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Stillness, Touch and Cultivating Intimacy with 'Vibrant' Landscapes

Published onMay 19, 2021
Stillness, Touch and Cultivating Intimacy with 'Vibrant' Landscapes


Somatic listening includes that which takes place through all of our senses and perceptual processes. This form of deep listening can offer a way to establish a sense of deep connection or intimacy with others or the world. As Morton (2010) points out, intimacy is a much-needed investment for the critique and re-conceptualisation of 'Nature', in order to "encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things" (Bennett 2009, p.viii). How might we seek an alternative to dichotomies such as human and non-human? Can body-based practices such as deep listening facilitate meaningful and intimate connections with “vibrant life”, “dull matter” (Bennett 2009), and everything in between? In this article, from a dance practitioner perspective, I posit deep somatic listening through touch and in stillness can contribute to Bennett's notion of “decentralis[ing our] human position in a world made of vibrant matter” (Kramer 2012), and to wider debates about our current global ecological crisis.

Keywords: Somatic Listening; Vibrant Matter; Stillness; Touch; Ecological Dance.

Somatic listening is that which takes place through all of our senses and perceptual processes. This form of deep embodied listening offers a way to establish a sense of connection or intimacy with another person or an environment. The term somatics – coined by Thomas Hanna – refers to the experience within and of the body from a first-person perspective. It is an "immediate, proprioception – a sensory mode that provides unique data" (Hanna, in Fortin 2002, p.128). Somatic movement practices offer a framework for 'tuning in' to this kind of information and exploring its potential for movement or, conversely, stillness (for more on somatic movement practices, see Batson & Schwartz 2007; Beavers 2008; Eddy 2002, 2009; Fortin 2002; Skinner et al. 1979; Whatley Alexander & Garrett 2009; Williamson 2009, among others). In this paper, I posit that listening through somatic capacities, such as skin's tactile sense (touch) and proprioceptive information found in stillness, can lead to a deeper sense of connectivity and intimacy.

Morton (2010) points out that intimacy is a much needed investment for the critique and reconceptualisation of the notion of 'Nature', and he describes it as an entity always out of reach– a pristine distant picture that is untouchable. From a dance practitioner perspective, I suggest that the practice of somatic listening through the skin's tactile sensing, as well as listening to proprioceptive information, can deepen our connections with what Jane Bennett (2009) calls “vibrant life” and “dull matter”. Like others, I argue that we need to "loosen the borders of the dichotomy" – to use Becca Wood's (2018) terms, and support Bennett's notion of “decentralis[ing our] human position in a world made of vibrant matter” (Kramer 2012). Thus, this paper contributes to wider debates about the value of body-based practices for exploring critical ecological thinking in our current global ecological crisis. Two separate examples of deep embodied listening are offered as examples as part of an evolving ecological somatic movement practice that aims to strengthen connectivity with the author's local land and water-scapes. Hence this paper discusses the practice of engaging with non-human elements of outdoor environments, drawing on the author's previous performance works of Aramoana: Pathway to the Sea (2014) and collaboration with queer artist val smith,1 Duotones (2015).

Viewing the body as a site for unique knowledge (Cancienne & Snowber 2003; Frosch 1999; Markula 2006; Pakes 2009; Sklar 2000; Ylönen 2003), and finding value in outdoor-based improvised/somatic dance practice, the work discussed here has developed out of a dance-ethnographic/practice led mixed-method research project (Marler 2014). The practices and research discussed are inspired by the author's time in Japan studying Body Weather (BW) with dancer-actor Min Tanaka in 2007.The details of Body Weather are discussed elsewhere, but it does share roots with the avant-garde practice and philosophy of butoh and post WW2 Japan. The BW experience, among other things, brought the author to appreciate a wider perspective of dance from her background in codified technique. Partner and group collaboration, sensorial information, improvised, and often, pedestrian movement, engaging with the outdoors, and contemplation were tenets of the BW experience (Marler 2014). The research position highlighted a Pākehā Aotearoa/New Zealand (NZ) perspective and explored the issue of translation of cultural practice between global contexts.

For this paper, the focus will be on the interception of stillness and touch that has come about through this experience of BW practice in Japan, yet has been steeped in the context of where the author resides and dances now – in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, Aotearoa/NZ. In addition, the author's perspective is shaped by her current trainings and practice of Contact Improvisation dance, acrobatic yoga and traditional Thai massage which all share contact and touch as a strong tenet. Somatic listening practices can be a rich source of information about connectivity and collaboration, and these skills of interconnection can be used for engaging with all kinds of 'vibrant matter', from human to non-human, such as flora and fauna as well as man-made structures.


Bring yourself to a partner.

Find a comfortable position and allow your body to settle into that position.

Find a place to rest, a place to be, a place of stillness in your body.

Take a breath, and notice if your body releases into gravity a little.

Notice how your body is in contact with your partner. What does that contact feel like? Where can you feel that contact?

Notice your whole body and its relation with your partner's body.

Can you sense the texture, temperature and density of your partner through your point of contact?

Sink into your partner; do not merely rest on top of the surface. Find a way in; find a way to connect; listen to their body through yours.

Use your skin, use your breath, your muscles, bones and organs.

Take the time and listen to that unfolds...

Although in stillness the body seemingly lacks movement and may initially be seen as void of information, this lack of action can in fact hold great potential for connection and creativity to arise. Somatic dance authors Batson and Schwartz (2007) have discussed how micro-level responses in the body such as blood flow, heartbeat, breath and proprioception all come to the fore of our awareness in stillness. Without gross motor movements, space opens up for noticing minute changes within the body. Organs expand and process matter, joints adjust to weight shifts, muscles release or tense in order to maintain postural alignment. All of this can be sensed in the body when gross-motor movements are at rest and the process of neurological integration comes into play (Batson & Swartz 2007). In fact, current research on motor learning shows that finding a balance between rest and action, or 'distributing practice', is more beneficial as a pedagogical strategy than, for example, solely training gross-motor pathways for dance technique (Batson & Schwartz 2009). Visualisation, rest and other strategies are used for balancing activity with non-action and result in positive effects on dance technique, general wellbeing, personal authority and creative practice (Batson & Schwartz 2009).

Figure 1

Duotones collaboration session with val smith. Photographer: val smith.

Creative practices employ conceptualisations of stillness within specific cultural contexts. For example, Nihon buyo dancer Tomie Hahn, describes the Japanese concept of ma to be liminal space, 'negative' or 'open' space-time that is not considered to be empty, but rather as "expansive and full of energy" (2007, p.53). The notion of ma is employed by artists "as a vehicle to arouse a contemplative state, an awareness of expansive space and time" (Hahn 2007, p53). In other words, stillness in this sense holds the creative potential for connectivity and relationship to grow. Here in Aotearoa/New Zealand, in Te Ao Māori/the Māori Worldview, the notion of Te Kore/the nothingness, void or potentiality, is far from dull (McCallum 2018). It is considered a potent space between from which the new can arise. Māori creation stories depict this transformation from nothingness to the world of light – Te Ao Mārama– and coming into being, highlighting the integral nature of emptiness, stillness and potentiality in the very meaning of existence according to a Te Ao Māori Worldview. Another interpretation is that Te Kore is about a state of chaos which has always existed and which contains "unlimited potential for being" (Barlow 1994, p.55). According to Māori Marsden, Te Kore is "the realm between non-being and being: that is the realm of potential being" (Marsden 1992). In the dance world, Moana Nepia (2012) addresses this in his discussion of artistic practice involving dance, video, installation and creative writing where he balances rest with athletic movement as one way of engaging Te Kore in choreographic practice. Nepia illustrates how these concepts can be woven into the fabric of contemporary creative movement practice in an Aotearoa/New Zealand-specific context.

My experience working with val smith, queer artist, recent Arts Laureate recipient and current PhD student at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), drew on this notion of potentiality. The 2015 Dunedin-based iteration of Duotones was a collaborative project in which val collaborated with six artists independently within a limited time-frame. I was struck by a sense that this artist had no agenda for the outcome of the work other than an openness to explore the potentialities of the collaborative process itself. On social media, val described the methodology as "a series of one-to-one investigations around the notion of collaborative practice...we are developing ideas and methods of working that relate to ideas of performance and performance-making" (smith 2015). As one of the artists val approached, I found we shared an interest in Contact Improvisation dance, sensory awareness and partner work. These shared understandings of practice became the starting point from where our creative process began. We began working indoors in partners with the notion of a receptive body that is open to being moved by another, and we moved outdoors for the final performance event. We found that processes that were familiar to us such as working with one another's bodies somatically, could be translated to working with non-human matter such as the Boiler Point rocks near Port Chalmers. Contact Improvisation's Rolling Point of Contact, the notion of weight sharing, and the BW 'manipulations' all come to mind when reviewing the collaborative process.

During the final sessions, val and I often found ourselves in stillness as we worked with the Boiler Point rocks that run along the Careys Bay waterline (see image). Translating tenets from partner work to partnering the landscape gave me insight into the particularities of the Boiler Point site in which we worked. Often in stillness or slowly moving, the landscape informed my movement responses. Sensory information could be felt somatically as elements of the place such as sounds, textures, smells, and sights enacted around me. With val’s prompt, I began to question how I might be moved by the rocks, rather than actively move over them. Adopting a receptive body that drew on my somatic capacities was one approach to addressing this question. Allowing time by consciously moving slowly, and resting or pausing between movements was my approach. In stillness in particular, I grew to understand how the rocks were cold, chiselled in texture, rounded and uneven. Their density and solidity resonated in my body. I found that with time, my body softened to the topography of the place, and I experienced the details of the rock's form growing louder in volume the longer I worked. A sense of spaciousness grew in my body, and my imagination was triggered into action by this process.


Now begin to move together with your partner, slowly, find a shared direction or pathway, in any direction.

Stay with your partner, connected in partnership, don't break the contact.

Notice your lungs, your structure, bones and muscles, your weight in relation to your partner pouring as you move from one place of contact into another.

Your skin surface interfacing with your partner, clothing brushing past, pressure of the weight.

Listen with your skin to your partner as you move, with your kinaesthetic and proprioceptive knowledge.

Trust your body's innate wisdom.

Tactile sensing is another key component that I find has the possibility to facilitate meaningful and intimate connection with 'vibrant matter' (Bennett 2009). The body's largest organ is the skin, and sensing from this large organ at the surface of our physical structure is a form of deep somatic listening that is tactile. Although listening to the world through the skin is part of our daily living, focusing deeply on this sense independently can counter our ocular-centric lifestyle. Unique from our other bodily senses, touch is so obviously a shared sense since it is our interface between our own body and others. Touch can enliven our body's senses, bring us greater orientation, and allow us to relate more deeply in the world. It is a kinaesthetic sensing that can generate a deep embodied understanding of the soma (Bannon & Holt 2011). As Bannon & Holt state, touch has the potential to "heighten our awareness of our lived body, of our 'self' as part of the world, and informs and forms our work as communicating artists" (2011, p.216).

Being in contact with bodies and /or ‘vibrant matter’ as a dancer allows us to practice our bodily attentiveness, which dancer Paula Kramer (2012) notes is a fundamental tool for dancers in order "to negotiate the physical and spatial challenges at hand" (p.85). She notes that when dancing outdoors particularly, one must negotiate uneven topography, weather, animals, buildings, darkness, thorns, and other people. It is a process completely different from negotiating an indoor studio space or a theatre venue that opens up scope for connecting with the broad variety of ‘matter’ present at any given site. Dancing at Boiler Point involved honing into the tactile sense as a way of listening to the land and sea-scapes through the body's capacities. My process is a way of 'tuning in' to elements of the landscape through my skin enabling me to make sense of my relationship to the rocks that I moved over. Moving from the sense of the skin requires me to slow down as I sense in non-visual and non-dominant ways in order to orientate myself (Marler 2014). Texture, temperature, density, moisture and finding balance on uneven ground all come into play when working with the sense of touch in outdoor environments.

In a previous outdoor dance work, Aramoana: Pathway to the Sea (2014, see image below), I noted that,

Cultivating sensitivity and sensorial responsiveness to the surroundings is a mapping of my 'internal' somatic landscape with the 'external' surroundings. It has become a method for situating and integrating self within place. With time and practice the landscape resonates within me; I can sense the place within my body. (Marler 2014, pp.102-103)

Figure 2

Aramoana pathway to the sea (still from the video). Director of Photography: Rachael Patching

Paula Kramer (2012) and others such as Stuart Grant & Tess de Quincy (2006) and Taylor (2010) speak of the molecular change in our bodies when we allow a permeability in relation to other-than-human matter. For example, Grant and de Quincey describe the process of a somatic and improvised Body Weather (BW) dancer as,

All the time mapping, measuring, naming, finding sense, analysing elements of the place...With time, abiding in the dwelling with sustained attunement, she finds the place in her body, her body is the place. The place leaves its footprints, its residues, in her flesh, vibrates her, making her something else. Someone she wasn't. (2006, p.256)

These authors implicitly suggest that a deeper sense of connectivity and intimacy between self and place can be generated through outdoor somatic dance practices, and the process is a lot to do with engaging the senses. I would argue that tactile information sensed through our skin is key to this work, as it is our immediate contact with 'vibrant matter'. Skin provides information about our surroundings that informs the way that we orientate and move through, or with, the landscape in somatic dance practice. Tactile sensing, along with the use of stillness, through a somatic lens can act to slow down our perception of materiality and reveal movement processes and decision-making (Buckwalter 2010). Deep listening skills learnt from both Body Weather and Contact Improvisation can act to quieten us and allow for a more sensitive, attentive attuning to the world.


Now find a rock to work with.

Find a place in the rock where your body seems to want to go; where the rock will accept your body.

Place or balance yourself there. It might be a crevice, a ridge, a hollow in the landscape of your rock.

Let the rock hold you. Now hone in on the rock, close your eyes. What is particular about this very rock?

Where is it in contact with your body? How does it feel in your body? Notice the surface of your body in contact with the stone. Does the stone feel cold? How about the pressure? Is it heavy or light?

What does its surface feel like? The texture. Can you sense the density of this particular stone? What is it saying to you? What do you need from it?

When you feel connected, slowly begin to move together with the stone. Share your touch, your weight, with the stone. How can you move together? Can you partner it, like you partnered a person before?

Kramer (2012) points out that the relationship between the performing body and nature often tends to pull towards either seeking a romantic 'enlightenment', to use her words, or the manipulation of nature for one's own purposes. She argues for an alternative perspective, “one that glorifies neither human nor nature and allows for both to inform each other” (p.83, original italics). Deep listening practices such as those mentioned in this article can perhaps offer such a viewpoint. It may be a way for dancing bodies and ‘vibrant matter’ to materially relate in order to generate understanding, or even intimacy. However, it seems important to find what Gretel Taylor (2010) calls a meeting with one's whole identity with a place, rather than erasing part of ourselves. Indeed, there is a recent critique in somatic dance scholarship that argues for a bringing back of the macro-perspective to the first-person experience of the body to include how the social, cultural and political are woven within individual somatic information (see Eddy 2002; Grau 2011; Green 2002, 2007; Reed 1998).This means acknowledging cultures and identities within landscapes and bodies.

Figure 3

Boiler Point - the containers in view. Photographer: val smith.

For me, as a Pākehā/New Zealand European dancer, dancing the landscape unearths issues of colonialism and biculturalism that still need to be addressed in this country. I have spoken of “the need to engage my own identity respectfully with the environment” (Marler 2015, p.32), and, importantly, in relation to a Te Ao Māori worldview. However, my experience resonates with Herron Smith (2010) and Brown’s (1998) research that implies tensions between connection and dislocation that Pākehā can experience. Deep somatic listening practice can reveal “connections and disconnections to self and homeland” (Marler 2015, p.38).However, I still question the implications of practicing in terms of the current (post)colonial era which I feel needs further attention in my own creative practice. The trajectory of Pākehā identity within the Aotearoa performing arts scene does need further scholarly attention,2 as does my own thinking and practice in this area.

Working with the rocks at Boiler Point or Aramoana begs for the social and political histories and contexts of these sites to be included in discussion. Both areas are man-made structures that have been created with the port industry as its primary concern. Work to create the Aramoana mole began in 1884 as a barrier against tidal sand drifting into the harbour channel (Davis 2009), and Boiler Point lies at the end of the recently developed multipurpose wharf extension estimated to cost approximately $23 million (Hartley 2018). This project included eleven concrete pours to encapsulate reinforced steel, consisting of about 300 cubic metres of concrete weighing 720 tonnes and filling 60 truckloads (Hartley 2018). These two sites are clear instances of how human manipulation of non-human matter plays out in contemporary Aotearoa/NZ. There is a dissonance between practicing deep somatic listening, which is to do with cultivating intimacy, and the industrial development of the sites.

Figure 4

Duotones Dunedin public performance event at Boiler Point. Photographer: Miriam Marler.

How can body-based artists such as myself "encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things" (Bennett 2010, p.viii)? I would like to think that this kind of embodied sensate work might help us to engage more meaningfully with the world in the state of our current worldly climate. Dull matter can become ‘vibrant matter’ when the time and space are taken for vibrancy to reveal itself, and somatic body-based practices are one way of achieving this. In contemporary mainstream Aotearoa/NZ culture, achievement is valued over process, perhaps due to the fact that it is more readily measurable. Examples of this can be seen in many of our educational contexts where testing and examinations mark achievement. In sporting situations, competition often forms an integral part of play. However, focusing on the goal at the end misses the opportunity to experience the journey. I have found that taking the time to listen through my body’s somatic capacities allows me to notice the processes apparent within my own body, and to value my relationship to immediate environments. Stillness and its contemplative nature, coupled with tactile sensing as the primary approach for orientation, enables me a strategy to engage more meaningfully with the ‘vibrant matter’ of the world. The coldness of a rock under my ribcage, sharp gravel under a warm palm, and the buzzing sensation on the skin from the port machinery nearby were sensory experiences felt in an alert body. The lens of artistic practices such as described in this article, therefore, can offer a view into how we might carefully navigate between dichotomies such as nature vs human, or ‘vibrant’ vs ‘dull’ matter.

However, the discussion feels unresolved, and I acknowledge that further research would enable the development of ideas into a more potent form that engages the socio-political and cultural landscapes of Aotearoa/NZ. Perhaps a way forward is for deep listening practices to be re-imagined as performative ‘eco-activism’ (Kershaw 2007), for generating a clearer intention for this creative work, and to open dialogue between wider societal communities and movement-arts communities. In essence, the practices mentioned in this article could be used to challenge dominant ideologies within our society (Kershaw 2007), such as capitalism, patriarchy and monoculturalism (Culpitt 1994). Particularly, in order to “decentralise [our] human position in a world made of vibrant matter” (Kramer 2012), and dovetail into wider debates about our current global ecological crisis.


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