Exploring auto-ethnographic performance as research

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Exploring auto-ethnographic performance as research

Exploring auto-ethnographic performance as research

I stand at the back center of the stage. Still. Neutral. Eyes gazing into the distance. I hold this stance for some time. Then, I shift my gaze and make direct eye contact with an audience member. And smile. “My feet are quite broad in front” I tell this person, “which makes it difficult to find shoes that fit well. So I generally prefer to be barefoot. I remember saying to a friend of mine, that I can think better with my shoes off”. I take a slow, deliberate step forward. I speak about my left ankle. Another step forward. I continue telling individual members of the audience about my body, going from my feet to by hair, describing injuries, pregnancy and choices. After each thing I say, I take a step forward, closing the distance between me and the audience. 

Where’s my head at?

In 2017, I created a solo performance, titled BodyMine, that was an articulation of an auto-ethnographic investigation into my own practice as a dancer, and how my body and relationship to dance has been shaped by a career that (at the time) spanned eighteen years. Perhaps it was a ‘coming of age’ of sorts! In this article, I will share the process of creating this performance as an exploration of Performance as Research (PaR). At its most basic, auto-ethnography is a practice of writing the self into the work (Wall 2006; Denshire 2013). My interest in auto-ethnographic research is that it allows for the self to be perceived as a cultural and social being that is the subject of reflexive practice. Further, the modality of weaving the personal and socio-cultural together to get a certain perspective on how these two are intertwined, is of interest to me. Auto-ethnography is mainly concerned with writing, but performing auto-ethnographic research further complicates the subject/object dichotomy and the inter-subjectivity of the performer and audience.

Performance as Research (closely linked to practice as/based research) is broadly concerned with what new understanding studio practice can provide (Barrett and Bolt, 2010; Lewis and Tulk, 2016) and how this poses a challenge to current epistemological frameworks. In the case of BodyMine, not only did the studio practice of making the piece lead to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of my relationship with performing and my body and how this is shaped by my socio-cultural context, the very performing of the piece allows me to investigate it anew each time. Therefore, the very fact that the ‘findings’ of the research are shared as performance allow these ‘findings’ to continually evolve and develop over time. 

BodyMine investigates the tension between the experience of ‘body as liability’ and ‘body as abundance’. The body is a fundamental, material constraint that each of us is born with. The current, dominant socio-cultural construction of the body encourages us to experience our body as a liability, almost as something that gets in the way of life: something that needs to be fixed and managed. Dance training and performance often contributes to this dominant narrative of the body, by elevating and showcasing a certain kind of relationship to the body: one of control towards display. In BodyMine, my effort is to interrogate and overturn this relationship between the body and performance. I use this platform to explore and investigate what performance can mean other than display, and I aim to do this from within performance. 

The performance has three separate strands – one is narrative and autobiographical in nature, where, as the performer, I speak directly to the audience of my personal experiences.  This serves to locate my position vis-a-vis the issues and the questions that the piece seeks to address. The second strand uses recorded text and is non-narrative. This strand locates the piece within a socio-cultural and historical context. For example, I quote from American choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto (a piece of text) and Trio A (a choreography). The third stand is abstract and non-textual. It seeks to explore the same ideas in a visual, visceral and aesthetic language. These three strands address the same questions in three different registers. 

Finding my feet

I started my career as a dancer in 1999. I was nineteen. I lived in Bangalore, South India. I experienced this time as the cusp of a transition between dance as a context for the post-independence, nationalist agenda; and dance as a context for the expression of a neo-liberal agenda of the ‘body project’. In the first case, the body became a site of representation, and in the second the body became the site of control and display. 

During the time of independence, the need for the arts to play a part in the nation-building project meant that they had to be consolidated, traced back to antiquity with an unbroken lineage, and named/labeled (Cherian, A. 2009; Samson, L. 130; Menon, S. 2017). For India to be recognised as a unified nation, Indian dance also needed to be made recognisable. This meant, that from costumes and hair, to steps and choreography, skin colour and body type, there had to be uniformity. Avanthi Medhuri writes: “According to B. P. Singh the institutions were ‘formed in the belief that the cultural endeavours (including song, dance, drama, literature, and painting), would shape for the community a sensibility which would renew India’s Heritage’ (1998:53)” (Medhuri, 230).

The history of dance in post-independence India has shaped the way I have related to dance. My elbows had to be angled just so, eyes and hair had to be made up exactly like this. Fortunately, my nineteen-year old waist was already the right size. When I first cut my long hair short at the age of twenty-three, I was asked how I was going to continue dancing! It seemed absurd to me, that the length of my hair indicated the state of my dancing career. But to them, it was the most natural question. Of course, I had cut my hair in rebellion. I shall dance with short hair.  

The phase of dance becoming a context for the ‘body project’ was characterised by the body of the dancer becoming an emblem of perfection as dictated by the media. The body, flawless; the dancing, effortless; the dancer, distant. Spectacle and display were highlighted. Physical prowess was rewarded. In the words of Ambrogia Cereda: 

“the body has never been as present and crucial in the representations of consumer culture and fashion as it has been in the last decades, and it is suggested as personal possession that anyone can mould as they please, indeed our corporeality has become the equivalent of an object to be manipulated, exhibited and updated, increasingly making invisible the power of social control” (45 – 61).

For me this translated into a work culture in the studio, that ignored the needs of the body for rest or recovery and pushed past physical barriers with no concern for long-term implications. The harder you pushed, the more of a hero you were. Injuries were badges of honour, spoken about only in dismissive tones. If you made your mind up, you could do it. All it took was practice and perseverance. Therefore, what separated a dancer from a regular person was the body: it’s capacity, shape and commitment. This separation was further emphasized through a performative distance set up by the dancer’s gaze (impersonal, distant) and the physical space between the performer and the audience. 

The spine that holds things together

The third phase of dance, performance and body, which I find myself in now, is one that is informed by the intersection of somatic practice, where the body is honoured as a repository of information, and Practice as Research. It is this phase that has allowed me to create BodyMine

I created BodyMine when I was thirty-seven. Creating and performing BodyMine, has allowed me to engage with the aspects of performance, body, and power that my nineteen-year old self found problematic, but didn't have the vocabulary to articulate or indeed, the confidence to even recognise. This process has taken a decade and a half. In all my education as a dancer, both in India and in the UK, the relationship to the body that underpins the training was not explicitly examined. Now, years later, I see clearly the mind-body dichotomy at work in dance training. This comes across in the instrumental approach to training, which is not overt, but is almost subliminal and comes out in many subtle and innocuous ways. The underlying acceptance of the body as instrument – that is as a means – is what drives the training where pushing the body is considered the norm. The only reason to treat the body with respect and care is to have your instrument in working condition for longer. But, slowly, over a number of years my relationship to my body is changing. So much so, that I find the English language limiting – requiring me to separate ‘me’ from ‘my body’. I am my body and my body is a fundamental part of me. So what does my body want to say? And can that be the impetus for performance?  

In the opening sequence of BodyMine,
I stand at the back center of the stage. Still. Neutral. Eyes gazing into the distance. I hold this stance for some time. Then, I shift my gaze and make direct eye contact with an audience member. And smile. “My feet are quite broad in front” I tell this person, “which makes it difficult to find shoes that fit well. So I generally prefer to be barefoot. I remember saying to a friend of mine, that I can think better with my shoes off”. I take a slow, deliberate step forward. I speak about my left ankle. Another step forward. I continue telling individual members of the audience about my body, going from my feet to by hair, describing injuries, pregnancy and choices. After each thing I say, I take a step forward, closing the distance between me and the audience. 

I make my body ‘real’ by sharing my embodied history with the audience. I attempt to dissolve the distance between performer and audience. Moreover, in feedback elicited from the audience at the premier shows of BodyMine, responses included: 

“Visceral recognition of a shared experience”

“Your attention to your own body/movement served to draw me in”

“Made me go into myself – like my inner voice is on stage”

During the performance, I grapple with how my body is constructed through the eyes and/or expectations of the person in power – the audition lady. By playing the ‘other’, I effectively erase my own body and therefore, subjectivity, from the scene.   

I sit, straight backed, on a chair. I have a folder in my lap. I’m playing the character of an ‘audition lady’. The next dancer to be auditioned is a young and enthusiastic Indian girl called Shabari. As the ‘audition lady’ I’m happy to see someone ‘ethnic’ hoping she will be right for the ensemble that I am putting together for this major production that could bring me the visibility I know I deserve. But, Shabari’s dancing is disappointing. I try to give her some pointers, to encourage, to help. But she is just not the kind of dancer I need. I politely ask her to wait for the afternoon session. But my decision is already made. 

Mining my body, making my body mine

When BodyMine first opened to the public in 2017, it was hard for me to separate myself from the work. It was too close, too personal. During rehearsal for the second set of shows in November 2017, I wrote in my journal “It felt like, I’m trying on a dress after a long time – I remember it looked smashing last time, but now I’m not sure I’ll fit into it in the same way. I don’t want to try it on, but finally I do. And I look smashing!” This idea of reentering the performance from where I am at that moment in my life, is extremely liberating. Now, two years and several performances later, I look back at the opening shows and see that I was not fully able to let go of the deep conditioning of dance as display, even though that is what the performance was about. I still wanted to look good! When I am asked has anything changed or evolved in the performance, I have to say it is the way I perform it. Now, I am much more able to trust that I can perform from exactly where I am at this moment in time – with whatever fragility, vulnerability and risk that might mean. 

Improvisation helps with this commitment to the moment. For example, I find that I am not able to either create my own choreography - that is set steps, or reproduce anyone else’s choreography, convincingly.  It is only when I give myself the permission to be moved, by whatever internal and external impulses I encounter, that I enjoy the act of dancing. Performance becomes a sharing and co-creating of an experience and therefore of knowledge. The studio practice that supports and prepares me for this, is improvisation. I used to consider improvisation lazy. An easy option, where no rules apply and anything goes. No one can question you. But as I practice, I see it is quite the opposite. When there are no external rules, you have to create them for yourself. For improvised material to be precise, sharp and detailed, it needs to be practiced with discipline.

Improvisation also helps me navigate the complexities of auto-ethnographic research in performance where I am the creator, performer and subject of the piece. “The body is at once the subject of its story, the vessel for telling, and its own audience, experiencing and reacting (both physically and emotionally) to the sound waves and physical expressions it creates for and with others” (Scott, Juile-Ann. 5). In other words, I am the author, subject and object of the performance. How do I navigate these different voices and where do they come together? They come together in the sections of improvised performance because there is a choreographic choice to keep a certain section improvised, in addition, I am dancing/moving, and yet I am moving according to impulses that my body is encountering in the moment. It means I take a distant, outside view as the choreographer, and consider the structural implications of an improvised section. And also I am within the performance, as I perform myself. As a performer, I do not have the written word other than and outside of me, to mediate and shape the presentation of the research. The very presentation of the research is shaped by me.

Very, very slowly I walk with deliberate steps from the top left towards the top right of the stage. As I walk, almost of its own accord, my right arm begins to float up. A recorded voice states “You are not your body/ Your body. Not you” and then softens to ask “your body not you?/ Body, are you not you? Me?/ Not me?”. I begin to improvise movement to the words being said, “An intimate stranger, /A dwelling unfamiliar /Unruly matter in need of control / The ground of our being an affront to our senses / Though senses can call only body their home / Blood, breath and poetry, pulsing vitality / To taste, touch and smell, to hear, to behold / the fragrance of colors, the shape of ideas, textured sensations / our pleasures are tactile / So why the delusion of a self disembodied, weightlessly skimming, primed to resisting, the layers and flavors of human emotions, and all that enlivens our very existence.” By the end of the recorded poem, I am walking again, very slowly and deliberately, forward, towards the audience. I come to a stop as the poem concludes. 

The relationship between dance, performance and my body, is at this moment, right now. It allows me to acknowledge my body as an assimilation and carrier of information, that can be processed and worked through, and shared, by dancing. Performance becomes the platform through which this knowledge of the body is shared with a wider audience. There is then no need for perfection, separation or distance between performer and audience. My performance is me telling my story and inviting you to participate – nothing more, nothing less.  

*** References
  1. Barrett, Estelle, and Barbara Bolt. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  2. Cereda, Ambrogia. ‘Modified Bodies. Between Fashion and Identity Projects’. Comunicação e Sociedade, vol. 24, Apr. 2014, pp. 45–61. 
  3. Cherian, Anita. Institutional Maneuvers, Nationalizing Performance, Delineating Genre: Reading the Sangeet Natak Akademi Reports 1953–1959. p. 29.
  4. Cherian, Anita E. Redefining the Public, Naturalizing the Private the Rewiring of Cultural Policy Discourse in India. p. 12.
  5. Denshire, Sally. ‘Autoethnography’. Sociopedia, 2013. 
  6. Lewis, William W., and Niki Tulk. Editorial: Why Performance as Research? 2016, p. 8.
  7. Meduri, Avanthi. ‘Labels, Histories, Politics: Indian/South Asian Dance on the Global Stage’. Dance Research, vol. 26, no. 2, Oct. 2008, pp. 223–43. 
  8. Menon, Sadanand. ‘Nationalism and Dance’. Ligament, http://www.ligament.in/nationalism-and-dance.html 2019
  9. Samson, Leela. ‘Rukmini Devi: a live’. Pemguin Books India (2010)
  10. Scott, Julie-Ann. Embodied Performance as Applied Research, Art and Pedagogy. Palgrave Macmillan (2018). PDF. 
  11. Wall, Sarah. ‘An Autoethnography on Learning About Autoethnography’. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, vol. 5, no. 2, June 2006, pp. 146–60.
*** This article was first published by the Royal Academy of Dance.
Shabari Rao is an artist, educator and researcher. Her work is rooted in practice based research which focuses on the relationship between body, performance, and learning. She has taught and performed extensively over the last 20 years, and her work has been presented internationally through conferences, festivals, residencies and publications. Most recently BodyMine - International Federation of Theater Research annual conference in Shanghai under Performance as Research (2019);Head 2 Head - Nepal International Theater Festival, Kathmandu, Nepal (2019); Old World Theater Festival, New Delhi (2019); Positively Shameless - annual conference of North American Association of Drama Therapists, USA (2018). Shabari holds a BA in Kathak and Choreography (Bangalore University), a Professional Diploma in Dance Studies (Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance, UK) and an MA in Dance and Education (Royal Academy of Dance, UK). More details of her work can be found on her website.

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