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Look Who’s Looking Now: Perceiving and Measuring Time

On Dance and Time Look Who’s Looking Now: Perceiving and Measuring Time is the second part of a series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper into the philosophical […]

On Dance and Time

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Eiko & Koma performing “Naked,” 2010

Look Who’s Looking Now: Perceiving and Measuring Time is the second part of a series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper into the philosophical meaning behind the works. Feel free to add to the discussion and share your own insights in the comment section below.

time noun

  1. indefinite, unlimited duration in which things are considered as happening in the past, present, or future; every moment there has ever been or ever will be
  2. the period between two events or during which something exists, happens, or acts; measured or measurable interval; any period in the history of man [sic] or of the universe

Time can be measured or immeasurable; represented by a metered rhythm, the duration of an event, or the sequential order of a sequence of events. It can be concrete or abstract, real or perceived. It can be all of these at once.

Human movement takes time. It has natural rhythms in both broad and narrow measurements.  In a broad sense, we alternate activity and rest; in narrow terms, there is a rhythm to our breath and heartbeat.  The sun and moon move in rhythms that dictate the flow of seasons and seconds.  Music is described in time signatures — 4/4, 2/4, 3/4 — which communicate cycles of rhythm. Time can be measured by a clock in seconds, minutes, and hours. A sequence of events involves relationships like before, after, and at once; slower than, faster than, and so on. In dance, time can be measured by the length of music, the duration of a phrase (the amount of time it takes to execute a particular movement), or the amount of time it takes an artist to convey a particular message. It is often said that when we are captivated by what we see, time feels like it goes by faster; if we are bored or uninterested, a few minutes can feel like eternity.

Choreographers work with time in a variety of ways, whether they intentionally consider philosophical aspects of time, address time as a peripheral subject of their work, or work closely and technically with a score’s time signature and duration in the process of choreographing. Discussing a dance work’s timing may be about when a performance occurred, the length of time of the performance, the rhythm of the music or movement, or how the work altered the viewer’s perception of time.

In Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, the performance is the length of time it takes the performer to walk down the side of the building. Rhythm is inherent in the act of walking, which can be sped up if we’re in a hurry or slowed down in caution. A person’s stride and the rhythm of her gait can depend on her height, weight, and leg length, among other factors.

During this performance, the dancer walked vertically down the 110-foot facade of the Walker, held by a harness and ropes, beginning at the roof and ending on the ground. At the Walker, Brown’s work took the performer three and a half minutes to perform. The duration varies depending on several factors, including the performer, the person controlling the tension of the rope, the building, and weather conditions. Every performance has layers of time in it. In this site-specific work, timing reflects the interaction of many factors, and a viewer’s sense of timing reflects factors beyond that. For example, there is a timing to the performer’s stride, which affects the timing and length of the piece. Further, the nature of the piece involves an element of danger, which creates tension, thus affecting the viewer’s sense of timing in the piece. To the performer and the live audience, the stress of the performance can make time feel like it moves slower than a clock would indicate it does. Watching the video, we can see a running clock indicating how much time has gone by and how much is left. For viewers of the video, the clock’s reminder of this consistent rhythm of the flow of time may serve to contrast, and thereby highlight, the effect of emotion on our perception of time’s rhythm.

Just as a dangerous work can affect our perception of time, our subject experience of time can affect how we perceive a work. Choreographer Bill T. Jones played with the subjectivity of time in his most recent Walker commission, Story/Time, an evening-length work comprised of a series of 70, one-minute stories.

Based on John Cage’s work, Indeterminacy, Jones wrote short stories that he performed in a randomly chosen order. The timing and pace of Jones’s storytelling changes depending on the amount of information he tries to get in to a single minute. Sometimes he has so much information to relate in one minute that he speaks so quickly as to cause confusion, while other times he draws out five words to fill an entire minute. As an exercise examining the perception of time, before every performance, he asks people to raise their hands after they believe 60 seconds have gone by.

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Bill T. Jones leads the audience through an exercise on the perception of time, 2012

Sound also affects our sense of timing, whether it’s music, text, silence, or ambient sound. The juxtaposition of movement and sound can prove symbiotic or conflicting. The relationship between the two can make us aware of time or forgetful of it; and the result can be unique to every audience member. For example, slow movement or stillness without accompanying music can reveal the variability in the sense of time. Eiko & Koma’s 2008 gallery installation Naked demonstrated this:

Eiko & Koma deliberately create works that address our perception of time. Their work approaches time in both broad and narrow, abstract and concrete ways. The use of slow and calculated movements combined with the engulfing set designs create environments free from the markers that indicate time. In his 2011 contributing essay to their retrospective catalogue, Eiko & Koma: Times Is Not Even, Space Is Not Empty, Walker Senior Curator for Performing Arts Philip Bither wrote:

Central to the experience of an Eiko & Koma work is an almost visceral sense of time’s elasticity. Their intensely focused performances – simultaneously ancient and modern, shamanistic and deeply organic, intimate and existential, gorgeous and grueling – unfold at a pace that seems to challenge linear perceptions of time itself.

The quietness of Naked can make us feel as though time is standing still, while the anticipation or the possibility of movement makes minutes go by without noticing. In a broader sense, the environment of Naked provided a sense of timelessness, free from any signs of past or future, with lighting designed to vaguely indicate the time of day. The lack of narrative gives way to the feeling that we are glimpsing into a brief moment that has been stretched out, played in slow motion over hours. Thus, the tension between stillness and anticipation, combined with the tension between the feeling of eternity and the feeling of a fleeting moment engage us, as viewers, revealing nuances and intricacies that further toy with our perception of time.

The relationship between music and movement varies from era to era and artist to artist. Many modern and contemporary choreographers stress the independence of dance from music: the idea is that while the two pair well, dance is not simply a physical illustration of music. Choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage provide an example of movement and music functioning independently of one another. Cunningham described their early collaborative explorations as creating work in which the music “was not dependent upon the dance nor the dance dependent upon the music, but which were separate identities which could, in a sense, coexist… the common denominator between the two arts was time.”

Cunningham & Cage’s working process relied heavily on chance. Cunningham’s phrases or sections would be given a numeric value and then he would throw a dice to determine the order in which sections were performed. Chance operations were also used to decide which costumes would be worn, which music would be played, and which lighting design would be used during a performance. Any connections or similarities that happened between Cunningham’s movement and Cage’s music happened because both were taking place in time, at the same time. While their collaborations were the result of chance and circumstance, many choreographers are more calculated in the relationship to music.

The work and methods of Cunningham and Cage heavily influenced the work of the Judson Dance Theater. Lucinda Childs hails from this theater, and her work, Dance, represents the opposite end of the spectrum as that of Cunningham and Cage. In Dance, Childs deliberately works with the timing and structure of the music to create the movement. In 2011, Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass remounted their collaboration with Sol LeWitt at the Walker. The music was created first, followed by the choreography, and both were then used in LeWitt’s projection.

In an interview with Bither, Childs discusses her creative process and the relationship between music and movement:

Childs: …first of all, I was very much influenced by Philip’s music and how he arrives at variation by reworking the same theme. Rather than going from theme A to theme B, he takes theme A apart and reintroduces it always in a different way. I found that very much exciting. And that’s very much what happens in the choreography and the dancing and the phrasing… It seemed to me that to just illustrate the music in and of itself in terms of the sequences and configurations was not so interesting to illustrate literally, in that sense. Or to ignore it was also, for me, not so interesting; to make a collage where what we were doing had nothing to do with what his structure is. But, in this work, especially in the first dance, we come in and out of his structure in such a way that, for me, creates a tension along with the music.

As Childs noted, her choreography does not mimic the music, but it does reinforce the structure and themes that Glass presents in his music. The timing of the movement is closely related to the timing of the music and the repeating patterns of the visual, musical, and choreographic elements create layers through which Childs reiterates the leitmotif introduced by Glass, without being redundant.

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“Dance,” by Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass, and Sol LeWitt, 1979/2011

The examples above demonstrate the various ways in which our perception of time can influence and be influenced by our understanding of dance. The timing of a piece can take on a myriad of meanings; the timing of the movement, in relation to the music, the timing an individual step or series of steps, the length of time of a work, or the self-imposed constriction of time that an artist may place on herself. The level of our engagement with a piece can have a positive, negative, or even neutral effect on our perception of time. As viewers, understanding how we view and relate to time can aid in how we analyze and ultimately enjoy a piece. Articulating that information moves the conversation about dance beyond the point of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” and aids in our understanding of what it is we look for in a piece. The notion of time and our awareness of it functions as another element of dance and performance that we can discuss, deconstruct, and peel away in order to better critique the work presented as well as achieve a better understanding of ourselves and what we find fulfilling as observers.