• Russya Connor

Physical immersion in water affords a different gravitational state that can change a performer’s perception and affect cognitive knowledge corporeally. As a performer, the body is the main means of expression, and to know in and through the body constitutes embodied knowledge.

I investigate underwater performance as part of a practice-based PhD in performance at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). Active immersion generates embodied responses so I wish to share the physical and physiological challenges that a performer is exposed to within the liquid environment. In order to be truly expressive, certain embodied skills, like inner verticality, need to be developed to find efficiency and ease of movement in an altered gravitational environment. The creative work derived from this underwater research culminated in a choreography entitled “Blau” for the Link dance company, which explored themes of buoyancy, serene stillness and freedom. Projection of underwater filming and the construction of choreography for the stage were fused to evoke such sensations. The paper outlines these themes to give a sense of the changes in perception gained through the embodiment of new skills.


Keywords: embodiment—underwater—dance—gravity—altered gravitational enviroments—inner verticality—buoyancy


Gravity is an elemental factor for all the relations humans have with this planet.1 Our ‘be-ing’ is thus deeply connected to gravity. The awareness of the body’s exertions becomes part of the individual’s tacit knowledge about movement. As a choreographer/performer, I am particularly interested in the culmination and crossover of the tacit, empirical, physiological and practical aesthetic, with spatial, psychological and theoretical knowledge in a performing body. An understanding of how the body is affected by gravity can arguably lead to further perceptions about environments and surroundings. Having a precise functional understanding about how we obtain our information about gravity, space and our surroundings allows for a deeper exploration of those principles. The conscious use of gravity can function as an anchor for the exploration in a creative practice.  This knowledge can enrich and influence artistic practice.

My artistic practice is grounded in the philosophical ideas of German romanticism and ecology. As such I consider the Landschaft[2] to be deeply intertwined in human experience and thought. I test my notions of gravity and Landschaft2 through layering the various art forms, as well as by enlarging the ‘theatre space’ towards an environmental performance. My practice aims to be embodied and embedded in the environment, immersed in specific movement-based tasks. I aim to stimulate kinaesthetic associations and to craft the evoked material into performances. The framework for creating this particular work underwater lies in acts of perception, emotions and sensations gained from my own experiments, theoretical readings, and exploring the poetics of immersion and buoyancy and the notions of floating and suspension. This paper will address the perceptions of and our connection with gravity, the challenges faced in the liquid world, and my creative responses.


Gravity is the constant and unyielding force in which we evolved; it unfailingly arouses our primal brain; it lets us reliably slip in and out of our protective frame without the vagaries of a human opponent; and it unequivocally focuses all our intention on the here and now. In short, we pull against gravity knowing the consequences and knowing it will always pull back with its timeless, unchanging power of arousal. (Soden 2005: 272)

Humans need to exert constant and evenly applied energy to combat the forces of gravity acting upon the body. The perception of the intensity of gravity depends on the degree of energy needed to achieve this balancing act. This energy is provided more or less unconsciously. Tengwall and Jackson write that ‘Postures and movements must always take gravity into consideration, and, further, the control and coordination of these systems must be “programmed” in our neurological systems’ (1982: 659). Humans (and other vertebrates) perceive the direction of gravity and remain in postural control through the following receptors:

  • proprioceptive receptors (muscular fibres, joints, the pressure on the skin of the weight and mass of the body);
  • otholite receptors located in the inner ear. They include two cavities, the saccule and the utricule, that measure linear accelerations and orientations undergone by the subject, in particular, constant gravity forces;
  • visual inputs. Vision conveys information on the subject's velocity in relation to surrounding objects;
  • a detection system for angular accelerations (angular velocity and rotation) of the head. This system is located in the inner ear. (Dubois 1994: 59)

All of these receptors act as sources of information and give the body/mind a good representation of where the body parts are, even though individuals rarely have a vivid sensation of the location of their body parts at any particular time. The vestibular, visual and proprioceptive reference systems must be coherent and integrated (Lawson 2010). Proper balance, sensing the space around oneself and discerning the physical position and actions relative to the field of gravity, allow for moving efficiently in and through space.

As performing artists, our physical and emotional expressivity and sensitivity are our tools, so the active, adjustable ingredients in the relationship with gravity are the senses, especially proprioception. Proprioception comes from the Latin word proprius, meaning one's own and perception (The American heritage medical dictionary 2008: 614) Proprioception is the neuroscientific term for the reception of internal stimuli referring to the sensory information that one has about the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body (joints, tendons, muscles) and related muscular tension.

Information from these receptors, called proprioceptors, is normally integrated with that arising from vestibular receptors (which signal gravitational acceleration and changes in velocity of movements of the head), as well as from visual, auditory, and tactile receptors. Sensory information from certain proprioceptors, particularly those in muscles and tendons, need not reach consciousness, but can be used by the motor system as feedback to guide postural adjustments and control of well-practised or semiautomatic movements, such as those involved in walking (Lagasse, P. et al, 2000: 3200).

This ‘inner sense’ enables the central nervous system to communicate and coordinate parts of the body. It is the sense that indicates whether the body is moving with the required effort, as well as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other (ColumbiaUniversity 2000). Leutert observes that proprioception is a ‘distinct sensory modality that provides feedback solely on the status of the body internally’ (1990: 45) This sense controls whether the body is moving with the required effort and how the parts of the body move in relation to each other.

In contrast kinaesthesia is an ‘external’ sense (a sensory awareness of an individual's location and the movement in space and time), coming from the Greek words kinesis (motion), and aesthesis (feeling) (The American heritage medical dictionary 2008: 440). The kinaesthetic sense is sometimes differentiated from proprioception by excluding the sense of equilibrium or balance from kinaesthesia. Yet both senses are seen as interrelated, and since they work together and impact on each other, the sense of balance depends on the flow of endolymph, a fluid in the inner ear. An inner ear infection, for example, would degrade the proprioceptive sense, but not the kinaesthetic sense, so that the affected individual would be unable to walk with eyes closed (Leutert 1990). Taken in combination, kinaesthesia and proprioception convey information about the world, organising and classifying experiences. In performance, usually both of these or even more sense sets work together. Any complex physical activity like dancing, juggling or acrobatics requires the body to know, reflexively, when and how to coordinate and move the limbs to perform the task (proprioception) and simultaneously to know where the body is in relation to the other people and the stage (kinaesthetic awareness).


Figure 1 Two feet on the ground – still standing, experiencing both, water and earth  [(still), HD digital film, dimensions variable]

Our connection with gravity

To know about oneself in and through the body is an embodied knowledge. The awareness of our physical relation to earth can be a powerful support in confronting the world’s most basic demands and a source of regeneration and increased wellbeing for the individual. Impaired balance affects the subjective experience of the world and participation in everyday activities (Bart, Bar-Haim & Weizman 2008). It is also possible to postulate a reverse argument: that good balance and a positive and efficient relationship with gravity might increase the sense of self and the expressivity in a performer. ‘The giving in to and the rebound from gravity is the source and dictator of all movement’ (Friesen 1975: 99).  Knowledge of this relationship enables an individual to be expressive. In this way, humans can deliberately control and modify how they use effort in relation to gravity to create illusions or evoke certain images or sensations. Most humans with accumulated life experience have developed a functional understanding of how gravity affects the body and exerts its force on everything (Franklin 2004).

Humans can sense the space around them and discern their physical position and actions relative to the field of gravity: ‘The body reveals itself to the world and to itself through the intersection of a tactile sensation that is on the outside and a kinesthetic sensation that is on the inside’ (Daniel 2009: 116). Performances, dance and modern art have recognised the operation of gravity in the world as a constant, and they often attempt to make it visible. This continual process of meaning making tends to intersect with simple ideas, and forge new connections to construct increasingly complex ideas about embodiment, experience and perceptions of ourselves in certain environments.

The associations each individual forms with the sensations of gravity can be communicated creatively and artistically. For example, dancers and choreographers rely on the possibility of intersubjectivity between body movements, the earth, and gravity as a tool for conveying meaning in their work. With choreographic and theatrical practices expanding into a range of new locations or performance venues wherein the impact of gravity had to be incorporated at a new level, the practices of sport, acrobatics, and theatre started to blend more and more. Not only popular culture or historical forms such as mermaid shows and synchronised swimming, but also various artforms, use water or being underwater (Purcell et al 2008; Vandekeybus & Langendonck 2006).

Gravity is one of the driving forces in the work of choreographer Elisabeth Streb in works such as ‘STREB VS GRAVITY’, and ‘Artificial Gravity’. Streb refers to herself as an action architect/choreographer in pursuit of ‘pure movement’. Her exploration of movement, body, and time is deeply grounded in the natural laws of gravity, acceleration, momentum, velocity, mass and speed:

My investigation of movement has led me to choices, which vary from traditional norms. My dancers and I see the rehearsal as a laboratory for testing scientific principles on the body. We invent action ideas, which we think are archetypal, noticeable, and understandable. The visual and kinetic pleasure of taking that extension of bodies in space to an extreme, stressed by the artistic choice to expose of the body to real risk. (Streb 2010a: 10)

Extravagant or non-naturalistic movement patterns present challenges to posture and alignment. Balance control is fundamental, as every displacement of body parts creates potential problems of balance and the intricacy of complex movements. This might be one of the reasons why contemporary dance has been even more concerned with the relationship to gravity than has theatre, both in training and in performance. Dancers have become aware that:

In order to stand, there's a constant background noise, a small dance in the body's effort to remain vertical. In everyday life, even the dancer who is highly trained in bodily awareness overlooks the constant movements required to stand against the force of gravity. (Goldman 2004: 47)

Dancers need to become familiar with gravity to use it as a support for elevation. They learn to make use of opposing physical forces to move freely. Through their movement, they take possession of the space and of emotional situations. Doris Humphrey observed that:

All form is echo in us of the awareness of gravity and that unconscious participation in the constant falling and recovering of all moving objects is the basis of a universal language of feeling. (cited Franklin 2004: 10)

In the blue

My creative work is homage to the magical qualities of water. The underwater can be felt; it is a dreamy place, it is a place where light shimmers and refracts, where gravity does not weigh us down, where movement can be full and free. The view in the depths of the water provides a world physically and psychologically removed, eliminating the usual context of existence. Our connection and dependency on water become so obvious: the planet is covered by about 71% of oceans; we are surrounded by it, depend on it. Our body consists of 78% of water, and we need to drink it every day.


Figure 2 Total immersion into the blue, leaving the ground, adapting to the elements [(still), HD digital film, dimensions variable]

Looking at the ever-moving, ever-changing oceanic circumstances, one needs to ‘think underwater’ and adjust to the liquid nature of the environment. Sometimes it can be enough just to share the weight between two feet on stable ground, but in those underwater spaces the equilibrium becomes threatened by having no surface. Under these circumstances, it becomes evident that solving different conditions of equilibrium and perception require certain necessary skills. Embodiment of a new balance and security become paramount.

Although life originates in the oceans, humans are terrestrial beings, so the underwater world is at first alien to their physical and mental states. Sensations in our everyday lives are changed, inverted or removed through changes in pressure, temperature, transparency and salinity. Being in an underwater world, especially when it is a performance space, requires learning a new set of perceptual responses to orientate oneself accordingly. Additionally, it is hard to control the range of motion that becomes available as a result of the changed relationship to gravity (Tengwall & Jackson 1982). The range of motion refers to the diverse body positions possible in water (upside down, diagonal, lateral and so forth), as well as the mobilisation of the joints. Being embedded and supported completely by water, means that weight is taken off the normally weight-bearing spine and its vertebrae. A mobilisation of the joints occurs as they are no longer bearing weight, thus allowing the body to move in ways not otherwise possible on land. As the challenges of keeping stable or in balance are literally suspended underwater, restrictions and holding patterns in the body can drop away. It is often normal not to be able to sense what is up or down: this might even trigger vertigo until the individual becomes used to the sensation of perceived weightlessness (Richardson, D et al. 2003: 2-47). Kitzou Dubois (1994) states that the loss of a felt sense of gravity also implies the disappearance of a vertical reference, meaning the subjective awareness of one's own verticality on earth.

When fundamentals like the ground and horizon are missing, spatial orientation becomes difficult as humans predominantly monitor their equilibrium though visual checks of surrounding space. Kinaesthetic awareness (such as many dancers have) is needed to accept inversions, turns, rolls and falls wherein the relationship with stable spatial orientation is interrupted. Dubois describes that in the beginning the submerged person experiences a lack or confusion of gravity-inertial reference, a lack of orientation (no visible constraints) and a reduction of the awareness of movement direction and its extent. Accommodating and adjusting to these challenges is a complex vestibular process as the sense of equilibrium receives stimuli that contradict our experiences under gravity. Improved sensitivity to orientation and perception of the body in water and self-awareness of immersion increases the possibilities and control of movement in water.

The lack of habitual perceptions of experiencing oneself can also add to confusion. On land individuals are aware of their own weight, but underwater, due to the density of water and buoyancy, the effect of gravity is much less. Archimedes’ principle is that any object wholly or partly immersed in a fluid is buoyed by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the body. Neutral buoyancy is not identical to weightlessness: ‘while buoyancy practically negates gravity underwater the aquatic world is not truly weightless in the sense of being in outer space, they [divers] still feel and respond to gravity’ (Richardson et al 2003: 248).


Figure 3 Sensation of buoyancy, weightlessness [(still), HD digital film, dimensions variable]

The embodied tacit knowledge about how to do something or what things are for parallels Gilbert Ryle's distinction between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’, and Bertrand Russell's text concerning ‘knowledge by acquaintance – knowledge by description’ (Piccini 2009: 116). One important factor is the feeling of aquacity. Aquacity is a freediving term and could be translated with an active integration of style, hydro dynamism, economy, elegance, efficiency and correct alignment in the water.


Figure 4 Flotation [(still), HD digital film, dimensions variable]

If the flotation becomes part of the experience, one can choose to be positively buoyant or go beyond the threshold of neutral bouncy: ‘The perception of the flotation force is integral to the pursuit of relaxation and to security’ (Pelazzeri & Tovaglieri 2001: 234). During a dive for depth, one can become negatively buoyant and fall toward the bottom without effort in a so-called glide, or one can choose to stay at a particular level. Training programs for astronauts always include training underwater, because of the environment of water’s close proximity to space weightlessness in zero gravity. Humans do not experience absolute weightlessness or zero gravity unless they are astronauts in space: ‘Weightlessness occurs whenever the total force applied to an object is uniformly distributed across the object's mass, or when the object is not acted upon by any force’ (UXL encyclopedia of science 2002: np)

Being underwater is the closest way that people on earth can mimic the experience of weightlessness in space. Dubois (1994) developed a complementary training system for NASA based on dance techniques, which aimed to improve the physical consciousness of astronauts by focusing on the subjective experiences of the body. Dubois describes total submersion in water as a perfect training environment because of the possibilities offered with regard to position, relaxation and orientation. He states:

In water the importance of the somato-sensorial system can be reduced because of stimulation to the entire body. Subjects learn how to control the body's position, how to be aware of their limbs and how to resist ambient inertia and changes of tonicity. (Dubois 1994: 64)

The objective of the training is to adjust behavioural strategies to changing circumstances and to find a different way of moving within the underwater environments. Astronaut Story Musgrave states that ‘when up and down disappears as a concept in space, it confounds all thoughts for a while as “where we are” is a knowledge necessary to “what we think”’ (Streb 2010b: 59).

The creative research

I have been a ‘waterbaby’ all my life, and after moving from Germany to Australia over eight years ago, the ocean was the first element I felt an emotional and personal connection with. In the exploration phase of this research, I submerged myself in the ocean, using scuba diving or freediving, and experimented with movement patterns in relation to the sensations of floating and buoyancy. The exploration was a three-dimensional expressivity and suspension of the laws of gravity on earth. This involved a thorough investigation of movement patterns (different swimming techniques, diving skills, three-dimensional moves, spirals) that were specific to this space and in relation to the emotional quality of water and the specific movement reactions in a liquid environment.

The space


Figure 5 My performance space

What are the challenges a performer faces underwater? The ocean is not a confined space like a studio or theatre. Instead, the expansive natural environment and its challenges impact strongly on an external level, but there are also physiological limitations (and openings and possibilities) that need to be taken into consideration. On descent into the boundless void, while being conscious of my bodily adaptations and its intuitive responses, an awareness of the world outside the self takes over. I experience space and at the same time, paradoxically, I experience spacelessness. The feeling of spacelessness never ceases to amaze me, especially when doing a blue dive. Sensations of security and confinement coexist within the vastness of space and, as the depths of the sea always remain calm, the surface world appears to fall away.

The unique essence of an underwater performance space is that it is a space of anti-gravity. The paradoxical knowledge about the extreme weight and pressure of the water above me (and its challenges) and the physical perception of a liberating weightlessness is illuminating. There is no perceptible bottom and no top to this ocean space, only a sense of equilibrium. I feel amphibian-like, privileged to be a guest in other creatures’ worlds, rather than feeling split from the environment. Although sometimes exciting, the ocean has always been relaxing for me; a place of tranquillity. There is a joy in being underwater, in the endless blue, in this quiet but not still environment. It is like being a guest and having a different way of moving. I cannot be a full-time resident in the marine realms, yet the idea of ‘belonging’ in a very human sense happens almost every time I dive. It may be because of the feeling of being carried and wrapped and held closely by the water, the softness of the blue, or the three-dimensional freedom of movement. It may also be the calm controlled breathing or the absence of breath completely, but it is clear that something fosters identification with this world, with the beauty and complexity of fulltime ocean residents.


Figure 5 Experiencing freedom from gravity allows maintaining shapes effortlessly which are impossible on land

Underwater humans can shift their axis from horizontal to vertical without effort (for example, to upside down, see Figure 5) and the body can sustain shapes and forms, which are impossible on land. Being comfortable within limitations of the ocean provides an ultimate freedom to sustain a leap or jump, or to turn, twist, or spiral in new and different ways in a glide or a freefall. Through weightlessness and a slowing down effect caused by the density of water, movements can be supported and restricted at the same time. Sensations of a floating, buoyant body mirror a sensuality and softness that aims to create new perceptions about environments in embodied poetic expression.  There is a dialogue occurring between the mover, the form and the landscape (the water). My experimentation, especially when freediving (without external air supply) discovered emotional aspects in the quality of water; a calming, supported sensation, almost like being embraced by the world, and a falling without an actual fall. Or as being described by one of the leading experts in freediving: ‘It’s the capacity to return the psyche to a state of calmness … reaching a harmonisation, a relief from tension, comfortable security’ (Pelazzeri & Tovaglieri 2001: 266).

Initial underwater movement sequences emerged during this exploratory stage to become vital parts of the on-stage expression. With its functional challenges, water can interrupt, support and enhance movements, releasing the performer from the obligation of a defined space. I tried to capture my personal experience through filming which added another layer, as the camera positioning enhances one aspect or excludes another, particularly in relation to distances and directions (underneath or above) and speed of frames. The poetic images or emotional descriptions from my immersive investigations acted as an improvisational structure for developing the choreographic work (Figure 6) with the LINK dance company in November 2011.


Figure 6 Water, reflections, and lightness. Photos of LINK Dance Company are taken by the author during the performance of ‘Blau’

My intention was to reveal a liberating and inspirational dimension of total immersion into the ocean and to reframe how the audience might perceive their environment, whether natural or built, to stimulate discussions about broader cultural and environmental aspects. The idea of a spatial experience becomes an intimation of the space within the performers, or occurs perhaps within both the audience and the performers. The aim of this part of the creative research was to recreate the sensual qualities encountered underwater using a different medium (dance) and in a different gravitational space (a stage). As this research is still in progress, I have not yet reached the final creation of a poetic or kinesthetic experience on stage that satisfactorily translates to the audience the sensual qualities of moving or dancing underwater. In the choreography, I was however, able to create the illusion of the dancers being immersed in water, with the sensation of floating.

The gravitational restrictions on land were an expected limitation, which might be able to be solved through suspending the dancers from the ceiling. Callery writes, ‘It is only through doing that you will understand’ (2001: 14) and she emphasises the goal of preparatory training as ‘ideally ... a process of self-discovery that leads “actors to become more transformable and more expressive”’ (2001: 14). I need to go back to my ‘drawing board’, the ocean, to draw out more aesthetic aspects of the liquid world, and the pleasures generated by moving and dancing in a space whose peculiarities enter into the existence of the performer.


Figure 7 LINK dance company in ‘Blau’ (visible in the background is the floating image from ‘red’)
  • 1. Author’s note for the images: my work reflects the relationship between movement and gravity in its emotional content. My culminated creative responses to my experimentation resulted in several underwater films. These films (red, angel & Dasein) have an intention to reveal a liberating and inspirational dimension of total immersion into the ocean. All water images in this paper are stills taken from the video ‘red’, dealing with buoyancy, floating and stillness. It stands on its own, but also was used in combination with other underwater shoots for the LINK performance (film/photos taken by Alan Bird).
  • 2. A German term meaning scenery, countryside, territory but symbolic for internal representations of the energy or feel of a place.
Works cited: 

Bart, O., Bar-Haim, Y., & Weitzman, E. 2008, ‘Balance treatment ameliorates anxiety and increases self-esteem in children with comorbid anxiety and balance disorder’, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30, 486-495

Daniel, H. 2009, ‘skin’, in L. Fuschini, S. Jones, B. Kershaw & A. Piccini (eds), Practice-as-research: in performance and screen, New York:  Palgrave Macmillan

Dubois , K. 1994, ‘Dance and weightlessness: dancers’ training and adaptation problems in microgravity, Leonardo, 27(1), 57-64

Franklin, E. N. 2004, Conditioning for dance, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Friesen, J. 1975, ‘Perceiving dance’, Journal of Aesthetic Eucation, 9(4), 97-108

Callery, Dymphna 2001, Through the body : a practical guide to physical theatre, New York: Routledge

Goldman, D. 2004, ‘Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown: Falling in the Dynamite of the Tenth of a Second’, Dance Research, 22(1), 45-56

Lagasse, P., Goldman, L., Hobson, A., Norton, S.R. (eds) 2000, Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed), New York: Columbia University

Lawson, K. 2010, Small Traumas in the Everday World, Affecting Brain Function. Paper presented at the The Applied Neuroscience Society of Australia, Sydney. http://www.psychevisual.com/Video_by_Kathleen_Lawson_on_TBI_Small_traumas_in_the_everyday_world_affecting_brain_function.html

Leutert, G. 1990, Systematische und funktionelle Anatomie des Menschen [systemical and functional anatomy], Berlin: Verlag Gesundheit GmbH

Pelazzeri, U., & Tovaglieri, S. 2001, ‘Manual of Freediving’ in Pelazzeri, U., & Tovaglieri, S., Manual of freediving underwater on a single breath, Reddick: Idelson-Gnocchi Ltd

Piccini, A. 2009, Practice-as-research: in performance and screen: Palgrave Macmillan;  .

Richardson, D., Coleman, B., & Kinsella, J. (eds) (2003). Adventures in diving (2nd ed), Santo Margerita: PADI

Richardson, D., Taylor Shreeves, J., et al 2003, The encyclopedia of recreational diving, Santo Margerita: PADI

UXL Encyclopedia of science 2002, ‘Gravity and gravitation’, Encyclopedia.com. 10 Sep. 2012, http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/gravitation.aspx#2-1G2:3438100335-full (accessed 30 August 2010)

Soden, G. 2005, Defying gravity. New York: Norton

Spitz, Susan (ed) 2008, The American heritage medical dictionary, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Streb, E. 2010, How to become an extreme action hero, New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY

Tengwall, R., & Jackson, J. 1982, ‘Human Posture in Zero Gravity’, Current Anthropology, 23(6), 657-666.

The American heritage medical dictionary, 2008, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Vandekeybus, W., & Langendonck, B. V. 2006, Wim Vandekeybus dance & short fiction films [videorecording], Brussels, Belgium: Ultima Vez

Waltz, S. 2008, Dido & Aeneas (Henry Purcell), choreographic opera [videorecording], Leipzig: Arthaus Musik