At a recent Underscore that I facilitated, I shared the following quote from Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, a Zen Buddhist priest in Oakland, CA: “Awareness of oneness in life includes difference” (Manuel, 2015). Manuel’s notion that “an idea of harmony with an understanding that difference exists within oneness” (Manuel, 2015) feels important to me, both on a sociocultural level as well as what I experience within my creative endeavors such as improvisational ensemble dancing.
One of the most rewarding yet mysterious aspects of the practice of the Underscore, for me, is its ability to foster greater permeability between its participants so that ensemble dancing seems to happen more readily than during the dyad-heavy atmosphere within most contact improvisation jams. At the same time, the ability for everyone to have their own dance (while in relationship to each other) still remains accessible.
The word “composition” can have as its definition “a collection of a whole from parts.” The composition of the word “composition” itself contains “com” which can mean “together” and “position” which may be defined as the verbs to put, to place, to settle, to situate, to dwell; oftentimes, “position” may also refer to a place occupied by a person or a thing. These notions feel strongly present for me in my dancing, writing, and photography; for others, perhaps just as important their music, their visual arts, and their science. Understanding that parts combine to create a whole feels central to many of the ways I navigate this world–perhaps, in part, from my Japanese upbringing being inclusive of collectivist cultural norms.
In preparation for that particular Underscore that I facilitated, I pulled a couple of random aspects of composition from Mike Vargas’s essay, “86 Aspects of Composition” (Vargas, 2003). (I didn’t have my 86 Aspects deck, so I used an online random number generator.) One of the aspects I pulled was for Responsibility: “How do social and environmental conscience influence the process of the creator, the perceiver, and other elements of the composition?”
I believe the permeability between “social and environmental conscience” and Contact Improvisation needs to increase in order for there to be responsibility. The composition can not just include the dancers, the studio, and the space between, but also the assumptions within the culture, the pervasive power differentials amongst participants, and the understanding of transgressions–as well as those who have experienced marginalization, those who have been invisibilized, and those who have either been removed or have removed themselves from the room due to oppression, harassment, and abuse.
Including these sociocultural perspectives feels critical for my dancing, as I strive daily to bring more of myself into everything that I do; doing otherwise seems to me like yet another way I bypass my discomforts and further marginalize my identities. As I dance these days, I feel a greater sense of responsibility to expand my awareness and consciousness both outward beyond the walls of the studio and inward into my cells, cultures, and ancestry. Without them, my compositional perspective feels skewed and incomplete. My hope is that I will have opportunities to be more inclusive of these wider perspectives within in my compositions in my dance and everywhere else in my life.
Manuel, Z. E. (2015). The way of tenderness: Awakening through race, sexuality, and gender. Simon and Schuster.
Vargas, M. (2003). Looking at composition is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge: 86 aspects of composition. Contact Quarterly, 28(2), 28-34.