Emotion is ‘the qualification of the felt intensity of affect within the processual materiality of the social’ (McCormack 2014).
Where does emotion reside? How do we share it? To whom does it belong? These questions were the focus of the Body and Being Network event in June 2015 in which choreographer and dance artist Marie-Louise Crawley and musician Malcolm Atkins from ‘Avid for Ovid’ unfurled Ovid’s tale of Myyrha from page to stage.
Having rushed to get to the performance on time, I fought to conceal my ragged breathing as it emerged disruptively into the pre-performance hush that blanketed the room. Yet, as I folded the unruliness of my noisy outdoor body into a neat and unobtrusive spectator’s posture, and the first chords signalled a moment of beginning, I realised it was not only my own corporeality that was jostling into my consciousness. I could feel the heat emanating from the person next to me as I became aware of the juxtaposed solidity and transience of her body. And I watched as Malcolm’s foot manipulated keyboard pedals, the ethereal complexity of the music originating from its socked mundaneity. And then there was Marie-Louise of course. As her dancing bodied forth Myrrha I found my eyes drawn to her hands. Hard pressed to the floor, their human frailty showed brittle in the sudden rush of blood to tips as her knuckles whitened. An echolalia of vulnerability between performer and spectators emerged as Myrrha’s finger-roots bearing into the earth met my own attempts to draw my breathing under control; a moment of embodied encounter took shape in a space of liminality poised between stage and spectators.
In our discussion after the performance, it appeared that bodies had also been hyper-present, in ways beyond the obvious fact of watching another body dancing, for many other audience members. The words shared in the group were corporeal –– ‘bony’, ‘womb’, ‘maternity’ and ‘visceral’ as well as ‘oppressive’ and ‘vulnerable’. And many talked of the performance as felt within our own bodies; with Marie-Louise, a neck had ached, a leg twitched, a back stiffened. Enfolding themselves into each movement on stage, therefore, were all the other bodies in the room. In this joining there was a fragmentation of somatic forms; the limbs and viscera coming into insistent awareness were distributed along strings of sentences as they had been in sequences of movements. Such fragmentation arguably articulates moments of transformation not only seen by the audience, but also felt within the space of the dance.
Yet, transformation is perhaps not the right word, and nor is metamorphosis. These suggest a becoming of one thing, already having been another – a linearity of alteration like Myrrha’s body to myrrh tree. Instead, the ebb and flow of corporeal intensities circulating during the performance, and the viscerality of words we used to articulate these afterward, speak of a less linear becoming. Our bodies were made material in their encounter with Myrrha. Or, to put it another way, in those moments of somatic connection, we found ourselves to have and become bodies in a way that is not always acknowledged for an audience. Certainly academic audiences are (at least supposed to be) disembodied parts of bodies – ears, eyes, and maybe a hand that takes notes.
It is through this materialising and presencing of processual corporeality that we are drawn back to the questions posed above, and to a consideration of emotion. In her exploration of emotions, cultural theorist Sara Ahmed seamlessly draws together what we had felt in a tensely liminal but embodied way during the performance – the ineluctable intermingling of affect and corporeality; she writes, ‘emotions play a crucial role in the “surfacing” of individual and collective bodies’ (Ahmed 2004). Somatic resonances and intensities arguably therefore cannot be dislocated from emotion. And this sense of the surfacing (or producing) of our own feeling materiality warns against thinking about emotions in a linear way.
It suggests it too simple to assume that the emotions in the room ‘came from’ Myrrha, or from Marie-Louise’s performance of her. Instead, holding in mind the fragmented but embodied encounters that arose during the performance offers up to recognition an alternative sense of directionality. As Ahmed argues, it ‘suggests that emotions are not simply “within” or “without” but that they create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds’ (2004). As such, it is not only that Myrrha’s pain, made to move and traverse by Marie-Louise, was dripped like tree sap into our own bodies. Rather, our bodies, in the contingent becomings of neck aching, leg twitching and ragged breathing produced a collective pain; it materialised with and through our bodies as the audience were not just done to, but also doing; we were present and productive. This reminds us, perhaps, that not only in the heightened affect of dance but also in the hush of lectures and the intellectual dynamics of seminars, the academic body feels as well as writes; it aches, breathes and twitches as well as disappears. Or, as Virginia Woolf (2012) put it, ‘all day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.’
Ahmed, S. (2004) Affective Economies. Social Text, 22(2), 117-139.
McCormack, D. (2014) Refrains for Moving Bodies: Experience and Experiment in Affective Spaces. Duke University Press.
Woolf, V. (2012) On Being Ill: with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen. Paris Press.
Read Marie-Louise Crawley’s blogpost on the performance from her perspective here.
Anna Lavis is a medical anthropologist and Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on embodied intimacies of illness and caregiving, particularly in relation to mental health and with an emphasis on gender and young people. Anna is also an honorary Research Associate in the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. There, with Karin Eli, she co-founded the Body and Being Network.