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I will embrace stillness
in performance

Becky Horne

Dance performance: a configuration where some individuals are still and some are not, traditionally the audience are still and the performing dancers move. The performers are active and confident in motion, whilst the audience are perhaps passively absorbing information, often ideally undisruptive and in the broadest understanding of stillness are still. In this instance the roles of these parties are clearly distinguished and their relationship may be described as conventional.   

In 2017 as part of my MA in Dance Performance, I researched how stillness can be performed, culminating in a physical sharing and written thesis entitled Performing Stillness: an exploration into the overlooked. I was aware stillness was discussed as a choreographic tool and proposed investigating from the perspective of the performer. I had partly selfish motives - this was an opportunity to work on a skill I personally wanted to improve, I was poor at being still in life and in performance. Concepts I began covering included how stillness is approached by performers, the thoughts they experience, and the language that can be used to describe different qualities of stillness and the extremes and textures within one. Through this exploration I became increasingly interested in how I, as a performer, can be still in a number of ways and gained the ability to reflect upon why it was inorganic for me. I then became determined to develop a way to not automatically feel vulnerable when a choreographer decides I should be still during a performance.

In the broader context of human behaviour and after comparing dictionary definitions, it seems not unusual to simply define stillness as a state of motionless. To go by this understanding leads me to question whether stillness is a plausible state - can anything be without movement? Science teaches us that on a grand scale the universe is in constant motion and the kinetic theory of matter evidences that inside every still, solid object atoms vibrate. Consequently this promotes the importance of context and perception; stillness might therefore be defined as something unreachable to aspire to, or perhaps appearing to be or being perceived as still is what stillness really is.

‘Then he had to stop and think’

And we are trained in this from an early age - learning to look like you’re listening. Children are often encouraged to ‘sit still’, rewarded in games such as musical statues, sleeping lions and grandmothers footsteps where the winner is perceived to be still for the longest or at the right time. Often physical stillness is associated with mental activity, as AA Milne demonstrates in his classic Winnie the Pooh, ‘Then he had to stop and think’. Traditionally in an academic environment stillness is rewarded and associated with discipline; the teacher has authority and expects the pupil to refrain from movement, linking freedom to movement and enforced stillness to reduced power.

There are many exceptions, however usually within dancing the emphasis is on moving and pauses are approached as merely gaps between these movements. I believe it is fair to generalise that in a performance many dancers prefer to be moving as opposed to still, and this is probably intertwined with the values of certain individuals. For instance, what are each performer’s particular motives and has the stillness been set by a choreographer or decided more spontaneously whilst following an improvised score? In relation to when there are multiple performers, some moving and some still, there may be an element of competition between colleagues; one may be envious of another who has been instructed to move, or grateful that whilst others are moving, they have a few moments of rest. During an improvised performance, depending on the tendencies of the group, aiming for stillness might be entirely selfish or require extreme patience and generosity. These tensions contribute to how the stillness is approached, so will in some sense impact the texture or execution of the stillness.

The relationship between a performer and audience members can also be determined by the performers approach. Again from an autobiographical perspective, I have associated performing moments of stillness with uncertainty due to the vulnerability experienced when you find yourself with an attentive audience and no movement to distract them with. The witnessing can feel like an inspection; the balance of power, comfort or perhaps control between the performer and the audience members shift. To gain more control of this shift my personal solution was to disassociate stillness from passivity. In the context of stopping in a crowd of moving people it is particularly clear that stillness is an action. Approaching every type of stillness as a verb was useful: pausing, freezing, waiting, resting, holding, remaining etc. Even if the stillness is a passive or lazy one, by being actively passive there is less uncertainty and therefore potentially less vulnerability. I have linked certainty with lessening vulnerability because if there is a clear purpose, any weaknesses are deliberate and accepted.  

The closer you get to stillness the more energy it takes.
Real passivity is somewhere between quite still and moving a bit

Being still in the context of dance performance is specific; people are generally watching the performer’s movements with the expectation that they will be dancing. If the audience are adhering to the social norm then at this point everyone is fairly still and both the audience and performer may or may not feel restrained. As previously expressed I see absolute stillness as fairly impossible to achieve, so visualise it as a spectrum or scale. Intense movement requires you to be very active, however I would argue that there is a point where the two are no longer correlational. An audience member may move more than the still performer, yet they with their small organic movements are in this moment more passive than a still performer actively engaging all their muscles and fighting reflexes in order to be more still or perceived as frozen. The closer you get to stillness the more energy it takes. Real passivity is somewhere between quite still and moving a bit.

During my research, the expectation of the audience impacted me as a dancer; if the audience members know they are watching work about stillness they are not necessarily waiting for movement. It was unusual but reassuring to know they were watching without that expectancy. In many contexts it can feel difficult to be still in front of others, particularly those who have the freedom to move, unless you have control and clear reasoning yourself. Unlike those associations with childhood and restraint, I have now learnt that no-one expects you to be still, as long as you can condense movement so it is subtle enough that you are perceived as still. As with most things, practice helps. I believe it is more comfortable to witness stillness if the performer is comfortable too, then again comfort might not be what you are striving for.

Becky Horne is a freelance dance artist currently based in London, graduated from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2017. The majority of this essay is a reflection on her thesis. Some sources instrumental to the writing of that were Stillness in a mobile world edited by Bissell & Fuller, Time: Documents of contemporary art edited by Groom and Aperture 158: Photography and time by Aperture Foundation.