DeAR COUNTERBALANCE: A LOVE LETTER

An open letter to contextualize work about the practice of support

 
 

Dear Counterbalance, A Love Letter 

My freshmen year of college, I fell in love and lost myself to a relationship that was toxic only to find salvation and strength in my second semester Feminist Philosophy class taught by a professor who saw I was hurting, but did what she could by teaching Judith Butler and Catherine Mackinnon. Specifically, the act of performing who you are over and over again in a power struggle with others to reinforce identity resonated with me and helped me reclaim myself. 

The performance—the repetition of oneself—speaks to the idea that individuals can shift their selfhood through a varied performance. It was this idea that lead me to actively change my own behavior towards others that I found myself tearing down, believing that deep and empathetic support between individuals can challenge and disrupt oppressive social structures.

While exploring these interactions through somatic research through voice and movement experiments in collaboration with modern dancers, I began understanding counterbalances as a poignant representation of support. To counterbalance: an active and engaged reciprocal movement, one that is necessary to hold two perfectly-formed and lived-in bodies upright. Sourcing movement from everyday gesture, the somatic philosophies of Pina Bausch and Yvonne Rainer, I am drawn to the idea of support being reimagined in a similar way. What if support was commonplace? A gesture that can be repeated, and practiced with intention into reality; expressed, documented and discussed because not enough of us know what it is to support one another, or what it feels like to be truly supported. It’s important to note that this idea of support goes beyond communities that have the most in common with the self, reaching to others who have lived lives unlike your own. It creates a space of sustainable empathy. 

Not just a representation but an embodiment. 

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement said “I want you to care. I want you to see all of me.” It is this idea of empathetic support I believe people hunt for. It is the validation of your inner truths and fears with love and understanding, or the acceptance of not understanding, in response. This sentiment resonates with me, speaking to an empathy that is not often found.

I see you. I hear you. I’ll sit with you. Especially if it is uncomfortable. 

I often think about the Black Lives Matter movement. Not so much because the work specifically talks about institutionalized racism, but because the BLM movement is built as a way to prioritize support for the self and support for others who are marginalized the most. Ultimately asking you to give up some power so others may have a voice. The movement centralizes the voices of transgender black women to guide their efforts, ensuring that the most marginalized of us are seen as human and heard as an equal; holding others accountable for the sentiment of “none are free until we all are free” and creating an environment that puts power in places that are usually ignored. 

What is at stake with this body of work? 

The political world we live in right now is loud. It is abrasive and aggressive and blinding. Hard to see the humanity in each other, difficult to know what to do to protect others and yourself. I want to combat this loudness we are drowning in with quiet empathy – a counterbalance to the anger that is easily visible. What’s at stake is the need for empathy and the need to shift power. 

It is this placement of power that interests me. Where does power lie and how does a physical and relational space represent that power? How can one suspend moments of structural oppression to examine the potential influence of support? 

Brian Massumi has a concept he coined “thinking-feeling,” an idea that breaks down seeing into a process of witnessing reality, relating the visuals to our lived experiences and offering various actions in return. If you see a chair, you know you can sit in it because you’ve sat in chairs before, you can know it’s heavy but moveable. Your lived experiences help you interpret the semblances of reality in a dynamic way. We see this in a moment, but we see through form in this thinking-feeling way. The dynamic between viewer and visual form is active and where greater understanding can occur. Can this happen with support? If one sees support, broken down and isolated, then perhaps that will influence future encounters with moments of counterbalance. 

Art is a way we can suspend visual forms according to Massumi; halting our thinking-feeling tendencies. What if we could suspend power relations in a similar way? Stilling interactions to witness where power sits and where it can be shifted. The movement of counterbalance attempts to achieve this suspension. It’s a moment where the struggle between two must work in synchronization, pulling from both strengths and supposed weaknesses to create a joint effort of holding two bodies up – suspended against gravity, against power dynamics. Giving the dancers guidelines much like the work of Joan Jonas, specifically her Mirror Piece I (1969) to her Mirror Piece I Reconfigured (2010), we give space for these interactions to occur through improv in a natural way.

The constructed set isolates these suspended moments even more. Taking away cultural signs as best I can, and making the movement central. Outside of the organic environment, moments of support can be related to more individuals, taking away specifics and attempting to make it universal and timeless. It begs the question of how can movement live on, how can movements of support continuously be taught and retaught in an attempt to alter the performance. This is where Labanotation, a form of dance notation, came into the process

There are two things to note about Labanotation: the perspective and the process of notating movement. Labanotation was created in 1928 by Rudolf Laban and then further developed by Ann Hutchinson Guest specifically in her book Labanotation of Kinetography Laban: The System of Analyzing and Recording Movement first published in 1970. Although Labanotation was not the first method developed for recording dance, it was the first system that focused on analyzing movements in depth from the perspective of the mover rather than an audience or director. This aspect is important to the conceptual depth of COUNTERBALANCE as a representation of where support comes from; coming from within, from experience, from what an individual is able to do and feel and perceive. It is not something that can be learned from standardized examples since it is an idea that must constantly adjust to fit the current moment. To record moments of support from the self rather than as a third party is important to this idea as it strengthens concepts of active engagement and reciprocality within a moment. 

The process of notating movement as outlined in Guest’s book, specifically states that labanotation is an art not a science. One can add as much or as little detail in their notation as they think necessary, allowing for moments of assumptions and trust. This is what complicates support. The hope that someone will be there with your needs in mind and the capacity to sit with you is part of that trust. In my own life, I have found that it is moments when I assume others will be there that hurt the most when they fail to show up. It creates a tension between the intentions of different individuals and how they interact together. Either between a choreographer and a mover or between friends, there is a meeting of different expectations and goals that must figure out how to co-exist. 

Come Sit With Me in its current form, is a video designed around improvisational dance exercises, assigning the movers with individual intentions that collide in counterbalances. The exercises develop and change to mirror my own thoughts behind the complexities of support. The narrative within the film rides a line of personal histories retold – with their painful uncertainties and distorted memories alongside hopeful musings. Installed on a table with two chairs, a shared experience is encouraged when viewing this short film. Support is shared and cannot be an isolated experience.  

Despite the years of researching support, I still question what more can we do. In an infuriating political environment that makes you want to scream and cry, trying desperately to force others to see your point of view, to feel your point of view, one can feel helpless. We want to move metaphorical mountains, make real change, stop the pain and suffering that so many are feeling. I learned a long time ago that one person cannot move such mountains, but we can start shifting pebbles, hoping that one day with enough hands we can make a new mountain. 


For those of you who are using their bodies in the streets protesting policy, I see you.
For those of you who argue with people you hold dear, 
desperately trying to make them see the humanity you feel is denied, I am with you. 
For those of you who are still finding your voice, I will be here for you.  

In Reimagined Solidarity,
Shannon

 

Written for defense of the thesis work titled Come Sit With Me
By Shannon Finnell
July 24th, 2018

 

Reading/Seeing List: 

 

Cobbs, Jelani. “Where Is Black Lives Matter Headed.” New Yorker. 3/14/2016.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. 

Mackinnon, Catherine. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1994. 

Bausch, Pina. Café Müller (1978). Performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music, September 2017.  

Rainer, Yvonne. Trio A/Rainer Variations. Screening at Film Society Lincoln Center, July 2017.

Massumi, Brian. “The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens.” Interview with V2 Institute for the Unstable Media, 2008.  

Jonas, Joan. Mirror Piece 1: Reconfigured (1969/2010). In an exclusive re-performance for Kulturhuset Stadsteatern. Stockholm, Sweden. 

Hutchinson Guest, Ann. Labanotation: The System of Analyzing and Recording Movement. New York, NY: 2005.