Gaps in the body: attention and improvisation

In This Article


Despite lengthy, repeated attempts, I could not get mind and body to work together. One or the other would dominate, and make a complete mess of things, or each would wait for the other to make the first move and nothing would happen. And then … like a good negotiator… I decided to stop intervening and suggesting, and, instead, to simply pay attention and listen.

That was more or less how I discovered improvisation as a practice of attention (focussed noticing) rather than of moving. Instead of hoping the body will absorb me in its flow, or that I will be able to ‘think up’ innovative things for it to do, I now improvise by noticing and dancing with the body. What I activate is my attention. I place it, like a bait, somewhere on or in the body, and there and then, some quality of the body, or its movement or weight, something that has been hidden and active there all along, comes forward. Then I go along with it, cooperate in its spreading or diminishing, or I move on to some new site of attention. (So although I am barely intervening, there are choices involved). The improvisation is sustained by constantly renewing these acts of attention to the body’s states and processes.

This attentive process is episodic of necessity—continuous attention gets tired and falls asleep, just as our eyes glaze over if we stare too long. The episodic attention also reflects the fragmentary nature of our embodied life. The experiential body that seems continuous, unified and contained, has ‘missing’ parts and is intermixed with the environment (Leder 1990). What we experience as a continuous flow of consciousness is interrupted with breaks and surges of attention so that our ‘now’ is typically composed of a series of three to four second ‘moments’ (Stern 2004, p. 41). Our self, too, is a composite: Neisser distinguishes five types of self (ecological, interpersonal, extended, private and conceptual) based on different forms of experience and information, that we experience as aspects of a single coherent Self. (Neisser 1988). So our sense of being a single self, with a full and complete body, negotiating an environment external to us, relies on a sort of inattention.

By directing our attention towards the living body we can notice its movements, its processes, its qualities as participant-observers. We can witness not just the visible placement of our limbs in space, or the mechanics of movement, but the feeling of our living, moving fleshy body. We can feel, what our willed actions often obscure, the body’s ongoing, forthcoming process, moving in multiple simultaneous times, at multiple simultaneous weights and densities (from the sub-cellular to the muscular). We can glimpse (feel, in and through the body) what I take to be ‘being’, or what I call ‘being-becoming’, as it moves and in-forms our bodily life.

Attention, improvisation, being

In what follows, I further outline a view of improvisation as making ‘gaps’ in whatever is running smoothly (habits, a particular movement, a nice plan) in order to move with what is already moving. I support this with accounts of my own struggle with a form of, so-called, ‘Authentic Movement’; phenomenological accounts of the body and proprioception; and perspectives on the practice of some key dancer/choreographers. I also try to further explain what I mean by saying that improvisation can provide an encounter with ‘being-becoming’.

But, first, I would like to show attention, improvisation, being, performance and bodily noticing at play in everyday life.

Selfies in Kyoto

The cherry blossom is at its peak. The girls feel it too. They arrange themselves in front of the trees, spread out but linked together. Their arms diverge at inventive angles, and each ends in two diverging fingers. The girls are marking the place with their being: a momentary coincidence of group, weather, rocks and trees.

They check the selfie and try two more. One could say they are trying for more accuracy. They are trying to compose the feeling of ‘me’ or ‘us’ at this place and time. As in a dance, they are composing with bodies and gestures. As in dance they are creating not merely visual pictures, but energetic patterns providing evidence of a unique ‘now’. A selfie that is just a layered arrangement of bodies and gestures can only be so good. They check the selfie to see if it shows ‘blossoming’ bodies filled with feeling–a sense of life ‘captured’ in the process of its going on.

They know how to notice, feel and modulate their body in relation to the environment and to its parts, and they are choosing to magnify and modulate their body’s state of being.

We all self-notice our bodies—notice our bodies, not visually, but with the senses by which our bodies know themselves: we know how to swing our hips and flounce our arms in dancing; we absent-mindedly enjoy the weight and lean of the drink dangling in our fingers while we talk; the surfer loves reading and adjusting to the wave.

Each of these self-noticing bodies is noticed from inside, as a constantly reforming mesh of sensations of body and world. Dancer Steve Paxton (2015) describes his experience of the ‘small dance’ of the body (its already and always occurring movements) as ‘a body-field event, centreless’. No-one needs a mirror to see how their body is arranged or to assess the quality of its movement. Each is performative to a degree and each improvises various degrees of noticing, following, re-directing, amplifying or adjusting.

Noticing the body by means of its own modes of awareness is a common experience and capacity. 1 As is improvisation and performance. Nevertheless, the relationship of body and awareness is complex and the examples above are only partly conscious for the participants. Below I attempt to analyse personally, and generally, how body and awareness are related, and outline the unique role of proprioception as a way of knowing the body in one of the ways it knows itself.

The incomplete body

I have always experienced my body as lumpy, opaque and riddled with empty areas. At least, this was the case whenever I actually gave it some thought (for instance, remembering to use my legs properly when swimming) or when my body foregrounded itself, say, as a scattered constellation of discomforts that prevented me from sleeping. I used to feel frustrated and ashamed about this messiness. But I have come to regard it more positively, as an opportunity to explore and discover in dance and somatic practice, a resource for performance, and a means of noticing being through the body.

To further illustrate phenomenological absences, or blind spots, occurring in the body, I might examine what is happening, now, as I write: I can feel my buttocks on the chair, the underside of one crossed leg, the upper side of the lower one, the pressure on my foot, the stiff arch of my lower back, the tension of part of my left jaw, my central chest area is missing, most of my face is absent, except for the cheekbones, I have no awareness of the sides of my legs, and so forth. If I pay close attention to the particular feel of my side ribs, just about everything I mentioned disappears.

There is a fundamental difference between the body, (Korper), as the substance filling up the dancer, and Leib, the dancer’s lived body. Our flesh and its physical boundaries do not line up with our somatic experience. Our lived body stretches across space and time. From a seated position I can sensorially enter my chest, or jump across space to touch things way beyond reach– a treetop for instance. I hear a car, outside; or see the curtain inside; or a cloud, way above. The car sound is not experienced as something in our ear. We don’t sense the curtain as being in our eyes, or the cloud in our brain. We feel these things (even, I think, when we drift a little kinaesthetically, in sympathy with the cloud) as Merleau-Ponty suggests, out there, where those things occur.

Drew Leder, in The Absent Body (1990), goes much further, describing irrevocable absences in the felt body–the gall bladder unless it is diseased, the blind spot in the eye—the teeming presence within the body of other bodies such as invasive or synergistic microbes and bacteria—and the visits and exchanges of air. He also describes, more romantically, how the materials of our body were forged in stars like those we reach with our gaze. He argues, in fact, that the spread out gappy nature of the body opens us onto and into the universe. He says that the body’s ‘usual state is to be lost in the world—caught up in a web of organic and intentional involvements through which we form one body with other things’. ‘As recessive being, these worldly relations are organic and pre-conscious. As ecstatic being, we are in conscious and purposive intercourse with the environment ’ (160).

So our body has absences, jumps from space to space, inside and out, and is not entirely our own. As Husserl says, the body is ‘a remarkably incompletely constituted thing’ (Ideas II, 1989, p. 159: cited Carman 1999, p. 207). And yet this body supports our experience of having a completely constituted body, environment, temporality and self. I think that interrupting or making ‘gaps’ in some of these continuities can give the dancer access to generative processes and experiences of being. It is an approach that starts with receiving somatic experience rather than making things with the body.

Authentic movement—placing attention on the body

Below is an account of my own experience of struggling to ‘find’ and in some way follow the body. It comes from the initial stage of an improvisation based on a version of ‘authentic movement’–standing still, then moving, with eyes closed. Looking at it now, it appears that I had forbidden myself the use of images as well as deliberate actions to initiate movement:

It’s dark. I can feel a sort of black cave around my head and shoulders—roughly shaped like Darth Vader’s helmet. This darker, more solid area, like a cave, with a brow or overhang, surrounds an inner cave somewhat less dark, like the air or water in a sea cave. It is very confined: it goes vague only a little way back. It is a sort of ‘thinking area.’ Annoying. I can feel a soft pressure, or slightly squint-like, tension around my eyes and temples and over the top of my skull, associated with thinking and looking. A connection between seeing and thinking that seems hard to escape.

I can feel some other areas of the body, a tension in muscles of the leg, a tense neck, lower ribs like a pair of hands pressing the sides of my torso, but this awareness is not initiated by those areas of the body, it’s initiated from around my eyes.

If I just wait, will areas of the body bring themselves to attention?... I wait. …Mmmm maaaybe, a bit, perhaps. I try sending my awareness proprioceptively around the body. I sort of squeeze or have the local muscles activate so that I can feel the flesh of various body parts.

Next, I do that yoga thing of ‘sending the breath’ through the body. I feel the outer layers of my body take form like a soft shell. But it’s full of air rather than organs, and it has an arbitrary, uniform density or tone. So I start coloring myself in, activating a solid tone in various spots then fine tuning it—but I’m not exactly sure which organs go where.

Light from a window shines through my closed eyelids: this dissolves my boundaries and makes me feel I’ve spilled into space … and so on.

Noticing the ways in which the body ‘appeared’ in my consciousness sharpened my sense of my body and the activity of my attention together. A proprioceptive dialogue was established. It then became like a dance with the body, with dancer, then body, leading or following.

When, after this ‘body interview’, I began moving and improvising in space, my body was present to me as something always already moving or expanding or contracting or enduring.

I chose which qualities or movements to notice, or keep noticing; which to follow, which to provoke or extend. I made attentional and choreographic (positional, spatial, energetic) decisions, but they were based on attunement to what was already occurring. I also made decisions to detach from what I was noticing in order to notice afresh—especially if I found my attention wandering or, on the contrary, vaguing into a continuity of not-really-noticing.

For example: I tied my attention to a sinking movement that led the whole body to the floor; I repeated movements and noticed how they fluctuated and morphed with shifts of inaccuracy and fatigue; I followed the consequences of letting an aligned spine and arm stretch further and further outwards, to the limit; I chose random points in space for random points of the body to touch—to find out what demands and effects it created in the rest of the body; I deconstructed movements: What if crawling legs and arms slid backwards each time they took at step forward; What if I did this for a few minutes on end?

These were not aesthetic choices. They were stimuli or experiments to focus attention, creating a gap in the background continuities of body and mind (a gap, so to speak, in not-noticing) in which the body’s occurrences may appear. Paxton (2015) describes a similar process in which he sets up a series of attentional strategies: actions, changes of balance, use of anatomical knowledge plus imagination to gain awareness to parts of the body that provide very little sensation (the bones for instance)—all of which are designed to awaken awareness of ‘sensations or events of the body’ that ‘can be consciously observed and manipulated…’

These are receptive experiments for the body, rather than a sequence of actions that the ‘known’ body is being asked to accomplish.

Underlying these experiments are two key actions: the placing of attention on aspects of the body and its states, and the use of proprioception as a means of dialogue with the body. I discuss both these activities below.

The body as a ‘site of enquiry’—the role of attention

Practices of attention, conscious perception and bodily enquiry played a transformative role in dance, and ideas of what dance is, from around the mid-twentieth century. Deborah Hay, for instance, pioneered (and continues to refine) a process of subverting the known, choreographed, socialised, habitual body by treating the dancer as ‘a site for inquiry i.e. a bodily presence trained in the performance of parallel experiences of perception’ (2015a). Hay submits herself to playing out unanswerable but consequential questions such as: ‘What if how I see while I am dancing is a means by which movement arises without looking for it?‘ (2015b). Other major figures include Steve Paxton and Min Tanaka who says: ‘the body does not exist unless one is astonished with its ingenuous state’ (1986, p. 153). More recently, Australian dancer/choreographer Rosalind Crisp demonstrates a rigorous, exploratory and constantly refreshed application of attention to the shifting relationships and conditions of her body.

I had tried to apply attention to whatever arose in my body in the improvisational research described above and discovered it to be a volitional act rather than a passive experience. In daily practice and performance, I found that unless I continually and actively ran an investigative attention around my body my performance became forced or habitual. This was different from thinking about the body—which tended to turn Leib into Korper. Attention is less intrusive and without force. Placing the attention—a volitional act–is more like choosing where to invite the life of the body to come into being in any of our many modes of awareness—touch, smell, taste, proprioception, sense of temperature, vision, hearing, thought and imagination, to name a few. (I am using the term ‘modes of awareness’ to embrace the bodily senses and the mind. Berthoz (2000, p. 263) makes an interesting case for revising the meaning of ‘senses’ according to their perceptual function: ‘So to the sense of taste and smell, touch, vision, and hearing, add, as the vernacular already does, the sense of movement, space, balance, effort, self, decision, responsibility, initiative, and so on. This idea of the senses shows the way, determined by the subject, toward a goal.’

The unique status of proprioception

Even in this very extended view of the senses, proprioception is unique in its internal focus and in offering us reflexivity—offering us a degree of awareness of its activity and a degree of agency, and thus, a form of bodily dialogue. This reflexivity is not usually apparent to a person engaged in moving: ‘In most instances, movement and maintenance of posture are accomplished automatically by the body, and for this reason the normal adult neither needs nor has a constant body awareness. Indeed, in most activities that are oriented toward an intentional goal the body tends to efface itself with respect to conscious awareness’ (Gallagher 1998, pp. 132–133). Moreover, proprioceptive activity tends to be noticed less as we develop bodily skills that, as they are accomplished, recede from awareness. Shusterman (2008, pp. 160–165) discusses the contribution of William James (1890: republished 1983) in identifying several ways to increase introspective awareness of body-movement—an awareness now articulated in a whole range of somatic practices such as Feldenkrais, Body-Mind Centering and Alexander Method.

The availability to awareness of proprioception contrasts with our body’s outwardly focused senses which show themselves not as themselves, but as aspects or qualities of the environment. When we use our hearing, for instance, we notice sounds, not some part of our ears, but if we actively engage our proprioceptive sense we can feel the body conveying and adjusting its movement, extension and weight. Just standing upright offers us, if we attend to it, a flurry of proprioceptive activity–a ‘small dance’ always already underway in the body. 2

In the case of my ‘authentic movement’ exploration, it was hard to know whether the proprioceptive scanning I was ‘doing’ was something sent towards or coming from the body. When we become aware of movements, qualities or densities of the body by proprioception (which requires attention) it is almost like holding hands with them. Our proprioceptive looking, unlike visual looking, or thinking, does not reduce the body to a perceived object. It is more like a bodily conversation: You can feel it feeling. It feels and adjusts the living body and is the feeling of feeling and adjusting the body. I claim that it gives us a glimpse of being, or being-becoming–because that is what it ‘feels’ like, in the body: a sensory awareness of the body as something that, in its fleshy movement, gives us a timely feeling of substance or a substantial feeling of time.

Images—the body meets the imagination

We can also form a proprioceptive dialogue between the body and imagination. Working with images is not a matter of controlling the body or making shapes. It is, to adopt another metaphor, perhaps more like the meeting of a coat (or a tailor) and a body—the body feeling its way into the sleeve, slipping the shoulders around the inside of the coat, and the coat shifting its weight and form to accommodate the body.

Image work is fundamental to Butoh and, also, to Bodyweather, an ecological approach to the body initially developed by Butoh dancer Min Tanaka. Tanaka’s Bodyweather deconstructs and decentres body and self. It sees the body as permeable with the environment and it seems to see the ‘self’ as fiction of society and history. While the body has its patterns (perhaps a sort of climate) it is experienced as something, constantly changing and shifting. Tanaka argues that the dancer’s self is not necessarily at the centre of this. The centre is everywhere and drifts around (Marshall 2006, p. 61; Kim 2006 n.pag.).

As a result, Bodyweather training focuses on perception, not control, of the body—although the body and mind (Tanaka uses that binary sometimes) are highly trained to meet each other. The body-relation is a constant open experiment. This body is never singular. It moves from any point, not just the limbs and torso, and Tanaka speaks of its multiple speeds: ‘The speed of thought, of nerves, of blood circulation, of muscular tissues, of the spirit; the chaotic coexistence of various speeds’ (Tanaka 1986, p. 154). It also has multiple densities, scales, temperatures, sense of weight and so on.

So this isn’t the sort of body that could be defined or outlined once and for all. But it is a body ready to meet the imagination. Somatic images as they are used in butoh and Bodyweather, are imagined states that are rendered as sensate states in the performer’s body.

It is in no way a simulation of the posture or appearance of the imagined being. It is an attempt to allow the image to affect the felt qualities of the body. In my experience, the image is embodied by an iterative and proprioceptive process of layering—feeling a change in the tone and structure of the body, testing it against an imagined state and adjusting it.

The image arrives cumulatively by somatic research: imagining and adjusting the body to match. Feeling out, say, in the case of a bird image, its posture, the structure of the feet and their soft wrinkled leathery skin, the curl of the grip on a branch, the breath and pulse, the shifting weight, the placement and layering of the feathers, its gaze and desire.

To establish a relation between imagination and body that is transformative, not pictorial, requires an extensive training of both the body and the imagination. Tanaka developed just such a training—an investigative training with a focus on noticing the body and its relations to time and space. His ‘mb’ practice (mind/body:muscle/bone) is a highly demanding physical, aerobic training but equally demanding of attention and perception. The result is a body that is flexible and able to initiate and isolate from points all around it. It is also a body sensitive to time and space. Tanaka also created a range of partnered exercises that involve the body being manipulated sensitively from outside—a training in responsiveness, observation and imaginative re-creation for both parties. Bodyweather also uses Bisoku, very slow movement (say 1mm per second), to develop a bodily sense of speed, and perceptual investigations such as imagining the body as various elements.

In Tanaka’s practice the body and the dancer have been trained to meet and respond to each other. The process is another attentive-receptive way of meeting with the body. The dancer has had no ‘designs’ on the body—it is a dialogue that transforms the body into an undetermined form.

Rosalind Crisp–moving and noticing

Rosalind Crisp exemplifies another approach to attentional practice. She exhibits an endless play of attention to what is already there (or arises from her choreographic or attentional interventions) in the body or imagination. Unforeseen actions seem to drop into her body. The focus shifts continually, from way out beyond the arm to something nibbling the foot; an emerging thing unravels; she laughs with pleasure and surprise; directions realign and tempos shift. She is continuously shaking free to surprise herself with a new focus of attention so that her attention does not fade, and the dance, as she puts it, ‘hardens into display’ (personal communication 2014).

In a workshop I attended, Crisp shared strategies that engage active attention explicitly, directly and simply. For example, she invited the dancers to ‘notice beginnings’. This led me to discover that my starting had leapfrogged and pre-empted thousands of tiny events and possibilities, wrenching the body (and mind) into action rather than noticing microprocesses. I had overlooked the beginning point in the body, the duration of the beginning, the miniature steps in time, the relationship of breath and initiation, the tiny muscle fibres at work, the larger sequences of joints, the moment at which intent joined action, and so forth.

Sometimes Crisp works in what might be seen as a reverse direction, altering the body first, to render it available to attention. For example, by ‘unholding’, making parts of the body ‘feeble’ ‘so that the body can feel where attention is in it now.’ Citing Steve Paxton, Crisp says, ‘the less we hold, the more we feel’ (personal communication 2014).

Crisp emphasises that we don’t need to search for inspiration and ideas when the body is already there as a source: ‘movements can be found by a practice of paying attention to what is already there, emergent, not yet named or colonised…these buds and shoots appear everywhere’ (2009, p. 104). She provokes movement and attention with a range of improvisational and choreographic tools.

One such tool–‘move two body surfaces away from (or towards) each other’—could almost be an archetype of creating a gap for noticing. The tool is silent about which body parts to move, where to, for how long, at which speed, or how it should look. It isn’t directed towards some point of completion. On the contrary, in my experience, it guides the body and attention away from shapes and trajectories towards discovery and an open-ended process.

As two body surfaces move away from each other the ‘gap’ is filled with the unfolding life of the body. The attended-to body feels itself moving and being. A gap in continuity becomes an opportunity for noticing being-becoming.

Conclusion—bringing being and movement together

Why associate proprioceptive experience with ‘being-becoming’ (or ‘being-in-the-process-of-becoming’) rather than simply call it a pleasurable, or in the case of improvised dance, a creative, experience? Using the term ‘being-becoming’ is an attempt to describe one aspect of the felt dialogue between bodily movement and attention. Moving is more than relocation, bodily movement has a self-reflexive capacity that constitutes a mode of knowing, perhaps our foundational mode. (Sheets-Johnstone (1998, p. 253) describes felt bodily movement as ‘an epistemological gateway’ and as ‘the ground on which intentionalities initially develop’).

Sheehan (1981, pp. 536–542) argues that movement is central to Heidegger’s understanding of being which focussed not on some quality over and above things (entities) or man but on the disclosive processes of each. The intelligible structure of these disclosive processes is intrinsically kinetic. ‘We understand a plant as a plant, for example, by knowing that its presence is fraught with absentiality: a not yet and a no longer, a coming into and a going from presence’. It is ‘the presence of the absentiality [italics in original] that makes it kinetic’. This absentiality, ‘that dimension of the entity’s disclosure that is not fully present or knowable or controllable’ nevertheless functions in the entity’s auto-disclosure. Heidegger was not imagining a day when being or Being would ‘finally show up’ but showing the way to ‘becoming explicitly aware of what one already experiences: the relative absentiality [as well as, and in, the presentiality] of oneself and of things’.

To improvise by paying attention to the processes and states of the body—in a proprioceptive dialogue—is to play with the self-disclosure of the body: to feel its unfolding presence hedged by absences–the ‘previous’ body falling away, the instant of initiation submerged by the movement it initiated, and the emerging body surging towards becoming present.

By making a gap in what we take for granted in the movement and state of our body, and paying attention, we may feel our way into a momentary dance with being.