How To Read Bouand’s Noesis/Noema, And WhyPosted: July 13, 2011
When I initially proposed blogging about the philosophical subtext of Alex Ballard’s choreography for Bouand Dance Company, he pushed back: “We don’t want to bore everybody with that,” he said.
But if you are a modernist choreographer who relies on theory for creative inspiration (as Alex is), and if you make dances that explore big ideas in continental philosophy (as Alex does), then I would argue that you are obligated to at least provide an opening for a philosophical conversation about your work.
And I made that argument.
I apparently won. So here we are in the middle of a blog post about the connections between Alex’s choreography in Noesis/Noema (now in rehearsals for its European debut in November) and the philosophical tradition of phenomenology.
As seen in video of the recent student debut of Noesis/Noema at The Portland Ballet, Alex seeks “an unbroken, slinky, connected quality in the dance,” and in a duet now being adapted for Scott Trumbo and Emily Bartha, he calls the dancers to begin as close together as possible, and then to get closer.
These gestures play on ideas of wholeness and separation. So perhaps the transition from static unity to moving connection expresses one of the key metaphors suggested by Ballard’s underlying philosophy. The name gives us a further clue: Noesis and Noema are terms proposed by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl to describe his theory of the structure of thought, and the division of consciousness into the act of thinking and the content of thinking.
Trained as a mathematician, Husserl hoped that his phenomenology of consciousness would achieve positive answers to the nature of thought and perception. He proposed that we might be able to reflect on our own consciousness, and distill away distracting details in our mind until we arrived at a pure knowledge of perception.
But Alex’s take in Noesis/Noema seems a little more ambiguous. Structured as a series of interlocking duets, the dance calls for the performance of a fluid yet frenetic quality of motion (Alex calls it by the technical term “wiggly”). The piece models the lightning-quick changes in attention and perception that characterize the human experience, and which Husserl explored via his philosophy.
At moments, two partners or two couples move in parallel, but slightly out of synch, giving a choreographic representation of another key idea suggested by Husserl: that our perceptions are closely related to the exterior world in which we live, but not precisely the same.
As Alex explores these ideas in his choreography, he moves the dance beyond the limits of visual spectacle, reminding us of the audience’s position in the theater as perceiving, moving selves. And what better way than dance to take up Husserl’s mission, and explore such self-oriented ideas about our minds, our bodies, and the world we occupy?
Photo courtesy of Blaine Truitt Covert