Philosophy and Choreography Together in SF

jess curtis

From December 11 – 13, San Francisco’s CounterPulse will present Jess Curtis/Gravity’s Intercontinental Collaborations #6 at the Gray Area/Grand Theater (2665 Mission Street). Curtis, who divides his time between
San Francisco and Berlin, 
has a long history of creating experimental, body-based performances with an eclectic array of collaborators. When the press release for this evening of performance popped up in my inbox, I was intrigued to see philosopher Alva Noë listed as a collaborator and performer.

Alva Noë recently made a bit of a splash in October when the NY Times published an essay of his called “What Art Unveils”, which was subsequently read and shared widely in the dance community. Among various points made in the essay, Noë observes, “Art is a way of learning about ourselves. Works of art are tools, but they have been made strange, and that is the source of their power.” His newest book, Strange Tools, expands on these ideas; the experience of reading it is at once mind-expanding and affirming. As a philosopher working on questions of perception and consciousness, he is among a group of thinkers proposing an “enactive approach” to perception; he asserts, “perceiving is a kind of skillful bodily activity.” What this means, in the most basic sense, is that perception is not a process in the brain; it is not merely “thinking.” Instead we can think of perception as a dynamic “doing” where our embodied interaction with our surroundings both organizes, and is organized by, the world around us. Pretty heavy, abstract stuff—and yet it has found an eager audience in the dance world.

“My first book was called Action in Perception,” Noë told me recently during a phone conversation. “It targeted a mostly academic audience – predominantly in philosophy and neuroscience – but to my astonishment I learned that it was being read by people in the dance community.”

But perhaps it should not have been such a surprise. “People in the dance world – dance makers and dancers – are exquisitely interested in the relationship between consciousness and the body, consciousness and movement,” he said. “Some of the things I was saying seemed to resonate with them. For example, in my view every experience we have is, in some sense, something we make, or compose. So you can even start to think of choreography or dance making as a kind of research into an investigation of consciousness itself.”

The first choreographer with whom the philosopher had a productive encounter was acclaimed dance-maker, improviser, and videographer Lisa Nelson to see how dance training and composition might intersect with philosophy and neuroscience in generating knowledge from an embodied perspective. They did a joint workshop using Nelson’s “Tuning Scores” pedagogy accompanied by lectures by Noë proposing dance as a research practice and as an investigation of the perception of consciousness through movement. It was well-received and things evolved from there.

Not long after, he was invited to meet William Forsythe when The Forsythe Company was performing in the Bay Area, where Noë is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Bill and I really took to each other,” Noë told me. “We had a conversation that spanned all sorts of areas about perception and consciousness, science, dance, and choreography. Eventually he invited me to come visit and spend some time during a creation with his company and it was very productive.”

Noe ended up serving as “philosopher-in-residence” for The Forsythe Company from 2008 until the company was disbanded in 2014. And what does a philosopher-in-residence in a dance company do? He says, “I wish I could say, ‘Well, I did X, Y and Z’ or ‘I contributed this, that and the other’ to the work of the company. But it was much more diffuse than that. I was there foraging for knowledge and information and they were picking my brain for knowledge and information. I was in the studio and I was simply one of the voices, one of the thinkers, in the space.”

Diffuse or not, Noë credits this work as essential to the writing of Strange Tools. “In a lot of ways I never could have written it if not for all that I learned through that association,” he reflects. “And it isn’t just about Bill or Bill’s company, it was that it was an opening for me to discover a new world of artistic practice that I didn’t know that much about beforehand.”

Perhaps one of the reasons that Noë’s thinking resonates so strongly with dance-makers, and why the collaboration with Forsythe was so productive, is that he is able to convey to a non-arts audience an understanding of what choreography is, what art is, that dance-makers know implicitly but are not able to articulate for themselves. In “What Art Unveils,” he writes, “art is itself a research practice, a way of investigating the world and ourselves. Art displays us to ourselves, and in a way makes us anew, by disrupting our habitual activities of doing and making.”

And it is perhaps in this context of live art as a kind of activated, ongoing research process that the upcoming work with Jess Curtis/Gravity is best understood. During this run they will preview excerpts of a new piece, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, a duet by Curtis and Claire Cunningham that examines how our perception of others is inextricably woven into the ways we move in the world, scheduled to premiere as an evening-length work in fall 2016.

Cunningham is a multi-disciplinary performer and choreographer based in Glasgow. She is a classically trained singer who, due to a progressive bone disease, uses crutches that she incorporates into her choreography. She was mentored by acclaimed dancer, choreographer and performance artist Bill Shannon (aka The Crutchmaster), who is widely recognized for his pioneering work at the intersection of hip hop dance and disability arts. She has since developed her own movement vocabulary based on the use of crutches. The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, which will have a rolling world premiere, opening first at the Southbank Centre in London, followed by the Tramway in Glasgow, Uferstudios in Berlin and finally at CounterPulse in San Francisco, co-presented by YBCA, “proposes that non-normative bodies have unique lessons to offer about perception and movement,” says Curtis.

Here is where we start to get a glimpse of how philosophy and choreography really do work together. Noë writes in Strange Tools:

Philosophy is the choreography of ideas and concepts and beliefs […] Choreography, in turn, is the philosophy of dancing (or movement). Both philosophy and choreography take their start from the fact that we are organized but we are not the authors of our organization. Instead of thinking of choreography as a philosophical practice, or philosophy as a choreographic one, we would do better to appreciate that both choreography and philosophy are species of a single genus that, for want of a better name, I will refer to as the study of our organization; philosophy and choreography are organizational and reorganizational practices. They are practices (not activities) – methods of research – aiming at illuminating the ways we find ourselves organized and so, also, the ways we might reorganize ourselves.

In other words, human beings are, by nature, “organizers”; this organizing is integral to how we are in the world and what we do. Choreography and philosophy are companions, analogous but different ways of knowing and being. The practice of either, or both, separately and together, helps us make sense of the world and “reorganize” our understanding of the world to imagine other possible ways of being and understanding.

So, if Noë helps us understand perceiving as a kind of skillful bodily activity, then Cunningham’s work proposes that the juxtaposition of “normative” and “non-normative” bodies, set amongst and within the audience, will prompt new modes of perceiving, or at least some new questions.

I asked Noë if, after all this time working with dancers, he considers himself to now have an “embodied practice.” He pauses to consider and offers, “I don’t consider myself a dancer, but I do consider myself a performer. And I think of my work as a performer as significantly embodied. I think if you ever saw me talk or teach you’d think that I use my body in a demonstrative way, a performative way. I really think the kind of work that I do as a teacher is concerned in many ways with what performance deals with.”

At the time of our conversation, Noë was still in rehearsal with Curtis and Cunningham. Since these are preview performances, it will definitely be a work-in-progress. “We’re in the studio now and I think I’m going to appear on stage with them, but it is all up in the air, it’s all still being made,” he tells me. “We’re really trying to make a work in which I’m an integral part, but exactly what it’s going to look like is still very much up for grabs.”

Whatever shape it finally takes, one is intrigued by the possibilities of transposing philosophical and choreographic questions, and how that will operate in a performance space with an audience. In any case, the collaborators collectively bring depth and rigor to their experiment, and benefit from having a longstanding relationship.

“It’s exciting. I’d known Claire’s work for a long time, and I really admire her as an artist; I’ve known Jess’s work and have admired him as an artist as well,” says the philosopher. He laughs ever so slightly and shares, “And they’re also very interested in training me, and teaching me, in their movement practices, so it’s a lot of fun.”

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