To whom it may concern:
I write in support of battery opera performance to situate the choreographic nature of David McIntosh’s creation practice. My intention is to articulate the deeply embodied and choreographic nature of his work.
I am informed from multiple angles in this pursuit. I am a professional dancer—a past company member with EDAM Dance (2006-13) and an independent contractor with many Canadian choreographers—a dance educator, and a dance scholar. Currently positioned as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at York University with a focus on social choreography, I completed my Trudeau Foundation and SSHRC-funded doctoral research at Simon Fraser University, where I studied the spatial and social dynamics of select Canadian dance works. My perspective on choreographic practice in general, and on McIntosh’s work in particular, is both academic and embodied. I have been an audience member at many of McIntosh’s performances, and have been moved—literally and physically—by his choreographic scores. Hired into numerous of McIntosh’s processes between 2011-2015, I also have perspective on his choreography from the inside: I have insights into his training and creation process, and into the kinetic experience of performing McIntosh’s work. Finally, in my capacity as a dance scholar, I have written extensively on McIntosh’s work as choreography in my dissertation, Moving Publics: Site-Based Dance and Urban Spatial Politics (2016), a project currently under contract for book publication with McGill-Queen’s University Press.
The choreographic qualities of McIntosh’s work are multiply rooted. Of course, McIntosh’s extensive collaborations with Lee Su-Feh have been expressly dance-based and have tuned his choreographic instruments. But beyond these collaborations, the choreographic nature of his independent work is also worth articulating. Not only does McIntosh regularly work with dance artists (myself aside, he has recently employed dancers Alison Denham, Billy Marchenski, Arash Khakpour, Michelle Lui, and Brian Solomon, to name only a few), but he also self-identifies as a choreographer—as well as a writer, singer, and a sommelier. His creative process is rooted in a long-standing physical practice that brings together martial knowledge with contemporary dance practice and training into an amalgam of choreographic expression. The physical techniques he draws from combine a host of “internal arts” (from tai chi, to Bagua, to Russian Systema) to explore the energetic body and spatial sensitivity. At the core of each technique is a set of physical experiments that seek to (re)orient bodies along different movement planes and angles without stimulating muscular panic.
His creation process—as I know from the inside—is deeply physical. He takes his
artists through rich choreographic studies of bodily vulnerability, coordination, and body-to-body transmission including weight sharing, dancing with objects/props, and energetic studies of movement. Likewise, the performances he crafts are deeply invested in an exploration of the boundaries between bodies and the physical expressions of audience/performer contracts. McIntosh’s rigorous exploration of the energetic and physical relationships between audience and performer—a search for a genuinely responsive and reciprocal relationship which takes physical orientation and reorientation as a foundation—characterizes his work and expresses itself in resolutely physical, embodied, and choreographic terms. Acute audience proximity and a recruitment of the audience into the choreographic structure are formal and dance-based choices that contribute to McIntosh’s unique aesthetic.
In my critical writing on McIntosh’s productions, I approach his work as richly—even doubly—choreographic. I argue that the physical arrangements and situations he sets up amongst his performers perform one level of choreography, while the movement invitations he proffers to his audiences constitute a second layer of choreography. McIntosh choreographs performer and audience, both. As I argue of McIntosh’s 2009 choreographic walking tour, Lives Were Around Me, the audience is absorbed into the structure of the dance itself. I’ll illustrate what I mean:
To an outside eye, this does not look like a dance. A small group, four people, stretch out into a trailing line before closing in again into a tight, travelling knot as they pass through the streets and sidewalks of the city’s most famously impoverished and contested quarter, the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with its “notorious” intersection at Hastings & Main. It takes the man at the front of the group a fraction of a moment to notice that the guide, who had been situated a body-width behind him on the right, has stopped walking. The man’s momentum carries him slightly past the group, stretching the spatial boundaries of relation before he redirects, shifting his weight back and turning toward the bodies that have clustered around the guide. They lean in, stiff with taut attention, presumably labouring to make out the guide’s words. Their guide finishes talking but lingers in the moment, occupying the authoritative space he has carved out in the midst of these bodies, these city blocks, but hesitantly—deferring the charge to lead. When the guide begins to move again, he does so searchingly: as though he, too, is following a directive. A physical sense of confusion (even dull panic) moves through the group as a subtle choreography of over-steps, catch-steps, stutter-steps, delayed and jolted starts as audience members attempt to follow an uncertain, disappearing, and reluctant guide. The physical lexicon is tightly scored around ambivalence, confusion, and unease. Recruited into a reimagining of an everyday urban choreography of passing (passing through, passing as, passing by), it is the audience that does the dancing.
McIntosh’s Lives Were Around Me is characterized by a feeling of missing something, of being consciously led astray or led alongside rather than toward. The piece fails—pointedly and intentionally—to offer its audience the comfort or security of a clear and tangible structure, of intelligible theatrical content, or even of a sure-footed route. Throughout the show, audience members are constantly “on our toes,” “on the move,” and “out of sorts.” In Lives Were Around Me—and in many of McIntosh’s works—the audience is transformed into the terrain in/on which a dance of uncertain, partial physical commitment takes place. Indeed, in McIntosh’s words: “The site of the performance is the body of the audience.”
Even when McIntosh works with text, which he often does, the delivery of each line is tied to the energetic body. His performances situate text as an extension of physical possibilities—likewise music, and likewise the ingestion of food and drink as part of his performance practice. McIntosh uses multiple aesthetic tools in his ultimately choreographic explorations of the physical body, of movement, and of the possibilities and limitations of various embodied relationships between audience and performer.
McIntosh’s work pushes choreographic boundaries to explore a fundamental concern of performance: what it is to be comfortable—and to be uncomfortable—in one’s own body, alongside other bodies, and within specific physical and social surroundings. His pieces call on both performing and audiencing bodies to articulate a dance that hinges on unaffected reciprocity between those co-present in the spaces of performance. This multi-layered choreography seeks to reorient us to one another, and to the physical worlds we inhabit and share.
Alana Gerecke, Ph.D.
Banting Postdoctoral Fellow
School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design
York University, Toronto