Teaching Embodiment

Teaching Embodiment

I wanted to reflect on a performance that I attended last night at the Museum of Contemporary Art, El Gallo by Mexican performance company Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes. For me, it illustrates the extent to which theatre and performance reside in the domain of the unsayable and the challenges of teaching (or even speaking) embodiment.

Driving home while reflecting on the performance with a friend, I found that the synopsis given in the program was extremely reductive and caused my friend to feel almost depressed – whereas I had understood that plot line from the beginning, he was very resistant to the idea that there was or had to be a coherent narrative. He felt that reading the paragraph or so that had described the performance already diminished it for him. I felt that the synopsis was correct and had a haunting sense that this was pretty much the upper limit of speech/words, that language was out of its element here. The sense of impossibility felt threatening, since I am a steadfast Describer of Things. This is what I do, this is how I feel comfortable and confident about understanding the various phenomena that transpire in the world. Whether or not everything can be described – and of course words do often fail to convey the full richness of their object – I always march in with pickaxe and shovel and hardhat, bringing my tools of language to the task of climbing Mount Ineffable.

But in this case, even my friend felt at a loss to understand what had taken place. It’s not that it was too weird or too chaotic – rather, it seemed that the whole was more than the sum of its parts, to use a cliché. The gestural and sonic and emotive languages that erupted onstage, the spatial configurations and bodied sculptures, aroused in me strong feelings of excitement, anguish, terror, pleasure, joy, anger, resentment, euphoria…as several moods seemed to crash over my head – a wave-like effect enhanced by the use of projected light onstage in forms that initially resembled tropical foliage for me but, over time, came to emblematize the plumage of the “rooster” to which the piece’s title referred – time appeared to compress and expand, so that it seemed like no time at all had passed, and yet simultaneously I felt as though I’d been in this room with these people for hours or even years. The whole thing was unbelievably magical. When I emerged, I was sweating and trembling. As I remarked to my friend, I felt as though I’d had thirty orgasms in succession. (This caused some chuckling from a fellow audience-member who happened to overhear the comment.)

Moreover, even my receptive behavior felt unequal to the task of comprehending that which I was experiencing – one response was to laugh, but at the same time I could feel my face contorting in pain as I mimetically aped the performers who were darting around the stage and clashing with one another – also, because the movements had a sort of relational and organic feel to them, I kept attempting to follow the performers and see if this or that movement would lead me to a sense of greater comprehension of what the piece was about…but some movements trailed off into nothing, whereas others were repeated and eventually became tropes of the performance, even reappearing during its latter half (the “formal” portion). This all made me feel as though I was in a giant mental and emotional maze, in which knowing and not-knowing were like allegorical guides sort of leading me forward but with an impish cronyism that was continually sabotaging my search for clarity.

How to convey this in a description? These words seem paltry as I write them. Academics love to ‘analyze’ (ana/lyze – break down) and talk about events that transpire in the world and in artworks, but there is something basic and essential about not being able to apply words to an event, I think. This resonates for me, as I am currently writing a history of theatre and social life in the Panama Canal Zone, and so much of it involves dry and thick brushstrokes that attempt to capture the strategic battles of different actors in words. I know that there are so many holes in the writing, but it’s already extremely long…so I have to make all of these choices about what to say and why, when, how.

Anyhow, this brings me to the question: how to teach embodiment or recapture a bit of this gestural, spatial, vocal power of performance? Added to that, how to create an analysis that places the author within the interpretation itself, so that we avoid the sort of detached, dry observation of dynamics of power observed as if from a godlike pedestal?

I would argue for the necessity of doing some type of embodied exercise in class to push this part of the educational experience. Along with that, I’d also argue for the importance of journaling and autoethnography by students. I’ve had my students keep brief journals this quarter, and to be honest when I first created the assignment, I didn’t really know why I was drawn to this idea of journals (as opposed to formal short response essays, which we’re also going). But now I feel like there are several rationales:

1) in keeping with the course’s emphasis on psychology and exploring/historicizing the methods of Freud, the journals are a way to capture fleeting/striking impressions informally, which then ideally inform and feed into the more formal essays;

2) journals are a good way to canalize those sorts of gestural, fleeting, half-composed, ephemeral thought processes that do not add up to an ‘analysis,’ per se, but have something to do with it. Maybe they set a precedent for entering a text. Maybe they emerge at the beginning of the hypothesis, to gain strength with textual evidence. Maybe they are the fomenters of or receptacles for little sparks of resistance or bravado or aggression that the author recognizes that she must grapple with in moving through the course.

Anyhow, I think that journaling is an interesting parallel to embodied exercises, and I’d love to get your thoughts on the question of how to teach embodiment.

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