What does dance have to do with restoration?

Arthur Nooren
Arthur Nooren – An introduction
June 22, 2017
Illuminating Fragility
June 27, 2017

What does dance have to do with restoration?

Credit to Bảo-Quân Nguyễn

Before arriving here at La Junquera, the first ecosystem restoration camp here in Spain I had the opportunity to spend some time with dancer Vitoria Kotsalou and choreographer Michael Klein, in Athens, Greece. Their work focuses on the somatic expressions which map the contours of the personal, social and cosmic. While I was there, Vitoria was busy organizing an event called Day Out of Time which places 21 dancers in public spaces throughout the city and for 16 hours they freely move responding to the surrounding stimulus, providing an embodied expression of the relationships in the environment. I had the opportunity to walk around the city and visit with the dancers during a three hour practice run. Upon first approaching a dancer, I had the distinct feeling of witnessing a crazy person. They swayed, jumped, spun and cowered responding to birds, buses, trees and stones. Certainly many of the people passing by wrote them off as mad, continuing on, unsure of their safety. I too was uncomfortable at first. However, as I gave myself time in their space and even interacted with them, I had the distinct sensation of being a part of something sacred. There was a viscosity in the air and an electricity in my cells. I had a visceral feeling of my interrelatedness, or more so, interdependence on what surrounded me. I experienced the concept of ecology in my body: I am because of you.

Gregory Bateson, author of Steps Towards to an Ecology of the Mind, argues that many of the problems we face in the world today are rooted in what he calls the western or “occidental” epistemology which is characterized by reductionism and specialization. We westerners grasp a great depth of the parts while ignoring the whole and in doing so we are quite literally breaking the systems we depend on into fractured parts, thus damaging the elegant and intricate whole. If we are just interested in crop yield, we lose touch with the relationship between crop and soil, soil and micro-organic communities, micro-organic communities and diversified plant systems, plants and insects, insects and birds, birds and trees, etc. In essence, our way of thinking is creating negative feedback loops in our systems which is tearing them to pieces.

Thus, it must be the goal of Ecosystem Restoration Camps to not only develop the means of restoring ecosystems and communities that depend on them but also restoring a way of viewing the world which has a grasp for the whole.

The western, occidental epistemology prizes a process of knowing which is highly cognitive. While this is important, it’s not enough. Other ways of knowing needs to be included and brought into the centre of the process of our work. To me this means developing a practice of embodied knowledge where we listen and respond with our entire bodies. As we give ourselves the opportunity to learn with all of our faculties simultaneously we are developing a practice of experiencing ourselves as a whole system, nested in a larger system.

This is done through movement. When we see something, we express what we are seeing with our bodies‘ movement. When we feel something we show it in our actions through space. In doing so, we give our neighbors the opportunity to view us unmasked and to respond coherently. This provides for information flow to be authentic and multidirectional; for richness and accuracy in information feedback loops. The bird above us can know who we are, our inner state, because it can see it in our movements. By embodying our personal ecology, we deepen our presence in our environmental ecology. From this practice we are much more equipped to holistically know the systems we are a part of.

Earlier philosophers such as Hobbes and Descartes have argued that we must surrender our wild nature to reason or otherwise plunge into petty squabbling or might-makes-right circumstances. I am not certain this is accurate. I believe that this internal warfare between reason and feeling creates an unnecessary internal fracturing – an experience of oppression which emanates out through our actions into the world we create. I think there is another way in which reason and feeling can complement each other. And it is my sense that embodied knowing is a bridge in this regard. Current adoption of emotional intelligence training in corporate and other institutions indicates we are in a cultural tide change. Restoration ecologists need to be on the vanguard of this trend as our work in the most relevant.

Dance has a long history of exploring these ways of knowing and has developed its own vernacular and methods for doing so. Yet it has been confined to that of performance. I believe that it is time that we start studying ecology as dancers and dance as ecologists.

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