Yesterday i wrote a reflective post about fragility and impermanence. Today, i want to explore a related idea: performance. These pieces relate to a ‘Creative Voices’ session that i ran at the Social Age Safari, which used performance poetry and live songs to explore themes in storytelling and learning.
We view the past through a filter of perception: sensations though our eyes and ears, interpreted into meaning, sensed and story-told, grounded in our understanding of the world. Sensation: gritty textures through our fingertips, warm hands, cold breezes. Sound waves through the air: understood as language, holding implied and ascribed meaning and purpose. Pin prick inputs: tactile taunts of the world around us. Sensation is the groove on the record: quantifiable yet abstract, raw data, the static on the line.
We learn to see: patients whose sight is given in adulthood, who have never ‘seen’ before, report not sights familiar from imagination and memory, but rather chaotic kaleidoscopic colours, jumbled sparkles of light that slowly coalesce into meaning as they become understood. Interpreted from chaos into meaning. There is no absolute nature of sight: only that which we learn. The right angles and smoothly planed surfaces that we see on a hand built table are merely reflected light: not physical and tactile sensations, but rather energy reflected, distorted, returned.
We have to learn to see: we have to learn the meaning. Music, something so familiar to many of us, is familiar through convention and pattern: repetition and learning. The tonal range we use today, the structure of chords, the spacing of our flats and sharps is not absolute, but culturally determined and accepted. There are other ranges, other chords: chords lost in time, chords of other music, other song.
A poem can be represented in many ways: as words on a page, as recorded performance, as live and whispered in your ear. Each interpretation is different: my inner voice will vary in tone and pitch from your outward performance. Your version will differ from something that i will read out.
Pace. Tempo. The pauses we take. The timing. The silence, as much as the words dictate the meaning. The silence. Counts.
And the loss: when the last word fades, as the echoes recede, and silence falls. we are left not with words, but with the memory of words. We script the memory into our recollection: capturing details before they fade like the echoes. Glimpses, fragments, moments of performance that we carry forward: stories we tell ourselves.
It’s wise to understand the difference: the poem that we write is not the poem that we remember. In memory, we hold images of performance, of movement and breath, of air sucked in and gasped out. We hold strobed images of movement and sound: not the thing, but a shadow, an image of the thing, unified by a warmth of memory, a layer of interpretation imposed upon it.
I have a memory of Sioned dancing: a dance, a dance in silence. A story told in movement. A dance without music. And yet not a dance without sound. Sat just a few feet from her as she expressed the story through the motion of her body, my memory is of breath, carefully controlled breathing, of the slap of hands and legs on the floor, a visceral, painful sound, a bruising sound. Hard expression. Sometimes delicate, controlled, sometimes unrestrained and wild, gasping and grasping. Meaning conveyed in movement, not word, not song, not text, but motion alone, with it’s own soundtrack. The breathless nature of the performance would have been lost on film: it was in the moment, fragile and impermanent. Lost in the moment, preserved in memory.
Perspective changes: from me as spectator, consumer of movement, to her as artist, bleeding energy into the performance. A lifetime of learning: conditioning a body as an instrument, conditioning muscles and memory to perform. Finely tuned, lightly poised, then unleashed into expression and dance.
These flow states of performance are aligned around energy: be it dance or poetry, writing or drawing, we find our voice, somehow, through the static.
Ballet dancers trace shapes through the air: sometimes expressing emotion, sometimes simply defining an empty space into which emotion pours. Their three dimensional mapping of space, delineated by limb and line, squared within the stage, curtailed by the curtain call. They do not convey meaning, but rather define the space within which the meaning may be eluded. To dance is to infer: it’s not the context of text or the solidity of sculptural stone, but rather space and emptiness alone, refined and defined through the movement of a body.
Dancers move between ground and space: land and air. The leaps may prove spectacle, but it’s the ground that anchors, that provides context. The athletic prowess to jump is one thing: the stuff of gymnastics and pure strength, but it’s the interpretation of the jump to something expressive that marks out dance as a separate form.
We perceive this: perception being the corollary of sensation: we sense, then perceive.
Perception is our interpretation of primary sense into ‘sense made’. Perception is the story told: the way we understand what we have seen, the context we have given it, the meaning ascribed, the connotation connoted. We may experience similar sensation, but perceive it entirely differently, because perception is a filtered view: filtered through our worldview.
At one point, my niece declared her intention to be a ballet dancer: as she proceeded to stomp across the room, pink fairy wings tied to her back, arms outstretched, floor shaking, she probably carried one perception of the event in her minds eye as i perceived another. In her mind, she emulated movement, attempting to recreate the essence of dance as she had previously perceived it, but with none of the understanding of theory or construct that lay behind it. She tried to recreate the thing, but the thing itself is a performance. Not conjured in the abstract from the air, but choreographed, trained, iterated and refined.
For sure, there can be native energy in performance, but there is a frame as well: as the poem has a frame of written structure and a song the notes on a sheet, so too dance has choreography to constrain it. The performance, to be coherent, happens within a space: drift too far from the space and we find simply chaos.
We can derive power in two ways: from conforming or defying the frame, but either way, we recognise that the frame exists. Where modern art seeks to find power from threat or challenge to received wisdom, it inherently recognises the validity of that wisdom, even if it chooses to defy it to find it’s energy.These are the cultural building blocks of performance and progress: what we keep, what we discard, what we evolve, what we destroy.
Performance poetry and dance both gain some of their power from their very impermanence. They can be captured, fossilised, imprinted on paper of film, but the thing that preserves them robs them of the power of breath and motion. Motion perceived, not motion described.
We should understand performance not simply as an end point of rehearsal, not simply as the point we launch, but rather as the point at which we create. Everything in our rehearsal simply gets us to the place where we can perform, in the moment. Performance is not incidental to the thing: in many contexts, it is the thing.
We can script and choreograph, we can practice and rehearse, indeed, we may spend much of a lifetime doing all of these things, but it’s ultimately in performance that we paint the picture, that we tell the story, that we imbue ourselves into the expression.
And then, at the end, as the last words are spoken, as the last energy is spent, as the curtain starts to fall, then we are done. As the point of performance passes, we move into memory: those snapshots that we recall, those distant echoes of performance, those dreams that build and shadows we hold dear.