Photo by Aura Fischbeck
In mid-December 2020, my friend and colleague Christy Funsch and I began a conversation about how to find a way to work together in creative practice through the geographical distance which are our current circumstances – she sheltering in place in Butler, Pennsylvania and me in San Francisco, California, the traditional land of the Lenni Lenape and Ramaytush Ohlone people, respectively (and respectfully. We support the work of Sogorea Te Land Trust – Shuumi Land Tax and encourage you to check them out).
Christy and I have had a working relationship since 2010 when I was a performer in her dance White Girls for Black Power. Since that time, our relationship has grown and included many hours of improvisational practice in the studio and in performance, inside and outside, as well as rich conversations and sharing of perspectives about creative practice. We were set to be working together again throughout 2020, on Christy’s new work EPOCH, which was scheduled to premiere at ODC Theater in San Francisco, in fall of 2020. Needless to say, this was rescheduled along with the multitude. As our adaptability was tested, our ability to function and approach process in the usual ways has been faced with increasing ambiguity. The need to reframe artistic practices has become paramount.
We wanted to find a way to work together but without the historically valued parameter of creating any type of product or production—no dance film, no choreography to hold onto and no performative component (maybe subconsciously invoking Yvonne Rainer’s infamous No Manifesto). For two artists who are self-producing events for their local communities, the notion of having a practice that negated any kind of product appealed—at once sustainable and restorative. It spoke to embracing a formalism that is of this moment in time—at once rejecting productivity in a definitive way, but also forging a rigorous practice which asks for a specific level of commitment and durational scope. One that values “task over longing” and carving out time for research that acknowledges the changed world we inhabit.
We landed on the score for week 1 on 12/31/20 and began on 1/1/2021. Since that time we have been collaboratively creating scores and practicing a minimum of 5 days a week with a commitment to 3 months of practice. We are documenting through images, writings, drawings, sound recordings and video recordings. Our process has been to agree on the parameters at the start of each week, and share documentation on the last day through a shared “google folder.” Sometimes we are returning to things. Sometimes we choose slightly different areas of focus or interest, but they are always linked so that we can have the experience of being in this shared practice.
Some of our parameters for working with score have been:
- Unanchoring: a deliberateness that resists accumulating or culminating
- Coaches. Coaching: expanding through influence
- Chance procedures to determine focus and duration
- Observation as a state of receptivity: move while noticing. Receiving is an active state
- Practice sensing with the whole body at once/multiple directions
- Connecting to rhythm in visual and aural fields
- Quantifiable data of latitudes, longitudes; distance travelled; direction; time of day and weather; Beaufort scale (this is a wind tracking system); cardinal directions; Perimeter/Horizon/Locus-all as a means of locating our individual worlds
- Track/name what emerges by making verbal lists, voice recordings, and/or maps
- Repeat and/or return (to place or directives) and find something new in the midst of ongoingness
- Let yourself be seen
- Shake up/shed/radicalize
In the spirit of our non-productive approach, we are framing this article as a series of questions, which serves as a branching out of our continued conversation. We are using article writing to reveal more about our research and also to create more potential directions for future dialogue.
HOW and WHY
Aura Fischbeck: Why is a regular improvisational practice important (to you)?
Christy Funsch: It’s the earliest way I made sense of the world, and is still the most meaningful way I have found to be in the world. It’s not that it helps formulate thought, it’s that it IS thought (thank you Susan Rethorst!). It’s a crucial way of functioning. It’s foundational.
AF: How has this practice affected/changed your SIP experience?
CF: Well, task is good for me. I was raised in a very task-based worker bee household, and I know how to function in that way. It’s grounding for me-especially task that doesn’t lead to product. The doing of it is its own reward. It’s also a way for me to give a different kind of attention to the natural world here. The woods have been my safe spot, a place where I feel completely accepted. And that kind of acceptance makes possible a specific kind of action and risk-taking. The practice has not been as bright for me when I’m inside at home. Which is a bummer, because it is now on average about 25 degrees Fahrenheit outside!
AF: How do you find yourself relating to me in your/our practice through the distance?
CF: It’s a boost for sure, and some of that boost is the not-so-simple realization that you’re doing it. You’re held to the same task. It’s like we’re co-workers. And in the sharing of data and documentation there’s a language that’s ours-we are co-authoring it as we practice. I find a lot of richness and mystery in the way minds work, and our minds work differently. I admire how you articulate your perceptions. I try on the words you use, I take them with me, almost like a puzzle of sorts, and if I start there in that thought process of deciphering, then I am led somewhere. It isn’t as causal as “Oh! Now I know what she is talking about, I’ll do that, too.” It’s more like your thought ends and mine begins, or I’m distracted and that itself is a kind of continuance.
AF: I echo this appreciation for the way our minds work differently. I fascinate on how we might interpret the same set of parameters so differently. We’ve talked about “task” being enough. You coined this wonderful phrase “task over longing.” What does this mean?
CF: “Task over longing” reaches back to the brilliant Rowena Richie. A few years ago I was part of her piece Dearly Gathered which interrogated how capitalism engenders longing. Since then it’s been on my mind and deeply informs my upcoming work EPOCH. As embodied in our score, I’m keenly aware of my longing when I am in the act of going to (my spot in) the woods. Then, as soon as, or even before I arrive, I feel free of desire. I go to the woods because it’s part of my day. I think the frequency keeps me in task mode.
AF: Yes, definitely the frequency is a powerful element. And also how it can be something that you do even when you don’t feel like doing it. It’s both a comfort and a type of labor. I love the word “practice.” What does it mean to have a practice? And what are we practicing? As an improviser I have continually come to find my experience of improvisation as a practice of presence, or becoming present, or maybe it’s “presence-ing.” I feel that so clearly in our current way of working. As though I sense the practice as a constant companion, like a steady hum or vibration, or some kind of benevolent spirit guide.
CF: “Practice as a constant companion” – Wow, yes! This reminds me of that song “Love Letters” (“I’m not alone in the night, when I can have all the love you write…”). How poignant this idea is during SIP. Who doesn’t feel alone?
Part of what we are up to with this practice involves documentation. When I see your documentation I am struck by how substantial your practice seems. It’s that the documentation refers me to a larger, deep world of being in something. When and how do you choose to document?
AF: I think the documentation is usually something I want you to see or hear or something I want to be able to offer both of us to be able to know about or reference in our collection of data. Sometimes it’s also just naming like “today I’m in/with the garbage” when I noticed that there was garbage strewn around the area where I was dancing. And so as a phrase it becomes recontextualized. So it’s both about observing what’s happening but it’s also a practice of harvesting. I start with whatever parameters we have set for the particular week, and this tunes my attention in a particular way, tunes me to what I’m in relationship to. This could be visual, aural, spatial, conceptual, somatic, directional, etc. I think that’s how the documentation “asks” to be included. It’s a kind of “thingy-ness.” For example, with the sound recordings it started because I became very aware of the sound of my boots on the gravel I was dancing on and wanted you to be able to hear my dance, versus see it.
CF: “How the documentation asks to be included” — yes to that! That, to me, is a continuation of not valuing the product but instead continuing to notice what is there.
SPACE and SITE
CF: Regarding context and space, once you mentioned the experience of taking the “private life” of the studio setting into the public, and that this was a reverse (converse?) of the pandemic making your private space at home public via remote teaching. Can you say more about this flip of space? And can you say more about “letting yourself be seen” as a prompt for you?
AF: I have over this SIP time become increasingly aware of how, by teaching remotely from my living room, the space that I live in has now been opened up as a public space. People can see my stuff, my partner wandering into the kitchen to get a snack, etc. The formality of going to the neutral space of a studio has been replaced by a sort of virtual entering of people into my private space and I into theirs. It’s fascinating. At the beginning of SIP I started, like many people, with trying to dance in my living room, but the sense of confinement was starting to feel crushing. Then you and I had a conversation and you said you had started to dance outside and I decided I needed to be brave like you and find some way to be moving in open space. I found the soccer field in the Golden Gate park as a first place to feel comfortable enough to just dance by myself and be seen. I have had many experiences of improvising outside with other people, but the leap to dancing outside alone was something else. So part of my work now is going to various locations and letting my experience be in part about the challenge of letting myself be seen in what feels like an exposed state, and yes, I am also seeing. I work on allowing the difficulty of this to be included. Sometimes I can barely do it, and sometimes I feel totally unconcerned with whether anyone is paying attention to me..
CF: Do you approach the sites differently?
AF: It’s very pragmatic. I have a few spots close to my house that feel safe. Two of them are on the USF campus and the other is a parking ramp across the street that isn’t very busy. I think more so than approaching the locations differently, it’s that each day is different – how many people are around, what is the weather like, what is my energy level. I try to stay in a state of observing and doing, and lately it has felt like something between being and performing. Duration is also a thing— sometimes I set a timer, and sometimes I tell myself to work as long as it takes to feel a change or shift of energy.
CF: Say more about working until you feel a shift in energy.
AF: Yes, this is a big and actual experience. Because of all the screen time I have a profound experience of shifting away from it and I’m usually doing our practice at the end of that screen time day. So it’s such a needed change. And it comes on slowly, like at first I don’t feel like doing anything, but I know I have to do it (like brushing my teeth) and so I go and I find a spot and begin . . . and I think I know I feel a change when I feel I become part of the environment almost, that’s when I feel the biggest shift. I don’t always get there, but when I do it’s very restorative. It feels both cellular and chemical.
AF: You’re in a place with real winter weather. Dancing outside in snow, and frigid temperatures. How is your sense of perception affected?
CF: I grew up in upstate New York so I have roots in the bodily discomfort and psychological dread of winter. The reduction in access. And I am overwhelmed with nostalgia for and memories of winter and seasonal drama. I appreciate having to adapt. We don’t have to do much of that in Northern California. I recognize, acutely, the privileges of access I have. I have a functioning body, a job, an apartment, and a car. So I can be in my apartment moving, I can walk out the door and be in my (safe) neighborhood, and I can get in my car and go to the woods. The actual physical difficulties in working outside are welcome challenges. It’s a matter of How more than What and this for me is a comfort zone because of my allergic reaction away from content. I have to prepare and watch weather and tread carefully and push through the weight of snow to get to my spot in the woods. The quietude is addicting. You can practically bite into it. The sculpturing of tree branches by snow and ice is breath-taking. Again, I have nothing to add to the environment, and everything to receive from it by observing. Because of the cold, I can’t sit or be in stillness for too long and so the prompt of doing while observing has been rich. I can see the ruin I bring to my spot by the marks I leave in the snow and the earth. I forgive myself for this.
SCORES and POTENTIALS
AF: What’s your approach to score making?
CF: I realize I am cautious that scores do not become content. I like the word “prompt” instead as it’s like an initial push. I sometimes think of a score as something I have to follow, complete, or fulfill. I use improvisation as a way to change my perception, heighten my perception, and attend to perception. Often I find a prompt or score is a starting place to frame or anchor the shift in perception I am seeking. And I appreciate how words frame action. I have been enjoying our lists and collection of words. I am having fun choosing words at random, using them to frame the practice, then re-imagining them as I document or write about the session.
AF: I often think of a score as a sort of web or a map, a way to hone my attention and perception but also a way to track particulars. And I both like and push against having something to follow, complete or fulfill. Again I think it comes back to task, and the rigor of ongoingness that we are inviting. If the “mind is a muscle” (Thanks again Yvonne Rainer) then dancing is certainly a state of mind. I’m loving the journey of it! Grateful for it.
CF: Are there ways this score, this practice, could involve others? How do you see that happening beyond SIP?
AF: I would love to continue to evolve this research into a cycle of score-based performance work. I love the way working with a score to develop performance work gives individual agency inside the creative process, while still placing the collaborators in a shared world or context. I can imagine the language and prompts we have developed through this practice being repurposed in a variety of capacities. I have visions of being in spaces and performers/ audience/community being there and roaming about and everyone somehow being co-creators. I have no idea how it’s going to go post-quarantine but I do have some instincts. How about you? Has this been generative for you??
CF: I would say it has been generative in terms of the unique thoughts and perceptual shifts that emerge from the moving moment. And so, yes, in the doing of this practice I find my decision-making lays itself bare. Clarity may be fleeting but potentials arise. I trust the inevitability of this completely and bring this trust into the working room.
In conclusion, we are not concluding anything really. As we write this, our practice is still continuing, and it brings to mind the many dances and creative acts that are going on all over the world. Something about having to find ways to connect with one another through the distance conjures a longing and there is a sweetness to that.
Christy Funsch formed Funsch Dance in 2002 and has since been presented nationally and internationally. She holds an MFA and a Laban Movement Analysis Certification. In 2015 she taught her improvisational practice 100 Days Score at ImpulsTANZ, and she became the first woman to be granted permission to perform Daniel Nagrin’s 1965 solo, Path. In 2019 she was a Fulbright Scholar at Lisbon’s Escola Superior de Dança in 2019. funschdance.org
Aura Fischbeck is a San Francisco-based dance artist, movement educator and writer. In 2008 she formed Aura Fischbeck Dance. Her work seeks to create performance events which investigate and communicate the body’s intelligence and reflect the complexity of the contemporary human experience. She is currently working on her first self-published book of scores for creative process and practice, entitled “Shapeshifter.” She holds a B.A. in dance and poetry from the Naropa University and is slated to begin pursuit of an MFA this summer through University of the Arts in Philadelphia. aurafischbeckdance.org
This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of In Dance.