ArtPress| February 2016
For Claude Shannon / Pierre Godard et Liz Santoro, Charlotte Imbault
(translated by L-S Torgoff)
Le principe d'incertitude (The Uncertainty Principle) is the name of the dance company founded by the Frenchman Pierre Godard and the American Liz Santoro. Their latest dance piece, For Claude Shannon, develops a system first taken up in their preceding work, Relative Collider, and a question: how can movement be turned into a language?
"What is an L? If you say U, I can make a U with my legs and a U with my arms," exclaims Liz Santoro. In late November, when the cast for Pierre Godard and Liz Santoro's latest production was rehearsing in Paris, they configured all the letters. M is 3 4 2 1. "M is easy!" the dancers Cynthia Koppe and Teresa Silva confirm. "D is: He/llo it's/me," chants Marco D'Agostin as he slices his arm four times to the rhythm of this phrase. The dancers are memorizing a new alphabet. Four of them form a cross, each facing the others, as they sketch out the letters.
This is the company's fifth piece. The last, Relative Collider, created in 2014, performed by a speaker (Godard) and three dancers (Koppe, Santoro and Stephen Thompson), posed the question of language as movement. For Claude Shannon, a tribute to the father of information theory, is about movement as a language. Godard's thesis at the LIMSI CNRS (a multidisciplinary in formation science institute) was on automatic language processing. In this piece he uses language as a structured system that makes it possible for meaning to be conveyed from one individual to another by connecting a signifier and the signified. But how can there be a system of exchange between the body of a spectator and a body onstage? Santoro, who studied neurosciences at Harvard, partnered with Koppe to create We Do Our Best (2012). That work concerned the nervous system's reactions when someone knows they are being watched. How can you let yourself be seen "naked" onstage' Each of Godard and Santoro's pieces creates a system that has a fixed structure and at the same time leaves space for chance and improvisation. To quote John Cage, a recurring reference for this company, "Structure without life is dead. But life without structure is unseen."
To explain For Claude Shannon in words, you need the help of numbers. Each arm works in two planes (one sagittal and the other coronal), as does each leg (on one leg and legs spread apart), to indicate four positions: 1 2 3 4. These four numbers constitute a unit, a brick or an atom, to be used to express a complete vocabulary. Since there are 24 possible combinations of these four numbers (8 beginning with 1, then six with 2, etc.), there are 24 atoms.These atoms correspond to 24 letters (without y or z). A letter can be indicated with the legs or arms, so that the legs can make a U while the arms make a B. When put together, these two atoms make up a "body molecule." So much for the structure: now we need a landscape for their combination. What language? What sentences? The cut out and segmented shapes thus defined need to be transformed into meaning. In this duo's work, a segment does not directly indicate a meaning. There is no literal translation of the arm and leg positions into words. The system is more closed and therefore can become more open.
The title, For Claude Shannon, provides a clue. The first sentence of the second paragraph in the introduction to A Mathematical Theory of Communication tells us, « The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. » Godard explains it like this: « I see it as a seed, a Leibniz monad according to Deleuze's understanding, or in other words something that unfolds in an infinite series. While the words themselves are not neutral, what we are interested in is not so much the sentence as the more general syntactical structure that makes it possible to write other sentences. « The structure derives from Lucien Tesnière’s dependency grammar, which defines « heads » (or « governors ») and « dependants » (or modifiers). Each word is labeled as an adverb, verb, coordinating conjunction, adjective, determinate, etc. Each sentence contains eight labels. The number 3 is the head of the word number 1. Once reconstituted by an algorithm developed at Stanford, the structure is fixed. Now we can select eight of the 24 atoms at random. « It so happens that there are almost 30 billion ways to select, in an orderly way, eight out of the 24 atoms. Statistically, this means we will never draw the same sequence, » he explains. Before each performance, the dancers are informed of the chance selection, the 176 simultaneous movements of their arms and legs they have to learn. Every time is different, and they have to reposition themselves constantly.
When you watch the letters being formed in the studio, something happens. The gestures are minimal, the numbers called out precisely, bringing into being a raw material that can be processed formally and semantically, giving free rein to the imagination. How do you listen to a pair of arms? How big is a letter? How big is space? On what terrain does language function? The system is an ensemble. It involves the whole body. It builds itself brick by brick. But a communality must be composed to hold the system. What lies be-hind what is being said by arms whirling like unhinged helicopter rotor blades? Can the world be finished? In the studio we call up Mettere al Mondo il Mondo (Bringing the world into the world) by Alighiero Boetti, an artist who used the alphabet as a frame of reference. The indecipherable suddenly becomes decipherable. In preparing For Claude Shannon, there are no sentences to decrypt, just a situation of a world to find. And of the self in the world.
Undergirding their work since We Do Our Best is what Liz Santoro and Pierre Godard call « the triangle. » particularly operative in Relative Collider, with its three dancers. "What I’m looking for," continues Santoro, "is that moment when the audience can see themselves through me, because for me it's just the opposite- I can't see myself without seeing those around me.» Gilles Deleuze's concept of "thinking in the middle" becomes thinking through the other, in the other, by means of abolishing the fourth wall. The "triangle intervenes frequently in Relative Collider. During these moments, the three dancers (Koppe, Santoro and Thompson) stand facing the audience. Their faces are completely unguarded. They look at us, sometimes bending a knee or raising an arm. It is totally absorbing.
The candidness of their bodies, completely open to our demand to look at them, draws us into the space of the stage, but our gaze does not seize on the dancers. We just look at them so that the present can reach us and then leave.
Mouvement| March-April 2016
Dans la jungle de Claude Shannon, Léa Poiré