Paul Sadot
Chapter 3: The Unsteady State Condition

Chapter 3

The Unsteady State Condition


This chapter presents an account of and reflection on the BLOCK project, a major practical studio exploration that I developed from October 2015 to January 2016 with professional UK HHDT artists Jordan James Douglas, Joshua Nash and Christina Dionysopoulou, and contemporary dancer Lisa Rowley.

BLOCK was a devised project in which the dancers contributed ideas and input in response to key tasks and creative episodes, which I then orchestrated. I was responsible for shaping the structure and presentational format. This work featured within the overall research project as the first practice research output. Through this initial intensive working process, I discovered and encountered significant provocations and revelations, which when carried forward into subsequent practice research projects (discussed in chapter 4). This initial project in many ways operated as a ‘scoping’ project, which enabled me to examine my habitual working methods, acknowledge the limitations of my existing practice and challenge me to find new ways of invoking change.

During the BLOCK process, I identified key literature and practitioner-led approaches alongside selected key creative methods, which enabled me to define a clear methodology for the wider practice-led PhD project and to locate my work within a wider field. I considered Foucault’s ideas on domination and a practice of freedom (1991 1997) and Eugenio and Judy Barba’s (2000) concept of turbulence as a necessary dramaturgical force. In doing this, I could consider turbulence as a key component when creating a studio environment that explored Foucault’s themes. Practically, I developed creative methods that instigated a sense of struggle on or within the dancers, invoking the need to improvise while trying to maintain a central score.

Project Outline

In this project I attempted to disrupt the HHDT form in its broadest sense, moving from the micro-form of movement choices, transitions and routes of entry to more macro-form concerns based around choreography, content and scenographic structures. I was not trying to destabilise the form solely by exploring movement, but through the wider implications of the scenographic influences and thesetting of the movement in the space so thatthese combined elements might create another way of seeing HHDT. This practice might then facilitate re-writing these bodies through the unusual circumstances defined in the studio by practical concepts of hindrance, displacement and turbulence, bringing forth new choreographic hybrids through the unsteady state condition (described in chapter 1).

BLOCK was a 15-day studio project, and I assembled the company of collaborative artists under the banner of Dance-Dramaturgy-Turbulence (DDT), echoing the key components with which I entered the studio. The project took place in Manchester between October and November 2015, and I collaborated with four dancers, a writer and music composer, a scenographer and a blogger. As I unpicked the metaspatial framework of HHDT a politically charged context was emerging through my research, demonstrating a link between the gentrification of the city and the supervision of the arts.[1] Furthermore, in the case of HHDT artists this indicated a constrictive economic environment where access to space was problematic on several levels including movement in the city and, artistically, within the space of UK contemporary dance. Therefore, I decided that the subject theme of BLOCK would explore gentrification, so that I might further unpick the institutional discourse surrounding HHDT, and in doing so propose a processual alternative to the dominant supervisory framework. The subject material gave me significant and focused ideas that I wanted to test as aesthetic, metaphorical and physical components in the studio: destabilisation, security, loss of the familiar, balance, relocation, displacement.

The working title BLOCK, reflects elements of the theme: tower blocks, artistic blocks, physical blocks and the rehearsal schedule, which was in three-day blocks over five weekends, allowing for blocks of time between sessions to reflect on the process. The Arts Council funded BLOCK as a research and development project leading to public performances, the first of which took place on 16 November 2015 at Cambridge Junction. It was later shown at University of Chichester on 18 January 2016, and Manchester Contact Theatre on 21 January 2016.

The following research sub-questions guided the BLOCK project:

  • How might politically engaged choreodramaturgical processes inform the creation of HHDT work?
  • How might these processes challenge a practitioner’s habitual HHDT choreographic process in this context?
  • How might turbulence and the unsteady state condition be invoked through choreodramaturgical approaches?
  • How might the conventions of virtuosity in HHDT be challenged through creative constraints?
  • How might HHDT staging conventions be problematised through scenographic methods?

The process was driven by task-based methods in the form of solo and group exercises and objectives. The collective ensemble discussed the subject material throughout the process and the writer created text for the dancers to use in the choreographic process, which engaged with the themes in a narrative and abstract way. The dancers kept studio journals throughout the process to capture their reflections and experiences of the BLOCK project and I received these for review only after the final performance. This material enabled me to use the dancers’ notes to identify the impact of task-based methods in the studio and to reflect on the outcomes of the project. For example, Joshua wrote comments about his frustration at not being able to dance fully, referring to the setting of tasks that deliberately restricted his customary flamboyant displays of virtuosity. This observation directly related to and extended my conceptual understanding of notions of frustrated labour in relation to ideas of (im)mobility and this information fed into my subsequent phases of research (discussed later in this chapter).

The final performances re-configured the traditional spaces in which they took place by using applied scenography to challenge traditional notions of HHDT staging. The performance was configured in the round, referencing the hip hop cypher,⁠[2] and the dancers were often positioned on top of mattresses that destabilised their movements and prevented them from establishing a fixed routine. Additionally, the dancers were called on to deliver monologues while moving, and this presented a challenge to their conventional modes of performing HHDT as they seldom use text and rarely when moving. Consequently, the gravitas of the subject material was made viscerally present through the multiple complexities invoked by the physical conditions of displacement that the dancers struggled with. A description of the performance (Appendix 3.1) written by the blogger working on the project is helpful in conveying an idea of what BLOCK looked and felt like (Appendix 3.1).

BLOCK took the idea of a processual counter-narrative into the studio. I have previously identified the notion of counter-narrative as it applies to this research as a creative exploration through which I propose another way of doing and thinking that differs from conventional HHDT choreographic practices. Within the BLOCK project some of the key tenets of unsteadiness and instability, such as displacement, hindrance and imbalance, were applied in the studio through practical tasks, and the impact of these approaches was considered through oral and embodied reflection. This informed an exploration of the ‘unsteady state condition’ and its physical manifestation through movement composition and dramaturgical strategies. In my role as a choreodramaturg I sought to invoke this unsteady state by actively seeking out and employing ‘turbulence’ within the devising process.

To facilitate turbulence, leading to an unsteady state condition, I developed a process that involved the multiple layering of ‘entry points’ when devising new work. An entry point is defined here as one of the components that constitute the layering process; for instance, text would signify a single-entry point, subject material another, scenography another, and so on. Working together, and often in opposition, these different stimuli were used to invoke a creative response and outcome.

During the BLOCK process, dance phrases were initially developed through improvisational methods relating to the main theme, for example ideas of (im)mobility[3] were examined by setting corporeal hypermobility against corporeal immobility, made visible via the scaling down of movements: Joshua’s o obsessive compulsive disorder sequence⁠[4] illustrates this approach: he used movements that appeared physically unspectacular and small in scale. Subsequently these dance phrases acted as central scores, constituting points of departure where ideas of dimensionality were explored through the layering of multiple elements: subject material, movement, scenography and text. These individual entry points, practically informed, displaced and hindered the dancers’ (im)mobility, invoking turbulence and the unsteady state condition. Technically, these conditions were achieved through the demands of focusing on multiple objectives simultaneously, some of which were informed by a long processual layering of information, as was the case with the subject material, while others were informed by the immediacy of imbalance, as imposed by the unsteady mattresses.

In this chapter I describe how such components were over-layered and enmeshed within the studio process. This working strategy was useful because it enabled me to recognise and develop ideas of kinesthetic empathy through notions of proximity, (im)mobility, perspective and agency arising from the practice and the performance. I also investigated turbulence, the unsteady state, virtuosity and my role as a practitioner. In this chapter I discuss the BLOCK project as a vehicle through which these ideas were practically explored.

Huntingdon examines meanings in hip hop dance and introduces the term ‘collective texts’ (2007: 41) to present the idea that hip hop dance is made up of many hundreds of what she terms ‘rap dances’ (2007: 41). Adhering to this notion, I chose to work with four dancers with different movement specialisms so that I could explore and maintain ‘collective texts’, which might mediate between hip hop and non-hip hop. This idea was important as I was pushing the boundaries of HHDT while wanting to maintain a connection with the form. My rationale for choosing four dancers was imbricated with pragmatic concerns, such as the idea that a greater number of dancers might yield multiple insights and propose a greater chance of collision, turbulence and struggle. Additionally, by using four dancers, representing varying elements of the collective texts of hip hop, I hoped to be able to explore a greater number of physical outcomes and produce more multi-vocal outputs, thereby developing the notion of co-authoring related to the interplay between the choreodramaturg and the dancers.

Funding Constraints and Coercions

As a non-funded doctoral student needing to develop an in-depth and extended studio-based research project I was left little choice but to seek what cultural theorist Richard Maxwell calls the ‘patrimony of the state’ (2001: 2) and apply for ACE funding. I wanted to work with professional dancers, a scenographer, a blogger, a writer and a music-maker to engage with my studio inquiry. My application was successful, and I was allowed to enter the studio for 15 days to develop this inquiry. However, the success of my application was bound to the provision that I must show a piece at three venues across the UK. Consequently, although I could keep an open research inquiry while in the studio, there was a point at which I had to begin to prepare a product to show an audience, to do what dance scholar Jacqueline Smith-Autard might call ‘set[ting] the movement into a constructional frame which [would] give the whole its form’ (2010: 42). The funding I received for my research project obliged me to create a performance, and by entering this contractual pact I was in many ways living out the tensions that I discuss in my doctoral research.

Without this funding I would not have been able to develop the research inquiry and would instead have been limited to using available graduate dancers, with little or no experience of HHDT, having little or no means to explore the role of scenography in the practice and, more importantly, no studio space. This might be viewed as what dancer and academic Danielle Goldman refers to as a ‘tight space’ (2010: 5), where various constraints necessitate a certain amount of improvisation, within and around the sociopolitical elements that dictated them.

The Compositional Process

Multiple Entry Points as a Layering Process

The BLOCK project explored new contexts of making, doing and seeing hip hop dance in the space of theatre. Dance phrases were initially developed through improvisational methods relating to the main theme, for example ideas of hypermobility were set against those of (im)mobility, made visible via the scaling down of movements. One of Joshua’s sequences illustrates this approach: he uses movements that appear physically unspectacular and small in scale.⁠[5] Subsequently, these dance phrases acted as central scores, constituting points of departure where ideas of dimensionality were explored through the layering of multiple elements: subject material, movement, scenography and text. I define these individual elements as entry points, and I use the term to mean a way of practically informing, displacing and hindering dancers’ mobility to explore turbulence and the unsteady state condition. Technically, these conditions were achieved through the demands of focusing on multiple objectives simultaneously. Some were informed by a long processual layering of information, as was the case with the subject material, while others were informed by the immediacy of imbalance, as imposed by my technique of using unsteady mattresses. I decided to place the dancers on top of mattresses because it demonstrated a scenographic motif of how gentrification displaces people, echoing the conditions of eviction and isolation. Additionally, the mattresses imposed physical displacement on the dancers as they struggled to execute their choreography, resulting in improvised movement.

Figure 3.1 Joshua and Christina dancing on top of mattresses

Exploring the themes of displacement and mobility through the interplay of scenography, movement and subject material, I set doubled-up single mattresses in the space and asked Joshua and Christina to repeat a movement duet, previously developed on the floor, on top of the unstable mattresses (figure 3.1). The routine represented the steady course of an intense relationship and I hoped to invoke displacement via the hindrance of the mattresses to further develop the intensity of the situation. The influence of the layering process is evident in Christina’s journal reflection:

In anyway, a relationship is difficult, full of challenging circumstances, let alone danced on a mattress. Keeping our balance was equal to dealing with issues. Having trouble balancing was picturing all the problems people are going through.

(Studio Journal, day 6)

By exploring a metaphorical link between the subject material, the scenography and the dance, Christina acknowledged in this observation a density that shakes her ‘out of the familiar trains of thought’ (Barba and Barba, 2000: 60) and out of the familiar ways of dancing. I attribute these outcomes to the layering process, which I wanted to explore as it creates a depth and struggle within the movement that challenges the ‘flattened’, linear presentation of HHDT, thereby revealing a complex three-dimensionality. This process led me to a new creative approach that problematised and proposed alternatives to ‘flattening’. These combined outcomes, I posit, were the product of turbulence leading to the unsteady state condition. Architectural design and performance scholar Paul Carter describes turbulence as a feedback mechanism that creates reflexive responses through an interaction with ‘surface phenomena in real time’ (2014: 1), which allows for a reading of turbulence and the unsteady state condition through the feedback mechanisms of hindrance and displacement. My practical investigations enabled me to witness and develop this notion through creative inquiry, and concluded that the spontaneous ‘changes of state’ as described by Christina are rendered visible through the real-time interaction with surface (scenography) and sub-surface (subject material) phenomena. This reading might further support the creation of a new studio process that instigates a new way of working with HHDT.

The next sub-sections discuss each of the entry points as processual components using examples from the practice-based research project: a processual component can be defined as a key element in developing a working process.

Subject Material as a Processual Component

I used the subject material I brought into the studio for BLOCK to consider the idea of choreographic (im)mobility within the institutional framework, informed by in-depth research into gentrification, described by sociologist Kate Shaw as ‘encompassing the entire transformation from low-status neighbourhoods to upper-middle-class playgrounds’ (2008: 2).[6] In this way I could extend the idea of (im)mobility beyond the arts canon to consider dialogical relationships within the broader social context of gentrification. An unforeseen outcome of this approach was captured in Christina’s journal: she was concerned about the cost of living in London:

The issue of gentrification makes me question my future here in London and whether I will be able to get through all of these economic difficulties. I left Greece for a better and more secure future and now I’m facing the reality of expensive rents, transportation etc.

(Studio Journal, day 14)

The journal entry highlights the micro-conditions under which dance is made in the UK and this might be considered particularly relevant when examining the socioeconomic mobility of HHDT artists and its impact on making work.

This themed material supported the development of movement that was contained and concentrated, veering between mobility and immobility and displacing the spectacular movement commonly associated with hip hop dance, contributing to an enclosed intensity defined by the multiple entry points. The material involved jabbing, punching, tensing and popping actions, which linked an emotional proposition to the physical displacement of the dancers’ movement in a wider sense, giving an emotive quality to the physical displacement.

I invited the dancers I was working with to look at a shared online folder that contained images, articles, statistics and other items related to gentrification, in order to explore their responses. This material provided a collective reference and offered each dancer a starting point in their research, with some developing this strand further than others. The impact of the subject matter was pervasive and often viscerally felt in rehearsal as a confrontational dilemma, rather than experienced through specific dedicated tasks. Christina explained in her journal entry for day 5:

The feeling throughout the set has changed again. Once, funny, playful mattresses, then sad because of people dealing with OCD. […] People that are together trying to deal with everyday life, gentrification, money difficulties.

(Studio Journal, day 5)

The journal entry acknowledges that there was a layering process through the transition of the mattresses from playful objects to objects of emotional significance. Referring to the ‘once, funny, playful mattresses’, Christina is reflecting on a session that took place on day 2, in which dancers explored the plasticity and malleability of the mattresses in relation to their bodies and without any concern for subject material. In the subsequent sessions leading up to the journal entry, Christina had explored text, movement and the subject material through task-based exercises.[7] I had not deliberately structured the tasks to achieve the outcome reflected in the dancer’s journal, rather I was exploring multiple layering processes to examine concepts of turbulence as a general theme. However, the journal entry brings into play the possibility that the performer developed kinesthetic empathy⁠[8] through the scenography and this could only have been discovered through practice.

Researcher and practitioner Joslin McKinney has written widely on the subject of scenography and draws on the work of social philosopher Karl Polanyi to suggest that audience members are capable of responding to objects ‘through an empathetic process of “indwelling”’ (2011: 14), wherein the viewer is emotionally drawn into the object, perhaps through reminiscences of previous encounters with similar objects. This empathetic process of ‘indwelling’ might have been responsible for Christina’s experience of the mattresses as emotionally charged objects. If so, this raises questions as to the nature of the branching out of this kinesthetic empathetic experience, examining a process of layering that extends not only through the subject material but also through the complex interplay between scenography, movement, performer and audience.

Scenography as a Processual Component

To further develop the concept of the unsteady state condition, I explored the cypher as a processual element in the staging of the BLOCK project. I assert that the end-on fourth wall staging adopted by HHDT via Breakin’ Convention and other institutions has influenced this ‘collective action’, replacing the intimate kinesthetic exchange of the vernacular cypher with a flattened and linear ‘looking at’ rather than ‘being in’ experience. McKinney notes, ‘spectators placed within (rather than before) the scenography should also be considered as participants’ (2011: 2) and I wanted to examine this idea by considering the cypher in the BLOCK project. I was interested in how the dynamic between dancers and spectators might shift under these conditions; for instance, how might the spectators become spectator–dancers or the dancers become dancer–spectators?

The cypher was constructed by placing the audience on mattresses that framed the dancers on two sides, offering the viewers intimate, bespoke experiences of the performance (Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2 Cypher structure for BLOCK performance at Chichester

We were able to use lighting to isolate three micro-cyphers within the macro-cypher of the collective scenographic arrangement.[9] McKinney and Butterworth assert that scenography works in a dialectic relationship with the performers, the space and the audience to establish the performance environment, concluding that it is a ‘sensory as well as an intellectual experience; emotional as well as rational’ (2011 4). The staging of BLOCK as a cypher drew on aspects of this interplay to test the idea that intimacy might disrupt the normative dancer–spectator relationship in HHDT. The cypher arrangement brought the audience into the performance area, proposing an alternative theatrical setting within the traditional one, where the raked seating stood empty. This signalled a kind of displacement that echoed the themes of the research, as audience members were divided by the need to secure a viewing position on the mattresses or by standing up. Some members of the audience were initially confused and resisted watching the performance from a non-conventional position, or perhaps they were apprehensive about their proximity to the action. The Blogger working on BLOCK, Leonie Kate Higgins, described Joshua’s krumping as:

so powerful that the audience become almost totally still during it. Only during a pause do I see a man very slowly reach up to scratch his nose and a woman carefully cover her mouth with her hands.

Thanks to their position of close proximity to the dancers some members of the audience commented after the show that they could feel every pop or jab, breath and word, and that they held their breath in places as the dancers’ struggle became a visceral experience. Choreographer and theorist Ivar Hagendoorn suggests that ‘spectators can “internally simulate” movement sensations of speed, effort, and changing body configuration’ (2004: 3) and by re-defining audience proximity in the staging of BLOCK it was possible to encourage the audience to resonate with the dance, eliciting, to varying degrees, the empathetic exchange that Hagendoorn suggests. The degree to which each member of the audience contributes to a performance varies. Following post show conversations with audience members I concluded that the interplay of scenography with the dancers and the audience had certainly elicited kinesthetic empathy and that the proximal relationship of the hip hop movements and techniques of popping and jabbing to the audience contributed to this.

During the staging of BLOCK it was possible to identify times when the movement physically moved the spectators and this supported the notion of the spectator–dancer. Christina noted the opposite of this phenomenon occurring as the audience entered and inhabited the cypher for the first performance:

When people came on stage to sit on the mattresses around the set, it was extraordinary. I felt like people had climbed up my house and they were watching/stalking me from the windows/balcony. It felt a bit scary, like people were invading my private space, but also like I had someone I could talk to, a neighbour, maybe people that are facing the same difficulties as me.

(Studio Journal, 16 November 2016)

Christina describes this experience as a dancer–spectator because she was watching the audience. These insights bring into question the duality of these roles within a scenographic construction that draws on the proximal intimacy of the cypher, suggesting that the role of the protagonist is in flux. Christina raises interesting points concerning feelings of displacement and anxiety while at the same time embracing an idea of kinesthetic empathy. In this scenographic environment the proximity afforded by the cypher engendered a physical connection, which allowed the dancer to relate to the audience as a neighbour who would listen and empathise with them.

The practical exploration of the cypher setting began as a simple task aimed at re-viewing technique in the space by using mattresses as framing tools to alter the viewers’ perspective. I wanted to test the idea that movements and technique might be re-viewed by exploring dance in relation to the filmic technique of zooming in, where the wide shot steadily zooms in to focus on a specific body part or view. However, for my exploration I reversed this idea, so that the camera or viewer was static and the dancers became the movable zooming apparatus. Through this exercise I hoped to explore scenographic methods that might play with the way in which a seated spectator views the body of the dancer so that conventional staging in HHDT might be challenged.

Figure 3.3 Zooming

To achieve this, I set up a task where Joshua and Christina manipulated a single mattress each, to create a vertical wall that could travel forwards and backwards (Figure 3.3). Jordan was asked to freestyle in front of the travelling wall while keeping a very light contact with the mattresses. This allowed the dancers holding the mattresses to control the zoom action. The camera and I remained in a fixed position to establish an end-on audience view. We worked with this principle for some time and found that – when set within the narrow frame of the mattresses, with the backdrop of the mattress controlling the perspective of depth – the figure of Joshua moving steadily towards the viewer reframed what was being danced. Through this discovery of a change of perspective afforded by a physical process of reframing, I was guided to consider the dialectical relationship between proximity and perspective (Figure 3.4).

Figure 3.4 Proximity and perspective

Political theorist Guiseppina Pellegrino debates the notion of space, proximity and mobility through a sociopolitical lens. She suggests that ‘the way physical spaces are conceived influences interaction processes’ (2011: 19) and this idea resonates with the problematisation of the spectator–dancer and dancer–spectator relationship in HHDT. Here, physical spaces might be re-shaped to question mobility and agency through the interplay between proximity and perspective in performance. The change of perspective in the studio raised some interesting notions about how the audience observes, what it observes and how I might practically hinder and displace the perspective from which, and in which, hip hop dance is viewed in the theatrical space, challenging the linear, flattened and two-dimensional approach that presently dominates HHDT.

I chose not to employ this literal method of manipulating mattresses in the final performance because it shifted the focus too heavily from the corporeal towards the scenographic. But these early stages of experimentation informed the idea of reframing dance in the space of theatre and I used the principles discovered through this exploration to re-configure the performance space to control the proximity of the audience to the dancer. This idea was further developed in the performance so that the members of the audience were seated very low on single, uncomfortable and slightly unstable mattresses, inviting an altogether different viewing perspective as the gaze had to shift and adapt to incorporate the constantly shifting proximity of the dancers (Figure 3.5).

Figure 3.5 Audience shifting proximity and perspective with Joshua

Individual micro-cyphers were created for each of the dancers to dance in. The mattresses stood in the centre of each of the three micro-cyphers and provoked, through hindrance, an idiosyncratic displacement of movement in response to each dancer’s improvisation within the cypher. Here, in isolation, the dancers grappled with multiple layers of doing, through tensions that were defined by the simultaneous interaction of multiple entry pointsObserving this, I was reminded of Barba and Barba’s discussion of a negotiated coexistence of tensions in performance, which he refers to as creating ‘density’: forcing spectators to engage in a way that displaces their ‘familiar trains of thought’ (2000: 60).

The audience gaze was displaced by the proximity of the action, defined by the macro- and the three micro-cyphers where the use of single spotlights, operated individually or collectively, encouraging viewers to follow specific actions or to choose where to focus at particular moments in the piece. This challenged familiar notions of performance structures where the unsteady state condition caused audience members to simultaneously experience the same movement but from varied perspectives dependent on proximity and agency. For example, when Joshua was towering over an audience member who chose to look up at his looming figure, the audience member was locating the movement as being in the arms and torso, while feeling the force of the pop and jab as a visceral entity. Simultaneously, an audience member directly opposite in the cypher was seeing the entire body of the same dancer, at a distance, from behind and in relationship to the audience member he was towering over, but not feeling the pop and jab viscerally because of the different perspective. The two viewers experienced the dance much more differently than if they had watched it staged in a linear and flattened fourth wall setting. In this reframed performance environment, the agency of the spectator was called into question, transitioning from the traditional fourth wall, flattened stance where a linear reading of HHDT takes place, to a domain that invites a shifting perspective.

Pellegrino argues for the need to scrutinise what it feels like to be ‘close to each other’ (2011: 2) in a world where global migration puts shifting corporeal proximities into play. She proposes that the scale of migration means that ‘proximity itself is on the move and constitutive of mobility’ (2011: 2) andsuggests that new understandings of, and challenges to, the traditional paradigms of mobility might be enacted through the notion of practice. This model provided a robust framework through which the practical insights of my studio research could be further understood and challenged. Pellegrino’s arguments call for recognition of the interplay between mobility, (im)mobility and proximity as well as an understanding that mobilities are inherently negotiated through political discourses (2011: 3). These ideas fed into my research inquiry and by using the studio process and the performance as models through which to explore the alloying of proximity and mobility, I examined the concepts of perspective and agency in my final exposition work (discussed in chapter 4).

Text as a Processual Component

The idea of language as a physical gesture guided my exploration of text as a processual element, allowing me to introduce language as an unbounded physical proposition, incorporating rhythm, motion, flow, disruption and (im)mobility. Linguistics scholar and practitioner Elisabeth Zsiga discusses the infinite possibilities of language where it ‘can be broken down into smaller, individual pieces, and these pieces (which may in themselves mean nothing) can be combined in different ways to create an infinite number of messages’ (2013: 15). I wanted to examine the constellation of messages that language might invoke while negotiating with other entry points, jostling for position and displacing the dancer.

An example of the use of text as an entry point can be seen in Joshua’s struggle with the practical task of layering of text, movement and scenography. In this particular case the collaborative writer on the project created abstract text on gentrification via a series of tag words.[10] This non-linear narrative approach to text follows Barba’s assertion that disorientation is needed to create ‘labyrinthine pathways’, where the theme of the work constitutes a common path through which a ‘coherent dramaturgy’ is sought (Barba and Barba, 2000: 60). Joshua was called on to relate the abstract text to the thematic issues of BLOCK and considered multiple options, struggling to find pretexts that resonated with the core subject material of the work. Barba’s premise informed the rationale for this task and I hoped to create struggle and hindrance by presenting a monologue that had no apparent narrative, yet echoed aspects of the subject material in an abstract way.

At this stage I was not interested in the specific interpretation of each word; it is conceivable that a multitude of alternative words might have been used because of their abstract nature. The dancers were aware that we were investigating displacement and social loss as the ‘point of departure’ (Barba and Barba, 2000: 60) and this tacit understanding was carried throughout the studio process. I wanted to test whether language could facilitate a re-formatting of the movement; for example, if the rhythmic delivery of the words was altered, slowed down, paused or quickened, while the movement sequence was altered on contrasting planes, would the turbulence and hindrance thrown up by the dancer’s struggle with the multiple entry points yield any insights into a re-articulation of the movement?

Because of the non-narrative nature of the text the exercise proved a struggle for Joshua to accomplish and he spent considerable time searching for a method to remember the words.[11] I wanted him to explore the rhythms of the text using the words as physical objects, to make the words dance: exploring the choices that each word held in meaning, alliteration and rhythm, separately and as a continuum. To achieve this technically, we discussed the use of syllables, alliteration, merging of words, rhythm, plosives, texture, pause and breath, which I called textual harassment.

Zsiga talks of speech as using movements that call on the vocal articulators to dance in order to determine the level of versatility that can be achieved. She concludes, ‘the movements that create each step of the dance of the articulators are articulatory gestures’ (2013: 16), and it was the interaction of these ‘articulatory gestures’ with the dancer’s movements that eventually revealed insights through this task.After an hour of struggle and what might be termed frustrated labour,the Joshua stood up and spoke the text while I observed. I immediately identified a fixed, comfortable pattern and asked him to speed up the delivery so that it became almost a mantra, a non-stop rhythmic train with no pauses. This caused Joshua great difficulty as his frustrated labour continued and he began to get stuck in places, becoming immobile, unable to speak or move, unable to retain a chain of thought because of the new imposition of turbulence via the collision between speed, intention and retention: he found himself navigating (im)mobility.

In the next stage of the process the Joshua was asked to develop a short krump dance sequence to demonstrate a list of words.⁠[12] I deliberately selected demonstrative movement as a starting point, as it offered the dancer a stable process where he could concentrate on the meaning of the word and its mimetic articulation through the krump style of dance. The task provided a period of security for the Joshua, a safe, steady state that could then be intruded on to displace what he had laboured to create: to frustrate his labour. After some considerable time, I set up a final task, asking Joshua to return to the abstract list of words that he had wrangled with in the first exercise and to speak them at pace while dancing the demonstrative sequence slowly. Joshua described the struggle he encountered in his journal entry for this day:

I had a list of words to learn which was very difficult for me because it was just a list as I saw it, which didn’t have any meaning to me, and this made it very hard. On top of this I had to add a phrase, which was made up to a set of different words.

(Joshua, journal entry, day 4)

This approach, exploring the tensions between words and movement, bears similarities to the work of dramaturg Katherine Profeta. In describing her working process with Ralph Lemon, she discusses words as agents that comment on and jostle alongside the movement. Profeta argues in favour of future collaborative exploration of the ‘tension between the word and body, speech and gesture’ (2015: 29). She asserts that these conditions drive the creation rather than limit it, corresponding to the ideas I have proposed in relation to layered multiple entry points creating an unsteady state condition.

The unfamiliar structural principles that I explored during these tasks challenged the dancer’s aesthetic and physical routines and created effects that responded to the principles of the steady-state–unsteady-state condition: invoking momentary periods of steadiness, through familiarity, set against transitions that denied the dancer maintaining a steady state. The blogger Leonie Higgins who was observing this process at the time captures how these principles reverberated in the space:

Joshua is given a text. He learns it in a frankly impressively short amount of time. He’s then instructed to ‘forget’ the text, and create a short piece of krumping. It is hard, fast, noisy and powerful. I can hear and feel every breath and stamp. Joshua performs it a few times, then Paul asks him to speak the text at the same time. It becomes strange and exhausting. To the layman (me) it looks like his whole body is rebelling against the words, but that he is forcing them out anyway.

This then was an obvious struggle, a hindrance and an imposition of turbulence as Joshua became increasingly frustrated and challenged by the task. I noted when the movement automatically synchronised with the text and vice versa, as we explored the possibilities of the struggle and I encouraged Joshua to develop new technical means to navigate the tasks. However, compromises were evident as small adjustments infiltrated the dancer’s movements to accommodate the text. In response to this intruding fixity, and in support of maintaining the unsteady state condition, I continued ‘constructing the confusion’ (Barba and Barba, 2000: 65) by finally placing the dancer on top of two single mattresses and asking him to perform the same task. This intensified the Joshua’s struggle as he fought with the simultaneous objectives implied by the text and the movement, while reflexively absorbing the destabilising forces of the mattresses.

Barba and Barba’s metaphor ‘like a sailing boat that wants to go west, while the wind is blowing from the south and the currents are carrying it towards the east’ (2000: 59) aptly describes the moment when Joshua was thrown and plunged, swallowed up and hindered by the mattresses. Barba notes that ‘the equilibrium between these [competing] tensions is the creative route’ (2000: 59) and, echoing this, the unsteady state condition I had invoked impacted on both the movement and the words, forcing Joshua to improvise a new equilibrium and, in doing so, to navigate new ways of moving, speaking and doing. Through this process and emergent in my studio practice was the idea that text is considered as movement in itself, as an entry point and part of a layering process, inhabiting the movement, inflecting it, sometimes remaining and other times departing, to be felt as a trace or noted by its absence from the dance.

Reframing Virtuosity

Moving into BLOCK my research proposed that HHDT is dominated by the habitual compulsion to spectacular movement, derived from its vernacular roots and the subsequent capitalist commodification of the form. Therefore, a studio process that focused on attention and intensity through the methods I have described, might, I thought, support a new notion of virtuosity in HHDT. This exploration considered the framing and presentation of the dancer as re-defined by the scenography and the interplay between proximity, (im)mobility, perspective and agency, influencing how the audience sees the body in space. Moving on from this notion, the BLOCK project led me to reconsider and reframe the notion of virtuosity within my research project and I have discussed this in detail in chapter 2, where virtuosity weaves into my discussion of the metaspace of HHDT.

Lepecki discussed stillness as an act of resistance in dance, where stillness is a reactive choice to dominant capitalist conditions, creating forward momentum by challenging the stasis of the spectacle: shifting the focus towards attention and intensity (2006: 58). Acknowledging these concerns BLOCK called for a new reading of virtuosity in HHDT, considering virtuosity as the multi-layered capacity of being, doing, making and engaging with. This reframing drew on the insights of the studio work, recognising a correspondence between mobility and immobility (Pellegrino, 2011: 3). In doing so, it moved away from the idea that the visual properties of the spectacle frame the virtuosic in HHDT. This is not to devalue the virtuosic technique of the spectacle, but to suggest an alternative contextualisation of hip hop dancer artists in the space of UK dance theatre. Informed by my studio research, this lens proposed that virtuosity is not expressed solely in corporeal technique, but that corporeal technique enabled it to occur as a different construction, still complex, but in a different way. I employ the term ‘virtuosity’ to refer to a notion that extends beyond the idea of corporeal achievement, denoting dancers’ ability to engage with turbulence when creating the unsteady state condition. This newly positioned notion of virtuosity incorporated the dancers’ developed reflexive capacity to work within conditions of hindrance and displacement where movement is equally contained in moments and movement of not doing and doing, cessation and motion.


BLOCK demonstrated an aesthetic approach that is new to HHDT, informed by the sociopolitical roots of the vernacular context and an examination of the present day institutional discourse. Exploring dramaturgical methods as the nexus for choreographic practice with UK hip hop dancers exposed a processual layering that proved intrinsic to the outcomes. From this central idea, the practice itself gave up insights that suggest a complex interaction between movement generation and processual components, which are currently defined here as multiple entry points, represented by subject material, text and scenography. Supported by structured methodological thinking, the interaction of these components in the studio and their placement in the final performance was guided by the choreodramaturg’s process and methods of working in the studio. In this way, the hybrid role of the choreodramaturg was tested as a component of the processual architecture. Furthermore, through an intimate dialogue with the dancers the task-based process navigated by the choreodramaturg gave rise to a further unpicking of the agential balance of this relationship.

The BLOCK project enabled me to identify how practical methods of displacement and hindrance create physical turbulence. In doing so, turbulence, and the interrelated role of the layered components that inform its invocation, was established as significant when creating the unsteady state condition. Considering scenography proved important in identifying the loss of the vernacular experience of the hip hop cypher in the institutional setting and supported a reconsideration and reclamation of the cypher via the practice. In doing so, the scenographic architecture for BLOCK guided a kinesthetic and empathetic exchange between audience and dancers. In these space(s) of performance, a complex interplay between proximity, (im)mobility, perspective and agency was observed, giving rise to reconsider perceived notions of virtuosity in HHDT.[13] These outcomes suggested that a complex web of interactive elements impact the physical expression of HHDT. Furthermore, these outcomes indicated an emergent new understanding of working with artists involved with the form and fed into the next stage of research.

These key research concerns could only have been arrived at through undertaking practice research and the practice research methodology revealed the knowledge of the practice in and of itself. The BLOCK project led to an extensive period of reflection, reading, ethnographic research (via interviews) and writing. During this time I found that ‘multiple entry point layering’, though useful as a starting point, did not fully capture the complexity of what I observed happening in the studio. Therefore, I developed another term, ‘processual accretion’, to help describe the complexity and multiple facets ofthe process I was unearthing, and this is discussed in chapter 4. Emerging from the BLOCK project, I needed to define a space where I could move more effectively, conceptually and corporeally, and find a terminology that better transmitted the interwoven nature of what I was attempting to do artistically and theoretically.

At this point I read the work of postmodern political geographer and theorist Edward Soja (1996) and learned about his notion of a Thirdspace (discussed in chapter 4). The BLOCK project led me to considerthe unsteady state condition as a Thirdspace, one that encompasses a constantly shifting landscape of sociocultural and political meaning. This perspective urged an alternative way of considering binaries and called for a closer reading of Soja’s treatise on spatiality,which calls for a ‘radically open perspective’ (1996: 5). This idea of spatiality fed into the next phase of my research where I wanted to explore the interplay and stratification of the elements I have discussed and the relationship between sociocultural, historical, temporal and politically augmented manifestations of HHDT through practice.



[1] Ruth Glass coined the term ‘gentrification’ in 1964. Lees, Slater and Wyley argue that the definition of gentrification is complex and ongoing so its definition should be left ‘open so as to allow it to include new types/forms of gentrification that may yet emerge’ (2010: 5).

[2] The ‘socially constructed dance space […] the circle of onlookers in which the dance is performed’ (Schloss, 2009: 13). Dance scholar Imani Kai Johnson describes the cypher as a ‘collective action forged through individual artistic endeavors, out of which grows a dynamic between individuals and surrounding spectator-dancers’ (2009: 12).

[3] Pellegrino describes the ‘conceptual couple Mobility/Immobility [as] neither a dualism nor an opposition, rather a relational continuum’ (2011: 2). She argues for ‘practice as the situated and material locus where proximity, mobility and immobility are put forward, challenged and realized, throughout myriad contexts, cases, situations and conditions where different assemblies of (im)mobility and types of proximity are practiced and constructed’ (2011: 3).

[4] Using small steps forwards while simultaneously tapping his hands up his chest then chin. Moving both hands to the front and tapping one fist on top of the other. Dropping his arms to the side and stopping. Walking forwards and moving his straight arms slightly outwards, then stopping.

[5] Using small steps forwards while simultaneously tapping his hands up his chest then chin. Moving both hands to the front and tapping one fist on top of the other. Dropping his arms to the side and stopping. Walking forwards and moving his straight arms slightly outwards, then stopping.

[6] ‘Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics’ (Kendzior, 2014). Gentrification is ‘a dumbing down and smoothing over of what people are actually like. It’s a social position rooted in received wisdom, with aesthetics blindly selected from the pre-sorted offerings of marketing and without information or awareness about the structures that create its own delusional sense of infallibility. […] The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free’ (Schulman, 2013: 51).

[7] Including the repetition of a monologue about eviction, which was accompanied by a rapidly moving movement score that had been devised separately.

[8] ‘Kinesthesia refers to “sensations of movement and position”, while “empathy” can be seen as “projecting oneself into the object of contemplation”’ (Reynolds and Reason, 2012: 18–19).

[9] Mattresses imposed the ‘architectonic structure, working in synthesis with the space, the lighting and the objects’ represented by the bedding (McKinney and Butterworth, 2012: 4).

[10] Martin Stannage, the writer collaborating on BLOCK, gave the following text to Joshua: Woman, child, benefit, Cap, bottle, crack, smile, Fear, spine, devil in, Disguise, wide-eyed, Skyline, rise, satellite, Revel in, shirt, tie, Severing, space, time, Ritual, medicine, Dirt, pride, tenement.

[11] Joshua was unaccustomed to remembering text without accompanying mimetic movement imposing a narrative on it. For this task I asked that he did not do this.

[12] Martin Stannage, the writer collaborating on BLOCK, gave the following text to Joshua: Animal, mankind, Territory, cave-dwellers, high-rise, never seen, property development, Investment, spearhead, stick, pierce flesh, alien, bleed, sentiment. ‘Krump movement initiates from the torso, rippling through the central trunk of the body and into the extremities of the arms and legs. Krumping [places] emphasis on torso articulation in the “popping” of the chest and hips. [Krumping] is a public dance form, done in groups with featured solos [and it is] closely tied to the rhythms of hip-hop music, and mimic of those rhythms in the percussive nature of their movement vocabularies’ (Nereson, 2010).

[13] I find it useful to employ the acronym PIPA for the interplay between proximity, (im)mobility, perspective and agency.