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  • Performing to Be Whole: Inquiries in Transformation
  • Sally Armstrong Gradle (bio)

Far from restricting my access to things and to the world the body is my very means of entering into relation with all things.

—David Abram

Performance and the Body as an Inquiry of Transformation

In the following work I explore teacher education performance art and examine what it means to be fully aware through the body rather than housed in a body.1 Developing this embodied awareness is important in teacher education because it expands the connections with others whom we teach, increases the sociocultural understandings that mature with reflection, and enables the silent transformation that often occurs in relationships with the more-than-human Earth. In the following three performances, I begin by explaining the intentions and actions that crafted the performance ideas into a living presence for students.

During each performance I stood behind the camera. I panned the crowd and captured the body language of the class members and the performers: their sometimes tense expressions, deep concentration, anger, surprise, and empathy. Later, as I sifted through the visual data and read their journals in order to understand their experiences, I realized that the felt quality of what occurred was not only present in the film and on paper—it was also present in my responses. My dilemma became one of finding a form that was tacitly able to communicate the experiences as a vital memory-in-the-flesh that would live beyond the performances. I began with descriptions of what an interested observer might see while standing on the fringe of these emotional moments. I also sought the best way into the data so readers might [End Page 54] recognize the moments in which they too were enfleshed in the encounters, as performance writer Peter McLaren explores in his work.2 To better explain this feeling of enfleshment in experience, I turned to poetry as a research tool that would render the felt quality of the encounters and still offer the open-ended gift of interpretation to the reader. As readers put themselves in a poem, the structure and content offer a powerful lens through which to view an unexpected phenomenon. Poet and researcher Carl Leggo clarifies that poetry contributes to research when it loosens “ossified thinking” and can generate “resonances that sing out from word to world.”3 The poems I have included here began as deep underbellies of the exposed performance moments, as something sensed but not completely known until they were written. I follow each poem with a short interpretive passage that considers the transformative growth of the performers and the participants and the value of ritual as a transformative educational process. As an entrance to this discussion, I give a brief overview of performance art and establish how it is used in educative settings before I discuss the three student performance pieces.

Background about Performance Art

In performance art the body is a relational threshold, the permeable self that is far more than matter. It is energy and not an isolated, separate object. Performances—whether carefully scripted or improvisational—provoke, invite, startle, enlighten, engage, and challenge our ideas about the world and each other, just as they can also encourage compassion and heighten our regard for others’ experience of the truth. As Nathan Stucky and Cynthia Wimmer suggest, ritual and performance art give students opportunities for “embodied thinking and critical distance as well as empathy, concern with cultural contexts, values and issues, and confidence in their own opinion.”4 Performance art can also awaken the kind of reflective practice that ends in embodied awareness and the personal epiphanies that lead toward growth.5 These are valuable assets that many teacher education programs seek as outcomes today.6

Performance art can take the form of film, dance, poetry, movement, or narration, but the product itself is clearly in the service of the process, and unlike theater, it is often influenced by a vast array of personal experiences, ritual encounters, surreal acts, and the unexpected juxtaposed with the ordinary. Gayle Green comments that the “intimate realms of personal and communal identity”7 become inquiry spaces where one’s autobiographical experiences become a catalyst...


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pp. 54-66
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