The Symmetry Project: A non-linear, graphic embodiment of our performance process

By Jess Curtis



JESS: Over the last three years Maria and I have created a series of studies we collectively named The Symmetry Project. They have been developed and performed in the (mostly unfunded) nooks and crannies of our dancing lives: studios, residencies and other altogether unimportant-sounding situations in San Francisco, Copenhagen, Budapest, Dublin and Cork, Ireland, Stolzenhagen, Berlin and Kassel, Germany and with groups of students from the Theater, Dance and Performance Studies Department at UC Berkeley and the University of the Arts in Berlin. We have collaborated with a variety of artists, including composer/contrabassist Klaus Janek, composer Sheldon Smith, video artists Regina Teichs and Kwame Braun, installation artist Ricarda Mieth and photographer Sven Hagolani in a variety of presentational contexts, including photo and video media, “live art” performance installations in galleries, internet, public sites and performance in theatrical contexts. We have been investigating left/right homologous movement as a lens whose distortion, and or focus, can yield insight into a variety of physical, aesthetic, social, and ethical realities.

This document is an attempt to represent this experience in a printed medium—perhaps a kind of linguistic embodiment of the sort of multi-centered, non-linear, not-always-in-agreement process that we have been undertaking. If it doesn’t quite make sense then we hope it will at least appeal to some of your senses.

The Symmetry Project is a journey through perception. Bodies interact through a highly structured improvisational score, constricted in a specific physical habit—that of moving symmetrically, relative to themselves or to each other. In this space of temporary ‘habitus,’ the two bodies are constantly tuning, reformulating the perception of the self and of the other. In the sharing of a central axis, spine, mouth, genitals, face, and anus, they reveal their interconnectedness and centrality in embodied experience. Limbs entangle and intertwine creating an inter-corporeal kaleidoscope of flesh. A kind of über-intimacy develops, going far beyond sexuality into a kind of communal biology, a symbiotic sensory field. Blending, merging, and then again differentiating, the two become ‘unfinished entities,’ improvising new habits, ‘perceiving the possible.’ Exploring and manipulating our perception, they reveal the body’s awkwardness, its monstrosity, its potential failure and finiteness. They create space for the possibility of the unknown, the wondrous, the ecstatic, and the infinite.”— Scaroni and Curtis, various sources 2006-2008

The previous paragraph is one that we have written and re-written about a hundred times in funding proposals, press releases and program notes. In spite of this repetition—or maybe because of it—it carries an essence of what we have been trying to do, what we have experienced, and how we have made sense of what we have sensed.

“If our body magnifies life and its infinite possibilities, it proclaims at the the same time, and with the same intensity, our future death and our essential finiteness.” — Bernard, M., Le Corps, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1995

MARIA: This is probably what I really think about dance and dance making: a strategy for survival, a place for questions and collecting personal references and obsessions.

If the body is a questioning body, there’s hope, even in the moments when it questions whether to be alive or not. It’s the body which asks for transcendence that performs rituals, that signifies, that perceives and attempts meaning.

Life is to celebrate, damn, accept, negotiate, explain, ignore, listen to, love.

Death is to remember, get ready for, deride, ignore, listen to, love.

Performing the body, or a physical state, equals the modulating of one’s opinion on all the above.

Our life is the life of a couple who comes together in the making of dances, which give us enough excuses to bounce from one continent to the other. Choosing a process-piece, versus a single product, gave us the opportunity to promise to stick to each other longer than just one year. Maybe procrastinating the end of the project is a hidden message, a sublimated wedding party. This project is a strategy for surviving globalization, the fact that living in one place is no longer enough. It is a strategy for resisting a change of subject every six or seven months, and for settling down, if not in real life, then in its translation into dance-based works.

This story is pretty straight and easy. Like any other dance this is what this project is about.

“Sometimes it works out that the activity involves making something, and sometimes that the activity is the piece.”— Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman has been a very strong inspiration. We are sentimental and simple people, and I say this with no rancor. We are sloppy post-modernists, and cannot be as witty and heart-breaking and pretty as he was.

I am symmetrical
You are symmetrical
He is symmetrical
She is symmetrical
We are symmetrical
You are symmetrical
They are symmetrical
This is being symmetrical

Man woman/ Sending receiving/ Strength vulnerability/ Ecstatic mundane/ Form state/ Virtual real/ Sacred profane/Control chaos/ Monstrous sublime/ Charged empty/ Objective subjective/ Animal human.


Woman control real mundane chaos receiving man sacred monstrous subjective state charged animal form virtual vulnerability sending strength objective human control ecstatic empty sublime.

“Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself, they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body.” — Maurice Merleau Ponty

“With the exhaustion of collective adventures, the deep weariness of the mind at the futile quest for the truth of History, of nature or of matter, only the narrative of the body, of its satisfactions and pleasures, and the search for new modes of sensibility, experience and emotion, still hold our attention.”— Hervè Juvin

Is what is seen true?

Is what is felt true?

Is dance to be seen? To be felt? To be seen feeling?

Does the truth matter at all?

The image, by definition, is pure mediation between the metaphysical and the physical.

STORIES OF HOW THINGS BEGIN and continue (Take 2)

Grounded in the desire to work.

Then comes the desire to work together.

(We are 2, foreshadowing of a symmetry)

Beginning in physical exploration we arrive at a concept.

WE START from geometry, from the illusion that perfection exists, we pretend to believe in shape and form.

Then we dig deeper, to examine the volume, passing through sensations,

FROM MUSCLES, to tissues, to bones, to the spine,

we arrive at an awareness of state. A kind of sub-cultural technology of a ritual rooted in physical practice.

THE SPINE connects the pelvis to the head, the brain to the pelvic floor. The spine is in the middle, it gathers and sends tons of information every second through the nervous system. The spine is the mediator. it’s a transmitter and a receiver.

Like a radio.


Like animals or machines.

Something about identity, about trance, about meeting the “other,” about community, about how we transmit something to each other that is not bound up in words.

This article appeared in the March 2009 issue of In Dance.

Jess Curtis is an award-winning choreographer and performer committed to an art-making practice informed by experimentation, innovation, critical discourse and social relevance at the intersections of fine art and popular culture. In 2000, Curtis founded his own trans-continental performance company, Jess Curtis/Gravity, based in Berlin and San Francisco. Curtis is active as a writer, advocate and community organizer in the fields of contemporary dance and performance, and teaches accessible Dance, Contact Improvisation and Interdisciplinary Performance courses throughout the US and Europe. He holds an MFA in Choreography and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California at Davis.