There is a terrible, terrible memory I have. It’s from early on in my physical performance career – I was choreographing my very first fight, and I thought it was just wonderful. It had showstopping moves, it had rhythm, it had all sorts of technical movement – I knew for a fact it was martially sound (after all, I choreographed it that way!). Finally, the performers had a chance to present it in front of a small audience during a training session.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sound quite as loud as the silence that rang out from the audience at the end of that fight performance.
The reality was, I had choreographed the performance equivalent of an inside joke. I managed to choreograph that feeling of “well I guess you had to be there”. What a disaster that piece of choreography was, but it sparked a lifelong quest into the pursuit of that moment and how best to avoid it, and gave birth to a concept I now utilize when I’m directing or choreographing called “subconscious approval”.
Let’s look at an example of something most of us probably don’t have any experience with to explore subconscious approval – the aesthetic and aerodynamic design of automobiles. Personally, I’ve never been employed in this field. Like most actors and movement artists, I have the ability to draw what I am picturing in my head exactly 1% of the time, and only in connection to stick figures and blocking patterns.
This being said, though, I certainly have opinions about how cars look. I think some cars look fast. I think some cars look futuristic. I think some cars just look “off”.
Those first two – those come from culture. They come from an observation-fueled subconscious knowledge about certain visual elements combined with learned and reinforced understandings of the world around me. Things that go fast typically have contour lines parallel to the direction they move. They often have pointy noses and are roughly conical. I learned this from looking at everything from birds to fighter jets, from arrows and bullets to footballs and cheetahs.
Here’s the best part. Whether I know it or not, my cultural experiences have shaped the world so that certain things appear to have qualities that in NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM can be judged by visual appearance.
Pragmatically, something is either fast, or it isn’t. The idea that something “looks fast” is ridiculous!
Or is it?
The human brain relies on visual acuity above all other senses to process information. For those with experience in combat sports such as HEMA or fencing, you’re well aware of how reliant the human brain is on vision, and how easily it can be deceived – this is why we train drills and narrow the decision matrix. As fencers or martial artists, we want “perception-response”, not “perception-interpretation-consideration-decision-response”.
There is a broader picture here that we’re starting to unravel, though, and it’s pertinent to both the artistic world and to a genuinely humanist view of our surroundings. Culture is, at its most relevant to us as performers, the concept of expectation broken down into observable data, and the art of physical movement (and performance as a whole, really) is the manipulation of those expectations to invoke an emotional response and convey meaning. Our expectations are set by observation, education, and instinct. Conveniently, I also explain these as the three pieces of an audience’s observational approval process – what we can see, what we are told about what we can see, and what we feel about what see. If we can make those three things agree for an audience, they believe us, just like if we can make those three things agree in our daily life, we’re likely to accept something as true.
What is most interesting for us, as physical performers in general and as the “custodians of violence” (thank you Brad Waller) that we function as in the stage combat and stunt world, is that we are often dealing with an audience who believes they are far more informed about violence than they really are.
Aside: An audience CAN engage in conscious approval – my maestro(s) have told me plenty of times, when watching my choreography, that they “would never do that in a duel!” and asking what would have possessed me, asking me to remove them from my resume, say one hundred “Hail Meyers” while doing footwork drills, etc. They have a reasonable and cerebral (read: consciously aware) knowledge base to reference and pull from. They know exactly why they think it looks strange, and have a valid concern here. We want the martial truth (a concept we’ll explore in a later blog) to ring out in everything we do, but realism does not, in my opinion, overshadow the importance of the story we are telling, or the experience of the audience.
So. The other 99% of the audience, lacking an understanding of our art form. They are dealing with two things. Firstly, they are dealing with “cars that look fast”, as we described above – a subconscious approval level that stems from something learned through repeated perception that they aren’t even aware of or from literal education. This is often the cause of OTHER fights on stage and screen that they have seen and is largely why the mistakes and surrealisms of Hollywood combat have repeated themselves – because it “looks like a fight” to the majority of viewers, just like that car looked fast.
The second comes from a place of instinct. A place of something looking “off”, we could even call this a gut feeling. This is probably the hardest thing to target as a choreographer or director. I know nothing about interior decorating, but boy can I walk into a house and go “…yikes…” – there is something in my brain that says it’s off.
Ok, spoiler alert. I just lied to you. There isn’t really a “second thing”. What the instinctive “off” perception is, has to do with instinctual response to a combination of factors too complex for us to immediately identify. We see certain color patterns as “loud” or “off” – scientists theorized this comes from poison and predator recognition in the wild, and why it is so largely consistent among our entire species, even absent combined culture. I’m inclined to agree with them, because, well, they’re scientists (and I’m not, quite yet – soon enough). Wonderfully instinctual and base – however, what about that interior decorating? There’s more to it than color. You can walk into a room and say, “Well that’s a weird place to put a couch.” What we’re seeing are patterns and shapes we don’t find agreeable to the environment or the expectation (and the cultural anthropologists all gasped) of said environment.
So how does this apply to a fight?
When a layman sees something “off” in a fight, what they’re seeing is basic things – shapes, colors, lines, movements – that don’t sit with the expectation of what you’re trying to convince them is happening. Whether that’s physically (the actual punch or kick) or emotionally (the physicality mismatched with the emotional tone). We have to be conscious of this and ever mindful of these factors – truly, strong shapes and agreeable physicality/emotionality are at the basis of good choreography, and as “custodians” we’re obliged to convey this. By exploring movements and breaking them down, similar to how we broke down the observable qualities that our culture and environment have taught us means that something looks fast, we can reintroduce those qualities purposefully to make sure something looks exactly how we intend it.
It is our duty to convey a story that is perceived in an approving way by both experts and laymen – as the HEMA and combat communities grow, the layman audience shrinks – but at the core, in spite of or because of knowledge in an art, we are all utterly human and we will continue to perceive other humans in ways that are rooted in our cultural perceptions – whether we know it, or not.