Guest artist blog – Reflections – Extending Practice: Choreographic Practice and Sustainability

By 10th January 2017Uncategorised

Between August 2015 and May 2016, Wales based Dance Artist, Rosalind Holgate Smith and Documentary Photographer, Janet Ruth Davies collaborated on a site specific project called ‘Uncertain Terrain’, situated in Dinorwic slate quarry, north Wales. Through this project, they developed a cross-disciplinary practice involving movement studies, digital audio and photography, investigating the landscape as an embodied practice.

This year they were granted a professional development bursary from Articulture to attend ‘Extending Practice: Choreographic Practice and Sustainability’, a one day conference for dance artists, creatives and academics in Glasgow, hosted by creative carbon Scotland, September 2016. Here they report back.

As a photographer and dancer collaborating outdoors we have been exploring and transcribing choreographic processes across disciplines. Through our project Uncertain Terrain we were both interested to experience and communicate an embodied sense of the quarried landscape we worked within.

As we broadened our own notions of choreographic practice we became interested to explore how we might consider our processes, skills and practice in relationship with issues of sustainability.  

We were curious to meet other practitioners and academics. Armed with a willingness to share practice, and to cross borders, we travelled up to Scotland to find out how we could ‘extend our practice’. Arriving in Glasgow, we were greeted by a small but enthusiastic group in a community centre outside North Kelvin Meadow. During the day we explored the meadow as a wildlife site, ‘reclaimed’ by the community as an outdoor classroom for forest and nature activities.

The following reflections are part of a collective blog formed by the participants of the day:

The initial aim of the workshop was to explore how choreographic practices might contribute to environmental movements and sustainability. The day included a series of exercises, creating a number of in-roads into the subject:

  • Initial discussion of the terms sustainability and choreography
  • A movement exploration led by Saffy and Claire in the North Kelvin Meadow: a contested community green space in North/West Glasgow
  • Group discussion shaped by propositions from philosopher and academic Wallace Heim

Sustainability – what does this mean?

As a group we debated sustainability in all forms, from the ecology of a sustainable practice to survival in a creative environment. We discussed sustainability as a myriad of interrelated elements that are seeking harmony. We questioned how do we think of the future? And how we can anticipate sustainability in a dynamic changing environment, rather than project ideas onto a static word.

Tim Ingold voices that sustainability could be likened to ‘Allowing the movement that generates life to carry on, something that lasts rather than preservation of form’ See his lecture, ‘The Sustainability of Everything’ at the Centre for Human Ecology, Pearce Institute, Govan, 10/09/16

Movement in the woodland

Jan – “During the movement workshop as I found my own expression of contact with this young woodland. I used photography to document and offer a suggestion of disorientation through my senses that were both alive and blurred by the soft rain, the earthy dampness and moving bodies. This reclaimed woodland made me realise how important these small enclosures of urban wilderness are. A vital source of sustenance for the wellbeing and connectivity of a community, wild places are something that I take for granted living on the edge of the mountainous region of Snowdonia National Park in north Wales. Afterwards we sat around a campfire, ate popcorn and discussed our collective and individual experiences amidst the smell of woodsmoke”

Rosalind – “Exploring the woodland stimulated my awareness of the environment as a site for respite. Having spent much exploring the outdoors through movement improvisation, I was drawn to observe more commonplace activities in the woodland. I watched children run, scamper and eat blackberries picked and presented in their mother’s hand. I saw a man climbing a tree. These activities made me consider the way in which exploration of the outdoors stimulates basic human instincts, to hunt, eat, and conquer”

Claire Pencak (choreographer) described how the use of the session outside in the North Kelvin Meadow brought the group into more familiar territory as movement practitioners.

“It reminded us that our sensory system is a way of understanding what is close at hand and under (the) foot and simultaneously through the gaze and ears to take in the far away. The different perceptual systems enable us to process information about distance and proximity in the same moment.This ability to put our attention in more than one place at a time, to work with different scales, to bring a heightened awareness to placement, to work with being- in relationship, to move beyond words began to approach through practice some of the discussion questions that Wallace Heim (academic philosopher ) proposed for the afternoon.”

Wallace Heim said of the her experience… “After a slow walk in the woods at North Kelvin Meadow led by Claire and Saffy, we gathered around to talk about what each of us had felt and learned. One response continues to stand out for me, and that was how easily one’s foot could adapt to the changing ground, to the roots, uneven swards, slippery patches. The foot, the body, understood how to balance, to adapt, to move safely…The talking sessions raised many facets of sustainability, from how to survive financially as an artist or company, to questions of how the experience of choreography works, for the artist and the audience to express and negotiate the knots of sustainability in ways that make for experiences that will matter. To me, that’s the area of most challenge and potential.”


Group discussions

We had short group discussions in response to four key propositions set by Wallace to consider the ways in which choreographic practices operate and how they intersect with questions of sustainability. Propositions:

  • Questions about the body: how do ideas about sustainability affect or change perceptions and ideas about the human body, the body in motion, and the body as inter-related with the living and non-living others, inter-related with ideas, technologies, and human social systems. How do practices do this, without proposing a pre-cultural, isolated or essential view of the human body.
  • Questions about sense: how do we ‘sense’ sustainability, sense being both with the senses, and to make sense of something, to make it make sense collectively. What is touched, what are the surfaces of our relations? How can we make sense of that experience? How does this relate to choreographic practice?
  • Questions about friction: sustainability isn’t a smoothly managed plan, or something that only exists for the comfort and endurance of humans. There are fragmentations, gaps, frustrations, imbalances of power and justice, conflicts. How can choreographic practices work with these tensions? Or hold the tensions that arise?
  • Questions about how to ‘place’ the human: in relation to a world of other beings and entities which are not simply there to be perceived, but themselves have agencies,

Initial responses to Wallace’s provocations included:

  • The body can be used as a proxy for sustainability, as a system with finite capacities. Conversely, dance offers plenty of examples of non-sustainable practice, it can be about ‘pushing the body to its limit’ which creates a particular aesthetic.
  • The employment of multiple senses within choreographic practices have the potential to ‘embody’ and bring to the fore of our perception the often abstract or distant seeming realities of sustainability and climate change;
  • The forms of cooperative leadership that are used within choreographic work could be applied to and explored within other, non-arts context.

How do we take this experience forward and extend our own practice?

Overall, we had a meaningful day engaging with choreographers and thinkers who fostered a positive ‘can do’ approach to the complex and multi dimensional issues of sustainability, creativity and choreography. Creative Carbon Scotland gives a robust platform for artists to engage with issues that concern the environment and with this encouragement; we are now looking towards creating a new project concerning choreography and photography in response to a particular ‘River’ in north Wales and a proposed controversial dam.

We hope to take forward a project that continues to question the notion of sustainability as we develop new work in the outdoor environment.

Image credits – Jan Ruth Davies. 

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