by Natasha Simon
The Unique Gesture is a platform for creative and intellectual discourse initiated by the Creative Excellence Group. We are a cross-generational body of active and retired dancers from the broad dance ‘family’ of American choreographer Alwin Nikolais. Our mission states, among other things, our conviction that ‘motion is the engine for creative thinking, acting and being.’ It is my aim to provide further explanation of this critical and potentially complicated statement. I became acutely aware of that undertaking in a recent conversation I had with a friend. Over the years she and I have shared ideas, passions, and puzzlements so it was natural that I would ask her opinion of this group’s premise. Her reaction was immediate: “What do you mean by the engine for creative thinking — it certainly is an engine, but not the only engine.”
My friend is a lawyer. She is also a violinist and she runs, swims, and bicycles religiously. There is no right or wrong answer to her question. But we must engage with it toward exploring how Alwin Nikolais’ principles and theories of motion apply to other disciplines, including the humanities and the sciences as well as other art forms. Elucidating our premise means looking at how we as individuals, prima facie, ‘see’ the world: what portals or dimensions do we use to perceive and organize phenomena both inside and outside ourselves?
Alwin Nikolais once gave a dance class the composition assignment: "stand still fast." He explained to his students that "if the mind is concerned with time, it will manifest itself in the body; explore what it feels like to be in fast time: sense what it feels like in the peak sensitive areas of the body: armpit, crotch, behind the knee; find out what the right molecular response is." But here and now we aren’t in the studio or on the stage. Does what we have to say make any sense to non-dancers, such as my friend? The language we use is motional and sentient; our practiced expertise as dancers lies in our ability to communicate non-verbally. How is it that we understand the seemingly contradictory phrase, ‘stand still fast’ ? Where is the motion in standing still? What is fast about stillness?
When Nikolais posed the compositional problem was he asking his students to grapple with the physical sensations of stasis, tempo, and moving all at once — literally in the same stance and breath? Or was he speaking metaphorically and asking the class to address the problem motionally? The directive “stand still fast” seems purposefully sneaky — that is, it seems Nik wanted to engage his audience (whether self-identified dancers or not) with a particular kind of body cognition. The outwardly paradoxical directive is offered up a bit like a puzzle available for any person to try to solve. And it can be viewed as an invitation into dancing that is quite distinct and wonderful.
Nikolais’ compositional assignment is conceptually based rather than sequence or form based. We are asked to engage on a whole person level. For Nikolais conceptually based prompts are not rooted in abstractions. Rather, his assignment to ‘stand still fast’ plunges one into an experiential question (or series of questions) like, “how would I do that?” And the only way to pursue the invitation is to experience it as a physical challenge. Nikolais’ problem prods one imaginatively and physically (simultaneously) into action; the only way to feel the sensation is to try it — within the body/mind — not to meditate on it as an abstract concept.
So in considering Nikolais’ theories of motion do we need a translator? In a recent essayi New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik argues that "no words are entirely translatable; none are entirely transparent…sometimes they obscure; sometimes they’re plain; often they fail us." In this instance is Nik’s puzzle untranslatable or is it obscure because of a lack of opportunity for considering the original directive in meaningful (i.e. embodied) ways? So, is translation at issue, or is contemplation at issue? In my discussion with my lawyer/violinist/athlete friend do I need to translate our motional principles or am I asking her to ‘think’ in a new way? Is there a difference?
Listening to various scientists talk with dancers, photographers, philosophers, athletes, and composers brings the question of translation and contemplation to the foreground.ii To be fair, every profession has its own argot. How would a neuroscientist explain ‘standing still fast?’ Does a photographer ‘see’ standing still differently than does an athlete? When we learn a poem “by heart” are we storing words in our bloodstream or are the neurons in our brain stringing words together? How would a dancer explain the relationship between Nikolais’ assignment to ‘stand still fast’ and, for instance, the recently identified disorder research scientists are calling ‘sluggish cognitive tempo’? When someone uses the word ‘mindless’ does he or she mean only the body, not the mind? Does the word ‘mindless’ denote a lack of intellect? Does the word mindless imply not paying attention? Does it suggest diminished thinking or does it represent a weakened brain function? Is it a word used to describe an acute body sensation? Is it used to convey a heightened physical perception? Again the question arises: is Nikolais’ puzzle to be translated or contemplated anew? What do we gain by revisiting his methodology and our experience of it?
Are we talking with one another or simply just talking past one another?
Rodolfo Llinás, a neuroscientist, teaches at New York University School of Medicine. In his book I of the Vortex: from Neurons to Self iii he uses the word ‘mindness’ to represent ‘the internalization of movement.’ Interested in the neuronal integration and synaptic transmission between nerves and muscles, he theorizes that the brain and the mind are inseparable. Drilling down through increasingly more powerful magnification he and other neuroscientists can see neuronal electrical impulses — what Llinás calls oscillations — at the molecular level. Drilling up through increasingly greater degrees of magnitude to the systemic, he arrives at cognition. He calls the interplay of the brain and the mind: mindness. For Llinás mindnessness [my word] represents all functional brain states including self awareness.
Condensing Llinás’ theory in the preceding paragraph does not do him justice. I cite him because of the words he chose to translate his thinking into writing. Is my attraction to Llinás’ theory due to my immediate connection kinesthetically to such words as “oscillations” and such phrases as “the internalization of movement?” Does Llinás’ language resonate with me because of my particular skills set as a dancer? Linguistically, how do the words mindness, mindless, mindful relate? Do they all represent aspects of the corporeality of the brain? Should we use the words brain and mind interchangeably? Does “brainstorming” — electrical storms in the brain — lead one to better ways of knowing, i.e. intellectual intuitive cognition? Does what Llinás theorizes help explain our belief that motion is the engine for creative thinking, acting, and being?
Why confine Llinás’ oscillations and the mindnessness he posits to the brain? In improvisation class Nikolais dance students are asked to ‘see’ space with their chest, their hips, and their elbows. Students are also asked to ‘see’ space: points in space, peripherals, internal space, and negative spaces. Hence other parts of a dancer’s body take over the function of the eye as an organ of (a kind of) sight. And the dancer, actively engaged in motion, becomes the embodiment of what Ernst Cassirer in his book Language and Myth iv has called “active viewing.” How we direct Cassirer’s “active viewing” — how we make tangible the notion of space in any of its physical manifestations — requires a dancer to translate an idea into movement. We are asked literally to embody a concept. This dancerly embodiment is then both the direct result of language-motion translation and a kinetic expression. It is also both connotative and denotative.
The underpinnings of Nikolais’ pedagogical assignments are not perforce new. One can leap backwards over more than two millennia to the tenets of Epicurus, by way of Lucretius, and his expositions on the atomic nature of our senses. He writes that the mind, while composed of the elements wind, air, and heat, still lacks sentience. It is so
"…since the mind does not admit that any of these [elements] can create the sensory motions that originate the meditations of the mind. We must accordingly add to these a fourth component, which is quite nameless. Than this there is nothing more mobile or more tenuous — nothing whose component atoms are smaller or smoother. This it is that first sets the sensory motions coursing through the limbs. Owing to the minuteness of its atoms, it is first to be stirred. Then the motions are caught up by the warmth and the unseen energy of wind, then by air. Then everything is roused to movement: the blood is quickened; the impulse spreads throughout the flesh; last of all, bones and marrow are thrilled with pleasure or the opposite excitement."vReading this passage my mind’s eye easily visualizes Epicurus, the 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher, in a movement improvisation class, trying to make real a Nikolais directive to “stand still fast.” It is equally exciting to view the readouts of neuronal electrical impulses from one of Rodolfo Llinás’ magnifications of brain functions as representations of Lucretius’ nameless fourth component of the mind.
Surely the lure of science lies in its assertion of facts and by inference, truth. If our goal is to be able to communicate with others what we believe is our understanding of the nature of movement and creativity, then, is our task is to find the oral or written language to describe the truth we believe lies in our motional memory banks? How, in fact, do we reconcile our ‘truth’ with someone else’s ‘truth’? How do we define our truth? In attempting to explain what he considered fundamental to his theory of motion Nikolais once wrote that “although we do not have scientific, psychological affirmation, I believe it is the condition of motion that causes emotion.vi In the continuing conversation with my lawyer friend and in our continuing dialogue with neuroscientists, educators and others, we might alter Nikolais’ words to read: “although we do not yet have scientific, psychological affirmation…”
When he asked his students to “find the right molecular response to standing still fast” was Nikolais being disruptive or was he scientifically prescient?
© 2015 Natasha Simon