Hysteria or Healing? Examining the Power of the Shaking Body

As the choreographer and dancer Wendy Osserman, 81, began to contort her body at a recent performance in Queens, her hands shook. Her fingers flapped back and forth. She threw one arm away from the other — tossing and releasing, flailing and returning — and hopped into one-leg kicks before sticking her tongue out and coiling it into a tunnel.

She was trying to shake something off, it seemed. But what?

Animals, according to somatic therapists, tremble and quiver to discharge stress. The shudder is a trauma response, a kind of biological palate cleanser that allows a return to a sense of normalcy after duress. Human bodies, on the other hand, tend to store up rage and grief and panic like a pressure cooker. As a dancer, Osserman lets her intuition guide her movements to release some of that pressure.

Osserman’s daughter, the video and performance artist Liz Magic Laser, has been fascinated by how the body expresses psychological distress. For centuries, medicine viewed shaking as a symptom of hysteria; spasms and fits as evidence of delirium. Today, shaking has become a therapy for a range of ailments, physical and mental.

Can you convulse your way to insanity? To spiritual restoration? In her exhibition “Convulsive States,” on view through Sunday at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Laser examines the shaking body as both a symptom of trauma and a possible antidote to it.

Naoko Moriyama Robbins, a gryotonic trainer, demonstrates a therapeutic shaking practice in a video in the hall of mirrors.CreditCredit…

“I think it is probably my mom that has stimulated my interest in emotional expression” and its physical manifestation, Laser said. “And I have a really intense push-pull with that.”

The exhibition opens in a dimly lit hall of mirrors, where eight reflective “exorcise” monitors — a play on home fitness smart mirrors and on the quaking of spirit possession — present shaking practitioners, one of them Osserman, demonstrating therapeutic movement like gyrokinesis, qigong and holotropic breath work, with its quickening inhalations and exhalations.

In her video, Osserman — stomping, swaying and swiveling — teaches an improvisational practice known as Authentic Movement in which dancers, often with eyes closed, become attuned to thoughts, emotions and memories and follow the body’s instincts to move. Laser grew up observing it at home.

“She told me, ‘Mom, I was trying to grow up and you were crawling like an animal,’” Osserman, who used to host rehearsals in their Manhattan loft, said in a joint interview with Laser.

“It was horrendous to hit puberty and to have people, like, writhing on the ground in your living space,” Laser said, laughing.

Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

One image sticks out in her memory: her mother fighting with her own foot, a motif Laser had Osserman include in her video to capture “struggling with another part of yourself as if it’s your counterpart that you’re in a relational angst with.”

Toward the end of the hall of mirrors, the sounds of breath and grunts from the shaking healers gradually fade into the cries of asylum patients. Viewers proceed from the hall to a den-like space with oblong bean bags for Part 2 of the exhibition: a 53-minute documentary created by Laser with the French journalist Laura Geisswiller.

The film, “Convulsive States,” which Laser describes as “an investigative report that goes off the rails and becomes hallucinatory,” features interviews with psychologists, neurologists, priests and dance therapists at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. It was there that the 19th-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot became famous for his research on hypnosis and hysteria, including weekly theatrical presentations of female patients twitching in fits to gawking audiences. (Charcot’s work influenced Freud, who spent six months studying at Salpêtrière.)

Laser became interested in Charcot not in a history or health class, but in a photography class — one that she was teaching. In 2008, she found a book with an image that would obsess her for years. The French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman’s “Invention of Hysteria” features pages of black-and-white photographs of young girls at Salpêtrière seizing and spasming. In a photograph that Charcot commissioned called “Beginning of the Attack: Cry,” a woman strapped to a bed convulses, her mouth agape. It stuck with Laser.

Wendy Osserman in her exercise video leading Authentic Movement, a type of improvisational dance.CreditCredit…

“It kept cropping up,” she said. “I couldn’t get away from it.”

She envisioned creating a lexicon of hysteria — “Convulsive States” reminds us that the word comes from the Greek for uterus — with her friend, the poet Ariana Reines, before landing on film as the best medium to do justice to the eerie, often disturbing archival footage of Salpêtrière and soundscapes of psychosomatic disorders and healers.

“They’re two very different visual languages, the news and a fitness training video,” Laser said of the two parts of her exhibition. “However, they both kind of have this faux claim to neutrality.”

The two-part format clicked for Gabriel Florenz, the founding artistic director of Pioneer Works, who curated the show and appreciated that it didn’t “fit into the art box exactly.”

“I really am into people who blur the idea of what being an artist is — and Liz really blurs those lines,” he said. “She’s a performer, she’s a choreographer, she’s an artist, she’s kind of an educator, she’s a researcher, she’s a journalist in this project.”

The documentary begins as a talking head-style news telecast, with the reporter and historian Virginie Girod at the helm, but it quickly pivots. Laser becomes the host — and then the subject: practicing tai chi; learning bodily configurations to regulate the nervous system (“You are in the cave, you’re a bear, you’re solid”); shuffling her feet and creating a tremor in her legs to learn how to role play the symptoms of a patient with Parkinson’s disease.

Mother and daughter. “She told me, ‘Mom, I was trying to grow up and you were crawling like an animal,’” Osserman said of movement classes she taught in her Manhattan loft.

For the role play, she consulted with Dr. Emmanuel Flamand-Roze, a professor of neurology at Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital, who teaches medical students how to act out the symptoms of neurological conditions in a theatrical tournament called “The Move,” based on the TV singing competition show “The Voice.”

Using mime, his students learn to embody the suffering of patients with multiple sclerosis, dementia, seizures, aphasia and other disorders, a process that helps build long-term recall as well as empathy.

In an interview, Flamand-Roze said that Laser would “never forget” the symptoms of Parkinson’s after mirroring its physical expressions.

“It’s immersion,” he said. “You live it and you know it.”

Charcot used theater to teach neurology. “So in a way it’s a modern version,” Flamand-Roze said, adding, “but this time without the patient, only with the students and teachers.”

Laser’s mirrors are also a kind of theater, displaying how the mind manifests in the body in sometimes dance-like movements.

She directed her shaking practitioners to lean into uncomfortable experiences and then “patch them to a positive memory or a positive experience,” with improvisational movement.

As a teenager, Laser said she had “that classic rejection” of exploring the anguished mind, finding it “freaky,” she said, “Freaky deaky.”

“But not anymore,” her mother replied.

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