A Climber Prepares

A Climber Prepares/Acting Craft: exploring connection points between climbing and performance training



In recent years a critical turn in performer training has been widely acknowledged, much of it associated with research emerging from the Performer Training Working Group of TaPRA and associated bodies such as the International Platform for Performer Training founded in Helsinki 5 years ago. The Routledge Performance Practitioner series of books, edited by Franc Chamberlain and launched in 2003, is being reissued and will complement a brand-new series of critical interventions into training edited by Rebecca Loukes and Maria Kapsali. Articles and special issues of the journal of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training continue to advance the field which now draws readily on historiography, gender studies, cultural materialism, intercultural and postcolonial theory, political theory and philosophy, as well as on many other approaches. Performer Training research is critically self-reflexive, mobile and interdisciplinary, revisiting terms established early in its life – neutrality, energy, truth – with the doubt born of a mature and established discipline.

Whilst it emerged as a field of literature at very much the same time as some of the first reflections on theatre training – in the early C20th – Mountain Training research cannot claim an equivalent turn to criticality, either historically or in the last few years.   Indeed, recent publications in the field of climbing training reflect the same pragmatic approach taken by the first classics – Abraham’s The Complete Mountaineer (Abraham, 1907), Winthrop Young’s Mountain Craft (Young, 1920) or Raeburn’s Mountaineering Art  (Raeburn, 1920) – even if they do reveal new emphases in the sport – on indoor training walls, for instance (White, 2013) and speed climbing for the ‘new alpinism’ (House & Johnston, 2014).  Mountain studies is a very complex and fertile field of interdisciplinary research, which draws together ideas from the STEM areas of geology, physical geography, ecology, and health studies, right through to anthropology, sport and leisure studies, and cultural studies, including a rich seam of creative literature. But the subset of mountain studies dedicated to writing on training is strangely removed from this bigger field of critical inter-disciplinarity, and seems still to prioritise instruction over critical reflection.

Critics might ask with some justification, why does mountain training need to develop a critical dimension to its practice, given its primary purpose of transmitting key skills to be utilized safely and without complication in often highly dangerous contexts?  Similar questions have been asked of Performer Training research in the past (albeit without the safety imperative!)

There are several answers to this question and these I hope will be productively prompted by the conceit of this paper: to identify complementarities (and discontinuities) between mountain and performance training. Firstly, comparing these two forms of training helps us reconsider the apparently simple technicalities of mountain training in the same vein as performer training research has done recently – that is as culturally confined practices, grounded in a specific context and illustrative of a particular moment in time. Secondly, the shared onus on embodied transmission in both fields is foregrounded through their juxtaposition and might potentially be modelled with more precision. Thirdly, the sense of artistry so clearly evident in those early publication titles – Young’s Mountain Craft and Raeburn’s Mountaineering Art – may be thought about in more exact terms, and elevated above an imprecise metaphor.  In this paper I intend to focus mainly on the last two points in this list.

The thinking here, in early draft form, is part of a much bigger project critiquing the performing landscape of mountains (part of a new series edited by Dee Heddon and Sally Mackey). It will ultimately be located in the final section of a monograph where I focus not on the theatrical products of mountain aesthetics – mountain dramas and rituals for instance – but on mountains themselves, viewed as enablers, stimulants, backdrops and foils to human behaviours.  Understood through performance-based ideas and theories, this last third of the book considers mountains as places of Play, Light, Scenographic experiment, Reconstruction and, as introduced here, of Training.


From training with mountains to training for mountains: some existing meeting points

 Before I turn to a contemporary example of the meeting point between training for performance and climbing, it is worthwhile spending a moment to identify some of the historic connections within theatre and performance. This will be done firstly in terms of the debt some selected regimes of training have to mountains as agents of the imagination; and secondly to training which might be said to sit between training for performance and climbing. Finally in the last section I will consider one of the key developments in climbing training – the indoor training wall – as an aesthetic practice in itself, setting it against a recent performance piece which used technologies borrowed from the climbing wall.

Jingju, Clive Barker and Jacques Lecoq

In jingju, or Beijing Opera, perfecting ‘mountain arms’ is one of the basic techniques of the deep training. These arms, held in front of the performer in a wide arc, are a metonym of the power and stability which must exude from a jingju performer, a container for their qi presence as Jo Riley puts it (Riley, 1997, p. 207).

Ashley Thorpe, a western practitioner-academic schooled in jingju, explains both the etymology of the exercise and its efficacy:

my teachers suggested that Mountain Arms were so-called in reference to the Chinese character for mountain 山 (shan). The bottom line of the character was identified as the shoulders and arms, with the central axis symbolising the neck and head. The position is so integral to movement, and so symbolically indicative of strength on stage, that the arms outstretched needed to be strong enough to ‘hold a mountain’, indicated by the weight of the two outside lines in the written character. (Email conversation with Ashley Thorpe, July 28th 2017)

For Chinese critic, Ruru Li, mountain arms and their long and painful observance in the training, are part of the process of moving from a ‘personal body’ to an ‘art body’, developing core competencies such as balance and concentration and inculcating a belief in the trainee that their learning is lifelong and that their teacher is the primary source of that learning (Li Ruru, 2007, p.72-75).  Mountains feature in Beijing opera itself, with one of the most famous so-called ‘model operas’ of the Cultural Revolution titled: Taking Tiger Mountain with Strategy (1977). In this piece, advanced jingju performers stylize the contemporary act of climbing, going beyond the usual vocabulary of the speech-song-dance and combat form, as Fan Xing describes:

Mountain climbing with ropes is certainly an action of modern times, and the movement vocabulary in traditional jingju does not provide any set of gestures or motions that can be directly applied to portray this process. Consequently, in the final form of this scene, performers portray the adventure through carefully designed movement sequences, in which acting conventions of traditional jingju are innovatively combined with refined dance-acting movements imitating mountain climbing. (Fan, 2013, p.380)

Rather than a fixed form of repertoire-based training and performance, this example suggests that there is significant invention and innovation in this form – and particularly when it comes to mountain-inspired jingju.

In Clive Barker’s training, based famously on games and play, the act of climbing is a focus for developing imagination and team work, beginning as free play but later underpinned with technique and discipline (Barker, 2010, p. 80). In the Climbing the Matterhorn game, the face of the mountain is turned through ninety degrees, becoming the floor of the studio:

Two teams race to the top of the Matterhorn, by crawling over the bodies of the previous climbers in the team, to stand balanced on their shoulders. The first team to get a man [sic] to the top wins. The game is played lying on the floor, which is taken to be the face of the Matterhorn. (Barker, 2010, p. 79)

Interestingly, this is not just an icebreaker designed to explore collaborative strategies; Barker adds another ingredient – competition. Though perhaps unknowingly, Barker’s addition was particularly appropriate given the history of the Matterhorn’s first ascent in 1865. Then, as now, ‘two teams race[d] to the top of the Matterhorn’, but in the real ascent, a near-deranged battle ensued between British climber, Edward Whymper (ascending from the Swiss side) and the team starting from the Italian side led by Jean-Antoine Carrell. Barker’s injection of competition, by contrast, is designed to inject energy not enmity into the activity.

Developing imagination is also one of the aims for Jacques Lecoq’s more extended use of mountains in performer training. Lecoq was a keen climber and alpinist himself and his Fundamental Journey, connected to neutral mask work, draws on the sense of awe and freedom he had experienced personally, climbing with his friend Gabriel Cousin. (I am indebted to Professor Mark Evans for providing this detail)

This journey through nature involves walking, running, climbing and jumping. The exercise is played out alone, with no interference from other actors, even if several students are performing it at the same time.

After daybreak you emerge from the sea; in the distance you can see your forest and you set out towards it. You cross a sandy beach and then you enter the forest. You move through trees and vegetation which grow ever more densely as you search for a way out. Suddenly, without warning, you come out of the forest and find yourself facing a mountain. You ‘absorb’ the image of this mountain, then you begin to climb, from the first gentle slopes to the rocks and the vertical cliff face which tests your climbing skills. Once you reach the summit, a vast panorama opens up: a river runs through the valley and then there is a plain and finally, in the distance, a desert. You come down the mountain, cross the stream, walk through the plain, then into the desert, and finally the sun sets. (J. Lecoq, 2000, p. 41)

The Fundamental Journey, was ‘a major theme’ in Lecoq’s work and helped his students prepare for what he called ‘identification [problems] of all kinds’ (Lecoq, 2000, p. 41). A complex and multivalent example, The Fundamental Journey keys into several areas of training: it has poetic resonances with extant literature – Lecoq cites The Tempest and Dante’s Divine Comedy; it helps symbolise the actors’ emotional feelings and experiences, from adolescence to adult life; and it extends their imagination and physical vocabulary – especially in the second stage of the exercise where the conditions are taken to the extreme – ‘once you are on the mountain, there is an earthquake followed by avalanches’ (J. Lecoq, 2000, p. 42). Most fundamentally the exercise shifts the performers’ perspective from the observational and objective to the experiential and embodied:

At the summit of the mountain I feel as though my feet are in the valley and I myself am the mountain. (J. Lecoq, 2000, p. 41)

This deep identification, phenomenological in spirit, echoes the perspective Nan Shepherd advocates in her seminal The Living Mountain, ‘I have walked out of the body and into the mountain’, she says,  ‘I am a manifestation of its total life’ (Shepherd, 2008), a point to which we will return in the next section.

Kate Lawrence and Wanda Moretti: Vertical Dance

Perhaps the most obvious examples of performance training drawing on mountain techniques come from hybrid practices – Fell Running as Art (cf Gregg Whelan), Walking Art (cf Hamish Fulton) and Vertical Dance. The latter is now a global practice with roots in Butoh and in Trisha Brown’s ‘Equipment Dances’ (Sommer, 1972). It crosses urban and rural contexts and exploits the plane of verticality rather than horizontality for its choreographic potential, a reversal of Barker’s Climbing the Matterhorn.

Vertical dance practitioner and academic, Kate Lawrence has her own company in the UK and her summary of an introductory training session exemplifies the cross over with rock and mountain climbing and her own training lineage:

  1. Ground based warm-up to raise heart rate […]
  2. Suspension training, using Vertical dancer Wanda Moretti’s method devised to help dancers isolate the core muscles and find stability. […]
  3. Introduction to equipment and its use. This includes how to put on and check the safety of a harness, using rigs correctly, using hand ascenders, coiling ropes.
  4. Floor to wall exercises to practice going from the horizontal floor to the vertical floor and to practice body orientation.
  5. sequences of movement higher up on the wall with no pendulum
  6. Sequences of movement with pendulum (sometimes don’t introduce pendulum in a first session). (Email conversation with Kate Lawrence, 15th August 2017)

Moretti, Lawrence’s trainer, founded her vertical dance company, Il Posto, in 1994 and runs regular training sessions for vertical dancers coming from locations worldwide. Her practice, coined as the first site specific performance work in Italy, is mainly based in urban contexts – and shares with other site specific practices the urge to defamiliarise locations and buildings (bridges, water towers, car parks, classical buildings of heritage), asking new questions of their function. She was trained in Laban, whom, she calls an architect of the body and of movement. Her quest though is to ‘improve architecture’ not just occupy it or respond to it. ‘I need’, she says ‘to get away from the dictates of architecture within confined areas […] I can demonstrate to people a different use for architecture’. (See https://vimeo.com/47298206 for more details).

Lawrence’s work also engages with buildings but more directly references histories of climbing, sometimes as gentle satire: (Hints to) Lady Travellers (2015), sometimes as balletic eulogy: Roped Together (2011). She also works outside and directly on rocks and has used Vertical Dance as a vehicle to articulate the recent histories of Welsh quarrymen working in the slate mines as well as the deep time which led to the geology of the region: Moving Rocks (2015).


The training wall as an agent of artistry 

Vertical dance practices as a hybrid form of training and performance go beyond the mountain as a stimulus to the imagination or potent metaphor of strength and stability to a direct engagement with the practical tools (harnesses and ropes) and physical orientations (the vertiginous and lofty) of mountaineering and climbing.  Whilst eclectic in their use of the environment, from urban concrete to slate quarries, the common factor in Vertical Dances is the predominance of the wall itself, used as an affordance to generate material, incite physical responses and frame the presentation. With this in mind, I want now to turn to the climbing wall as a training device to consider to what extent the sophistication of its design and skillfulness of the climbers’ movement on it may be foregrounded by juxtaposing a recent performance by walking artist and choreographer, Simone Kenyon, Into the Mountain.

Two physical encounters with a climbing wall. One in Leeds in 2006, the other in Glasgow in 2017. Both filmed for posterity’s sake. The first documents a traverse by Leeds Climber, Dave Horton, days before the legendary Leeds Climbing Wall was demolished after 42 years of use (ironically enough – to make room for a new performance studio); the second documents a similar-length traverse but on a wall constructed for just a few days as part of Tramway’s DIG festival held in May 2017.  One traverse restages a training route known to generations of Yorkshire climbers, the other known only to the performer Kenyon and her creative team, is constructed as a performance for paying guests. So why might any comparison be fruitful? For all the differences in purpose and context, there are some important commonalities here, ones which may help draw out of the former example, Dave Horton’s nimble navigation of the Leeds climbing wall, the artistry of the activity. These commonalities may be summarized under the following connected themes: i) landscape translation; ii) movement design/choreography; iii) embodied knowledge transmission.


Landscape translation

Kenyon’s project in Into the Mountain was to import her embodied understanding of the Cairngorms, elicited from many field trips and training sessions with mountain guides, into a studio space. This translation was fundamental to the project which interpreted and appropriated Nan Shepherd’s autobiographical novella of the same name both as a methodology and a primary source: what does it mean to go ‘into the mountain’ and how is that individualized and specific learning communicated to an audience in a different context? Her process involved the manipulation of stones and rocks, rope use, movement improvisation and abstraction, as well as the literal construction of a climbing route on the walls of the studio. Kenyon’s act of translating the Cairngorms was built on the idea of ‘discovery’ (with a conscious decision to do very little rehearsal on the wall) and investigating the problematics of this act of translation was an explicit aim of the overall project. The purpose of translating specialist and tacit knowledge, though less prominent, is similarly embedded in the Leeds Climbing Wall (LCW), designed by Don Robinson, who went on to form a global reputation for building walls with his company DR Climbing Walls. Whilst there had been climbing walls before, LCW was the first to embed a climbing intelligence into the selection and arrangement of the contact points, which at the time were stones cemented permanently into the wall. Robinson’s translation was material and conceptual: he plucked stones from the local Wharfedale river course which were of the same geological make up as some of the most challenging rock formations in the region and he organized them based on a knowledge of the climbing techniques needed to solve typical problems on the rockface:

I used to go to the river, well down here in fact because it’s all sandstone and millstone grit, around here, which is very course, millstone grit, it’s like Almscliffe is made of, and get some big, like, rounded pebbles that had been in the river rolling around and so they were like big millstone grit pebbles, if you like, maybe 100, 150 millimetres in diameter.  Then I’d cement those in the wall so there was just half of them sticking out so that became a friction hold, there’s nothing positive to get a hold on.  So that was something that you had to learn to do really, trying to get your hand to stick on that. (Interview with the author, 11th November 2016).

Movement design/choreography

This careful design of the vertical landscape in turn afforded very specific movement choices for the climbers on the wall, ones which Robinson had conceived in advance. In a very real sense his design used the wall as choreographer determining the physical language of its devotees, and constituting what he called a ‘teaching machine’ of permanently fixed rocks. The Balance Move captures this idea most clearly:

I put two bricks on the ground next to the wall and so you had to flatten yourself against the wall, like this, flat and cheek against the wall, flat as you could possibly get […].  If it’s six and a half inches it’s not too difficult, right, if it’s five and a half inches it’s almost impossible.  Six inches, I was amazed, six inches is the absolute critical for the majority of people […]

So the Balancing Move, you get onto it, you have to flatten yourself against the wall, right, and then you have to lift the other leg, your left leg and it’s got to go higher up, it’s a step-up and then you have to transfer your weight enough for it by keeping yourself completely flat and sliding across the face of the brick wall, as it was.  And keeping completely flat against that.  You know, it was very, very difficult.  If you just pull your head back slightly you took your hand off the wall you’d fall off.   […]  And then there was a hold up there, you could see it out of your eye corner and ideally when you have completed the move and strained the left leg then you could reach this tiny hold and then you used some kind of pendulum swinging on to the rest of it. (Interview with the author, 11th November 2016).

This balance move was the most popular of all of the innovations on the wall. It took the specifics of a problem experienced from a nearby Ilkley quarry, popular with climbers and translated it into a meticulously thought out rock combination at Leeds.  To call this process choreography, along the lines of Kenyon’s practice of translation is not stretching things too much, perhaps, as it is a connection made by others in the elite climbing community, including ‘the Nijinsky of the rock climbing world’, Johnny Dawes. ‘What I’m most proud of’, Dawes states:

is the feeling that sometimes I’m completely in sync with what the rock can do, that it’s almost as if it’s asking something of you […] The rock’s the choreographer? (Perrin, 1990, p. 71)

Robinson’s artistry with the LCW is to capture that process of rock-body interaction, experienced on the rock face at a specific moment in time, and embed it permanently in the wall he designed – his proxy choreographer in stone.

Embodied knowledge transmission

Effectively the Leeds Climbing Wall example involves a three-stage process of transmission: i) the embodied knowledge of the climber/designer/teacher, ii) translated into the materials of the wall, which is then iii) re-embodied by the trainee on the wall. There are distinct echoes of other training processes here, ones which I have analyzed elsewhere through ideas of vertical and cultural transmission (Pitches, 2012; Pitches et al., 2011, Pitches and Aquilina, 2017). Cultural transmission, defined by Schönpflug as the non-genetic process of learning through ‘imprinting, conditioning, observation, or as result of direct teaching’ (Schönpflug, 2009, p. 24) offers an incomplete model of what is happening here. Skills are clearly being translated non-genetically but the ‘imprinting’ is happening through the agency of the wall; it is a mediated training model not a direct one. The mediation, though, is of a different kind from film- or book-based training as Robinson’s writing, is, well, on the wall. As such, his control of his trainees’ embodiment is high and the opportunities for them to circumvent his embedded pedagogy are low – they simply fall off until they get it right.

Mediated training is common in performer training contexts – masks, sticks, wearable technology, (or, in old money, costumes), all provide an affordance (the term is obviously J.J. Gibson’s), that is: something that ‘provides or furnishes either for good or ill’  (Gibson, 1986, p.127, emphasis in original). These are ‘detached objects’ in Gibson’s taxonomy, which ‘afford manipulation’ and produce ‘an astonishing variety of behaviors’ (Gibson, 1986, p. 133). But the manipulation is clearly two-way: just as a stick is being manipulated in a performer training regime, such as Meyerhold’s biomechanics, so it is manipulating its user – to find balance, gestural precision, body posture. (I am indebted to Dr Maria Kapsali for stimulating this area of my thinking on biomechanics and for introducing me to Gibson in her own writing).  In Robinson’s wall design, though, the relationship is much more imbalanced. The wall is king and the affordance is all in the teacher-designer’s hands, until, that is, the climber reaches a level of expertise, such that she can subvert (or add to) the movement mandates inscribed in the wall.

Viewing the transmission process involved in the climbing wall in parallel to Simone Kenyon’s piece is again enlightening, even if the two processes have different aims – Kenyon’s wall design was chiefly only for her and the problems inscribed in the route are ultimately viewed as spectatorial stimuli rather than for educational purposes. (She did interestingly call on some of the creative team to test out the route, many of whom had climbing experience and this helped her see the movement expressions provoked by the wall from an outside eye) (Interview with the author, 21st August 2017).   Kenyon, like Robinson, is analysing her own tacit knowledge, gained from practitioners on the mountainside and her own scrambling and climbing, and abstracting it into a traverse route arranged on a vertical plane. She then re-embodies that knowledge in the moment of performance triggered by the demands of the wall.  Ultimately it is a practice of creative construction which underpins both examples. That both Robinson and Kenyon build progression and increasing difficulty into their respective walls in order to install a sense of danger, exhilaration and uncertainty is also noteworthy. The best art is never predictable.



Whilst mountains have long been considered in aesthetic terms (della Dora, 2016) and transformed into diverse artistic media – poetry, prose, fine art, land art, film, music – the training of mountain professionals and the means by which they achieve their skills has continued to be viewed pragmatically, with a focus on the utilitarian and the uncritical. By focusing on the climbing wall in training and performance, this paper is the first step towards conceiving mountain training as a more complex, sophisticated and ultimately artistic practice, one which shares with performance the need for invention, tacit knowledge exchange, choreographic precision, and dramatic possibility. The sport of climbing is coming ever closer to performance, through the staged competitions of indoor walling for instance, continuing a tradition of vicarious involvement which is at least 100 years old. Hybrid practices such as vertical dance continue to merge performance with mountaineering technology and competencies, building on another rich tradition of borrowing across sport and art. In such a context, a critical appreciation of these meeting points and the preparation which sits behind them, is at the very least useful, if not urgent.



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