Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

“My body, my body, why can’t we be friends?” Like all big and awkward men – and I count Saul Bellow’s Henderson, the Rain King as a tutelary spirit – I have a perverse interest in dance, and specifically dance as one of the improvising arts. In both formal and informal guises, dance is impossible to avoid in the UK at the moment. The television networks have tired of humiliating celebrities in Japanese-inspired jungle rituals, chat-shows gone survivalist. In their place, a motley array of newsreaders, minor soap stars, down-the-bill musicians and others famous largely for being famous perform glides and reverse chassis with varying levels of conviction, sometimes partnered by professionals, sometimes not. It’s lurid and loud, and a perfect forum for the new-found British weakness for public weeping. It isn’t new, of course, but a postmodern refreshment of the old Come Dancing format, where pimply youths with prominent Adam’s apples turned into elands, crossing the bright Slipperined floor with animal grace and plain girls from the typing pool became princesses in tulle and taffeta and a million sequins each one of which – this was critical – was sewn on by her mother.

Even big and awkward men of my generation can dance a bit. “Social dance” was just behind Latin and arithmetic and just ahead of German in my education: waltz, two-step, quickstep, tango, De’il Among the Tailors, Gay Gordons (which might require a footnote), and even, God help us, the Sword Dance, which I once performed kilted. The technique is there but physical grace eluded me and when my singing voice changed from ruined choirboy to just plain ruined sometime after puberty, I took to musical instruments instead, as some kind of McLuhanite prosthetic, not so much extension of the body as an apology for its shortcomings.  

There’s a paradox here. We’ve all danced a bit, whether we know it or not. Even the guys who couldn’t sweep girls off their feet often spent their days in a complicated set of steps, repeated, garnished, reversed: step to the lathe, pull the handle, pull out the part, take it to the line, step to the lathe . . .  My bucolic variant, increasingly influenced by the ideas espoused on Min Tanaka’s Body Weather Farm, is a choreography of scything and binding, planting and weeding, a Terpsichore of chores that evokes that old cliché “muscle memory” with wincing accuracy.  We all do dance, but we probably know – or knew, before the current raft of TV shows – less of the language of dance than any other of the polite arts. Most culturally literate people are able to understand a measure of technicality in music writing, in literary and art criticism. Expert writers on dance are much rarer and those who can render physical movement accurately and scientifically, the Laban notators, are almost vanishingly scarce.

This is maybe a labored – or clumsy – point, but it serves to underline how pervasive and how occluded dance is in our general culture. It may be changing, though the new emphasis on haptic experience, which restores touch to a key place in aesthetics, again seems to have run past dance and into a nightmare of hug-shirts and other therapeutic horrors. I seem to be receiving more CDs that cite some kind of dance connection, which in turn triggers connections and associations that seem to have lain relatively unexamined for years. My own first experience of dance and musical improvisation in conjunction were conventional enough. Derek Bailey’s association with Min Tanaka, predates his latter collaboration with tap dancer Will Gaines, and is perhaps more immediately to the point since there is no aural element beyond the occasional sigh of exertion and drawn breath that remains on their ghostly recorded encounters. DVD and YouTube have doubtless transformed aspects of this whole question, as they have so much else in the culture, but they were not available at the time I am speaking of. The other influential figure was Katie Duck, who took part in one of Bailey’s most memorable Company weeks, initially in duo collaboration with Tristan Honsinger, latterly with other members of the Company ensemble. Duck communicated many interesting ideas on the subject, including a telescoping of space and silence as active contexts for performance, and the idea that an improviser has to get past the point of making choices, which suggests a binary opposition of doing/not-doing at every moment and entering into a practice where movement has an organic unity and internal logic that is no longer, in the proper as well as the dreary sense, eclectic.

Coincidentally, only a few days after watching a later Katie Duck performance, I saw Cecil Taylor – or as Marilyn Crispell dubbed him “Le Chanteur qui danse” – in one of his most outrageously physical performances, a faun-like and delightfully absurdist negotiation with the physical space of the piano; it went on for a good half-hour, or so it seemed, before he touched the keyboard, by which time the Bösendorfer was no more than an ungainly bloke in a tux who, realizing that he wasn’t going to be allowed to lead, stepped on Cecil’s toes and deadened the performance.

I’ve always been vaguely aware of being drawn to artists who blur the line between aural and physical performance. Meredith Monk is another revered figure from that same time-period, and in her stately, ritualized forms the perfect opposition to the therapeutic “self-expression” I was witnessing at a series of improvisation workshops for mentally handicapped adults I became involved with in London. Something of a closet Reichian at the time – I still lapse into the idiom of ‘body armor’ from time to time, and still regard excessive politeness as a pathology (which is why I live back in Scotland rather than London) – it seemed that any means of breaking down socially imposed rigidities had to be a good thing. Some of those rigidities are, of course, extremely graceful and also a profound expression of our physical as well as psychological community, so they aren’t to be denied too readily.

Arising out of this experience was a photographic and sound collage project unworthily inspired by a snippet of Mahavishnu John McLaughlin englishing the Godhead out of his twelve-string.  Would the crowd have gone quite so wild if he’s merely stood still and played the line, without all that top-string-under-the-fingernail stuff? More recently, Marc Ribot has commented wryly on audiences’ apparently naïve assumption that a very high sustained note is somehow physically harder to pull off on an electric guitar than a low twang. We take a lot of musical cues from what we see a musician doing and they provide live critics with a handy get-out when there isn’t much to say about the music, or it’s simply beyond us.  Oddly, though, no one takes the discussion much further, to that old Yeatsian thing about to tell apart the dancer and the dance, or rather the impossibility of doing so.

The most immediate spurs to this line of – very tentative – thought have been a renewed acquaintance with the enigmatic work of Masahi Harada, who has taken ‘non-idiomatic performance’ into remotely beautiful territory in which dance and ice-painting are equally ephemeral elements. The other is a set about to be released by Leo Records, which consists of real-time improvisations for dance by guitarist Mike Nord and drummer Georg Hofmann, taped at a performance by dancers Hideto Heshiki and Nurya Egger. The Flow takes ideas from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about the ‘state of optimal experience’ entered when we are, as everyone from avant-garde improvisers to Dancing on Ice judges now says, “in the zone.” Csikszentmihalyi’s celebrated grid of skill and challenge levels is now very familiar and influential, as is his likening of optimization to playing jazz, where every moment flows organically from the previous moment. However, it does seems that even this model is applied at a certain level of psychological and intellectual abstraction, which one again, in that very European way (MC is from Fiume, not Vienna or Budapest ), subordinates the body, psychologizing the axis-opposites anxiety and relaxation, boredom and arousal, when it ought to be physicalizing them. At the opposite corner to “flow” in Csikszentmihalyi’s grid is “apathy,” the point at which skill and challenge levels are at their lowest.

It’s a quadrant that unfortunately claims a very large proportion of our consumable culture. The very fact it is consumable perhaps answers the point. Jazz critics have from time to time bewailed the moment when the music lost its intimate association with dance, and done so in the kind of solemn tones T. S. Eliot used for the dissociation of sensibility. But you have to think that they are by and large right and justified. This is not to say that we should all get up and dance at gigs – the cardinal rule there is that either everyone does or no one – but that we should at least begin to think again of improvisation as a physical discipline more closely allied to dance than to any of the other art forms – visual, literary – that impinge much more regularly on improvised music and its contexts. It will take years of Orgone therapy (whoops, there I go again!) to free jazz and improv fans of the muscular rigidity that characterizes the average club, loft and gallery audience. I argued some years ago that there was a great challenge for jazz in the then new rave culture, and that the kind of physical solidarity enjoined by that culture – or more practically by MDMA or one of the other enactogenics – was one that should be explored more thoroughly by improvising musicians. It seemed to me that even loved-up and blessed-out youngsters were entitled to a better noise than they were getting, and it was time the improv crowd tried out a new buzz themselves.

Will we, won’t we, join the dance? I sense a groundswell of interest, which may after all be a hangover from the rave era (already sadly played out), tinged with aspects of the new social psychology and the rising discipline of haptics, which can still be rescued from the theme-park people and turned into a profound and serious new area of study and creative Endeavour. I throw all this out the way a bachelor at a farm dance in County Kerry might rush indiscriminately at one potential partner after another, no more put off by a rebuff than he is excited by an acceptance. I’d welcome a forum on our understanding of and creative relationship with dance. Anyone?

Brian Morton©2010

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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