Notes on observing

I’ve been in Beijing for three days now, spending time in the studio both with Shobana Jeyasingh and Zhang Yunfeng and their respective dancers. In Shobana’s case in particular, the choreographic process is a process of working out what the choreography is. This gives me food for thought – but it also begs a question regarding my own role, since I feel the same could be said of that: the research process is a process of working out what the research is. I have a sense of what it is, but it’s not something I want to discuss on the blog.

Instead, I will make a few observations about how this is playing out.

1) Where should I put myself, and what should I do? I try to make myself scarce, half-hidden behind the piano. I try not to move too much, which of course puts me into an ironic relationship with my ‘objects of study’; I have joked that my immobility is in direct proportion to the dancers’ activity. What a slob!

2) The dance studio is a dynamic visual space – these dancers are people who have grown up looking at themselves in the mirror, subject to an exacting degree of corporeal discipline and surveillance by their teachers, and trained to be looked at by a paying public. Everyone in the room is watching and learning in one way or another.

3) But should I do anything other than watch? When I see a performance I may be studying, or even listen to a conference paper, I never take notes. It’s a distraction. I am reminded, too, of a comment in an article on rehearsal ethnography by Gay McAuley, where actors told her that they couldn’t work out the rationale behind when and why the researchers took notes, and that this unsettled them. I took a few notes with my back to the group on the first day, but it didn’t seem right. Yesterday afternoon, though, there were so many little details and fragments that were of interest, it felt appropriate to write. So there’s a right time for writing.

4) Interviews? I’m discinclined. I’d rather chat.

I laughed when I saw this photo of me on the Chinese blog. It reminds me that as much as I look towards the dance, not only do I look away from myself, but am oblivious to the fact: and being ‘reflective’ is only half the answer. There’s an ethnographic parable in that. 121eba807bag215

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