Haptic Shadows: Sound as Inscriptive Contact in Choreographic Performance

Katherine Adams

When the shared public world emptied in 2020 due to Covid-19, our sense of contact and touch was often sonic, rather than embodied. Riding transit or simply walking around in previously crowded cities, what had previously been possibilities for physical contact were transmuted into a virtual haptics, prosthetic​*​ extensions of sensation and physical contact. One could hear someone coming around the corner, walking into the train car, coming up behind them—such sounds constituted a plane of extended vigilance that might once only have been incited by a touch, shove, or physical shock. This perception of movement through sound served as a register of proxy contact—a sense of being in a shared space, of being physically affected by particles moving through space across distances. This uncanny sensation bears a certain similarity to a kind of sonic haptics that take place within contemporary movement-practices. This paper looks at sound (considered as vibration and resonance) as the haptic ligament between movement as performance and movement as choreography. Parallel to the way in which sound emerged during Covid-19 as a proxy register of haptic possibility, a kind of anthropo-echolocation, we can posit in the performance process of contemporary movement practices a similarly tactile intensity of sonic attunement. My proposal is that this attunement, far from being only external, functions in the choreographic interior between composed form and immanent motion, has a deep tactile significance, and is a marker of material texture and physical ‘contact’ between choreography and performance. Sound, though often considered by certain sonic materialists as an emanation that is fundamentally a ‘flow’ or ‘flux’,​†​ is at its base vibrational. If we look to the inception of any sound, we can observe a space of indistinction between touch and sonic resonance—material abrasions, interactive vibration, and so on. Looking at sound through its tactility, and vice versa, allows us to see the ubiquity of ‘touch’ in even everyday, autonomous activities. As bodies, all of our movements create resonance—they collide with things, perhaps unseen and particulate but nevertheless material​‡​. A perspective on what I call ‘sonic haptics’ both locates touch within the otherwise binary ‘audiovisual litany’​§​ (which sutures vision to representation and sound to resonant paradigms) and elaborates sound apart from any purely immersive or absolute-like character.​¶​

The sonic—understood not just as music or rhythm but as an incipient structure of movement—marks a dancer’s contact with choreography and offers a model to understand how performance and choreography relate. The sonic emerges as a haptics of the mind-body connection at the nexus of the embodiment of choreography and its physical recall. Sonic attunement for the dancer is a form of techne that is immanently choreographic and inscriptive, in the manner proposed by Bernard Stiegler in his discussions of technological inscription.​#​ Seen as a possible source of choreographic materiality, sound can mark out a tripartite organization in movement-based performance—the physical torsion out of spatial and into embodied memory; literal physical contact with others and with supports of the floor or stage; the body’s immanent contact with the air of resistance. Here I focus in particular on sound as a kind of orthography of choreographic performance.​**​ Sound as resonance yields a system of mnemonic and physical ‘writing’. It shows how we can refer to choreography in performance—such that ‘reference’ is expressive rather than representational.​††​ Sound is the ‘touch’ that makes reference to a choreographic work through real physical contact, rather than through mere denomination or ostension. It activates movement as a living archive and dynamic form. In dance, sound transforms ostension​‡‡​—the physical or conceptual act of picking something out, denominating it, circumscribing it—into an embodied and expressive strategy. Sonic studies, as a study attuned to the un-transcribable and non-representational,​§§​ offers a methodology that is sometimes used to take bodies out of critical analyses. In such modes of sound studies, touch and the sonic are rendered opposites—sound’s essence is linked to physically nebulous emanation across space.​¶¶​ Yet if viewed from the perspective of points of contact and touch, sonic resonance reveals itself as a marker of movement and as a haptic link between movement’s form and its execution.

This alternative framework of ‘sonic haptics’ offers both a picture of sound studies that brings the body’s physical interface with the world into conversation with resonance, as well as an approach to movement that can locate the haptic gestures and modes of contact at work in movement practices. The view of movement performance as an ‘instantiation’ of a choreographic Idea is a long-standing assumption in dance and performance studies.​##​ Sound helps to show how the performance goes beyond being this mere corporealization of aesthetic forms. Rather than filling an empty form, there is a point of contact between the body and the physical memory, physical technique, and physical space in which a work is performed. Choreography can be considered an aesthetic tableau that produces a productive constraint for physicality’s resonances. The kind of physical ‘feeling’ that propels contemporary choreography or its spontaneous equivalent (i.e. improvisation) is closer to the sonified, haptic ‘listening’ than to the sort of perceptive ‘recognition’ that fuels vision. We can begin clarifying this idea with some examples taken from contemporary dance practice that show how haptics, with sound as their expressive proxy, occupy the interstitial space between choreographic form and explicit, demonstrative movement. The first example comes from considering the hypothetical transcription of dance—translation of choreographic movement into diagrams or textually indexed forms is a notoriously elusive endeavor, whose very elusiveness has propelled a significant amount of theory about the (un-)transmissible ‘work’ of dance.​***​ In contrast to the transcription of sounds drawn into a composition, dance’s spatial arrangements are not always immediately obvious. Music often has clear ‘points’ in a phase space of sound, whereas the transcription of dance already assumes and requires subjective choices about how to inscribe movements relative to one another. This is one motivation for imagining the orthographic technics of dance as expressive rather than representational.​†††​ Sonic haptics, as a register of vibration and movement that intermingles contact and its immanent effects, can act as a score-like registry for the dancer. One contemporary method that has articulated the performative texture of sonic attunement is Gaga, the training and expressive practice developed by Ohad Naharin. In Gaga dance classes, instructors will talk about the ‘texture’ of movement, which relates to how the muscles are tightened or contracted throughout expressive motion.​‡‡‡​ Dancers may be guided to move as if through water, or in other fluids of various viscosity.​§§§​ ‘Texture’ here is not just a metaphorical prompt, but marks a conceptual and physical contact between the potentiality of physical form, a dancer’s musculature, and the incipient gesture of a phrase. In the improvisational context of Gaga, ‘texture’ is essentially a marker of the spontaneous creation and execution of an interiorized score—the sonic haptics of an off-the-cuff movement-cum-choreography.

The sonic and the resonant are crucial mediators in relation to the actual process of execution and performance of a pre-existing work of dance, as opposed to mere free movement that takes place in a non-choreographic manner. The role of sound as a mediator here is important. It is not touch qua ‘contact’ alone that serves what I have called an ‘orthographic’ function in relation to choreographic performance. It is helpful to draw on some of Bernard Stiegler’s writing on technics, which lays a groundwork of ‘orthography’ that clarifies why contact alone is insufficient to serve as the bridge between choreographic form and its expressive representation. In Technics and Time 2: Disorientation, Stiegler sets up his “ortho-thesis,” which develops the sense in which the ‘exactitude’ of reflection is perturbed into ‘inexactitude.’ Initially, we recognize that “what is exact is mediate, developed, elaborated.”​¶¶¶​ Precision, execution, the technics of inscription have an inherently mediate position relative to what they index and mark. Yet inscription must go further than mere exactitude; it undergoes a torsion to become really orthographic. Stiegler goes on to write: “Reflection is disorientation. The issue, then, is to orient oneself, despite everything, in the unthought: to identify and to specify this prostheticity [the mirror, reflection] and the orthopedics that it produces when it becomes ortho-thetic, and to do so as techno-logic affect.”​###​ Choreographic performance, as something that is simultaneously expressing and mirroring/reflecting a choreographic score, relies on an orthography to perform this alignment. The ‘sonic haptics’ I am outlining here serve precisely this role for the dancer.

It is important to distinguish the orthographic, haptic importance of sound from the quotidian reliance on sound as a musical accompaniment to dance. Though related, the latter is a small facet of the former. Certainly, in the course of their performances, dancers have to ‘hear’ things like the counting of a phrase (they may even ‘voice’ the numbers of a phrase internally while dancing), or simply have to coordinate music to movements and thus must ‘hear’ the musical basis of the choreography. This is an important component of coordination—subsumed under but not sufficient to capture what is encompassed by ‘sonic haptics’ of choreographic performance. Performance in movement-based arts is marked by a resistance to traditional archives and documentation. Sound and movement together form a basis for the immanent transcription of choreographic knowledge—sonic vibration offers an index of resonant accumulations and movement traces within the body. Performance ‘disappears’ insofar as it is situated in both space and time (rendering it ephemeral relative to the work performed), but it often forms a plenitude and surplus from the standpoint of its choreographic frame. The ontology of disappearance, which is the default context in which choreographic performance has often been analyzed,​****​ proves insufficient to capture what is ‘lost’ by choreography at the moment of its realization of performance. The sense of lack implied by Phelan’s model—also approximated by the idea that performance ‘instantiates’ choreography—is productively supplemented by the interpretation I am proposing here. The latent plenitude of the implied lacuna between choreographic movement and choreographic performance lies in the sonic haptics I have described above.

To conclude, I present two examples that demonstrate the theoretical productivity of the above interaction between haptic contact and sonic resonance for thinking about contemporary dance and choreography. The first example is of a sound-based practice that exposes the haptic sonics underpinning choreography, and the second exemplifies choreography’s excavation of the sonic. In 2018, sound artist Samson Young debuted the musical work “Muted Situation #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th” in which an orchestra performs a conducted rendition of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5—while their instruments are entirely sound-deprived. Strings are taped down, reeds are absent from woodwinds, the brass players’ embouchures are flaccid, percussion is completely dampened. What is audible is not silence but rather the incipient operations of sound and music—keys and bows moving, pages turning, air traveling toward mouthpieces. Young’s work offers a model of the sonic from which sound is subtracted—and it yields a haptics of resonance and a resonant haptics, reciprocally at work together in this piece. Young’s Muted Situation is powerful because it makes visible for our perception the moment at which sound roots itself in movement. Young uses “muting” to dampen to almost nothing the resonance of his symphony’s performers, but at the same time he heightens the relative prominence of music’s physicality. “Muted Situation #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th  transmutes composition & conduction into choreography. As Samson Young’s own work suggests, depriving an ‘instrument’—literal or figurative—of resonance is not to silence it entirely. Instead, the “muting” of voice or instrument produces a whole sonic eco-system of the incipient sounds associated with the very movements that support voices or the musicians’ resonating instruments. Indeed, what Young’s “Muted Situation #22” shows (like the sonic analysis of De Keersmaeker’s work) is a choreographic habitus—a kinesthetic climate and the micro-movements it undergoes to prime itself for resonance, whether this is musical or choreographic.

The second work is widely known and demonstrates not only the model of ‘sonic haptics’ but also what this interpretative paradigm adds to analyses of contemporary dance as a historically specific genre of movement practice. In Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas, choreography closely follows a minimalist and repetitive musical score that corresponds extremely closely to the actual physical movements laid out through the work’schoreography. Dancers, sitting in a series of chairs, drop their torsos onto their laps, slap their stomachs, clasp their hands, push their hair back from their faces and quickly fling it forward. They take audible breaths to support this sequence of sudden, incisive, and almost cutting gestures that form the choreographic vocabulary of the work. Over the course of the performance, their movements become progressively more extreme, more extended—and more audible. In documentation of the performance, the musical score comes, via crescendo, into our hearing only after the dancers have marked out its pace and quality with their own movements. In such a work, music no longer serves a diegetic function and instead operates as a sort of conduction of—and resonance with—the dancing body. It doesn’t simply set the tempo, nor does it perform—as much classical music might—a narrative role within the choreography. One might take either the movement or the music to be primary here. For the actual composition of the work, they developed in concert—the work’s music (by Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch) was composed in parallel with the choreography by De Keersmaeker.​††††​ The musical ‘score’ of the Rosas danst Rosas performance is highly percussive and, insofar as it serves a function within the piece, often marks the closure or end of a movement, or traces the sound of movement based on contact. In more historical forms of dance, music is often played in a symphonic, continuous way, such that the dance itself often intervenes over the score to supply punctuations and ‘staccato’ movements (in practice, these might also be visual—for instance, the sudden and sharp extensions of fouettés in a series of turns). Because music in De Keersmaeker’s work follows the movements of her choreography, it is able to expose the sonic undercurrents of contemporary dance and movement performance.

The sonic texture of movement within contemporary choreography is most audible through its breaks, pauses, breaths, falls, and frictions—that is, the threshold at which ‘sonic haptics’ turns from an inscriptive to an explicit modality of performance. What is so explanatory and illuminating in the de Keersmaeker Rosas danst Rosas performances is the degree to which the dancers set their own scores and subsume the process of sonic attunement into their dancing. In this way, there is a haptic ‘listening’ that is also generative of movement rather than merely tracking or documenting it. As in the example of Rosas danst Rosas, contemporary movement choreography’s sonic phenomena often emerge most starkly at the moment that a particular movement, phrase, or gesture stops at a barrier or brunt point of physical contact. Through the kind of attention to dance’s sonic effects that I describe here, one is able to articulate some of the major interests of contemporary as opposed to traditional or even modern dance. Contemporary dance is often interested in making contact—with floors, walls, other bodies—i.e. in producing friction and creating resonance. Contemporary dance is also often driven by the world of movements opened up precisely through those sonified gestures of falling, collapsing, and dropping weight—all of which invoke percussive scores like that of De Mey and Vermeersch’s composition for Rosas danst Rosas.

Contemporary dance choreography exposes the sonic interstices of our movements and proto-soundings, offering us the possibility to experiment with and explore the registers of touch and vibration beyond their crystallization into a generically representational language. Using the joint sonic and haptic approach I have articulated in this paper, I accounted for an inscriptive nexus of choreography and performance, and also extracted two organizing principles of contemporary dance. These principles are, first, the vocabulary of movements organized around collapses, falls, and dropped weight; and second, the vocabulary of movements organized around forms of contact—be this contact with the floor, with other dancers, with one’s own body or clothing, or other objects (such as chairs, in Rosas danst Rosas). In contemporary choreography, sound is often a register of surfaces of movement-based contact’s frictions. A third kind of sonic effect is also present in Rosas danst Rosas and other exemplary works—that of labor or exertion. In sum, sound—in addition to being haptically “orthographic”—also offers a perspective onto the phrasing of contemporary dance, showing the implicit score of a work of dance through its way of marking the end and closure of specific gestures and movements. We can also note that contemporary dancers and choreographers are increasingly experimenting with ways to treat the dancer’s vocal apparatus as a part of the body’s range of movements. Tere O’Connor is one choreographer that has used sound as a choreographic element (see for example BABY, 2006). Composer and choreographer Meredith Monk, who has noted that she works with a “dancing voice and a singing body,”​‡‡‡‡​ is another contemporary pioneer of efforts to draw sound into dance. The increasing prevalence of sound within contemporary dance supports the idea that contemporary dance’s very disjunctions between body and movement (as Bojana Cvejic puts it​§§§§​) have opened up a rich new field of collaboration between the body’s status as a haptic instrument and its immanent sonic realm, which I have opened up here with the concept of ‘sonic haptics’.

  1. ​*​
    ~Cf. Bernard Stiegler’s writing on prosthetics as elaborated throughout his work but particularly in the three books constituting *Technics and Time*.
  2. ​†​
    ~Will Schrimshaw describes this in his book *Immanence and Immersion* as an instance of “onto-aesthetics.” He writes, “[The] exemplification of a sonic ontology is most readily found in a predisposition towards immersive aesthetics, focused on the presentation of sound itself… as asignifying or pre-symbolic affective flux.” Schrimsahw, p.110, “5. Sonic Materialism,” *Immanence and Immersion: On the Acoustic Condition in Contemporary Art*, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017
  3. ​‡​
    ~One need only look to the work of artists like Leslie Garcia to observe how vibrations—such as movements of minuscule, non-human creatures—can be sonified by spatializing the sonifying interface—such that movements register as audible vibrations. (See Pederson, Claudia Costa, “Sound Ecologies. On Three Projects by Leslie Garcia,” *Interartive*, December 2016 [accessed online]). Her series of works titled *Non-Human Rhythms* are particularly pertinent here.
  4. ​§​
    ~See Jonathan Sterne, “Sonic Imaginations,” in *The Sound Studies Reader*, ed. Jonathan Sterne, Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012. Stern writes (p. 9): “…seeing and hearing are still often associated with a set of presumed and somewhat clichéd attributes, a configuration I call *the audiovisual litany*: –hearing is spherical, vision is directional; hearing immerses its subject, vision offers a perspective; sound comes to us, but vision travels to its object; hearing is concerned with interiors, vision is concerned with surfaces…”
  5. ​¶​
    See Schrimshaw, p. 110
  6. ​#​
    ~See discussion later in this paper of “orthography” as described by Stiegler in *Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation*
  7. ​**​
    ~For “orthography” see also Stiegler, Bernard, *Technics and Time 2: Disorientation*, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998-2009.
  8. ​††​
    ~For a discussion of “expressive concepts” in contemporary dance and choreography see Bojana Cvejic, *Choreographing Problems*, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
  9. ​‡‡​
    ~Ludwig Wittgenstein developed this idea *en route* to criticizing the notion of private languages. In the *Philosophical Investigations* (§ 30) he notes: “The ostensive definition explains the use—the meaning—of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear.” Similarly, the idea of sonic haptics captures the idea that the performance of choreography goes beyond mere expression; it integrates kinesthetic knowledge and pre-composed choreographic score into a unique but at the same time prefigured movement.
  10. ​§§​
    This is a widespread characterization of sonic studies as a field. Again, see Sterne’s “Sonic Imaginations.”
  11. ​¶¶​
    ~Cf. Schrimshaw and numerous accounts linking the sonic to viral emanations—a strategy pursued in Steve Goodman’s book *Sonic Warfare* (MIT Press, 2012)—or a haunting/hauntology, as in various texts featured in the anthology *Unsound:Undead* (Urbanomic, 2019).
  12. ​##​
    ~Cvejic, *Choreographing Problems*, p. 63. Describing this seemingly Aristotelian framework, Cvejic writes: “…a peculiar distance is interposed between the work as an ideal ‘type’ or kind and its performance as its instantiation—a gap that is supposed to be bridged by representational ideas like authenticity of performance or authorial intentionalism…,” p. 63.
  13. ​***​
    ~For a particularly singular response to the theoretical ambiguity and agnosticism regarding the reality of distinct “works” of dance, see *Unworking Choreography*, Frédéric Pouillaude, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  14. ​†††​
    ~This is beyond and in addition to the sense of ‘expressive concepts’ and choreographic programs in contemporary dance practice as discussed by Cvejic in her *Choreographing Problems*.
  15. ​‡‡‡​
    This comes from my personal experience in various Gaga classes both at Gibney dance studios in New York City and online during the pandemic. The role of “texture” in Gaga and Naharin’s method is echoed in official and secondary material about the technique. (See “About Gaga,” gagapeople.com/en
  16. ​§§§​
  17. ​¶¶¶​
    ~Stiegler, Bernard, *Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation*, Stanford University Press, 2008, p. 20
  18. ​###​
    ~Stiegler, *Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation*, p. 27
  19. ​****​
    ~As in Peggy Phelan’s highly influential text *Unmarked: The Politics of Performance*, of which Cvejic notes: “Even if it was only metaphoric, Phelan’s thesis on the ontology of disappearance had a strong impact, as it resuscitated the metaphysics of presence in dance theory, which since the late eighteenth century has contributed to the formation of the art of dance,” Cvejic, *Choreographing Problems*, p. 13
  20. ​††††​
    See the Rosas company’s online introduction to the work: https://www.rosas.be/en/productions/378-rosas-danst-rosas
  21. ​‡‡‡‡​
    ~This is a phrase frequently quoted by Monk in relation to her work. One instance is here: Jamake Highwater, “Meredith Monk in Conversation with Jamake Highwater,” in *Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones*. ed. Philippe Vergne, Siri Engberg, and Kellie Jones, Distributed Art Publishers, New York: 1998
  22. ​§§§§​
    ~See Cvejic’s *Choreographing Performance*. “The disjunction between the body and movement” that Cvejic attributes to contemporary dance/ choreography is at the core of the book.