By Iván Espinosa
Last Fall, I attended an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) called “Kelly Reichardt: Powerfully Observant.” It was a mid-career retrospective highlighting six feature-length productions created by the New York-based independent filmmaker that have, since production, earned critical acclaim. Her intensely perceptive, often slow-paced films have been celebrated for reflecting a tremendous sense of landscape. Her camera work relies on vast still terrains, capturing rich colors of luscious Oregon greens and Pacific Coast waters. In fact, nearly all of Reichardt’s films have taken place in the Pacific Northwest. Even though she’s a New Yorker, this landscape has proven to be the strongest recurring motif throughout her filmmaking. Reichardt has revealed that one of the most important aspects of her artistic process is spending a significant amount of time — often up to 3 months — living in and physically exploring a landscape before filming it. In this way, Reichardt is able to capture the Earth so vivaciously in her work because she first immerses her entire sensorium in the landscape.
It was the influential French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who also emphasized the body as the primary site of knowing the world. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty contended that the event of perception unfolds as a reciprocal exchange between the living body and the animate world that surrounds it. In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty wrote: “It is the body which points out, and which speaks…This disclosure of the body’s immanent expressiveness extends, as we shall see, to the whole sensible world, and our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.”1 What is this “miracle of expression” that Merleau-Ponty speaks of? And how can a bodily “gaze” help to discover it? It took a somewhat radical experience for this to begin to make sense, a deviation from my quotidian ways of walking through the world. And it happened with the help of a quite radical art form called Butoh.
I discovered Butoh near Seattle and took an introductory workshop at a dance studio overlooking the Puget Sound. I still remember my first experience like it was yesterday. I recall having goosebumps and feeling a sort of electric friction running all throughout my body at the very inception of the class, a sensation that kept recurring for the next three hours, as I was challenged to dance in the hyper-slow motion form that Butoh is known for. With each somatic exercise, I became more potently aware of my body and my surroundings, of both the inner and outer landscapes. Eventually, the teacher seamlessly led the group outdoors, having us slowly lug our bodies towards the nearby forest, as if we were moving through dense, thick mud. All five senses — touch (somatosensation), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), sight (vision), and sound (audition) — were actively engaged in this dance. In this heightened state of awareness, the landscape became more animate than ever before. Every little detail was amplified, as if someone took the dial of my perception and turned it all the way up to maximum. I could suddenly hear an orchestra of sonic symphonies: chirping and croaking, whirling leaves and whistling winds, critters jumping on trees at the crunch of a breaking branch; a bird returning the call of another. My flesh was one of many more, constantly moving in response to sound and creating new ones, contributing to a cyclical cacophony of soundscapes. In those moments, I felt so incredibly connected to the Earth. I felt viscerally and affectively unified with the mushy, porous soil I was sinking my feet into.
The hyper-slow motion certainly played a key role here. “There is indeed a music in the streams,” writes Wendell Berry. “But it is not for the hurried. It has to be loitered by and imagined. Or imagined toward, for it is hardly for men at all.”2 Butoh challenges dancers to not only slow down, but to move within a very different structure of time. It’s an invitation to diverge from the “capital time” of living bodies constantly progressing from sunrise to sunset in a nonstop succession of activities and mental images. Butoh gives time a density different from its everyday, fast-paced density. It lends it a materiality it does not ordinarily have when racing from home, car, gym, office, shopping malls, rush hour traffic, etc. The Butoh body doesn’t race, says dance scholar and professor Sondra Fraleigh. In Butoh, the body floats, “but not like ballet, rather more like wood sinking lightly in water… Time edges along in the beautifully slow emergence of a gesture, and as soon as one has arrived, another is beginning; then suddenly, as in nature, changes roll like thunder, and we find deep connectivity beneath the detailed collage.”3
During that first-ever practice of Butoh, that other-worldly way of moving through worlds, I discovered many detailed collages, Earthly assemblages I had totally overlooked and disregarded before. Upon entering the woods, my body soon crossed paths with a gigantic fallen tree that was obstructing the trail. Swarms of royal-yellow mushrooms were growing from this tree, their color reminiscent of lemon chiffon cake. After slowly sinking to the ground, I began to caress the mushroom caps with my fingertips, as the soft skin of the mushrooms caressed the surface of my own, of my nose, cheeks and lips. I’ll never forget my first look at those mushrooms through this “Butoh gaze.” Up close and at a very intimate range, the complexity and detail of a single mushroom took me completely by surprise. Like a camera zooming in, bringing my eyes even closer to the mushroom cap, I saw a feast of patterns emerge and expand out of the tangled tapestry of gills and pores.
And then it hit me: was this the “immanent expressiveness” in all other “objects” that Maurice Merleau-Ponty was gesturing towards? This fungal ‘object’ was simultaneously an expressive world of its own and a part of a gesturing landscape, a part of a much larger Earthly song. Was the mushroom giving me a glimpse, through direct bodily resonance, of “the miracle of expression” that extends to the more-than-human world? For the first time, but not the last, I had the sense that there is much more interconnectedness and intelligence to the Earth, to the lands that we walk on and walk through, than immediately meets the eye. That encounter, that dance, was an awakening, the beginning of seeing. To this day, Butoh continues to remind me that just at the limits of ordinary perception lies another level of knowing, of gills as tiny and perfectly ordered as a single mushroom, of unseen lives complex and beautiful.
And yet, the songs and stories of the living Earth are rarely, if ever, the star of the show in Western drama. Even in the celebrated artwork of someone like Kelly Reichardt, the landscapes are always scenery for the human characters, mere backdrops for the human narratives.
As a theater artist, my critique is focused on stage performance in the U.S. Most of the classic theater performances in the Western canon are rooted in Anthropocentric stories. The Earthly landscapes are always subservient to the human actors on stage. Even in ‘avant-garde’ or ‘experimental’ stage performances in which ‘nature’ plays a more prominent role, the landscapes featured are still not actual living beings. Most often, representations of the Earth on stage are — at best — either anthropomorphic displays, mimetic interpretations by human performers or fake structures that are supposed to look and feel like the real thing. Surely stage performance can go beyond mere imitation!
The theater claims to open you up to the world by seeing it through the eyes of someone different than yourself. But the ‘world’ doesn’t consist only of humans engaging with other humans. We the self-named sapient ones are not the only beings that possess what I call “terrestrial sentience” — the capacity of Earthly agents to perceive and experience their surroundings. Far from being inanimate scenery, the landscapes of the Earth — both the ones we can easily see and not so easily see — are home to a myriad of living, conscious beings with propensities, trajectories, and life histories of their own.
New scientific studies, for example, are strongly suggesting that many types of plants are capable of sensing and perceiving sounds, such as the gurgle of water through a pipe or the buzzing of insects.4 “We tend to highly underestimate plants because their responses are usually less visible to us. But leaves turn out to be extremely sensitive vibration detectors,” says lead study author Heidi Appel.4 Other extensive research conducted by Professor of Ecology Suzanne Simard, demonstrates that trees actively use underground fungal networks to communicate extensively and share resources.5 In a TED talk titled “How Trees Talk To Each Other,” Simard highlights how these highly connected, self-aware and responsive symbiotic networks in the Earth’s forests mimic our own complex neural and social networks. Moreover, researchers led by Simard at the University of British Columbia are stunned that trees as widely unrelated as Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine can communicate with each through fungi, an organism from a completely different kingdom.6
To let that sink in: Not only can a tree communicate with other trees of its own species, a tree can also communicate with with trees of a totally different species, all made possible by the tree’s ability to communicate with highly complex, mycorrhizal fungal networks (a being from a totally different kingdom). That’s essentially an inter-species, trans-kingdom performance of creative agency. It certainly makes Western theater’s anthropocentrism seem obtuse (to put it mildly).
“We have treated humans as exceptional, and thus as fundamentally separate from the rest of the world,” writes anthropologist Eduardo Kohn.7 This story that neoliberal America keeps telling itself over and over again, a story in which human intelligence is the supreme measure of all things, is at great friction with nature, and with the beings that are implicated, with us, in this Earthly existence. “That other kinds of beings see us changes things,” writes Kohn. “Such encounters with other beings force us to recognize the fact that seeing, representing, and perhaps even knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs.”7 And in these times of catastrophic climate change, what we require is a much more active, inclusive engagement with the other-than-human world, however challenging it may be. We desperately need what environmental sociologist Kari Norgaard calls the “revolution of our shared imagination. Imagination is power especially in a time of crisis.”8
We need to imagine a new type of ECO-centric orientation and methodology in the dramatic arts, one that goes beyond anthropomorphic interpretations and imitations. It’s time to bring forth a new wave of stage performances that feature the breathing landscapes of the Earth not as a subservient backdrop, but as literally alive on stage, as a potent field of sentient intelligence in which we participate. As a theater director, my greatest hope is to manifest ECO-centric performances that point towards the much larger biosphere, an Earth of which humans are but one part. Imagine stage performances in which human bodies attempted to “listen in” on the Earth’s conversations, in which we surrender our sensorioms to songs from the worlds of soil and stone. Imagine a performance in which human bodies — perhaps Butoh dancers — alter their perception of time and reality by communing continuously with living, breathing emissaries of the plant kingdom for extended periods of time. Butoh offers us a potential starting point, a nondiscursive aesthetic of corporeal transmission, a way of dancing through worlds that produces a different way of being in the world.
Perhaps the soundtrack for this dance could be music produced by modern devices that act as a sonic interface between the Earth and the human body. German artist Bartholomäus Traubeck, for example, has created equipment that translates the rings of trees into “music” by playing them on a turntable. Rather than use a needle like a record player, sensors gather information about the wood’s color and texture and use an algorithm that translates variations into piano notes.9 In Italy, researchers have created a device that uses an electrical connector and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) interface to perceive the electromagnetic variations from the surface of plant leaves to the root system and translates them into sounds.10 These devices could be used as a part of stage performances in which the human performers surrender to the landscape, rather than dominate or marginalize it. This ECO-centric theater would demand embodied presence, participating in the transmission by being there, flesh-to-flesh, pore-to-pore, with other kinds of creatures that can open new kinds of possibilities for relating and understanding.
For those epic landscapes of the Pacific Northwest portrayed in Kelly Reichardt’s films are much more than just pretty, lush backdrops for human characters. They’re a glimpse of a much larger tapestry of Earthly life, of a sentient presence cohabitating with us. Barefoot, I’ve danced in those Northwestern forests countless times, the dirt pressing up against the arches of my feet. My toes caressing the ground were like fingers on a Spanish guitar, playing a song of sweet passion, of wet ferns, moss covered trees, and soft sand. I fell in love with the murmurs of forest rivers and streams, flowing from the Cascade mountain range with soft inland lullabies. Now, living in hustle and bustle of New York City, it takes a bit more effort to hear those lullabies. But, they’re here, they’re all around us, all the time. The stage can remind us, ECO-centric theater can take us there. Theater as communion, not just with ourselves, but with all of Earth. To commune with this universe of terrestrial sentience is to renew our bond with a whole of which we are a part, with the worlds and communities of living beings beneath the pavement.
My Butoh teachers taught me that the forests hold the Earth’s songs: stories of growth and blossoming, of being and becoming, songs of death, transformation, and rebirth. Here, my body wakes to the sounds of other bodies. It is another’s body—the body of the Earth— but it is also my body. The songs of a living landscape. My theater and my flesh, filled with fresh breath and inspiration, shall welcome them.
1 Butoh, which incorporates elements of French Existentialism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Japanese theater and Eastern spiritual thought, is an avant-garde, iconoclastic form of dance that was developed in the late 1950’s after World War II through experimental collaborations between its founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Butoh dance is often recognized and characterized by its gradual, drawn-out unveiling of surreal, dream-like, sometimes dark imagery and its extreme slow motion.
2 For more than 30 years, Sondra Fraleigh has been a leader in the study of contemporary dance. She is Professor Emeritus of the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where she chaired the Department of Dance. The author of seven books, she is a leading authority in the study of Butoh.
Iván Espinosa is a Latino experimental theater artist. He began his creative work in the Pacific Northwest and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theater from The Evergreen State College. Primarily influenced by Deep Ecology and his passionate interest in Butoh dance, Iván’s work explores how the intelligence and sentience of the Earth can be experienced in the theater, while resisting anthropomorphic imitations. As a director and choreographer of stage performance, Iván has produced dozens of original works, including multiple performances at the Seattle International Butoh Festival and the Houston Fringe Festival. Iván is currently completing his Master of Arts in Performance Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is researching theories of object-oriented ontology and performative ethnography, particularly the eco-centric performance of living
landscapes. Learn more about Iván and his work at: www.IvanEspinosa.org.
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, and Colin Smith. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge, 1962. Print.
- Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Edited by Norman Wirzba, Counterpoint, 2003.
- Fraleigh, Sondra. Butoh : Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy, University of Illinois Press, 2010.
- Zaraska, Marta. “Can Plants Hear? Flora May Be Able to Detect the Sounds of Flowing Water or Munching Insects.” Scientific American, Springer Nature, 17 May 2017.
- Simard, Suzanne. “How Trees Talk To Each Other.” Lecture, TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. June 2016. Accessed February 2, 2018. https://ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other.
- Frazer, Jennifer. “Dying Trees Can Send Food to Neighbors of Different Species.” The Artful Amoeba, Scientific American, 9 May 2015, https://www.blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/dying- trees-can-send-food-to-neighbors-of-different-species/.
- Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward An Anthropology Beyond The Human. University of California Press, 2015.
- Norgaard, Kari. “Climate Change Is a Social Issue.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 January 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Climate-Change-Is-a-Social/234908.
- O`Callaghan, Jonathan. “What Do Tree Rings Sound Like When Played Like A Record?” IFLScience, 22 January 2018, https://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/what-do-tree-rings-sound-when-played- record/.
- Sewell, Anne. “Plant Orchestra — The Singing Plants of Damanhur Explained.” Digital Journal, 15 April 2012, https://www.digitaljournal.com/article/322993.
- Ohno, Kazuo, Yoshito Ohno, and John Barrett. Kazuo Ohno’s World: From without & within. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004. Print.