【Research Proposal】 Arts-based Inquiry into the cross-cultural emotional climate during political tension

 In Research

Steve Harvey


The election of the new government in the USA has brought about an emotionally charged climate throughout the world. As the new USA president has taken office, each day brings more controversial events that now could incite violence. The policies of the this government are bringing threats to health care (including mental health), education, disabled children, international travel, science, the American legal system, and international diplomacy to name only a few issues of concern. More importantly, this government’s communications have now become aggressive as to threaten respectful and insightful social discourse in all areas. For example, the president’s use of social media is contributing to a cultural climate of emotional violence throughout all other forms of expression a world-wide culture. Unfortunately the USA and China are becoming central antagonists in the international part of this drama.

This current cultural and cross cultural climate has developed rapidly, generating a mix of complex emotional experiences including an uncertainty about our future. There are several of us who have previously been committed to developing creative collaborations between China and the USA during a time of peaceful exchanges and more goodwill between our countries. After this political transition we are now in a unique and challenging position as we continue to work together in this climate. However this situation also offers us a unique opportunity to use the arts therapies to develop a deeper understanding of our mutual experience.

A full article about part of this research is publishing on Harvey, S., Zhou, T., Kelly, E. C., & Wittig, J. (2018). Physical Conversations between the East and West: An Arts Based Inquiry into the Cross-Cultural Emotional Climate during a Time of Political Tensions. Creative Arts in Education and Therapy (CAET), Pages 38 – 57. 


The goal of this project is to investigate the complex emotional climate of the current political situation using a more personal and creative communication with each other. The new government in the USA has introduced conflict.  The main reports of this transition from the news media, political commentators and even the counter cultural avenues available through social media appear to be struggling to provide a coherent thoughtful response. These expressions have a clear political agenda and only add to a general rise of conflict. These expressions are also all verbal. Some of this verbal messaging has the intent of providing new narratives that exaggerates the truth if not clearly being dishonest for some kind political gain only.

In this project we will use improvised dance and storytelling to generate metaphors with the intention of creating images that can help view this new subjective emotional reality with more clarity and creativity. The project will use the form of Physical Storytelling (Harvey and Kelly, 1991, 1992, 1993, 2006, 2014, 2016) as the central form for the investigation. A possible outcome of this project is that further arts based investigations from other countries and cultures and using other media such as art, poetry, and music will be inspired. The basic assumption of this effort is that artistic expression can lead to an understanding that has a more genuine interpersonal and intrapersonal emotional response and perspective of our experience than is now available in the verbal commentaries. Our aim is that by developing dance stories that expresses our inner experience we can create metaphors that have a universal meaning.

It is important to note that this project has no political goal but rather is an attempt to make a contribution toward a general understanding of the inner emotional world that many now find themselves.

Arts Based Inquiry

Arts based inquiry (McNiff, 1998, 2015, Hervey, 2000, Moon, 1997) involves using artistic methods for gathering, analysing, and presenting findings of a central question or point of interest. When using an arts based inquiry, the researchers follow a creative process to investigate areas that are not verbally described easily and often are related to the personal emotional experience of the people involved in project. Often in using an arts based process the researchers begin with an area of interest and the main questions emerge with the findings through the reflections of the artistic expressions produced. The basic assumption of such research is that important artistic expression can be created when the researchers have a personal experience with the issues being investigated. When researchers use this process, care is required in clarifying the expressions by using a process of creative reflection in attempts to ensure the final results have aesthetic relevance, are genuine, and communicate the complexities of subjective experience with universality (McNiff, 1998).  In this project, we are assuming that the creative expressive metaphors of our improvisation can accurately reflect our cross cultural experience during this current political climate and that this clarity will contribute to a more general understanding of the inner emotional world that many others now find themselves.

Physical Storytelling

The main activity of Physical Storytelling (Harvey & Kelly, 1991, 1992, 1993, 2016, Kelly 2006) involves a small number of dancers creating movement improvisation to produce improvised dance stories about events that have been verbally presented.  This form has emerged from contact improvisation, Playback Theatre (Fox, 1994), authentic movement, and creative dance. The goal of such movement is to explore the interactive dynamics, physical sense, and emotional themes which underlie the more concrete actions presented in the verbal narrative. Dance improvisation is used in this way to illustrate a “story under the story” by offering the audience a moving screen to view or project alternative responses of the verbal material onto the dance. Often such projections relate to more affective material and creative responses that have been excluded from the initial verbal presentation by introducing the felt sense, or the internal subjective physical aspect of the scene. In Physical Storytelling improvisational dance skills are used to transform the performance from a literal representation of the event into metaphorical movement expression.

The goal of the dance episodes is not to produce the ‘correct’ dance translation or a set choreography of the content of the story, but rather to introduce a moving visual image onto which a story teller and/or audience can use their imagination to project their feeling of the story and see the physically felt aspect of central interactions presented. In this way there is equality between the dancers and the audience in the contribution to the active creation of the metaphor. As the dancers generate the movement scenes, the audience projects their own personal images and story. The group then as a whole co-create a new version of the initial story that contains these added dimensions.

The components of physical storytelling include a leader (conductor) and a small ensemble of movers who are familiar with interactive dance improvisation. For this project, it is also important that these dancers have a personal experience with the material to be studied.

The role of the conductor is to listen, support and help the teller as they present their story.  The conductor interviews the teller to gain understanding of the interactive dynamics involved in the story.  He/she may ask questions for further understanding or may quickly add, “How does this end?” to alleviate a tendency towards verbosity on the part of some tellers.  The conductor then chooses the dance score, or improvisation structure, that best relates to the verbal themes. He/she also summarizes the story in simple, action-oriented terms.  The conductor also acts as the primary mediator or conduit (Fox 1994) for the performance and weaves the threads of each story to offer a final summary or common theme that arose throughout the performance. When Physical Storytelling is being used as an arts-based research activity, as in this project, the conductor focuses and summarizes the material to be investigated into verbal questions and sets up the initial dance structures or a score, and summarizes the performance in a similar manner.

The dancers/movers require skill in dance improvisation and sensitivity of movement interaction. They need to trust their own movement impulses as well as respond sensitively to movement cues offered by other movers. As with any dance improvisation focus, concentration, openness, flexibility and the ability to use the body as active imagination aid in the process. Understanding bodily intelligence, ensemble awareness, spatial sensitivities, movement dynamics, composition, and interactive phrasing are essential. Dancers must develop openness and empathy to allow the audience’s projection to enter and influence the movement in an intuitive manner on a moment to moment basis without relying on using concrete gestures that pantomime the verbal action of the story. Rather, the goal of the dance improvisations is to offer an open and clear physical view of the dynamics of the story. Less is more describes the most effective approach for these improvisations.  Dance episodes trend to be brief to capture a clear view of the narrative. As improvisation is central to the form, both the audience and the dancers need to allow for a creative given and take between them to occur spontaneously so that there is potential for the initial verbal account to deepen through image making. The primary aspect of this give and take occurs nonverbally. This process has been identified as an “exquisite communication” to emphasize the intermodal blend of verbal and nonverbal narrative with a creative process that occurs in the moment (Kelly, 2006).

Previous projects

Physical Storytelling has been used as an arts based inquiry in three previous projects. Each of these projects was set up to address dramatic and complex emotional situations that were not easily verbally presented. The authors wanted to use this alternative form as the usual verbal contexts that defined the topics of interest were inadequate to describe the subjective experience of the question. The authors found themselves with a “gap’ between the existing knowledge/structure of how the problems were being addressed and the subjective experiences they were confronting in themselves. The possibility of using physical creativity to investigate these situations became central.

In the first project (Harvey, Ndengeya, & Kelly, 2014), two of the authors were working in an adolescent mental health team in which several teenaged patients were evaluated and provided ongoing mental health intervention for their high risk of suicide. As there was not typical or best practice residential treatment centres available to treat very high risk young people, the main element of change available became the therapeutic interpersonal relationship between the therapists and their patients. These young people where typically very marginalized. The authors began to question if the verbal/cognitive psychological formulations and treatments adequately described their subjective experience and the experiences of the young people they worked with daily. The dancers in this project included some mental health workers with no dance experience and others who had extensive background in improvisation and dance therapy. The group produced a series of improvisations using the treatment histories of their patients as the narrative material. The central observation of this material was that suicide and suicidal behaviour among these young people had the strong intention to communicate their painful and complex nonverbal emotional experiences and that this communication was very socially contagious. The material was presented using the pictures of the dancing, verbal imagery from the watchers, and an account of the fairy tales that were generated as part of the process.

In a second project (Harvey, Lamberts van Bueren, & Donavon, 2016), the authors used physical storytelling and other arts media to explore the changes their young child patients experienced during play therapy. This therapy was conducted in a government mental health service. The arts based investigations were compared with the more traditional outcome scales required by the agency where the authors worked. The authors began the inquiry with the position that the experience they had with their child patients and their families was not addressed within the more standard ratings. The central finding of this project was that the arts based investigations described change in ways that more clearly expressed the highly positive emotional experience the children showed during their treatment whereas the rating scales could only report a more neutral level of problems and missed this important subjective element altogether. The dances and storytelling also reflected the metaphors of change in ways that were within the same play based medium as the therapy whereas the rating scales only presented change using verbal behavioural description that had no relationship to what the children and their families actually did in their sessions. The project was presented using a verbal account alongside a series of photos of the dances and play scenes generated in the inquiry.

The most current project in which Physical Storytelling (Harvey & Kelly, 2016) has been used as an inquiry occurred during a multi-day workshop designed to introduce dance therapists to the form. This workshop was held after the international conference of the Dance Therapy Association of Australasia in 2015. During this conference, the question of how research might be used to document change within Dance Therapy as a way to communicate with more traditional funding agencies became a theme. As no easy solution to this question emerged, this topic was introduced as a question or inquiry by the group to be addressed using Physical Storytelling. The central metaphor of the dances and fairy tales that emerged from this process was that the dance therapists need to inhabit the separate worlds of the more traditional view of change from the medical model as well as the state of a creative process and move between them. The danced images also described that the process of change naturally embodied in dance therapy is not likely to be seen or described by the more traditional explanations of outcomes currently accepted by mental health systems.

In all these projects the participants made the assumption that their subjective experience was central both developing a question about what was important to study and this experience was central to gaining a primary understanding of their investigation. The current state of knowledge had become inadequate to lead to a further development of knowledge. The authors concluded that their use of physical improvisation and a creative imagination lead to important insights and new perspectives from the initial starting place of their question. The question of how to present their results has remained unanswered as the actual improvisation provided a major addition to the inquiry and such “data” is hard to present in the methods currently accepted.

In this proposed project, the members of group who will be participating in the arts based inquiry of the current political climate have a direct involvement in world events. Some of group will be from China and others from the USA or other western countries that are being placed in opposition to each other due to economic and political policies being introduced by the new government in the USA. Perhaps more importantly, the very aggressive and negative communication from the USA has had a impact being acutely experienced by those who are involved in the cross cultural collaborations. It is assumed that the shared subjective experience of this group of dancers contains an important element to build metaphors that will be relevant to the personal experience of this group and also can become more universal in understanding the experience between cultures. Our hope is that this project can help us gain a common understanding of the more general subjective struggle in the current climate.

The Project

Dancers and Setting-A small group of dancers (5-8) will participate in this project. This group will be drawn from a larger group of professional creative arts therapists who will be attending a symposium addressing how dance therapy can be used in medical settings. This event will be held in Shanghai, China in Sept. 2017. These creative arts professionals are citizens from Italy, USA, New Zealand, Australia, and China. This group is currently engaged in an ongoing active creative collaboration to develop the dance therapy profession with China. Most of the ensemble have met each other and are colleagues.

The structure of the project

The project will be conducted over two days. On the first day, the authors of the central articles that present Physical Storytelling (SH and ECK) will lead a workshop to introduce the other dancers to the form. This workshop will include improvisational movement, using improvisation for active imagination, the concept of witnessing the movement of others, and the interconnections between movement and verbal narrative. During this initial day, we will use physical storytelling to address personal stories. On the second day, the ensemble will begin the active investigation of the emotional complexity of the current world political situation.

This part of the project will begin with an initial story related to the current politics from a group member. When this story is presented to the conductor, the process will be set up as described above and an improvisation will be performed. After the dance, the audience will be asked to respond about their subjective experience using verbal images and short phrases. This process of a group member presenting a story, a conductor setting up an improvisation followed by the audience responding from their subjective experience will continue throughout the day until the stories reach a natural end point. The conductor will then improvise a verbal summary and group will be asked to provide their responses about the experience of the whole event. We expect that with more stories, the performance will become related and the metaphors will deepen in complexity. We also expect that one story performance will lead to the next story as the day continues in a natural process. No order or list of stories will be planned in advance.

The dancing and narrative presentations will be recorded using video and still photography and the verbal image responses will be saved. This material will be reviewed at a later time. No method of analysis will be applied before the material is seen. Rather these reflections will address themes and connections. The form of analysis will be developed as the material is reviewed. This analysis will likely included the use of further arts based responses. A written summary will be developed. Any presentation of the project will include this summary and links and to the recorded dances. It is assumed that the central meaning of this event will be seen in the movement improvisation, the interconnection of the movement with the story, and verbal images of subjective experience expressed by the individuals in the group. The final written summary is meant to be only a part of this presentation and is not intended to be the end point of the inquiry.

Ongoing translations between English, Chinese and other relevant languages will occur when necessary.



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