Over the past few weeks I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the development Janice Parker’s latest dance piece – Private Party. Conceived as a follow on from Private Dancer, her award-winning Unlimited Commission for 2012, Private Party takes an eclectic group of 12 dancers one step further to open up various notions, rites and rituals associated with the concepts of both ‘private’ and ‘party’.
I use the word ‘witnessing’ with care as it has both a general and a specific meaning within dance.
Generally, it’s used to mean seeing or watching and can also mean that you have knowledge of something – a development, a process – derived from direct observation or experience.
Specifically within movement practices such as Authentic Movement, Five Rhythms and dance movement therapy witnessing is a tool used to give weight to the experience of the mover. You witness by being fully present, by watching with attention and without judgment or interpretation. In this form, witnessing is an equal practice that requires discipline and skill – one ‘meets’ the energy of those who move, absorbing what they have created and noting the sensations and responses provoked in return without analysing or labelling them. They give the gift of their movement to you, and you gift them your full attention in return, and form a human connection that grounds the experience, giving it weight.
“This self-reflective process helps us know what is going on inside, and creates a kind of humility in terms of thinking we know what another person is feeling or thinking. It enhances our ability to stay open to the unending ways of being within another person”. Alton Wasson
In all instances, witnessing is different to being ‘an audience’ where you bring your opinions, your projections into play. As audience, your focus is principally on yourself – what you are seeing, what you are feeling, what you are creating as narrative, interpretation or experience from an event.
So what kind of witnessing have I been undertaking? More importantly perhaps, what have I witnessed?
The first weekend was exploratory – people improvising in groups and pairs, talking about experiences, sharing party pieces. Given the nature of the cast, for much of the time I was simply watching (and marvelling at) the diversity of human kind. Janice is known for collaborating with disabled and non-disabled dancers but that’s not really that distinction that hits me, perhaps because I am so used to being in spaces where disability is the norm and not the exception. Instead I’m conscious of the age span in the room, of the range of sizes and shapes of the bodies before me, of the levels of experience and performativity, of the variety of ways in which ‘dance’ as an entity has shaped the lives of those I see.
The room is full of life and full of fun, with people stretching themselves and their own expectations in relation to the movement they exhibit, individually and in groups. There is occasional embarrassment too – I don’t think it would be a dance space if there were not. It pops in from time to time but quickly dissipates given the supportive nature of the company. There is competition too, but not in a technical sense (as in ‘look, I can get my leg up higher than you’). Here the competition is about ideas.
Later in the process I came in to watch again. The work had moved on, gained structure and shape and the company had become more cohesive. Easy to see the form of the piece – movement sequences being formed, sections being run together, the space being utilised, timings being notated – but how did I ‘know’ about the company – what was the evidence I was reading?
I’ve just read over some of my notes. The most obvious thing I saw was a sense of care and attention – not from Janice to the company so much as the company to itself. Someone offering to help someone get lunch, another person touching the hair of a fellow dancer in a quiet moment, another gently guiding someone to a new position for the opening of a sequence as they were out when the change was made. A question being asked and 5 people rushing to answer it rather than simply to be told the answer from on high. And this commitment to care ripples into the work itself.
There was one section I witnessed where the company is in a line – a simple format – and they move, individually and in response to the person in front of and behind them. Any group of people could have done this, but possibly only this company could have moved me to tears through doing so.
It also ripples into me as a watcher. I recognise this difference when I pop out at lunchtime – I am relaxed, smiling and happy to make eye contact, I notice people more. I joke with a street cleaner – ask if he will clean my boots with his spinning brushes. I feel connected to the people around me and part of the environment I am in. This is not usual for me and I find myself almost coming to with a start, shocked by how unguarded I had felt.
I have experience of witnessing in a number of settings. In the more formal sense through my own practice with Authentic Movement and Five Rhythms, and less formally as an evaluator, producer or critical friend to others in the creation of work. It’s hard work that looks easy. To fully focus your attention on to what you see in front of you and to quiet the other narratives in your head is mindful work.
And in one sense its impossible – to fully be present for 5 minutes is hard; for a day, our own concerns as human beings mean we are far too selfish for that.
So my direct witnessing is moderated by choosing additional layers of attention that I can bring. There is a layer about process. I am interested in finding out more about how Janice Parker works. Like many who ‘do’, there is little time for her to reflect on exactly what she does and how it works. You can find out lots about the wide range of work she has created, but less about how she manages to do so, hence I’m interested in tracing the lines of her practice through the work that I witness to see what lines I can draw, what sense I can make of how she creates as an artist.
There is a layer too about disability, diversity and ‘otherness’, and another about dance. I’m fascinated by difference, in particular how we as humans react to it and the frames we construct to process our understanding of it. Within this work I am particularly struck that although the piece is clearly being constructed and directed that within the performing company itself there is no hierarchy. Just because you can do this, or have done that, or look like this, or need that kind of support, it doesn’t mean that you are better than anyone else. This is a different way of dealing with difference to the one we traditionally experience and it’s particularly unusual in dance where a rigid frame is usually applied, favouring those with particular body types/technical abilities/ways of performing.
I suppose if I am honest there is another layer too, checking my own ‘reading’ of a situation in relation to Janice’s. What do I see in what she sees? Can I spot what she spot’s be it the potential in a person, in a way of moving, in an exercise, in a dynamic that’s unfolding? What would I do in a specific situation? This isn’t about judging, but it is about comparing – my world-view to someone else’s. I’m innately curious and this is my way of testing my own boundaries, thoughts and processes. And it’s fascinating.
At the beginning I also use the word ‘privilege’ – I have had the privilege of witnessing the work – and I also use that word with care. It really has been a privilege to watch the company at all stages.
When making work, many artists see observers as a threat, a force that can disrupt, unsettle and destroy confidence in the crucial nurturing stages of development. Perhaps it depends on the process. Alongside a process that is open and equal it has felt natural and unassuming. I have felt welcome and also appreciated, even though my direct contribution is minimal.
What I look forwards to most now is seeing the finished work (tonight!) and then the ensuing conversations that this witnessing can spawn. Having been in the space, with access to the work I can dig in deep with Janice as we talk about why and how the piece came to be what it is, and drill down into decisions that have been taken about shape and form. First though opening night. Don’t worry. I have tissues in my pocket.