Reflection on State Stories

May 2020

Reflection on STATE STORIES I kutalayna, Hunting Ground January 2020

Over a 5-day Scoping Phase in January 2020, Olivia McPherson and I developed solo material that visited multiple ‘state stories’, interior narratives that comprise ways of accounting for the rhythm of regulation, dysregulation and coregulation of an individual’s nervous system.  A ‘state story’ originates in human physiology, more so than psychology and so was, and is, of interest to us as dancers and choreographers. Polyvagal Theory (Stephen Porges. 1994) figured in much of our early research and conversations and informed dance process and performance as ‘State Stories’ unfolds.

POLYVAGAL THEORY is a theory about the human autonomic nervous system that has a refined way of looking at how our nervous system ‘reads’ what goes on:

–         Inside our own bodies

–         Outside our bodies

–         In relation to others (humans and, sometimes, other mammals)

This reading happens below the level of the cortex and so the brain is NOT involved, in the first instance. Physiologists call this ‘neuroception’ as opposed to ‘perception’ (which the brain does using the senses etc). ‘State Stories’ are the ways our brains – as meaning-constructing organs – interpret our neuroception (what our nervous system is picking up). Our brains ‘account’ for the feelings of comfort or discomfort and levels of safety or threat that our ‘gut’ or ‘heart’ intuits and physiologists call these ‘state stories’.

All four GSD collaborators at Hunting Ground (myself, Olivia, Nick and Paul) were experimenting with polyvagal-informed creative process and performance. To facilitate this, the project had two distinct modes of production and outcomes: narrowcast and broadcast.


We understand the narrowcast mode as ‘nervous-system-in-the-room’ and it figures as a type of contemporary dance performance absolutism in the practice so far. This means that our live performances are only EVER for the audience members and artists within the room of the performance. The plan is that NO GDS live performance will EVER been seen by anyone other than those in the room/on the site/in the landscape/at the theatre, with the collaborators – in real time and space.

‘Narrowcast’ performance by GSD is professional, dance-led and transdisciplinary. It is infused integrally with site, story and landscape. In the livecast mode State Stories, explores architecture as performative. This half of our practice is focused on environments and real time experiences. In sharp relief against this is the other half of our practice:


This is body/mind-interfaced-with-screen: Fully mindful of the ‘glut of accessibility of dance on screen’ (Simon Ellis, ‘Between-Faces’ 2019), this production modality embraces the fact that it is primarily through screens that dance is now accessed. Culturally and socially, screens are hyper-present. Consequently, screen dance artifacts made expressly for screen contexts: handsets, televisions, galleries, public screens and online platforms are the other half of GSD’s reason for being. When behind a camera, Nick Higgins couples a lifetime immersed in the technology and art of the screen to his parallel career in lighting design.

In the week-long seeding and scoping intensive in January, our time was divided down the middle to produce esquisses for live performance to an audience of 9 as well as esquisses for screen.

ARCHTECTURE and LANDSCAPE are the other dancers in this work. The inherent theatricality, sensuousness and relationship that exists within and between each of them are well-known to architect Paul Wakelam who has a practice steeped in tracing the lines of building within the line of the landscape.


HISTORY is front of mind when at Hunting Ground, a small historic property in the Southern Midlands region of Tasmania, on an escarpment overlooking the Jordan River in the Lower Jordan River Valley. For thousands of years the area was used and inhabited by the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, kutalayna being the Aboriginal name of the Jordan River.

The scattered archaeological sites of different sizes throughout the valley show the complex ways the land was used: seasonal hunting campsites along the river, places for stone collecting and working, swampy areas where reeds were collected and used. The Jordan Valley was one of the favoured hunting grounds where the Oyster Bay people gathered with their close allies, the Big River tribe.

The area later named ‘The Hunting Ground’ is a small locality between the towns of Kempton and Elderslie. Great Southern Dance acknowledges the Tasmanian Aboriginal people as the original custodians of the land on which we live and dance when we are at Hunting Ground. The 10-acre site now contains the red brick convict-built Hunting Ground Congregational Church (1852), the Clifton Vale Private Cemetery, two timber cottages (1820s) and a stables – all of which were once part of a much larger estate known as ‘Clifton Vale’ (c. 1826).

The HISTORY, ARCHITECTURE and LANDSCAPE of the site tests ideas; the stories, nature and buildings test the body – causing it to throw up and out new state stories, causing it to revisit old ones. Dancing beside 41 graves, walking beside a cliff edge used in the hunting of animals by corralling them in ways to cause them to fall off it, buildings with 100-year old school graffiti – hundreds of state stories there to be divined in walls, grasses and wind.

And finally, each of the artist’s own respective physiologies – particularly nervous systems and viscera – were tested. Living off-grid for a period of days ensured this.

This integration of these other elements and sets of ideas has already had the impact of extending artistic expression within the area of dance. In the State Stories Scoping Process in January 2020 24/7 immersion in the environs – built and natural, cultivated and wild –  informed everything that was made to greater or lesser degree. Looking back on the esquisse material now, we can see where our habitual patterning prevailed and where it was disrupted. We want to do more of this, returning to this process in other times and places with ample time to explore rhythms of regulation and dysregulation and the impact this can have on dance ephemera (performance) and dance ephemera capture (film).


We are testing ideas here too. In January 2020, collectively, the audience paid for the project. The roles of audient and investor intersected. Can the broadcast/narrowcast distinction give us a base from which to explore ideas around the ‘prosumer’; the consumer who participates in the production of what they consume?

We are starting by testing ideas here in Tasmania, when we have a foothold in our own way of doing it, we hope to look around Australia and the world for others who might be testing the same or similar ideas. The agility of the company and particularly this work, being a solo, is deliberate – facilitating a nimble approach to arcs of ideas-sharing, travel and production,

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Great Southern Dance pays its respects to the original owners of the land upon which we work, the Muwinina and the Mumirimina people.

We acknowledge the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community as the continuing custodians of lutruwita (Tasmania) and honour Aboriginal Elders past and present. We value their history, culture and resilience and acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded.

lutruwita milaythina Pakana – Tasmania is Aboriginal Land