Dit artikel verscheen in FORUM+ Herfst 2019
Royal Conservatoire Antwerp
Walking, strolling, running – these are everyday activities that everyone often does unknowingly. But these are also forms of movement that can be the subject of choreographic research. In this article, choreographer and artistic researcher Martin Nachbar sheds light on how he has developed a participatory walking practice that critically reflects on movement in public space. Through this physical experiment, he also reveals how choreography not only revolves around the body in motion, but can also become a mode of listening.
Wandelen, kuieren, lopen – het zijn dagelijkse handelingen die iedereen vaak onbewust doet. Maar het zijn ook bewegingsvormen die het onderwerp van choreografisch onderzoek kunnen uitmaken. In dit artikel werpt choreograaf en artistiek onderzoeker Martin Nachbar licht op hoe hij een participatieve wandelpraktijk heeft ontwikkeld die kritisch nadenkt over beweging in de publieke ruimte. Via dit fysieke experiment laat hij eveneens zien hoe choreografie niet louter draait rond het lichaam in beweging, maar ook een vorm van luisteren wordt.
People have been walking together in groups ever since hominids started bipedal locomotion on the ground.1 Walking together while foraging or hunting provided and still provides humans with more eyes and ears to perceive possible food resources. Much later, walking together enabled humans to follow their cattle or sheep on their seasonal migrations.2 Settled communities, then, would walk together in processions, bringing people together to celebrate important agricultural occasions, religious or social events or a combination of these.3 With the revolutions at the start of modernity, people walked together in order to fight for their political desires, joining the combined forces of many bodies sharing the same direction and the same aim.4 Political marches and demonstrations are important events in the history of power and class struggles, some of them marking major changes in the societies where they took place.5
In the 1960s and 1970s, the American choreographer and dance artist Anna Halprin experimented with the expressive tools of such marches, claiming public spaces as performance spaces.6 In Empty Placard Dances (1968), for example, she let a group of dancers walk down the streets of San Francisco holding up empty white placards, shifting the attention away from explicit political messages towards the kinaesthetic and aesthetic aspects of walking together while carrying placards. A decade later, she organised City Dance (1976-1977), a performance that took the participants through the streets of San Francisco from dusk till dawn. On their way they stopped for in-situ performances and improvised events that would use the givens of certain environments such as basketball courts or squares.7 After the assassination of city councillor Harvey Milk in 1978, Halprin wanted to reconcile the tensions in the city and organised City Dance another time in 1979, publishing in advance its score in a San Francisco newspaper. The performance became a hybrid event that brought together aspects of choreography, processions and of political marches, while stressing the shared experience of walking together through the city. In its course, more and more bystanders joined the walk, turning it into a temporary spontaneous mass manifestation of joyous and playful collectivity.8
Something similar happened – albeit on a smaller scale – when my performance The Walk premiered in Berlin in May 2012.9 I had conceived of The Walk as a participatory walking performance and, together with five colleagues, I choreographed and planned a walk around the block of the Sophiensaele theatre in Berlin Mitte, which was not only the venue but also the starting and end point of the performance. I had imagined The Walk to be similar to a procession; not a religious one but one where people would share the experience of walking, simply through the act of walking together. For each performance, we invited up to 25 participants to take a walk together with us. All of us formed a group by walking together, following the same pathway, sometimes synchronising our steps – sometimes not –, experimenting with different ways of walking, temporarily forming smaller groups, regrouping into the big group again, chatting maybe, looking around or at others walking; and being looked at by people on the streets. I was specifically reminded of Halprin’s City Dance when, in the course of three performances of The Walk, small groups of people joined the walk for a while or even until its finishing point.
My aim in this article is to unfold the process of this participatory walking choreography and to reflect on its potential impact. In order to examine how a shared walking experiment in the city affects the participants as well as the city passed through, I will draw on anthropological, cultural, and performance research. The main framework for these reflections, however, remains my own practice and expertise as a choreographer of contemporary dance pieces, which often start from an open research question and draw on movement awareness practices. My guiding hypothesis in this case is that walking is a movement that allows a wide range of people to actively participate in a choreographic performance, while the effects of this participation are intensified by taking it out onto the streets. In public spaces, there is the exposure to a multidirectional network of movements and people that contains more unplanned elements and outer influences than in the theatre space, where a lot of noise and visual information from the city can be blocked out. Thus, while the theatre space clearly frames a temporary community of performers and audience, this community gets challenged on the streets. This challenge, I will argue, strengthens the sense of this walking performance as being a participatory experience, since it brings the participants of the performance together as an ensemble rather than as a community. Ultimately, this experience might widen, deepen, and possibly change the ways participants as well as onlookers perceive and cultivate themselves, their actions and their environments. After all, ‘we are also social beings because we walk’.10
In order to clarify in which way walking in groups interests me as a choreographic practice, I would like to start by briefly discussing two forms in which people in Western societies walk together today: political marches and processions. These two are different in that political marches are manifestations of desires, needs and intentions that contradict predominant powers, whereas processions confirm the identity of a whole community. In movement terms, one could say that political marches go against the flows and directions that are predetermined by institutionalised power; what they make obvious is the difference between this power and the opinions and forces that resist it. Processions, in contrast, go with the flows that power institutions allow for; they are compliant and confirm the unity and unison of a community.
But these practices also have a lot in common. Both of them create instances of ostentation and identity: a number of people gather and show that they are a somewhat homogeneous group with somewhat identical beliefs, demands, narratives or opinions. As the American writer Rebecca Solnit argues, they ‘are all about members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than merely practical reasons’.11 More important to my argument here is that recent research shows that one key element of both demonstrations and processions is the coordinated movement of walking in one direction. They can be understood as kinetic experiences that tightly enmesh the time they take and the places they pass. Their pathways not only follow a certain passage or trajectory, but they also unfold their meaning (e.g. in terms of personal memories, political messages or historically meaningful routes) through the time it takes to walk them; just as stories do when they are being told to someone who listens.12
In processions, communities gather around a historical event, for example, or around the story of the patron saint of the village. People join to walk a traditional route together, sometimes carrying objects such as relics and often passing important landmarks.13 On the way, participants or bystanders might exchange anecdotes, everyday gossip or glimpses into their biographies. Walking and the narratives of a community (religious or not) get enmeshed.14 And while some of the stories become reasons or frames for walking together, it is this very act of walking together that enhances and maybe even helps to bring out the narratives shared in a procession. In this sense, walking becomes a narrative process through which the participants of a procession articulate who they are, where they belong and how they have come to be here.15
A similar kind of articulation takes place in political marches. Although they do not necessarily mobilise the whole community of a certain place, the participants do identify with the demands being articulated and with each other. This identification finds its expression through slogans that are chanted or written on placards, or through speeches and performances during the march, or at the end of it, when the demonstrators gather on a square for a final manifestation of their appeals.16 In a way, walking in demonstrations or in processions becomes a form of speaking.17
Next to this aspect, political marches and processions share another important feature of walking together: the continuous synchronisation of different walking rhythms. In the course of a procession, the participants might fall out of line and come back in later on; some might walk the whole route, while others stand by and watch. There might be music played by a marching band, suggesting a pace and rhythm, or the participants sing songs while they walk. People that walk at the end of the procession might have a slightly different rhythm than the ones in the front.18 Depending on the individual roles and tasks of both local inhabitants and visitors, the community continuously falls in and out of step. Individual gaits stand in a relation of synchronisation and de-synchronisation with the shared walking rhythms. Similarly, individual perceptions of the event as well as personal understandings of the occurring smaller narratives are enmeshed with the bigger narratives and meanings that are shared by the whole community. Walking together in a procession is not guided by one beat but by many rhythms.
The participants of political marches also create their togetherness through walking together. A community of bodies sharing the same direction amplifies the kinetic energy of walking. This energy, as well as the identification with each other’s needs and demands, helps give the demonstrators the power to march for an extended amount of time and, if needed, to resist police powers that aim to control or stop the march.19 The kinetic and emotional energy of a mass of people is often stressed when researchers analyse political marches and their dynamics. Certainly, political marches do need these kinds of energy to be able to put into action the resistance they articulate. But even apart from the possible clash between the kinetic energy of a marching mass and police powers, and apart from the emotional highpoint when a march comes to a standstill on a square and speakers address the participants, a political march is in itself already more diverse than the word ‘march’ might suggest.
As in a procession, the participants of a political march constantly fall in and out of step with each other. Some slow down because they are tired; others speed up because they want to be closer to the front where the action takes place. Some participants shortly leave the march to get something to eat at the bakery they pass; others step aside to have a look at the demonstration in which they are participating. People get involved in conversations with other participants or bystanders about all kinds of topics, most probably including the purpose of the march. Thus, the march’s aspirations are discussed and diversified en route just as the walking rhythms are constantly though silently negotiated on the way. Much like the community in a procession, the demonstrating public in a political march can be regarded as several publics being synchronised through walking together on the streets.17
Understanding political marches and processions as processes of synchronisation stresses two seemingly opposite characteristics: the diversity within the groups that walk together versus their tendencies to share speeds and directions, unifying the groups to a community. Rather than deciding for one or the other, the notion of synchronisation lets us look at a complex negotiation: sharing kinetic and emotional energies, narratives, directions and rhythms continually alternates with differentiating into smaller groups, with individual energies, stories and demands, deviating from the route and temporarily stepping offbeat.
The perspective of synchronisation allows for a closer look at how walking becomes the form of speaking mentioned above: the bodily action of walking is meaningful in the sense that each individual can agree or disagree with the group simply by synchronising her or his steps and directions with the group or not. Let us therefore dig a bit deeper into these movements between unification and diversification.
Probably everyone has experienced these movements when walking with a friend. Sooner or later we find ourselves in what biologists and movement scientists term a ‘phase lock’: our feet touch the ground at the same time, whether it is with the feet of the same or opposite side. After a while, the phasing of the gaits shifts again, creating a polyrhythmic pace, until another phase-lock is reached.20 Biologists call this phenomenon ‘unintentional synchronisation’ and note its transience. The steps of the partners move between rhythmic unison and division. The fact that we can do this without having to look at each other’s legs is a uniquely human skill; apes, for instance, can synchronise their movements only while looking at each other.21 It points to our ability to synchronise auditory perception with bodily movements.
Some anthropologists assume that this correspondence between hearing and moving is based on an evolutionary advantage: early hominids that walked together, foraging and hunting, could hear their prey or stalkers better when they synchronised their movements. Walking makes sounds, with the heels striking the floor, the soles of the feet rolling and pushing off, the arms rubbing along the sides of the torso, and air passing through the nostrils or mouth during breathing.22 In order to minimise the duration of these sounds, a group on a hunt needed to more or less synchronise their steps, while each member had to coordinate his or her breathing with the walking rhythm. In the intervals between stepping together, the environment became more perceptible. Each individual in the group could hear better what was around her or him, while the simultaneous steps became louder and more easily differentiated from environmental sounds.23 This means that hearing and listening when walking together are important and related activities.
When groups organise themselves in processions, political marches and other forms of walking together, the activity that makes the togetherness emerge does not only take place in the amplified auditory and kinetic energy of stepping together but also in the intervals between the steps, during the offbeat. This happens when each member of the group listens with intent to the environment and, in a way, to each other and each other’s breath, step, demand, story, and so forth. ‘The collectivity that is organised through this off-beat perceptive window is not one of Us-all [in ‘phase lock’], but one of Each-of-us ([who] can hear something),’ says the German theatre scholar Kai van Eikels.24 Whatever the demands and narratives that are articulated through demonstrations and processions, the togetherness is first of all created through a kind of kinetic listening to each other and to the surroundings. ‘Stepping and exhaling more or less synchronously, each one of us hears better and the ensemble is acoustically more permeable to the world, which the ensemble itself belongs to’, van Eikels clarifies.25
This permeability is what redirects the focus of walking together to its perceptive, kinetic, bodily, and material aspects and relations. It also provides the grounds for the difference I would like to draw between an ensemble and a community. A community can be defined as a tightly delineated group of people that is demarcated either by a confined place or by the group solidly stepping through different spaces and thus claiming them. An ensemble, in contrast, is a group that stays open for influences from the outside, such as sounds, social interactions or the material environment. Depending on these influences, an ensemble lets its members deviate from the group’s course without excluding them entirely, because the listening to the ensemble goes on as long as it can be heard. Moreover, a community defines and distinguishes itself by its representations through narratives in language or other modes of expression, whereas an ensemble defines itself by its mode of attention, which is listening to each other’s movements.
To create an ensemble, in the sense outlined above, is what The Walk aims to establish. In order to achieve this, the group of people (including both performers and participants) first have to get tuned in to each other. There are six performers who will lead the way and silently suggest different ways of walking that the audience can join. While the six performers know what will come, the participating audience needs an introduction. The performers and I meet with everybody in the foyer of the theatre, where we start with a song. Then we explain what will happen and what to pay attention to once out on the streets. This ‘pre-iteration’ helps getting the participants’ minds set for the performance. Even if they forget the details, they will remember the most important aspects of the performance: they will experiment with ways of walking; they should watch out for traffic; it will help to focus when they do not speak; and no one is obliged to do all the kinds of walking all the time. Instead, everyone can step aside at any point and look at the group walking through the streets, before joining in again.
After this introduction, we go out to the theatre’s forecourt. This can look different from theatre to theatre. In the Sophiensaele in Berlin, where the premiere took place, it is a gateway in-between the theatre’s yard and the street. The participants stand together, almost touching each other at the shoulders and all facing out onto the street. I ask everybody to start shifting their weight slowly from one foot to the other, gently rocking sideways. Next to warming up, this movement aims to make the participants sensitive to an often overlooked aspect of walking: weight shifting. They feel how one foot increases pressure in its contact with the floor, while the other one seems to get lighter. Then I invite everyone to close their eyes, so that they can pay even more attention to this shifting. The group, which normally starts with synchronised weight-shifts, now gets out of synch. Some people might touch each other at the shoulders. This is desired, as we are not looking for a march’s beat but for a continuous synchronisation of rhythms as described above.
With their eyes closed, the participants also need to pay more attention to their balance, as there is no visual horizon for orientation anymore. And with the visual information being blocked out, the audience starts to attend more closely to their acoustic environment, such as the breathing sounds of the group or the sounds from the street ahead. Maybe they see the car they hear in their mind’s eye, or they remember the trees moving in the wind when hearing or feeling the air move around them. In this way, the participants start to connect the sensations of their weight shifting and their feet touching the floor with the environment’s sounds. As listening to the body’s movements and sensations happens simultaneously with listening to the world, both modes of attention start to affect each other. At the same time, lightly bumping into other people’s shoulders informs the participants about the other people’s rhythms through touch. And once everybody opens their eyes again, this information is supported by seeing the others slowly shift from side to side.
With so many senses tuned in to the sounds and rhythms of each other and of the environment, I tell everybody to follow the performer in front once he starts to transform the weight shifts into steps. The group then leaves the gateway and enters the public space of the street. The preparation and warm-up have finished and the performance starts with a very slow walk on the sidewalk.
Once the group steps out, it is no longer protected by the theatre and its conventions. On the contrary, by transposing onto the streets the theatre’s ability to frame action and intensify it, the group gets exposed to public space. It becomes a weird kind of march or procession. But it does not comply with these known models of walking together. There is no articulation of demands, nor is there a narrative shared by the whole community of the city we pass through.
Part of my research included collecting experiences from performers and participants. After performances of The Walk, I handed out a questionnaire with four questions that evolved around the different kinds of walking we experimented with; the different spaces we passed through; possible meetings with passers-by; and the fact that this was a collective and not an individual walk. In the following, I will refer to some of the answers in order to exemplify the points of my argument. I will do so anonymising them, only pointing out whether the answer is from a participant or a performer.
A large majority of the participants expressed in the questionnaire how they appreciated the group. ‘It made it easier. I wouldn’t have dared to do this by myself,’ said one participant in Düsseldorf. At the same time, the group increased the performance’s impact on city life, making ‘the walk a political statement with humour’, as another participant observed in Berlin. Her answer is supported by someone else who walked with us in Berlin: ‘The experience of interfering with city life (…) is, in my opinion, not possible alone’. While the group protected the individual participants and their walking experiments, it made these experiments more visible and gave them a stronger impact than walking alone would have.
About the reactions of passers-by, one of the performers said: ‘Next to (...) “O gosh, art again” [or] “this is a project?”, reactions also included: “This must be esoteric” and “Aha, the pill starts to work, doesn’t it?”’ The shift away from a group clearly articulating their demands or narratives (like in political marches or processions) towards an ensemble silently and intently listening to the movements and rhythms of their bodies and of their environment is difficult to classify and integrate into usual city life. Passers-by and onlookers struggle to make sense of this slow and strange group. Interestingly, the frames they come up with are practices in which we normally allow for intensified or shifted perceptions: art, esotericism or drugs. Without going into the differences between these practices, it is worth noting that, despite their disturbance, passers-by seem to tune in to the intensified listening of the performance they are witnessing. In other moments during The Walk, there were even passers-by who joined the walking group halfway or all the way back to the theatre. These people not only wanted to name the event but also to actively join the experiment.
Both the disturbance and the joining are effects I seek to provoke with The Walk. By focusing on the walking itself, on its rhythms and on the walkers’ active listening, I not only want to provide the audience with a participatory experience; I also aim to affect people who normally do not go to dance performances. I seek to engage them in ways that make dance performances generally interesting to me: through intensified sensing and listening to the body’s movements through space, while empathising or even synchronising with each other’s movement rhythms.
Both the disturbance and the joining are effects I seek to provoke with *The Walk*. By focusing on the walking itself, on its rhythms and on the walkers’ active listening, I not only want to provide the audience with a participatory experience; I also aim to affect people who normally do not go to dance performances.
During the warm-up and the slow walk in the beginning, however, the main focus lies within the ensemble formed by performers and audience. ‘The one [walk] that still strikes me most after the many The Walks I participated in remains the slow walk as a group in the beginning,’ writes the same performer quoted above. ‘It sets the contract for the whole experience (…). Walking slowly, you have a lot of time for observation – of the environment and other people in the first place, and then also of your own body, your movements and other people’s movements.’ The participants tune in to a general mode of observing and listening.
Sometimes you are in perfect synch with the rest of the group, sometimes you fall out of the common rhythm, stepping on someone else’s heel or bumping into a shoulder. The narrow sidewalk requires a lot of small spatial adjustments. The slow shuffle of the group’s feet is often in contrast with the quick steps of people rushing home from work or to their next appointment. Cars and bikes pass by, and here and there we hear comments as the ones quoted above. The ‘acoustically permeable ensemble’ that Kai van Eikels speaks about is established in this slow walk.25 The steps and voices within and outside the performance’s ensemble become a perceptible part of the choreography’s score and dance.
The idea of a slow walk emerged after a whole series of experiments with walking inside the studio during the rehearsal process for The Walk. One of the first things I tried out with the performers when going outside was a slow walk, which we took around the block of the studio space where we worked. Two things happened: first, going around the block, starting and ending at the same point, became the spatial figure for the performance. Second, the slow walk opened up our awareness of both the spaces we walked through and each other.
At a certain point during one of our slow walks outside, we needed to slow down even more. A tradesman’s van was in the way and, because we did not want to stop walking at any point, we needed to go slower and slower. When we almost had to stop, the van finally drove off the sidewalk. While slowing down, we experienced how the tradesman and passers-by noticed our behaviour as somewhat strange and performative. Walking slowly thus became an important tool for our work. Yet at no point was it natural or evident how to walk slowly in a group. As the same performer observed:
At first, walking slowly was difficult for me, as I imagined it more as an artificial ‘slow-motion’ movement that develops from the standstill and shifting weight. How to ‘simply walk’ but slower? That is, walk with a clear attitude and purpose, make steps, embrace and resist gravity in a fluent way, to ‘speak’ in a comfortable way with your body as you go along, rather than forming your body according to an image you have in your mind of what a slow walk is.
His way to deal with this issue was:
Now I take smaller steps (to avoid a start-stop-start-stop rhythm), relax my body more, place my feet more to the sides or to the front, depending on the shared space and rhythm within the group, so I can keep a steady stride and movement.
While the performance of The Walk opens with a slow walk, the performers suggest to the participating guests a whole series of other movement experiments: speeding up, lingering, walking backwards, trespassing, homolateral walking, swivelling, stomping and jumping, walking in a long line, avoiding the cracks in the pavement, silly walks, walking under a baldachin, and walking blindly.
In the questionnaire, most of the participants and performers named walking backwards as their favourite kind of walking during The Walk. ‘I liked walking backwards,’ writes a participant in Düsseldorf. ‘One usually doesn’t do this. It heightened the awareness. One paid more attention to oneself and to people [and to] the environment.’ ‘How many years haven’t I walked backwards in a busy city street,’ mentions a participant in Berlin, and she continues:
In a group. With many obstacles (street cafés with tables, curbs, garbage bins, traffic lights, passers-by, other participants). You have to pay attention to many things at once (e.g. the forgotten backwards walk); it requires vigilance towards all directions.
For this participant, attention had to be divided between possible obstacles and relearning the long-forgotten backwards walk. Yet in The Walk, there is a whole group doing the same as you. Possible dangers lead to mutual support within the group: ‘The reversal of the movement triggers an all-around alertness due to a certain fear to run into danger,’ she says. ‘This supported a new relation to the group: receiving and giving help, amused looks. Also a new relation to the environment: looking into passers-by’s faces rather than at the backs of their heads.’ It even seems the backwards walk opens up a performative space: ‘You can also follow [passers-by’s] reactions better, just as the reactions of people sitting in a café and watching us (astonished, annoyed, amused, disturbed, …).’
Another important factor in the case of the backwards walk is its slowness, which gives time to keep coming back to oneself and to pay attention to one’s own experience. As one performer indicates: ‘The walking backwards was so slow, in order to stay safe, and so unusual physically that it immediately crossed a threshold between automatic movement and conscious dance.’ These responses show how collective experiments with walking in public create a heightened awareness among the participants. It becomes a form of dancing. This in turn attracts the attention of those passing by, which makes it a social performance that makes onlookers feel drawn to watch, to name, or sometimes even to join.
But finding out how to walk slowly requires, as suggested, a somewhat technical approach. Striding lengths need to be adapted; overall muscle tones must be modified; the placement of the feet needs to be chosen carefully; and so on. Turning the very act of walking itself into the subject matter of a walking performance thus means we have to treat walking as a technique that can be analysed, altered, and experimented with.
In his famous 1934 lecture “Techniques of the Body”, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss recalls an anecdote from his times as a soldier in World War I: after the Battle of Aisne, where French and English soldiers fought successfully side by side, the English regiment of Worcester asked for a French marching band to support their training. But the results were daunting. The English soldiers could not synchronise their steps with the French music. The French and English gaits had different musical styles and different rhythms that required different modes of listening to each other. The inhabitants of the village where this happened must have had a good laugh at the stumbling soldiers. After a few weeks, the experiment was abandoned.26
Besides giving a beautiful example of the musicality of walking together, Mauss shows how walking as a body technique is situated between two ends: on the one hand, walking is a culturally specific skill that is handed down from one generation to the next (as in military marching); on the other hand, it is a somewhat automatic movement pattern we are mostly unaware of. We know that we have once learned to walk but most often we do not pay attention to how we do it. And when we do it, we tend to forget that walking is not only specific to the individual but also to the culture to which this individual belongs. Only when marching to unknown marching music, or when walking in a foreign city where people walk at different speeds and with a different spatial awareness, we realise that walking is not at all self-evident.
As the German cultural theorist Ralph Fischer points out in Walking Artists (2011), ‘from an anthropological perspective,’ walking is ‘a genuinely human property. (…) the perpendicular body axis and the emergence of bipedal locomotion can both be seen as first steps in the development of homo sapiens’.27 And although walking has been repeated without much change and day by day by numerous generations, we can experiment with it, just as homo sapiens must have done when setting his first steps. In fact, every child that learns to walk goes through a series of experiments, watching others walk, pulling herself up to standing, taking a step or two, letting go of the support, balancing, falling to the ground, getting up again. In this way, all of us have once developed the physical skill of walking, exploring unknown spaces, and broadening or even redefining our relations to the world.28 As adults, we might see a square we pass by daily from a new angle when leaving the underground through an exit never used before, and we might start to use this exit regularly. Or we experience the familiar path to our work as somewhat precarious when streetworkers removed the pavement and we have to walk in soft sand or step over loose stones on the ground. Maybe we choose a new route the next morning, or we enjoy experimenting with our balance and gait and decide to pass the construction site every day. At any point, our walking through the city can become an experimentation with our spatial awareness and our physical skills.
While most of these kinds of experiments are somewhat spontaneous, unconscious, or accidental, dance and choreography are practices that open up spaces for consciously experimenting with the body, its techniques and its sensibilities.29 As dance and choreography can be considered the arts of taking steps,30 they are in a particularly close relation to the widely shared body technique of walking. By taking up this everyday movement, dance and choreography can provide a platform for dancers and non-dancers alike. Both groups can get sensitised to how they use their bodies when moving through space, and to how they actually participate in constituting space through walking. Moreover, because dance and choreography are typically practised and performed in the company of others, they enable participants to share the walking they already share unconsciously in a more conscious manner.
The Walk is not the first performance to turn walking into dancing. Neither is it the first one to do so in public space. I started this article by describing Anna Halprin’s experiments with walking through the streets of San Francisco. Yet there were several more American dance artists of her generation who experimented with walking. For them, walking was a way to connect art with everyday life and to find aesthetic forms that had value for a democratic majority and which allowed them to expand the social purview of their practices.31 With his walking score Satisfyin’ Lover (1967), for example, Steve Paxton invited non-dancers to perform in theatres and gymnasiums in order to share every-body’s everyday virtuosity. In Leaning Duets (1970) and Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1969), Trisha Brown and her dancers experimented with the relationship of walking to gravity, disturbing the parameters of walking and thus revealing it as a body technique.
The Walk tries to bring these elements together by having a group of dancers and non-dancers experiment with their everyday virtuosity. What is possibly new about it is that it tunes in to the synchronisations of their walking movements, which can only take place when actually walking together and making this the focus of the performance. By slowing down the everyday speeds of walking in the city or by turning it around to walk backwards, The Walk looks at walking choreographically. It tunes in to a mode of listening to each other’s rhythms in relation to the city spaces passed.
The experience of the participants is a mix between inner sensations, perceptions of the environment, and the movement experiment, while their walk also becomes a form of social behaviour once it meets passers-by. For those passing by, in contrast, The Walk is a social event, which as a performance is sometimes hard to grasp as it does not comply with the usual forms of walking groups. An ensemble of performers and audience synchronising their experimental steps de-synchronises the city’s attentions and rhythms.
We have performed the piece not only in Berlin but also in Düsseldorf, Essen and Hamburg. But it is in Berlin that people in the city have become familiar with it. We have rehearsed and performed it many times in the course of one and a half years, reiterating the same route with the same walking modes. Residents and shopkeepers got to know us and our strange procession, some coming out of their houses to watch us pass by, others saying ‘hi’ when overtaking us, while non-residents such as tourists get curious about us. Some of them ask what we are doing, or even come with us. Yet all of them, residents and tourists, seem to have come to accept us as a part of the city and its life, even the few who are not particularly fond of our presence.
In an interview I conducted with urban planner Achim Nelke from Berlin, he maintained that a steady repetition of such an ephemeral artistic event as The Walk over months or years might have an influence on the planning of urban spaces.32 Maybe, if we were to do this performance even more often and more regularly, city planners would take note of it and change some of their ideas in order to accommodate the event. If that would happen, The Walk would ultimately serve as some kind of demonstration, asking for more space for groups walking. Eventually, then, it would become a procession with most of the community agreeing on walking together as an enjoyable and maybe even political practice in urban settings, where most space is still given to cars.
This article is part of my PhD research on walking together within the postgraduate programme Assembly & Participation at the HCU Hamburg. I would like to thank the other PhD candidates and my tutors Kai van Eikels, Kerstin Evert, and Gesa Ziemer for their invaluable feedback during the process. I would also like to thank the collaborators and performers of The Walk – Ehud Darash, Boris Hauf, Zoë Knights, Jeroen Peeters, and Noha Ramadan – for their creative and critical contributions, and the participants who contributed to the research by answering the questionnaire.
is a freelance choreographer and PhD candidate at HafenCity University Hamburg (HCU). From 2019 onwards, Martin is also Artistic Coordinator of the new Master in Dance programme at the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp.