Bodies in space
A language material...
by Steph Daughtry
‘The body is not a set entity. It constantly changes, like the weather. The body that measures the landscape, the body in intercourse with weather, the body kissing (the) mass of peat, the body in (a) love-death relation to the day. For me the dance has been a symbol of despair and courage.’
— Min Tanaka
Japanese dancer Min Tanaka acts on an instinctual drive to propel visual form into uncharted territory. A space where physical incongruence jolts perception into realms of hyper-possibility.
Emerging as a solo performer in the late 1950s, Tanaka danced where he was found; often in public spaces, and mostly naked, his improvised pieces lacked conventional beginning or end. Tanaka danced like this for eight years before gaining critical momentum in light of the bourgeoning international interest in the obscure language of Japanese Butoh where his body – repelling his early modern dance training – found authentic realisation.
Butoh, “the dance of darkness”, developed as a voiceless cry against the modernisation of post-War Japan. This ‘grotesquely transgressive’ (1) practice embodied the materialisation of national trauma, a physical exploration at the meeting point of cultural transition. The movement itself expressed a clash of identities drawing from American modern dance, German expressionism, and indigenous Japanese styles with a distinct emphasis on the incarnation of pastoral forms. The practice introduced new shapes into corporeal and mental repertoire, especially alien to the Western psyche. Eyes here are not searching skyward; energy is drawn from the tactile surface, the body is a product of its reaction to the ground.
Drawing from the vast text of a lingering Butoh repertoire a language as by-product developed – through Tanaka – into “BodyWeather” technique: a practicing theory in which external stimuli determine the continually moving centre of the dancing body. If the body is triggered by a constant mode of change, as irrepressible as the weather, then the promise of cultural stasis becomes flawed. Responding to environmental pressure pushes bodies into new modes of possibility, imprinting directly onto time and place; mark-making of the human form.
Insisting that the ‘dance has to exist in your body, not with the movement’ (1), Tanaka upends classical technique. Influenced by his dual identity as dancer and farmer in countryside Tokyo, this unique training methodology drew a sound following and saw dancers live communally and work on Tanaka’s farm as an imperative feature of their training. The incidental “dance” of the working farmer, allowed dancer’s bodies to ‘connect with place from its complex depths of tissue, organs, bones and fluids’(2). Welcoming dancers from any background, Tanaka saw cultures emerge and merge together to create new pastoral realities that sprung from a modern age. From an origin elevating a distinctly Japanese physicality, this technique became a framework in which other bodies could morph into altered states of identity. Shapes travelling across cultures, across continents. Bodies actively meeting the weather of change.
Bodies in space, inherently, unequivocally, make waves. Considering the physical impossibility of being absent from space, our bodies communicate incessantly, despite ourselves. Where music becomes ‘sound’, BodyWeather becomes ‘movement’; reductive in its description, abounding in its resonance, destructive on the impact.
Australian-British practitioner Tess de Quincey, studied under Tanaka in Japan for six years, dancing as part of his Mai Juku performance group in the mid 1980s. Now based in Sydney, de Quincey develops Tanaka’s practice within an Australian context as head of the De Quincey Co. Her work transmits the embodied exploration of available space, producing definitive pieces such as an immersive multi-disciplinary response to Sydney’s epic Eveleigh Railworks, in The Stirring (2007); and a series of moving explorations through 164 various locations across the Sydney CBD, in Compression 100 (1996).
In conjunction with Sydney University the De Quincey Co ran an annual programme of BodyWeather training in the Central Desert between 1999-2001. The ‘interdisciplinary laboratory’ was located at Old Hamilton Downs Station one hundred kilometres NW of Alice Springs on the edge of the Tanamai Desert(3). Lecturer Gay McAuley has noted that the participants involved felt confronted by the inadequacy of their own technique within the expanse of the Central Desert(4). However, my focus here is not to measure the value or quality of work, but to explore the impulse that exists behind it.
Applying BodyWeather to this ancient site, participants attempted to channel the ‘qualities’ of the place ‘through their bodies’(5). In Tanaka’s words: not simply dancing in/on the place, but dancing place itself. The performance of Dictionary of Atmospheres heralded the culmination of work on site. The piece, following dancers for 1.5km through the dried up riverbed of Lhere Mperntwe (Todd River), ‘[followed] the direction of the water’ where ‘everyone was made a part of the same trickling motion through the heavy sands’(6). Attempting to awaken found elements of landscape through the lived experience of live event.
These corporeal explorations tease out an embedded understanding that the body speaks of the place it finds itself. Dancing the layered text of place that space always holds, yet not always yields, here unearthed through the powerful receptor of the human body. The intimacy of de Quincey’s often fluid production pieces, where audience and performer intertwine, are heightened by the vastness of existent space; proximity becomes key in her ability to make audiences both intently present, and gloriously elevated into the imaginary potential of what is t/here. A spectacle that triggers something both intensely local, immediate, while simultaneously drawing from the settled layers of past that constitute contemporary ground.
The weight of spatial transmission doesn't respond to gravity, but through and out of experience. These pieces transcend making concrete or confident declarations, but are instead active questionings of what it means to be bodies present in this space we call home. Words become a way in which to attach semiotic meaning to an irrepressible frisson, conceptual art is the action – or gesture –that arrives before the explanation, our bodies are our vessels of expression: a language material.
Marshall, J 2001, De Quincey Co, Sydney, ‘Bodies Across the Pacific’, viewed 19 August 2016
Vermeersch, P 2001, ‘About Butoh. In research for its origin and actual meaning’, viewed 19 August 2016
Vedel, K 2007, 'Silica Tales And Other Moves in Lhere Mparntwe: Site specific dance in Arrernte Country, Central Australia', Journal for the Anthropology of Human Movement, Movement and Dance in Colonial Contexts, Helsinki, June, pp. 1-14.
Grant, S 2001, ‘A Dictionary of Atmospheres – Performing Place as Self’, viewed 19 August 2016
McAuley, G 2000, ‘Body Weather in the Central Desert of Australia’, in C. Haomn-Sirejols and A. Surger, eds., Theatre: Espace Sonore, Espace Visuel, LyonL Presses Universitaires de Lyon, ‘Introduction’, About Performance 5.
Anderson, ME 2011, 'In/between/Place: Tess de Quincey's Bodyweather of the Central Desert', Brolga, vol. 34, June, pp. 39-49