About the Breast Piece

by Alice Chauchat & Frédéric Gies, published in Zehar magazine (Arteleku, San Sebastian) 2009

In this text, we propose a retrospective gaze on the work we did for a piece that we co-signed in 2007 and that Alice is performing: The Breast Piece (praticable). This piece focuses on breasts and representations of the female body. First, we will expose what brought each of us to do this work, as well as what brought us to work together on it. Second, we will develop on our working process for the piece, on what the working methods we chose produced and on the discourse on the body that grounds what we did.

Between 2001 and 2005, Frederic’s choreographic work was dealing a lot with gender representations and was very influenced by queer theory. Frederic made several performances on this topic in collaboration with Frederic de Carlo or alone. They were working with gender as a performance, and with images that they were embodying. The approach was thus rather external and the focus was on producing and/or playing with signs. As a consequence, the working procedures consisted in starting from an image and then finding a way to make it move, to embody it. At the end of 2005, Frederic took a new direction in his work, and with his colleagues from praticable (Alice Chauchat, Frederic de Carlo, Isabelle Schad, Odile Seitz) he began to work the other way around. The focus became body practices and how they can constitute the ground for representations. Thus, the procedure consists in observing which kind of representations, which kind of images can emerge from a body practice, from a bodily activity. This way, Fred started to work on a new piece called “Dance (praticable)”, grounded on the practice of BMC®1 and dealing with dance styles and dance history. From 2000 on, Fred had been developing a strong interest in BMC, which became an important base for his work around 2005, in the same time as praticable was established from common questions around the exchange of body practices and the effects of such practices on the conception of choreographic work.

Frederic’s first contact with BMC was in a workshop with Vera Orlock. It was a real breakthrough for him as he started to reconsider his entire dance practice and to dance in a different way. He felt strongly that during all these years of learning dance technique and working as a professional dancer he had already behind him, he, and most of the people that were surrounding him, didn’t know with what they were moving. They knew a bit of their bones and of their muscles, because of the pain they could sometimes have (!) and through anatomical drawings. They knew some of their names but not

Ever since she started making performances, Alice focused on the ways in which conventions frame the possibilities for making and for watching, how one’s own imagination for making or acknowledging art, for example, is framed by the art works one has already encountered, each time renewed. One particular set of conventions she felt framed by where those connected to her own appearance on stage as a woman; she never thought people would watch her separately from her gender, and felt that she had to deal with whatever “a woman on stage” meant for an audience. This pushed her to look at dance and performance culture as well as gender and performance theories, and then to develop strategies for opening up spaces within conventional roles or postures, where the individual subject could appear as the inhabitant of a posture to what it cannot be reduced.

In J’aime, a collaboration between Alice and Anne Juren in 2004, they energetically presented themselves and their enjoyment in lusty dance, occupying the conventional posture of young dancing women exposed as the surface for sexual projections, and taking on a position of mastery by the very set choreography that contradicted potential (mis-)interpretations of their dance as a naive or spontaneous expression.

In Crystalll, a collaboration between Alice and Alix Eynaudi in 2005, they staged the performer (Alix) amongst sober, formal sculptures by Alexander Wolff and a thick smoke through which the audience meandered, constantly looking for the dancer (i.e. enacting their desire to see her). The choreography became a formalized parcours during which the performer evolves through the space and through the audience, passing through various archetypical postures of the female dancer in our culture such as: the ensemble of abstract lines, the mysterious, exotic and delicate creature, the feline body, etc. These are postures in that they are not the exact reproduction of pre-existing images or dances, but rather the re-enactment of particular relations such as the relation in which the ballerina, with the use of her dance technique, achieves cat-like dynamics and spinal tension, upon which audiences can project the expression of a natural, wild being, and thereby re-affirm the idea that women are, indeed closer to nature than men.

The basic posture taken on in The Breast Piece (praticable) is the exposure of female breasts to the gaze of onlookers as an object of desire for the aesthete or consumer (male) spectator, as is repeatedly done in arts, advertisement and popular culture.

In 2002, the two of us took part in an event in the Vooruit in Gent, called B-visible, and dealing with queer topics. This is the way we met. We began later to exchange on our respective works, as it seemed that they were rather connected through our relation to representations, and also through our interest for gender questions. Around 2005, the exchange between us and within praticable opened for us the possibility to focus onto the body’s own functioning, besides culture’s imperatives, and on how it then looks, reversing the relation between the ideas of the body and the embodiment of these ideas. Until then, when choreographing the body we had staged relations or postures in which the body was a surface or an element symbolizing culture. Now, the focus on the body’s activity was letting culture emerge as an inhabitant of the body, even when it was not called upon; we could be working on a very concrete thing such as the fat that lays under the skin, over the whole body, and end up moving in a manner that strongly evoked pole dancing without anyhow reproducing exact moves from a pole dance show. Furthermore, this dance couldn’t be reduced to pole dancing, as the possible images associated to it are always derived from a body busy with itself.

Initiating movement from inner sensations allowed us to move away from expressions that function as quotes, from affirming a certain visual language developed within our culture (for example, representing female breasts in a binary position between that of an object of sexual desire and that of motherly, nourishing agents, in both cases defined by their potential use to others). Instead, for The Breast Piece (praticable), we organized the body in relation to itself, focusing on its own materiality. This “own materiality” is composed of flesh, bones etc. as well as of the culture it evolves in. The process of creation started with a long series of explorations of the various tissues in and around the breasts. Because men’s breasts are composed with the same tissues as those of women that are neither pregnant nor breast-feeding, we could go through those together, and explore the particular qualities of each component in our own body as well as seeing its expression in the other’s movements.

The images produced in The Breast Piece (praticable) appear as a consequence of the bodily activity, which consists in initiating movement in the different kind of tissues that constitute the breasts (fat, milk glands, skin, fascia, lymph, blood, the ligaments that suspend the breasts, the muscles and the ribs under the breasts...). We start from an anatomical fact and use techniques of embodiment of anatomy and physiology coming from BMC®(1). Initiating movement in these different tissues produces very different movement qualities. For example, initiating movement in the fat can create a very sensuous movement quality when the muscles can produce a movement that relates more to strength and resistance. A second step in the working process has been to crystallize these movement qualities into images. These images can be very much loaded culturally. We were looking at what could refer to images of femininity. This way, the images produced by the body performing the activity of initiating movement in the different tissues of the breasts are appearing and disappearing continuously.

Here is one example of how an image is appearing: at one moment in the piece, the movement is initiated in the lymph that passes through the lymph vessels and lymph nodes in the breasts. Alice is walking slowly on a straight line, facing the audience. The movement is amplified from the breasts to the arms. Progressively, the breasts look like they are literally pointing out, the whole chest area starts to look wider and stronger. The arms are lifted also progressively, moved by the lymph. At some point the arms are lifted quite high on each side and at this moment the image that appears reminds us of the Greek statue “Nike of Samothrace”. The breasts look proud and strong, victorious, and the arms tend to look like powerful wings. Then Alice changes of focus in her body, switching her attention to other tissues within her body, and the image disappears.

After some months of work, we went to Budapest for a week to study with BMC® practitioner Bori Hoppal, who specialized her practice on female physiology. Whilst we had been focusing so much on the material and on the images of the body, she led us to recognize in our own body our past, personal experiences related to our own breasts as well as to others, such as our mothers’ for example. It was a strong and important time for us to link the research we had gone through on the body-as-itself connected to the body-as-image, to the body as vehicle of personal and emotional life.

A practice such as that of BMC® produces a corporality that exists on its own, i.e. more or less separated from visualization. But visualization is also a base for the practice, through the visualization of the body’s materiality in order to sense it. On the other hand, the body’s history, training, the images and ways in which it has perceived representations of other bodies inform it as to how it can behave. There is no such thing as a pure expression of the body, or as a natural movement.

People learn how to take on archetypical forms, reproducing and embodying standard shapes and postures assigned to it as “beautiful”, as “ correct”, as “desirable” etc. And anyone moving “freely” will necessarily go through those pathways that have been learnt and imprinted on the body ever since it was born.

The body’s movement is also a daily means of communication, through kinaesthetic empathy and through the use of gestures and signs: ever since our birth we develop our capacity to read through other bodies, and to emit signs, i.e. to communicate with our body.

We can say that body culture inhabits the body like it inhabits the viewers’ gaze. Therefore, when dancing out of a focus on inner sensations, those recognizable expressive means appear as traces of the culture the body lives in.

One could think that, with this way of producing images of femininity by initiating movement in the tissues of the breasts, we are proposing an essentialist vision of the female body. On the contrary, the fact that we put all these different images one after the other without hierarchy turns them into possibilities and not into stable truths. The fluidity of passing from one shape to another, from one identity to another, avoids this essentialist vision.

The performer’s dance in The Breast Piece (praticable) creates an ever-changing body. It is not only the images of the body that are changing but its consistency, its texture. Sometimes the breasts, and the whole body (when the movement initiated in the breasts are carried through the rest of the body) look soft, or swollen on the opposite, light or heavy, tonic or collapsed and hanging. Nevertheless, as the performer makes clear that she is at the origin of these transformations, the body never appears as a piece of flesh. It is not a body that the spectator can dissect. It is not an objectified body. This body controls the images that it produces; the culturally loaded images of femininity don’t appear as something imposed on the body that is performing them. The fact that images are appearing and disappearing, that no image is fixed produces a floating and changing identity. Not allowing the spectator to grasp and hold the images prevents her/him from setting a stable way of appearing onto the performer. So that, paradoxically, working so closely with this anatomical fact of female breasts didn’t bring us to propose an essentialist vision of the female body but rather a performative one.

The diversity of the images that are produced, as well as the fact that they are juxtaposed in a way that is not corresponding to any kind of judgment or hierarchy, invites the spectator to think about how they relate to these images, about why they react in one way or another to each of them.

The piece can have a particular and direct effect on female spectators who will often reflect on their own experience of their breasts. As the piece in itself is based on a kind of real-time experience of the performer with her own breasts, it can make a direct link with the spectator’s experience. Talking after the shows with some of them, a lot of intimate stories about breasts came out. A spectator told us that by the end of the piece, she felt very proud of her own breasts.

The body as presented in The Breast Piece (praticable) is therefore a complex of materiality and culture; flesh that moves along cultural habits, carrying its own history as well as the larger culture around it.

The audience is invited to negotiate the relations induced by the breasts’ exposure, projecting emotionally onto the performer’s experience in that situation as well as recalling and observing their own relation to breasts and female exposure. In the same time, they are brought to kinaesthetically empathize and to observe the transformations of the flesh as a raw material displaying a life of its own.

They project their own complex of images onto the performer’s body and encounter the resistance of a body that owns itself.

1 “Body-Mind Centering® is an integrated approach to transformative experience through movement re- education and hands-on re-patterning. Developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, it is an experiential study based on the embodiment and application of anatomical, physiological, psychophysical and developmental principles, utilizing movement, touch, voice and mind. This study leads to an understanding of how the mind is expressed through the body and the body through the mind.”  what they actually are and how they function. He understood why most of what the dance teachers he had or choreographers he worked with told him felt so arbitrary. He chose then to go for a body that masters its movements not because it has learned the right shapes and how it should look like but rather because it has an inner awareness and understanding of itself and of the origins of movement. A body that constructs, in relation to other bodies, its own knowledge.