Body Tech Then, Now and in the Future

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As I sit writing this in the faculty computer room at Hunter College, I shift around in my seat finding the sweet spot of lower-back support. I woke up this morning with my sacrum radiating darts of agony, and tomorrow I will take an AM yoga class to realign my spine and wring out my kidneys, both possible sources of the pain. Then I will go to the pharmacy at St. Luke’s Roosevelt to refill my prescription for the four-drug combination that stops the HIV virus from replicating and destroying T-cells in my body, keeping me alive. I’m also expecting a phone call from the surgeon who is replacing the stirrup bone in my middle ear with a shiny, metal version to reverse the hearing loss I’ve been experiencing over the past few years. The joys of being a 40-something gay man.

In one of Michel Foucault’s most famous lectures, delivered at the University of Vermont in 1982, the French post-structuralist philosopher and social critic (and middle-aged homosexual) identified the four primary ways by which modern man organizes human culture: technologies of production (e.g., the potter’s wheel), technologies of sign systems (e.g., writing), technologies of power (e.g, government bureaucracy), and technologies of the self (e.g, psychology.) Of the latter Foucault wrote that these:

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…permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform ‘I’ themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.

Of these technologies of self, the subset that arguably has had the most direct impact on the greatest number of individuals has been those technologies that are designed to elevate, preserve, or maintain the human body to or at some preordained ideal. If you’ve ever restricted yourself to a certain diet to lose weight or obtain some other health benefit, you’ve used a technology of the body. Ditto for taking up an exercise regimen or taking your meds. Ergonomic chairs, cat/cow stretches, tiny titanium stapes, and Stribild are also technologies we use to control, manage, and perfect the imperfect collection of tissue, bone, and slime that houses our meat computers.

Three performance events in October provided interesting case studies of Foucault’s ideas. A repertory offering by a long-established modern dance company, a Catalan sonochromatic cyborg artist, and a solo performance piece by an actor/dancer with Tourette’s syndrome could not have been more dissimilar. However, all three invited contemplation of the myriad ways in which performance utilizes technologies of the body–as modes of training, as elements of the performance, and even as a means for managing the symptoms of a neurological disorder, in effect rendering the act of performing itself as a potent tool for bodily transformation.

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the José Limón Dance Company. While never reaching public consciousness to the same extent that Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey did, Limón’s repertoire and technique are revered in the dance community. Building on the work of modern dance pioneers Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, Limón technique at its core concerns the dancer’s relationship to gravity, in contrast to the balletic illusion that this fundamental universal force doesn’t exist. With its pedagogic exercises exploring “fall and recover” and “rebound,” Limón technology creates bodies that are supple, expressive, strong, and yet vulnerably human at the same time. In Limón’s own words (which echo Foucault’s):

A gesture, be it a leap, turn, run, fall, or walk, is only as beautiful, as powerful, as eloquent as its inner source…Purify, magnify, and make noble that source. You stand naked and revealed.”

To celebrate the company’s seventh decade, the Joyce Theater hosted an international celebration of the choreographer’s life and work. Dancers from around the world performed in the Chelsea landmark to honor the legacy of one of the pioneers of the American modern dance that changed how the Western world approaches concert movement. (And can we just pause and point out that all of these pioneers were women, gay men, African-Americans, and Latinos? Okay, thanks.)

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Limon Company dancer (and my friend) Kurt Douglas in The Unsung.
Limon Company dancer (and my friend) Kurt Douglas in “The Unsung.” Photo by Beatriz Schiller

The program I attended included Limón’s 1970 work “The Unsung,” one of the last dances he choreographed before his death. Completely silent, except for the pounding of the dancer’s feet, the piece commemorates the “heroic defenders of the American patrimony,” which gave me a queasy feeling until I realized he meant the Native American chiefs who resisted the white appropriation of the continent. A series of alternating circle dances and solos, the piece exudes testosterone. Shirtless, the entirely male cast literally embodies Foucault’s linking of technologies of the self to the ideologies of discipline. Only agonizing (and joyous) years in the dance studio can produce abs like these.

In contrast to the perfected humanist warriors of the Limón Company, Neil Harbisson embodied a future of human/machine hybrids when I saw him perform as part of Culture Hub‘s Hyphen Hub event in the new downstairs space at La MaMa. Harbisson was born completely color-blind, and he now has an antenna embedded in his cranium, which enables him to hear wavelengths on the light spectrum as well as receive phone calls directly into this skull. He also self-identifies as a cyborg. A musician and visual artist, at Culture Hub he created live, simultaneous musical translations of the vibrational frequencies he was receiving from the colors in the room. Here is a body technology directly leading to new artistic forms of expression.

Gardiner Comfort has found that dancing helps control his tics.
Gardiner Comfort has found that dancing helps control his tics.

Finally, Gardiner Comfort’s extraordinary solo show (also at La MaMa) The Elephant in Every Room I Enter, which recounts his experiences attending the Tourette Syndrome Association National Conference last year in Washington, D.C., itself becomes a technique for managing his tics. Comfort’s performance reaches a deeply moving conclusion as he performs a solo dance expressing the subjective truth about his condition. What could have been a cruel undergraduate sketch comedy joke (Tourette’s guy does spaz dance, dude) is instead indescribably heartbreaking. He has shared with the audience earlier that physical exertion, whether in the form of sports or choreographed movement, seems to have a calming effect on his compulsive behaviors. We watch him repeat the phrase over and over again in a moment of creative inspiration, until finally he stops, panting from the exertion, and says “And for once I feel like a genius instead of a fuck-up.”

Whoever said technology was heartless.

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Tim Cusack
Tim Cusack is the artistic director of Theatre Askew. For Askew he has appeared in and/or directed numerous productions, including Bald Diva!; i google myself; I, Claudius; Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor; and Busted. He is the co-author of a study guide to the significant court cases of the gay rights movement and a former contributor to Stage Directions magazine. He holds a BFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and an MA in Theatre from Hunter College, where he was a Vera Roberts fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @TheatreAskew.