On Choreographic Thinking

By Megan Nicely


“Dance is not a way of depicting, but a way of thinking”1 —Tere O’Connor

I recently took a dance composition workshop with New York artist Jeanine Durning that really made me think—about thinking itself. Language is one form of thought, notes Durning, and another is bodily action, both of which reveal how we organize things. Over the course of a week, our process was to observe the structures of our thoughts in motion while not knowing where they would lead. Through practice periods of continuous moving, speaking and writing, we took notice not of what we hoped to say and do, but instead what we were actually saying and doing, before we had a chance to plan things out. Durning’s own practice answers the question, “If dance is unique, what is unique about it?” by asking dancers to begin before they are “ready” and remain in this nonstop process of activity, which, for her, are the minimum requirements to get started in the studio. From here, a rigorous practice of exercising our agency as movers by naming our expectations, clarifying what we were working on, and refining how we worked on it ensued. Durning sees choreography as the temporal organization of practice, performance and ongoing discovery of what it is we are working on—three elements that are not sequential but rather sit in a horizontal relation. In this way, our thinking is brought into conscious awareness.2

This experience began to clarify for me the notion of “choreographic thinking,” something I have been mulling over for a while. Appearing in various iterations in the contemporary dance world in workshops and texts by Tere O’Connor, William Forsythe, Erin Manning and Susan Rethorst, among others— not all those mentioned use this phrase—the notion stands as a voiced resistance to the misconception that dance needs ideas before choreography is realized, that thought precedes motion and that movement serves to express meaning. Instead, many align thinking itself with the process of moving, albeit in ways other than the dominant rational mode of cause and effect.

Choreographic thinking indicates the ways ideas arise in multiplicity during the process of moving. From this perspective, movement is the movement of thought not requiring something outside to motivate it—particularly not the planned execution of a singular concept, which closes down options.

Dancers are not the only ones who know that thought is integral to moving, perceiving, composing and performing. While privileging linguistic discourse over dance itself creates an undesirable hierarchy, keeping dance knowledge in the realm of the nonverbal also hinders the field by forming a closed system of those in the know. As Deborah Hay continues to advocate in her own texts and workshops, dancers must also write; it is imperative to our survival and to advancing the field. So how can we begin to articulate the thought processes that happen when making things, and how might these articulations open new ways of viewing, speaking and writing alongside dance practice and performance? With this desire, the April 3 Dance Discourse Project tackles the topic of choreographic thinking, looking at its various permutations and asking what benefit it offers to the field of dance. If our purpose as artists, scholars and activists is to remain in question—finding new ways of creating, relating, and ultimately living—then choreography might serve not to define our work so much as unground what we think we know so as to think and experiment in new ways. Below are some perspectives I have culled together; further reading can be found at counterpulse.org and dancersgroup.org on their respective Dance Discourse Project page.

Choreographer Susan Rethorst observes that, “Making is a form of thought itself, done with the body’s mind.”3 In A Choreographic Mind, she gives the example of crossing a busy street. If we translated the moves needed to get us across into the rational structure of language, it would be too late. Instead, there is a somatic intelligence that acts much quicker than the “cognitive, analytical, linguistic faculty that normally goes by the name of thought.” When asked to stand up and make something on the spot dancers often respond that they need to think about it first, but Rethorst’s discussion of movement games reveals that bodies understand direct, efficient connections that do not require preparation or linguistic translation. However, the choreographic mind is not mere instinct. To work with it, Rethorst has found talking necessary to the daily labor of her studio practice. While earlier in her career she subscribed to intuitive, nonverbal approaches to making dances, speaking has brought awareness to the assumptions she operates with so that she can actually work with them. While letting her body intelligence lead, language accompanies the process, bringing into further consciousness what she already knows, and what the dance itself knows and communicates to her. If mind is a way of functioning, then for Rethorst the “choreographic mind” is a specific heightening of the body’s mind through attention to and the articulation of relations, space, place, empathy and affect.

William Forsythe’s perspective is somewhat different. He refers to choreography as the realm of ideas, which he suggests can be detached from the body and exist as separate entities from which potentials for and organizations of action reside. His notion of the “choreographic object” sheds some light on how this might be approached. These objects are the prompts for choreographic thinking, and the way that choreography always rewrites itself anew. As he puts it, “Choreography’s manifold incarnations […] do not insist on a single path to form-of-thought and persist in the hope of being without enduring.”4 Choreography for Forsythe is a proposition to an event that elicits action and an environment of change. Its mechanism is to “resist and reform previous conceptions of its definition” so that positions of certainty are disrupted. Far from a singular path, “choreography elicits action upon action: an environment of grammatical rule[s] governed by exception, the contradiction of absolute proof visibly in agreement with the demonstration of its own failure.” Here, choreographic prompts serve to open the multiplicity of options available to bodies when moving without a singular trajectory to their solution. They “persist in the hope of being without enduring.”

Scholar Erin Manning, who works with Forsythe’s concepts, notes, “Choreographic thinking is the activation, in the moving, of a movement of thought. It expresses itself not in language per se but as the pulses across embodiments and rhythms, the durations and spatializations that create a ‘contrapuntal composition of complex relationships, patterns and trends.’”5 She further poses that such concepts be taken not just outside the body as Forsythe suggests, but into social and political realms as well. In Always More Than One, she cautions that for Forsythe, “choreography and dancing are two distinct and very different practices,” and choreography does not begin and end with the body. Manning calls her own embodied understanding of the “what else” of choreographic thought “incipient action,” or “preacceleration” that moves the relation of what is already underway but has not yet happened.6 Manning describes this phenomena across relations of minds and bodies as a “bodying-with” that activates “spacetimes of composition,” which she discusses eloquently in the example of tango, but could also be applied to contact improvisation or just moving with others. The dancer senses and is moved not by the directive of the step or the other but by the interval itself—the spaces of possibility between bodies.

“Affect,” a somewhat popular term at present, is a way to name what “arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon.”7 Here it becomes evident how dance and philosophy intersect as two disciplines of open-ended and visceral questioning, and it is not by coincidence that affect is the term Rethorst uses throughout her own text. But I’d like to return to thinking as perhaps a way to articulate this sense. As philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write, “To think is to experiment, but experimentation is always that which is in the process of coming about—the new, remarkable, and interesting that replace the appearance of truth and are more demanding than it is. […] History is not experimentation, it is only the set of almost negative conditions that make possible the experimentation of something that escapes history.”8 Here, while steps and actions may be repeated, they only serve as twhe means for escaping their own choreographic boundaries. Perhaps the “choreographic thinking” exercised by moving alongside these artists and philosophers reveals the coming into form of structures already present and operational, just not yet within our conscious awareness. As we move and they present themselves, something different can also unfold. Choreographic thinking might then be what is both practiced and yet to come.

Dance Discourse Project #18: Choreographic Thinking
Thu, Apr 3, 7:30pm, Free, CounterPULSE

Footnotes: 1. Tere O’Connor and Gia Kourlas, “Much Ado About Nothing,” TONY, 12 April 2007.
2. Jeanine Durning, Movement Research Melt Works
hop, Gibney Dance, New York, 13 January 2014.
3. Susan Rethorst, A Choreographic Mind (2012).
4. William Forsythe, Choreographic Objects, http://synchronousobjects.osu. edu/media/inside.php?p=essay
5. Erin Manning, Always More Than One (2013).
6. Manning, “Incipient Action: The Dance of the Not-Yet,” in Relationscapes (2009).
7. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, ed., The Affect Theory Reader (2010).
8. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? (1991)

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of In Dance.

Megan Nicely is an artist/scholar whose research focuses on experimental dance after 1960 in the US and Japan. She directs and performs with her company Megan Nicely/Dance, writes for publications such as TDR, and is Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco. megannicelydance.org