CONTINUOUS Network and Lucy Suggate invited artist Gillie Kleiman to attend Spirit Compass at Nottingham Contemporary in February 2020, and to write a response to the work - the result of this invitation is the writing below.
Spirit Compass is a site for communal listening and embodiment – an island or a temple of sorts. Audiences are invited to relax and witness the movement while sitting or lying on a ‘shoreline’ of cushions resembling smooth stones. Suggate has a strong desire to move us towards more expansive experiences of watching; evoking feelings of heart-thumping, intense, or ecstatic absorption. Together the dance artists work through 'tidal meditations,’ a practice of deep listening and moving informed by a detailed score focused on the pelvis. Each meditative cycle lasts approximately 45 minutes and is repeated three times. Audiences are invited to come and go at will during the 2h 15mins of each performance.
As the late composer and activist Pauline Oliveros and many others have noted, hearing is not the same as listening. Since beginning to play Oliveros’s Deep Listening (1989) from my computer as I write, I have stopped seeking aural or visual stimulus from outside. It’s not that I have turned my ears off, closed them, even metaphorically (which, of course, is the only way to do so). It is that the status of the information coming to me has changed. I am listening to Deep Listening. I am hearing the rumble of the plane and the tinny house music from someone else’s computer.
Listening requires me to pay attention. I need to choose to do it. I cannot be forced. There is no way to torture me into listening. Listening is a secret power; I can be totally autonomous in my listening. Unless we are in conversation - unless you expect me not just to listen but to respond in a perceptible fashion - you cannot know if I’m listening. Not really. I like this possibility. I feel I have options.
Hearing requires nothing of me. It is passive. My hearing apparatus, bone and brain and bits, will do it whether I like it or not. Unless this apparatus does not work for whatever reason, if there is sound of a particular range I shall hear it. I am without power. I can be tortured by hearing, by overhearing, by hearing too much. Hearing can get in the way, for sure, but moreover it stops me listening. And when I stop listening I stop accepting, I stop seeking or being curious in the same way. If I am forced to hear, I cannot make the choice to listen.
In passing, over a dinner the evening before the performance, the choreographer Lucy Suggate told me that in her work Spirit Compass: where there is movement there is change the dancers are engaged in an operation of listening. I understand this to mean that they will be listening to the sound, the percussion played by collaborating musician Tom Page, one another, the audience, anything. I also think that they will be doing that kind of dancerly listening where listening is a metaphor rather than an action, though the border between image and reality feels foggy here. ‘Listen to your partner,’ I hear a partnering teacher say in my memory-imaginary. ‘Listen to your body.’ Though trite, maybe, it feels important in an era of cycling news, of recorded music in every public place and seeping from every headphone, of an unfathomable quantity of things to hear about on social media, to find a way to listen, to listen deeply, as Oliveros invites. This means being still and quiet, but also of responding, of getting quiet enough to listen to my drives and taking note and choosing what to do. This is Spirit Compass’s offer.
There are many people in Nottingham Contemporary the day I see Spirit Compass. Many. So many. I clamber across the space and its human contents, my rucksack full and heavy. The only spot available to accommodate the bag and me is right next to the drum kit, waiting. I like a drum kit. I like feeling the vibration, the seemingly interminable energy from person to object to floor to person, the possibility of pranic interchange rendered audible.
I have been in this room before, even written about performances that have happened in this room before. It is an angular cave, an airy bunker, all concrete and high ceilings. Is this a very pleasant, organised run from the apocalypse? Are we all hiding here from the horrors of the outside? There’s a sense of transmutation, of trickery: the stones on the ground turn out to be cushions, oddly light pebbles for support and rest. Stone and wood are inside and outside, manmade and natural at the same time. The corners of the space tingle with reflective light from time to time; I can’t see its source. At the door there is security, contemporary dance henchpeople working on a one-in-one-out basis. Is this to keep us in, or to keep them out? Though the work is made to enable comings and goings, the volume of people and form of the space give a sense of weight to the decision. I’m here now. I’m in it for the long haul.
The drumming begins. Reminders: I am sitting right next to the drums and I like a drum kit. I watch Page and think about the polyrhythms in his body and wonder how he is doing it. He is a practised listener, a listener in the sense of taking in and responding accordingly and listening to the effect of the response and responding again and so on and on and on. His body seems to listen in parts and as a whole, left leg and right leg and left arm and right arm separately and all-as-one.
I see this solo polyphony in some of the dancers’ offers throughout the performance. Each one is kitted out in glitzed-up Adidas, something like Dolly Parton on the athletics field, all fringing and glitter but still sport. Each one comes into the performance space, navigating the subtle, hanging set and one another (listening?), and dances. They really dance, dances that do not represent anything but emerge directly as dances, as movement and moving responses to the environment. I notice this particularly in the dancing of Rowdy SS, limby and spiraling, and the ever-glorious Stephanie McMann, twitchy and stretching and grimacing extraordinarily. Each seems entirely unconcerned with themselves being seen or heard, apart from as a consequence of their own processes of listening. They are like birds or aeroplanes or rumbly car exhausts or rustly tree-leaves in the wind. They are doing something that they are doing and we can listen to it - in the full-bodied way - or we cannot. They will still do it. When they have had enough, each dancer rests at the threshold of the audience space and the performing space, the light and the dark, on huge cushion-rafts, drinking water, resting, listening.
I wish I wish I wish I wish I had felt part of that possibility, the possibility of a fully embodied listening with the option of responding. Sometimes I did; I just about felt that I could get up and go out for a comfort break. I needed the comfort break not only for my bladder but also for my ears and for my attentions, which, rather than being tuned to what was happening was often aggravated by the sheer loudness of it all. I think of John Cage’s famous 4’33”, the artwork-of-listening par excellence, which consists only of the time and space the work allows for listening to what is already always there, unfolding in real time without anyone trying. To make that happen, we must collectively agree that it is a composition worthy of operating in the aesthetic-political space of meaning-making. Spirit Compass is almost the opposite of that: the drumming is relentless and unavoidable, masking all else, and many of the dances are danced so loudly, an uncomfortable and high-stakes and self-conscious mixture of an audition and a 5 Rhythms class. Rather than a haven, the concrete bunker feels like a nightclub whose door I can’t find, and I’ve lost my friends, and my earplugs, and my will to look after myself.
I feel tested, challenged: should I have left after twenty minutes? I could have, officially, but of course we are all subject to forces that defy the openings-up that have been offered and resign us to unfreedoms. I feel held in by being a good audience member, by not wanting to disturb others, by hoping that the work would change tack or tone, by knowing that I would write this text, by being a colleague and even friend of some of the artists. I think of the late performance artist Adrian Howells’ famous phrase and wonder if it is ever true in performance. He tells us that ‘it’s all allowed’; I think Spirit Compass is trying to tell me the same thing. What I question, provoked by the work, is whether that is even more utopian than it might seem. I wonder if it is ever possible to gather people in a space and produce a situation where they can do whatever the fuck they like, which is what Suggate and her work seem to want to do. I want this, too. I don’t think that Spirit Compass is the answer, but it certainly asks some important questions: questions about enabling versus coddling, about offering versus demanding, about permission versus enfranchisement, and yes, about listening versus hearing. For this I am grateful.
About Gillie Kleiman
Gillie Kleiman is an artist. Her work starts from interests in dance and choreography and manifests in various forms. Her activities take place in the fields of dance and live art and sometimes in related disciplines. Gillie lives and works in Newcastle upon Tyne.