement, and even in the extreme slowing down of movement, enhances the experience of presence – pure BEING without additional action. However, this is not as straightforward as it may seem initially appear. Perceiving and working with stillness or extreme slowness pose challenges.

Photography locks movement into a single moment

It is challenging for the audience because they are accustomed to a rapid flow of changes and information – verbal, audio or visual – that inundates them daily through mass media. They quickly lose patience when asked to observe an extremely slow-changing picture for an extended period. In dance, on the other hand, stillness or an extremely slow pace of movement is challenging not only for the body, due to factors like balance and increased muscle strain, but also for the mind, which cannot easily transition into a state of pure existence.

Anyone who has attempted meditation, aiming to maintain a still bodily position while sustaining waking self-awareness in the present, has likely encountered the challenge of an incessant stream of distracting thoughts. The difficulty lies in cultivating mindfulness for the present moment and preventing the mind from wandering into the past or the future. Buddhist monks, who engage in daily meditation for several hours, showcasing their ability to hone this skill from an early age, serve as a remarkable illustration of the interplay between mind control, mindfulness, and the perceived slowing down of time. Their age becomes challenging to discern, and they exhibit an extraordinarily fresh mind in old age. I also consider dancing as a form of meditation, given that dancers commit to daily practice, maintaining complete attention while dancing in the present moment.

Contemporary dance draws inspiration from Japanese butoh, characterized by its embrace of extreme slowness or the cessation the movement flow. The stillness creates the illusion of time coming to a standstill and generates a peculiar tension between the unchanging body and inner movement, experienced by both performers and audience, that invisibly persists, as if allowing the stillness to resonate.

The stillness of a living body represents pure potential of movement with a unique temporality. Immobility is captivating in its capacity to extend a moment full of movement just before it initiates – a fascinating experience made possible only through dance.

 

Choreographic sketch – video

In this video, my focus was on rendering the various temporal qualities of movement visible. I sought out environments that accentuate the temporality of movement. The dancers, Silvia and Chilli, apart from sensing the predominant temporal quality of the movement, also interact with each other through the spatial and shape characteristics of the movement. Consequently, a new dimension arises in the movement dialogue – rhythm. In some shots the dancers freely improvise, while in others, they improvise with a short choreographic sequence.

The temporal qualities we focused on were decelerating and accelerating motion, sustained and quick time (dynamic qualities defined by R. Laban), and immobility. Quality of sustained time resembles extremely slow motion, quick time corresponds to fast-paced motion, but these represent more nuanced qualities of experiencing time in movement.

 

 

Dear readers, if you would like to share your thoughts and experiences with me on this topic, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you for your comments J.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Marta

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