Dance: Embodiment and Empathy with Lindsay Gilmour

  • Lindsay Gilmour walks through a field of petite flowers


University of California, Irvine |  April 12, 2022

Lindsay Gilmour is a performer, choreographer, filmmaker, and educator. Her work explores presence, ritual, and our body’s relationship with the natural world. She combines the mystical, somatic and scientific looking deeply into what it means to be human in the 21st century. Her most recent works delve into embodying local landscapes and express our need for wild untamed spaces.

Gilmour is the recipient of a Nehru Fulbright Award for Academic and Professional Excellence (2018) and a Hellman Fellowship (2020-2021), which supports her research exploring the preservation, adaptation, and innovation of Ritual Dance in Vajrayana Buddhist Nunneries and Monasteries in India. She is interested in embodied knowledge and exploring what ancient dances might share with contemporary somatic movement practices.

Gilmour is on the Board of Directors of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in India and is part of Core of Cultures research team dedicated to safeguarding intangible world culture and assisting the continuity of ancient dance traditions and embodied spiritual practices.

She sat down for a virtual interview with Associate Dean of Research and Innovation Jesse Colin Jackson to discuss Tibetan ritual dancing, embodying coyotes, and how stress and exhaustion shouldn’t be badges of honor.


Jesse Colin Jackson (JCJ): I'll start with the hardest question. Lindsay, could you tell us about what are you exploring as an artist and a researcher? Since it varies a lot, one of the things we're trying to do with these profiles is help narrate and explain what arts research is.

Lindsay Gilmour (LG): I'm researching embodiment and ways of knowing through the body. The two projects that are at the forefront of my research are Tibetan ritual dance and eco somatic movement practices. For both practices the body itself is the subject of experience and the very place of knowing. I'm interested in shifting the hierarchy of perception and how we gather information and construct knowledge. I am interested in the interplay of what we call “mind” and “body” and how movements and environments affect the mind and vice versa.

JCJ: I'm a visual artist who makes things. The act of making is an embodied process, even if in my case, the making is sometimes mechanized. In your world of dance, are notions of embodiment increasingly important? I asked this because the faculty I previously interviewed from the dance department, S. Ama Wray, is also interested in embodiment. I hadn't initially understood that your work was similar. Across dance, is this interest a rare thing or a common thing?

LG: It is becoming more common to speak about embodiment and presence. There are a multitude of ways to experience dance. A dancer can think about the counts and correct steps while looking in the mirror and a dancer can also move from a place of sensing and feeling. Both are important aspects of training.  Right now, I'm working on dance films which explore embodiment and how our bodies are conversation with natural environments. I spoke about these projects at Solutions that Scale.

JCJ: For any of the readers who are unaware, Solutions that Scale is a campus group that's organized out of the School of Physical Sciences. It's a collective of individuals concerned primarily about climate change.

LG: Specifically, the theoretical framework that I'm using is a somatic movement practice called The Discipline of Authentic Movement. The first thing I'll do to create artwork is to just go and be in a space. Right now, that space is a natural environment. I'll go either to the field across the street, to the ocean, or tomorrow I go to Death Valley to film a new dance film.

What I'm saying by embodiment is this process of being with a landscape, not thinking about or reading about it, but physically being with it. This process begins through the lens of authentic movement, where I first sit with a space. I just watch and witness, shifting my hierarchy of knowing from thinking to sensing. I smell the sage. I see the movement of the wind in the sand. I feel textures and listen to the local animals. Once I come into this way of knowing a particular place, then I begin to embody this place. I embody the movement of the sound or the movement of the wind, or I move, inspired by the smells around me. I'm not trying to create a piece about anything in particular. I'm creating a piece in in collaboration with a particular environment.

What really interests me about this is that the dancer is not the protagonist or the center of the piece. The dancer is a thread amongst the larger fabric of an environment. The audience can witness and experience the natural environment through the dancer.

JCJ: I think we should give some examples of embodying a place. This work resonates with me. As a visual artist, I also am pursuing a place-based practice. I'm in the place, but my body doesn't respond to it, although it does in a weird way. Could you tell us about your projects that are local to you?

LG: I've made four films in the past year. The film that's being edited right now is called Suburban Wilderness. This film grew out of the pandemic when we were isolated in our houses. I found a refuge across the street in this open field. I felt this need for wild spaces. For me, wild spaces means spaces that are uncurated. The Bommer Canyon trails are curated. But across the street, there's a wilderness, which means there's trash, there's coyote scat, there's dead rabbits in the pathway. There's something about being in wild untamed spaces that was very healing and started a creative process.

Every morning I go for a walk. I embody different parts of the landscape. If I see a particular tree, I'll close my eyes. I'll try and sense into the tree and feel the tone of the tree, the movement of the tree, so I can know the tree in an embodied way. There's this particular place I go, where I see a coyote each time. In order for me to know the coyote, I will try and embody the coyote. I’ll stiffen my body and widen my eyes and feel the hairs on my body prickle. I know the sense of alertness and present awareness through my own embodiment of what I perceive the coyote to be. I'll do this with decaying branches, a blooming flower, or even decaying animals.  I’ll ask myself what's the energetic quality of their movements? Nothing ever stops moving, even in death.

JCJ:. You've created a distinction between an open field and a local park where someone decided to turn it into a privileged place of nature, which, as you say, is curated. In the park, trails are established and other trails are deleted. For people who haven't been to Bommer Canyon, it’s an example of aggressive curation with fences and chains. Only the trails that are prescribed by the trail maintenance folks are left.

Compare this to a neighboring terrain that is not organized and similar to an empty lot. That empty lot represents a place that's more real and has a more complicated history. If one of the goals of place-based work is to allow people to connect to these places, there's something distancing about the way the park is set up. I want to describe for our readers, how these places are quite similar. They're both desert scrub landscapes, but one has been curated and one has not.

The overall point I wanted to make is that we’ve spent the last 100, 200, 300 years, since the Industrial Revolution, separating ourselves from the world through our work and through the way that we pave over and reconstitute the landscape.

At UCI, we live in a neighborhood where we've taken original landscape and turned it upside down and put a bunch of houses on it. I don’t want to call it native, because it was already something else with conflicting forces acting on it. We don't inhabit something that is legibly attached to the rest of the world.

The work that you're doing connects to other work on campus in a variety of disciplines. This is where the research innovation is starting to occur. You're part of a group of voices that are trying to give us different ways—through science, creativity, and humanistic work—to connect us back to the place that we live.

I do have one very specific question. How do you embody the coyote? Are there historical practices that you're looking at and precedents for it? For people who aren't dancers, who aren't as familiar with their own bodies, there’s a mystery to that.

LG: Many indigenous cultures have dances that mimic and embody certain animals to gain access to their wisdom and power.  As a child I started embodying people and animals intuitively as a way of understanding them. When I first moved to New York City, on long subway rides, I really enjoyed embodying people on the train. I would do their gestures. I would have a little insight by how someone holds their body—if their chest is concave or their tone is alert or soft, or the tilt of their head. We know that when we speak with people, there are mirror neurons. We’ll often mirror people as a way to form connections and empathize with people.

I started to think, what happens if I mirror not just humans, but non-human animals and the natural landscape? What empathy arises for the nonhuman world when I embody and move with these landscapes? What if those mirror neurons start to fire with a coyote and I can drop into knowing a coyote? This is where it crosses over with environmental activism. When we come to know and truly understand, then we can't help but care. Empathy arises natually.

When people tell me statistics of destruction, it's a mental processing. I think, oh my gosh, that's horrible. But when I go to the field across the street and I sit with a particular coyote and I sense and I embody the coyote and we look at each other, then I physically know this wilderness. I feel a kindred-ness and a kinship. We know we're part of nature, we've just forgotten. When I'm there, I remember that I'm part of this ecosystem. I don't have to be told about it. I know it in my body.

JCJ: I know this lot. It's nice. There's a tree. There's a sitting area. Actually, I think I saw that coyote this morning. I was running down one of the one of those drainage channels. But humanity has a tendency to organize things into separate categories. That's a characteristic of modernity. We separate everything into separate things. What you're doing is to mess that back up.

Your comment about environmental activism does provide a natural segue to Solutions that Scale. Climate change is one of the urgent problems of our time and our campus recognizes this and is trying to find different ways to tackle this challenge. Lindsay spoke to the group, and it was clear that that your work resonated. One of the reasons why was because the scientists, who are the predominant membership of this group, are in the business of providing us with facts. What they have come to recognize after 40 or 50 years of providing facts to the world is that those facts do not resonate with people on the level they should. When you talk to scientists about climate change, you can tell they feel this, that the facts drive empathy in them. They understand the facts in a deeper way than the average person. But what they're looking for, and one of the things I think they found so exciting about what you're doing, is they are looking for ways to connect with people that are not fact based. I think we're at the beginning of some exciting collaborations where the research we do in the arts about how to create empathetic relationships through creativity can be connected to the harder science, the fact collecting and evaluating groups on campus. Has there been any follow up with anybody from Solutions that Scale?

LG: There have been a couple of emails, but no meetings, yet. All ways of knowing are important, but there's this hierarchy of the mind over matter. I believe that artists have a helpful perspective to create a more holistic way of knowing. When we see art, we don't always know what it means from an intellectual place, but it often hits us on a visceral level. We know this as artists. This is what the films that I'm making are aspiring to do.

I'm about to go to Death Valley tomorrow. I've got a shot list more or less, but the film will be an experiment and the making of the film will be play based. I’ll listen and hear the space. I can create a shot list before I go, but what I really need to do is be in the space and create work once I'm there. I'm hoping to help people experience and be with the desert. The dancer in the landscape is almost a translator of the desert or is a creature in the desert. The desert is in conversation with the dancer. In some shots, the dancer will be miniscule and the desert will be vast. We see the smallness of us and the vastness of the desert. I love this idea that we are a microcosm of the whole. We're tiny, but at the same time, we're vast as well. We too are a universe. Part of the process is finding our own inner desert landscape. We're relating with the qualities of the desert within ourselves as well.

JCJ: I wanted to point out that sometimes there’s a sense that the arts are not a rigorous pursuit. But what you just described is a method. I hate to automatically put things in scientific terms, but sometimes in a research university, it’s helpful to create that analog. You just described a fairly precise technique. How you listen to a place and respond to it. It's no less rigorous or specific than any other method that anyone pursues. You're repeating the experiment in a variety of locations and different results occur. There's a hypothesis behind it. Through this series of activities, you're able to create connections for people to that place. You see yourself as this conduit, through which someone who maybe can't relate to the vastness of the desert, or possibly can't go to the desert can connect. The fact that you're filming these gives them reach. Of course, we wish everybody could be there with you, but there are lots of people who either can't or simply don't have time to go to Death Valley, this famously dramatic landscape that's not very far away.

There's a visual artist named Michael Heizer, who cut a hole in the desert, a chasm. As a visual artist, I want to make these connections to visual arts. My experience of Michael Heizer’s piece in the desert, which is a human scale chasm cutting through the edge of the desert, is similar to what you described. One of the issues with natural landscapes is they are so vast that we struggle to connect to them. They're not on a scale we understand. They're not at the scale of our urban and suburban environments, where everything has been built for us and is at our scale. I think one of the things that makes people in awe of the of the landscape, what we have historically called the sublime, is its enormous scale relative to us. But as you point out, we also constitute this vastness, that ubiquity across the landscape as we tinker and destroy. It's exciting to hear about ways that we can bridge that connection.

LG: I appreciate you noticing the rigour and clear method to this research that I'm doing. To clarify the method, it's based on a somatic movement practice called the Discipline of Authentic Movement. Usually, it's done by witnessing human beings. I've expanded the practice where instead of witnessing people, I witness non-human animals and nature. In this practice one witnesses another and feels in their own body what's happens when they sit with and witness another. For example if I am witnessing a tree I may feel my own feet grounded into the earth and my inner winds moving as the leaves blow. Afterwards the witness then speaks in the present from their own experience of being with the tree.  We try not to speak about it but rather speak from within, staying in direct experience.

What I think is so important about uncurated spaces is that you can walk in all directions. When you go on trails, the path is clearly laid out for you. When we're in suburban areas, you have to turn right, you have to turn left, there’s a stop sign. There's the sense of constantly being directed. When you're in a wild, uncurated space, like in this field across the street, there's something about having a 360 perspective. I'm not being told how I move or how to perceive. There's a sense of freedom, curiousity and play. For me, this is where artistry comes from—this sense of play. In these uncurated spaces, there's 360 degrees of possibility, rather than the curation of a trail.

I feel really strongly about the discipline and rigor or play. There's a misconception that hard work and rigor is something that is difficult, that you have to put your nose to the grindstone. I really believe in the importance of awe. Play can be hard work. Sitting in a space and witnessing with open awareness for hours takes rigor. It takes a deep presence, which requires a discipline and rigor which I prefer to call devotion.

JCJ: We are indeed Homo Ludens. Homo Ludens is Johan Huizinga’s idea that we are the playful creature and that it’s one of the defining characteristics of being a human. This is early 20th century philosophy, perhaps a little ignorant of the playfulness of animals. 

I do an experiment with students in an urban environment where I asked them to follow a set of arbitrary instructions. It’s a different way to get them to play. The French Situationists came up with this rigorous method to destabilize how you relate to a place. You follow a set of arbitrary instructions until you get lost. Students think they know a place because they're in it every day, but they only inhabit a very small portion of the place. They never go through the service entrance of a building. They're never in the backyard. They don't go down those drainage channels. They come to realize that we're creatures of habit. We carve out this narrow space between where we live and where we work. The rest of the area around us is uninhabited space. It feels like what you're doing is a way of destabilizing how we relate to place because it's not prescribed, there’s not a path to follow.

Switching gears, I wanted to mention that Lindsey is a winner of a Hellman fellowship.

The Hellman Fellows Fund is an endowed program at all UC campuses that provides research funding to assistant professors. It's for faculty who are in the first four years of their careers. It's a relatively large amount of money in the arts. The Hellman Fellows Fund believes that this is the most impactful thing they can do for scholarship across the board. The award isn’t specific to any field and is open to any UC faculty in the first four years of their career. It's a wonderful program. What were you able to do with your Hellman award?

LG: The project is still in process because it has been delayed due to COVID. My research is embodiment. It's exciting to take what we've been discussing and then use the somatic lens to look at Tibetan ritual dance. My research is looking at the innovation, adaptation and preservation of Tibetan ritual dance in the Himalayas. I'm looking at two different communities, Ladakh in the Himalayas and also Tibetan exile communities, which are scattered throughout India. I've been interested in how these ancient dances and rituals survive and thrive with the shifting political and cultural landscapes. 

For example, Tibetan exiles started flooding into India in the 1950s. Ladakh became part of India in 1947 during partition. These ancient traditions had this dramatic shift. How do they adapt? I'm interested in the sociological lens and the embodiment lens. I'm drawn to learn about these practices because they’re about embodiment of spiritual practice. It's not about thinking about what's happening or memorizing texts, although that's part of the tradition as well, but these particular practices are about embodying deities.

During ritual dance or performing mudras, hand gestures, the dancers, who are monks or nuns, visualize themselves as the deity, speak mantras and move their body—they say, through the three doors of the body, speech, and mind. What fascinates me is that the gestures and words don't represent something. They are the thing itself. The sacred mantras don't mean something. The mantras are the vibration of the deity. This gets to the idea of direct experience, direct relationship with the landscape and direct experience or embodiment of a deity.

I emphasize that the dancers aren't possessed by the deity, they are moving as the deity and through moving their body and speaking these mantras and using visualizations, they actually become a deity. It is often said that the dancers become the deity that they already are through embodiment. In the Buddhist tradition, it's believed that we are already enlightened, but have been covered over by our ignorance. It's like the sun and the clouds. When we move into this visualization, we're able to become this deity that we already are. That's what excites me. It's through the movements of the body that we come to this place of awakening and knowing.

JCJ: My following question is at the core of arts research. You've described a cultural study that is a combination of anthropology and sociology. You're witnessing a tradition as it currently exists and as it historically exists. How does that translate into output? Will there be a creative result of this work? What does that look like? I want to point out that one of the key characteristic differences of creative research versus conventional research is that you are engaged in an active study of a subject on the ground and your end result is likely a combination of writing, plus other things. Those other things are mysterious to the rest of campus and to the world. The arts are the consequence of research. We just have a different end product. Our end product is creative. Is there a creative end product to this work? Can you describe it to us?

LG: I've already made a 10-minute film about Tibetan ritual. This is exactly what we were saying before. The film is not about the dances. There's no text or historical facts. The film gives people a visceral experience of being in the community.  Instead of thinking, learning, and hearing about the facts of what happened in 1947 and what they mean, they get a rush of images, a rush of local sounds and chanting. The viewer feels as if they are immersed in a place rather than just learning about it. I would like to describe my filmmaking as more visceral embodied approach to knowing and experiencing a place through the senses of the body versus an analytical knowing about a place that favors thinking.

JCJ: There's something deadening and distancing about automatically having the outcome of research activity be either papers or white papers. Basically, there's humanities papers and science papers—that is the stock and trade of most of campus. One of the exciting frontiers that we can illustrate is this difference.

I'm from Canada and we would call this research-creation. The hyphenation explains that the research leads to a creative product. Our campus is actually very progressive about this. I should give UCI credit for this. There's been a long process of recognizing creativity as a form of research. It's built into our system. There are other campuses and other universities where creative people are expected to mimic the scholarship of other fields, which of course, makes no sense. You've invested all of this training into becoming a dancer, an expert at dance methodology, dance production, and literally dancing, and to produce another type of work seems like an unfortunate result. I'm glad that you're able to pursue the work you were trained to do through research support structures, like the Hellman and other programs.

LG: I appreciate what you're saying because I do have those moments where I think, I'm not trained as a sociologist or an anthropologist. I love to learn and read, but I'm not trained this way. I've had to really hold true to my training and perception as an artist and to feel like this is my research tool. I can have an anthropological lens, but my methodology, my way of knowing, is going to be through my decades of dancing and to have confidence in that. I'm really grateful for UCI for honoring that.

JCJ: You've described a unique contribution to the knowledge landscape. This embodied contribution that comes from a combination of this detailed study of various cultures and dance training. What is the value of this unique contribution of knowing?

LG: The through line between my research is embodied epistemology. How do we know what we know? What if we allow the body to speak and listen? What does my body know? What does my body know when I sit in a Tibetan temple for three hours, during afternoon prayers? What does my body know when I'm sitting in a monastery courtyard watching ritual dance? What does my body know when I sit with a coyote, slug or tree? My research tool, in some ways, is my body and my own perception. Of course, I read about my research topics, but what interests me is what happens when I let information filter in through my kinesthetic intelligence. What happens when I shift my hierarchy of knowing? I think people are understanding the need for alternative ways of being in the world.

JCJ: Lindsay, you've been pursuing film-based work, I presume, in part because of the pandemic and its limitations. If we get back to a place where, let's not call it normal, but a place where you're able to perform in front of audiences, will you still create these, let’s call them “distance experiments” when people are ready to watch in-person?

LG: I've fallen in love with film, so I think I'll continue working with film. The big change for me is that I'll be allowed to return to India. I hope to go back and dig deeper into this research and make another film.

What I would really love is to create some type of research or workshop where I can start to take people out into natural environments with me and lead people through this process of authentic movement and embodiment with places. That feels like a natural next step. I've been doing it on my own and in my creative work, but I’d like to create something that can share this way of knowing.

JCJ: After a career in dance, or in the middle of a career in dance, if you were to give advice to a young dancer about how to get involved in research-based work, what would you advise them to do?

LG: This might be idealistic, but I don't feel like I ever worked hard to be a dancer. I wouldn't say that I was disciplined. I was devoted. I was so devoted to dance that the hours in the studio and the scrapes on my feet didn’t seem like the result of work or discipline. It was a deep devotion to something I loved. That framework feels really important because I feel like our culture has this belief that something is not valuable unless you suffer. I do not believe you need to suffer. You don't need to be overwhelmed. You don't need to be stressed and exhausted. I think we wear these as badges of honor. But I would love to shift that paradigm and say you might be doing the same things, but you're committing to it as a deep love or devotion. I always ask my students, to what are you devoted? What is it that you love? What do you want to do? What are you willing to give yourself to? And then the discipline arises naturally.

JCJ: That sounds like a great place to end. Thank you so much for being with us today. Lindsay, it's been great to talk to you.