Katharine Speaks: Class is Glue: PEER Practices & Mobile Collective Laboratory"

[Many thanks to Katharine for this fantastic essay!]

When I was an impressionable young thing on a camping trip up Mt Tam, I remember a fellow camper sharing wisdom over the collective fire:  “Sex is glue,” he said, hugging his sweetheart to close to his side, before launching into an exposition of the merits of suburban agriculture.  In the same way that sex can hold together a relationship, binding us to our loved one, so is class the adhesive fiber of the dance community.  For me, class is the glue that holds together my identity as a dancer.  I need to feel my body in motion to feel like myself, and often I re-make myself through training and class.


A number of us have been rethinking how we practice and train together, and in connection, how this builds community.  This summer, with the support and mentorship of the Alternative Conservatory, we are developing a new group practice during the M/W/F class times.  Instigated by Roche Janken and Sam Stone, PEER Practices reexamines the structure of dance class, specifically aiming to dismantle the hierarchy of the conventional teacher/student relationship.  Roche and Sam lead class on Mondays and Wednesdays and invite wildcards to take the reigns on Fridays.  The information gleaned on the Friday detours is then reintegrated into the Monday/Wednesday sessions.  Although grounded in a physical training practice, PEER Practices works to embrace the mental aspects of dancing, asking participants to witness each other, offer feedback, and dialog throughout class.  The goal is to create an environment that invites dancers to interact and train in a way that is fully committed without traditional motivating factors such as the respect and approval of an elder or teacher.  It’s a wildly ambitious and messy project, using class - the glue that holds us together - to disrupt hierarchies and rewire our motivations.


And of course, our community is not alone in thinking about class, collaboration, and hierarchies.  This past Friday, the wildcard slot was filled by Milka Djordjevich and Tomislav Feller, two out of four parts of the Mobile Collective Laboratory.  They are developing a set of collaborative practices as a way to share their creative research and intersect with artistic communities in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  The class consisted of a series of guided improvisational scores, each designed to access a different way of initiating action, either through physical input or through the imagination.  After class, some of the PEER Practicers stuck around for additional dialog and exchange, the highlights of which I have copied below in a highly condensed/edited form:


PP = PEER Practices (which this day included Roche Janken, Sam Stone, Hallie Dalsimer, Virginia Broyles, Elizabeth Cooper, Chani Bockwinkel, and yours truly)


MCL = Mobile Collective Lab (in person: Milka Djordjevich & Tomislav Feller, in spirit: Aleksandar Georgiev & Francisco Maldonado)


PP:  When did your dance practice transform from “dance class” into what you do now?  How do you think about what you do now?  Can you trace your training/background and the influences that led to your current collective practice?


MCL:  We have different training backgrounds and trajectories up to this point, but we met in 2010 in Vienna at ImPulsTanz.  Class is the fabric of ImPulsTanz and provides the primary mode of interacting with each other.  Some of our common interests at the time were:  Feldenkrais, Parkour, vogue, and classes taught by Jennifer Monson, Benoit Lachambre, and Jennifer Lacey.  Jennifer Lacey’s workshops classclass and Fake Art Therapy treated class as an object or constructed experience.  As we began developing our teaching practice, we worked with class as an active creative process, instead of a passive experience, and were interested in blurring the line between practice and performance.


We were drawn to working collaboratively very simply because we like each other and wanted to continue working together.  We share a similar sensibility and sense of humor, drawn from our shared Eastern European cultural background.  ImPulsTanz is strongly influenced by Western European aesthetics, and being from America or Eastern Europe can make one feel peripheral to the artistic conversation.  There is also something in Eastern European humor about subverting systems, structures, and hierarchies.  Dance class has traditionally acted as a process by which white female bodies are made anonymous (Milka acknowledges that this is her point of view, perhaps more so than the other MCL members - many of the PP also agree with her).  Our practices involve a great deal of individual agency to undo this process.


PP:  What did you offer us today in class and how did it engage with the issues and techniques you are exploring?


MCL:  Today was a beginning!  It was the first class we have taught and our first opportunity to share aspects of the material we have been exploring.  Given that this was a beginning for us, we were much more directorial than we would eventually hope to be.  We are interested in confusion, disrupting expectations, playfulness, imagination, challenging symmetry, and moving away from codified knowledge.  This work intentionally overlaps creative research with performative action.  If there was a theme for today, it was the use of imagination [Aside from KH:  One of the most striking exercises involved imagining doing a sequence of movement and then actualizing it].  We are interested in how people commit to the tasks proposed and how to find one’s own interest and persist in exploring it.  This is a practice of giving people agency within a new environment, which serves to subvert the hierarchical structures we talked about earlier.  Broadly speaking, this work is about accessing different ways of initiating action.


In conclusion, I’d like to offer a few remarks about the overlap of interests between PEER Practices and the Mobile Collective Lab, as well as our divergences.  Both groups are concerned with challenging hierarchical structures and creating a space that acknowledges the needs of individuals.  PEER Practices operates within a more traditional class structure and use of dance forms, while our brief experience of the Mobile Collective Lab demonstrated their desire to confuse expectations about the structure of class, relying primarily on improvisational structures to do so.  For me, this approach led to a sense of individuation geared towards performance, as opposed to a physical practice that gave me information about the functional capacities of my dancing body.  Both practices put me in touch with my choice-making, my desire to dance, and the community of movers around me:  class is glue.


Contributor Note:  Katharine Hawthorne is a San Francisco based dancer & choreographer who likes to watch thinking bodies in motion.