Songs Without Words

I began making this work during the Covid 19 pandemic,the circumstances of which have prompted me to reconsider the limitations and possibilities of our world, and with that every level and aspect of my creative process. Of course limitations are to be prized in that they tend to focus effort and songs without words (sww) is limited to solos, defined in part by self-exploration and self-reflection, something that feels surprisingly new to me as I have made few solos for my own performance. Now it feels as if for the first time I am truly allowing a deep listening to the emerging dance, trusting self-direction, letting go, and exploring new terrain. While the separate works of sww may one day translate to the stage, they are, for this iteration, video-recorded performance pieces, and will form a collection springing from a single creative impetus, an anthology.
Initially conceived as a trio – three women, three generations – I refashioned sww out of creative necessity at the onset of the pandemic as a vehicle for my own solo explorations. The central conceit of the work remains the presentation of the body and its movement as the expressive equivalent of song. However, where I originally imagined a single work of considerable length, sww is now a creative project of undetermined duration, the target of which is to amass an anthology of 15 to 20 short two-to-ten-minute pieces. By committing to making each of these works as distinct as it is complete and necessary, I am finding growth in my choreographic and physical expression and, importantly, discovering the dances that, at this point in my maturity, I am compelled to do.

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Literary Research

The processes and dances of sww exist in an aesthetic relationship to other forms – theatrical, literary and visual. The most significant sources are: the poetic aesthetic of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the significance he gave to the apprehension of the  inmost nature of a thing; the relationship between rhythm, image and style as explored by Mary Oliver in Rules for the Dance; the dynamism of the visual image and the inexhaustible subject of our world in the MANGA of Hokusai; the contribution of expression that escapes the burdens of meaning in Asemic  The Art of Writing (Peter Schwenger); the use of time and space in theatrical performance from A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology (Eugenio Barba & Nicola Savarese); and, the dance and the ideas of Kazuo Ohno (Kazuo Ohno’s World from Within & Without Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno, John Barrett translation).

Gerard Manley Hopkins defined the ideas of inscape, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity, and instress, the act of recognition of the inscape of other beings. These were the very essence of his poetic urge and what has been called the oddness of his style. 

Music

I give weight to the musical aspect of the choreography – of the performance itself – essentially by thinking of the relationship between dance and music as that of two musics. At play is a counterpoint of rhythm, phrase length, texture, thematic duration, intensity and so on.

For this anthology I am moved specifically to explore the expressive nature of song, its connection to voice, to individual expression, to breath, to the heart, to humanity and to the other beings who sing. If I think of dancing as singing, of the body as the voice, my choreography is freed in the direction of deeper expression.

A musical thought is one spoken by a mind that has penetrated into the inmost heart of the harmony, of coherence which is its soul, whereby it exists, and has a right to be here in this world.  All inmost things, we may say, are melodious, naturally utter themselves in song.
Thomas Carlyle,  Wisdom & Metaphor, Jan Zwicky

In some of the earliest sww studio explorations I was working with aria, listening carefully to the singers’ and the melodies, the rising and falling contours and variations, the departures and arrivals of phrases, the slackening and quickening of pace, the hesitations, the reiterations, the changing of tone of a single note. I was completely captivated by the virtuosity, the sheer amount of detail per note, the utterly committed luxuriant expressiveness. I see these as fruitful parallels to the dynamics and physicality of the sww dances.

The choice of musical score is another layer musical consideration. Each of the pieces must be strong works in their own rights. But they must have enough aural space to allow for the expression of the dance in all its melodious particulars. I look to the works of contemporary composers, usually small ensemble or solo pieces, those that express a complementary aesthetic to the expressive goals of sww, keeping in mind that each work in the anthology is to be distinct.

Critical exchange invited peers

Critical Exchange

Through these webpages I hope to share in some detail the shaping of the sww anthology as it develops. I also want to encourage and highlight the responses of invited peers to all aspects of the process and its results. This critical aspect serves my own development and that of the work but my hope is that it will do much more: to give voice to multiple perspectives of dance thinking, to provide an opportunity for artistic reflection to pandemic-isolated creators and performers, and to be a modest means to continue the necessity of this exchange in the future post-pandemic world where the vitality of the support for live performance is uncertain.

Movement Research Process

I began by exploring and videoing movement trials, focusing my efforts on finding approaches to achieving consistently compelling physical performance. This initial movement research phase was only loosely contained by my reading and listening. I deliberately avoided the interpretation of any specific theme, any focus beyond the connection to the movement itself. I performed most of the trials with music, changing my selections frequently and refining my choices to suit the movement development priority. I made no attempt to make complete dances but worked to redirect my explorations in more convincing iterations by critically viewing the videos of the movement trials.

After rehearsals on a larger screen at home I viewed the videos again making more detailed direction notes. For each subsequent rehearsal I established priorities based on previous trials, sometimes minute details and sometimes significant realizations about the process itself, how it was evolving, how to stay abreast of and take advantage of what I was learning.

What interested me most was identifying and achieving a sustained communication between the dancer and viewer. I invested in whatever I felt strengthened or promised to strengthen that communication, accumulating, isolating and naming movement ideas. In this way the material content of sww slowly arose from my movement trials.

The movement trial videos from the initial movement research phase form a pool of ideas. The seeds of each solo dance that I will make in the anthology are already swimming in this pool.

Movement Performance Strategies

From the movement research process I amassed a list of strategies in self direction. These strategies do not guarantee accomplishment but work best when held at a distance from the dancing. There is nothing shockingly new in the list but without these strategies I could not arrive at the dances of sww. Collectively they serve as my guide to deepening the connection to movement performance, establishing approaches to actions in the doing and to the accompanying state of mind, narrowing in on concepts around song, as well as avoiding habits and pitfalls.

Mind – mental/spiritual preparation and state

  • Stillness in mind, an opening to the influence of the music, the promptings of the deepest body
  • Allow for the slow, the still
  • Waiting for the strong choice to come, what wants to emerge
  • Reveal inner life – authenticity
  • The whole being must be in focus – integrity
  • Decisions arise from context, lead to consequences
  • Everything needs fullness – motivation and consequence
  • Do less, go deeper, mine where you are
  • Listen very carefully to what you dance
  • Stay with what comes
  • Be patient with how and where the dance is
  • Be calm
  • Keep searching
  • Accomplish nothing
  • Stay curious, stay patient, stay engaged
  • Have no expectations
  • Everything has importance given time/focus/presence
  • How little can you say, with how much power?
  • Meaning what you dance has consequences for everything

Literary Research

The processes and dances of sww exist in an aesthetic relationship to other forms – theatrical, literary and visual.  The most significant sources are: the poetic aesthetic of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the significance he gave to the apprehension of the  inmost nature of a thing; the relationship between rhythm, image and style as explored by Mary Oliver in Rules for the Dance; the dynamism of the visual image and the inexhaustible subject of our world in the MANGA of Hokusai; the contribution of expression that escapes the burdens of meaning in Asemic  The Art of Writing (Peter Schwenger); the use of time and space in theatrical performance from A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology (Eugenio Barba & Nicola Savarese); and, the dance and the ideas of Kazuo Ohno.

Gerard Manley Hopkins defined the ideas of inscape, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity, and instress, the act of recognition of the inscape of other beings. These were the very essence of his poetic urge and what has been called the oddness of his style.

The main reason for the strangeness of his style is the serious artistic purpose of ‘inscaping’ into a perfect unity (i) the inward fusion of thought and feeling and (ii) the corresponding outward harmony of rhythm and sound-texture. For Hopkins, inscape was ‘the very soul of art’. P.xxii Poetry and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. H. Gardner, Penguin Books 1953 ©.

My attention is drawn to his thought and poetry precisely because of his pursuit of the inner, the individual uniqueness of any subject.  His work encourages me in sww to listen more deeply to my own particular stylistic urges and to dedicate myself more completely to unearthing the oddness of every subject, every dance.

In Rules for the Dance Mary Oliver looks closely at how poetry creates its  effects.  I find the closer I look at poetry – its rhythms, line lengths, relationship between time and image and style, and so on – the more I am convinced of the poetic essence of solo dance, and the musical essence of both dance and poetry.

Every poem is music – a determined, persuasive, reliable, enthusiastic and crafted music. p.ix Rules for the Dance, Mary Oliver, Houghton Mufflin Company, 1998 ©.

All my notes about Oliver’s book are questions: Can I work with poetic form to contain, fulfil and force the introduction and completion of ideas? Alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, metaphor and simile, conceit, do any of these have parallels in movement terms?  If a pattern doesn’t maintain itself strongly enough, reliably enough, to be a real pattern, the reader’s (viewer’s) pleasure and attention will cease.  Is this so in movement terms? Apart from the parallels between dance and poetry there is another great appeal for me to work the poetry of the dance. Oliver reminds her readers that,

No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonor life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. p. 104

Hokusai’s MANGA is overwhelming in its volume and range of material – changing fleeting appearances, sketches of consecutive moments, all things in nature, imaginary creatures – expressing a powerful dynamism and revealing the artist’s attempt to capture every possible case. Hokusai could scale his subjects at will, painting massive works of 10m x 18m and miniatures on a single grain of rice.  I feel it is from Hokusai that my interest in an anthology of stylistically distinct short dances arose.  Neither can I overstate the inspiration of his life-long commitment:

From the age of six I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and ten I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. Text 4, P. 74 Hokusai (1760 – 1849) Manga c. 2011 © PIE International .

In Asemic The Art of Writing I encountered a discussion of expressive gesture that  pointed to what I wanted to allow in sww, an open-ended thinking based in wonder, an expression of the strangeness of the space within, an invitation unburdened from narrative. 

Asemic writing conveys something of that elusive nonverbal element;… Through abstract linear gestures on the page, it evokes interior ones – mental movements and shapes, tendencies and qualities.  The weaving together of theses produces texture, the texture of something that precedes thought and language. p.148 Asemic The Art of Writing, Peter Schwenger, University of Minnesota Press,  2019 ©.

The Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology entails a transcultural analysis of

          …the study of the behaviour of the human being when it uses its physical and mental presence in an organised performance situation and according to principles that are different from those used in daily life. This extra-daily use of the body is what is called technique.p.5. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, Eugeniio Barba & Nicola Savarese, Routledge, 2006 ©.

My aesthetic goal of deepening expressive communication in sww is fed by the Dictionary’s descriptions of various techniques.  For example, I am curious about dilated form and stillness as well as in the prioritizing of time over space: 

There is a rule in noh theatre that says that three-tenths of any action should happen in space and seven-tenths in time. . .  On one hand, that actor projects a quantity of energy in space; on the other hand, he retains more than twice as much within himself, creating a resistance to the action in space.  P. 84. 

As I view the videos of my sww studio improvisations, I notice from time to time a nervous urge to travel in space which is almost always accompanied by a slackening of viewing interest.  I use the Dictionary as a creative jolt, to plumb ideas about performance and to incorporate what I can to fasten viewing interest and deepen expression. 

In Kazuo Ohno’s world from within & without, (2004 ©, Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno, John Barrett translation, Wesleyan University Press)  I find a teacher whose maturity and authenticity is an abiding inspiration, support and challenge.  I turn to the section, Workshop Words,  to find those koan-like ambiguous directions I need to reach the aesthetic and expressive goals of sww. Each comment or suggestion or imperative presents a challenge to one’s present state. Each direction requires a searching, a letting go, a discovery.  As well, the dancing that addresses these challenges is the dancing I aspire to in sww.

As human beings we don’t grow while on the move, but during those dreams we inhabit as we stop and rest for a while.  Isn’t it at such times that our souls evolve? P.204

You’ll bloom before our very eyes as soon as the delicacy and inner beauty of your dance engages us.  Once you forget yourself, you’ll spontaneously burst into flower without having to give it the slightest thought. p. 222

…the ideal is to dance without moving. In fact, such sparseness of expression is an effective means to evoke the world of spirits, for inaction, more than physical movement, affects us on a much deeper level…Bear in mind that restraint plays an essential role in creating your onstage presence. p.223

Dance is not a language, but the radiance of your expression, p.285

Movement Performance Strategies

From the movement research process I amassed a list of strategies in self direction. These strategies do not guarantee accomplishment but work best when held at a distance from the dancing. There is nothing shockingly new in the list but without these strategies I could not arrive at the dances of sww. Collectively they serve as my guide to deepening the connection to movement performance, establishing approaches to actions in the doing and to the accompanying state of mind, narrowing in on concepts around song, as well as avoiding habits and pitfalls.


Mind – mental/spiritual preparation and state

  • Stillness in mind, an opening to the influence of the music, the promptings of the deepest body
  • Allow for the slow, the still
  • Waiting for the strong choice to come, what wants to emerge
  • Reveal inner life – authenticity
  • The whole being must be in focus – integrity
  • Decisions arise from context, lead to consequences
  • Everything needs fullness – motivation and consequence
  • Do less, go deeper, mine where you are
  • Listen very carefully to what you dance
  • Stay with what comes
  • Be patient with how and where the dance is
  • Be calm
  • Keep searching
  • Accomplish nothing
  • Stay curious, stay patient, stay engaged
  • Have no expectations
  • Everything has importance given time/focus/presence
  • How little can you say, with how much power?
  • Meaning what you dance has consequences for everything

Doing – fruitful approaches to actions in the doing

  • Always make a compositional effort in your approach.  It proposes a relationship between ideas, and makes them more accessible to the viewer, and the dancer/creator.
  • Pursue the awkward, the odd
  • Prolong, delay all inevitable arrivals and departures
  • Dance the strangeness within
  • Look for the details within and between movements
  • Define each quality unreservedly
  • Stay with
  • Be decisive at the same time you are searching
  • Form is one thing, movement through form is another
  • Be in your extremities, your centre and your insides
  • Load travelling with intense sensations, feelings, make travelling the result of the tensions within the movement itself
  • Compress the travel
  • Make sure the whole body is involved
  • When stationary make sure there is energy in the legs and feet
  • Consider everything as a transition and nothing as insignificant
  • Suggest
  • Listen
  • Become
  • The slow unfolding
  • Reiterated gestures catch the viewer, intensify and enrich the feeling
  • Try interruptions part way through an expression: it is subverted by some physical impulse that is barely related
  • Transitional Quality – try different from where you are coming from and from where you are going – a flash of something contrasting

Concepts around Song

  • Part of the dancer’s inner life is the inner music that emerges as physical expression
  • Listening is a key part of song / the effective song lies between the singer and the listener
  • Song as an extended effective/affective shaping of time
  • Breath/line/suspension/silence
  • Texture, phrase length, material variations
  • Be musical

Avoid – habits, pitfalls

  • Watch out for aimless travelling in the space -it is often nervous energy that releases tension and does not advance the dramatic experience
  • Abandon rational approach
  • Resist ‘ideas’
  • Watch out for literal or restrictive interpretations
  • Beware of symmetry
  • Don’t try to make sense of it, visual or otherwise
  • Watch for flingyness – doing for doing’s sake
  • Watch out for pedestrian gestures linked to ‘meaning’
  • Avoid the narrow, the definitive
  • Avoid literalness entirely
  • Have no expectations
  • No judgement
  • Escape meaning or unsay what you have mistakenly said in order to leave it open
  • Avoid ‘dramatic’ focus that suggests a ‘presence’ in the space
  • Avoid quick unmotivated or nonconsequential actions
  • Watch out for returning a gesture on the same path that it is launched
  • Watch out for fulfilling the direction of a gesture, try subverting more