Reflections on Authentic Movement, Performance and Dance
Tannis Hugill MA, RCC, RDT, ADTR
The human need to be recognized and accepted is one of the driving forces of life. This need is demonstrated in infinite ways and shapes the entirety of our experience from our most intimate relationships to the formation of cultures and civilizations.
This deep motivation forms a part of all creativity and is particularly manifest in the performing arts, especially dance and theatre. What, then, happens when we express the truth of our selves, through our bodies from the depths of our souls before another? What happens within our bodies and psyches? This profound and mysterious process is the substance of much psychological, philosophical and religious discourse, though the body’s experience has only begun to be included.
All of these issues are the focus of Authentic Movement, an embodied practice that brings multiple levels of our human nature and consciousness into form, always in relation to another. It develops the ability to inhabit our bodies, without which we cannot feel truly seen or be in relationship in any aspect of our lives.
What we now call Authentic Movement originated with Mary Whitehouse in the 1950’s in southern California. She was a dancer who became one of the founding mothers of what is now known as dance therapy. Its roots are in dance, psychology and meditation practices.
Though at first used in dance therapy, Mary’s students have expanded and evolved the form, which is now used for personal and spiritual growth as well as for creative process. Interestingly, relative to its popularity for psychology and personal growth, it is little implemented formally for creative process in dance and theatre . This, in spite of its having roots in dance and its great potential as a creative and professional training tool.
The deceptively simple structure allows the complexity of human experience to manifest. Its basic format is a dyad between a mover and a witness. The mover delves into the body to bring out inner impulses as movement, sound, and gesture. The witness follows their own experience. They share to provide each with a deeply felt acceptance.
Part of the first generation of modern dancers, Mary Whitehouse studied with Mary Wigman in Germany and with Martha Graham. On resuming teaching in Los Angeles, she became disaffected by the kind of dance taught and performed and became more interested in the symbolic, communicative, expressive functions of movement. She had begun a Jungian analysis and eventually trained at the Jung Institute in Zurich.
Whitehouse developed what she called “Movement in Depth” which may be considered Jungian “Active Imagination” in movement. Active Imagination is a Jungian therapeutic process which permits a client to explore unconscious experience by freely speaking whatever images and associations they have without necessarily making “sense” or structuring thoughts logically. In movement, the participant allows to movement “happen” rather than performing learned, programmed actions, or actions controlled by the mind.
…the inner sensation, allowing the impulse to take the form of physical actions is active imagination in movement, just as following the visual image is active imagination in fantasy. It is here that the most dramatic psycho-physical connections are made available to consciousness. (Levy, p.65)
The core of the movement experience is the sensation of moving and being moved…Ideally both are present in the same instant, and it may literally be an instant. It is a moment of total awareness, the coming together of what I am doing and what is happening to me. it cannot be anticipated, explained, specifically worked for, nor repeated exactly. (Levy, p.67)
The symbols of the Self, which for Jungian psychology is the unity of being, arise from the depths of the body, bringing material from the personal, collective and transpersonal unconscious into embodied form. This process is integrated into conscious awareness through dialogue with the witness, the one who is observing while the mover moves.
Whitehouse’s work became a major influence in dance therapy. Many dancers and non-dancers, hearing of the power of these explorations, came to study with her. They include Janet Adler, Joan Chodorow, Neala Haze and Judith Koltai. These women have become major figures in its development and spread through the US, Canada and Europe.
Of all of Mary Whitehouse’s students, Janet Adler, has done the most to create what we now know as Authentic Movement. In ‘Movement-in -Depth’ the role of witness was held by the teacher/therapist. Janet expanded the role of the witness so that the roles of mover and witness are interchangeable. The form also grew beyond the bounds of therapeutic practice.
Janet describes her understanding of the relationship between mover and witness as something that occurs on many planes. Gradually the mover internalizes the positive regard of the witness so she can see herself in this way. The witness internalizes the mover’s process. Ultimately both feel seen by the other, creating profound empathy and compassion in the presence of the inexhaustible wealth of experience drawn through the body from unconscious depths. (Pallaro, Who is the Witness) To paraphrase Janet, Authentic Movement is about relationship – of ourselves to ourselves, to others, to our God. (personal communication)
The way that each of us enacts this drive is developed by the interaction between our basic nature and our environment. Our sense of self grows in a complex evolution of increased awareness by the sensing our bodies and through the mirroring feedback provided by our early relationships. (Krueger, 3-17) The experience of being seen is perceived by all of our bodies’ senses and is actually a two way process. The mirroring interaction helps us know we are alive and guides the way we create our reality. Our personalities and bodies grow in response to these interactions which can support, and wound us, in the process of becoming and sharing ourselves. Our gifts and talents help define the paths we choose to actualize our desire to be seen. Unfortunately, often we are not given the support that helps us stay connected to our bodies as we grow. Thus we loose connection to ourselves because the desire to be accepted and validated is so strong that we may adapt according to the needs of others more than to our own needs.
Authentic Movement is closely related to the art of dance. Both are first and foremost embodied forms. The mover-witness dyad is mirrored b the performer-audience relationship. The process of creating dance is a process of sourcing the body for what it has to express in ways that words can never replicate. Authentic Movement does this and also provides a structure to translate the embodied experience into the dimension of words so that what is moved-danced can reach additional levels of shared experience.
Authentic Movement is superficially related to improvisation at its best because it allows the mover to follow deep organic impulses. But there is no goal or end product, no performance to create or shape in the forming that occurs in the art making process. The goal is the process itself of an evolution of greater consciousness of self, a process that can only occur within a compassionate, non-judgemental relationship. The performance audience is there to be nourished by the art. The witness is there to nourish and be nourished by the process.
In much of dance training we are taught to relate to our bodies as instruments, while never really inhabiting them. Authentic Movement is a process that gives ownership of ourselves, but never in isolation. Performing can become an experience of self-negation in the service of pleasing the choreographer, the audience and, most crucially our internal critic. These are adversarial relationships that deny, block and imprison us. Developed in order to make sure we ‘do it right’, the internal critic can be the most difficult to manage. These pressures frustrate our attempts to feel seen, tantalizing us with the hope of approval. Unconscious and unmet longings to be seen can cause considerable angst.
Authentic Movement encourages the development of an internal witness who listens to our embodied experience with affirmation. We learn to acknowledge our desire to stay in connection with another without sacrificing our felt sense of self. We learn to speak of and from the experience in our bodies with honesty, confidence and self-acceptance, knowing what is our inner truth. We discover paradoxically that by returning to our embodied selves, we gain enhanced relationship to others. We are encouraged to trust that we don’t need to do or to make anything happen, that by moving from the living vitality of our bodies we will necessarily engage others. We can begin to trust that our presence is enough. Thus we may carry ourselves into professional arenas and remain our selves, fully accepting who we are in and through our bodies. Performing from this place encourages the audience to feel and accept their own embodied selves, their vitality, the truths of who they are. When fully inhabited, and positively acknowledged, the longing to be seen is met and answered with love.
Levy, Fran J. Dance Movement Therapy: A Healing Art. Reston, Va.: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 1998.
Pallaro, Patrizia, ed. Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. London, Jessica Kingsley, 1999.
Adler, Janet. Personal Communication, March 1998.
Krueger, David W. Body Self and Psychological Self. New York: Brunner Mazel, 1989.
Adler, Janet. Arching Backwards: The Mystical Initiation of a Contemporary Woman. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1995.
Brooks, Charles. Sensory Awareness: The Rediscovery of Experiencing through Workshops with Charlotte Selver. Great Neck, NY: Felix Morrow, 1974.
Contact Quarterly. “Authentic Movement: Special Issue”. Sumer/Fall 2002. Vol.27,No.2.
Frey, Connie. “Speaking the Embodied Text: An Interview with Judith Koltai”. A Moving Journal. Vol 5. No. 2. Summer 1998.
Johnson, Don. Body. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
Koltai, Judith. “Making Sense, Getting Through – ‘The Words’ Body’”. Canadian Theatre Review. No.109. Winter 2002. 5-7.