black and white image of the performance "Parliament"

KIE Senior Fellow Michael Kliën Heads New Laboratory for Social Choreography

Before the piece begins, around twenty relative strangers meet with Michael Kliën to learn the basics of the “score” that will govern their movement for the duration of Parliament. The “rules” aren’t really rules at all; a simple proposition for how people might be together sets the tone. Working from a simple premise, everyone can determine how they want to interact. Six hours later, nearly everyone emerges from the shared experience exhilarated, feeling connected in ways they hadn’t anticipated—and not entirely sure how to explain what just happened. Unburdened from ordinary social cues and structures for several hours, participants move into a shared exploration of how to be in community. Parliament, Kliën notes, is embodied ethics.

Associate Professor of the Practice of Dance and new Institute Senior Fellow Michael Kliën has built his artistic career exploring how our thinking and social organization are embodied. Often our image of self centers on our brains as the center of our consciousness. This is limited, Kliën says: “A thought is a physical act.” Thus, if we want to change social institutions or norms, we must rethink how we move our bodies through space. That means reconsidering what different bodies are capable of and with whom different bodies interact.

The implications for this practice are wide-ranging and ambitious. Social choreographic techniques are being used to develop strategies for institutions to become flexible so that they can better adapt and learn; to develop novel (and more functional) ways of engaging in political discourse; and to understand the mostly unconscious social coding that keeps us moving in familiar-but-sometimes-unhealthy patterns. Kliën is currently teaching to his students in a first-year seminar on visionary thinking as part of the What Now? program.

The Laboratory for Social Choreography (LSC), also supported by The Franklin Humanities Institute, will be an incubator and hub for a range of social choreographic thinking and action. This spring, preparations are underway for a series of collaborations and projects to for the coming academic year, including instances of Parliament meant to connect people from disparate parts of the city of Durham and presenting the work at universities across the country; work with the new Master of Fine Arts in Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis; and a model for collaborative innovation with faculty.

CHRISTIAN FERNEY is the program director at the Institute.

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