Gestures on Paper and in Space

Daniel Barbiero
February 2017

Nancy Havlik Dance Performance Group

The dancers pick up different sized slabs of charcoal and begin to draw on a long strip of white paper rolled out and taped to the floor. Small movements of the hands produce short, stabbing lines; larger movements leave long lines sweeping as far as the arm can reach. Some draw with two hands, rapidly; others smear charcoal with the whole hand or massage it into the paper with the toes (leaving blackened soles and palms). Eventually the dancers draw with the full body as they make their way across the paper, rolling, sliding and skidding. Interwoven with the movement and drawing is the sound of double bass and cello improvising a soundtrack.

The activity is a workshop performance, led by artist Donna McKee, in which four dancers of the Nancy Havlik Dance Performance Group—Jonathan DeVilbiss, Juliana Ponguta Forero, Sandra Roachford and Chartamia Turner—take pieces of charcoal and are invited to draw. The workshop is an exercise in drawing as improvised movement rather than as a means of representing a scene or object in the world. The process of drawing here is pure gesture, a profoundly tactile experience.

The music is also tactile. To emphasize the sheer materiality of the instruments, the musicians use percussive strikes with hands, wood and bowhair; plucking strings and tapping on the belly and ribs; and exploring all parts of the instrument as well as playing more conventional legato passages under the bow.

The abstract sketch that emerges from the process is seemingly chaotic and messy, a long picture plane containing lines intersecting and diverging at unpredictable angles, tangles of black or a grainy scuffing that reveals the topography of fibers on the paper’s surface. The thicknesses and densities of the lines vary: Narrow and saturated when the edge of the charcoal is used, broad and porous when the whole side is rubbed against the paper. And there are haphazardly sited footprints leading in all directions. In time the paper takes on the appearance of an oddly distorted chessboard where the squares’ right angles warp under pressure to become curved and irregular, their sizes expanding and shrinking unevenly as their boundaries overlap and become inseparably braided.

The movement of each body leaves forms in space and marks on the paper. The former are ephemeral—configurations in constant motion, over as soon as they are made—while the latter, fixed as a series of black lines on white paper, remain. The exercise is an exercise in paradox, of making the impermanent permanent.

These lengths of paper contain knots of lines, constellations of smudges and points each of which is a node in a larger network. These collections of marks constitute a field of signs making up a referential totality, an intertwining of significations. But how?

At a first pass, the line is the gesture’s signature. The line makes the moving body, known instinctively from within by the dancer, accessible from without. Through the medium of charcoal the gesture leaves a sign of its having been enacted; the mark is a sign referring to the circumstances of its own making. This implies a particular relationship of signification binding the gesture to the mark. Considered at its simplest, the mark is not just a sign, but a natural sign. As with any natural sign, the marks here indicate the presence of their causes concretely, as for example the footprint indicates the past presence of the foot (and there are many of those on the paper). To the extent that it is a concrete sign of the simultaneous and sequential gestures that caused it, the mark has something of the collateral about it. It is an effect of these causes—a side effect, something thrown off whether intended or not. It is something contingent.

As natural signs, the lines on the paper would seem to record the dancers’ movements in a way analogous to the way a seismograph’s lines record the movement of the earth beneath it. But the analogy is inexact. A seismograph passively charts changes in the earth’s movement over time; the relationship between the line it produces and the underlying movement is mechanical. For the dancers, the correspondence between movement and line is more complex. The relationship between them doesn’t consist in a mechanical, one-to-one correspondence but rather is mediated by the ramifying interplay of expressive intentions, of which the marks are the result.

If we grant that intentions are embodied and made visible through the gesture, then we accept the body as an expressive instrument. Given this, the totality of gestures of these four separate but co-creative dancers forms a system of signification even before a mark is put down on paper.

The marks may appear random, but they reflect the results of purposive activity. A dancer’s drawing represents the realization of a project, literally a projection outward of the body as it expresses the dancer’s intention; with these gestures and subsequent marks, they mean to do something. Gesture and intention can’t be separated in fact, although we can describe them separately, as different coexisting moments within a larger, holistic unit. The expressive intention embodied in the gesture is meaning crystallized in movement.

Complicating matters is the fact that this performance is the site of the intersection of multiple expressive intentions. Chartamia, Jonathan, Juliana and Sandra are engaged in a collective improvisation, which makes them co-creators of a shared work. At the same time, though, they make their own choices and pursue their own individual expressive purposes, even as the collective nature of the activity makes a totality of those individual choices and their results. There is a necessary tension here between the pull of individual projects and the push to harmonize these disparate projects and move them toward some common end.

The network of significations put down on paper thus reflects the cooperation and collision of different expressive ends. Here we can ask a series of questions: Does this concatenation of marks make a harmonious totality, is it the record of shared ends pursued by a group fused together in a common undertaking? Or does it represent a disconnected series of individual intentions at odds? Does the quality of the line—its length, shape or density—correspond to an expressive intention? Do densely black sections of the drawing represent a competitive maneuvering for a space of signification? Or the tacit agreement to subsume the individual lines into one widening, common mark?

Cooperation or collision–both readings can coexist simultaneously. It all depends on the angle at which the drawings are seen. The specific intentions of the moment may have conflicted and worked at cross purposes as an individual dancer’s intention, always outside itself as embodied in the gesture, runs up against the obstacle of another dancer’s gesture or body when the latter is interposed between the former and its goal. Or it may be that lines seemingly put down at odds with each other—overwriting or somehow obscuring each other—really just represent two hands coming together to make a single mark. Looking at them from the outside, we may not be able to derive a decisive interpretation, even after having seen the gestures that created them. This ambiguity is part of the exercise’s attraction.

The role of any given body within this burgeoning network of signification is complex and multifaceted—facing both within and without, as it were. To a first approximation, the body is a middle term mediating between the charcoal, whose marks memorialize the body’s movements, and the surface that receives the marks. In a very real sense the body generates the line, translating the dancer’s expressive intention into a black smudge on white paper. It plays an active role between two instruments—charcoal and paper—transcending them as they transcend each other in the realization of the drawing.

But then a shift is effected: First by accident and then by design, the dancers’ bodies become marked. Charcoal rubs off from the paper onto the dancers as they draw and move; eventually they begin drawing on themselves and each other. An ambiguity is allowed to slip in between the gesture and its target. Now the body itself becomes a surface, lending the drawing gesture a self-referentiality that brings to mind M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands, though this analogy too is inexact. In Escher’s drawing the hands draw themselves into life—the two-dimensional line becomes a three-dimensional object. But here it’s the receptacle of the line that comes to life as the three-dimensional body, projecting out into space, replaces the two-dimensional plane of paper as the surface on which the mark is made. The body is no longer the middle term between line and surface; instead it takes on the role of surface as it continues to generate the line.

When the dancers begin drawing on each other’s bodies it seems a natural development. Natural in that the body’s moving surface, taken in the context of the aggregation of paper, space, hands, feet and torsos, just seems another surface to mark. From being the subject of expression—the embodiment, literally, of the expressive intention—the body becomes the object of the mark.

The body is the site of signification no less than the paper. The melding of drawing and dance brings a heightened awareness of the body as both origin and object of meaning. Dance dramatizes the fact that the body’s movement is its projection into the world, its way of going about the world as it modifies the world; by creating signs memorializing their eruption into the world, the drawings left by these moving bodies further dramatize the meanings inherent in their movement. Through the body’s movement the dancers’ expressive intentions are always already out in the world, making the various parts of the environment—the paper, the space, the other dancers’ bodies—into meaningful elements.

The Nancy Havlik Dance Performance Group
will be performing on 
February 25, 2017
Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Maryland

Comments are closed.