Field Notes: Choreography as Translation
If I embody translation, can these dead bones live, again?
Can these dead bones live, again? (2021) is a physical translation of Ezekiel 37:1-10. These field notes attend to choreographic structures (how one is ‘making’ translation), movement vocabulary (a set of movements that share common shape, direction, and effort), and grammar (the rules concerning codification, ambiguity, context, manner, style, and syntax). Can These Dead Bones Live, Again? (2021) is not demonstrative in that it is not seeking to be an expression or depiction of Ezekiel 37:1-10; it is a physical, albeit experimental, translation of the text.
These field notes are written in the style and manner of the personal scholarly narrative. I weave together lived experience and praxis (theory in light of practice) to give context to the methodological approach used to create the performance. By no means does this essay intend to ascribe any one meaning to the dance, as meaning-making occurs between the work and its audience. I also do not intend to clutter the translation—or rather, your engagement with it, with the author's intention. Instead, these field notes attempt to lay out a prototype for engaging with translation as a choreographic act. Although these field notes are primarily a creative act, they are undergirded by my background in theology and thus my transparency of an ancient text, which happens to be, in my own faith community, ‘Scripture.’
These field notes are divided into three sections: notes on translation, notes on method, and notes on frames and futures. The central inquiry of this essay is focused on how, why, and what can be done, through and by, a physical translation of an ancient text. The actual translation is the dance alone; this short essay is just a very long footnote.
Notes on translation:
There are many similarities between translation and choreography, in that both practices are made from a particular standpoint and are carried out in particular contexts. They have intended and unintended audiences, thus are ultimately subjective. Even though I would posit that the choreographer and the translator might both be in the constant pursuit of more vital ‘objectivity,’ both acts are creative practices. Perhaps they do not share ontologies, but they do share tools of the trade, so to speak, which I would describe as interpretation, curation and reconstruction. These constitute the primary tools of meaning-making and practice in both disciplines.
Interpretation: context, linguistic manner, subtext, habitus, best practices of field/language
Curation: creatively choosing how/which object/subject or concept will be highlighted, acknowledged, mobilized in the service of constituting the work
Reconstruction: a particular approach to how particular bodies or texts will be encountered in 'orderly retelling' or performance
While there are few articles that deal directly with choreography as translation, Dance Studies has ‘archive fever,’ in that the field has long been interested in the tension between the archive and the repertoire. Western dance has at disposal access to a tradition which includes and gave birth to rivals, reconstructions, and (re)interpretations of dances such as Swan Lake (1875), Rite of Spring (1913), and Locus (1975).
Translation Studies has considered standpoint, authorization, narrative and storytelling much like Critical Dance Studies has. As translation is often called an ‘interpretive act,’ I would suggest that it ‘extends’ from a knowledgeable ‘interpreter,’ thus making it more an act of curation or selection much closer to that of choreography, and, to an even greater extent, dance reconstruction.
It seems that Translation Studies has spent a great time considering the reliability/creative interpretation continuum. For this reason, it seems that trust, textual fidelity, and reliability are three among many key factors in determining if a translation is a ‘faithful’ interpretation. To me, Translation Studies has a wide range of interpretive practices that choreography, or at least dance reconstruction, seem to mirror. For example, textual reliability ranges from literalism (original word for word, or as close to that ideal as possible) to encryption (recasting the original so as to hide its meaning or message from one group while still making it accessible to another group).
My task here feels simpler in that I strive for a creative adaptation that will look to the original, but with sound-movement-language choices within the context of my medium. In fact, Anthony Pym (1993: 149), in a conversation with a client, said:
It makes little sense to stress the element of creative interpretation present in all translation; this will only create misunderstandings. From the client’s external point of view, ‘creative interpretation’ spells flagrant distortion of the original, and thus an unreliable text; from the translator’s internal point of view, ‘creative interpretation’ signals the undeniable fact that all text processing involves some degree of interpretation and thus some degree of creativity—and, beyond that, the translator’s sense that every target language is more or less resistant to his or her activities.
Though the connections between the fields have gone mostly unnoticed, Translation Studies has been in dialogue with Performance Studies (and, I would argue, Dance Studies) for some time. They are linked through the kinds of the philosophical ideas each field takes up, such as questions of performativity, activism, and protest. Dance scholars Rebekkah Kowal and Susan Foster have both explored concepts of activism and bodily recitation, building in part on Butler’s notion of performativity (if indirectly) in the articles "Choreographies of Protest" (2003) and "Staging the Greensboro Sit-Ins" (2004). This same concept is mobilized in Translation Studies by Michela Baldo when she writes in "Activist Translation, Alliances, and Performativity" (2020: 36):
... performativity has to do with the productivity of translation. This productivity means that translation can produce political transformation. (…) we could say that the Italian translation of Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly is performative because it plays a role within Italian queer feminist activism, by contributing to the elaboration and creation of new discourses about what it means to protest and to create alliances.
While the practice component that is the physical translation is central to this project, this choreographic turn into translation as a creative act is grounded by Translations Studies’ own scholars and theorists. In Critical Dance Studies, similar questions emerge, but seem to focus on the preservation of dances, as Critical Dance Studies relies, in part, on what Performance Studies (Dance Studies' more popular cousin) does not seem to have immediate access to: multiple systems of notation. The notations, no matter how accurate, are not the dance, but provide quasi-stable artefacts, sources, to consult for history and accuracy.
Both the notations and the performances that stem from them are ‘residues,’ albeit different kinds of residues, of the original performance. One manifestation of the present discourse on ‘archival fever’ or ‘the return to the archive’ in Critical Dance Studies focuses on dance (re)construction, (re)visiting, and (re)making. Much of the scholarship on dance preservation practices (adaptation, reconstruction, revival, and reinvention) focuses on questions relating to terminology and methods of dance preservation, often with underlying questions relating to the complicated relationship between original performance works and their derivatives, as in Franko (1989, 2011), Thomas (2004), Jones (1997), and Lepecki (2010). In the article "Repeatability, Reconstruction, and Beyond" (1989: 74), dance theorist Mark Franko argues:
Reinvention can practice cultural critique as a form of active theorising on dance history. This practice is indebted to the postmodern aesthetic of interruption, yet it is no longer wholly absorbed in the politics of simulacrum. It consists in inscribing the plurality of visions restoring, conceptualising, and/or inventing the act.
What makes this invitation from Ancient Exchanges different is that dance reconstructions generally do not change the medium of expression, although they may be supported by scenography, dramaturgy, etc. They are mostly transmissions from movement to movement, rather than text to movement. On the other hand, Dance Studies does have a notation system, which could be thought of as a translation from movement to text to movement text, which seemingly puts the dance reconstructor at an advantage: they have knowledge of the notation system/language and knowledge of movement—or, more likely, a movement language. The invitation is to translate an ancient text preserved in one medium, ‘the written word,’ and reimagine it in movement is to initiate an interdisciplinary intermedia practice.
I accept the invitation.
Notes on method:
How can one translate Ezekiel 37:1-10 choreographically? As a mover/researcher, how does one understand this 'bones living' possibility? 'Kinaesthetic hermeneutics,' as I use it here, is a collection of method(s) through which the Body reads, interprets, and translates a particular textual understanding of an event or series of events. This is an understanding that is not necessarily tied to an experience or reading of exactitude but is concerned with an encounter that reframes and challenges both text and body. As I understand this rugged term, its contours are still clumsy and are loosely defined. Nevertheless, one can see the insistence of bodily practice as it is involved in meaning-making.
Time: Difference between dead and alive / concepts of translating time / recalling past (personal past / nationalistic past)
“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.’”
Space: Valley of dead bones / place of rest / death / anonymous
“He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.”
Process: How to translate the body / how to translate / how to rebuild
“So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them, and skin covered them.”
Dance as movement language might have these foundational aspects:
- A fundamental, usable vocabulary. Movements that are efficient, usable in many contexts, effectively enriching the texture of your found/developed movement.
- The grammar. The rules that bind movements together. That make it look smooth and flowy, or a part of a ‘family of movements’ in a specific relation to other movements. That allow you to create simple or complex sentences.
- A progressive fluency. To learn systematically the root of the movements, to be able to recognize all the motor patterns that belong to the same family. To go from the simple to the complex, enjoy the process, and never feel lost.
Phase 1: Creation of a movement language
The movement research is supported by a bend toward rigorous engagement over the fidelity of meaning, being that there is no unmediated cultural material. The movement language for this investigation was created using a chance/score choreographic tool. Starting with a frontal view of a human skeleton and using two dice, I randomly numbered each bone present on the human body from the skull to the feet.
The next step was the creation of Movement Phrase A, which included 10 skeleton gestures, dictated by chance. During this research process I attempted to move as non-performatively as possible, without any flourishes of style. There are challenging aspects of this process. Firstly, those bones are connected to, and with, other types of tissues and joints; to move one ‘bone’ means moving connected human tissue. Secondly, even a pedestrian moment is a style that is not neutral. I would still suggest that the imagery of just moving one bone helps to provide a sort of clarification and produces a certain angular articulation of the movement material. This accumulation of movement material continued until I had a movement phrase A. Phrase B is like phrase A, except a second bone was added such that during phrase A only one body part was moving, but during phrase B two body parts were moving.
Phase 2: Repetition on site as a non-performance
After composing these three sets of gestures, I went to the site (a graveyard) every day for two weeks at 6pm and performed these movement phrases there as a continuous dance. This took me to phrase C, which I now call the bone dance. This event took an estimated 17 minutes and ensured that I had the three sets of gestures in my ‘body.’ The ability to have time and space in my day to bring the phrases together in my mind and body was paramount. It became a sort of moving meditation. I had to rely on my muscle memory to recall the movement. After day four I limited myself to only looking at the sheet with the gestures once, so that I slowly began to recall movements from the past that had left an imprint on my kinetic body.
Phase 3: Movement Abstraction
After two weeks of doing the bone dance, I wanted to work on finding and refining the connections between each gesture and the collection of gestures. I worked not only on phrase A, from movement to movement, but on how to make a connection between phrase A and phrase B. I would expand the movement and allow one gesture to ‘flow’ into another so that it was less pedestrian and staccato and invited what I would call the use of artistic choice, not in the sequence—which had been set from the beginning—but in the timing and articulation of that sequence. This editing and selecting process was done with special attention to Body, Effort, Space, and Shape.
Phase 4: Bodily Response
In order to create a single material for a ‘bones solo,’ I would sit and use the most salient movements from the ‘bones dance’ and reposition them as collected dance, but only as I remembered them from my body. This was done without consulting the ‘cheat sheet’ that contained the written scores. At the end of this phrase, I had a working 12-minute solo that attempts to provide an answer to the question: Can these dead bones live again, as translation?
Notes on theological world building as translational foreground:
If dance's life is only in the present, then how do we continue to perform a present's past? We seek to perform the action. "When the world of the reader is brought to the text it transforms the text by allowing a plurality of possible meanings not perceived in the past to be appropriated in the present by the reader; it offers the text a new way of speaking" (West 1999: 44).
Dale Martin suggested, as articulated by Kevin Stone, the necessity for "new ways of thinking about how we read Scripture" (2006: 161, emphasis in original). ‘Scripture,’ here, refers not to some reality lying behind the text (whether in a reconstructed history or a reconstructed authorial intention) but rather to meanings reached or created "in the performance of Scripture in the enacting of Scripture in particular practices" (2006: 165, emphasis in original). Thus, acknowledging the fact that reading and translating takes ‘varied and unending’ forms.
This performance and translation of scripture includes but is not limited to a dramatic enactment of scripture, but suggests in part a bodily discourse of experience. As noted above, Christian and Hebrew scriptures (the Bible) reads as an archive of small performances strung together. The scriptures have a ‘technology’ that governs who, how, and when one can have access. Contextual theologians have eroded part of this protocol, but the framework for the most part still applies to the scriptures: as with most archives, they do not age. As Mark Wigley articulates in the article "Unleashing the Archive" (2005: 11):
The archive is protected both physically and ideologically by all sorts of rules, protocols, procedures, and technologies that govern access to the material. The purpose of all this protection is to create a space in which research can occur. It allows one to look closely at documents that probably would have been lost had they not been taken out of circulation and placed in the archive. Thus in a sense, the archive is against time. In fact, the archive is the enemy of time; it is against entropy. Not only are the documents within the archive rescued from destruction, but they then are not allowed to age, even gracefully.
“Often, performance functions as an alternative to the presentation of evidence” (Dubrow, 1996: 16).
The first (re)reading of Ezekiel that influenced the creation of Can These Dead Bones Live, Again? (2021) was theologian Jim Mitulski’s chapter titled "Ezekiel understands AIDS : AIDS understands Ezekiel, or Reading the Bible with HIV" in the book Take Back The Word – A Queer Reading Of the Bible (Goss and West 2000). Mitulski reads Ezekiel 37:1-10 as a narrative concerning the reclaiming of HIV infected people into the Christian community. Mituslki argues, "My intellectual and spiritual instincts tell me that the Bible, on some fundamental level, contains stories told by people with HIV for people with HIV and the communities affected by it" (Mituslki in Goss and West 2000: 154). The limits of these field notes do not allow me to unpack Mituslki’s exegesis of Scripture. What I am more concerned with is the physicality of his reading and how he brings his experience to the scripture in order to offer a new reading of the text. Can These Dead Bones Live, Again? (2021), born from this practice as research project, offers yet another way of thinking about how one could translate scripture.
Performance Studies scholarship offers another way of approaching the text, and specifically the Ezekiel narrative. Performance theorist Peggy Phelan, author of the book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1993), suggests that performances cannot be documented—that they become something else when they are documented. Here, Phelan is discussing the "ontology of performance documentation" in that video of the performance is not the same as the performance. Performance theorist Rebecca Schneider cleverly picks up that argument in the article, "Performance Remains" (2000), suggesting that there are residual effects of performance left in bodies, memories, and geography. I am allowed to approach the Bible (text as an archive); I am invited to take it seriously, but not preciously. I begin to think about other ways of knowing. And what is the product of my engagement with the text if I approach it like an archive? I would argue that the Can These Dead Bones Live, Again? (2021) is liturgical, but not a product of my worship or belief—rather, a product of my creative practice. I am not suggesting that my faith and experiences do not influence the work. I would argue that there is no neutrality in the research process that the questions are never neutral. This point is echoed by theologian Joel B. Green in the book Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation when he argues, “Any reading of the Bible will start with some specific questions. We cannot, after all, jump to some privileged place of neutrality, or complete objectivity; it is from within our own ‘life-worlds’ that we engage in our reading” (Green 1995: 415).
And from this life world I offer a physical translation of Ezekiel 37.
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