2.2 Researching Performing Bodies



Within the creative arts domain there exists a wide-ranging interdisciplinary research agenda that shares a commitment to body-centred research focusing on bodies ‘in’ performance as well as bodies ‘as’ “the locus of performance” (Parker-Starbuck & Mock 2011, p. 210). Over the past century, many performing artists have applied an intelligent rigour to their performance practices. This research agenda served to establish Performance Research methodologies well before this mode of inquiry entered the academy. For example Barba (2009), Grotowski (1968), and Stanislavski (1936) all developed substantial research models for their practice. According to Watson, research for each of these practitioners “begins from a challenge” that generates a “series of explorations” that are “tested, and if proven worthy, are applied” and findings often become the “basis of further research” (2009, p. 87). Although as Nelson says, “only academic research requires that you must establish new knowledge” (2013, p. 25), the outcome of the research conducted by these practitioners outside the academy has resulted in significant forms of new knowledge. For this reason, these practitioners might be considered the pioneers of creative arts research. Their efforts are therefore significant in the framing of contemporary research in the performing arts.

For many performance practitioners, the investigation of the daily body is central to their practice. For example, theatre practitioner Lorna Marshall says that the performer, using their “daily body”, the everyday body that already has an extensive repertoire of signifying and affective gestures and movements, can attune, and learn to “listen…taste… and remain open” (2008, p. 10) to what they might become from one moment to the next. By observing how the daily body actually moves and sounds, the performer becomes aware of patterns and habits, and enters into a dialogue with those patterns, thus allowing for more differentiation and more openness to the possibilities of what they may become.

There is also a rich trajectory of performance experimentation focused on the “everyday movement” of the body (Burt 2006, p. 36). For example, post modern dance rejected the constraints of modern dance composition, instead focusing on the belief that any movement was dance and any person was a dancer; that everyday movement was valid performance art. This work, pioneered in New York by The Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s, built on experiments done by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and took movements from life such as walking and running to create dance performances that influenced not only future dance work, but minimalism in music and art (Burt 2006). These artists, many of whom are still experimenting with their practice today, are interested in the lessons one can learn from everyday lived experience. For example, Deborah Hay (2000) writes eloquently about the body as the locus of artistic consciousness. In her book, My body, the Buddhist, Hay documents the “practical wisdom” she gains from her “teacher, the (my) body” (2000, p. xxiii).

In theatre contexts, a significant proportion of developments in twentieth-century actor training have been physically based. From the later work of Stanislavski on physical actions, through Meyerhold, Copeau, Artaud, Brecht, St Denis, (Michael) Checkhov, Grotowski, Decrouz to Brook, Barba, Lecoq and Pardo, one can trace an “insistence on practices of embodiment, physical expressiveness and corporeal fluency” (Keefe & Murray 2007, p. 17).

In the twentieth century, the focus on physical training gave rise to the development of a style of performance known as ‘physical theatre’. The work of DV8 Physical Theatre in the 1980s is arguably the first group to overtly adopt the phrase in the name of their company (Murray & Keefe 2007). DV8’s founder Lloyd Newson, a trained dancer, began to use the term physical theatre because as he says “the term physical theatre better describes the work I do…I can invent, access, manipulate, combine whatever I like. Be it pedestrian or naturalistic movement, circus skills, film, dance, song, text. Any means necessary to find the most appropriate way to say something” (DV8 Physical Theatre 2016).

In their companion books, Physical theatres: a critical introduction and Physical theatres: a critical reader, Murray and Keefe have attempted an “investigation and interrogation of the principles, tropes and practices that make up physical theatres/the physical in theatres” (2007, p. 5). They recognise the work of DV8, but trace a rich lineage of theatre practices that for 2000 years might have been called physical theatre if the term had been culturally available (p. 14).

The body-centred work of the performance practitioners listed above frames the artistic context within which my investigations have taken place. However, the analysis of this work, according to Josephine Machon, is problematic because it tends to “separate ideas around the moving body and the written text” (2009, p. 2). For Machon, this leaves no sympathetic mode of analysis for performance that is visceral and inter-disciplinary. In response, she develops her own mode of performance analysis that fuses sensory perceptual experience with a sensate approach to artistic practice. For this reason, Machon’s work is a key text in this project. Her work substantiates the visceral, and finds a legitimate way to analyse and articulate a style of performance which privileges and substantiates the sensations and perceptions of lived experience.

Machon traces a linage of body-centred performance through ancient traditions such as “Noh Theatre, Kathakali, Greek Tragedy; through Shakespearean and Jacobean theatre, to the avant-garde practice of Jacques Copeau, Vsevolod Myerhold, Antonin Artaud, Isadora Duncan, Samual Beckett, Jacew Lecoq or Martha Graham… and onwards to the innovations of the late twentieth century through to the present such as Pina Bausch or Robert Lepage” (2009, pp. 1-2). Machon, in contrast to Murray and Keefe’s (2007) work on Physical Theatre, cites this lineage in terms of a style of “experiential” performance emerging out of the late twentieth century that exploits diverse artistic languages “via the recreation of visceral experience” (2009, p. 1). For Machon, the “predominance of the body is a vital and defining strategy for this style of performance (p. 62).

Machon develops a mode of analysis, she calls “(syn)aesthetics”, for a kind of performance that “fuses disciplines”, fuses “corporeal and cerebral experiences”, and through its experiential style provokes a visceral response (Machon 2011 pp. 3-4). Machon endows the term (syn)aesthetics with both its Greek etymology (the Greek syn meaning ‘together’ and aisthesis, meaning ‘sensation’ or ‘perception’) and the scientific study of synaesthesia, a neurological condition where multiple senses are simultaneously stimulated when just one sense is triggered.

In my project, I employ a (syn)aesthetic style of performance by testing philosophical concepts against my own experience, in the act of making creative works, to discover how these ideas might manifest through performance. I argue that this exchange between performance and philosophy makes a contribution to the emerging field of Performance Philosophy.  The next section describes how my work lays claim to this field of study.


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