The Interpersonal Underworld

The Interpersonal Underworld is a show that premiered in the DC Fringe Festival of 2014 and was subsequently premiered in Virginia in December 2014. The show investigates issues of group behavior and interaction through two 20-minute dances linked by common threads. The show title comes from behavior scientist William Schutz who studied interpersonal relations through inclusion, control, and affection. His hypothesis is that developing groups must move through those three stages in that specific order, and that groups may devolve to earlier stages if they are unable to resolve issues at a particular stage. Because this deals with issues largely unseen and beneath the surface, he called these dynamics “the interpersonal underworld.”

Regression to the Mean, a 20-minute duet for two women, opens the show. Optimal Distinctiveness, a roughly 20-minute long quintet, serves as the second half of the continuous performance. Both sections can be performed together or separately, as each dance makes sense on its own. Both are three-part works, which also means that any section can also be performed individually. 

Regression to the Mean is a duet and sometimes trio choreographed by Abigail Wallace in collaboration with Kerry Doyle, accompanied by guitarist Mark Charles Smith.  Inspired by animal behavior research, the dance examines relationships between its subjects – two women.  The title describes the mathematical law that if a variable is extreme when first measured, on subsequent measurements it will fall closer to the average (the mean).  Additionally, if a variable is closer to the average on its first measurement it will subsequently become more extreme.  As the women embark on a journey to re-define their relationships, at times they find themselves stuck in old habits, regressing to the mean, and at times they break through to anew place.  At the end, it is up for the audience to decide if headway has been made or not.

Optimal Distinctiveness is set to a three-suite, 16-minute guitar trio composed by Mark Charles Smith.  I am intrigued by the layers already present in the work and want to add another layer: a quintet of dancers.  The dance will work closely with the music and develop an intricate look at the dynamics of group relationships.  The piece’s name is that of a theory dealing with beliefs and behavior associated with shifting ingroup politics.

From an evolutionary perspective, groups are subject to complex pressures that shape interactions and determine cooperation and competition.  All social relationships reflect a certain degree of coercion or compromise, and it is this delicate balance I will play with in Optimal.  I am particularly interested in the idea of reciprocity between unrelated individuals.  This dance deals with five strangers moving through the process of becoming a group, dealing with issues of cooperation and defection.  In creating the work, I am inspired by behavior scientist William Schutz’s theory that developing groups of unrelated individuals move through three main stages: inclusion, control, and affection.  If one stage is dealt with incompletely, the group may remain in it or regress.

Behavior is complex and often derived from our understanding of our experiences.  Animals tend to base their behavior on the prior behavior of their opponents and respond in a tit-for-tat (TFT) manner.  In a way, this can be seen as the scientific version of “treat your neighbor as you would want to be treated.”  If two children are playing and one shares a toy with the other, that second child is more likely to share as well.  If there is a habit of sharing and one time the first child does not share, the relationship between the two will not suffer, as it is seen as a momentary slip.  If, however, the child continues in the new behavior, then the second child will react, thus changing the relationship.  In all studies, the data suggests the more individuals meet, the less likely they are to act selfishly, because the more entwined their lives the greater one’s downfall can hurt the other.

The choreography of Optimal is inspired by TFT and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  What conditions encourage cooperation, and when is defecting seen as the better plan?  How is behavior misinterpreted, and what does that do to the group dynamic?  If there are issues of dominance, how does that play in terms of coerced cooperation?  How do individuals manage the greatly unseen process of moving through inclusion, control, and affection? The possibilities are endless.