The evolution of aesthetic: History, chance, and intent
By Paul Handford and Paul Eric Smith
From 1991 Boston University Morris Conference
For better or worse, Thames Valley International (T.V.I.) has developed a distinctive dance style since its origins in London, Ontario, circa 1981. This conference provides an opportunity for some reflection on the question: whence this style? whence the distinctiveness? The origin and maintenance of group characteristics is an historical question and, quintessentially, an evolutionary (Footnote 1) one, so it is interesting to inquire whether a theoretical framework from evolutionary biology can provide useful insight into this particular cultural phenomenon.
An explanation of the characteristics of any biological population is comprehensively provided by three factors: 1. the constraints of history- the particular genetic heritage of the population, reflecting antecedent circumstances- the set of the stage at time zero, so to speak, and, thereafter the influence of 2. chance contingent events, and 3. deterministic processes, prominently natural selection, acting upon the variation shown by the population. It seems at least plausible to seek an explanation of a team’s realized dance aesthetic in corresponding factors, namely: 1. its “cultural baggage”, inherited from the past; 2. unpredicted and unsought influences; and 3. the (reasonably close) cultural analogue of natural selection, aesthetic intent. How do these categories of determination translate into the morris microcosm of T.V.I., and what is their relative importance?
1. History. Thames Valley sprang directly out of the early team members’ experience with Forest City Morris (F.C.M.), the progenitor of all things morrissy in London. This history has been provided elsewhere (P.H., American Morris Newsletter, Summer 1988) and so reference here will be brief. The relevant factors seem to be: a) T.V.I. began with a full team of dancers experienced both in a diversity of morris “traditions”, and in elements of team dynamics and politics; b) they had left F.C.M. primarily in reaction against the “eclectic approach” to repertoire. In this sense, the initial membership was not just serendipity: to an extent they were a self-selected group, already of one mind, to some degree; c) they began with a corresponding explicit commitment to striving for “something more.” In addition, one of us , at least, inherited from the past two important aesthetic images- icons, if you like: first, a recollection, from F.C.M.’s first Marlboro visit, of Binghamton’s camp-site show dance, 1978 (was it Bucknell Queen’s Delight?): the corners almost parachuting into the middle of the set, seemingly from great heights. Second, a collection of images and ideas gleaned from Tony Barrand’s 1979 workshop with F.C.M. in Fieldtown style. We feel that this particular historical element has been of profound importance to the team, and this conference is an opportune moment to offer, once again, our appreciation to Tony for immensely valuable inspiration, both then and through the years since.
So history gave us an experienced and committed start-up team, who knew what morris was, and suspected what it could be, and who wanted to work hard on developing a single tradition, Fieldtown, untrammeled by the temptations of all those “great dances” from other traditions, and inspired by specific aesthetic images. Altogether, this historical package can be seen as containing some very important elements. In fact, we regard them all as crucial to the particular path that T.V.I. followed, at least in its first 5 years or so.
But do historical contexts constrain futures? There are evolutionary biologists who maintain, for example, that we and the other mammals would have risen to our current global prominence regardless of the demise of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago (Footnote 2), while others insist that without that extinction, triggered by the earth’s fateful encounter with comets, mammals would still be living on dinosaur table scraps. In similar vein, we might here suggest that none of our historical antecedents were indispensable to the outcome in the long run. Perhaps, given enough time, limbs and motor skills, any specific history could have been overwritten by clear intent, firmly and judiciously applied. It is amusing to speculate on this sort of question, but we may say with confidence that our particular inheritance at the very least facilitated the gratifyingly rapid development of a rewarding sense of achievement, which helped vindicate past efforts and was very important in inspiring continuing hard work, and in maintaining momentum.
2. Chance. In what ways would we count ourselves just plain lucky in what happened to us in the time following our origins? It’s not exactly luck, but we certainly were very fortunate that we were all pretty close pals when we started, and spent a lot of time together socially. This circumstance facilitated a lot of important developments which, while not exactly the results of chance phenomena, may as well be discussed here, since intent alone applied to these issues would perhaps always be futile. We were all, to varying degrees, conscious of being bound together as friends in an important joint enterprise, involving the discovery of new personal skills and a sense of aesthetic purpose. It was an exciting time, and we spent a lot of our waking hours thinking and doing Thames Valley stuff. This was very important to the development of momentum, enthusiasm and a sense of identity. This fortunate social nexus also made our team deliberations swift and almost painless: we had left all our “morris politics blues” elsewhere- we were single-minded! Thus we quickly decided to abandon our initial socialist ideal of joint leadership as an application of theory to an inappropriate domain: the development of a coherent aesthetic statement, we realized in a chemically-inspired revelation, required the unconstrained activities of some one individual who would do the homework and could articulate A Vision of Dance Possibilities. And so we settled down as a team with P.H. as “him possessed”, and a highly involved, supportive, not to say indulgent, crew of co-religionists. This experience of enthusiastic and tolerant long-term support for “whoever it is who’s organizing the dancing” has convinced us that this is an element of paramount importance in the development of coherent aesthetics. More on the interaction between the medium and the messengers below.
Many biological populations, founded and evolved in a degree of isolation, develop peculiarities by virtue of that chance isolation. How much of T.V.I.’s distinctiveness is owed to the reduction of “cultural gene flow” from outside? We think it is probable that the dynamic mentioned in the previous paragraph was enhanced by our isolation. Though we had some clear ideas at the outset, much of the overall clarity of purpose and statement that we may have now was developed piecemeal, as we went along. We suspect that if we had had ready access to “the straight goods on Fieldtown” from one or more of the experienced dancers in the New England region, say, this could very easily have set us on a substantially different track, by smothering any incipient originality of vision. After we had aired our dance wares on the morris circuit, and realized just how strange was our Fieldtown, a sense of pride in “our Fieldtown” further helped maintain our energy and resolve. For the record, then, except for Tony’s Fieldtown workshop of 2 years prior to our inception, all of our interpretation stemmed directly from the textual sources, and employed native and naive wit.
It is clear that the somatic types and movement capacities of the early team will have had an important impact on the way that the team style began and grew. The analysis of this set of factors is beyond the scope of this paper, and in any case should probably better be attempted by someone other than team members, but, in this connection, it is interesting to wonder to what extent the physical type and limitations of team teachers themselves constrain the very nature of the aesthetic which they “decide” to pursue. More on this theme below, in the section on Intent.
So much for how our group composition fostered some important early features of team development: what about chance events thereafter? The team has lost and recruited personnel at a fairly low and roughly balanced level through much of its history; but in recent years we have experienced a substantial net loss of dancers, and altogether there are now only three of the early team on the home town London team books (in fact only one from our first performing team!). Much of this turnover, both in numbers and names, has been pretty much a matter of chance, dictated by machinery outside the team’s world (i.e. no-one quit for reasons internal to the team), but its effects have been, and stand to be, of considerable importance. The early team had a 4-5 year persistence of membership, and we identify this as a factor of great significance in the development of a distinctive team style. The more recent attrition to a lower total, where relative newcomers predominate, has provided some rather difficult times. Momentum and a sense of identity and purpose are very difficult to maintain when only three or four people come out to practices (this was often the case from 1986-1990). When the team’s centre of gravity shifts to relatively inexperienced dancers, and the “old dynamically stable coherence” is represented by but few individuals, the team style tracks perilously close to what we might call “cusps between distinct stylistic domains of attraction.” Intent perhaps has little chance of prevailing against a persistent dynamic of this kind. Chaos theory could, perhaps, be of some utility in analyzing this kind of dynamic situation…….just as it has been in studying the sudden, catastrophic onset of heart-attacks.
As a special case of this attrition of influential membership, we should mention the shift, over the period 1986 to 1989, of the principal teacher, P.H., from full-time team dancer to full-time team musician. This was not from the dictates of intent, but of circumstance: bad knees. This shift of responsibility roughly coincided with the period of major attrition and turnover in membership. Now, in a session at a recent Pinewoods English Week, Tony Barrand discussed the business of “teaching from inside” and “teaching from outside”. There he recounted his own experiences with the Marlboro Men of these two teaching modes, and drew the conclusion that, while a team will always listen to what the teacher says, wherever he/she stands, they will always do what the “team icons” do. Team icons are the “strong” dancers of the team and, by definition, are full-time dancing members of the set. It seems to us that Tony’s inference is an important one, likely to be generally true, and its relationship to the foregoing discussion is clear enough. We leave it to outside scrutineers to make objective assessment of its possible effects on Thames style in recent time or in the future, but, for what it’s worth, P.H. has noticed some subtle changes of emphasis during and since the changeover, and recently has decided to “clear the decks”, and pass on the role of teacher to Alistair Brown, who is an original, full-time dancer. Of course it is possible that the subtleties were there all along, and have only become apparent from the new vantage point, but this seems unlikely at present. We look forward to future developments and analysis.
Through the years, all teams encounter chance influences from exposure to other teams. This source of determination undoubtedly applies to Thames, and we can suggest the following as probable sources of inspiration/emulation, at some time in the last ten years: Binghamton, Bouwerie, Marlboro, and Windsor Women, though those concerned may wonder at this. Overall, then, luck seems to be implicated mainly in its effects on the composition and persistence of the early team, and we feel that the effects of this have been profound. Secondary, as yet unassessed, amounts of influence have accrued from encounters with other teams. The effects of the move of the primary teacher from dancer to musician (inside to outside), and his eventual abdication of the position of teacher, remain to be documented.
3. Intent. Several of the intentional factors important in the team’s development were inherited from its historical context, as discussed above. It is worth emphasizing that the generalized intent to “go for something else” was an explicit conviction shared by most, if not all, the team’s membership. Implementation of any specific aesthetic initiatives as we progressed would have been much more difficult, and at least would have taken a lot more time, had this awareness and commitment not already been common property to the team. Though from very early on we had an acknowledged position of “teacher,” who set out the style and repertoire goals, we progressed very much on a basis of active collaboration. This was facilitated, perhaps even permitted, by a sense of trust: the team trusted the teacher to explore repertoire and style with vigour and imagination, while the teacher trusted the team at large to comment carefully, but not frivolously, on how things seemed to be working out in this or that dance. The team had tacitly agreed to give the “teacher” a lot of imaginative and interpretive rope, and so the teacher could trust that all would give a long, honest try at realizing some new dance or feature, no matter how improbable: it was rarely necessary to plead “no, come on, trust me on this one, guys……………..” The case of Brighton (Death) Camp springs to mind. In short, there was little struggle about the implementation of intent- there was no sense of dragging the team by the nose. Needless to say, we regard this as an extremely valuable element.
In the AMN ’88 article, P.H. has attempted to convey the nature of the aesthetic that we were after, so we won’t elaborate here. In summary only then, the major goals were a) coherence among the components of Fieldtown (steps and figures) and its repertoire; yet b) bring out the diversity of these steps and figures; c) a big, slow, loose, expansive and UP presence; d) to aid in this we went for dancing in exaggerated jig-time (regardless of the tune), emphasized by an almost delayed vertical handkerchief flick on beat 4; e) further aid rendered by the use of large, heavy handkerchiefs. As emphasized elsewhere, this collection of goals was not a preconceived package: coherence and the up & open style were clear goals from the outset, but how best to achieve them developed experimentally in practice sessions, as outlined above.
How much of the results from such efforts actually reflects conscious intent? how much, instead, reflects what one might call an unavoidable organic outgrowth of the dancers’ “dance personalities”? It seems to us (no surprise!) that such an organic process of interaction between intent and ingredients is the reality- a close analogy with the interaction between the genetic variation of a population (dancers), the “ecological imperatives” provided by the environment (teacher’s intent) and the resultant degree of adaptation shown by the population (team style). In our case, the long-term striving towards “Fieldtown”, employing some general aesthetic rules, and with our specific set of bodies, resulted in the surfacing of, not Fieldtown, but what we now acknowledge as “Thames Valley”. This Thames Valley wasn’t itself the conscious object of pursuit; Fieldtown was. Now, perhaps a very experienced kinetics person, seeing the moves to be done, and the curiosities of those to do them, could envision the way this ‘new tradition’ would grow and aim for it directly. But for most of us, too much of an insistence on preconceived intellectual goals might well be counter-productive.
This matter naturally raises the issue of inventing dances. Thames from early on began developing a native repertoire, and the 1991 season’s list, for example, includes only 3 received F.T. dances. However, inventing dances was something kept under firm control in the early days, specifically to avoid inventing something more expressive of the recent F.C.M. past of mixed traditions. This involved intentional stewing in F.T. material for almost two years before really cutting loose on inventing. We would maintain that this choice was an important facilitator of coherence. Sources of inspiration for dance invention were twofold: captivating tunes were mulled over for the right accompanying moves, and the existing F.T. repertoire was inspected for “gaps.” Fieldtown has a rich diversity of motifs for both A and B music but, it turned out, not all combinations thereof. Thus, for example, our Jockie to the Fair fills the absent long-figure rounds plus corners combination; strangely there is no received long-figures sidestep + half hey dance, so The Gypsy fills that bill. The more attentive observers of Thames’ invented dances may have noticed a startling preponderance of left galleys; this was an expression of intent by the inventor, PH, who knew that his own right galley was, seemingly irremediably, a less than startling item.
In recent time new dance steps and structures have been incorporated, to some extent pursuant on the acknowledgement that we shouldn’t any longer pretend that what we do is Fieldtown. For example, Paisley is a three-part dance: rounds, sidestep sequence and through, whole hey, uses an open sidestep in the sss, and augments in the rounds figure.
The great bulk of our inventions have been handkerchief dances, and this is certainly because they lend themselves well to the aesthetic emphases outlined above (P.H. also recalls at least a degree of disdain for stick dances as “low grade novelty numbers to please a dull crowd”). In a real sense, our stick dances, as performed, stood apart stylistically from the other repertoire, almost as a novelty. But recently, in a couple of practice sessions, several modifications to the stick dance moves spontaneously occurred to the dancers- the carriage of the stick, and a modification of the backstep sequence to a step + spring, resulted in a major shift of visual emphasis. Also, half-gyp has become an into-line in stick dances, and back-to-back has eventually been abandoned globally in favour of whole gyp. Now stick dances are much more consonant with the rest of the dance style. So intent has clearly been of seminal importance. But in retrospect, we feel that choices and goals, felt consciously, often may well have been just as much an unconscious expression of individual peculiarities of the team players. To this extent, “intent” may often be to some extent a rationalization of “what becomes”.
What about the element of “intent through the struggle with other teams for aesthetic supremacy?” How important is competition with other teams? Undoubtedly this is a real component, important at least during early Thames’ history. At the outset there was definitely a sense of striving, born out our origins “in protest.” We were determined to show London (as well as ourselves) that there were other morris possibilities. And our early encounters with other teams at ales were definitely accompanied by a certain amount of muttered comparison, largely expressive of our own “style adequacy anxieties.” But this dissipated fairly quickly, and the team is now fairly unconcerned (perhaps even too unconcerned) about the element of inter-team struggle.
Summing Up. In evolutionary biology, a major controversy rages, albeit quietly, over the relative importance of the three main classes of determining factors: historical constraint, chance events and the deterministic effects of natural selection, leading to adaptation. It therefore occurs to us to ask the same question here: how do we rank in importance the various elements identified in the foregoing? We must recognize at the outset that, though analogous, the processes of biological and cultural evolution are different in several important respects. For our purposes, these include the mode of inheritance and the potential speed of change, the time frame for change, and the mechanisms of selection. Aesthetic intent is a very weak analogue of natural selection: a dancer’s reproductive success is not obviously impaired by a failure to achieve what the foreman urges. Perhaps, however, at the level of success and survival of any given team style within the whole world of morris, the analogy is not too stretched: perhaps distinctive, coherent styles do have a very good chance of persistence, if not in the originating team, then elsewhere, through cultural gene flow to other teams. With these caveats, we would have to draw the interim, perhaps dull, conclusion that the three main factors, history, chance and intent, are equally important in our case.
In summary, we have identified the following as important factors in the process of the evolving Thames Valley style:
1. An historical background providing a body of aware and experienced dancers, committed to working hard on a single tradition.
2. The long-term persistence of this membership, during which a relationship of trust prevailed between the teacher (whose responsibility was to develop and articulate an aesthetic statement) and the team (whose collective responsibility was to give the teacher adequate rope and provide responsible comment).
3. The development of a clear set of aesthetic goals, pre-eminent among which is that of coherence. Important elements of these goals derive from early experiences.
4. Certain important influences that accrued from encounters with other teams.
5. Conscious effort to expand the received repertoire, but not before the base style was thoroughly absorbed.
The importance of “teaching from without” as opposed to “teaching from within ” is acknowledged. In the case of T.V.I. the consequences of this factor are yet to be determined.
The notion of “stable stylistic domains ” is introduced; crises generated by attrition and change of personnel can perhaps result in an unexpected flip from an established, familiar, stylistic domain to a new one.
In this paper, an evolutionary biological framework was utilized to help provoke thought and organize analysis. It is concluded that, although it is probable that no novel insights were achieved, the analysis was perhaps more comprehensive thereby. At the very least it provided entertainment to the authors.
Evolution is here used in its strict biological sense, that is, it carries no teleological significance, no sense of progress to some preconceived “higher goal”; it simply signifies change. The explanation of such change (and the accompanying diversification of species) is the stuff of evolutionary biological argument, not the assessment of value or the divination of any plan.
This through their evolution, either from existing early mammals, followed by their supplanting of the dinosaurs, or directly from some branch of the dinosaurs themselves, so as to produce “mammal look-alikes”, with all their typical attributes- hair, gestation, lactation and the like. It is becoming apparent that, just before their demise, several dinosaur lineages were evolving “mammal-grade” characters- warm bloodedness, for example. Perhaps the evolutionary narrative isn’t just a string of contingent events, despite the insistence of Steven Jay Gould!
Handford, P. and P. Eric Smith. 1991. The evolution of Aesthetic: History, Chance and Intent. pp. 83-91 in: A.G. Barrand & J. Reynolds (eds.) Morris Dance in America: Proceedings of the 1991 conference, Boston university, April 1991