Feature: Gravity & Grace - The Institute of Controlled Falling

Friday 29 May 2015

Street art by Levalet, Paris, France (http://levalet.org).

Dramaturg and writer Ruth Little is the guest editor of this year’s Dance Umbrella Definite Article – a series of in depth reads on topics around dance and performance today. As her first piece goes live on Dance Umbrella’s website, Ruth tells us more about her theme for the year – The Institute of Controlled Falling….


Some years ago I went for a hearing test at St George’s Hospital. One of the offices of the Audiology Department had a small sign on the door which said, ‘Controlled Falling Clinic’. The name stayed with me, along with the idea that people with balance problems might learn to manage the likelihood of falling – that falling itself could be considered a manageable syndrome, perhaps even a skill, and not simply a source of fear which increases with age. In martial arts, parkour, base jumping and many extreme sports, of course, falling is a learned craft, the inevitable outcome of flying. Can it be an art – an embodied and aesthetic approach to human frailty and resilience? And so the Institute of Controlled Falling was born – a virtual space for considering the probability and possibilities of falling, in our times, and in our bodies. In the coming months I will gather the perspectives and insights of artists, scientists and social commentators into our relationship with gravity and descent and its contemporary choreographic implications.

My first piece in the series introduces notions of falling down, falling apart and falling away, along with some of the dance artists who have investigated the business of falling, including Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Claire Cunningham, and visual artists and writers whose work considers the social and psychological implications of falling in the 21st century. In a week marking the final chapter in the dance career of the great Sylvie Guillem, whose Broken Fall collaboration with Russell Maliphant in 2003 revealed her own thrilling physical brinkmanship, we have been poignantly reminded of the relationship between gravity and grace.

Virtuosity in classical dance – the dramatic extension of the miraculous acts of standing and breathing – arouses a thrill in an audience, according to Jonathan Burrows, precisely because the performer risks falling, failing. Virtuosity is a ‘negotiation with disaster’ which suspends time in the midst of risk. But Burrows argues that contemporary dance, in conscious opposition to the ‘anti-gravity’ world of ballet, ‘has always been interested in the idea of weight falling in response to gravity.’ In the material world, as Merce Cunningham pointed out, ‘our action is here on our two legs. That’s what our life is about.’ And falling, Cunningham insisted, ‘ is one of the ways of moving’.

A choreographer is a maker of movement in dialogue with gravity, expressive at every level of scale of the human will to rise up, and the human physical and social propensity to fall or be brought down to earth. Philosopher Mark Johnson argues that because ‘we exist within a gravitational field at the earth’s surface, and because of our ability to stand erect, we give great significance to standing up, rising, and falling down.’ Falling, then, is not only (or always) a metaphor for something else but is also an expression of (social) knowledge inherent in the body. Multi-disciplinary performer and choreographer Claire Cunningham, whose Give Me a Reason to Live forms part of Dance Umbrella’s festival programme in 2015, uses crutches to extend and challenge the moving body and our accompanying notions of virtuosity, ability, difference and dignity. This is falling as a way of knowing, as a condition of being in the world. To fall or risk falling is a mode of understanding the capacities and limits of the body as well as the physical and political field in which the body moves and is propelled.

Read the full article and look out for others (including an upcoming contribution by choreographer Liz Lerman), and last year’s series:
Dance Umbrella’s Definite Article


Photo: Street art in Paris, France, by levalet.org
Ruth Little is a theatre and dance dramaturg, a teacher and writer.

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