Prolegomena to Choreographic Action 2001

psycho eye


, Jerwood Space, London, SE1



Kim Brandstrup


Joanne Fong

Kenneth Tharp

Fearghus O'Conchuir

Mark Bruce

Cathy Marston


Chrisptopher Bannerman
(Director of RESCEN, Middlesex University)
Philip Barnard
((MRC-Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge University)
Gill Clark
(independent dance artist)
Sean Feldman
(independent dance artist)
Kate Flatt
(choreographer/lecturer at Middlesex University))
Nna Fonaroff
Sue Jones
(Lecturer, English Literature, St Hilda's College, Oxford)
Professor Susan Melrose
(Professor of Performance Arts, Middlesex
University )
Anna Pakes
(Research Fellow, Laban Centre)


Massimiliano Barachini
Lee Boggess
Joy Constantinides
Victoria Edgar
Joanne Fong
Fearghus O'Conchuir
Joanna O'Keeffe
Jonathan Poole
Kenneth Tharp

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Prolegomena to Choreographic Action 2001

Arc Dance Company/Middlesex University
Jerwood Space , London, June 2001

Project Brief

"The purpose of these research workshops was to explore and debate some fundamental aspects of the choreographic process, independent of genre and style.

By investigating basic concepts of our perception and cognition of movement . By tentatively borrowing from Cognitive psychology concepts like perceptual organisation, memory systems and retrieval, the course set out to explore how we 'see' and what makes us 'see'. Debating wether we could come to an agreement of a shared perception and experience. "

Workshop Documentation by Fearghus O'Conchuir

Discussion on day one centred around the establishing of movement, as distinct from steps, as the distinctive material engaged with in this art form. This notion presupposes

the existence of a unit of movement which comprises the fundamental building block of choreography. Simple mirroring exercises allowed the participants to agree on what was a single movement. A sense of impulse, time (including the notions of rhythm and duration) and most importantly closure allowed the viewer to perceive and comprehend the scope of a single movement unit. The exercises suggested that if closure was delayed beyond a certain point, the viewer lost sense of the unit and found it difficult to retain and therefore understand what they had seen. Participants experimented with how long a unit of movement could be sustained before it became impossible to mirror or recall and it was agreed that while it was difficult to copy movements with complete accuracy that a spectator was nonetheless extremely sensitive to the smallest of deviations from the original movement and that consequently, choreographers had to be just as attentive to those smallest of details in what they saw in their work.

Having introduced this notion of closure as crucial to our ability to perceive movement units, Kim Brandstrup drew on the concept of sensory memory from cognitive psychology to suggest how the use of closure could inform and direct the choreographic process. Psychologists have posited the existence of a memory system which processes sensory experience even before its retention in short term memory. They call it a sensory store, differentiating it for the visual systems Iconic Memory, and for the auditory system, Echoic Memory

Lee Burgess @ John Robinson

Both Icon and echo are transitory, last at most 4 seconds are very accurate have a large capacity. In practice what this means for choreographers, is that our sensory memory perceives with great accuracy but retains that perception for a very brief time. As choreographers we can exploit this transitory retention, which Brandstrup calls resonance, to facilitate the development of choreographic material that grows from and responds to the material that precedes it. For Brandstrup, once executed, the memory, trace or resonance of a movement lingers 'in the air' and if one can attend to it, that resonance will be the impulse for the next movement unit. The choreographer's task becomes less about creating and more about attending to the necessary development of material.

The participants were asked to develop a short solo movement phrase for themselves, attending to these concepts of closure and resonance. The results, when discussed by the participants, suggested that repetition, theme and variation, which had not been requisite compositional elements of this task, may emerge as a internal necessity of the choreographic process rather than as tools imposed on that process from the outside.

On the second day, the choreographers were asked to teach their solo material to another dancer, to permit them to see their material and make any changes they felt necessary once they could see the work more objectively. The choreographers were then given a second dancer to work with and asked to choreograph material based on their sense of resonance and closure in the original solo phrase. Attention to the clarity of closure allowed viewers to perceive compelling relationships between the dancing couple, generating a sense of narrative despite the abstract genesis of the original material. Subsequent discussion focussed on how the clarity of closure in a movement made it possible to apprehend and therefore allowed the viewer to begin to engage with the material and begin to generate relations and narrative through their engagement. When the spectator is not alerted to the ends and beginnings of movement, s/he loses the thread. The result is usually a passive spectator who allows the dance to wash over them - they do not engage with the work - it doesn't make sense to them.

It was also noted in discussion that the closures which punctuated the initial solo material, defining particular movement units, though still present in the duets were often subsumed in a bigger sense of unit. With this recognition, choreographers were asked to regard their existing duet as a unit and to repeat that unit, altering or varying the repetition as they felt necessary when viewing the repetition in relation to what had preceded it. For some of the choreographers this variation meant complete deviation from the first unit; for others it required a change or facing or a change of relationship between the dancers. What remained in common however, was that the choice of development was made by encouraging their perception of what was necessary from a viewing position outside their own work.

Hamlet Rehearsal@John Robinson

On day three, participants watched the opening section of Hitchcock's Psycho. In subsequent discussion, Brandstrup drew attention to how Hitchcock's development of narrative units allows the audience to participate in making the narrative. The opening unit in which the spectator learns of the financial difficulties which prevent Janet Leigh's secretary from being with her lover, is followed by another scene in which she leaves her office to deposit a large amount of cash for her boss. These discrete narrative elements are sufficient to make comprehensible the third scene which sees her packing a suitcase. The spectator has no difficulty filling in the thought process which has led to her decision to steal the money. By eliciting this audience complicity and co-operation, Hitchcock binds his spectators to the thriller. Participants were stimulated by this practical demonstration, discussing the arcs of narrative which were visually punctuated by repetition of images such as the peephole and plug hole. The contribution of sound score was also considered, not just to the extent that it could generate tension or excitement but how its sweep could link together discrete narrative units into longer passages of information.

Brandstrup asked the choreographers to consider their larger compositional units (ie the initial duet unit and its repetition/variation) and see what third element suggested itself that could draw on those initial units and develop the choreographic progression. He also asked them to work with a piece of music of their choice paying particular attention to the points of closure in the music and being aware of how those musical closure points would relate to the closure points inherent in the movement compositions. When the resulting studies were shown on the Friday before some of the observers (Susan Jones, Susan Melrose, Gill Clark and Anna Pakes), it was noted how this particular attentiveness to the structures existing independently in the music and in the dance compositions prevented one from being subsumed by the other. The movement was not dictated by the musical power but by a sensitive joining or separation which drew on that power. The question of sentimentality was raised as something which the choreographers had in no way demonstrated but which participants seemed nonetheless anxious to avoid. It was agreed that emotion and expression were not in themselves negative and that one was more likely to use the word sentimental as a substitute for making an aesthetic value judgement than that something was simply bad choreography. Sue Jones also pointed out that sentimentality had been a positive virtue of art for the Romantics and Victorians and that its current lack of favour is merely a phase in its shifting significance.

Saturday welcomed the presence of yet more observers ( Nina Fonaroff, Philip Barnard, Kate Flatt, Chris Bannerman, Sean Feldman and Katy Spicer). The discussions for the day were preceded by a recapitulation of the methodology which had informed the week's research for those involved in the practical choreography. The attempt to define the simplest movement unit was again demonstrated by the mirroring exercise. Observers contributed what they perceived to be the successes and failures of the mirroring partners attempt to recall and execute the movement which had just been performed. Sue Jones noted that it was increasingly clear to her that the time and rhythm of a movement, rather than its physical architecture were crucial in defining a movement unit. Kim Brandstrup offered that it was precisely this expert attention to timing that distinguished dancers and choreographers. Too often the technical necessity of teaching dance positions and steps obscured the fact that it was movement in time (and space Chris Bannerman added) which was the material of dance as an art form.

Then examples were shown of the first solo study which had become the constitutive element of the subsequent compositions. One of these examples demonstrated clearly how the attention to resonance in closure points can suggest repetition and variation. Philip Barnard observed that from the point of view of a psychologist, humans are programmed to notice change and for that reason such repetition and variation is regarded as meaningful. Kim Brandstrup pointed out that the ability to 'clock' and retain a unit of movement is an essential precondition for recognising subsequent repetition and variation.

The choreographers each showed their developed studies and the participants commented that though the initial compositional tasks had not required any narrative input, that each of the studies had clearly developed relationships which suggested story without being in any way mimetic. The attention to closure and resonance seemed to generate units of signification that permitted observes to generate their own story. The quality and clarity of the choreographic research was commended by all those watching and its strength was regarded as a validation of the approach undertaken by the Prolegomena.


The Prolegomena achieved and exceeded it ambitions to explore perceptions of movement. Through experiments to reveal the importance of closure in making apprehensible to the viewer a particular unit of movement (and potentially significance), it demonstrated that attention to this fundamental building block was an invaluable tool to choreographers regardless of the movement style or aesthetic in which they wished to operate.

It drew together expertise from within the dance profession and generated an intelligent and mutually informative dialogue with other areas of knowledge such as cognitive psychology, literary theory and music.

These achievements are a wonderful starting point, but a starting point nonetheless. Philip Barnard is considering the kinds of experiments he could undertake to investigate some of the ideas raised by what he experienced in the Prolegomena. Sue Jones is about to commence research on questions of narration and story-telling in dance. The participating choreographers will no doubt continue to engage wit the ideas raised and the dancers of Arc will approach Kim Brandstrup's choreography with an enhanced sense of understanding and investigation.

Fearghus O'Conchuir 
August 2001