on imagination

Earlier this year I was asked to write a short essay for Dancehouse’s (Melbourne) magazine’ based on the theme of What’s coming?”. Then, last month (and coincidentally), Amaara Raheem and Seke Chimutengwende asked me to give a brief talk at Chisenhale Dance Space for a Roehampton Dance Network event called blurred.

Below is the version I presented that night.

What’s coming?

What a crazy idea. As if I might have any inkling of what is coming.

William Faulkner wrote, The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (1951).

This brief talk is a clutch bag of ideas. Last month I finished a dense creative development period and predictably the things that seem important to me now reflect the questions and problems my collaborator — Colin Poole — and I were facing. I can imagine a terrible future in which the beautiful weight of work might not interfere, colour and crash into my understanding and experiences.

I’ve long been interested in the wonderfully fallible nature of memory: the ways in which it is constituted and reconstituted depending on context, and the way in which any sentence starting with I remember …” is riddled with how we understand ourselves to be, and how we wish others to understand us.

Yet the fallibility of our memories is a vital part of our capacity to time-travel. That is, our remembering enables us to imagine the future. Unspecified scientists (I read this in Wired magazine) believe that future thinking relies on our memory of the past”. Those same unnamed scientists know this because people who don’t have memories draw blank when asked to imagine the future.

When first taught the Warrior pose in yoga I was advised, Not too far in the future, and not too far in the past.” I imagine the practice of performance and choreography to involve a similar balance between an understanding and awareness of the past (both recent and distant) and an occasional glance at the horizon. But this balance is skewed or complicated by a personal interest in research, and in this word is built a curiosity about the search (and re-search) for newness.

Here is a list of questions. They can be thought of as being for you the listener in the very immediate future, or for me as I read out thoughts constructed not so long ago on a sunny London summer’s morning:

  • How do our interests and ways of participating in the world contribute to contemporary culture?
  • How do you respond as you become aware of trends in dance and performance? Do you embrace them or react by being other?
  • What is your relationship with originality?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What do the edges of contemporary dance practice look and feel like? What about the middle?

I have two interests at the moment that seem relevant to what’s coming. The first is quite contemporary, and the other is more personal and perhaps is informed by the work I have seen since landing in the UK a bit over 6 years ago.

Assessing information

Educator Dwayne Harapnuik has suggested that the greatest challenge of our current, digital information age is assessing, not accessing information” (in Bruff, 2011). If I choose to turn and face the full stream of data and information that is assaulting us all, how am I to decide which of these data to hold on to? Or what if I imagine that I can escape this torrent of links, sharing, blogging, re-blogging, opinion, guff, and status updates?

Whether we like it or not, we are participating in an economy of information, and I believe that bringing an informed presence to how I participate (willfully or not) in our dizzying circulation of images, texts and videos is a vital aspect of how I make and present art.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s various criticisms of Western Buddhism — by which he vaguely means some concatenation of Eastern systems of thought — is that meditative practices enable us to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that [we] are not really in it” (Žižek, 2001). The temptation to withdraw is overwhelming; to uncouple” and become indifferent to the mad dance of accelerated process” (Žižek, 2001).

What are the implications of these socio-politics for us as artists and choreographers?

Žižek’s challenge is enormous to the point of impossible. How are we to question and find alternatives to the cynical spirit of our time whilst acknowledging that we are utterly responsible for creating and participating in an economy of (data) consumption (I wrote this talk on an Apple Mac, using free’ software, listening to illegally downloaded music on headphones bought using Arts Victoria funding for a project called Inert)?

Am I simply passing on experience or things that I stumbleupon? How does my choreographic work intervene in these data streams? How do I frame these experiences and question what is being seen, heard, and felt? Can I participate in this economy knowingly whilst presenting work in which how audiences respond generates complex problems and rich imaginative spaces for both them and me?

These questions seem to represent a repackaging of Brecht’s epic theatre, but what is different is the (enormous) quantity and (shoddy) quality of how we are informed — and inform ourselves — as participants. But does this difference make any difference?

Mess, flaws and breakage

Marcin Wichary, Senior User Experience Designer at Google, said this: Maybe there’s gonna be something with interfaces being actually broken in some way—broken to mimic real life, not broken because we’re bad at developing things.”

I’m interested in making choreographies that provoke and give space for the imaginations of audiences. In part this is because I am not sure I have anything to say’ as a maker, but also because I acknowledge the tremendous intelligence of audiences in contemporary performance. My biases as an artist push me towards developing work in which I have deeply considered the various permutations of dramaturgy, influence, and contemporaneity. This has resulted in work that tends to get described as intelligent” or perhaps beautifully intelligent” (if I’m lucky), or most recently as psychodramatic therapy [in which] they needed to finally realise that they want to sleep together” (Gordon Baker, 2012).

I’ve started wondering, what if I break how I make work? What about failure? What happens if I start to drop some of the balls of meaning or influence? Where are the flaws and what if they don’t need editing? What if I shut up? What does a mess look and feel like? What are the boundaries of formality in performance?

Coupled with this is my sense that I am becoming less interested in dictating the terms of experiences for both audiences and performers. How light might my touch be as a choreographer? How little is required in order for an audience to be involved in merely the smallest of transformations?

But is this what’s coming?


However, the decisions I will make, and the curiosities I will follow are never independent. I am not an independent artist. These decisions and curiosities are part of a complex set of interactions — between culture, individuals, politics and economics — that demand we test our ideas and practices outside the bubble of the art world; that we grapple with difficult questions of power and technology, and that we might risk providing the space to welcome the imaginations of those who watch performance.

Finally, I don’t quite know how to fit this in, but there is an article in (a different!) Wired magazine — <http://www.wired.com/ep icenter/2012/04/ff_spotfuture_qas/all/1 — that asks several visionaries” how they spot the future. This is a selection of my favourites and least favourites:

Paul Saffo: I look for: contradictions, inversions, oddities, and coincidences”.

Esther Dyson: The first thing I do is go where other people aren’t”.

Juan Enriquez: A clear view of the future is often obstructed by taking too much for granted”.

Tim O’Reilly: I find the cool kids and then say, what are they doing?”

Chris Sacca: I walk around Best Buy every three to four weeks and watch people.”

Joi Ito: I believe in serendipity, and in the strength of weak ties”.

Peter Schwartz: You look for technologies that are likely to create major inflection points—breaks in a trend, things that are going to accelerate”.

Here’s to the future of Roehampton Dance Network.


Simon Ellis, April 2012, updated for blurred, 12 July 2012

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