Self Portait: Emily Coates
March 17, 2015
Each of the 12 artists in PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets received an invitation from curator Claudia La Rocco to contribute a self portrait, of sorts, to the Platform 2015 publication. Here Emily Coates shares her response.
I have been searching for Sir Isaac Newton’s body. His actual, lived body, not some done up, glorified representation. Strange compulsion, you might think. My fascination began when I observed the gestural repertoire of a group of high-energy physicists talking about the Higgs boson. I quickly moved from there to wonder about the mother lode: the late 1600s body of Newton, who is credited with establishing the foundations of classical physics. Whatever kinesthetic imagination today’s physicists wield, consciously or not, must reflect in someform Newton’s being in the world.
When I told one scientist about my interest, shereplied, “Yuck.” I’m rescued, however, from weird, fetishistic leanings by a very concrete question: what role did Newton’s body play in the creation of his abstract principles of science? I have the urge to wrestle with Newton, to pit my dance aesthetic expertise against his mathematical one, to conjure his body of scientific discovery.
Actually, it’s not easy to conjure Newton’s body. It appears in the archive in quirky, often opposing forms: in a series of anecdotes collected and recorded by those who knew him, filtered through latter day scholars, and in visual portraits by artists. Stories about his early love of mechanical tinkering contradict impressions of his bodily neglect later in life. In one narrative strand, he is ascetically gaunt; in another, he is rotund to the point of obesity. He associated the imagination with uncontrollable carnal cravings; excess food, drink, and sex threatened to lead the natural philosopher astray. Search for his portrait on Google Images, and you will find many representations of his head.
In sifting through these shards, I can find nothing about how he moved. What would he have looked like performing Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, for example? For however much physical life may have repelled him, his theoretical imagination was supremely corporeal, resolutely kinesthetic. How else could he have imagined the motion of the “celestial bodies,” but through his own form? Newton’s genius was to leap from everyday experience and observation to the planets and stars, and return to quantifying the everyday.
His body is fuzzy in the dance historical archive, too. “When an apple fell on his head, Newton was inspired to describe his three laws of motion,” begins Steve Paxton in his seminal essay on contact improvisation, “Fall After Newton” (1988). In fact, the apple didn’t fall on his head, and he didn’t invent all the laws in that one moment. The image of an apple falling on his head is a distortion of an anecdote that appears in the papers of William Stukeley, one of Newton’s more physically attuned early biographers. As that story goes, Newton told Stukeley that he had observed an apple dropping from a tree in a garden, and extrapolated that the pull of the earth’s gravity on the apple might also extend beyond that apple and pull as well on the moon. Thus did he conceive of the law of universal gravitation.
This story is also, of course, up for debate—potentially distorted by memory and the biographer’s own desires. We crave origin stories. Accessing the late 17th century moment in which Newton discovered the law of gravitation happens to be more difficult than accessing the latter 20th century beginnings of contact improvisation, in the 1972 dance Magnesium that Paxton created with a group of men at Oberlin College. Bodies were present at both—this much we know. Paxton connects dance and scientific research, aligning his origin story with the history of science, even as he inadvertently perpetuates a myth. What we have in his essay is Newton’s mythologized head. There is a certain poetry to one mythologized icon standing on the shifting ground of another.
I, too, am going head-to-head with Newton, albeit differently from Paxton, who is not ultimately (directly, at least) my artistic forefather. If measured by total immersion, I’m the lovechild of George Balanchine and Yvonne Rainer, with Robbins, Tharp, and Rudner layered in. This genetic commingling has cultivated in me seemingly opposed instincts: I unfurl my pointed toe like an elephant’s trunk, even as I perform “doing nothing.” One side of my family tree reveres history while altering it, and the other takes arguing with history as its reason for being—two modes more similar than not. While my neoclassical ballet inheritance did not teach me that I, too, could put forth new forms into the world, my postmodern dance background taught me that creating was within my reach and gave me some tools to try.
What I want to do with these tools is hijack intellectual history. I want to hijack Newton’s seemingly disembodied ideas and drag them into my body—intervene and redirect him with my aesthetic knowledge, draw him back into conversation with the human bodies from which he seemingly remained aloof.
Now, there are scant means available to me to tussle with a 372-year old British man in the 21st century. Instead of lingering on him, I have been learning a series of gestures by which scientists imagine the breakthrough discovery of the Higgs field and particle, and reassembling these phrases into a new compositional form. A tiny intervention against a behemoth, maybe. (As Tom is to you, Yve?) But it’s mine.
I realize that me with my female dancer body attempting to intervene into stories of the Scientific Revolution so dominated by men might be read as something of a political point. But my point isn’t about gender–it’s about knowledge. For I wish to assert that Newton’s body contributed to his thinking. And right alongside his embodied knowledge are my dance histories—all outcomes of a kinesthetic history that influences and generates diverse social forms, from science to art.
Three hundred years after Newton departed the earth, it’s impossible to piece together his body. What will become of these dance lineages that occupy my body, three hundred years from now?