During one of the most beautiful weekends this year, I hosted Radical Presence in the Park, a movement workshop on climate themes with interdisciplinary artist Deborah Black. Deborah brought her experience in Viewpoints, I brought my questions and prompts about climate. Viewpoints is a postmodern movement technique originated by dancer and choreographer Mary Overlie, which deconstructs materials used in performance: space, time, shape, emotion, story, and movement. By defining physicality in terms of each of these materials, the Viewpoints opens up infinite possibilities for movement. The Viewpoints, in the process of deconstruction, can be put back together and reapplied to compose dance, theatre, and other physical performance pieces. This potential to compose performance work has been manifested by director Anne Bogart and the New York-based SITI Company, which expanded Overlie’s Viewpoints to specifically collaborate with actors to generate theatre (these physical Viewpoints are spatial relationship, kinesthetic response, shape, gesture, repetition, architecture, tempo, duration, and topography). Deborah and I used the Viewpoints to dissect questions and concerns about climate, and our human relationship to the natural world.
The Viewpoints is practiced as improvisation, with each material as a prompt, as a way to investigate performance and presence, but with no prescribed outcome. Up until last month, I’ve only practiced the Viewpoints inside, in studios with four walls, fluorescent lights, and if I’m lucky, one window. I took such a Viewpoints workshop with Deborah, who studied with Overlie and brings both the philosophical framework of the technique and the physical practice into play during her sessions. The theory behind Overlie’s Viewpoints blew my mind. In a diversion from modernist theory which situated industry at the top of the philosophical hierarchy, postmodernism and Overlie’s Viewpoints topple this hierarchy. While modernism upheld a vertical power structure, postmodernism opened up a horizontal model, in which no one entity is more valuable than another. Overlie places the Viewpoints materials on this horizontal, like building blocks sitting next to each other, so that each of the six elements can be investigated and valued for its own sake.
To deconstruct performance and its materials in this way is radical. In climate terms, I apply this radical shift of power to humans in relation to our environment – translating the power metaphor from lines (vertical, horizontal) to shapes (pyramid, circle). In Western society, we humans live like we’re at the top of the pyramid in relationship to other species in our ecosystem. But if we shift this pyramid to a circle, there is no hierarchy, and humans have to live with and amongst other species. This transition from pyramid to circle requires a massive revision of our cultural values, and is a process that will take time. As a start, I seek ways to practice this process of deconstructing engrained power structures by applying radical presence to my day-to-day. When Deborah came to me with the idea of a Viewpoints workshop outside, in New York City’s Central Park, I was instantly on board.
In my work and daily life, I am motivated by questions that confront our seen and unseen societal systems: How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? Through our Radical Presence in the Park workshop, I sought to empower participants to build on their own agency as individuals, and to foster a growing community of concerned New Yorkers. I intended to reiterate tough, daunting questions, in tandem with offering resources for continued dialogue and action. One of the biggest actions we can take on climate change is to talk to others about climate change. As artists, we can use our tools and techniques to amplify these climate conversations. For those already concerned with climate issues, how can a physical practice like the Viewpoints invigorate and motivate individual actions? In this way, our workshop involved the exploration of the Viewpoints in conversation with each other and our environment. Unlike in a studio, we were confronted with human impacts on nature, and vice versa. Luckily the weather was lovely during our time together, but what would have happened if it had rained? On multiple occasions, we repositioned our gathering spot to be more in the sun. And it was impossible to ignore dogs bounding past us or the music of picnickers. It was all part of our research with the Viewpoints’ six materials.
As we moved through individualized practice with each of the Viewpoints, Deborah utilized our environment as a canvas. In our practice with movement, in which we experience and identify kinesthetic sensation, Deborah prompted us to pair up with something in the park, to glean information from our natural environment. In terms of story, we practiced with prompts like “view the environment as if someone (an artist) created it” and “view the environment as if YOU created it.” Moving through our corner of the park with these prompts amplified my sense of agency, and also a new consideration of other species: does the bird care if I get close to it? How does the tree feel if I lean into it? All in all, I experienced a heightened sense of awareness, and a more nuanced connection to the space and others around me.
We culminated our workshop with a brief, individual composition, using the prompt “What is your first memory of the natural world?” Each participant took their unique approach to this prompt, invoking the four basic elements of earth, wind, fire, water, as well as their own invocations of the Viewpoints. What resulted in every 5-minute “scene” was a new approach to the story of human’s interaction with the park. Each composition was an invitation to refocus, reconnect, and to layer on our own meaning. The way that the Viewpoints empower each individual is why I am continually drawn to this technique, and why, in the process of making meaning out of our current era of climate chaos, this physical practice is beneficial.
Deborah Black hosts online workshops, so you can practice the Viewpoints and Radical Presence from wherever you are.
This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.
Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.