An ode to influence | On the work of Janice Parker

In the summer of 2019, artist and choreographer Janice Parker was commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland's Learning & Engagement department to create a dance work celebrating the work of artist Bridget Riley. Parker’s approach to the performance is explored in this blog by visual artist Emmie McLuskey.

Choreographer Janice Parker at the Writing the Body live performance at the Royal Scottish Academy in September 2019. Image: Kat Gollock Photography

Over the past five years I have studied, witnessed and been involved with the evolving process of choreographer Janice Parker. Parker, now in her fourth decade of practice, has continually pushed (often quietly) at the edges of how we value time, space and knowledge. Through the language of movement, she pulls into focus the beauty of a multiplicity of bodies, varying in perspective, moving both together and separately. A politic deep rooted in trust, an opposition to the hierarchal with an attention full of rigour. When faced with an invitation to respond to the iconic work of painter Bridget Riley, Parker’s approach was sensitive, considered and explored through those who know the space most intimately, the staff.

Riley reminds us that time changes perception. Time always moving forward, the body absorbing it’s onward motion, ideas being rearranged and shifted, experience informing judgement. For me, the pleasure of watching a body perform is in the witnessing of a decision being made in real time. We see a feeling become legible. A transference of something internal to something external. That feeling, now conscious, begins to look back at both audience and author. How we frame that legibility for ourselves as audiences, is of course individual.

Dancers take part in the Writing the Body live performance. Image: Kat Gollock Photography

Parker invited me to observe the rehearsals of her new piece Writing the Body, a dance work made by and with a group of dancers living in Edinburgh. Formed through their response to an open call written by Parker, the group consisted of staff members from the Scottish National Galleries, art students and art enthusiasts. The choice to free up this space for movement via open means is integral to Parker’s choreographic approach. Her long-term belief in, not only the legitimacy, but the fundamental need for a wide range of movement vocabularies and feeling, reveals the aforementioned ‘quiet’ politics enacted within her artistic inquiry, dealing with these politics at a structural level. Her work constantly interrogates the question; who can dance and what can dance be.

The conscious decision by Parker not to audition, for me, poses a direct challenge to traditionally embedded hierarchies of dance built on youth, ableism and imitation, choosing instead to work with whoever wants to be there and is willing to commit. Characteristically this group of dancers varied in their experiences with movement, some having dance as their profession, others dancing for the first time, all sharing one prerogative, to invest time in exploring the work of Riley more deeply through movement. This communal commitment was shared over the course of one month this year resulting in a one-off performance at the Galleries on 18 September.

The audience watches on as the performance takes place. Image: Kat Gollock Photography

Writing the Body begins with dancers dispersed across five of the six galleries in the Royal Scottish Academy. The structure of the piece being built into six sections. As the audience walk into the space they are met with seventeen dancers spread across five rooms, an invitation to wander, perceive and look.

As the dancers move, it is clear they are on their own process of production, the working of muscles they have learnt and unlearnt, a fascination with form, an exploration of feeling, discovering new levels, spaces, repetitions and site lines to embed back into their subconscious.

The performance took place within the exhibition of Bridget Riley's work. Image: Kat Gollock Photography

In an earlier conversation with Parker, she told me she wanted to centre the ideas for this piece of choreography by primarily looking to Riley’s writing. Her main point of immersion and enquiry being through interviews with Riley, Riley’s own writing about her work and her conversations around process.

This approach was foregrounded visually in the performance through the scattered quotations and workings of the dancers, audiences could read the selected quotes informing the movement on A4 pieces of paper that were distributed across the floor.

A collection of these quotes formed the titles for the six sections. Arrival - Last as First, Black Dots and Contrast, Line to Curve, Putting a circle through its paces, Near and Far and Repose- Disturbance - Repose. Parker’s instinct to go to the words, reflects her interest in people, how they think, their inner eye. The titles guiding an interaction with the choreography but not prescribing it.

Dancers take part in the performance. Image: Kat Gollock Photography

Unlike bodies, influence can transcend human time, it appears at unknown intervals, can be shared between strangers, returned to and re-examined regardless of geography, era or means. Whilst watching, I began to contemplate my own time spent learning with Parker, my encounters with Riley’s work as a young art student and those who were dancing within the architecture of the gallery. As the dancers’ continued to rehearse, I moved in to the first room of the exhibition. Upon entering, visitors are advised that Riley’s experience of looking at others’ paintings, notably that of French post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, has been significant to her in the development of her working life. The third painting we see in the first room is a version of a Seurat. Riley made her own image of Seurat’s painting ‘The Bridge of Courbevoie (1886-87)’ in 1959, not a copy but an application of the same thinking and working process in order to practically work through her own problem.

Returning to the main gallery space and contemplating the notes on the floor, I retraced Riley’s words read, selected, digested and then feedback through hand onto paper. I thought about the way influence moves through bodies, a body has a life span but the language it produces can live on in others indefinitely. For Riley this communication lives on through paint, for Parker through movement.

For me, the thought of embodied influence and experience permeates the gallery when witnessing Writing the Body. Looking at the exhibition walls, I recollected my first experiences with art, I recognised some of the dancer’s movements as versions I’ve made, I was reminded of Janice’s words to me in moments of struggle within my work and I could see Riley’s persistence with paintings once deemed failures. These simultaneous perceptions made for a complex internal image yet the dance unfolding in front of me could not have been communicated more simply.  What I’ve learnt from Parker ‘continues to come up again and again in different guises,’ her words,work with what’s there […] what already exists […] you are always building,’ thread through everything I do and I constantly return to them. Glancing back down to the programme notes, the first sentence reads ‘last as first’, looking up again I see the dancers repeating a sequence they had performed the previous day, a revisiting of problems, a renewed sense of feeling. Parker and Riley both make vital a long conversation with practice, centring commitment, privileging process as well as product, constantly exploring the inner eye. ‘I see my work differently as time goes by […]Different experiences of looking, different current preoccupations.' Regardless of form, what prevails for me from this work, is a mediation on perception, what it means to move and be moved.

Janice Parker is an Edinburgh based artist and choreographer, she was specially commissioned to produce a dance work celebrating the writing of artist Bridget Riley.

Emmie McLuskey is an visual artist who lives in Glasgow. Her work explores interactions in and between bodies, and the systems that control and record them.

By Emmie McLuskey