Considerations of Vital Materialism in My Choreographic Process

I remember the first time I realized that I was both my autonomous self and many subdivided selves that I have little control over. I was working with a colleague of mine, Charli Brissey, on a solo dance performance project they were setting on me for a graduate dance composition class here at the University of Illinois. They gave me a small piece of writing they had done, which they wanted me to keep in proximity to the process of making the solo:

Please don’t call me human

I woke up as a tiger once.

Please don’t call me human.

There are trillions of tiny bodies inside of me. Inside of you.

microscopic. multiplying. protozoa, archaea, parasites, yeasts

in my gut

in your mouth

on my skin

bodies within bodies

Please don’t call me human

Do you know how many sexes I am?

Please don’t call me human.

If they only knew how well I made love to their daughter.

If they only  knew how well I made love to their boss.

How well I made love to their brother.

To their girlfriend.

To their neighbor.

To their friends.

And then I made love to all of them at once.

And then I made the sweetest love to myself.

I didn’t fully understand what it was trying to convey at first, but I took it home and reread it a few more times and got stuck on lines 4-5. I hadn’t considered how the cells, molecules, and systems in my body work and react outside of my jurisdiction. Over time, I realized that have limited control over the organisms that create, colonize, and maintain my body. I remember feeling a little nauseous at the thought of this. It was the first time I had considered my body as an assemblage, though I didn’t have that language at the time. I also didn’t understand what it meant choreographically; how it would affect my performance of the solo aside from expanding the world of the work to the microscopic as I know it, but not necessarily made clear to an audience.

This happened before I started graduate school, yet holds the weight of an odd prequel to my research. I’ve come to realize that I’m interested in the way that matter can be subdivided into parts and reassembled into simultaneous organic-cyborg compositions, and that the microscopic vision of vital materialism holds a lot at stake regarding what being human means, and doesn’t mean. I’m specifically fascinated with the aspect of control because when I begin to go down the rabbit hole of what Jane Bennet calls “assemblages”, I tend to feel it less and less. Control, to me, emphasizes a sense of freewill and choice, and that becomes feeble when my body becomes reduced to parts. I begin to feel more like a container, or environment that houses the millions of bodies, structures, and systems that have distributed the work and control of my body-world amongst themselves. These subjects and objects inside my body suddenly take on higher level of priority when their function becomes central to the well-being of the whole. The absence of material function disrupts the labor of the body.

While I understand that vital materialism is mostly about reducing a whole into its own simplest parts, I’m more interested in the encounter of two macroscopic entities and then deconstructing the relationship between each list of alchemic ingredients. This seems to be where my work has been heading in the exploration of embodied entanglements in contemporary tap dance (blending of European and African histories, cultures, and dance forms; blending of dance and music; blending of body and object). I find that I, as a macroscopic entity, have an easier time manipulating other macroscopic entities rather than attempting to control the millions of tiny bodies inside me that I seem to only govern in regards to space and decoration. Inside of my creative practice currently, I’ve relinquished control of the micro with the understanding that my maintenance is important as the habitat for the working bodies on that level. On the macro level, I find that I have more control over the additive elements of making.

 I’m thinking specifically of the most recent work I’ve been creating. A solo work for a BFA Dance student to be performed in their Senior Thesis Concert, which, up to our most recent rehearsal, has been a struggle for me because it’s not a tap-dance-centric work at its core. Alexis Miller, the woman performing the solo, has some tap dance experience, but doesn’t identify as a tap dancer as I do. So, when I began to make the work, I felt compelled to abandon my shoes for a bare foot (modern dance) dress code/approach to making choreography. At the same time, I was working on a solo assignment for a gradate dance seminar (aka: POD) I’m taking, which I made wearing my sneakers.

Cosmically, Alexis had a required communal showing of the solo I had set on her so far on the same day that I had to show my sneaker solo for POD; within 45 minutes of each other. A colleague in my cohort informed me that they could see a link between the two separate works, but that they didn’t have the language to articulate how. I decided to try splicing the materials together for Alexis’s solo, creating an initial assemblage between movement phrases. In our most recent rehearsal, there was a moment where I noted that she needed to have sneakers on in order to perform the work efficiently because of the traction they provided or a particular moment. Inside this impromptu experiment, Alexis’s entire bodily approach to the movement changed drastically. I’m not sure whether this is the result of a certain genre association with sneakers (hip hop) that initiated a performative shift, or if the shoes ability to amplify certain sounds (jumps, steps, slides, etc) created a heightened sense of collaboration between the shoe and the dancer, or something else altogether.

The shoes proved to be an important point of non-verbal communication between dancer and choreographer, between body and movement, and between body and floor. Rearranging of the footwear objects at play in the DNA of the work amplified aspects of this choreographic assemblage more than any of the language I had attempted to give Alexis in the process of making it. Simultaneously, it revealed how much I value footwear as a variable in my creative process, which is one of the many ways that echoes of tap dance seeps into everything. As a core vital material of mine, it makes sense that it finds a way to survive inside of a practice that doesn’t purposely include it. Despite my research of the tap shoe as a piece of technology, I hadn’t considered up until this point that sneakers are equally so, but with a different purpose. I thought that I would be abandoning my cyborg imagery with my tap shoes. However, my perception of the feet as an incomplete organic technology led me to the sneaker as an alternative footwear technology that manipulated the cyborg into a formation I hadn’t considered before.

As I mentioned, I haven’t consciously made my way to the microscopic yet. My work seems oriented more towards non-distilled objects rather than reducing them down to matter. However, inside of that I’m discovering that objects hold my fascination as agents of change within my work. As a choreographer, I’m finding myself actively manipulating that the material properties of the movers in my work to instigate dynamic changes. 

Charles Maybee