Returning from the closing festival for Fresh Tracks Europe in Vienna I am faced with many thoughts, great excitement and a multitude of research questions of both a practical and theoretical nature: a major question being that as an artist should the practice and the theory be separated? Leading to the further question, is our lack of succinct dialogue causing this separation?
The trip has consisted of attending around three performances daily, post show discussions and several symposiums: addressing questions of audience perception, artists development and dance mediation. Attending the events were artists from a wide variety of cultures and countries.
Firstly, as a native English speaker what is always fascinating is the way in which serious discussion is navigated by those who do not speak English fluently or as a second language. More interesting, perhaps, is the observation that generally any areas showing evidence of miscommunication did not come out of the crossing of cultures but from the broad terminology used to address our beliefs and encounters.
The clearest example of this was during a symposium concerned with developmental stages of young audiences, where psychologist Virginie Roy-Nigl was asked to make an opening statement as a trigger for further discussion. The discussion that followed initially managed to address very little (in contrast, the body language of some of the invited choreographers panel spoke volumes).
In question was the use of dance as education. Roy-Nigl, informed us that at a particular development stage dance performance as education is futile and that dance as experience is far more relevant. Fairly, following this statement a choreographer asked for a definition of the term 'education'. This question, as begged by many attendees, I feel was already loaded with defence of dance as valid practice. In effect what had been stated by Roy-Nigl was a far cry from what had been heard with the both parties somewhat to blame for the misunderstanding.
Roy-Nigl defined her use of the term in this respect as quantifiable knowledge however this definition was lost in translation and so ensued a loaded discussion in which two parties argued similar points repeatedly in differing vocabulary. Until, the moderator rightly stepped in to highlight that the speakers were in fact in agreement.
The consequence of this was a stagnant atmosphere that, to an extent, stifled further discussion. Interesting points were made and lost as the ability to listen was blocked by an innate defensive sensation that is all too easily achieved in passionate discussions.
Having been very fortunate to participate in a workshop fortnight with David Gordon and Liz Lerman as part of Scotland's Choreographic Futures Programme in November, I was very aware that I had already been awakened to the observing how we communicate and the lack of communication that actually happens in our daily lives. The most ironic element of this new learning being that more often than not communication is stunted by attempts to avoid alienating those we wish to communicate with.
For example as mentioned above, clarity and reinforcement are often confused practices where by a speaker simply restates their initial argument in multiple ways as opposed to reducing their statement to the clearest form of existence, thus reducing ambiguity to a minimum. Clarity and word selection is key as the notion of reinforcement instigates a defensive reaction in the person we are speaking with, in turn causing them to stop listening or worse to selectively listen to the statements made.
Time to Listen
The manner in which we listen is also a huge responsibility as if we ourselves form a heightened sense of defensiveness we cannot hear what is being said. In the example above, had the listener reserved judgement until clarity of definition was given they would have supported the speaker and discussions may have been formidable, resulting in deeper discussion throughout.
Of course, to perceive and follow multiple interpretations of a proposal until the opportunity to seek clarity is given is both complex and not easy; potentially more so in this case as both the speaker and listener were conversing in a second language.
It is as a result of this I question if a succinctly defined glossary of terms is required to discuss dance. This of course would take time to establish and those entering any debate would need to be familiar with the terms generated but this is reasonably achievable. After all as a psychologist Roy-Nigl presumably works from a glossary of terms. Had these been shared by us all prior to her statement the following discussion may have reached far deeper levels and the innovative thought the symposium intended to achieve.
To establish such a glossary may still be beneficial and reduce the need for us all to clarify our intentions repeatedly throughout our daily lives. Either this or we could all endeavour to reduce our statements until our intentions are precisely framed. However, during passionate conversation a skill such as this must be excellently practiced to remain achievable at all times.
Another example of miscommunication over the trip was during a post show discussion in which I asked if duration had been a considered by choreographers in the creation of a work in process that was shared. The choreographers then asked for a more specific question and incorrectly I offered an alternative question along the lines of 'how did you decide upon the length of each section?'.
This was followed by a closed statement which neither offered the audience or the choreographers greater insight into their practice.
In fact, what I was initially trying to do was observe the work structurally with duration as a focus. I purposefully held back my opinion of how duration had affected my viewing of the work to see if the choreographers comments would influence my opinion.
Instead, I ended up proposing a question that could be interpreted as either naive or judgemental. Both of these interpretations create a power imbalance in a conversation where there should simply be an open forum for discussion. In my opinion it is this power shift that encourages defensive responses from those participating.
I genuinely was supposing an open ended question to stimulate thought.
More Interactions More Problems
At another interaction one choreographer informed the group that she does not like to propose statements, only questions. I believe many of the individuals in the room had a similar notion however this statement was followed by a series of loaded questions which, in effect, were statements. This is turn alienated a majority of the group and again limited conversation.
I highly doubt that this was her intention but if we are not careful about how we say what we say, we all run this risk.
Liz Lerman's critical response process is brilliant if all involved are aware of it. I feel very lucky to have lived through two weeks with her and to have experienced how she opens deep debate in a room but I do understand that it is difficult without practice.
Understanding how we communicate is, in my opinion, the key to being able to discuss issues in detail and without limiting what we can learn. At the absence of being able to introduce everyone to Liz's process I would suggest that we all learn to listen,clarifying ambiguous statements before we let it interrupt our judgement. Furthermore we perhaps all need to learn to explain and reinforce our statements less in the hope of giving time for more to be said.
In order to make this happen a glossary of clearly defined terms, particularly regarding funding bodies, education and practice would assist in simplifying the way we speak. In modern society it would also be easy to distribute and practice.
This leads to two questions. Firstly, who would be entrusted to make this glossary? Secondly, do public bodies truly want to define their aims and practice?
I sadly feel that neither question would result in a succinct answer