Memory in Motion
Isabel Nieves: The way in which we operate is defined in large part by our memories. Memory is a core component of the human identity. In this show we hope to explore the nuances of this fundamental aspect of our brains. These conversations aimed to illustrate the strengths, weaknesses, and mysteries surrounding remembering and forgetting. I'm Isabel Nieves and I'm Tanner Chaille and this is Remembering and Forgetting, a podcast by Themester, this is Remembering and Forgetting a podcast by Themester. When we watched dancers perform the external performance and aesthetic can be a beautiful sight. What we don't see or feel, however, is the internal experience of the dancer. On this episode I talked to Liz Shea about focusing on the internal experience of the dancer. There's somatic dance and how we can train our memory through dance. On this episode, we're speaking with Elizabeth Shea and associate professor of theater drama and contemporary dance and director of the Contemporary Dance Program here at Indiana University. How are you this morning, Ms. Shea? I'm fine. How are you? I'm doing also just fine. So I did a little research on you. Um, and what I gathered from my research is that you are a specialist in somatic dance making and dance practices. Can you explain this type of practice to our listeners and what it involves? I can. Um, and I'll just sort of preface it by telling you a little bit about my interest in somatics because it stems directly from my work in, in memory and, and learning.
Liz Shea: Uh, my graduate work is in the acquisition of motor skills. And, um, during those studies, not only did I study the, the physical learning, um, but the cognitive learning of information and that work really drew me into a field called somatic, which is actually a very old field, one of those, uh, old, again, new again, kind of thing. So the idea of somatic practices which unite the mind, body, and spirit, um, are actually very old. So practices like Yoga, even early, uh, sports and physical education of ancient societies recognized, um, the, the equal participation of the mind, the body and the spirit. So, um, I would say somewhere around the late 19th, early 20th century, um, these ideas of, of somatics and, and uniting that tripartite had a bit of a renaissance, um, in theater. And later in dance, there's some very famous practitioners of Somatics, like Rudolph Laba on who not only devised a language for dance, but, uh, delved into a factory work efficiency ergonomics. So the idea that the body is separate from the mind is, is something that's not looked upon kindly by somatic practitioners. And, um, when I started teaching college students and, and over the years I began to see that the, the sheer number of styles and genres that contemporary dancers have to acquire is a bit mind boggling. And if you approach it in a linear fashion, like let's learn gram technique, let's learn Lamone technique that could take forever. So I was really interested in devising a system that would help students be able to, to learn quickly and have flexibility. So my own personal somatics practice and methodology is, is more of sort of fine tuning the plasticity of the nervous system as opposed to learning specific patterns. I like to call it an patterning. So, um, you know, just my, my own, my own vocabulary that I like to work with. So, um, and it involves a lot of visualization and mental practice and imagery as well as sensory information, kinesthetic awareness, um, and a lot of, uh, improvisation and self exploration of movement and also the idea that you can embody other folks and embody things that are not a particular affinity to your own physical person.
Isabel Nieves: So how exactly does sematic dance, um, or somatic based dance relate to memory? You talked about the nervous system. Can you explain that and like maybe your work with, um, kind of looking into the nervous system, right? To your body when you're dancing?
Liz Shea: I think there's, there's two approaches, um, in the sematic systems that I've worked with so many sematic systems and there are many, by the way, uh, you know, um, no idea's original, right? That's an old saying. But, um, many sematic systems work towards something called repatterning, which is to build healthy, authentic, organic patterns in the body. So instead of trying to reproduce movement and build patterns that perhaps the human body is not built for, you know, ergonomically, um, somatics tends to promote a more authentic, healthy type of patterning that can be used in dance. Uh, and it's really beautiful and it feels good. I was just, uh, attending a, a somatics conference in New York City last weekend and Bill Evans, who is pioneer of somatic dancing specifically just taught a beautiful class and I was reminded how good it can feel in the body and it can feel organic and authentic. Um, but I think somatics can also work toward, and this is a little bit more of what I'm interested in in, um, strengthening the nervous system. You know, we spend a lot of time strengthening our bodies and we spend a lot of time studying and strengthening our minds. But what about that relationship? How do we facilitate the translation of information, um, between sort of more cognitive and kinesthetics modes?
Isabel Nieves: Would you say that you can, that your work with somatic movement, um, and within dance can really help rehabilitate, um, and even aid our memory in terms of our nervous system?
Liz Shea: Absolutely. Um, and it's also interesting too to note that a lot of early somatic works, um, especially practitioners in the early 20th century were interested in physical rehabilitation. Um, they were physical therapists like Bartini so working to, to find patterns in the body and patterns are related to memory, right? So, um, when we talk about sematic dancing, we're looking for those memories and those patterns that, that work organically and work authentically. Um, but also, you know, I think we want to sometimes bypass memory a little bit, uh, in, in that sort of non patterned approach and be able to, uh, you know, come, come to new movement quickly, um, and not rely on, on sort of a, a longer physical learning takes a long time. It takes much longer than cognitive learning, although it's remembered longer as, you know, the old saying, you never forget how to ride a bike. Well, it's kind of true and there's a reason for that. Um, what we try and avoid in, in the teaching of dance is to build patterns in the body that might feel good to students, but they're actually not healthy for their bones and their joints and their muscles. Um, and that, that's a big part of our sematic teaching.
Isabel Nieves: What do your workshops look like? Indiana, Indiana University.
Liz Shea: Um, here at I u I tend to not do complete sematic workshops per se. Sometimes I will, but when I work with students, I would, I'll most likely devote a small portion of my class to somatic work. So we'll always do some kind of sematic work, either in the big, usually in the beginning or the end of class to help students find that awareness. On occasion I will devote entire class sessions, um, but when I'm traveling and, and not, not seeing people that I see every day, like I do here at UW, I have the privilege of, um, um, of watching them grow over four years. And so I can pace out material a little bit differently. Um, but when I'm traveling and doing workshops, we might start, um, just with some, some breath practice. And breath is one of the most original authentic somatic somatic practices. Just the, uh, you know, breath can, you can be unaware and you can be aware of breath, but using the breath to move the body, um, is something that we might delve into and we might attach some imagery to that as well. And uh, I like to think of my practice in three parts. So, um, as, as we begin, we have sort of, I call it the mind body, which means we're just focusing a little more on the mind and, and warming up, um, cognition. And then we might move into body mind, which is a little bit more of, of proprioception and sensory information. How do things feel? Um, building a little bit of strength, waking up the muscles, there's an awareness there that that happens. And then working into the, the mind body, um, conceptual approach where, um, I ask folks in my workshops to, to experiment with their own, and here's where memory comes in to experience with their own familiarity with movement. So I might ask someone to investigate physically what the movement reach means to them. How do they see themselves doing that and how have they experienced that in the past? And then moving past memory, how could they see themselves doing that in a new or different way?
Isabel Nieves: Is there like a specific group of people that you like to teach sematic dance to or is it just anyone, anyone can benefit from the dance?
Liz Shea: It can totally be anyone. Um, I've worked mostly with trained dancers, but um, over my a lifetime of teaching, I've actually worked with all populations, children, older adults. I think this, this a sematic practice can be, um, especially effective for non-trained dancers. And, um, I mean, what is that non train? What is, what is a trained dancer? Just someone that spent more time doing it, that's all. Um, but it can be very accessible for a wide variety, um, of physical and mental states. You don't focus solely on somatic choreography with your students here at I, you know, but how have your students responded to the little parts that you bring in before and after sessions? Very well. Um, you know, I think our, our approach in our dance program here is, is a, a very broad one. And our students I think have really come to appreciate and understand the various forms, techniques, genres, studies that we bring to them and they understand that, that all of it is helpful and useful. Um, so they, they're very, I would say really embrace almost anything we can throw at them. Um, so I read a little bit about how a lot of your work also utilize, utilizes, um, motion capture technology and real time video and sound, um, which I was very curious about. How does that work within dance and what does that kind of look like? Well, those were some specific projects I did a number of years ago. Um, using realtime projection with live performance. And that's very tricky. And uh, you know, sometimes your, your Bluetooth works and sometimes it doesn't. And um, so real time projection with performance is a very unique and challenging, um, opportunity to involve a sort of chance element into performance, uh, cause you get something different all the time. So I've worked mostly with that. In terms of choreography I did, um, under the, uh, Institute for Digital Arts and humanities, Ida. Um, I did do a emotion capture project, uh, with a dancer several years ago, um, where the dancer was captured in choreography. That data was analyzed. Then a graphic artist translated the data into actual moving images and they were played live and projected on the dancer during performance. So, you know, something like that is sort of an intellectual, um, endeavor and intriguing way to work and you know, kind of brings about the lar, the larger question of dance and technology, which is why, why to do it. And I think often time technology can provide a window into understanding and expression that goes beyond, uh, canned or predetermined performance. Um, and sometimes, you know, you just got to push the field forward and that's another reason to do it.
Isabel Nieves: I also gathered from my research is that you've been traveling across the globe to like places like London, Italy, China, and more to teach your choreography and, um, you know, to continue to practice your dance methods. What is, what has been the most important thing that you have learned, um, from bringing your choreographies and practices to these places?
Liz Shea: Um, people are so lovely everywhere that that would be my biggest takeaway. It's been, again, a privilege to be able to, to work with, with dancers from different parts of the world. Um, and they're just always so lovely. You know, I think we're all, we're all mostly good and, um, the students I've worked with and the professional dancers I've worked with have been open, interested, lovely to each other. And you know, that's something when, when you have the opportunity to work o'clock across the globe that you really see are our similarities as human beings, not our differences. And it's, uh, it's quite beautiful.
Isabel Nieves: Have you noticed any different responses to some of your practices and methods? Um, from country to country?
Liz Shea: Uh, not so much I would say. Um, sometimes I, I notice differences in how, how students are, our dancers are, are trained to, to behave in the studio and that's just part of their specific culture. But, um, once we're in there and working, uh, responses have been, have been very, very positive. I think there's also a, not just a culture of people, but a culture of dancers. Um, you know, dancers are, are quite dedicated to what they do. And I think a lot of folks come to dance because it feel, it fills a need for expression that really can only be satisfied through that, that physical practice. And, uh, everyone's always happy to be there.
Isabel Nieves: What has been your favorite place?
Liz Shea: Gosh, that's not fair. That's not fair at all. I, I've loved everywhere I've traveled. I, I will say, um, there's something just so special about the city of Jerusalem. I cannot explain it. Um, but I think because there is a multitude of cultures that you experience there, there's, it draws you in. Um, what has been the most impactful project that you have worked on so far in your career? Hmm. To another hard question. I'm going to answer that in two ways. I'm going to sort of separate my professional self and my teaching self. Um, several years ago, I had the opportunity, not that long ago to, uh, to produce, uh, performance of my own work at the center. Um, and that was a really special experience, uh, to be in that space, which is, was dedicated to the arts in our country, um, to have all, all my folks there. We had a, a full house. It was, it was really quite beautiful to be in our nation's capitol. So that was, uh, that was a really important project for me. Um, here at IEU in 2012, we did a celebration of, of contemporary dance here on campus and 80, 85th years celebration gala in the [inaudible] Auditorium. And I, I have to say that was one of the highlights of my teaching career here. We did four, four works that we licensed from professional companies, and, you know, it was a stretch that our are very young students could pull it off. Just the sheer physicality of, of what we were we're aiming for. We had to do it in one day to keep costs down. And, um, I thought, oh gosh, can, can they get through it? Uh, they more than got through it. They, they rose to the occasion and then the people, the people started coming in 400, 800, we had something like 1300 folks coming to see that performance. So, um, that was a great, uh, great teaching, a very satisfying teaching moment.
Isabel Nieves: Do you typically base your choreographies on, um, uh, any type of specific topic or, um, anything that you've been really interested in with your research, um, or do they all sort of relate to somatic movement?
Liz Shea: Yeah, that's a great question. Um, you know, I like to be, I like to dance about something, um, when I make work in the studio and as I sort of look back over the little retrospective on my own works over time, I see a real theme and I think that theme is, is psychology and sociology. I'm just super interested in the human experience, um, and in relationships and sort of no matter what I'm working on, whether there's a larger theme or a broader theme or a more narrow theme, that always seems to be there in some respect. And I think that's true of most choreographers. I just came with a meeting, um, with some folks at the IUI auditorium about the upcoming bill t Jones performance. And I've also had the privilege of watching his work over time. And there are also always these themes of community and isolation and acceptance. Um, so I, I think in a way choreography can be very autobiographical and it can really reflect what's on your mind, what's in your heart. Yeah. What's in your body. I definitely agree with that. I mean, like any, any type of art is storytelling. It is, it's storytelling. And I think, um, in our field we don't always have the answers and the stories aren't, aren't always linear, you know. Um, sometimes they start in the middle, like Allah, Quentin Tarantino, but, um, it's interesting too to sort of track someone's, their process, their methods. It, it says a lot about their person. And often when you watch someone's choreography, you can see their mind working. You know, you get a little insight into the way they think, the way they feel.
Isabel Nieves: I wanted to talk, um, about two of your specific projects. One project that you had completed or was it completed breath, light and stone? Was that completed?
Liz Shea: Yes.
Isabel Nieves: I wanted to talk about that breath light in stone. Um, because I saw a short clip of that and it looked amazing. It was in a limestone factory, right?
Liz Shea: Absolutely. It was in the, the old Woolery limestone mill. That's cool. So I wanted to ask, uh, how did this project involve memories? Cause when I read in a caption, it talked about uncovering distant memories. Yeah. Yeah. Um, while this was a great project, I'm really one of up there with my top favorites. Uh, my colleague Alan Han and I were interested in, in making a screen dance, um, and screen dances a, you know, really a, a field that is, is surging right now. So what was maybe this relationship. And so a and I, a, a reviewer had written something about, um, seeing those, those secrets and, um, and those untold memories that were privy only to, to those who were directly in it. So I thought that was interesting. How do, when you're choreographing, choreographing a piece like that, how, what kind of movement, what kind of dance do you like to choreograph to express that memory and that relationship? Yeah. Um, I like to work definitely with small groups of people. Um, that helps me sort of get at the heart of that nonverbal communication and, um, breaking down, sort of the barrier between what might be highly stylized or technical movement and a little more relaxed, authentic, direct approach. So I often start there just with, you know, two, three dancers and some simple touch exercises and to see where, where that might lead. So a lot of it is very investigative, you know, really, um, after researching and lots of thinking and preplanning and then coming in with actual people. And of course the dancers themselves greatly inform what happens and their relationships with each other. Do you ever have to, because I mean, I feel like somatic movement, um, would tie in great here because they have to, you know, go back into their mental instead of just their physical, I'm a dancer, I'm doing these movements. Right? Like, do you ever like meet with them, um, one-on-one and talk about how they have to view things mentally and spiritually? Yeah, I think, um, there's sort of a part of my sematic workshops where I ask, um, I asked participants to participate in a sort of free flow of movement. Um, almost like journaling, free flow journaling, but let your body do the writing and speaking. And that's very much how I approach choreography, especially with dancers that are trained to, to work that way. Um, where does the body want to go next? And there has to be a certain amount of, of trust in the intelligence of the body, um, and recognizing that the body knows things. Um, again, the body is not separate from the mind. There are memories in your bones and your muscles and your cells in your skin. Um, that can be trusted. And oftentimes I just have to get in there myself. Sometimes I have to see where my own body wants to go to make the work. Interesting. Um, so the next project I wanted to talk about, um, was a project that you're organizing called the moving memory project. Can you talk a bit about that? Yeah, this is very exciting. And this is the, the Thumb Nestor, um, co-curricular project that will be happening in the studio theater, um, in November and it's very exciting. I have a colleague, her name is Stephanie Nelson. Uh, she runs a program, uh, called Dance Italia, and she also has her own performance group, which is sort of multi, multi continental, uh, European and also American. And she has, uh, created a work called a, my name is dot, dot, dot. Um, which is based on the experiences of, uh, caregivers of Alzheimer's patients. And it's a beautiful dance theater work. Um, and when I saw it, I thought how wonderful to be able to bring it to Indiana University as part of the Themester project, um, involves students working with professional dancers. Um, and then also in conjunction with that, um, sort of the, the overriding move, the moving memory project. I'll also be showing a piece, uh, as part of the evening with two d two dancers called memory object. And this is a work I just showed it in New York a couple of weeks ago. Um, it was shown at the Indiana dance festival, premiered at, uh, Indianapolis fringe last year, but it's, it really revolves around the idea of, of two individuals who are our near or near end of life or, or in their, their elder years and how the concept of, of space, um, and art making forms, memory and, and what that might look like and, and how memories fade and research and when they surge, how do they come back? Are they accurate? And that's a whole other conversation, right when you read like eyewitness research and um, you know, our, our memories are fallible. Um, and things can always be remembered better or worse than they actually were. But, um, so those two, those two dances will be shown together and we'll also be working with some outreach to probably do a caregiver workshop to outreach for the program, again, involving students. So, um, it's going to be a really tremendous opportunity for our, our community. I hope lots of folks will come see it when we could. You know, I use students and members of the community expect to be able to come see this project. Foreman says we'll be held over two days, November 15 and 16 in the studio theater in the Lean Norville theater and trauma center. Um, it's free and open to the public. It is limited seating, so the event will be free, but ticketed.
Isabel Nieves:Remembering and Forgetting is a podcast produced for Themester at IU. Special thanks to IU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Tracy Bee, Ken Smith, and The Media School for today’s episode. Music for this episode by Jack Brown. For more discussions on memory surrounding the tragedies of the Holocaust, the mysteries of brain science and more. Check out the rest of remembering and forgetting. Thank you for listening.