The Dance Artist within the Web of Life
The inspiration for this work came from reading The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra, which lead me to read his next book, The Web of Life, from which I derived the title for this writing. In his writings he suggests a new understanding of life and presents a unified view of life, mind and society, and a coherent, systematic approach to some of the critical issues of our time. He presents paradigm shifts in science, physics, biology, medicine, psychology and economics, and a corresponding transformation of worldviews and values in society. Through looking at deep ecology, the systems view of life, key criteria of living systems, cognition, the mind and consciousness, he ultimately proposes the creation of sustainable communities; consistent with the principles of organization that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life. Looking at dance as a holistic body-mind-soul-spiritual art, as a connecting and integrating generator and potential, I could recognize and relate my practice and orientation as a dance artist and human being within this wider social-cultural-life web. While collecting my ideas for this work I realized how closely it actually relates to what I was writing nearly three years ago for my Independent Project from 2005, as part of my BA studies at Laban, entitled “Why Performing Arts”. Looking at and referring to Action Theater founder Ruth Zaporah, Martial artist, actor, director and philosopher Bruce Lee and scientist and thinker David Bohm, some of the key concepts were acceptance, awareness, allowing, connection and wholeness. While I was writing in my introduction that I consider this project as an ongoing life process, something which will slowly and organically be understood in an embodied way and express itself in daily life and practice, moving to a deeper understanding and approach in my practice of performance art, as a performer, creator and teacher, I was astonished when looking back at it how what I then wrote has been challenged in the two years of living as a dance artist outside a school structure in the professional world. In my experiences in teaching, performing and creating I got confronted with personal difficulties, limitations and mental blocks. While I was focusing on creating a good atmosphere, on release and energizing, to challenge students from a relaxed state when teaching, I encountered personal confusions, judgements, conflicts, criticizing, censoring, too self-consciousness when creating, which created a separation and disconnection. This was mainly due to a shift towards a more mind orientated approach while creating; thinking, analyzing, trying to understand, make sense, find meaning, and ultimately losing intuition. Within the difficulties I encountered in trying to make a living as a dance artist, and the challenge of accepting, being present, here and now, in the moment, while feeling higher responsibilities and demands of organizing and planning into the future, I became more and more interested into body-mind connection, balance, and practices; as eastern approaches like yoga and martial arts, as well as contemporary movements like body-mind centering. I consider this writing as a prolongation of my independent project writing from 2005, and as a starting point and direction towards a synthesis for a bigger or more in depth work as time and practice moves on. I first will look at the dance artist and body-mind centering, moving on to the web of life and the writing of Fritjof Capra, and relate this to the practice of specific dance artists that inspired and influenced me over the last years, as Deborah Hay, concluding in a synthesis of the dance artist within the web of life.
While I described the last two years, or generally the learning and experience as a dance artist, as challenging, I consider these difficulties as learning and developing potentials. While it can be hard to be so closely confronted with your own nature, as you understand and sense the interconnectedness of your being, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual, it is as much a deep insight into life, human nature, society and consciousness, and has also been of the richest experiences and rewards. It is a continuous learning process, a continuous body-mind balancing, within bodily concrete presence in the here and now, within the parameters of time and space, gravity and physical and anatomical structures and realities, and so limitations, as well as abstract thinking, mental expectations, ideas, images, memories of the past and projections into the future. This includes listening to, understanding, and going with your nature and not against it. Accepting the impermanence, and going with the flow and changes of life.
It is a constant movement, and so is our understanding of the universe and of ourselves an ongoing process. “As the continuity of our awareness develops we will attempt less and less to stop the process of change and hold the moments in a static balance; instead we become more free to relate to what is actually happening in and around us and to dance within the changing moment”(Hartley, 1995, p. xxxiv). As Bruce Lee says: ” to change with the change is the changeless state” (Little, 1996, p.20).
It is a condition of ‘changeless change’ that is the true state of our bodies internal environment. Lee’s aphorism serves to underscore the principle of Yin/Yang, or the interdependency of apparent opposites, as the sine qua non for the survival of our bodies. Our bodies, however are simply reflections in miniature of the natural laws that regulate the ebb and flow of the cosmic universe of which they are part. This being the case, it becomes possible for us to learn to understand the way of the world without by taking a look at the way of the world within.
To this end, Lao-tzu (circa 600 B.C.), the legendary founder of Taoism, made this observation:
One may know the world without going out of doors.
One may see the way of Heaven without looking through the windows.
(Little, 1996, p.20)
So there is a huge learning and knowing through a process of introspection and self-understanding. Through a process of getting to know all there is about the real you, physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and the constant flux within all this.
[…] there is an art of self-knowledge, which each person has to develop for himself. This art must lead one to be sensitive of how his basically false approach to life is always tending to generate conflict and confusion. The role of art here is therefore not to provide a symbolism, but rather to teach the artistic spirit of sensitive perception of the individual and particular phenomena of one’s own psyche. […] Such an approach is not possible, however unless one also has the spirit that meets life wholly and totally. […] It would seem, then, that in some ways the modern person must manage to create a total approach to life, which accomplishes what was done in earlier days by science, art, and religion, but in a new way that is appropriate to modern conditions of life.
(Bohm, 1996, p.37-38)
On this path of sincere self-knowledge, the further I go in, the more I feel I am related to everything out there. It is seeing the relationship between me, you, and the world. It is seeing the universe as one inseparable, interrelated field.
The earth is one household. It is all one. […] everything enfolds everything. […] everybody not merely depends on everybody, but actually everybody is everybody in a deeper sense. We are the earth, because all our substance comes from the earth and goes back to it. It is a mistake to say it is an environment just surrounding us, because that would be like the brain regarding the rest of the body as part of its environment.
(Bohm, 1996, p. 135)
Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, through “an intuitive exploration of the relationship between the body and the mind [ created] Body-Mind Centering (BMC), a fundamental approach to embodiment through movement, touch, voice, and mind. (Hartley, 1995, p. xv) Understanding that mind and body are integrally connected and mutually interactive expressions of being, it creates natural and organic processes from which we can each grow. “Central to the work [of BMC] is the process of awakening awareness at the cellular level to contact the innate intelligence of the body” (Hartley, 1995, p. xxx ). This is done by allowing the attention to focus there, through breath, imagery and touch.
Each cell pulses with the movement of its own breathing process, each in its own rhythm; within even the deepest stillness of the body this activity continues ceaselessly. However, we can experience moments of deep peace in which we feel in the cells a deep stillness that is even beyond this subtle activity. These are moments of integration where every cell simultaneously knows and feels itself and every other cell. Cellular Breathing is the movement pattern which integrates the whole physical body. […] This knowing of the cells may be a basis for what we call intuition: a perception, feeling, and recognition of and response, at a cellular level of awareness or intelligence, to that which is too subtle, fundamental, or immediate an experience for our conscious minds to grasp or register. When each cell is present, self-aware, and in potential communication with every other cell of the body, we may perceive information that is normally inaccessible in ordinary states of awareness.
(Hartley, 1995, p. 10-11)
Becoming aware, sensitive and understanding towards our nature, we get to respect our body and life and allow it to be, appreciating its own intelligence, consciousness and functioning.
Each anatomical system or structure of the body has its own quality of expression, its own function, needs, and place within the greater whole. Each is equally important to the healthy functioning of the whole organism. The internal relationships of the body systems and functions also offer a beautiful model in microcosm of the relationships between the individuals of a group, the subgroups within society, the nations of the world, and so on. Within the body we find that if one system or organ, for example, is overused, abused, or denied in some way, the health of the whole person will be compromised. Only when the natural function of each is accepted fully and equally can a healthy relationship among the parts be maintained. Competition or conflict among them results in disorder; each cell and tissue of the body has its own vital part to play and is intended to work in complement with every other part.
(Hartley, 1995, p.p.301)
Our bodies and life are made of relationships, connecting and integrating networks, as are society and the world on a wider scale:
And so it is in the larger world ….A healthy social or political relationship, following the cellular model, requires genuine respect for the needs and rights of each individual and every group and appreciation of their unique talents and contributions to their society and the planetary population as a whole.
(Hartley, 1995, p.p.301)
Through sensing and understanding these relations and connections within, in harmony with our nature, learning from within and without, through the changes of life, we become more sensitive and understanding to others and the outside world.
If we can really accept, allow, and nurture our natural order within, there is hope that we may also be able to genuinely accept the strengths, weaknesses, and differences that exist between individuals and groups and allow ourselves to coexist in a relationship of complementarity and harmony without. This change of attitude marks the shift from an awareness dominated by the needs of the greater whole of which the individual is a vital part. Unless we heal the rifts and conflicts within, we cannot hope to effect real and lasting change in the world without, for our world, like our own body, reflects the conditions of the individual and collective mind.
(Hartley, 1995, p. 302)
Our body is our biography. We can see the mind in the form of the body as we can follow the wind in the shapes in the sand. In the process of sensing and understanding this body-mind connection, and in a constant learning process of balancing, I more and more see relationships between apparent polarities: yin and yang, mind and body, process and form, open and close, free and limited, inward and outward, being and doing. Perceiving my own ignorance, or black and white approach to life and events, feelings of lost ness, disconnectedness, isolation and separation, I perceive the relation of my own experience with a general state of our society and how I am to an unconscious level influenced by my growing up in a western, post-Cartesian, mechanistic and fragmented worldview. In a world of industrial growth, globalisation, over importance of hard technology, increase of productivity, emphasize on information, happiness and wealth found in material possessions, and time spent in front of the computer and television, moving more and more towards a virtual reality, in a time of climate change, nuclear weapons, world hunger and depletion of natural resources, it is clear that there is an imbalance, an inequality.
As our body’s health depends on a dynamic balance, so does the wellbeing of the Earth.
“What we need to overcome our multifaceted crisis is … a profound change of values, attitudes, and life styles” (Capra, 1982, p. 254), which we consider as the Turning Point, a change of paradigms from a mechanistic to an ecological, holistic worldview. We need to slow down. Less is more. From mental ambitions and expectation, our clinging onto material possessions, mechanical, technological expansion, growth will have to be channelled into public areas such as transportation, education and health care, and into inner growth and development. We especially have to re-awaken our connection with the earth and respect towards it. Deep ecology, an ecological awareness and of the intrinsic value of all living things, a sense of belonging, of connectedness to the cosmos as a whole, is in its deepest sense a spiritual awareness. “To regain our full humanity, we have to regain our experience of connectedness with the entire web of life. This reconnection, religio in Latin, is the very essence of the spiritual grounding of deep ecology “(Capra, 1996, p. 288) .
Fritjof Capra uses the system’s view of life to look at the organization, relationships and networks of life. “A system has come to mean an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts, and ‘systems thinking’ the understanding of a phenomenon within the context of a larger whole” (Capra, 1996, p. 27). We have to respect the Earth as an integrated whole, a living being, Gaia, instead of as a machine, and understand its living nature as mindful and intelligent.
In the system’s view, the planet Earth, as well as the cell, are self-organizing systems, whose common characteristics of self-organizing are “the continual flow of energy and matter through the system, the stable state far from equilibrium, the emergence of new patterns of order, the central role of feedback loops, and the mathematical description in terms of nonlinear equations (Capra, 1996, p.111).
Looking closer at what is life, he goes on to define the three key criteria of a living system:
“pattern of organization
the configuration of relationships that determines the system’s essential characteristics;
the physical embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization;
the activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization”
(Capra, 1996, p. 156)
These components of living systems are interlinked in network fashion. Intrinsic to system’s understanding of life is the importance of nonlinear and network dynamics, the understanding of life as a changing process of patterns of relationships. “At a micro level within ourselves and a macro level within our universe, we are always dealing with complex patterns of relationship – and those relationships are constantly changing.” (Hackney, 2002, p.15)
Fritjof Capra further describes living systems as cognitive systems and the process of living as a process of cognition. “The interactions of a living system with its environment are cognitive interactions, to live is to know” (Capra, 1996, p.260). Language, abstract thinking and symbolic concepts being key characteristics of human consciousness, the general process of cognition that is common to all living systems is embodied action, and is not based on mental representations, symbols and information. “Cognition involves the entire process of life – including perception, emotion and behaviour- and does not necessarily require a brain and a nervous system” (Capra, 1996, p. 260).
To be human is to exist in language and to be endowed with reflective consciousness. I would like to look though on another kind of consciousness, which Capra calls primary states of consciousness, which exists “in all higher vertebrates that is not yet self-reflective but involves the experience of a unitary mental space or mental state” (Capra, 1996, p. 284). This primary conscious experience “is not located in a specific part of the brain, nor can it be identified in terms of specific neural structures. It is the manifestation of a particular cognitive process – a transient synchronization of diverse, rhythmically oscillating neural circuits” (Capra, 1996, p.285). I connect this consciousness with the cellular consciousness of Body-Mind Centering, as a state of oneness and connectedness with the web of life. In respect and love for all life, we just know that to live in harmony and balance, we need to live sustainable. A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of other forms of life or of future generations. “Based on the understanding of ecosystems …, we can formulate a set of principles of organization that may be identified as the basic principles of ecology, and use them as guidelines to build sustainable human communities” (Capra, 1996, p.290). These principles are:
These principles are part of our lives, of our bodies and our existence within communities, societies and the web of life. They are also intrinsic to the art of movement and dance and of the dance artist within the web of life. I see the dance artist as a powerful and empowering generator in our society, working in a sustainable, ecological, holistic, and social, three dimensional embodied, connecting and integrating way, in a constant process of change and creating relationships, within the nature and principles of live. “Whereas the extraction of resources and the accumulation of waste are bound to reach their ecological limits, the evolution of life has demonstrated for more than three billion years that in a sustainable Earth household, there are no limits to development, diversification, innovation and creativity” (Capra, 2003, p. 232).
Dance artists that highly influenced me, whose practice, work and teaching informed me in many ways, and whose approach or art I connect and consider as an embodiment of what I have been writing so far are Deborah Hay, Julyen Hamilton, David Zambrano, Andrew Morrish and Al Wonder, to mention a few. Having participated in workshops of the latter four of these dance artists, I always have been amazed at the accepting, supportive and appreciative, fruitful and positive atmosphere they created in workshops, as much as their strong presence and skill as performers. Often including movement, sound and speech, all of them work within the field of improvisation and are for me the embodiment of a holistic expression of the human potential.
Deborah Hay, who explores the nature of experience, perception and attention in dance, writes about her “body, dancing, [as] formed and sustained imaginatively. I reconfigure the three-dimensional body into an immeasurable fifty-three trillion cells perceived perceiving, all of them, at once” (Hay, 2000, p. xxiv). About her book entitled My Body, The Buddhist, she says that it “describes innate skills and basic wisdom that bodies possess but that remain untranslated…. Unrecognized is the altar that rises with us in the morning and leads us to rest at night” (Hay, 2000, p.xxv). She uses riddles for her performance practice, which often suggest a cellular consciousness and acknowledge the body as a teacher and herself within a bigger life web:
“I imagine every cell in my body hears, performs, and surrenders the dance simultaneously
The whole body at once is the teacher
I imagine every cell in my body invites being seen perceiving no movement wrong, out of place, or out of character.
I invite being seen whole and changing. You remind me of my wholeness changing.
I imagine every cell in my body has the potential to perceive wisdom every moment, while remaining positionless about what wisdom is or what it looks like.
I imagine every cell in my body has the potential to perceive movement as nourishment which supports movement which is nourishment, etc. etc.
I imagine every cell in my body at once invites being seen not being fixed in my fabulous unique three-dimensional body. I imagine every cell in my body perceives the three-dimensional body as a sleight of hand.
What if dying is movement in communion with all there is? What if impermanence is a steadily transforming present? Seeing impermanence requires admitting that nothing I see is forever. I am the impermanence I see.
I imagine every cell in my body has the potential to perceive ah-ha! And nada (nothing), at once.
What if tower is a metaphor for consciousness and babble is the reality check? Tower is the attention. Babble is each moment of movement. I
imagine every cell in my body at once has the potential to perceive the toweringness of its babble; the perfection of chaos, a constantly shattering, nondiminishing tower.
I imagine my whole body at once has the potential to dialogue with all there is.
What if where I am is what I need? Wherever I am is what I need. Everywhere I am is what I need.
What if my whole body at once has the potential to perceive Here, spatially, including everything I see and everything I can’t see, now, and now, and now? What if Now is my past, present, and future here, here, and here?
What if now is here is harmony?”
(Hay, 2000, p.103)
I would like to conclude this work with a text that constituted the lyrics of the first track of a music album entitled One World, One Voice, which has been a dear companion in my life since the age of eleven:
“This we know.
All things are connected
Like the blood
Which unites one family…
Whatever befalls the earth,
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
Man did not weave the web of life;
He is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web,
He does to himself.”
Inspired by Chief Seattle
(Capra, 1996, p. 8)
Bohm, D. (1996). On Creativity. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Capra, F. (1982). The Turning Point. London: HarperCollins.
Capra, F. (1996). The Web of Life. London: HarperCollins.
Capra, F. (2002). The Hidden Connections. London: HarperCollins.
Hackney, P. (1998). Making connections: Total body integration through Bartenieff fundamentals. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach.
Hartley, L. (1995). Wisdom of the Body Moving. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Hay, D. (2000). My Body, the Buddhist. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Little, J. (1996). The Warrior Within: The philosophies of Bruce Lee to better understand the world around you and achieve a rewarding life. USA: Contemporary Books.