Spiritual Pornographic

by Neville Wakefield


The history of movement is the history of evolution. Astonishingly far back in that history, multi-celled gelatinous creatures evolved nerves that coordinated cells and transformed tiny contractions, contortions and twitches into propulsive pulsing. These were the first movements. Later, neurons convened into an electro-chemical storm of repurposed signaling – bearing the first marks of what we would now identify as a nervous system.

Then, about half a billion years ago, Cambrian animals first watched, seized and fled other animals. Senses, nervous systems and behaviors escalated an arms race against the senses and behaviors of others. And amid such explosive evolution, it might be reasonable to assume that speedy, grasping creatures evolved often and developed the greatest neurological complexity. But surprisingly, of all the basic animal body plans (phyla), only arthropods (insects, crabs), vertebrates and one subgroup among mollusks — cephalopods — evolved complex active bodies. Which is to say that only vertebrates and cephalopods developed large, complex nervous systems.

These two nervous systems developed independently, so much so that each is truly alien to the other. Many hundreds of millions of years later we still encounter in both brain and body, beings that are familiarly strange, yet strangely familiar. Bone-free and shape shifting, the octopuses’ body is one of pure possibility. Dynamic, fluid and unconstrained by the skeletal armor of a nervous system housed within a skull, they can configure their bodies in ways we can barely imagine – just one example being their ability to flow through cracks the width of their eyes. Their skin senses light and can respond allowing the body itself to become a chromatic billboard of instantaneous communication.

Vertebrates share the architecture of an inherited nervous system. Cephalopods are different – so different in fact that in terms of structural intelligence our most common ancestor was a worm like creature of the pre-Cambrian era. With neuron numbers comparable to those of mammals, octopuses’ brains are distributed within their bodies; their limbs harbor nearly twice as many neurons as their central brain. Neural loops may give the arms their own form of memory. An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that it has no clear brain-body boundary. Not only is it carry the dream of protean form but of an alien intelligence to match.

Dance may be our most advanced forms of bodily expression. Unlike sport or other related forms of physical communication dance demands that we consider the figure as pure medium devoid of functionality. In dance the segregation of movement and knowledge is the least strictly enforced. So-called physical memory plays a vital role as the brain functions that typically trigger discrete actions become, in long fast sequences, so overloaded that the body has to take over. Detaching itself from the command sequences is what allows a dancer to move in ways that appear directed by something other than the head – the same mechanism that allows a boxer to throw survival mode combinations of the kind of intricacy forfeited by the situation he or she may encounter. Accessing physical memory is in some very distant sense delving into what Peter Godfrey-Smith calls the ‘other minds’ of cephalopods, creatures that over 600 million years ago made an independent voyage into complexity.

Adaptive physical intelligence may well be the indirect quest of most dance but, for Cecilia Bengolea, it is the basis of a practice that has been centered around the creation of new bodies of thought. The other mind that is the focus of her attention is less about what Deleuze & Guattari would term the body without organs, than a body without boundaries, a fully eroticized being born of a state of constant rehearsal. The spirit and rhythms that infuse this body move in several directions at once. Often they are found played out in transient or boundaries places such as the side of the road where passing cars choreograph another kind of risk. Sweat and tropical rain further dissolve the boundaries between inside and outside, reminding us perhaps that inner body fluid is an electrical conductor that functions for the body in ways similar to the synapses of the brain – creating new pathways and communication highways redefining sentience.

Electrical rhythms pulse through this body and the landscape it inhabits. Working on steps as just one part of the endeavor to synchronize and compose the self within a state of greater liquidity. The beginning and ends of traditional dance and sex are here forgone in favor of an actualization of a polymorphous erotic identity marked by a body not in a state of realization but of rehearsal, of constant becoming, deferred gratification and spiritualized pornography.

And so where most dance fetishizes the extremities – hands and feet – to emphasis the boundaries and the physical distance between command and action, thought and expression in Dancehall and the other forms that fascinate her Cecilia Bengolea discovers something else. The movements she seems drawn to are those in which the body is driven by a physical intelligence of its own. Through ritual and repetition, arms, legs and torso seem to develop independent memory. Relieved of the cumbersome call and response mechanism that separates action from thought the body begins to describe a life of its own – perhaps something like the kinetic sentience from which us vertebrates were separated from so many million years ago. And so the dance form that fascinates her the most, may also carry within it the message that just because evolution built minds twice, over doesn’t mean that we should give up on trying to close the gap.