Art, Dance, Theory, and Perception

By Jennifer Marie Hoff

December 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I FELT UNCERTAIN. Sort of solitary? Though a lot goes on in the Bay Area, the limitations (cost, accessibility, space, outreach, etc) to the dance world frustrated me. I wanted to reach out, so to speak; I wanted connection to other disciplines, to understand dance in other settings. So I interviewed Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy, who seemed to be involved in just that sort of cross-disciplinary work.

In making a bridge between philosophy and contemporary dance, Noë seems in an interesting position to help further catalyze dance into the wider worlds of science, art, and academics. Though theoretically and practically sophisticated, dance remains in its academic infancy: a sort of semi-mystical state, in which it goes both recognized and unknown. Also bridging various artistic spheres from the Bay Area to the UK and Berlin, this engagement—and others who engage in artistic dialogue both in the Bay and elsewhere—help to recast the historical isolation of the West Coast, developing continuity between transnational dance communities, as well as dialogue between artistic to academic communities.

Jennifer Marie Hoff (JH): What is your profession and how do you describe it?

Alva Noë (AN): I’m a philosopher, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley…. But, what I really am is someone who thinks and writes and researches on the nature of human experience, and the perception of consciousness.

JH: What is your focus in philosophy?

AN: I come out of philosophy, but I very quickly became interested in the dialogue between philosophy and the natural sciences, the cognitive sciences, the neurosciences, medicine. To me there’s more philosophically-interesting thinking about the mind happening outside of philosophy. But as I pursued that I also began to be very skeptical about what seemed to be certain commonly-made assumptions about phenomenal (real-life, lived) experience. One of the ideas that I started trying to criticize and critically understand is the idea that the mind is somehow internal, that it just sort of happens in us, in the brain, say. And that the body and environment are somehow secondary, that action doesn’t play a role, in connecting up our minds and experiences.

JH: How do you relate your ideas about consciousness to dance?

AN: From my point of view dance is something you do, and one of the things that art-dance does is it investigates those situations, it calls into question the way in which we are situated and skillful and embodied. So in a way dance can become a sort of forum for the study of consciousness. Now one of the discoveries I’ve made is that philosophy is a kind of aesthetic practice. And I think that art can be a kind of philosophical practice.

JH: What distinguishes dance as art for you?

AN: I have an idea, and I’m aware it’s criticizable, that not every bit of writing is art, and not every bit of dancing is art. You dance to let off steam, you dance to make friends, courtship…all these reasons we have for dancing. And I don’t think choreography has anything, essentially, to do with dance. Choreography has to do with a kind of investigation that uses dance as raw material. That’s why somebody like Jerome Bel is a great choreographer, though the dance in the choreography is rarely recognizable.

JH: How have you argued your ideas about philosophy?

AN: My first book is called Action in Perception, and in it I developed a theory of perception as a form of skillful activity. That the mind itself is not something that happens in us, it’s something we do. My second book, Out of Our Heads, tries to really extend that idea and offer a very different conception of ourselves, as active, as embodied, as integrated with our environments. The traditional view, that I oppose, thinks of mind as internal, mind as intellectual, mind as deliberative. I’m interested in the idea that we’re engaged, we’re involved, we’re at home in the world. The chief idea of my work is this idea that conscious experience is something we enact, or achieve, in our relation to the world around us. Not something that happens inside us.

JH: How did you become acquainted with contemporary dance?

AN: I made the acquaintance of Rebecca Todd, who was a dancer in Toronto. She organized a workshop with me and Lisa Nelson, and a bunch of other very cool people, including some from the Bay Area and also Europe. Lisa has a very developed conception of dance as a research practice, which takes inspiration not only from dance, but also from cognitive science. I was very inspired. That was the first time I had met somebody who was thinking of dance as a place for research and investigation. And, indeed, investigation into just those things that there’s a desperate need for within the science and philosophy communities, to better understand the perception of consciousness, movement, intuition. Lisa did these workshops, and I gave lectures, and there were discussions. That was really my first encounter with dance, with the kind of intelligence dancers have, and the kinds of interests dancers have.

As we talk about the improvisations Nelson leads, the difference between a workshop and a performance becomes a point of interest. How does the work of dance artists become available through these different modes, hands-on versus audience? I bring up people working with performative experiential states: Simone Forti, Sara Shelton Mann, Deborah Hay, among others, and how different seeing their shows can be from taking their workshops. How can the experience of participating in workshops inform how someone sees performance?

JH: How did you begin working with the Forsythe Company?

AN: I was contacted by a woman named Rebecca Groves. She was a dramaturg, who was working with the company to develop tools and methods, technologies and informational strategies to help people understand dance as an art form. This has since developed into a full-blown research platform called Motion Bank that I continue to be involved with. Then Bill [Forsythe] and I developed a friendship, and have since then been engaged in a dialogue. One of the things we do is work on a series of what we are calling “lecture-dances.” We’re really thinking about what it means for an artist and a philosopher to talk at all. We’re talking about dance, making dance, and making philosophy. We’ve been working on it for two years, and that’s an ongoing project. In the meantime I’ve been named, half in jest, Philosopher-in-Residence for the Forsythe Company.

The question arises, is Forsythe’s work ballet or contemporary dance? Noë thinks of Forsythe as contemporary, but I still see him as ballet. Though he fuses forms and uses a variety of influences as material, it comes, I sense, from ballet at its base. ”The dancers do take ballet class,” Noë ponders, but he talks about the Forsythe Company as a shift away from the Ballet Frankfurt. He considers Forsythe to be an artist coming from ballet, but now working within the exploratory nature of contemporary. (To compromise our views, in general worldview, he and his company are considered “contemporary ballet.”)

JH: Are you working on other projects with dancers or choreographers?

AN: I’ve been collaborating with an exciting and brilliant dancer, Nicole Peisl, who is a member of the Forsythe ensemble. She and I, this summer, taught a workshop together at Impulstanz in Vienna. Then we also gave a longer workshop in Frankfurt as part of Tanzlabor at the Küstlerhaus Mousonturm. The questions we’re trying to answer are how we think about dance and experience itself as compositional practices. If we think of perception as something we achieve or enact, or something we perform, then we can see the possibility of thinking of perceptual consciousness, or experiential consciousness, as itself an opportunity for composition. Nicole and I also made and performed a piece together What we know best. We presented it at Sommerlabor as a work-in-progress. For me it was a very exciting moment in my conversation and exploration with dance.

JH: When you talk about relating states of consciousness to composition, how does that lend itself to choreography? If we are talking about choreography as something set and repeatable, can you truly set perceptive states as composition?

AN: If perceptual experience isn’t inside, if it’s something we do, or perform, then consciousness itself is a performance. In that sense we also compose that performance. Whether intuitively or deliberately, these issues of composition arise in our conscious interactions. Like right now, in walking to this park, we walked up a path thinking we would get to someplace to sit, but instead we found something else, and so cut across the grass—a sort of subversive action, at least against the design of the park—to get to these benches. These are conscious choices being made; each of us is a composer. We are reaching out and probing, we’re making experience, whether deliberate or not. We’re [Nicole and Alva] not using choreography as something repeated, but as opportunities for problem solving, for investigation. Our choreography is putting someone in a situation to solve, it can be rehearsed by learning to cope with certain tasks. Sometimes that means setting repeatable steps, or practicing the investigation enough so that it gets very set. But it always changes. Choreography is making experiences. And time plays a role.

Noë points out Forsythe’s concept of a choreographic object: an object that induces particular movement, like a staircase. I recall a moment after having been outside, roaming on the streets, to then feeling confined into a tight, spiral staircase, a place that doesn’t exist without people having constructed it. In this particular setting I feel I am in a way walking into air. How do those settings affect what I do, how I feel and make decisions? Noë talks about Richard Serra’s innovative use of space, how his sculptures require a different action from art viewers than usual. Later on I remember Tino Sehgal’s use of a staircase to craft an experience for his audience to partake in, a puzzle for the audience to engage in as opposed to watching a performer engage.

JH: When you look at a dance, what do you see?

AN: It’s an opportunity to make sense of a phenomenon. Dancers are solving problems, using physics. It’s a challenge to see. You see the dancer’s practical anticipation of the consequences of their own movements. It’s hard to make sense, often hard to identify or recognize the expectations. It’s the act of getting familiar, which is the ability to perceive and make meaning. You can spend two hours at a gallery with a piece of art. But you can’t see a dance more than once. There’s also a rich cultural background knowledge to understanding dance work. The challenge is to bring it
into focus.

Noë later recognizes that there is another view of the park. Although he reckons that to move within certain structures can be very controlling, it can become enabling. “The world impinges and affords you,” he says.

JH: What do you hope to accomplish in the dance field?

AN: My hopeful conviction is, ultimately, to help understand the problem of consciousness. Interestingly, it’s not the dance field, it’s Lisa and Bill and Nicole, all very specific. All collaborations are very personal. But I am looking for my own project in philosophy to begin to move forward through this collaboration with dancers. And in a way that’s still a question that remains to be seen, if it will. In some ways I’m continuing the practice that I established initially with cognitive science, trying to find philosophy outside of philosophy.

Books by Alva Noë: Action in Perception (MIT Press, 2004); Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2009); Varieties of Presence (2012). He is currently at work on a book about art and human experience. More information about his work can be found at alvanoe.com.


Jennifer Marie Hoff writes and dances, writes on dancing, and dances to written work. She collaborates in the Oakland-based performance group, Hail.

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