SPEAK: Performing Science: Dancing by Numbers

By Jess Curtis

January 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

A couple of years ago I was attending the bi-annual german Dance Congress in Berlin. At the end of a presentation by Alva Noë, a UC Berkeley, Philosophy of Perception professor, entitled “what we See when we Look at Dance” another audience member near me said “Isn’t it great! Now that scientists are studying dance they are going to prove all of these things we have known all along!” I remember thinking “Or not….”

Jess Curtis is listening to the beat of Jorg Muller's heart
Jess Curtis and Jörg Müller
Photo by Hagolani.com

In recent years there has been an explosion of projects bringing scientists and artists together to try to understand the physiological side of our experiences of art. Just try a quick google of the word “Neuroaesthetics” and you’ll get a sense of the interest in this kind of research. It seems that many of us are interested in understanding more about the mysteries of how art works and what it can teach us about the nature of our experience in general.

My father had a Ph.D in physiology and taught human physiology at CSU Chico for over 30 years. Thinking rationally and scientifically was (mostly) required around the house. Anything we didn’t understand was something to be further investigated in a calm, rational way and there would surely be a clear, logical explanation to be found at the end of our search. Faith, mysteries and miracles might exist, but for the most part they were just things we didn’t understand…yet.

I have often brought this kind of rational, logical approach to my performing, choreographing and teaching. I like to think of new projects as problems to solve. I like lists. Images might arrive in dreams, but you can be sure I am going to try to think through all the possible permutations of how that image might land in the experience of someone attending one of my performances. I like to think about the physical consequences of my performance proposals, how they exist in the material world, what they “do” and not just what they might “mean.”

When I went back to grad school a few years ago, the field of performance studies greatly appealed to me. Studying what we can know about how performance functions was an intriguing proposition. Still I found myself frustrated that much of the research and writing about performance was just that, writing, and even then mostly writing about other writing—a contemporary theorist quoting a dead French guy who was quoting another dead French guy about how it is that we see, or feel or make sense out of our sensations. I began looking for theory that I could do.
I started to ask my collaborators (and my composition students) to read a little more theory about how bodies work and then to physically experiment with the mechanics of how someone attending their performance would see, hear, or feel it. We use the metaphors of ‘being touched’ or ‘being moved’ by a performance, but what if we didn’t think of them only as metaphors? What if we started paying more attention to what we were asking the audience to do and the opportunities we gave them to do it? What kind of physical changes might our performances provoke in the bodies of our audiences? What if we ask them to move around during the performance or even invite them into actual physical contact with us?

I started attending performances differently, or as I’ve started to say ‘attending to’ performances differently. I noted how often Scott Wells’ work makes me move my eyes and head as dancers go flying through intersecting trajectories around the stage. I noted the deeply satisfying sub-bass tones that vibrated my chair, pelvis and sternum during a piece by Laura Arrington. I noted the tensing of muscles in my upper back as I listened to Sara Shelton Mann’s vocal poetry, sped up by sound designer Calvin Jones. I started noticing how the movement of my own attention was a kind of dance in and of itself and I got curious about the physicality of that attention.

My new work, Performance Research Experiment #2.2 is the current product of some of this wondering. In the piece, we begin by attaching a selected group of audience members to a machine that measures their heart rate and skin-conductance response. Then my collaborator, circus and dance artist Jörg Müller, and I perform a series of discreet actions, each of which is designed to highlight and elicit a particular kind of experience for the audience. In performance studies terminology we might say that each one foregrounds a particular type of performative force. These range from movement based actions to actions with objects of various types, some music-based actions, some nice things, some funny things, some scary things and a few surprises. This whole time the heart rate and skin conductance levels of our ‘test subjects’ are being displayed to the side of the stage for us all to see how each of these events is affecting them. It’s both complex and fun and we have been learning a lot. We’ve shown different versions of the work in a variety of settings over the last year and a half. Some of you reading this may have seen PRE #2 at CounterPULSE in May. Parts of it were recently presented at a Performance Studies Conference at UC Davis and this summer it played at the Ponderosa Dance Land Festival in Germany.

There is actually a very rich history of the performance of science. Beginning in the 1600’s in England, members of the Royal Society of London would meet regularly and share their research by literally performing their experiments live. One of our ongoing questions has been whether we can fully pull off this live collision of Art and Science. I had initially hoped that we might be able to arrive at some publishable (even if simple) findings in a scientific sense, and that we might at the same time create a ‘show’ that was entertaining, moving and meaningful. Most studies researching the reception of dance utilize short film or video clips in controlled laboratory settings. We are trying to get meaningful data in crowded theaters with lots of people watching while we do. It’s challenging, and we’ve just spent a recent rehearsal residency in Berlin trying to simplify both sides of the equation to see if we can find a balance that lets you ‘read’ our science while being simultaneously ‘moved’ by our art. We’ve been honing our images, actions and sounds so that they are clearly distinct from each other, but also add up in some way to a larger whole within this scientific dramaturgy. We think our new version 2.2 will be exciting, informative and engaging, whether you’ve seen a previous version or not.

In our upcoming shows at Joe Goode Annex, one of the things I can just about guarantee is that this ‘experiment’ is a show that won’t fit neatly into many categories and will give you the opportunity to be moved, to be touched, to feel, to think and maybe be mystified and later when you go home, hopefully to dream.

Gravity presents Performance Research Experiment #2.2 by Jess Curtis and Jörg Müller, Fri-Sun, Jan 30-Feb 1, 8pm at Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco.


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. jesscurtisgravity.org

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