In her 1977 essay On Photography, American writer Susan Sontag evokes the relationship between photography and the experience of the unknown. Referring to the disorientation that is often generated by traveling, she explains that taking photographs gives the traveler a sense of control over an unfamiliar context: “The very activity of taking pictures is soothing and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.”
Bay Area choreographer Gerald Casel knows a thing or two about disorientation. At some point in his life, he lived in 5 cities in 5 years and recalls the uncertainty and identity questions that arose from making a home in a new environment. Yet, he didn’t resort to photography as a way to create meaning out of his sense of dislocation. He instead used his medium, choreography, and created Dwelling, a piece that explores disorientation both conceptually and formally. Performed to live music by avant-garde composer Tim Russell, the dance stems from Casel’s desire to tell “his experience in a way that other bodies could also experience, through disorientation.” Originally premiered in 2012, the piece will be presented at the Walking Distance Dance Festival this weekend.
Dwelling represents a departure from Casel’s earlier creative process, as he did not start creating material from his body as he usually does, but instead used random movement generators such as word games, improvisation, word and number generators to push the dancers out of their comfort zone and engage them with a series of tasks that disorient the body and mind in space. “It doesn’t make any sense but that’s often how you feel when you are traveling a lot. Nothing makes sense. My collaborators -the dancers- are also in a position where they don’t rely on their strengths, so they have to follow this formula of creating movement to create this idea of disorientation and dislocation,” Casel explained.
The process fosters inquiries into methods of composition and collaboration in performance. “When you are improvising, you rely on your gut and instinct. But when you have material that you have to learn, that creates a force and adds another layer… What is the role of the dancer? What is their sense of agency in the work? It’s not just about me but also about the people in the room, and by extension the people who are watching.”
Another way Dwelling departs from former pieces by Casel is that it includes text. “I think of them as choreographic objects,” Casel explains. “Words and language propose different sets of meaning than seeing dance. So I use them in different ways. The first way is to describe what is happening on stage. The second is to read from [Martin] Heidegger’s text [Building, Dwelling, Thinking]. It’s creating this background around which the events are unfolding. The third is [for the dancers] to speak about how they are feeling in this moment.”
As the performers share through words and movements the disorientation imposed by the choreographic structure of Dwelling, we are encouraged to recall our own experiences of dislocation and what tools and mechanisms we engage to navigate them.