The special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, entitled ‘Training the Popular Performer’, was launched at the University of Kent on 6th November. The event drew a varied crowd, including lecturers, postgraduate research students and even undergrads. The special issue was launched alongside Popular Performance (Bloomsbury), a collection which was edited by the same team as the special issue of TDPT: Adam Ainsworth, Oliver Double and Louise Peacock. Adam and Olly talked about both publications in the context of popular performance more generally, and Sophie Quirk, who wrote a chapter for the book, also spoke.
The evening finished with a caption competition, in which punters were invited to write jokes to accompany one of the illustrations. The crowd voted to decide which captions were the funniest, and the best three won copies of the TDPT special issue!
So here are my reflections on task 1. It ended up being a longer response than I intended. Below the reflections you will find task 2!
Task 1 reflections:
I stand with my feet on the wooden floor of my living room, take in the view in front of my floor to ceiling window from my flat on the fifth floor, and follow the instructions you have given me: Find space between top of the spine and base of the skull, check. This automatically lifts my skull up and I can feel the shoulder blades release and relax my shoulders. I trace sensations down my spine and reach my coccyx. I follow the ‘honey-drip-line’ down to the floor feeling the back of my calves lengthen as I gently lift up through my legs. My awareness has reached my feet. I observe their connection with the floor and allow them to become wide for a while and at some point, my weight starts to shift from left to right to left to right. For a long time, I simply observe the different sensations of my feet spreading out on the floor, notice the metatarsals of my right foot are tighter and won’t soften down when I shift my weight to the right. It’s a wonderful sensation of tuning in to this subtle awareness and practice not judging or trying to change but simply letting my body find its own way, by giving it time. I envy the tree across the road that stands tall and secure with its big trunk rooted firmly into the ground. The outer branches and leaves sway and bend in the wind, creating a dance that follow the laws of nature, without wondering whether it’s doing it right or not. I guess it doesn’t get to sit down and drink a nice cup of coffee in a minute. There are some perks to being a human being! And then my head drops forward, my spine curves, and as I roll towards the floor my breath suddenly comes in. How could I have forgotten my breath? I let out a sigh and the breath brings movement to the torso, I roll back up and my arms float up into a little dance with my feet still in the same position.
As I begin the first task of our collaboration I realise how much I have pre-empted my response to it. Before beginning the task, I have already half written my reflections to you. I have done this task many times before: standing with my feet on the ground, paying attention to sensations of weight, of contact surfaces with the floor and of the skull rising up from the spine. This is in no way a criticism of the task, on the contrary, it makes it more interesting to encounter my own expectations to how I will carry out the instructions. The use of vocabulary is deeply embedded in my own teaching and perhaps for that reason I find it difficult to distract myself from the familiarity with the exercise.
I decide to embrace the comfort of the exercise but then something happens. As I carry out the task a few times, my experience of embodying the task, blends with other thinking processes that are present to me. I am currently thinking about how we as bodies and entities define the edges of our form. Is it the skin that defines the edge of me and the bark that defines the edge of the tree? I have a brief moment –as I stand in front of the window looking out on the giant tree across the street– where the tree and I only exist in the space-time between us. It is only a momentary sensation but I realise, that the metaphor of the tree and I as one and the same –standing, grounded into the earth, moving up and out of the top of our ‘branches’– means that we only exist in our relation to each other. I have been doing this exercise of standing and noticing weight etc. many times, but never has it occurred to me that the tree and I each take form in the interaction with the other.
Please read the following instructions in the image below. The task comes from the book The Place of Dance by Andrea Olsen, on the chapter Dance and Yoga, page 219.
Olsen, A. with McHose, C. (2014) The Place of Dance. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press
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?
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.
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.