Research on facia and biotensegral awareness in dance

For centuries scientists have been dissecting the human body and have completely disregarded what constitute the most evident and largest component in the body: the connective tissue. This all pervasive fascial web of tension and compression gives us shape, and both bind and separate structures from the smallest living unit in the body, the cells to the whole body.

The current research on the properties and physiology of fascia and myofascial chains (Anatomy Trains, Myers, T., 2018) already shifts not only the perception of the body but also the way we move. Indeed, rich in mechanoreceptors and proprioceptors, this body-wide web of fibrous connective tissue is considered by the medical anthropologist Jaap van der Wal as the organ of innerness and by Oschman as the organ of communication (2012).

Based on recent scientific and dance articles, literature on fascia such as Thomas Myers Anatomy Trains, Contact Improvisation, experiential anatomy, attendance to conferences on recent fascia discovery among anatomists and clinical experts, as well as my experience as a dancer, contact improviser, sports massage therapist and yoga teacher,  I propose to apply and uncover this new view on biomechanics to dance, and to the ways in which we engage with the world around us.

The creator of Contact Improvisation Steve Paxton’s study and attention to the pervasiveness of gravity (2018) has led him to explore new ways of relating to shared weight with contact improvisation, I propose a similar attention to the all-pervasive influence of fascia to inform ways of relating and choreographing. I wish to attend to this implicit pervasive fascial awareness over the course of this research.

Contact Improvisation and experiential anatomy will be used as investigative frameworks as part of a Practice as Research approach.

My interests stems from my experience as a dancer, a masseuse and a yoga teacher, wanting to find the connective tissues between these practices in order to find a broader perspective and outlook on life.

Fascia is the connective tissue and invisible thread linking these practices, on a cellular, somatic, architectural, structural and choreographic level that is to me fascinating and inspiring.

The meshing of the physiological, experiential, relational and the poetic seem to also have broader implications in terms of  how one positions herself/himself in the world. Instead of focusing on subjects as individual independent identities, I propose to focus on the in-between, shifting the perspective from the individualistic anthropocentric to the relational and the inter-dependent.

I have started to explore the topic through classes and workshops, and more recently I have started to apply it to my artistic practice focusing on the interplay of tension and compression in my latest collaborative dance piece Helix Phe-Noumena (2019). This piece explores a non-hierarchical and interchangeable way of relating to each other within the performance setting by making palpable the biotensegral awareness at play between audience and performers. Rather than offering a piece to look at by an audience, I was highlighting the ever-evolving improvised relationship between both audience and performers, suggesting that this in-between is an integral part of the piece, and thus creates a fascial network called performance.

I wish to explore this biotensegral awareness concept further, this time not putting it in a performance context but rather as a study among the group of dancers.

I am aware of the interest the discovery of fascia and biotensegrity has triggered over the past decade. Especially many contact improvisers are also therapists and bodyworkers. Contact improvisation has also meshed with other somatic practices such as experiential anatomy and Body Mind Centering (Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad).

The discovery of biotensegrity in the eighties arrived after Paxton’s initial contact debut in 1972 and is uncredited in the early writings on contact improvisation. Chris Aiken, Joerg Hassmann, Ray Chung have been interested in the topic as educators and contact improvisers. Its artistic application has triggered interests in some artists’ work such as Vanessa Grasse and her work Mesh (2016). In his interview with Amanda Bolt (2016), Laurie Booth talks about how fascia has transformed and influenced his artistic practice, giving birth to the project Myolastic. To my knowledge, the latest in-depth exploration is currently being done by the PHD student O’Connor and his research thesis: “Interconnective (T)issues: Bodily Experiments and the Affective Entanglements between Fascia Research and Dance Improvisation” (2020).

It is my view that the topic still has a lot of potential, especially in its application to choreographic practices, and in the intra-communication within a group of dancers. By conducting the research, I wish to develop my artistic and choreographic practice and contribute to the field of contact improvisation, somatic and dance performance. I intend to further explore the connection between fascia research and embodied choreographic practice by using the biotensegral system as a model to apprehend the relational realm: relation to oneself, relation to others and to the world we live in.

The integral, non-hierarchical and sustainable system theory of tensegrity by B. Fuller has been extrapolated by Dr Levin to the living being, and was then named biotensegrity. I propose that this scalable system theory, working from the smallest living unit in the body, the cell, to organs, body systems and the whole body, could be extrapolated to inter-personal relationship through touch and non-touch. Using this as a choreographic tool to create a movement practice, I will design my research based on this scalable system in 3 parts: first working in solo, then in group with touch, and finally without touch, or beyond touch. The last step will involve a sharing with an audience. Throughout I intend to find ways of meshing with the observing and being observed, creating an online blog where general public can inform and comment on the research.

Another reason for me to pursue this research is that in dance and CI practices, there always seem to be a big gap of attention between touch and non-touch. In my experience, especially in CI, as soon as touch is not there, people tend to disconnect, not taking responsibility anymore for co-creating the dance while remaining spatially distant.

In the non-touch relating practice, I am particularly interested in the gaze, and the potential for vision to be a tactile sense with biotensegral qualities among performers, and performers/watchers.

The arrival of ‘social distancing’ brought by the current pandemic, I believe, has both the potential to create a wider gap between touch and non-touch, as well as developing ways of navigating  with others with an increase awareness in spatial negotiation and co-creation.

The disengagement of ‘being in relation’ that I experience in dance and CI when transitioning from touch to non-touch, to me, create real bubbles of isolations and apparent disconnections. I say here apparent, meaning that the relation is still there, but not brought to the dancer’s attention, and often seems to be denied of care and intention. Studying fascial awareness with touch and beyond touch I believe may shed light onto this implicit connection. And may help bring more understanding and various ways of relating with the audience as watcher/observer.

I am hoping to get inspired by the contact improviser and researcher Nita Little’s seminal work on articulating presence and attentional awareness.

I am fascinated by the non-hierarchical way of viewing the body as a big connected web.

One body part is not more important than another, but rather the body systems work synergistically as a whole structure that can reshape depending on its function and its use. It can compensate when injured, and find its own harmony. I will enquire how this non-hierarchical holistic system can be applied, or made explicit within a group of moving bodies. I will refer to this particular focu as the ‘biotensegral or fascial awareness’.

Even though this research is mainly embodied and choreographic, my suggestion is that biotensegral awareness could potentially serve as a model to shift power relationships within a group, therefore redefining and questioning roles and identity by not focusing on the politic of gender or cultural modes, but by bringing awareness to how a group can work holistically as an organism of interdependent bodies.

Some fascial experts such as the anatomist Dr Gil Hedley, the author Joanne Avison and the clinical anatomist John Sharkey, have already expressed potential links and broader implications to the new understanding of fascia to nature and metaphysics.

Gil Hedley has posed the question of the continuity of fascia and where does the body end, including a possible extension of consciousness and particle exchange between bodies in his interview with Doerte Weig (https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/s02-episode-1-gil-hedley-on-integral-human-anatomy/id1440972495?i=1000430420928 ) .

Joanne Avison believes that physiology, psychology and spirituality are interlinked and the way we sense is linked to how we feel. She talks about the phenomenon of sympathetic resonance in relationship to biotensegrity: since we are bodies in tension, when one pulls a string of one’s heart, it will resonate with another heart at a distance. (Fascia Hub conference on 21/01/2021).

John Sharkey believes in tensegrity to open up answers to nature and sustainability:

‘Tensegrity seems to be, evidently, natures’ stabilising force. With an intense global economy our pale blue dot is facing challenges of increased tensions, lack of integrity, stability and increasing discontinuity. Now is the time to usher in a new era informed by tensegrity principles and the mother of all teachers, nature.’ Sharkey (Site-specific fascia tuning pegs lecture on 25/03/2021)

In this research  will not enter the complex realms of emotional empathy and psychological affect but rather focus on the architectural forces of tension and compression and the physiological and qualitative properties of the fascial system as a network of communication.

Please feel free to leave comments, question and engage in the discussion. I am hoping to contribute to the field of dance, Contact Improvisation and somatic practices

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