“When I open a dialogue with my body, I stop trying to manipulate it.” -Nancy Topf
“Consciousness leads. Ideas push” -Juleyn Hamilton
“Thinking about the body is not the body thinking.” -Susan Rethorst
Listening to the body may sound like an obvious premise from which to begin making dance, but some choreographers—for instance, those with a conceptual orientation or those rooted in traditional ballet—may use the body as a tool to realize pre-ordained intellectual or aesthetic goals. What are the underlying assumptions of a creative process rooted in listening to the body? What kind of knowing does this approach value? What if my body is the primemover in the creative process?
Surrendering some degree of intellectual control is a prerequisite for any practice that is rooted in listening to the body. I’m not talking about relinquishing aesthetic choice or rigorous attention, but rather about contextualizing choicemaking in a responsive, intuitive process. Allowing choices to flow from something other than expectations, ambitions, and pre-existing goals.
Confession: I fear that if I surrender the intellect in the creative process, the final product will not conform to my aesthetics. But do aesthetics come from the intellect, or a more visceral sensibility?
In Susan Rethorst’s A Choreographic Mind: Autobodygraphical Writings, she emphasizes the importance of being receptive, as opposed to manipulative, in the creative process:
“The roaming perceiving is a tool every bit as crucial as the generating, making motor. You can’t just have output and assume it to be answering to your preset ideas. You have to responsive to what you actually did, or are doing….Perceiving what you make is as important as being able to generate stuff….How does your [dance] act on you? What does it make you want/expect? How does it make you sit/think/breathe/hold yourself?”
Rethorst talks about the importance of humility in the creative process. What happens when we let the dance have agency? What happens when we allow the creative process to change us?
For various reasons and to varying degrees, we all hide out in overgrown mental functioning. This is what graphic novelist Alison Bechdel calls “a fantasy of self-sufficiency.” We relate to our intellect like a parent. We pretend that the intellect can protect us from what we fear. But allowing intellect to drive the creative process closes off the possibility of being transformed by the creative process itself. If we control the process, how can it transform us?
Letting go of our dependency on intellect opens the door to a creative process built on connection and listening—crucial if we want to create in partnership with others. Creating in a space of not-knowing is an essential component of collaboration.
What are the cultural implications to this approach to (art)making? In Alison Bechdel ‘s brilliant new graphic novel, Are You My Mother?, she relates a statement by Adrienne Rich: “The moment a feeling enters the body is political.” Listening to the body can be subversive. I’m not talking about sexual desires, although certainly those can be radicalizing if followed. I’m speaking more generally about listening to the body as distinct from the brain. Listening to the body subverts the disconnection of body from brain or, in other words, soma from psyche. When creative process is rooted in body-based expression, it subverts a culture warped by the Cartesian fallacy. When we make from an intuitive place, we unmake the dominant culture. We slow down. We pay attention. We open up to ourselves and each other.
Why do I aspire to this way of working? Because I like the results. Intuitive, body-based creative process can achieve results impossible to replicate with the tools of the conscious mind. And part of the reason I make art is a longing to be transformed. Intuitive, body-based creative process changes me.