The Bench Game

BACKGROUND

The Urban Playground Team is the original performance-parkour (2PK) company. Since 2005 we have toured our performances and teaching over five continents for clients including The National Theatre, Without Walls, and the British Council. The team grew out of a Prodigal Theatre project, and is run by Prodigal co-directors Miranda Henderson and Alister O’Loughlin. The team also features one of parkour’s co-creators and original Yamakasi member Malik Diouf, alongside urban dance specialist Sasha Biloshitsky. In 2013 with support from Pavilion Dance South West and South East Dance the UPGTeam founded the international Performance-Parkour Network ( www.2PKNetwork.com ) to help support and develop the growth of this new art form which sits somewhere in the field of dance-theatre and draws on the core values and movement principles of authentic ‘L’art du deplacement’. The UPGTeam specialise in working with young people at risk of social exclusion.

INDIAN STEAM

In January 2016 the team travelled to Tamil Nadu where, with Chennai based company Parkour Circle, and undertook a 900 mile round trip researching and developing partnerships for a larger project in 2017. If successful, that project will form part of the Arts Council of England & British Council Re:Imagine India season, coinciding with the 2017 year of celebrating cultural ties between the UK and India. During our trip we also delivered as many workshops as we could to ensure that our R&D had real impact, even if the project goes no further. To this end we worked with 565 participants through 11 partner organisations over the course of a fortnight.

NAMAKKAL

One of the partner organisations was the Namakkal Social Service Society. The NSSS is a non-Profit NGO working in the diocese of Salem, Tamil Nadu. It describes itself as working for the welfare and upliftment of the downtrodden, deprived, marginalised and long neglected communities in Namakkal district. It renders its services without discrimination of caste, creed and religion.

We arrived at a small village outside of Namakkal where the local priest, Father Francis Xavier, introduced us to his community. Socially this is an extremely marginalised people, described as Dilats – the lowest caste in a system where social levels can still determine what, if any, choices are available. In the simplest terms, there is almost no possibility of social mobility for someone born into this community.

We had been expecting to work with young people and have access to some architecture that could be utilised in teaching basic parkour skills. Instead we found 78 people ranging in age from 4 years up to and including a 95 year old gentleman. The entire village expected to participate. We also found nothing usable for straight-forward parkour, so instead turned our attention to the simple benches on which people were sitting.
We were acutely aware of the huge range of mobility represented by the participants, and also that we were working in the comparative darkness afforded by two flood lamps, in a yard, and relying on translation. As necessity breeds invention: the Bench Game was born.

THE BENCH GAME

At the root of our practice as a company is the spiral. This is a common motif to contemporary dance, to breakdance, to parkour and it is in this simple movement that the diverse practices of the performers in our company find a commonality from which to build. Parkour’s fundamental principles are ‘safe, efficient, fluid movement over obstacles’ and when it comes to changing height, for example from lying to sitting to standing, the spiral path offers an immediate balance of these three.

We utilise the skeletal strength offered in the supported spiral, where smooth weight transference is ensured by using both hands and arms, both feet and legs, and the glutes. We sit in transitioning from standing to lying and from lying to standing. In teaching these principles we begin with a way to sitting on the bench that starts with both hands placed on the bench and the whole body turning, in stepping, so that the arms support the transference of weight from the feet to sitting down.

And then we reverse that, or continue the spiral but reverse the change of height – so from standing to sitting to standing. All the time we reinforce the use of contact and weight bearing throughout the spiral. This can then be extended downwards: from sitting on the bench to sitting on the floor to lying on the floor – or upwards: from sitting on the bench to stepping (and eventually jumping) into a crouch on the bench to standing on the bench.

Given a clear demonstration of each step, and adequate support in trying this out, for most participants ten minutes is long enough to grasp the entire process. Making it fluid of course takes practice, but it can be safe and efficient from the outset. Safe? Yes, because all of those points of contact throughout stabilise the movement and ensure that the effort is spread across the whole body, not dependent on big upper body strength as so many expect when they hear the word ‘parkour’. Efficient? Yes, because the strength in these actions comes from skeletal positioning and smooth transference of weight, rather than those obvious big core strength actions required in more linear methods of changing height.

If you want to try this – think about being very tired, or elderly, and using the arm of a chair to stabilise the process of sitting down in it, or standing up from it. Contrast this with a youthful ‘straight down/straight up’ method of sitting and standing in which the arms are not employed at all. You’ll soon get the idea. You can also think of the process of a toddler learning to walk by using something to climb up from crawling to sitting to standing…

As we add fluidity we find those little moments of jump which can be added. So from sitting, we turn the torso and place the hands, and that twist in the core powers the lightest of jumps allowing our feet to follow us up on to the bench (or block, or table, or wall…)

Once everyone has the basics grasped, then we can play.

THE GAME OF COOPERATION

In capoeira we talk about the game from outside (jogo de fora) and the game from inside (jogo de dentro). The game from outside is the game of cooperation. With the bench game we can place two or more participants on the bench, and ask them to move, continuously, using all that has been learned. The aim here is to share the space.

We can extend this, and ask them to share the space ‘beautifully’ looking for images to emerge from that movement that are pleasing to the eye. More successfully we can concentrate on actions and ask people to share the space equally – seeking a balance of placement, height, tempo etc. We look to create harmony, together in our movement.

As our trip continued and we played the bench game with different groups we found many alternative routes that it could take, but we always began with the game of cooperation. One reason is that it builds competency in sharing the space as a group or partnership, but another is that we may see the game of non-cooperation begin to appear of its own accord.

THE GAME OF NON COOPERATION

In Capoeira, Jogo De Dentro, the game from Inside is described differently at different times by different practitioners. When I played capoeira a lot, I understood it as the fight to control the space. Not by imposing your movement on your partner, but by taking away the space from them as they tried to move into it. Its not an easy thing to describe in words, but if you watch a meastre play you’ll often see a situation in which an older player, moving slowly and almost carelessly seems to bamboozle a younger, fitter, faster partner who grows increasingly desperate in trying, and failing, to find a space in which to stand.

The Bench Game can be played in a similar manner. Ideally this will involve no contact at all, and practically we talk of ‘contact without impact’ ensuring respectful safe play at all times. The game here is to ‘own’ the bench, and see your partner or partners grow faster and more frenetic as you slow down and seem to take all the time in the world in your unbroken flow.

We arrived at two solutions that could end the game. In a way both are a win. The first is to find that moment in your partner’s movement where you can lie down on the bench and thus, by doing nothing, take everything. The other is to lie on the floor – a great act of submission which can still leave your partner with nowhere to go, when the timing is right.

To our utter delight the players on that first night who seemed to grasp the game most quickly, and who excelled in their quite ruthless playing of the game-of-non-cooperation, were a group of five ladies aged between 65 and 70. Another great player of the game-of-cooperation was the 95 year old man who put down his walking stick and replaced it with contact on a bench – this one a bench with a back. He and I improvised a duet that though short was really very tender and sincere.

Needless to say the younger players delighted in the game of non-cooperation, and at one point we had groups of five or six younger boys spinning across the benches in quite a dazzling display. Later in the week this exercise became the foundation from which we built short stories, short dances, and with a group of professional performers we created some site-specific choreographies.

If you want to understand performance-parkour, where parkour IS dance IS theatre, then the Bench Game is a great way in.
Words: Alister O’Loughlin
Film: Susheel Chandradhas

The Bench Game was devised by the UPGTeam & Parkour Circle

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  1. Pingback: Comeback to the Bench Game | Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Blog

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