Dance, a continually evolving activity, reminds us that “[c]reativity – the means by which human cultures evolve – is a social affair8 ” (Wheeler 2006).
Contemporary choreographic processes are essentially social. Contemporary performance is often collaborative and interdisciplinary, and has foundations in the liberational politics of the 60s postmodernism. Late 20th century dance culture involves creatively investigating and mapping human experience through listening, play, and juxtapositions of difference. Rejecting the linear for the multi-dimensional and working with the body as both subject and object, evolves an intercultural praxis that leads to greater understanding of the self as essential to the wider cultural ecology. These understandings find synergy with the contemporary scientific theories of Chaos and Complexity which affirm the interconnectedness of (all) things at many scales as part of an ever-expanding universe.
The article refers to contemporary choreographic and performance-making practices that are rooted in improvisation, a social play with an holistically engaged body, where new cultural understandings are evolved at the juncture between difference and similarity, and will propose that these are experiential, creative thresholds to both un-knowing and new understanding. Her thesis will draw on postmodern theorists of dance and culture and the contemporary science of complexity to provide an architecture for proposing that nature and culture evolve as interlinked self-organising systems where the body is an essential ingredient in constantly mutating whole that is always greater than the sum of its parts.
Once across the threshold of the innocuous looking communications box that is the TARDIS, The Doctor travels lightly across space and time to new adventures at the imagined far reaches of the universe. This telephone box time machine of the BBC-produced TV series which has been wallpaper to so many childhoods including my own (it launched in the year of my birth), distorts time and space. Inside it is an enormous space shape that transports The Doctor and we her audience companions on save the world challenges requiring brilliance and bravery in their execution.
The TARDIS also gifts me a dynamic metaphor of a dance practice that is part of an ever-expanding complex of artistic and intellectual flourishing. Of further pertinence, for the first time in the series’ history, the current Doctor is now played by a woman, Jodie Whittaker, making my playful leap to this link particularly personally significant.
I evoke the TARDIS as it references science and art, matter and movement, and in its transformational nature gifts me an image of dynamic power that resonates with my experience as an adventurer in the universe, albeit primarily in the field of dance. As a choreographer working from improvisational starting points towards the catalysis of groups of bodies/selves into dance performance we set out from simple beginnings towards new vistas. Whether with performers of experience and considerable skill or ‘amateurs’, as a dancer citizen the act of walking across the threshold of a space ready for dance experimentation with others guarantees that interconnecting our embodied intelligence and imagination will lead to adventurous travels in time and space; future thinking science fictions such as Dr Who’s TARDIS so often presage reality.
In this writing I will trace how I have come to explore a sci-art interface that “seeks to explain how the beauty, complexity and diversity of everything we see around us can have developed from the simplest of starting points2 ”. Referencing international postmodern dance influencers from the UK and the USA I seek to foreground how the science theory of complexity that explains how interconnected systems evolve from birds flocking to fake news spreading and dance improvisations unfolding.
Much contemporary dance performance tends to reject the linear for the multi-dimensional and works with the body as both subject and object, making possible embodied understanding of the self as essential to the wider cultural ecology. Such knowledge emanates from interwoven roots reaching deep into cultural currents extending back in time whilst branching forwards to the future. Contemporary or modern dance, as a general term, yields to and works with the pull of the earth, gravity, the rhythmic play of both the inner and outer patterns of the body, a web of interconnecting disciplines and aesthetic histories. Dance scholar Professor Dixon-Gottschild’s words illuminate this experience: “Rather than the classical, Europeanist, linear logic of cause, effect, and resolution, we have irony, paradox, and double entendre — indeed, radical juxtapositions — as basic premises of the African-ist aesthetic, and where do we find them? In our postmodern lifestyles3 ”.
Such radical juxtapositions call to mind the postmodern present and our ancestral beginnings, perhaps as far back as the Big Bang, a moment of fusion where the microscopic became infinity. This is our nature, we are conceived in a similar happenstance of fusion, cells split and multiply in rapid accumulation, genetic coding combines with environmental factors to create who we become. These big and little Bangs are part of a universe where matter is also energy, where chaos and order are within each other, and corresponds to somatic dance experiences where I am you, the individual is also the group.
When I set out to create and lead a contemporary dance theatre company back in 1990, my aims responded to tacit understanding and knowledge gained through my dance experience, that from the everyday the epic was revealed, the extraordinary in the ordinary. Spiraling through time and space in multiple cycles of dancing alongside many people, cultures and disciplines, I have found meaningful confluence with Complexity and Emergence, science-sourced theories that I have examined in my practice as choreographer.
In scientific terms, emergent behaviour may arise from a complex system. Such behaviour results from similar elements, following simple rules at a local level, and who are subject to neighbour interaction, pattern recognition, feedback and indirect control4 ; swarming bees, (street) fashions forming, a global pandemic. In analyses of emergence and complexity the two terms can be used interchangeably. For clarity in this writing, I address emergence as the behavioural outcome or activity i.e. the dance, that emerges from a complex system that is characterised by the description here.
The first (group) choreography I made for my newly formed dance company Turning Worlds was entitled “a still point in the turning world”. The movement material that made this work started from the exploration of stillness, spiralling to motion, and through collaborative dance making, in part self-organised into unique non-linear and unpredictable dynamic patterning. This ‘new’ surprising, often transformative experience is the artistic aim and prize in such a creative act, forming another still point of particular memory in a creative life. Such a Pandora’s box of experiences and works interconnecting actions (performances and processes), evolve with critical reflection into a choreographic practice or intelligence.
I continue to trace spirals of investigation and see my small actions echoed across cultural space. Integral to the structure of DNA and therefore the body, the spiral is evident in natural systems throughout our universe, from the micro level seen in the behaviour of water draining down a plughole to the macro level demonstrated in planets’ orbital movements. A spiral can be seen as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of things, the interconnectedness that Paul Cilliers argues is a characteristic of both complexity and postmodernism5 .
A spiral is a dynamic form – it is both process and product and therefore accords at an operational level with a postmodern dance aesthetic, “a discourse defined not by a choreographer’s specific language, its permanence, canon or category, but by its practice of process6 ”. Within such an aesthetic the choreography for “a still point…” evolved as an exploration of a theme with scientific leanings.
Embodying spirals as concept and form, raised the question - does the world turn us or do we turn the world? Emergence theory suggests that we do indeed play an integral part in the turning world, as it defines complex dynamic systems where all parts, however small, feedback and affect an ever evolving whole: the environment affects the dancers, the dancer affects the dance, that affects the audience, that affects their society and culture and so on. A dance where the performers use improvisational structures to create the raw material, and therefore are feeding into and contributing to the key images from which a performance work will be derived, can provide a tangible model of emergence at work and in so doing “model[s] the world7 ”.
Modelling the world as we experience it is the artistic project, and, in dance particularly, accords with Wendy Wheeler’s assertion in her exploration of complexity, biosemiotics and the evolution of culture, that “[c]reativity – the means by which human cultures evolve – is a social affair8 ”.
During the 1980s and 1990s postmodern dance was very much a social affair. Having grown up with disco and funk, the liberational politics of the 60s informed social structures and a shift towards democratic art practices and movement and dance techniques that focused on body-mind integration, sensory awareness and improvisation in performance. Claire Hayes elaborated on this in her essay ‘New Dance is part of the social process’: “Much of the work has to do with kinaesthetic ‘listening’, with peripheral vision, with paying attention to the body and its relationship to space and time9 ”.
That kinaesthetic listening leads us to embodied research, as it leads to questions.
Why do simple rule-led improvisations always provide the unexpected, interesting outcomes that I am most interested in (as opposed to complex sequences that I have choreographed and set on dancers)? What is the attraction of watching/listening to displays of unpredictable creative patterning: clouds, waves, people in the streets, drummers, jazz, and poetry? Why am I drawn to patterns that have roughness and chaotic elements in their order?
And thus, theoretical concerns emerge from the everyday dance practice as a dancer, choreographer and educator, confirming Wheeler’s assertion that “the closer we can bring our research questions to our own lived and skilful experience, the more likely these are to yield good results10 ”.
Straying into Science
That everyday practice evolved a tacit knowing that simple systems, i.e. basic rule based improvisational structures used repeatedly with different peoples in different environments, always produce interesting, unexpected, in part self-organising results. I started to understand this as an equation for producing original performance with diverse groups, and quickly.
As a smallish socially engaged dance company budgets are small, so collectively producing new work in short patchy rehearsal periods means working adaptively. Finding an ‘equation’ that can guarantee new inventive material quickly is a much needed gift, and has meant that working with complexity is my choreographic strategy.
As with a folk dance step, if you repeat the basics, most will be able to fall into step, feel invited to tread the path with you, and through repetition of simple rules (walk, respond, connect), the group behaviour which emerges can become intriguingly complex.
In most cases it is rhythmic, textured, and fascinating to observe, providing “perpetual novelty11 ”. for both the beholder and the elements (here, the dancers and other collaborators) through whom flows the information that creates this collective intelligence.
By involving dancers in a creative process of evolving those basic steps, or building blocks of a work, their individual histories and delicate differences shape the nuances of the work through feedback. By accepting that offer of responses, those involved are empowered as creative complex beings whose actions contribute to compositional transformations. Enabling sophisticated and intelligent performance that draws on all parts that make it – the performers, the research and the audience, the environment – the public sharing of Holland’s “modeling of the world” (ibid) becomes a ritualistic, political act of knowledge transfer with wide resonance.
[A]lthough we may not be able to precisely forecast the long-term behaviour of a complex system, non-linear dynamics shows that we can gain some insights into its global behaviour... These insights may provide the bedrock of understanding for future decision-making12 ”
A major part of the choreographer’s process involves making spontaneous decisions based not on empirical evidence but on snap decisions in the moment, often with the group of dancers, as envisioned leaps of faith. When I first started straying into science theory I would have perceived such intuitive reasoning to be in contrast with scientific processes, as I understood them to be based on empirical evidence and logic. At that time I understood art objects to be crafted by imaginations and not equations. Through experiencing decision-making during the creative process, however, I have since identified underlying patterns that are in accord with emergence theory as well as artistic intuition.
The practice of a choreographer creating postmodern dance performance bears resonance with the open-ended processes inherent in the scientific theories of emergence and complexity. Molecular biologist Brian Goodwin’s argument for an open-ended and participatory approach to practical research agrees with my experience and understanding:
We need to learn how to engage appropriately with the natural magic of the world. Most of the natural systems on which the quality of our lives depend are complex, uncontrollable and unpredictable, though their behaviour is self-consistent and therefore intelligible to scientific study13 .
Emergent behaviour, as we observe in our pandemic, is the patterned result of a complex structure or system where all parts feedback and affect the evolving whole. Gatrell could be describing the progress of Covid-19 in arguing, “Complex structure emerges through simple, unstructured beginnings14 ”. as it continues to evolve in collaboration with the shifting human environment. As with my own route to researching emergence came through the recognition that the dynamic aesthetic of work evolving from dance improvisations I initiated were similar to spiralling fractals. The term fractals was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot when an IBM worker in the late 1970s. ”Mandelbrot set up a mathematical equation on a computer which through colour coding its different values shows itself as an evolving intricate swirling pattern that demonstrates self-similarity on many scales15 ”.
Fractals show self-similarity and iteration on many scales and can be seen in, for example, the vein pattern of a leaf in relation to the root pattern of the tree it is part of, or in the similarity between a cauliflower floret shape and the cauliflower itself. Mandelbrot was able to show that this ‘new geometry’, through the rapidly evolving computing power of the 1970s, whilst irregular, contained a kind of order. As John Briggs brings to the fore Fractals are the patterns of Chaos (2002) and “[c]haos is a subset of complexity. It’s an analysis of the behaviour of continuous dynamical systems-like...the weather16 ”.
Performance as complex system
Tino Sehgal’s This Objective of that Object (2004) is an open performance installation work that is rule-based and activated in response to visitors in the space where it is located. I experienced it in a white walled upper gallery at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, a familiar space for me as a number of my performance events have been located there. On my entrance (and I was initially the only visitor), five performer/artists were clearly avoiding the viewer by facing walls and moving away if approached. Gradually they began to build a shared breath pattern which over time developed into a chanting repetition of the line: ‘The objective of this work is to become the object of a discussion’. I eventually said something (clearly the invitation in the chant), which the performers then took up to discuss amongst themselves in a reflective, scatological way. They seemed to leave clear gaps in their talking that left room for the viewer to contribute new comments. This performance work was clearly constructed to operate using audience feedback. When a viewer left the space the performers reacted with ‘Oh’ or ‘Halt’ which was a cue for them to restart the breathing pattern and the whole process began again. By interacting over time with this performance installation, I seemed to trigger a further ‘rule’ as, after a while, the repeated phrase used was ‘No more questions’ and they started to jump up and down and face me. This mildly aggressive behaviour seemed to indicate I should leave.
Although Sehgal presented his work as an interactive art exhibition within the tradition of sculpture and installation and not as ‘performance’, it is indicative of an interdisciplinary performance-based art culture that emerges in real time similar to a biological organism as described by Francisco Varela, a professor of cognitive science and epistemology,
Organisms have to be understood as a mesh of virtual selves. I don’t have one identity, I have a bricolage of various identities. I have a cellular identity, I have an immune identity, I have a cognitive identity, I have various identities that manifest in different modes of interaction17 .
The performers in Sehgal’s work are a diverse group of volunteer semi-professional dancers/actors/performance artists of varied ages and cultures. The performers and audience move easily amongst each other, breaking with the constraints of formal staging or framing, and have the opportunity for multiple interactions. Such immersive ‘open’ performance experiences enable audiences to navigate their own experiential pathway through the work. This kind of artwork, like a complex system, depends on interaction for existence, with connections among performers, audience, environment enabling a flow of information and experience as the art event. Emilyn Claid, one of the dance artists responsible for igniting the New Dance (post-modern) movement in Britain, said that “New Dance... was about ways of connecting things” and “was always a becoming context, always in the moment of now18 ”.
This focus in artwork existing ‘in the moment of now’ perhaps explains why Sehgal, who primarily operates in the international visual art world, went on to be chosen to fill London’s celebrated Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in October 2012 with his work These Associations.
The first ‘live’ work in the vast space, These Associations consisted of a group of about around 70 artist ‘elements’ running/swarming, singing, sitting, engaging individual audience members in intimate storytelling. Tellingly Sehgal trained in postmodern dance and studied political economy, a history which I believe is clearly reflected in this work that is open in that it relies on performers who are able to respond in the moment with agency, with the unknown (audience, each other, the environment).
The postmodern dance scene that grew alongside the human rights movements of the 60s, and through that confluence I would particularly agree with Christy Adair’s statement that consequently “postmodern theory may be more indebted to feminism than is currently acknowledged19 ”19. It was certainly due to feminist energy that the New Dance movement in the UK developed in an empty warehouse, Chisenhale dance space in the east end of London. Identified as the X6 collective, and often expressed through the New Dance magazine, it was made up of a group of loosely connected dance and performance makers based at a large freely available space, bearing similarities to the Judson Church scene in New York. Both the Judson Church and the X6 groups worked loosely with few organisational rules. “A collective dynamic is more than the sum of its parts. The power of the collective to change cultural movements does not emerge through the voice of the single author. Neither does it emerge from the unity of the group. The outcomes of collective working occur in the weaving of a connecting web of processes between people and things20 ”20. Tino Sehgal acknowledges the influence of the Judson Church movement in his particular ambition of allowing “his art only fleeting materiality; less performance than live enactment, he refuses it both visual documentation and written transcription21 ”.
In a collective culture, collaboration and interaction between artists, media and performers articulates a postmodern frame of thinking which points to the death of the author (Barthes 1977) and scepticism for the notion of sole authorship and author as genius. Instead “the postmodern condition is characterised by the co-existence of a multiplicity of heterogeneous discourses - a state of affairs assessed differently by different parties22 ”.
As art making moved away from expertise towards experimentation, research and discovery, artists developed systems that were the art works. Choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project - Altered Daily (1969) evolved and operated as a system of rules that were given to the dancers to interpret. Making performance through simple rule-based systems posited the dancer as a ’neutral’ unit akin to that of a mathematically derived system and had synergy with the developments in maths and computer science that gave birth to complexity and emergence.
Computer scientist John Holland, when researching emergent systems to analyse behaviour, builds models of, for example, interconnected neurons. Through that experience he noted that “shearing away detail is the very essence of model building. Whatever else we require, a model must be simpler than the thing modelled23 ”.
Postmodern dancers similarly worked on releasing the body of tensions, expectations, proscribed techniques or aesthetic concerns, towards simplicity, ease of movement. Once they are ‘sheared’ of historical detail, they can build with the choreographer the language and culture that will become the performance work, or organism. The postmodern compositional process shares similarities with computer modelling in that, for both systems starting states and rules drive a system that is dependent on parts interacting and feeding back to evolve and progress the emergent patterning. This process often is the performance in postmodern dance.
Empowering process acknowledges the impact of our creative action reaches far beyond the dance. The choreographer, like our science fiction adventurer Dr Who, is observing, examining, making links that forge a dynamic patterns that in their novelty can interconnect with others to create a dialogic of evolving intelligence.
In a time of warring oppositions and rapidly shifting challenges perhaps we can find some solace that the “embrace of embodied understanding is rooted in the realization that the body is the meeting point both of mind and activity and of individual activity and social manifold24 ”. contribute to an expanding universe of unbounded interconnections that shift tides of thought, perception and understanding.
By making interconnections between postmodern dance, feminism and the science-sourced theories of emergence and complexity I hope to point towards the possibilities of recognizing the body, the self’s shifting identity as an interconnected part of Culture and Nature’s continual evolution.
1. Alasdair Richardson, 2015 “Doctor Who vs real world science: who comes up trumps? Five science (fiction) reasons why you should get to know Doctor Who” First published on The Conversation https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2015/sep/18/doctor-who-vs-real-world-science-who-comes-up-trumps [accessed online 6/11/20] back to text
2. Luke Dixon, Play-acting. A guide to theatre workshops (London : Methuen, 2003), 47. back to text
4. Steven Johnson Emergence (London : Penguin 2001) back to text
5. Paul Cilliers, Complexity and Postmodernism: understanding complex systems ( London : Routledge 1998) back to text
6. Emilyn Claid, Yes? NO! Maybe… Seductive Ambiguity in Dance (London : Routledge 2006), 128 back to text
7. John H Holland, Emergence, from Chaos to Order (Oxford : Oxford University Press 1998), 115 back to text
8. Wendy Wheeler, The Whole Creature (London : Lawrence & Wishart 2006), 141 back to text
9. Claire Hayes, ‘New Dance is part of the social process,’ New Dance Journal No. 42 (1987):13-17 back to text
10. Wheeler, The Whole Creature, 90 back to text
11. Holland, Emergence, 4 back to text
12. Peter Coveney & Roger Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity, The Search for Order in a Chaotic World (London : Faber and Faber 1995), 331 back to text
13. Brian Goodwin, “Patterns of Wholeness. Introducing Holistic Science” Resurgence(216), http://www.resurgence.org/resurgence/issues/goodwin216.htm (2003) back to text
14. Anthony C. Gatrell ‘Complexity theory and geographies of health: a modern and global synthesis?’ Social Science & Medicine, Volume 60 (2005), Issue 12 back to text
15. Douglas Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop (New York : Basic Books 2007), 69 back to text
16. Stuart Kauffman in Brockman J ed. The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (New York : Simon & Schuster 1995), 334 back to text
17. Francisco Varela in Brockman J ed. The Third Culture (New York : Simon & Schuster 1995), 211 back to text
18. Claid, Yes? NO! Maybe…, 78-9 back to text
19. Christy Adair, Women and Dance: Sylphs and Sirens (London: Macmillan 1992),143 back to text
20. Claid, Yes? NO! Maybe…,124 back to text
21. Lucy Steeds,‘Tino Seghal’ Art Monthly No 284 (London March 2005) back to text
22. Cilliers, Complexity and Postmodernism, 114 back to text
23. Holland, Emergence, from Chaos to Order, 24 back to text
24. Theodore R. Schatzki, “On Sociocultural Evolution by Social Selection”, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 31/4 (2001), 341–364 back to text
Adair, C. Women and Dance: Sylphs and Sirens. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Barthes,R. Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana, 1977.
Briggs, J. Fractals, The Patterns of Chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Brockman, J. Ed. The Third Culture. USA: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Cilliers, P. 1998 Complexity and Postmodernism: understanding complex systems. London: Routledge, 1998.
Claid, E. Yes? NO! Maybe… Seductive Ambiguity in Dance. London: Routledge, 2006.
Coveney, P and R. Highfield. Frontiers of Complexity, The Search for Order in a Chaotic World. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.
Dixon, L. Play-acting. A guide to theatre workshops. London: Methuen, 2003.
Dixon-Gottschild, B. “The (Black) Dancing Body as a Measure of Culture” Proceedings of the Fifth South African Dance Conference, 2008. www.dance.uct.ac.za/confluen/confluences5.pdf
Goodwin, B. “Patterns of Wholeness. Introducing Holistic Science” Resurgence(216), http://www.resurgence.org/resurgence/issues/goodwin216.htm 2003.
Hayes, C. “New Dance is part of the social process” in New Dance Journal (42), 1987.
Hofstadter, D.R. I am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
Holland, J.H. Emergence, from Chaos to Order. Oxford: OUP, 1998.
Johnson, S. Emergence. London: Penguin, 2001.
Rainer, Yvonne 1969, Continuous Project - Altered Daily premiered at the Pratt Institute
Richardson, A. “Doctor Who real world science: who comes up trumps? Five science (fiction) reasons why you should get to know Doctor Who.” The Guardian, 18th September 2015:
Sehgal, Tino 2004 This objective of that object ICA, London.
Sehgal, Tino 2012 These associations Tate Modern, London.
Turner, Jane 1989 “at the still point of the turning world” Morley College, London.
Wheeler, W. The Whole Creature. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006.