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Julianne Chapple on How to Turn Self-Consciousness into a Superpower

“Hyper-Aware” of her own silhouette

Julianne Chapple’s performances are electric, which makes it surprising she deals with social anxiety and self-consciousness on a regular basis.

That is until you consider perhaps those things are what lend her dancing such high voltage.

She has written about how self-consciousness makes her “hyper-aware” of her own silhouette, even while reading alone. It’s not a bad thing, she explains, because if she’s always imagining herself being watched, she’s always performing, and if she’s always performing, she’s always being creative.

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Photo: Courtesy of Julianne Chapple.

Turning an impediment into an advantage

I’d always thought self-consciousness was bad, possibly because, for me, it has often accompanied negative self-judgements. In an interview, I asked Chapple to elaborate on how it might be otherwise.

“This hyper-awareness of the way that I move and the way that I present myself is kind of an impediment in my daily life sometimes,” she acknowledges. As a performer, however, she says she’s found it useful.

The idea that such alertness could also be a kind of superpower occurred to her while reading John Berger, who writes about how women move in restricted ways because they’re aware of men watching. It means they play two roles: themselves and their own outside observers.

Berger argues that women who succeed do so because they have an “ingenuity to move through confined spaces that men don’t have to deal with,” as Chapple puts it. In other words, as women watch themselves while they move through the boxes society places them in, they develop a type of agility men might not have as many opportunities to practise.

“I was like, that’s interesting. People that are at a disadvantage who can advance have special skills that could still be useful to them as the playing field equals out.”

The concept doesn’t just apply to women. It’s relevant for performers in general, Chapple says.

Dictionary.com definition of proprioception: perception governed by proprioceptors, as awareness of the position of one's body.

“I think that part of the key is that idea of yourself in your body, as well as yourself as viewer; the ability to combine your proprioception with this outside eye that depersonalises your body so that it simply becomes a shape or a moving sculpture, something not tied to yourself as a personality… I think it takes the self-consciousness to an aesthetic place, instead of to a personal place, so that you could think of your body from the outside as an object, and evaluate it on its formal properties instead of getting tied up in the emotion of whether you look good or are doing things correctly… Performers have such a difficult time separating the work from themselves because it exists in the body. In the same way that somebody can paint a picture and let that picture exist as a piece on its own that they could judge in more of an unbiased way, I think it is important to find some detachment through the idea of ‘observer'”.

suf(fix) study #5 from jchapple on Vimeo.

Chapple also explores the idea of disadvantage-as-advantage in her choreography. In “Suf(fix) Study #5”, the dancer, Caitlin Brown, wears a single giant stilt on one leg. While it severely restricts her movements, it also lends them a startling, alien beauty.

Managing self-exposure

Another way self-consciousness helps is by stopping artists from oversharing details from their lives, which Chapple says can skew perceptions of their work and impede audiences’ ability to identify with it.

In “The Trail”, a collaboration between Chapple and Naben Ruthnum, she explores how public knowledge about Vaslav Nijinsky’s private life affects our ability to appreciate his contributions to dance.

Instead of dancing to music, Chapple dances to competing scripts read by two audience members. They tell the story of Nijinsky, an acclaimed early-20th century ballet dancer and choreographer, and of how the publication of his diaries has given his mental illness more prominence than his art.

At the end of the piece, Chapple sits down and pretends to write. Then, she folds a piece of paper and slips it into an envelope.

It contains personal information about either herself or her collaborator, she says, and gives the envelope to a third audience member. “I told her to read it and then destroy it,” Chapple explains, “because I wanted to ensure that the contents would be secret, just between me and her.”

In keeping the letter’s contents secret, Chapple prevents them from colouring the audience’s experience of the piece.

She’s not suggesting we shouldn’t put anything of ourselves into our art, she says. “I think that’s inescapable. I think that, for me, that’s the reason why it doesn’t seem necessary to make those details clear to people: it’s going to be in the work somehow anyway, and if it’s a little bit abstract, people have more room to interpret and see themselves in it.”

What about you, Reader? Do you think it’s possible to turn a disadvantage into an advantage? Have you ever done it? Share your answers in the comments.

Featured image: Photo courtesy of Julianne Chapple.

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