SPLIT: thoughts on a choreographic process

By Julia de Rosenwerth

I began making Split, my first solo choreographic work in July this year. First off, I’d like to say that solos are really difficult (possibly the most difficult, and ironically so). When I started working I did not have a director or outside eye. I was in a particularly insular situation because I also had no clear idea of where I wanted the work to go, and this was amplified by having no one to tell me where it could go! I tried to ask myself what I was interested in and keen on exploring – but, nothing giving at first.


Around the time I was lucky enough to participate in some workshops with Athena Mazarakis. Her work focuses on the body as a site of memory and history and tries to ‘excavate’ the body through somatic and mental exercises. As one might expect, this tunneling process was very internal, and for me, it was quite a challenge. In one of the workshops I accessed some childhood memories that I had not processed properly, which I realised were very traumatic. These struck me so profoundly that I decided to base my choreography on ‘the memories held in my body’ (and all the possible manifestations of that). This was a good first step, but still, I had not decided on how to begin generating movement material.


After days of rolling around on the floor aimlessly, thankfully I remembered that choreographic tasks were things people used to make choreography with (no duh)! I started to regain some mental fortitude (I was really in a bit of a daze) and began a good amount of speaking, writing and drawing to myself. I carried on with my improvisations and slowly began to notice that what was emerging was an attempt to constantly invert my body; resisting a vertical positioning. Most times I was upside down, balancing on a limb, never stable, testing gravity and my body, but never standing upright. I ran with this and began to develop a kind of general movement vocabulary.


To add to the insular, internal environment, there were no mirrors in the studio where I was working and I was not initially videoing myself. So, I did not have to engage my eyes in any choreographic sense (which I was very lucky to have experienced). Through the absence of objects that prompted me to use my dominant visual-sense, I was able to tap into my kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses and build up a strong somatic feeling of the choreography/ my body performing the movements. I could describe it as overwhelmingly uneasy, tense and muscular – like being on a constant in-breath.


To accompany this, I struggled to judge whether what I was doing was effective, ‘good’ or interesting and so remained pretty focused on the journey of my body through the work and how to sustain and develop that. This became empowering and self-assuring as I had to learn to rely on my own perceptions of the work and trust that I was getting closer to what I intended for it to ‘do’.


Sounds productive and immersive, right? Well, yes, but while an immersive environment can be a great way to begin a choreographic process, it can’t go on forever – not in as much as you want to make a work with an actual audience in mind. Because performance is overwhelmingly viewer-orientated, an exclusively insular way of working is not actually a very good way to make anything performance-related. Knowing this and getting a little fidgety about it, I had to open up the environment and begin thinking about how the work was coming across – how it looked externally.


Introducing image, externality and gaze into my process, I began filming some of my improvisations (by finding ingenious and inspired ways of balancing my cell phone on objects around the room). I started to see what kinds of things were emerging and what a viewer might interpret from the work. Yet, I found that being my own outside-eye was still somewhat internal and circular and I found myself viewing the work based on my subjective experience of it. I decided to ask Adriana Jamisse to help direct the work to pull out the interesting sections and craft a journey for the audience. In this process I discovered a tension between the way the work felt and how it looked; somethings that felt great were not effective and other things that I thought would not work ended up being powerful.


Without being reductive, I would contrast external viewing of a work: seeing how the elements (space, movements, costume, music) fit together to convey an idea, to doing and feeling the work (as I have discussed above). I would hesitate to think of one or the other as ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’, because I think that when we look at anything, we see it through a certain, subjective lens which is influenced by how we feel in a particular moment as well as  how we have been brought up, or our race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. But, definitely there is some difference between doing something and watching yourself do it. There is some kind of tension there, and interestingly, my choreographic process began to reflect in the content and themes I was exploring in the work.


Through the movement vocabulary that was emerging from the process, I started to see images and moments to explore my gendered, sexualised self – informed by those childhood memories I learnt had affected the way I regarded my body, my gender performance and my sexuality. This content rife with subject/object issues. For instance, as a woman, I often experience a rift between feeling like a subjective, emotional, complex human being and continuously being made an object – both by myself and others as a result of the male-dominant, hyper-sexualised and hyper-image conscious society that I find myself in. This creates a kind of doubleness or split in the experience of myself and how I relate to my body, which I explore in the work. In the same way that I was experiencing a tension between the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’/viewed aspects of my choreographic process, so too was I exploring themes that gave rise to this dialogue.


Through this process, my solo has become a visceral, uneasy performance where I purposefully invert, destabilise and attempt to deform by own female body in an effort to highlight the different political, gender-based and sexual readings that arise from resisting a vertical, upright positioning. I work with a long, wide dress that reveals my legs when I go upside down for short periods of time and covers my head completely when I stay upside down for an extended periods of time. At times I stand up with the dress over my head, which I think removes my subjectivity (through obscuring my face), highlights a ‘double body’ and looks not-quite human. I think these elements are all in conversation with viewership, the female body, objectification, vulnerability and subjectivity. 

Photography: Alessandra Griffin