School of Arts
Middlesex University
Trent Park Campus
London N14 4YZ

Virtuosity and Performance Mastery

A symposium held on 31 May and 1 June, 2003

Introduction to the presentations

In the context of the symposium itself, the different presenters' webpages that follow should be viewed as 'interface' epistemic material, which emerges from the site where a number of different imperatives - professional and creative imperatives, as well as research imperatives - productively overlap. In some instances - Kate Flatt's work as choreographer with Bernadette Iglich provides one example; a second is provided by Alessandra Lopez y Royo's work with Ni Madé Pujawati - the research enquiry presented here may well proceed to inform the practitioner's ongoing professional/researcher activity; alternatively, it may have instigated other instances of research activity in the academic context. In some instances - and this is the case for the experiment shown at the symposium by Mary Nunan and Ferenc Szucs - what we see is an exploration of the possible meeting points when two instances of disciplinary mastery ('signature' choreography and dance, and the work of the cello soloist) are brought into a single space.

'Making new work', in this context - and this equally applies in the work of Kim Brandstrup with Arc Dance Company, and the work of Kate Flatt - is an explicitly research-driven activity, attentive, at the same time, to the logics of production and production values specific to 'new work' in the discipline/s. Kim's professional choreographic practice, of which he and Jonathon Poole gave us one brief demonstration, is calculated on the quality of movement, in the highly trained dancer, and not on the production, in the work, of complex images. Arguing that the perception of virtuosic practice lies not in the image found, but "is all of the movement before you arrive at the final note", he set up a position which challenges academic writers' various attempts to 'write movement'. How we chose to represent that challenge, here, was by inserting movement, of one kind or another, and however clumsily, into the text of the dialogue. That movement is expert, as is clearly shown, only in the example of counting through - without and then positioned 'against' music - which features the movement work of the highly-trained expert dance practitioner himself.

In other cases what we found at the symposium was the 'signature work' of a number of academic researchers, educators and writers, myself included, whose writing and teaching is arts-disciplinary expert-practice informed and related. As I have indicated in the Preamble, I myself wanted, in my ongoing research enquiry, to consider the knowledge status of creative processes by engaging with them here. What becomes clear from Mary Nunan's own ongoing choreographic research activity, and the case she makes for a disciplinary-unknowing, is that some of us here need to argue firstly for the notion of the "emergent premise"(this term was taken onboard by the Quality Agency and some panels in the last RAE), that is dependent on the ongoing exploratory work of expert practitioners; but secondly that creative hesitancy and uncertainty are constitutive of much creative practice in arts-professional registers, as are the operations of what I call 'professional intuition'.

It also seems to me to be vital to add, however, that from the moment when 'the show' begins to emerge as such, taking on, even if patchily at first, the third-person identity of 'it', then that uncertainty and hesitancy also begin to give way to what I have called the '(institutional) logics of expert production'. These production logics, as I have suggested above, are often overlooked by those writing about performance-making, not least because they are tightly related to professionalism, to the institutions of expert practice, to the normative and regulatory, and to the notion of discipline and mastery, none of which have been popular, in Arts in the university, in the final decades of the 20th century. One argument I would make here is that the widespread refusal to refer to these aspects of expert practice does not make them go away. Instead, our enquiry into how expert practices work is impoverished as long as we overlook different stages in the making of new work: I have observed in the performance-making processes of a number of professional practitioners, by way of example, that the intervention of the logics of production (vital to the pursuit of virtuosity in disciplinary practices) tends to 'other' the performance material which has emerged progressively and collaboratively, such that, in the final decision-making practices of the 'signature' practitioner, something else takes over; something else imposes on what was dynamic and changing, a complex, synoptic schematisation, which fixes, in time and space, 'the performance'.

The issue of the professional expertise of the practitioner is central to the epistemic enquiry in many of the instances represented here: Raenelda Mackie's presentation benefits from the sound of her expert piano playing, which has already been "published" as a CD, constituting one element in her forthcoming PhD submission. Her playing here is itself a research (or epistemic) enquiry; her professional performance poses a number of questions, some of which are specific to the notion of 'signature performance practice' which Ferenc Szucs has already posed. But to understand Raenelda's research engagement in performance itself, also requires expert input from 'disciplinary/expert listeners', who are able to separate out, schematically, 'the music' and 'the performance of the music'. I am myself unable, where the recorded music is concerned, to perform this analytical act; instead, my act of listening seems to hear only 'the music', thereby virtually erasing from my consciousness of it the otherwise professionally vital markers of or pointers to expert performance 'itself'. It is on the basis of the evidence of her professional competence, however, that as listener I 'contract in' to the experience.

Presentations by Nick Till, Signy Henderson, Jayne Richards, John Dack, Jackie Smart and myself are performing-arts-disciplinary-practice-centred, but tend in part to adopt more conventionally 'academic research' and pedagogic discourse registers. Some are more strongly informed by 'expert practice competence' than others. The 'thetic register', in these instances, enables us to carry out certain sorts of detailed and positioned enquiry - through piling up and linking main and dependent clauses - which almost by ('praxiological') definition remains speculative: our performance 'object', after all, has been other(ed) as soon as we turn on it that objectifying attention. It tends to have escaped us; but these 'academic' enquiries are nonetheless (or all the more) affectively invested; they are determined, purposeful, hence teleologically focused (on specific objectives or outcomes) as well as normatively regulated. Each presentator/presentation cited above also supposes a degree of familiarity, however, in the listener-spectators, with already-existing, 'signed' professional-creative practices; with the published output of performance-theoretical writers; and with methodological concerns specific to what is identified, nationally, as PaR (or, 'practice as research') - which I prefer to qualify as professional or expert or disciplinary (hence, PPaR or EPaR, or DPaR).

Jayne Richards' presentation looks at questions of epistemology and professional performance-making, taking published writing from Goat Island as a presentational model; the complexity of her discourse depends on listeners' already-established grasp of and familiarity with arts-disciplinary specificity in general, and questions of process in performing arts making and reception in particular. Familiarity, in this sort of context, with both the arts-practices and the developing discourses concerned, permits the presenter to exploit a certain economy of reference. The economical performative markers 'in the presentation' are called upon to trigger already-acquired 'expert knowledge', retained (schematically), by that listener-spectator. Ideally, the briefest of verbal reference to - for example - "Forced Entertainment's work" (as was the case in Jackie Smart's presentation, concerned with the ways practitioners speak about their own work, when researchers ask them certain sorts of questions), will permit a listener not simply to re-call something (to call 'something' back), but to seem to unfold a 'something', retained from an individual experience of a performance event.

This unfolding multi-participant and multi-dimensional schematic account of an experience as experience, seems to me, by the way, to be very little "like" writing. It is not writerly; nor is it 'text-like' - a meaningless comparison, yet a widely used one from those (writers) whose modes of enquiry are endlessly contaminated by the (post-Saussurean) "textual turn". What that "turn" has enabled Arts in the university to achieve, in writing-dominant academic domains, is the production and reproduction of acaedmic writing's hold over other complex practices. What I want to argue, instead, is that 'experience of an experience' (in expert performing arts) is event-like. As such, in the best of cases, it includes the (multi-dimensional, schematic) traces of the multiple perspectives which 'event' involves.

Signy Henderson's presentation indicated to what extent 'the show' avoids adequate discursive representation: the notion of abjection as performance might not be new; its capacity to avoid being "contained safely in the symbolic order" and to hover, instead "on the border between subject and object, to confront the possible collapse of the carefully constructed social self" will have been discussed 'in theory' elsewhere. What is startling, however, is her presentation's staging abjection within the relational complex of professional practice: where is abjection experienced, within this complex, shifting order, and in this particular instance (XXX) of professionally-made theatre? What her presentation signals is the extent to which some of us fail, in writing, to identify all of the participants in professional practice - as though 'theory' can transcend these professional details and positionings. What to conclude, how to 'theorise' practice, in a case where the directorial choices result in what appears to be the 'real' abjection of the performer as professional practitioner?

Nick Till's keynote presentation posed a quite particular challenge in the context of the "research imperative" and creative practice, which was that we "consider the possibility that different disciplinary practices might enter into a meta-discursive relationship with each other". His own practices as a theatre-maker, from this research-focused perspective, "employ theatrical forms to investigate and make visible the social and discursive contexts of musical production, performance and reception". He asked whether "in this model of practice as research, music might be described as the object of research while theatre might be described as the methodology of research" - with the implication that "this relationship between music and theatre", in his work, "might also constitute a meta-discursive relationship".

In the context of the Symposium, where a major concern was with disciplinary mastery, we attempted to establish a framework in which audio-visual material and performances themselves, in different modes and registers, were prioritised. We supposed that the 'research enquiry' and the 'research presentation' - as well as the drive and the affective investment of the research presenter - have their own performative markers relating to research-disciplinary mastery. It appears, at certain moments in what follows that these presenters also share what might be called a particular ethos with regard to expert performance practices: expert practice 'is the thing', in these instances, and this expert-practice-centred focus tends frequently to push academic discourse into second place.

John Dack's research activity in what were once called "new technologies" refers to music research and composition "and the distinction between these two [which] is a persistent issue in universities and conservatoires". The issue which persists relates to the far from simple notion that music composition can be viewed as being of equivalent 'knowledge status' to 'research worthy' registers in academic writing - with, perhaps, the vital distinction which is that the former can also be performed by other expert practitioners, whereas academic writing can generally only be cited and/or refuted in other instances of academic writing. John went on to ask: "What do we mean by musical skills in the electroacoustic medium? Are they related to physical skills recognisable to anyone learning an instrument? In short where are traditional notions of the "instrument", the "musician" and, by extension, the "virtuoso"?"

Peter Fribbins, whose Doctorate in Music is composition-based, writes and performs music in registers specific to and regulated by the music professions, and his presentation at the symposium is informed by this professional as well as epistemic imperative. He takes up some of the questions asked by John Dack, but from what might be judged to be a more traditional focus: "[W]hat do we actually mean by compositional virtuosity? ... As a composer, I am not trying to steal limelight from the performer, but I am aware that the composer as an artist also must possess appropriate technique, stamina, technical agility etc. in order to be a master of [her or his] art." With reference to others' interest in process in art-making, he adds, before proceeding to identify "four categories of virtuosity in musical composition", that "[t]his is better perceived in the finished artefact (either score or performance) rather than in the process (in as much as one can separate the process from the finished result of course)". Mike Bridger's presentation was similarly-aligned to music and performance, but he notes that the virtuosity of electronic music seems to be of a different order to that commonly understood in the realm of western acoustic music.

Richard Gough's keynote presentation is almost wholly centred on the documentation and archiving of expert performance practices, within which his written text is located (and not vice versa). One important reflection which emerges from that 'order of things [presented]' is properly-speaking 'foucauldian' in its resonances: the choice itself of practice-traces and the ways they are layered, are discursively-informed, in Richard's case, and signal an active engagement in the politics of (heterogeneous) practice/s. The positioning of the different elements in his presentation is such that Richard's own uninterrupted text - itself an exhortation - ends that presentation, rather than beginning it. That order seems to me to have signalled what I have taken to be his own position with regard to the place of writing in a professional performance-practice centred enquiry into training and performance mastery. His choices of site and mode and partcipant in expert, virtuosic practice are cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary, brought together by a particular way of seeing that is his own: they range from the arts of cooking, at home or in public, cinematography, performance training, the circus, the spaghetti Western, and Beijing Opera. The musicality of his final exhortation is such that we have included a brief audio-clip in his symposium web pages.

Kit Poulson and Ralf Nuhn are both research degree candidates and colleagues in the School of Arts at Middlesex; their registrations are once again 'mixed-mode', and target mixed-mode submissions for examination. Their different undertakings are however not simply a matter of 'practice as research'. Instead, in both instances, it involves 'own creative practice as research', where that 'own- creative' practice is driven, in terms of institutional requirements, by a number of imperatives: these include 'expert-professional' and 'epistemic' imperatives. Our ongoing enquiry in the School of Arts research context into how the submission might combine these different components, means that these practitioner-researchers cannot avoid the 'research methodological' questions pertaining to composition itself in a mixed-mode research context. Plainly certain of the 'own creative' practice elements need to be seen to function to extend and/or to unfold (rather than illustrate) the more conventionally discursive engagement. These two researchers, as is clear from their presentations here, have adopted quite different approaches to the 'own-creative' and the 'research-methodological' enquiry, interface, and meta-discourse. Ralf Nuhn explores the curiously-named "naturalistic" modes of enquiry, borrowed (so to speak) from social sciences perspectives; whereas Kit Poulson, centring his own art practice as epistemic enquiry, juxtaposes against it other instances of art practice and art writing, in order to permit the spectator/reader to seek out and articulate meaningful connections.

Ildi Solti, similarly registered for a research degree in the School of Arts, focuses here on performance practices at the New Globe Theatre, London; on the impact of site on Shakespearean performance-making practices in professional-creative registers, and the discourses - but equally other analytical models - which might permit her to engage with that enquiry. Renate Bräuninger works at the interface between musicology and choreography, where her focus is the choreographic work of Balanchine to Tchaikovsky's music not written for ballet. She describes the music Balanchine selects for this purpose as "dansante", and observes that the choreographic choices of Balanchine - themselves virtuosic - operate to a number of logics, rather than a single principle. She asks "where the fine line [should] be drawn then between virtuosity, technical perfection that intrigues us and gives us pleasure while we are watching, and mechanical execution of technique that does not excite us? How does the perfect execution of technique distinguish itself from the display of mastery of one's art?".

Tammy McLorg is a choreographer whose work is genuinely intercultural in the sense that she is commissioned to and makes dance work in a range of different national/cultural contexts. She is particularly interested, from this cultural perspective, in the professional dance practices of Mavin Khoo - not least because of what might be called the bi-cultural somatic identity of his double classical training: here an apparently single-practitioner bodywork is also, in fact, a matter of choices within two classical registers, with which actual choices made resonate. According to Mavin, meanwhile, his own training means that his choices, when it comes to the dancers with whom he wants to work, are self-consciously excluding, elitist, rather than inclusive. He selects on the basis of virtuosic potential, rather than "political correctness".

If, as I have argued above, research activity in the professional-creative arts is always at least double, in terms of the practice modes and practice-registers specific to it, then the ways we might seek to re-present these practices will themselves need to be mixed-mode. The inclusion of audio-visual registers here should demonstrate, in part, that writing itself is inadequate to the mixed-mode practice as research task. My final suggestion here is that what we are proposing is that research as innovative arts-professional disciplinary practice is interpraxiological in implication. It constitutes a complex enquiry through expert arts disciplinary practices into expert arts-disciplinary practices. Let's say so, proceeding then to consider what sorts of critical intervention this perspective permits, both without and within the context of advanced research in the university.

Professor Susan Melrose
Performance Arts
School of Arts
Middlesex University
Trent Park
Bramley Road
London N14 4YZ

Web design and photographs copyright © 2003-2004 John Robinson .

Background image Alessandra Lopez y Royo working with Ni Madé Pujawati.

Page last updated 30th August 2004.

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