Given the Covid-19 dramatic changes to life over the last weeks, we have extended the deadline for proposal submissions to the guest editors for the special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training on ‘Independent dance and movement training to 24th April 2020.
Please would you circulate widely amongst Independent Dance and Movement academics and practitioners?
The Makings of the Actor: The Actor-Dancer is an international conference held under the auspices of the Michael Cacoyiannis Foundation, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama,and the Labanarium, organized by Post-doctoral Researcher Dr Kiki Selioni.
The Actor-Dancer conference will be the first of a series of international events under the aegis of The Makings of the Actor. The mission of The Makings of the Actor project is to gather international practitioners and researchers, from diverse fields of performance practice and scholarship, to develop and disseminate (through conferences and workshops) an evolving performance pedagogy that addresses the needs of present and future actors.
Prof. Vladimir Mirodan FRSA, Emeritus Professor of Theatre
Prof. Rob Roznowski Head of Acting & Directing, Department of Theatre, Michigan State University
Prof.Frank Camilieri Associate Professor of Theatre Studies, School of Performing Arts, University of Malta.
Juliet Chambers-Coe Director of Labanarium; Laban tutor Rose Bruford College (FDS); Drama Studio London (FDS); PhD researcher University of Surrey www.labanarium.com
Katia Savrami Associate Professor of Choreology at the Department of Theatre Studies at the University of Patras, Greece.
Ramunė Balevičiūtė Associate Professor in Theatre Studies, Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre
Dr. Evangelos Koudigelis Med. Orthopadisch-Traumatologische Darstellung in den epen homers, University Essen Germany.
Dr. Kiki Selioni Affiliate Research Fellow Royal Central School of Speech and Drama University of London.
Call for papers, teaching demonstrations and performances
Stanislavsky asserted: “[o]ur kind of theatre is fragile and if those who create it don’t take constant care of it, don’t keep moving it forward, do not develop and perfect it, it will soon die.” (qtd. in Toporkov, 2004:106). The Makings of the Actor project seeks to explore how those who create theatre can continue to move it forward and develop it, with a particular focus on the training of the actor.
Contemporary dance is anecdotally described as a white field of practice. Although there is a growing body of arts research that examines whiteness as racial privilege, there is little that investigates the phenomenon of whiteness in British contemporary dance. Contemporary Dance and Whiteness is a research project that explores how race and racism mark the cultures, institutions and aesthetics underpinning contemporary dance in the UK.
The project’s aim is to explore racism in contemporary dance and to critique whiteness as part of a commitment to the field’s anti-racist futures. We examine whiteness as a structure of racism that exists in the relationships between personal prejudice, cultural norms, and the lived conditions of inequality and racial violence. We as a project team want to walk a fine line in understanding and critiquing the default presence of whiteness in the field of contemporary dance while centering practices of liberation and solidarity through which whiteness is to be dismantled.
The research will be built on a number of conversations/interviews with dance artists, administrators and a wider project group of people invested in questions of race and race privilege in the dance industry. The ideas and experiences discussed in those conversations – along with reading available literature – will help develop our understanding, and we will share the research through the following outcomes: a journal article, an academic presentation, a public workshop, a public presentation, a video essay and this website.
This special issue guest edited by Henrietta Hale, Nikki Tomlinson and
Gitta Wigro draws from our roles at Independent Dance, an organisation that
supports and sustains independent dance artists to develop dance as an art
form. The ‘independent dance artists’ that ID engages with can be many things.
They may produce or perform in choreographic works in theatres, galleries,
digital formats or outdoor / informal sites. They may work as facilitators or
teachers with other professionals or in community settings, engaging untrained
people in dance. Or they may be practitioners from other disciplines such as
fine arts, architecture or science who engage in an embodied movement practice
to complement and bring new knowledge to their field.
The aim of this issue is to consider and map how movement practices that
have evolved from specific traditions or situations are used and re-articulated
for other purposes; and show how this plays out in inter-related, international
networks of practitioners.
The Somatic Practice and Chronic Pain AHRC-funded network explores what somatic practices, such as Alexander technique and Feldenkrais, offer to people living with chronic pain. Somatic practices work with self-reflection on movement habits and opening up movement capacity, and have been integrated into many dance and theatre training programmes. In this network, we ask: how might the principles of these somatic movement practices be of value in supporting people living with pain? We also consider how the experience of working together can inform the practices of health professionals and dance artists, such as how they use touch and language.
In this series of two blog posts, we will firstly give an overview of some of the topics that we have explored to date in the hope that this may be of value to theatre and dance practitioners who work with health and/or live with pain. In the second blog post, we share our experiences of working across disciplines and reach out to readers to tell us about your experiences of 1) how you have worked across performing arts and health 2) how you have worked with pain through theatre and performing arts techniques. We aim to develop a larger project from the network in the longer term on somatic practices and pain, so your viewpoints, concerns and ideas will support this process. By posting on the TDPT blog, we want to interrogate arts-based perspectives on health topics, and also acknowledge that many performers suffer pain and injury throughout their career.
The network operates currently through a series of small and focused workshops to invite exchanges between researchers and practitioners in health, dance, and digital technologies. The first workshop focused on defining somatic practices through discussion and movement, thinking through how the practices might be understood by health professionals; and how they might support pain management. We also gathered opinions on somatics, chronic pain, assessment, and treatment. This was to gauge an initial understanding of members attitudes, for example on working across disciplines; or on observing/describing bodily movement as a form of pain assessment.
The second workshop theme was ‘dialogues across disciplines’, which included presentations and hands on sessions from dance, somatic practices, psychology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and nursing. Topics covered include the relationship between somatics and psychology; systematic reviews and arts based research methods; working with children in pain; qualities of touch in patient care; along with ideas of physical and social support in pain management.
The next workshop will focus on the role digital technologies could play in sharing somatic work with a wider number of people, such as those who cannot travel or have not yet accessed treatments. This is important since so much somatic work is currently only available in fee paying, one to one sessions, that exclude a large number of people. This workshop will also explore the different ways we could utilise technology, whether for patients to practice alone or to develop creative ways of expressing pain to family members and staff. In addition, there are impact and public engagement events such as an introductory session for pain management staff; and in future there will be a workshop for dance artists working with their own or other peoples pain.
Central to the network is the enquiry into how to work across disciplines. As dance and health professionals come together, it is clear that we come from epistemologically different starting points. The way we use language is embedded in distinct frames of being and, typically, approaches to research tend to arise from differently framed research questions. Touch, movement and physical interaction in our disciplines arise from belief systems informed by the contexts we work within. Core to our network is valuing each other’s knowledge and expertise, using the meetings as opportunities to expand our horizons, challenge assumptions and think in new ways about our practice and praxis. Ultimately this brings surprises, new ideas and questions.
In the next post, you will find the voices of the two people leading the network, dance researcher Emma Meehan and professor of children’s nursing Bernie Carter. We share personal experiences of working on the network, and at the end will turn the invitation back to you to share your own experiences of working with dance and theatre training techniques in health contexts; and in working with pain.
Emma Meehan: As a dance researcher, I have felt quite protective of somatic work and dance research methods. In health-led studies on somatics in chronic pain, often a practitioner has been brought in to deliver movement material rather than shape the research. This has left me wondering how to integrate dance and somatic researchers into the design of the study so it is collaboratively created. I have also queried why static measurements are taken of a complex movement process and what information is missing from this. However, being part of the network has made me see that health researchers face the same frustrations of wanting to do person-centred research, responding to traditional criteria and formats for credibility and ultimately to ensure that their findings get embedded in health institutions in the long term. I have learned the value of thinking through in a step by step manner some of the restrictions inherent within health settings and the need to make a clearer case for the work to be taken on board.
It has been much easier to engage dance artists and researchers in the network. Healthcare professionals can have last-minute work emergencies which means it can be difficult to commit. Somatic work can be hard to explain, so for those unfamiliar with it, it might seem like an unnecessary addition to an already full workload. At the same time, we have had a stable core group of health researchers and professionals, who are already curious or committed to the area. How do we bring in people who might be sceptical and challenge us? This has meant going into the healthcare setting, and adapting the material to time slots available, such as offering a pre-work morning session for staff at the Walton Centre Pain Management Programme in Liverpool. While there was interest, I realised that there is a need to match the somatic principles to the clinical needs in order for the approach to be better understood. The lived experience of people with pain is another important facet of the work but there are ethical issues when doing health research which need to be considered, such as the potential to do harm and expectations for recovery. We are developing ways to reach people living with pain for their viewpoints through a consultation process.
The main challenge of working across disciplines for me has been in describing and conveying the value of somatic practices to people who have not experienced it before. We have spent a lot of time with network members trying to define these practices, with some comments as follows:
An attempt to open up a conversation with a body (dancer)
Somatic Practices: Easy word + easy word = confusing phrase (writer)
Listening to and working with the whole person – being empathetic, giving time (dance artist)
A form of mindful movement that requires the person to focus on the movement and have an awareness of their body & the movement within the environment (nurse)
Allowing the body to move whilst experiencing the sensation of movement (physio)
Reinforcing the ‘wonderment’ of the body (physio)
Another concern for me is how this network can feed back to and support dance artists, whether they are working in health settings or supporting their own health. It became apparent during the course of the network workshops that chronic pain was a daily experience for many dance practitioners, and I hope the network has something to offer back to them.
Bernie Carter: Despite being published over 50 years ago, many healthcare professionals are familiar with McCaffery’s (1968) statement that “pain is whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever the experiencing person says it does.” However, familiarity with this person-centred statement does not mean that people living with chronic pain are universally believed. Outside of specialist centres or teams with expertise in chronic pain, there also remains a tendency towards a focus on the physical aspects of pain (intensity, duration, sensation). This network tries to bring in physical, emotional and social aspects of pain through dance and health approaches.
My engagement with the network has been a real journey of discovery; it’s been liberating, exciting, confusing, challenging and wonderful. When Emma first spoke to me about being a co-applicant, I was gently sinking under the workload associated with existing research and I was tentative about committing to anything else but I’m so glad I did. Emma has been a good teacher, guiding my early and still developing understanding of somatic practice and laying the foundations for me to learn from the other somatic practitioners I’ve engaged with during the workshops.
My initial reserve about being a non-dancer undertaking movement activities with dancers was overcome by their warmth and absolutely non-judgemental response to how I moved within the activities. My concern about whether I would be doing something right, perhaps reflects a very health-oriented concern. The people I have ‘moved with’ have always been more interested in that ‘we were moving’ and that ‘we were being and experiencing movement together’. It’s a beautiful and liberating thing to experience, and learning about attending to your body has been intriguing. I’ve become more curious about somatic practice and dance and how it can help people with pain. Like Emma, I would love to have had more health professionals attending the workshops but those who have attended have reflected on their practice and have shared their aspirations for enhancing how they care for and support people living with pain.
The physical environment we are in and the props we use shape the way we think and act. Reflecting on this has led me to explore the way in which movement is approached within health and somatic practice/dance. Within health settings, movement activities for pain are often led by physiotherapists who wear uniform and whose environment is typically something like a gym – a place to work out – whereas the somatic practitioners wear looser, less formal clothing and the studios we have used for our activities have been made comfortable with mats, cushions, and blankets with instructions to be comfortable. The difference is palpable.
Although I perhaps expected that tensions in thinking might arise between the two main ‘tribes’ (dancers and health professionals) it’s been fascinating to see the differences in thinking within the tribes (say between nursing and physiotherapy) and between members of these tribes (different somatic practitioners). Some physiotherapists’ focus may be solely on improving mobility and function in a specific part of the body, using a validated, structured and objective intervention for that ‘part’ of the body. Nurses may take a wider more person-centred approach acknowledging the person’s aspirations, goals and the challenges of pain and consider a broader way of working with the person. In terms of somatic practices, people work with a range of distinct methods and individual styles and can describe their work differently.
We would like to ask blog readers to respond through the ‘Comments’ below, describing their work across disciplines of performing arts and health: What have you learned and what has been difficult? How do you describe your work with dance and performer training techniques in health contexts? Finally, as a performing arts professional, have you experienced persistent pain and if so, have you worked with your theatre and dance training techniques to manage it?
As one would expect when embarking on a (for us) untried project, the focus and intentions shift and questions come up. In late December 2017 Maria and I met in person – speaking for the first time since starting the project in September 2017– to talk about the collaboration and to check in with each other. How are we getting on with tasks? How do we manage time? Should any of the rules for tasks or reflections be tweaked?
In our meeting, these are some of the questions and thoughts that came up:
What is a Task?
Is it necessary for a task to have a clear outcome?
We discussed the difference between a task that asks for a specific type of response and one that is completely open. We both agreed that reading reflections that divert from the task they respond to are more exciting and inspiring to read. Can we be aware of not turning expected or desired responses into tasks?
How do you give a task?
Does a task need to be written with clear intentions? Could a task simply be a few words, a Koan, a conundrum? How can we explore the widest spectrum of task-giving from very detailed instructions to abstract ideas?
How do you capture the process?
An blog related to an academic invites a particular way of responding. Both of us spend time writing and re-writing reflections in order to be clear about what we want to say. Could a response be more intuitive, more personal, less coherent? Could a reflection also be capturing the process of thinking about how to respond to the task and thereby making decision-making and choices more transparent? Could a reflection simply be quoting or rendering thoughts, images or ideas from someone else?
What is the role of time between reading and carrying out the task?
What happens in the gap from reading a task to carrying out the task? We both experience the challenge of not planning how to respond to a task between the moment when the task is read Monday evening till the point when one finds time to try the task out. If an immediate response to a task is essential, perhaps the beginning of task can specify that only when the person has time to carry it out, can the full ‘instructions’ of the task be read.
How does environment and space influence how the tasks are carried out and what part do they play when we construct tasks?
How does furniture, trees, people and busy streets obstruct or liberate tasks? How does one carry out a task, say about sprinting, if one has only 5 x 5 sf to move in? How is use of space and environment when carrying out the task reflected in the responses we give on the blog?
How can we question or challenge the tone and phrasing of reflections and tasks to push our habits of working?
What are our individual habits of setting tasks and responding? What is the tone of writing? How do we make sure not to fall into a ‘groove’ of responding in a customary way or to anticipate that the other will do so and perhaps therefore interpret their task accordingly?
Is the project moving in the same direction as we set out to do? Are we still working towards a pedagogy of training or are we moving into an artistic practice? What is the difference between the two?
In the initial post, we described the project ‘as a preparation towards integrating different styles of yoga and other art forms in an interdisciplinary pedagogy’. The project has certainly taken a more creative course than the original idea intended. So, what are we as Two Trainers preparing for?
As we are based in different countries (Maria in UK and me in Denmark) the gap between us feels like an added dimension to the project: What does it mean to work on practical tasks with someone every week when we never meet in person or hear the other’s voice? Does the physical distance have an impact on how we read each other’s tasks and reflections and how we ‘sense’ each other? Not having the opportunity to talk and ‘perceive’ the other allows the question of ‘which direction the project is going’ to remain open.
1, 2, 3: The footage
For this second film, I wanted to think about training as a studio-based activity and set myself the obstruction of using only video footage recorded in a dance studio.
1) Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD), Leeds, June 2005. I recently rediscovered this recording on a Camcorder DV tape. It contains footage of a contemporary class taught by Sue Hawksley and a ballet class taught by Vivien Wood, both for 3rd year students. I had got a friend to film the classes to keep a memory of our final days as students at NSCD.
2) Independent Dance (ID), London, May 2016. The footage shows the sharing from my assessment on the ‘Investigative Practice’ module, the final taught element of my MA Creative Practice at Trinity Laban. The module was a ‘research intensive’ that allowed each student to challenge their own practical research and dance-making through the encounter with the practice and ideas of an artist—in my case Siobhan Davies. The assessment was the culmination of this five-week creative project.
3) University of Leeds (UoL), April 2017. The footage shows my daughter Lisa and myself playing and dancing, and was filmed with the intention of making a record of the negotiation of our relationship in a studio setting. I brought paper, markers, string, food etc., to create an environment where we would want to interact with each other and investigate the materials within the scope of the studio space.
I initially thought this last footage (number 3) might work on its own for this blog entry, to link to and follow up the previous film and post, which has Lisa at the centre of the film. The rediscovery of the NSCD material changed my mind: I seemed to me the old footage had relevance to my theme. Once I managed to get hold of the ID recording, the composition of the studio training film started to crystallise.
1, 2, 3: Types of training
Training in a formal sense of ‘being in training’ usually has an outcome in mind (training for). It has a purpose. It is undertaken with the intention to develop or perfect a skill using a pretested form or structure of activity.
1) The ballet and contemporary classes in the NSCD footage are a good example of the development of technical skills seen as essential to becoming a proficient dancer.
2) With regard to the ID footage: technical dance skills were a prerequisite for the MA Creative Practice, which took these for granted, so that study could focus not on technique but on the develop of artistic ideas. The footage does not directly show the process of acquiring artistic skill, but nevertheless gives an insight into an early stage of the creative development of material.
3) Dancing and playing with Lisa felt like stepping out of training. We played without a specific outcome in mind and came closer to being equals as we took turns to lead play and generate ideas. ‘Being in training’ with a child does not work like formal training. Lisa does not enter a game or play with the intention of ‘getting somewhere’: she simply ‘does’. Momentarily I had the experience that our mother/daughter relationship was suspended and that our usual roles were put on hold. When I look back at this footage I watch myself go along with Lisa’s play and encourage messiness in the studio to a greater extent than I would do at home. The mother/daughter relationship never really ceases, of course – as is evident in a moment in the film – but perhaps in the ‘neutral’ studio setting it was overlaid by another connection between us where we could be creative co-players.
… 4: Mixing time
Playing with the footage in the editing process and confusing the chronological timeline shifted the meaning of the material. By ‘stacking’ the clips, commonalities between footage was highlighted and I stopped seeing training for something and began to see training as play. As the individual bits of material became detached from the timeline, the content of the training was ‘presenced, revealed in itself and not only as a piece of ‘historical’ evidence. The decision to edit extracts of the material together in a non-chronological order, and to compose in split screen, reflected my interest in playing with temporalities. I suspended the temporality of chronology—the sequence and gaps of time between the different footage—in order to favour temporalities of simultaneity and rhythm. I decided to foreground shared timing between images, analogies in the use of space in the studio and matching actions. This, I felt, challenged the idea of training as an activity that always ‘looks forward’ and instead allowed the juxtaposed images to give each other new meaning in the ‘present’ of training-in-itself.
1, 2, 3…. 4: Motherhood talks back
The film revealed to me a paradox that only became clear after its making. I took motherhood into the studio to investigate being with Lisa within the setting of a training space: by doing so a clash of temporalities emerged. Being with Lisa is about being ‘for now’, while dance training is ‘for the future’. The dance studio commonly frames the training that is concerned with a forward trajectory but in the case of Lisa and I, the studio became a playground where training is being-for-now, so being in the studio with Lisa meant the framing of one temporality in the space where another typically takes place. And so, for me, the composition of 1, 2, 3… 4 adopts the structure of motherhood as a non-linear and playful activity, a being-for-the-present. The question then becomes, if the footage of Lisa reveals the playful and being-for-now in the other footage, what does that other footage reveal about the footage of Lisa and I? How does that other footage talk back to motherhood?
Motherhood In/As Training 1, 2, 3… 4 is the second of three blog posts under the title Motherhood In/As Training. This project explores the correlations and tensions between being a dance artist in training and a mother at the same time. To read my first post and get an introduction to the project please read here.
‘I don’t want to dance’ is my first of three blog posts under the title Motherhood In/As Training. Each of the three blog entries is composed of a short film (at the end of the post) and accompanying text. I’m a freelance dance artist and a mother and this series of posts is about being both at once.
I completed an MA in Creative Practice at Laban Conservatoire in London in September 2016 which required me to work in dance training while becoming a mother (my daughter Lisa was born in 2014- my first year as a part time student) at the same time. In this way, the experience of becoming a mother and being in creative development happened simultaneously and that experience is the foundation for this project.
I have experienced a tension between my dance training and training in motherhood. A dance practice traditionally requires time in the studio and a physical body-mind dedicated solely to the creative work. Being a mother affects these aspects: time and space as well as my body-mind are not exclusively at my own disposal. Motherhood pushes me out of traditional working methods in my dance practice and challenges my assumptions of what I believe training to be.
To challenge these assumptions my project asks: What is considered to be ‘training’ and to what degree does training begin or end when I step into or out of the studio? Who trains who in a mother/child relationship? What and how does the artist in me see from the point of view of what I call the ‘motherside’?
Motherhood is not linear and consistent. I respond to my daughter’s needs in the moment they occur, as unexpected and inconvenient as they might be – interrupting me in a train of thought or a meal half cooked. In a similar way, the blog texts and short films aim to give the viewer a sense of fragmentation, of spontaneity, of being stuck in repetition and again and again being interrupted, stopped, confused.
In her manifesto Mothernism Lise Haller Baggesen outlines the tension between the various aspects of her identity. ‘As I tried to figure out the relationship between the different aspects of my life (…) defining myself as a feminist-academic-artistic-mother increasingly felt like playing a complicated game of rock-paper-scissors-boob. (…) I felt increasingly provoked at this demand “to check my motherhood at the door.” So much so that instead of “covering” that part of my life , I opted to “come out” as a mother, artistically and academically.’
Following Baggesen, I want to challenge my own assumption of the artist being someone on a lonely individual journey and that the nurturing nature of the mother is in opposition to the romantic ideal of an artist as a singular genius. I want to let go of the idea that in order to lose myself in an artistic process I have to give up motherhood.
Paradoxically, motherhood is precisely a lonely journey where I lose myself as I venture into the unknown. A lonely journey that for me started in the intimate experience of pregnancy where I felt removed from the sense of self that I knew, as my slender agile body was replaced by a grotesque version of me. Giving birth was lonely and unpredictable and although the shared responsibility with Lisa’s dad when she was born was a relief, I was always the last point of call when he was no longer capable of offering her comfort, because only my breast would do.
As I begin to acknowledge the common points of reference between the roles of mother and artist, this polarisation dissolves. If there is no polar opposition between the mother and artist and I can be both equally at once, what creative process and outcome will I have?
What does motherhood see?
Inspired by the documentary Cameraperson (2016), directed by American filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, my thoughts on how to make this investigation happen started to come together. Johnson’s documentary shows footage from her 25 years as a cinematographer, telling a story about her, the cameraperson, almost without showing her in the film. I was fascinated by the idea of using artistic tools of filming without purposely putting the person in question directly in the frame. Cameraperson shows what Johnson sees through the lens but only on a few occasions do we actually see her. It tells a story about the person who is seeing. Could my film show motherhood without the mother in the frame? I was not interested in depicting my experience of being a mother, I wanted the film itself to ‘be a mother’. My project shows motherhood in/as training by letting motherhood look through the camera. What does motherhood see? How does motherhood see?
Seeing through a viewfinder
The filming is not planned in advance; nothing within the frame is directed. I don’t seek out to film dance but to allow the dance to come through in the juxtaposition of shots, camera movement and pace. For this reason I don’t use complex equipment: being able to improvise my filming means to simply point and shoot.
I review my footage and observe that Lisa is often in the (centre of) the frame. I try and see beyond Lisa and beyond the loving gaze of a mother looking at her child as my film is not intending to be about Lisa, I’m not interested in portraying her. But in reality she is in the viewfinder when I film. She becomes the obstruction for the project: always there, pushing her way into my film, into my consciousness even as I try to see past her, in a way, illustrating how her presence fills my time, my space and my being. I wonder how the process of training is taking place and to what degree Lisa’s presence in my film is an element of her training me to be a mother and /or an artist?
The making of the film becomes about seeing movement and choreography, contrast and colour in the footage I have gathered and not just seeing my child. I allow the choreographer in me to shine through in an interest in framing what I see in the viewfinder in a particular light, in shadows or against a contrasting background.
Seeing beyond Lisa
In the film ‘I don’t want to dance’ I try to let the motherside of my daily life merge with the artist. Lisa is dressing up and role playing, using ‘performance’ as a way of training for ‘being in the world’. At the same time she is refusing to be trained as the voice track reveals.
As a consequence of embracing motherhood in the creative process I find the centre of the film becomes about the actual manifestation of motherhood, my daughter. Here lies the tension of the project for this first blog entry: can I make a film that has Lisa in the frame without it being about her? What can my intention to see beyond her show me about how motherhood sees?
The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre is meeting in Athens, Greece, through the autumn. Each week a contributor to the school will write a short reflection for this blog.
This week’s post is written by Manjari Kaul. Manjari studied Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi before becoming a Primary School Teacher, Performer and Director.
Manjari attended The DUENDE School in 2015 and has returned in 2016, at the School’s invitation, to explore in more detail the pedagogy of the work – with a view to running DUENDE training sessions in India and perhaps organising an iteration of The DUENDE School in India in the future.
Manjari is one of DUENDE’s Associate Artists.
This post is an attempt to understand how my training in Ensemble Physical Theatre might be used as a tool by school teachers in the classroom. I will explore the possibility of viewing a Primary/Middle School classroom as akin to an ensemble that must be alive in the here and now, responding to ever evolving dynamics.
I set up DUENDE in 2010 – intending to nurture a loose collective of artists who shared a core training (Self-With-Others) and yet brought distinct and individual skills to the company. From the start DUENDE was committed to international and intercultural exploration and to a core belief in the idea that principles of ensemble lie at the heart both of live performance and of the pedagogy through which the skills of performance might be passed from generation to generation. DUENDE is committed to honouring and extending lineages across generations and collaborations across borders.
The UPG Team has spent 10 years developing performance-parkour or 2PK; as a distinct language of dance-theatre. Our work has now travelled over five continents and includes several tours for the British Council, alongside UK touring for the Without Walls consortium, commissions from a variety of festival partners, and more recently our own strategic tours working with at-risk communities of young people.
Recently we received a small grant from the Arts Council to spend time as a company, including new members and guest artists, playing and sharing skills. It occurred to me during this process that I’ve never written up a description of our foundational training, what we can describe as the basic or daily training of a 2PK company and one we return to whenever we take stock of where we are as an ensemble or invite new artists and participants to join us.
Caging is the name of a game I first attempted within the informal context of Seafront Freestyle. This was a regular meeting of parkour enthusiasts which took place at different outdoor spots around Brighton and Hove each Saturday morning for around four years from 2005 onwards. Brighton is now considered to be one of the primary parkour cities globally with increasing numbers of PK professionals moving in, and visiting, and the strong community here can be traced back to these informal sessions and their continuation in various guises beyond Seafront Freestyle into Urban Athletics and the current Brighton Parkour Training webpages and the increasing international influence of Brighton based groups such as Storror.
One regular Seafront Freestyle spot was the stairwell at the top of an underground car park in Regency Square. Around the stairwell a foot high wall was topped by a much larger fence. The solidity of its black metal frame gave the appearance of a cage and the game developed there was named for this.
But anything can be the cage. The cage is the agreed playing area for the game. It can be delineated by a series of obstacles and is more usually defined by the circle of players. Before I explain Caging though, I want to explain the various trainings on which it was based.
The UPG Team grew from a project of Prodigal Theatre. Miranda Henderson and I founded Prodigal in 1999 to combine her contemporary dance background with mine in laboratory theatre, through physical adaptations of classic texts. As a laboratory actor in Serbia I’d experienced various trainings drawn from the Grotowski and Odin legacies and variously based on Grotowski’s ‘Plastique Training’. Miranda’s work as a contemporary dancer was grounded in the daily classes of various choreographic techniques and she was exploring her own style of release based movement. Prodigal’s company practice took this release technique as the foundation of every day’s work, starting from the floor and slowly building up from individual explorations to group improvisations. We soon developed a complimentary exercise that would follow the floor sessions. We called this ‘The Waiter’s Tray’. It is fundamentally aimed at advancing individual and group spatial awareness, and serves as a ‘blank canvas’ of a training in to which numerous rules can be added for an ever more sophisticated play. Ultimately it becomes a means of playing characters in a pre-textual setting for exploring relationships and dramaturgy, status and hierarchy, extremes of movement and so on.
Alongside the work with Prodigal I had also spent a considerable time studying and teaching Capoeira and remained fascinated by the idea of a ‘joga’ that could capture diverse relationships between human beings through a relatively simple game of shared space. All of this work was present in my practice when I suggested the first version of caging and the success of that first session meant the game entered our company practice quite rapidly. Since then it has been endlessly ‘tweaked’ by the company into the foundational training it represents today.
Caging: The Game
Parkour training can often fall in to repeating single movements, endlessly, whilst one or two practitioners look to ‘break a jump’ or overcome a particular obstacle. This is fine for a couple of people, but not for a larger group. In the early, pre-UPG days of my Parkour practice I often became quite bored when this would occur. A group that had warmed up together, explored a space together, grown excited together, would suddenly splinter in to smaller groupings or pairings in which, at any time, more than half those present would be rendered audience to another’s attempts at ‘getting it right’. Inevitably the youngest, smallest, least experienced would be the most disenfranchised whilst the older, bigger, fitter participants got to taste success. I was never convinced this was how it was supposed to be.
I have a very clear recollection of when Caging started, as we had a reasonable turnout on a very sunny Saturday morning and there was quite a broad spread of ages and abilities. As always, I was the senior by around 10 or 12 years, so when I suggested moving off from the crowded seafront into the quieter Regency Square garden the dozen or so present all followed. The top of the car park, we discovered, represented a great spot. But it was small. Getting in to wasn’t so easy either, and involved climbing over the fence, or opening a door in it which necessarily altered the space. Within the fence was a brief landing, from which a staircase descended to the next level, turning once to create a half landing mid way. The entirety of the staircase was bordered by a handrail in the type of scaffold & KeeKlamp that is now so very familiar to me since our UPG sets are constructed from it. I could see a load of great movement possibilities, but also some real risks. It was important to govern the number of people inside the Cage, without losing the interest of everyone else. So we set some rules.
One absolute aim of parkour training is Flow. It has been described as the holy grail of parkour and whilst flow has come to mean different things in different contexts, for parkour it represents seamlessly transitioning one movement to another with no interruption or loss of momentum, rhythm, or pace. The biggest mistake most make in seeking to attain flow is that they go too fast. Flow can also be found at medium pace and even in slow motion, though slow motion parkour training is tough. Caging is best understood as the training for flow. The fundamental rules are simple, and all were intuited in that first session.
The group makes a circle around the playing area
One person enters the circle and continues to ‘flow’ a line of movement until it is natural for them to leave it
When they leave the circle, they ‘high-five’ the person nearest them who then enters the circle.
Those at the edge of the circle will move to fill gaps and keep the circle balanced, so that there is always someone ready to come in when a player steps out.
What is probably apparent straight away is that Caging depends in part upon a shared vocabulary. At Seafront Freestyle we’d built that up over weeks and months of training together, it wasn’t something we needed to discuss. In the UPG Team where Caging is our basic training, we are constantly working together to find new movements and improve older ones. When a new performer joins the company, Caging is the place they get to unify their knowledge with the group and also present themselves to the company. In Caging no one is meant to do the same as anyone else. No one is meant to look the same as anyone else. You might see another player put together a line that you like, but unless you’re entering from exactly the same spot as them, and have the same kind of physique as them, and the same movement preferences as them; that line won’t make sense for you. More importantly, underlying Caging is a game of invention. In following flow as the aim of the game, we seek to move away from a training based on technical acquisition of prescribed movements. Caging is the game in which the transitions between techniques become far more visible, far more important than those learned techniques themselves.
You can play Caging anywhere. You can apply this set of rules to a chair, a bench, a table, a train carriage or a classroom, a simple coaching block or a complex gym. We have played this game in trees, on rooftops, in designed parkour training sites and as the way of ‘christening’ every new set we’ve worked on for ten years. Over time the rules have developed. We would now say that there are principles – the rules always in play – as well as optional rules, or tasks that can be added.
Some of our principles are:
Every player must remain in a position of readiness to enter the cage
There is nothing to be gained by staying in for a long time
You do not have to stay in any longer than you wish
You cannot refuse the invitation or hesitate to enter
You must enter from where you are in the circle to the nearest part of the obstacle.
Once in you must keep moving until you leave
Let the movement lead you, don’t plan your moves
There may be contact, but no impact
Each new rule is in addition to the last
Move in silence
Activate your bullshit detector – if you stop flowing; get out, if you have a ‘brain freeze’; get out, if you try something and it doesn’t work; get out. You’ll be back in soon. Don’t worry!
Pick up the rhythm & pace of the player before you. Continue their Flow.
Once everyone has had a go, and the means of play are understood, the next step is to add further players. We can, on one of our touring sets, take up to a dozen players moving simultaneously through a shared environment. Obviously it takes a little while to build up to this, often days, but certainly where we have groups to whom we return or with whom we work over an extended residency this can be achieved quickly and with total safety. Adding multiple players requires unpicking some of our principles above:
I grew up watching classic films, mostly starring Fred and Ginger, or musicals like Gypsy (1962) and West Side Story (1961). I remember being particularly taken with Fred and Ginger’s famous routine on roller-skates from the film Shall We Dance (1937) performed to Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off by Gershwin and Gershwin. I also vividly recall Marilyn Monroe singing, Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend (1955) whilst a chorus of girls enacted Busby Berkeley style choreography (see 42nd Street,1933) by hanging from and becoming chandeliers. At the time I couldn’t articulate why I enjoyed these films so much. Although now I suspect it has a lot to do with how movement and choreography facilitate a conversation between the performer and the stage design, and how this conversation can be just, if not more interesting than a scripted dialogue.
When I was writing ‘Encountering Ensemble’ (1), I came across an obituary of Joe Chaikin, written by his collaborator Jean-Claude Van Itallie. Van Itallie writes of his first meeting with Chaikin at a rehearsal of The Open Theatre:
‘I go to an old industrial building near Eighth Avenue on 24th Street. … I enter the big dilapidated loft. Unbidden, I sit in a detached row of empty falling-apart theatre seats. Some 10 people drift in – mostly young, mostly from downtown.’ (2)
Some scrappy kids in a dilapidated room. Doing things they did not understand. Making it up as they went along.
I read of Stanislavsky feeling that he should contribute to the growth of ensemble in his new company by helping clean the floor. He had no idea how to do it. I read of Copeau, a conservative Catholic, bewildered by the permissive energy of his youthful cohort of collaborators. Both of them, quite lost.
Odin Teatret emerged from a coming-together of Drama School rejects. Their training began with an assortment of acquired exercises.
Some of this might be apocryphal. Some exaggerated. Yet there is a truth here. Scrappy kids in dilapidated rooms. Continue reading →
For the first edition of TDPT I wrote an article called ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ (1:1). It focussed on the rationale for locating pleasure at the core of a performer’s training practice. Put simply, I suggested we structure our work so that it fills us with delight. We should, I suggested, seek intrinsic delight in all our work, however challenging, rather than ‘suffering’ in the expectation of an anticipated outcome. Learning, I suggested, is an intrinsically pleasurable experience. It is useful to acknowledge that.
When I wrote the article in 2010, the training I run, ‘Self-With-Others’ (www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com), was well-established and formed the basis of an MA course in Huddersfield. Since then, three major developments have taken place that have caused me progressively to reconsider – and ultimately recommit myself to – the centrality of pleasure in my work.
The first of these is that I left the academy to return to a freelance life as a trainer, director and performer.
The second is that I developed a significant international practice directing, teaching and running residencies in diverse and complex contexts – urban and rural, professional and non-professional, culturally traditional and progressive. This has offered me a rich opportunity to explore my understanding of training with a range of participants from very diverse backgrounds and with hugely differing ambitions and expectations.
The third is that I decided to set up my own School: The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre. The School offers a ten-week intensive training. It is unattached to any institution and unfunded by any cultural, educational or government organisation. We run the School in low-cost economies (last year and this year it is in Greece) and we keep administrative costs to the minimum. This means fees are as low as we can make them. Still some are excluded on the basis of cost, inevitably, but there is perhaps a greater diversity – culturally and economically – than would be the case if costs were higher. I’ve written elsewhere about my rationale for setting up The DUENDE School, and the pedagogical and ideological lineage I see it as being connected to: http://bit.ly/trainingthenextgeneration.
As I now reflect on last year and prepare for the next iteration of the School, and as I recover from an intense visit to India, I wonder again about pleasure.
A few thoughts:
1. Almost everywhere I work, people tell me that the devaluing of pleasure (and passion, playfulness, laughter) is a problem they see as being especially critical in their own culture and education system. Repeatedly performers and teachers suggest: ‘We really need this work in Singapore/India/Australia/Greece…’. Perhaps there is always a sense that people elsewhere are having more fun and working in more enlightened ways.
2. Almost everywhere (this thought is not unconnected to the thought above), people have learned to distrust – even to despise – the value of their own pleasure. People fret about ‘self-indulgence’ and continually, sometimes obsessively, seek extrinsic rather than intrinsic validation of their choices. Frequently they seek to validate artistic choices by judging them against non-artistic criteria. I wonder how much this is a reflection of an international/ideological devaluing of the status of art as something of intrinsic worth, and its replacement with an ideology of art-as-instrument, and artist as primarily a servant of extrinsic social objective.
3. The deeper we dig into pleasure as an intrinsically valuable objective in our work, the harder the search becomes. In the end – as the intensive experience at the School lays bare – if we acknowledge that we are pursuing a particular path because we want to (because it yields us pleasure), then we have to take unconditional responsibility for our own actions and choices. We are not training because we have to, we are training because we want to. In exploring, unapologetically, who we could be, guided by open acknowledgement of our desire, we discover our genius, our contribution, our ‘social’ role. This demand for absolute self-responsibility leads almost everyone to a place of personal crisis. Almost everyone breaks sometime during a training. Pursing pleasure is not always enjoyable. The centrality of pleasure in my pedagogy allows the person who is breaking both to smile inside her crisis and to chart a sustainable route beyond the encounter with despair that seems inevitable during a journey of growth.
4. Almost everyone (including me) gets sick of the word ‘pleasure’. It ends up feeling twee and reductive. The two core questions of my training ‘What did you like?’ and ‘Why did you like it?” become a little annoying. People start to ask instead: ‘What did I notice/enjoy?’ or ‘What excited me?’ This movement beyond the core word of ‘pleasure’ is personal to each performer and I welcome it. I also – when things get tough – encourage them to return to the basic formula for personal and interpersonal reflection: ‘What did you like?’
5. The centralising of the details of pleasure within reflection and feedback shifts the paradigm within which we work. We are not working, we are laughing and playing. I encourage unconditional acceptance of oneself and of others. This is not about complacency or arrogance, it is about reality. Unconditional acceptance of self and others in a reflective process, requires us to discuss what actually happened within and between us, not what we think ought to have happened. It leads to analysis of real (inter)actions rather than discussion of how one wishes things had been different.
6. The ‘permissive’ environment of training is, I suspect, the single most important thing I offer. I have a rigorous pedagogy and I know the conceptual and theoretical context of my work. That’s important. Nonetheless, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to have the confidence to get out of the way, to encourage performers to laugh and enjoy themselves and to learn rigour and discipline for themselves. If they do that, they will mostly learn what they need to learn. I need to intervene only when occasionally it seems necessary.
The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Athens last year saw 19 women from 8 countries collaborate for 10 weeks with great joy, enormous discipline and significant results. The first principle of the work, which became increasingly complex and challenging as each student dug ever deeper into her work, was ‘Pursue Pleasure’. Not ‘Have Fun’, but ‘PURSUE Pleasure’. It is an active hunt for intrinsic enjoyment. As I reflect on the process and recruit a new cohort of students (there will be some men this year!), I wonder about my own pleasure. I sit quietly and wonder if I want to run the School again. After all, I’ve done it once, and there are always other things to do…
The answer is an instant and unequivocal ‘yes’. That’s important. Without my passion, based in my own joy, the work will be form without energy. The School offers me (and my colleagues) a place of growth and research. The curriculum will evolve for its second iteration based on a simple sense I (and my core collaborator) have about what worked – what yielded pleasure to us and to the participants – and what felt a little soulless…
In 2010 when I published in TDPT I was well aware of the problematic nature of pleasure. Since then my perspectives have both become more and less complex. The more one commits oneself to pleasure, the harder it becomes, because that commitment strips away all excuses and all self-pity. Yet, paradoxically, things also seem simpler. The more simply I pursue genuine personal pleasure – in an exercise, a production, a training programme, a career-choice – the better my work will be. The difficulties of surviving outside The Academy notwithstanding, nothing since 2010 has really challenged that core principle.