Research Presentation Excerpts

Some excerpts from my most recent research presentation…

Background and Preparation:

Subsequent to a selection process, a contingent of OSU students and faculty gained the opportunity to travel to China through a cultural exchange program under the American Centers for Cultural Exchange. From March 7, 2014 to March 17, 2014, the OSU Performance Tour, including students from the Department of Theatre, School of Music, and a student freestyle group visited the Chinese cities Nanning, Xinxiang, Changchun, Shenyang, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Beijing.

Four dancers were chosen to participate in the ten day China Performing Arts Tour from Ohio State University’s Department of Dance. Under the instruction of Departmental Chair Susan Van Pelt Petry, we spent a rigorous eight months learning and rehearsing a total of eight disparate pieces, which ultimately culminated in nearly an hour long performance depicting a journey through the evolution of American modern dance.  This extensive repertory included a wide spectrum of ideas and movement concepts, ranging from movement encompassing the historical resistance of the 1960s to deter embellishment and reject conformity, explorations in speed and the embodiment of meditative practices such as Yoga and Tai Chi, scientific theories such as the Pedagogy of HIV Education and the intricacies of the human immune system, and even, the highly physical athleticism of exertion juxtaposed with the gentle, emotive quality of breath.  Rehearsals proved an immense challenge in respect to performative adaptation.

In addition to repertory rehearsals, the performers were responsible for shaping the dances for a Chinese audience, taking specific care to the way in which movement might be received and absorbed. Further, in collaboration with our instructor, we, as performers, helped to create movement research material that could be shared with Chinese students in facilitating a more wholisitic understanding of the intention of American dance. Often, in rehearsal, we worked to develop and practice the complexities of these exercises, familiarizing ourselves with the directives and aspects of each exploration.

Movement Workshops

Through several workshops at numerous, disparate locations, including Beijing Academy, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Arts, and Changchun University,  we worked to re-contextualize the possibilities of movement.  Utilizing the movement vocabulary from a select variety of dances in our performance tour repertoire, we aimed to challenge students to re-evaluate their perception and understanding of dance itself.  Through directed prompts, students explored the problem solving strategies of composing movement with relation to space, time, and the intricacies of everyday, seemingly pedestrian action. We challenged students to engage the directives fully, as a technique to extend the broad spectrum of movement opportunities often ignored in restricted contingency to fit a specific mold understand as dance.

Improvisational Scores

During each workshop, we furthered the exploration of ideas through the challenge of impulse, instinct, and again, perception. Our instructor, Susan Van Pelt Petry, and second-year graduate student, Tammy Carrasco, lead exercises structured in improvisation, a technique which manifests in the state or action of creating without pre-emptive or planned material.

We began with simple group exercises based in relationships and spatial awareness.  These “games” encouraged students to mentally measure the distance between them and an individual that served as a focal point. The task requires that one not only maintain this distance, but that the mover also navigate the other bodies as obstacles within the space; a sort of highly organized system within perceived chaos.

Later, we grew to implement partner work that facilitated the trust of both one’s individual body and more, the trust of one’s partner. These exercises required that one partner close his or her eyes, relying completely on the direction and physical information provided by another.

Through these exercises, one learns to challenge and redefine the concept of possibility and choice. As individuals are prompted with various obstacles, such as the restriction to the full use of the five senses or even, the tactile direction of another thinking, agile body, participants are challenged to trust the course of the exercise and thus, explore new ideas beyond habitual tendency. Grounded in the individual’s ability to think critically and explore the potential of new concepts, the movement workshops were effective in their demonstration of the embodiment of ideas.

Shared Performances

The ten day dance tour included a total of six performances, each assuming an entirely unique identity in respect to environment and circumstantial elements to which we, as performers, were forced to adapt and endure. Three of the performances specifically, one in Beijing, a performance in Changchun, and one in Wuhan, resonated as sincere lessons in cultural dialogue, as subsequent to our repertory, the students of each university responded with a presentation of their own.

More, after each performance, there was a period of discussion, in which audience members could ask questions of us based entirely on their inquiries of our performance. Often, we received questions encompassing the meaning of our performance; a warranted wonderment of the “why.”

Denman Research Presentation Poster. 2014.

Denman Research Presentation Poster. 2014.

Findings:

Through this experience, we found that movement is a representation of culture; a dialogue of norms and communicative embodiment of values. In compilation of our own observations of the genres of their performances and type of questions asked, the cultural confrontation of tradition and innovation emerged.

The artistic exploration we presented was undeniably grounded in the individual. Through improvisational tactics, games, movement workshops, and even performances, our aim was to express the efficacy of the arts as an exploration of self and opportunity for making choices, problem solving, critical thinking, and expression.

The Chinese performances, comprised of individuals inhabiting a nation founded on the vast importance of tradition, constructed on the values of ancestry and historical custom, demonstrated pieces that ceaselessly and blatantly exhibited a tie to custom. Each dance, regardless of the university, tethered movement to the strong influence of ethic and generational heritage, a physical representation of culture.

This cultural difference seemed significant in respect to the treatment of gender as well. As a cast composed of solely females, the Chinese students seemed surprised by what they described as the “strength” in our movement. Our greatest explanation for this perception spawned from the comparison to the type of dancing we observed, in which the women were often perpetuated as frail, fragile, and beautiful. In fact, while watching the Chinese performances, we, as a cast, often much more soundly identified with the physicality, momentum, and exertion of the male Chinese dancers.

Further, the desire for understanding resonated as a discovery of this process. Often, the Chinese students yearned for an explanation of the meaning of each dance, urging us to provide verbal justification to the movement they had observed.  In fact, the cultural disparities of “right vs. wrong” became evident, as the participants and audience members ceaselessly probed for a concrete statement or clarification to allocate to a performance of merely abstract and interpretative expression.

Conclusion:

Ultimately, we perceived this difference as a vulnerability and communication between cultural values. Engrained with the ideals of democracy, the dance we brought to China was overwhelmed by the importance of the individual.  In contrast, we were confronted with a culture seeded in custom, grown to perceive movement as a representation of history and narrative. Rather than utilizing movement as a vehicle to question, create, and explore, those with which we collaborated saw movement for its static nature to preserve, retell, and re-emphasize.

 

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