1. During the discussion among Dr Alys Longley, Brenton Surgenor and dancers.
Dancer, choreographer, writer, practice led researcher, and Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, Dr Alys Longley has published, performed, and taught all over the world. During a visit to Hong Kong in November 2015 Dr Longley engaged with the staff and students of the School of Dance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts as a visiting scholar. After the final workshop with Dr Longley, Brenton Surgenor and Jaime Redfern sat down with her over a coffee to see if they could dig a little deeper into her thoughts on practice led research, documentation in dance, and playful approaches to academic research.
BS: Brenton Surgenor AL: Dr Alys Longley JR: Jaime Redfern
BS: What do you think is the essence of practice led research?
AL: Practice led research focuses on ideas that are emerging through the doing of a creative practice. So for example I’ve had projects where the entire research project began with just meeting with another dancer in the studio and not knowing what was going to happen. The whole point was that we showed up together, we decided to move together, and through the moving the ideas emerged. This is very different to conceptualizations of research that begin with a clear question, aim, field, method, and expected outcome.
2. Dancers during the workshop
JR: Is the documenting of practice led research important? If so, why?
AL: The documentation of dance practice allows us insight into the processes behind specific works through the creative working time. From the questions at the beginning, through the changes that occur as the process continues, to the development, refinement, and choices that are made of what to keep and what not to keep in the final performance or art work. The documentation allows us insight into the kind of decisions that are made by the creative team and why, and the kinds of values that are driving those decisions.
JR: And who is the audience for this documentation?
AL: That depends obviously on the practitioners, but I guess in terms of the field of practice led research, the audience for the documentation is other creative researchers, students, teachers, and audiences who love to know how things are made. New insights and theories in dance are generated through the rehearsal process and the performance gives an example of what kind of outcome specific choreographic methods might lead to. But the methods consist in how we relate to each another. How do we ask questions? How do we create direction? How do we move between different disciplines?
BS: Do you think that the practitioners are accessing these documents?
AL: I think that journals such as the Journal of Choreographic Research, the Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, and the Journal of Artistic Research, Experiments and Intensities do have a readership of practitioners, who also filter ideas through to each other in the studio. Also blogs like Simon Ellis’ blog, Emilyn Claid’s blog and lots of other blog sites. Books that are coming out talking about score, manifestos, ways of understanding what we do rather than analyzing completed works, I think there is more discussion on processes than probably ever before.
BS: What are your thoughts on the methods and the language traditionally used to document the process of dance making?
AL: I guess I myself am interested in models that allow practitioners to develop a method of documentation that is specific to their process. So for each different process you might develop a method of documentation that suits the thinking and logic of that particular work, rather than having a one-size-fits-all form of documentation. This of course is useful when you are trying to - I want to say capture, but I think a better word is - articulate or remember a specific movement of a specific work, say for instance through video documentation or Labanotation. But if you want to capture the fleeting feeling states, concepts, and traces of embodiment of a process, I think it is useful to generate a form of documentation based on the specific content you are working on. Documentation practices can bring together interdisciplinary tools like drawing, different kinds of writing, poetic writing, analytical writing, reflective writing, narrative writing, performance writing alongside mixed media approaches, so moving and still image. The way in which you weave specific approaches to video, still image, writing, drawing etc., in the studio can allow you to generate a kind of bespoke documentation process that might bring the idiosyncrasy of a creative process to be articulated outside of the studio and theatre. You don’t need to know Labanotation that way and you can put something like that up on a blog. You can give it to students, you can give it to peers, and it might be easier to share with others.
JR: So I think you may have already answered my next question; however how best to document the illusive visceral ephemeral experiential process of dance.
AL: How do we best document it? I think we just need to be very lateral and open minded, nonlinear, and allow things to be affective so to articulate the feeling space. For this I think abstract processes are really valuable. So this is where I think we can use the fine art mediums more. Drawing, photography, really looking at the aesthetics, this is where the skills of a graphic designer and an artist in capturing the tone of something the placement of something in a refined way – as choreographers we are very refined when generating our movement and performance aesthetic. So can our documentations also translate that aesthetic to pages and be playful and experimental.
BS: Do you think that has shifted the language that academics are using to report on practice led research?
AL: So do you mean has practice led research shifted the way we use language in dance? Yes I think so. If you think about Matthew Goulish and Tim Etchells writing from the site of the studio - in the logic of the practice - and allowing that to be poetic, fragmented, disruptive, playful, provocative, and multi-vocal. So having different kinds of writing embedded together, it creates very lively, very readable, rich documents and you can see that leaking through the discipline, that playful use of language.
JR: How have these more playful uses of language, documentation, and reporting been received by traditional academia?
AL: Personally I think my work sort of pushes against traditional conventional academic writing structures, even my thesis was non-conventional in its structure; and I have always been able to find people encouraging of, and willing to publish my work. And of course it always depends, like some people have really gone, ‘wow this is a new, rich development of the discipline’. Others have been less encouraging and really stuck to their guns and said, ‘no a thesis should look like this in terms of an old school social sciences model and be written like that’. So there is still tension but I think maybe that is useful tension because the old school thesis model does have things that it offers such as clarity and structure. I was talking to someone recently who was saying “Oh… bring it back, the structure” and she was someone who really encouraged narrative writing and poetic writing in theses and now she is finding PhD writing is getting a little muddy and a bit incomprehensible and she wants more clarity and a few more rules. I think it’s both, and I think that tension is quite useful; that tension between clarity, structure, and conventional form and play, experimentation, and multi vocal form.
BS: This is your last day here in Hong Kong and you are heading back to New Zealand. What’s next for Alys Longley?
AL: The next thing is my book, Radio Strainer. When I get home it is immediately going to press. I’m actually producing it myself and then sending the finished work to Winchester University Press in the UK, in order to have the paper stocks and printing quality that I feel translates my dance thinking – on environmentally friendly paper stock. So in order to get that done, it was going to be crazy expensive to print, so I’m having it printed myself, I’m binding each book by hand. Winchester University Press are publishing the book, they are my academic press, but I’m responsible for the production. So I will go home immediately and get to work with the copiers and the printers and buying all the little bits and pieces to create the spine and the next project will unfold out of that.
Interview Date: 12 November 2015