Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Michael Kliën

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Michael Kliën is Professor of the Practice of Dance and Director of Graduate Studies of the MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis at Duke University. He also directs the Laboratory for Social Choreography at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

In this edited and condensed interview, Dr. Kliën describes how the way we move our bodies constructs our world, why research and practice are the same thing, and how attempting to move differently might expand our imaginations—and could change our reality.

Dr. Kliën gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Wild Thoughts and the Killing of the Octopus: Social Choreography as an Aesthetics of Governance on Friday, October 30, 2020, at 9:30am. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

My interests are under the umbrella of social choreography. I think about social choreography in terms of how our ideologies form the frames in which we move our bodies and thereby build collective choreographies and systems of exchange, for example in our educational systems and towns.

The systems we create recursively determine how we individually move, and how we relate to each other. This loop becomes highly complex. We usually respond to the situations in our world—climate change, inequality, mental health—from within the framework of the ideologies that caused the issues in the first place.

Social choreography is a way to look at and gain an aesthetic feel for this interconnectedness. At the same time, it’s a way to create containers to find strategies for moving beyond our narrowly constructed reality. What’s “normal” is just not working anymore. We have to look for breakages in the matrix.

How does social choreography impact our everyday lives?

An example is how our culture has an obsession with squares. When you look out a window, at the floor, or at a computer screen, you are seeing the world through squares. We think it’s necessary to think and exist in squares; however, the body has no squares. We’ve constructed our world in a way that limits our perception of reality.

The role of the artist is to peel away the squares and start to rebuild spaces and relationships in different ways.

This is the artist’s work. And in social choreography, everybody's an artist. Everybody can think about these issues and engage in meaningful ways to undo, and then to find new ways to move, relate, and rebuild.

What is the genealogy of your artistic career?

I'm an artist and choreographer by training, but over the course of my career, I’ve also run my own dance companies, as well as created work ranging from contemporary ballet to happenings to club nights.

I've always felt the need to develop the discipline and expand what dance can mean. Dance is often relegated to the sidelines. Much of my work has been about bringing the moving body to the center of the conversation. At the same time, I work to expand choreography to go beyond the dancing body. I think about dance relationally, and I think about the social as an aesthetic field of engagement.

Over the years, I became interested in building avant-garde institutions with a utopian impulse. I built one in Ireland (Daghdha) and one on the Greek island of Hydra (R.I.C.E.). These were gatherings of, and centers for, concerned citizens and artists.

Throughout my career I spent time developing work for various dance companies and later museums. Along the way, I got my PhD. Then three years ago, Duke came into the picture. I thought it was a fascinating challenge to help build an MFA program that’s somewhat different from what’s traditionally offered in academia.

How does your research interact with your practice?

I work in an aesthetic field that’s also a complex and living process. There’s almost no distinction between my research and my practice. A thought is always a physical act; A physical act is always a thought.

My practice has many aspects, including a lot of reading. I'm very influenced by Gregory Bateson on systems theory and ecological thinking. I also support much of my teaching through cultural theory and interdisciplinary writing. Like any researcher, I try to stay on top of all the different discourses going on.

But I treat the research with a different methodology. For example, in academia you’re not allowed to quote without credit, but in the arts, you make and remake. I allow all my material to be reused in open source systems.

Another aspect of my practice is in the form of situations, such as with Parliament at the Nasher Museum a couple of years ago. I set up containers with very few instructions. People spend six to ten hours in silence, with nothing to do, nowhere to sit, and nothing to look at. Then very quickly, self-organizing dynamics take over. Because I invite many people from different knowledge bases, new embodied situations emerge.

These situations feel very alien initially, but as they go on, people get very excited. It's like there are untapped fields of existence, awareness, and reality that people carry but must subdue in their daily interactions. We’re so governed by shame and fear, but here you find a deep connection with people you’ve never met. There’s a sense of belonging and care.

How do you work within the contradiction of also having to participate in social constructs?

In social choreography there isn’t a traditional “against-ness” toward our constructed reality. We’re all a part of the systems we’ve built, and a part of the problem, yes, we can recognize and address the intrinsic fallacies of a collectively constructed reality.

The question is how can we, together, expand our field of what’s imaginable, and then build a new institution together? This is a long-term project, and it's still very early on. I don't know if this work has or will affect the very foundations of our institutions.

But consider how ecological collapse has already happened and is continuing to happen. If you’re driving 200 miles an hour toward a wall, you could just sit there and accept that you’re going to hit that wall. Or you could just try something.

It might all be in vain, but at least we would be trying to move differently. And we might need to move very differently, outside of what’s comfortable. To go through the amount of change needed, there will be pain. Social choreography brings out pain and resistance as well.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

I’d like for people to gain a basic understanding of what social choreography is, and to become curious about engagement and collaboration.

I also think there’s often a subtle effect from these sorts of talks that’s very hard to predict. I'm interested in the “takeaway” that comes back years later in ways you would never imagine. I don't want to flatten that mystery by setting clear expectations.

The acknowledgement that our understanding of everything is limited is really important to social choreography and my artistic practice. It’s humbling.

What are you teaching?

This semester I’m teaching the graduate course “Choreographic Praxis,” in which we look at different ideologies of human ordering that we connect to our political systems. I’m also teaching “Movement Research,” where students research through movement to dig into their psyches.

Next semester, I’m teaching an undergraduate class, “Dancing States of Mind,” which is about reaching different ways of thinking through movement. It’s open to anybody who's interested in how moving relates to learning, thinking, and living.

The first exercise I give is to simply go out in public and hold one arm above your head. Stand there and see what happens. The students have to overcome a lot of shame and fear to do this exercise—they see that people will then move away from them very quickly.

We then unravel why that is. The “land of the free” is highly regulated. Our movements are highly trained since infancy and any breakage of social codes will lead to consequences. If you stand with your hand above to your head, people won’t want to be near you, they will feel threatened by you, you will become unreliable.

In “Dancing States of Mind,” we get out of line together. We contemplate freedom and who governs what we can and cannot do. It’s a personally challenging, yet joyful class. After taking it, students seem to feel better, because they discover a sense of personal agency in the unfolding story of our collective realities.

Michael Kliën
Associated Program(s)