Conflict and Physical Thinking | Dana Caspersen

A few weeks ago, I walked into a room where a
bunch of dancers were working. And it had been a while since
I had the chance to do that as my work has taken
me in other directions in the last years. So, I
found myself in this room with these dancers,
and to see this kind of community of work again, I felt this sense of relief and this kind of familiar sharp joy, to see this group of
people with this common, focused and matter of
fact attention to these fundamental questions about
motion and form and time. And also to witness what gets built when people think together physically and at the same time I noticed, of course, as we all know that in dance
and choreographic work, everything is just always
falling apart. Right? It’s falling apart and
then it gets rebuilt, it gets re-formed and dancers
come together every day to try to figure out
what form, what motion the world might take today.
And I love dancers for this. I love how dancers can’t
help but notice and work with the fact of constant
change. And I love this persistence of vision that
dance thinking provokes and I love the practical,
carpenter like attention to detail that dance thinking requires in this ongoing, detoured,
intricate, detailed pathway that dance thinkers are
creating and finding and following every day. So, dancers ask questions
like: All right, what is this? And, how is it different from that? What do these things do? What’s the mechanism,
how do they function? What’s the overall system
within which they function? What is this, also, that
we’ve not yet noticed? So, these kinds of questions
that dance thinkers, dancers, ask themselves every
day are the kinds of questions that allow for the presence
and the action of change. In my experience, change
is not something separate from what is, real change
is a deep dive into what is, in order to see what might become. So I’m a practitioner in
the fields of both dance and conflict engagement
and in my experience, practitioners in both
fields are stepping into this messy dynamic
situation and they’re trying to figure out how these
opposing forces can be held together to function as a
whole. So, practitioners in both fields are working
with this kind of robust curiosity that in spite of all difficulty, in spite of whatever
happens in the situation, keeps looking at the
material of where we are to see what potential it
holds and this material can be anything, it can be the people,
it can be the situation, the sound, the environment,
the time, the politics, whatever it is, everything is material. But as we also know, we
cannot command change, we can’t force change to
happen, change is a possibility that we can sense and we can
prepare the ground for it. We can prepare ourselves
for it by building up our own capacity to be able to listen, to see, to think and to act. But most of all, to move. So that when the materials of
the present do propose change we can notice it and we can
figure out what to do with it I’ve spent most of my life
working as a physical thinker. Many years as a performer and a creator and in the last years
I’ve moved into working with conflict and this
has been a fascinating transition for me. To expand my own understanding
of what physical thinking can mean, what it can do. So, and this is what I
find thrilling about dance and choreographic work, is that
nobody knows what it can do. None of us know what it might become, which is fascinating.
Every time I start working with a new group of
people, and a lot of times, now, I’m working with people
who are not trained in dance, they come up with things that
I never would have thought of. So, we don’t know what it can become. We know what it’s been, but
we can’t know what will happen and we cannot know how the
changes that are going to come will deepen and expand our understanding of what it can mean to move. And what the process of
organizing ideas physically, which is the work of
dance and choreography, organizing ideas physically,
what this can make possible. So, I see dance and choreographic
work as a highly developed human technology for thinking and acting. And, like any human technology,
our work can be both constructive or it can
also be destructive. So, we can use our capacity
to think physically, and create physically, to
organize a fascist spectacle that will promote violence
or we can create a connection between divided people or
we can create a situation where people will find
themselves reflecting on things they hadn’t thought of, or
a way for people to connect more strongly to how they are alive. So, the kinds of change
that we’re part of, or that we help to promote, have to do with our own intention. What kind of questions are we asking in our work? What kind of
situations are we inviting people into? Why do we want change? Because change on its own
is not transformative. Change can also just be a
way of keeping us stuck, keeping us where we are. Transformative change
emerges from deep listening, in my experience, deep
listening to the materials of the present, to the
ideas, peoples, actions, environments, listening to
what the present is telling us is necessary and is possible. So, in dance and conflict,
I see transformative change happening when we’re able,
when we build up our ability, to be able to let go, again, and again, to let go of the
things that we’ve been hanging onto, the strategies that
we thought, about how things need to be, what they need to look like. And, instead, go back to asking ourselves these fundamental dancer questions. All right. What moves? How does it
move? Why does it move? And, what does that say about
what we haven’t noticed yet about this situation? Not
what’s going to be a totally different thing? But
what is in this situation that we haven’t seen yet? So, I see conflict, and the inside of art
often feels the same way, as a place of possibility. And it’s, in part, my work as
a dancer that has helped me learn how to sit more
easily inside of difficulty and to imagine that motion is possible even when it seems like
everything’s stuck and impossible. And, of course, often,
frustratingly, it’s these very points of stuckness where something new emerges. And this is partly what I
love about physical thinking. I don’t always love it in
that moment when I’m stuck, but, I love eventually to
notice that when I do get stuck, when I’m working
physically, when I’m trying to think through something
or create something or realize something, when I get stuck, I can be sure that it’s because I wasn’t
listening carefully enough for the answers to those dancer questions: What’s moving? How is it moving? Why is it moving? What else
is this that we haven’t yet noticed? So, when things fail, it’s usually because I
haven’t been listening to what’s possible, which is fantastic. This is fantastic because it means that it has to do with what’s in the room. Doesn’t have to do with me,
it’s not me creating the thing. It’s me as a point of
listening to what’s possible. So, I can always refocus my listening, I can always try to
reconnect with what is, in order to see what might happen. So this doesn’t mean that
I am personally responsible for fixing a situation. Or, that I can fix it,
or that every situation needs a solution. What it
means is that as things continue to fall apart and
re-form, through my practice, I can be part of the
world re-making itself. Every day. So, it’s not this
fixed pathway that we’re looking for as dance thinkers
and conflict thinkers, it’s not the one right pathway
that we’re finally going to figure out and get it
together. It’s this practice of being just right in the
middle of whatever mess we find ourselves in and
listening with more and more accurate hearing to how what is, is becoming what will be. So, it brings us back to this
question, what is this also that we haven’t noticed
yet? And, I’ve asked myself this question a lot in my
new work and some of the ways that I’ve been thinking
about it are through projects that integrate choreographic thinking with conflict engagement
practices, in order to create large scale public dialogues.
And so, I collaborate with communities internationally
on these projects to create physical strategies,
formats and environments that people can use to
communicate and reflect and exchange on difficult
topics like violence, for example. And as I’m working on these
projects, one of the things that I’m thinking about,
please come in. (laughs) As I’m working on these
projects, one of the things I’m thinking about are
the categories of action that are always in place
in any participatory event. Whether it’s us sitting in
this room or a performance or walking into a bank or
sitting at home with your family. Any situation where
people are participating, there are these categories of action that are in place and
decisions are always being made within those categories,
whether we’re conscious of it or not. And this is one of the
things that dancers practice is noticing and making
decisions within categories of action. So, these categories impact spatial, temporal, rhythmical. (I’m sorry for interrupting, but I have a problem with the sound.) (Technicians in discussion.) (Everything’s good, sorry.) There we go, okay. All right, so, so we have dancers, right? Okay, so this is classic,
right, so we have dancers that come into a situation like this. They have this big plan and
then everything falls apart and then within that they can say, ok, what am I riding within that? Not what did I have in mind,
like, how am I gonna do it? but what’s happening within
this? So, what decisions are being made, what decisions can I make? And the decisions that we’re
making in these categories of action, influence
spatial, how we’re organized in space, temporal, the rhythmical, the formal, the relational,
the internally felt aspects of human interaction.
And, some of the ways that these, some of the
projects that have come out of this for me include
one called “Knotunknot”, where we used, we gave
meaning to spatial position so, if you are there and you are there, that means something different
about what you believe in a conversation about
immigration. Or, “Violence : Recode” that uses physical postures
as a way to explore structural violence. So, a
way to take on the position of others. Or, “The
Exchange”, which I created with the MichaelDouglas Kollektiv, that uses walking together, gestures, and the direction of
attention to create physical research into violence.
Or, my current project called “UNDER | STAND”, which
uses physical interviews, so, interviews that take
place only through the body, non-danced, physical
interviews in order to open up a dialogue on racism. So, one primary thing that
I’ve learned in the process of this is that when we are
not sure if it’s possible to connect, when we don’t know
if we can really communicate and exchange about our experience, when we’re afraid, we
doubt, and we’re afraid that we might transgress if we even try, then the body becomes a place where that communication
is much more possible. And, especially, and at first
I used to think that people who were not dance oriented
wouldn’t be willing to move, but actually they’re relieved. Because it’s a way for the
people to come together that doesn’t require them
to get up in a microphone and say “Hello, I think racism is bad…” But, instead, to open up
a more nuanced field of communication around that. So, it becomes this place
where we can illuminate through our bodies the richness of how different we are. How we can acknowledge
each other’s humanity. And, how we can start to
explore these tricky waters of borders and access and meaning. So, a few years ago, I started interviewing
my dance colleagues, my performance colleagues,
with the question, What do you practice? And, I was asking them, what
do you practice physically? but also, what are you
practicing as you practice that? Because, I think that the work of dancers is undervalued and I think it’s under-seen and I don’t think it’s
understood very well, what it is that dancers are doing. But, I see it. And, I value it. And, I want to understand it better. So, what I’ve learned
so far in my experience and from my colleagues
is that the practice of physical thinking is by
necessity both practical, it’s every day, it’s ongoing,
and it’s also transformative, so the dancer is dilating all the time between these experiences of the daily and the transformative. It’s rigorous, it’s freeing, it’s confusing and it’s
frustrating and it’s pedestrian and it’s virtuosic and it’s
thrilling and it’s scientific and it’s visionary and it’s
necessary, because it’s always, already happening.
So, the work of dance and choreographic practitioners
is to prepare their minds for the rigors of inquiry,
for the challenge of asking questions, physically, and of trying to, trying to come up with answers physically. And they do it with this ever-awake, ever-listening body. Dancers are researchers,
explorers, builders, excavationists, demolitionists, in this ongoing physical
thinking that’s constantly shaping the world. And
the frustrating fact, that the body itself is always changing, it’s always letting go,
and that we need to, as we re-approach ideas every day, we need to physically renew ourselves. That very frustrating fact
is also what builds into dance practitioners the
capacity to keep listening for what might be, what might be born. And builds into them the
determination and the power to carry on and carry out change, even in difficult situations. So, this doesn’t mean, of
course, that we’re all ready for change or that we
agree on which change should happen, or that we
know what we need to know in order to help change
happen, or even that we want to be part of
change. What it means, is that change is
already, always happening and that our practice
is one that can help us notice where it might emerge and help what will be arise out of what is. Because, this is where it starts. Literally anywhere. Change starts from where we’re alive now. It doesn’t start from
the past, it can’t start from the future, it starts
from wherever we are alive now. Each person. So, the work of
dance thinkers, as I see it, is to be witness to, and
participant in, motion. To enable and find and
ride the possibilities, and then to research, to get into trouble, to get lost, to learn new things, to apparently fail over and over, to let each other try,
to let each other fail, to help each other succeed,
and then just to run with each other, alongside the
world, in this heartbreaking, breathtaking, beautiful surging
that is the physical world. So, dance thinkers come together, they think about details, they think about structure. So that when they do
begin to run together, they can speak of these
gorgeous and necessary and simple things that make up motion. Dance thinkers run with the world, in whatever form that
takes, and they create ways for others to do the same. So, of course, it’s not always
easy to create change. Because, the pathway to it is not obvious, there’s often resistance. And, because what is and
what has been can feel so permanent, because
of what it’s given us, we can also be afraid of letting it go. What has been and what is
has given us so much richness that we can fear what might be lost. So, it’s a good thing that the body is so relentlessly alive, that the
body is so just ruthless, in giving us this alive
practice that we carry on. The body both always remembers
and lets go every day. So, physical thinking, the
practice of physical thinking, is not a straight line and
there’s no kind of inexorable progress forward. Dancers come together
so that they can speak of these things. So that they have the
skill and the capacity to see and act with
clarity, and the bravery and the practice and the community, and the knowledge of brevity and duration that lets them speak of
change, that lets them let go of rigidity, lets them let go
of the hope of things lasting, and lets them breathe in the
fact that change is always, already happening, and lets
them breathe out the motion that is this incomprehensibly
lovely and surprising basis of our very, very brief
stay here on this earth. So, motion is the basis of life. And dancers are some of
the only people on earth who spend most of their life
researching what it is to move. And, I think this is really important. In this time of so much
violence, so much polarization, when it can often seem
difficult or even dangerous to create situations of
connection, situations of contact, I think it’s wildly important, I think it’s wildly valuable, to keep developing these methods of physical communication. To keep examining them,
what they do, how they work, and for us all as a field to keep moving, with joy, into the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen, to
let it unfold as it needs to unfold, and the very
ephemerality of it, the fact that we can’t
describe it very well, the heart pounding thrill of it all and the struggle of the hard
work and this deep rhythm of generational practice
that dancers are carrying on, and the action blocks that
get built through that work, all of this work, that dance thinkers do is a fundamental part
of the work of humanity. We are physical beings. And we think through motion. And through motion, we’re
always speaking about life. So, our practices are
already, always changing and they always have been. There was no point where things started and where they just stayed,
there’s only been motion. So, the root of our
practice, which is to ask: What moves? How does it
move? Why does it move? What is there in this that
we have not yet noticed? This practice of living in motion, in the very heartbeat of the world, this fundamental practice is a wellspring from which transformational
change can emerge. Thank you very much. (audience applauds) – So, thanks a lot, Dana, and
I think it was a very engaging keynote you gave us and it makes for me, it was very touching because it made conscious that we have such a huge repertoire to really do something even we don’t
know exactly what it is and also that we struggle
sometimes with wording, that we are looking
for words and sometimes not being able to express,
but we know what it is and this we can share and
I would love to open for any questions and if there
are any questions or notes or comments, please
feel free to talk to us. – Thank you very much,
this was very inspiring. I would like to ask you the question, how do you really get
in touch with the people who feel excluded from our society, so if I would think about
political dimensions, we see that there is a part of the society that’s involved in globalism and wealth, it’s also producing
others that feel excluded and my question is how do you reach them? I mean, if people come to
your projects, wonderful, but aren’t those the
people who are open anyway because they participate,
so how do you reach the people that you normally don’t reach? – Yeah, this is a great question
because it’s, I would say, 90% of the work, is to bring
together people who normally wouldn’t ever show up
to something. I mean, I wouldn’t show up if I
saw a poster that said “A social action on racism”,
I probably wouldn’t go because I would be afraid. (audience laughs) So, it’s difficult to engage
people. So, what I do is because I’m also often
going to cities and places that I’m not from, I only
go if I have very strong local partners who have a
strong network of people in different communities. Because it doesn’t, otherwise
doesn’t make sense to me so I really rely on
that, on local partners and consciously reaching
out to, oftentimes it’s helpful to go to the heads of groups or churches or whatever it is,
the communities where people come together, to get those people onboard so that they say, ok, and
then they can tell their people who trust them. So,
it’s a trust, it’s like a trust network that has to be built.
– So, do you really have nationalists, racists in
your project that really have like a stand there and say, like, I’m
against you, you, and you, but still participate in your project? – I have, yeah. Actually, in Dresden we had a project and my project partners brought people in who initially came in
the room and they saw there was some young men I think from, they were
from the Middle East and they walked in and they
saw them and they said, “What are they doing here,
we’re not coming in”. But, they convinced them to
stay. And so, in the course of the project, I always, I
create non-confrontational, because everybody, we have
enough of that, it doesn’t do anything. And, what happened with that, by the end, they said,
“Yeah, they’re not so bad”. And so it, change does happen. Of course, my goal is
not that I’m gonna change everybody, and fix it,
but I want to open places where I don’t have a
standpoint, I’m not saying I’m pro-this and anti-this, I’m saying, what’s a place where
people can come together? So, it’s challenging, but it is possible. – [Woman] Thanks for that
and I have a lot of ideas in my mind but I just
wanted to add shortly that “The Exchange” project that you did with MichaelDouglas Kollektiv was shown and performed in Arnsberg,
via Tanzland, Arnsberg is a small city in the Sauerland,
here in Nordrhein-Westphalia, it’s a little bit in the outskirts, and the people appreciated
this project very much. They are far away from,
like, formal discussion on art and theory, but, it was a very easy
approach, they loved it and I loved this, very, very concentrated and very open atmosphere that emerged in this space because of
this very special project. So, it worked and it was
a wonderful experience for all of us, thank you. – Great. Yeah, and so
I’m interested also in, I’m not interested in
having my opinion out there, recently, for example, I’ve been working on a project that’s
taken place with a group of Masai in Africa who
want to better understand the idea of what birth
control might be about. And so, we’re creating
a physical environment where that gets explored. And so those, so, I’m reaching out to people who are working with
people who might be interested, which is always, it’s a
challenge, but it’s interesting, yeah. – [Man] You pointed out
very well the importance of the here and now, to be in the moment. Opened to the next coming for change. And to be open to the different
categories of your body, of your spirit, of the space,
of other people, et cetera. How, what is so special for dancers and especially improvising
and open dancers to be able to do this? And what do you do if they are blocked off in different categories of this? How do you support them to overcome? – Dancers or the people
who I’m working with? – [Man] People you are working with. – So I don’t expect them to do that. I think that’s my work,
that’s the choreographic work is to create a framework
that allows them to just step into it and to have an
experience and to be able to communicate. So,
sometimes if I’m working, I do sometimes do projects
where I do workshops where I work with people
who want to create. And then it’s really just a matter of saying all right, let’s
go. Here, like, what’s that? Oh, why did that happen? Ok, well, let’s see, what were the decisions made, what were the decisions that were made that created that phenomena? So it’s really kind of a
matter of, keep looking at where you run into trouble.
If we try something out and it feels awkward then we
stop and say, ok, why did that, what felt weird about that
and why did it feel weird? Alright, let’s try it this
way. So, it’s really an ongoing research because I don’t know. I can keep trying to know
and keep trying things out, but it’s this kind of curiosity
and when people get stuck, then it’s really just a
matter of saying, ok, wow, looks like we’re really stuck right now. Let’s take a step back, okay, let’s go, let’s try it again, so
what was happening there? So, it’s just this ability
and willingness to let stuckness be there, because
it’s there for a reason. It’s telling us something. Yeah. Yeah? – [Man] Thank you, Dana. I’ve got a question, you talked about the physical interviews on racism and I was wondering, how do you see the difference
between physicality in a more broader sense
and dance and dancing? Because I felt there is a
difference between that, probably also in relation to
the groups you’re working with. Is there a difference? – I think that behind both things, it’s the same work. So this idea of physical
thinking stands both behind those kinds of projects and dancing and they’re just different,
like, ways for it to emerge. The reason that I’m not doing something that most people would identify as dancing is that most people are like, Oh my God, am I going to have to
do interpretive dance? So, I try not to do anything
that would make people uncomfortable. But, for
example, I spent many years as a dancer and the feeling inside of that is this feeling of navigating all these different fields
of textures and ideas and these categories of
actions and I feel like that’s what I’m doing when I
work to create these projects, but I’m just doing it on
a longer temporal scale and I’m not doing it
necessarily with my own body. – [Woman] How do you
deal with the fact that a lot of people think communication or social interaction is done by only this? [Mimes Typing] – Digital, hmm. – [Woman] Do you convince
people or you just ignore it or? – (laughs) Well, the things I’ve been
creating are really these body to body events, so I
think that’s what people are invited into. And,
actually I’ve tried to build in technology sometimes, it
didn’t work very well, (laughs) but maybe it’ll work
in the future, I don’t know, there’s probably ways. I
think the body is present, it’s present in the digital, too. It’s just a different, I
don’t think I’m the person who’s going to figure that
one out ’cause I’m not a digital native, you know? (laughs) – [Host] Any more questions,
any more comments? So thank you so much.
– Thank you all very much. (audience applauds)

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