Written by Zuna Vesan_2009
When I started to discover the world of modern dance at age 16, José Limón’s technique played an important role in my introduction to movement. While describing one of the basic principles – so called “suspension” – my teacher used a metaphor: “suspension is like death.” That explanation shocked me. Due to my age I was thinking about death as a negative part of one’s life, an ending. Death’s link to dance seemed irrational and confusing, nevertheless, in my subconscious, this thought was quickly adopted. Nowadays, my approach to death is completely different and “suspension” is fully incorporated into my pedagogical practice.
Everyday Presence of Death
Death is part of our being. If we take a deep thought about life, we come to the conclusion that death is all around us. Spring is the rebirth, summer is the culmination of our energy, autumn is the harvest of our crops and waiting of our rest, winter is, in this sense, death.
Without this “winter-death,” a time when many species hibernate and some animals die, new life and rejuvenated energy could not come. A comparison could be made between the tiny changes – everyday we lose some of our hair, some skin cells die just to let others emerge – and our own births and regenerations. Similarly, thoughts and ideas must die to let the new ones rise… Many of our goals are now behind us, because we live for new ones, more mature ones.
Death is undoubtedly a transitional phase of life. In dance, the expiration of one movement is the source for the formation of a new one. Now the metaphor for movement as suspension, as breath, of life and death, becomes clearer.
Suspension – Suspend Your Movement through the Stillness
Many ancient spiritual thoughts of eastern nations (e.g. Tibetans) do not restrict the life cycle to only one birth. Reincarnation is a principle of spiritual development, which describes a path from birth to nirvana through the liberation of rebirths and knowledge of human suffering. Existence is understood as a chain of events, causes and effects, some of them long-term and some them are short-term. These events are interrupted by a number of needed deaths. When we realize that our lives are temporary, we often encounter thoughts like „what is happening during death, respectively after death?“
What is happening during the time our soul is entering a new period of living? What is the state between two lives? We can ask a similar question, when we realize, that our movement is temporary too: the fact that it must finish to allow another movement to begin. This raises the question “what is happening between those two movements? What is happening in time, if, before we start a new action, we complete our initial action?“
The interesting term of Limón’s technique – suspension – could be the answer. From the technical point of view it means „prolonging the highest point of movement.” It expresses the state in which the dancer’s body exists between time and space, inter-time and inter-space. It is frequently explained as „prolonging the movement in stillness.“ This sounds like an oxymoron: how can movement and stillness co-exist? The answer is suspension. It appears at the highest point of the movement and gives the impression of continuousness, of using momentum without gravity.
Suspension has nothing to do with muscles. Muscles have already worked before suspension to realize the movement itself. Suspension is, above all, a matter of energy. It works with an image of energy coming out of the central part of the body (in the area of navel) to create the shape or movement that finished, but the energy continues on. It is a feeling of “growing the movement from the dancer’s body to his/her astral body.” Visually it seems that the body is prolonged as well as the action. This feeling is appreciated by the dancer as well as the spectator.
Suspension is like hesitation between two actions. It could be expressed as a conjunction between two movements – in both space and time. It is a kind of short-term movement in stillness, a moment when one movement has already finished and the other has not yet started. It is a bridge between two actions. It is a prolonged moment when the dancer has time to decide whether he/she will continue the first movement or start a new one. Without suspension the linking of two movements may seem kind of mechanic, abrubt, boring, and liveless. When a phrase of movement is performed with suspenion, the weight of the body is emphasized, used. In fact it is impossible to incorporate suspension without acknowldgeing the weight of our torsos, legs and arms. In other words, we can certainly do the next move without suspension, but its quality would be absolutely different. It would create a completely different sensation for both the dancer and the observer. Suspension is important for both the quality and form of movement. Here I see a stumbling block for many dancers who do a movement without understanding its quality.
Bardo – Meantime
All these states in dance can correlate with death, to be more specific – bardo. This term is known from Tibetan mythology, from Tibetan Book of Dead. Bardo literally means „between two“ (´bar´ – in the middle, ´do´ – two). Buddhists do not perceive death as a malfunction of all life functions, nor only as a specific physiologic state. What they see mostly is transition: change from one state of being to another. There is a specific tension between what has finished and what will come to life. “Bardo“ means transition between two existences. After physical death, when the soul separates from the physical body, there is a delay before the soul enters the next life. This transition is described as a time for “orienting,” for staying in “nothing,” and waiting until the next life arrives. The Buddhists describe the soul as a stream of consciousness.
Suspension, as anything between something, gives movement impulse and drive. It is a consequence of past movement and at the same time assumption of a new one. It is a tension between two states of being. In partnering in contemporary dance, suspension can be a great helper. Due to suspension, the male-dancer does not look like he is carrying his partner using his brute strength. Even the female-dancer has to cooperate to gain the true quality of suspension. Partnering in contemporary dance is a result of synchronicity between both partners, where the partner who is carried works with the carrier to negotiate the distribution of his/her weight. This partner can help the lifter by finding ways to ease the weight of the body. There are techniques to make oneself lighter, to distribute the weight, to “cheat gravity“ by bringing one’s weight to the axis of the carrying body and sending heavier parts of the body towards the floor to use it as an abutment.
One important part of this technique is finding a state of suspension. The body is in the stillness, physically and temporarily, neither high nor low, weighing almost nothing. If the partner realizes the moment of suspenion accurately, he or she can carry the dancer without using much muscular strength. It is more about the strength of awareness and listening to the physicality of the other dancer. This saves a lot of energy, and visually these moments are usually the most interesting. In contact improvisation suspension is key to generating the dance. It cannot live without it. It becomes a „game“ of chasing the suspensions, the stillnesses, the peaks, that come through the play of improvising bodies.
Death is a Matter of Quality
Death can be viewed as a matter of ratio between quantity and quality. It requires us to look at the quality of our lives. Realizing that the quality of our dying depends on our approach to life while living opens us to the importance of preparing for our death. For Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners, this preparation mean meditation about death, impermanence, non-attachment… meditations about being free from the illusions that we live in. Realizing that there is a re-birth after deaths brings us hope as well as responsibility. We are held accountable for our choices and actions. In the terms of karma, the quality of our following life is determined by our previous lives. The chain of reincarnation leads us towards the state when no other reincarnation is needed. By this time we can perceive the quality of our entire life, and can influence and modify by our behaviour.
Suspension depends on the quality of the past move. It cannot come out of nothing. The dancer applies some effort, addresses the movement in a clear direction, then produces the quality and precision needed to reach his or her moment of suspension. Basically it means the dancer’s ability to free some of the weight of their body in order to reach a new level of experience. Suspension generates a specific kinetic mechanism which guides the body into its highest point of a movement. If this preparation is not done, or a dancer does not understand the relationship and flow of structure and movement, suspension cannot be reached. And as a dancer’s phrase of movement continues, their quality of suspension influences the quality of the next movement. So dancing becomes like breath, like the life cycle, like the path of ongoing death and reincarnation, beautifully presented through our body’s movement.