Virtual Composition Exercise Notes

The following entries explore how strikethrough concepts could be applied in a dance composition workshop.

At first, I was skeptical to continue the process remotely, carrying the trauma of leaving our precious performance space behind so abruptly, among the many other covid-related theater departures. But still with a plan to somehow disseminate this idea of strikethrough in a more straightforward way than our collaborative approach these last few months, I proposed an exercise to the dancers that would be completed individually, sent to me, and eventually compiled into an instructional film on how the tip of the process works. I had always planned to share some of the text with the dancers—interestingly, their only memories of it are from Jade’s animated letters floating up from the book, and of course from my pamphlets distributed at the performance. I wondered how I had so easily bypassed the very root of this project—was it my choreographic instincts overpowering my writerly ones? Or maybe someone in the universe was telling me that we wouldn’t have the space for very much longer, and those silly words could wait. Hmmm. Either way, I think the distance between me and these beautiful artists forced a slow-down between me, the mode of communication, the mode of production, and the product itself. Designing a choreographic exercise was exactly what this process was missing, considering at all other times, my involvement superseded the dancers’ pure interpretation of the text provided to them. In addition, the base material came from own choreographic structure, not the dancers’ (they only manipulated this material per my instructions), so it was time to develop a method that anyone and everyone could use—particularly in a time of quarantine—to fully visualize and somatically realize the strikethrough.

It was intriguing to review the footage the dancers sent me. The composition exercise was simply to create new material based on the first part (I.) of strikethrough #1 and then modify it based on the instructions in the second part (II.) of the score, resulting in two parallel yet diverse phrases. I illustrated the structural similarities between the phrases by editing them side by side, and then conducting an “opacity experiment” where the videos of phrase I. and II. are overlaid to demonstrate the traces of I. in II. and vice versa. This type of editing I found a great tool for capturing erasure, specifically because the strikethrough works with forms that are seen erased. It also works well in illustrating to the novice #1: What is erasure poetry? #2: How is it made into a score that inspires movement? and #3: Does it read choreographically? These questions were for the most part bypassed in our initial creation of strikethrough because, well, we were comfortable as insiders with their unknowability and how that might deepen our relationship with choreography as a readable art. But the above questions are valid, they have a lot more to do with the anatomy of strikethrough rather than the theory of it; basically: what is it? how does it work? And does it work? These anatomical questions, once defined, will thus verify any associated theories. It’s simply the choreographer getting ahead of herself ;).

Click here to enlarge video

Sample Exercise

Set up a camera or phone in a stable location. If you have storage and battery space, record for the entire time and provide time-codes for the complete phrases. If not, just record and label the complete phrases you generate.

Phrase 1
Use strikethrough #1 (I.) to generate one complete phrase of material: research the spatial and durational qualities evoked by each line of the score (i.e. “this shapelessness” being one line), as opposed to merging them immediately into one idea. Choreographically, you should be able to distinguish each new line of the score from the previous, meaning each line has the ability to be separated and/or extracted from the others like a puzzle piece.

Phrase 2
Use strikethrough #1 (II.) to generate one complete phrase of material: keep the choreographic integrity of the lines without the strikethrough from the Phrase 1. In the lines with the strikethrough, research the original material but with the added instruction (i.e. what does “energy” look like when you “omit the presence of effort”?). This can be as simple as a qualitative shift on existing material or as complex as the production of new material.

These moments of strikethrough should act as substitutions but also additions, as like poets, we are not only working with forms of erasure, but visible erasure.

Note: The omissions act as moments of take-away, however if you feel what you’re being instructed to take away never existed, explore the omission as an indicator of a quality in your original material. Ask yourself, how might this omission function as something that informs the existing material? I.e. If we want to “omit languid fade” from “into black”—perhaps something that has already faded in the movement—how can we deepen the moment after the fade, the moment of vanishing?

The full process of strikethrough composition will be explored in an upcoming workshop with the first-year BFAs in their creative research class, which involves a third part (III.) where the instructions in strikethrough II. along with the phrases struckthrough have completely been erased. I wonder now about the functionality of this third part in the context of erasure. By the time the reader reaches strikethrough III., there seems to no longer be a strikethrough, as all forms in the process of erasure have been fully erased. So maybe it is memory that strikethrough III. tests—when once you’ve discarded certain ideas, it’s about what sticks, or more importantly, what sticks that is no longer there? Parts IV. and V. are merely repeats of parts II. and III., but minimize the text further in order to pronounce what effect erasure can have on its existing message—what further message can appear with the disappearance of language? For example, in the above poem, part IV. functions to explore the effect of eliminating “the node of entrance” from the score, which by part V. is completely eliminated. (I guess we might one day consider this question apocalyptically, considering language falls less and less into our social media posts, our text messages, our hollers across the street at a fellow neighbor in quarantine—does language really need twelve lines when it could do fine with just three? does a dance mean more to a viewer when it abridges an idea as opposed to elaborates it? are dancers mere summarizing automatons checking off meaningful sentences to delineate to our general population?)

Virtual Composition Workshop

I had the pleasure of joining Jeremy Nelson’s BFA 1 creative research class with Hiroka and Israel to be able to convey concepts of erasure as a tool for composition in a simple, effective fashion.

I began the class by introducing my project as an ongoing inquiry into how erasure techniques can be applied to choreographic scores. I gave the example of Trisha Brown’s choreographic scores in her 1979 work, Splang, which consisted of three dancers basing their movements on individualized written instructions. I also showed examples of erasure poetry (i.e. Mary Ruefle) to be able to communicate how strikethrough is a similar, yet disparate version of traditional erasure in which the words from an existing article or piece of writing are completely written over so any hint of what they once were has ultimately vanished beneath the blotched ink. I explained how strikethrough differs from true erasure because we, the viewer of the score, can trace back the score to its original version, can in a sense undo the strikethrough by returning to the score’s unmodified state. I differentiated how the two phrases are made by making a point of the strikethrough in phrase II. After composing material to phrase I. with the intent of pairing movements with each of the 12 lines—if not words—of the score, they can easily move on to phrase II., substituting original material with the added instructions of the strikethrough material. Jeremy asked about the function of the “omission” in the instructions, as opposed to the “insertion” which stands fairly self-explanatory as an addition of material that wasn’t there. But how do you omit something that’s not there? he asked. I clarified his question by describing the omission as not something to be taken literally, but to inform the choreographer or owner of the material about qualities that could be amplified within the existing material.

As I checked in on breakout rooms, I gave some groups who had finished early the new instruction of creating a phrase III. Phrase III. would consist of deleting all strikethrough material, including new material created based on the phrase II. instructions. It would be “true blackout” in which the intention to delete certain lines in the score is carried through (i.e. there is no longer a remnant of the deletion like in strikethrough, as the strikethrough text at this point has completely disappeared). It’s interesting that blackout poetry rarely occurs with a poet blacking out their own words; it often happens with a secondary text that the poet wishes to change. I think the fact that all text belongs to me (or anyone for that matter who decides to write a completed strikethrough) makes the idea of strikethrough a personal one, something that only you can change, even if you happen to work with a choreographer. Ultimately, it is the dancer making intuitive choices on their phrase material based on word-associations they make from within the text.

Once everyone checked back into the main session, we had a breakout room relay showing, in which breakout rooms 1 through 19 showed their phrase I. and phrase II. to the class. In the immediacy of the moment, and the fact that the phrases were only performed once made it difficult to make copious observations about the differences between the two phrases. However, there were general things that as a class we agreed determined the overall trend in differences: directional and body placement changes (almost like phrase II. dictated some kind of vector shift, a detour of some sort to return back to the remnants of familiar material), and variations in quality & duration of gestures.

Drift - Caroline Bergvall

As creating the initial phrase I. was an individual exercise, I noted how significantly more meticulous and strict my approach to strikethrough has been since the completion of the collaborative duet. I wonder if I had asked the dancers to create the phrases I.-V., if the process might have been more disciplined regarding our approach to manipulating material. When I think about it, I often manipulated material outside of the confines of the strikethrough procedure, only piggy-backing off a strikethrough concept, and instead for mere aesthetic purposes.

In correspondence with what the dancers and I had virtually explored in terms of the relationship only between phrase I. and II., I had the class pin either dancer and watch them perform the phrases consecutively and note the differences between the two. For Israel, Casey noticed that “the dynamics of the individual gestures was different...the second phrase seemed to be shorter than the first one. And I could see how specific movements changed... I'm assuming that's because of the change of directives with the strikethrough.”

In order to replicate the two dancers’ experiences in the studio earlier this year, I devised both individual and group activities to interact with the first two phases (I. & II.) of strikethrough #18. In the main session, the class had 10 minutes to create their phrase I. individually. Then for the following 20 minutes, I split the class into breakout rooms of two, giving them the assignment to build phrase II. with their partner. For the first 10 minutes, one partner would act as “choreographer” giving their partner, the “dancer,” verbal suggestions on altering their phrase I. material based on the strikethrough instructions in phrase II. I encouraged these instructions be as much related to the omission/insertion text as possible, with some wiggle room considering what the choreographer suggests may not be possible in the spatial constraints of the dancer’s area, or perhaps even the physical constraints of the material itself. After 10 minutes, partners would switch roles so both generate their own phrase II, yet still with this collaborative overtone.

Drift - Caroline Bergvall

If more time had been allotted, specifically to researching phrase III. and teaching material to others so the same phrases could be overlaid in real time, we would have accomplished a more clear illustration of concepts within the timeframe. However, I think this workshop instead left the class with beneficial ruminations on using text as a compositional tool. Using text, specifically with this group, proved extremely generative—I was surprised not more questions were asked of me on how the exercise worked. To these dancers, they seemed eager to access their creative imaginations in developing material out of both abstract and concrete textual themes. And they didn’t seem overwhelmed by some of the instructions being “mind-blowing” or otherwise just “non-literal.” I think in order to be unlike stage-directions or a musical score, these scores must draw more from Cage, Brown, even Caroline Bergvall, who uses sound design to map words like drifting continents in her work Drift. These scores must force the dancer to access their cognitive capabilities while in the process of composing—because unlike improvisation, where habit and muscle memory takes over, working with these scores is like solving a math problem, even a geometrical proof. There is no one way to solve, but there are known properties that help you get closer to theorizing why something is allowed to exist. It’s like “omitting:” a dancer might ask why omit when you can just insert, but soon to realize that to reach the idea set up by the score, invisible things must be ruminated upon.

We must know the invisible before knowing the visible.

I thank the dancers for joining me on this journey towards what remains of the visible in an overwhelming sea of invisibles.

Interested in attending a composition workshop or bringing one to your institution?