The International Platform for Performer Training (IPPT) provides a safe and supportive space for performer trainers and academics to share their research and pedagogical practices. It is organised annually and each year hosted by a different institution. The IPPT 2018 took place in Ghent, and was hosted by the KASK/School of Arts Ghent (Belgium). The theme for this year was Movement, with particular interest in the exploration of movement that does not directly relate to or derive from the European physical theatre tradition. Attempting to widen our understanding of movement and its use in performer training, we gathered to ask questions such as: ‘how does movement stand to dance or choreography’ or ‘how does movement stand to (spoken) language’.
This post continues to discuss my journey as I run a series of movement workshops for actors in preparation for work in Motion Capture. I have completed the second workshop and the following will be documenting my process and reflection.
When I originally began planning the overall content of the Embodying Your Mocap series, the idea of exploring virtual environments was not a significant part of the preparation process until after I had completed the first phase of the taster workshop. After some reflection, I had realised that a substantial part of the core work I had begun to explore had been centered around Space. However we had only used the explorations as a tool to encourage physical awareness of the working environment. I decided this needed to be explored further and with direct references to realistic shoot considerations in a MoCap context. I wanted to delve deeper into the relationship between the body’s movements and its surroundings, considering both actual and virtual space. This led to the enquiry of ‘how could an actor connect with an environment that could affect or enhance their physical performance?’ I was intrigued to discover ways of how they could transport themselves to an imagined location/virtual scene and what physical implications would emerge.
The second workshop of the series was entitled The Virtual Body and Space. It was important to put an emphasis on the body in relation to the virtual world, and in particular within the context of Video Games but also to indicate the prominence of space as a performance factor as well as suggesting the possibility of exploring the specifics of ‘virtual space’. The workshop was divided into two sections; the first consisted of a detailed exploration of specific video game environments I had created. I wanted the participants to be able to imagine an environment but more importantly the elements within it. In one exercise, the participants were given ‘Environment Factors’, where they were to discover their physical connection to the imagined spaces and experience how this affected their body and movement. In Clip A, you will see the different movement qualities that were created through this exploration. This would later inform more complex character and performance choices.
The second section of the workshop was focused on introducing Idle Poses* and encouraging an embodied understanding of this technical procedure. With it having quite a technical focus, I thought it would be interesting to use a game for the participants to experience a physical state of readiness. I decided to use ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ as a way to engage the participants in the physicalisation of readiness. By creating a playful moment, it allowed them to begin to discover a particular essence that was natural and free of inhibitions. As seen in the photos below, the participants began showing evidence of a physical state that was open and responsive with focus on their stance, centre of gravity and placement of breath.
I wanted to use this physicality as a starting point for the participants to develop Idle sequences. In the following exercise, they were asked to put together a sequence of movements or actions that would begin and end with the same Idle Pose. This is similar to a direction an actor would be given in an actual MoCap shoot. In Clip B, some participants can be seen performing their Idle sequences incorporating Environment Factors and movement transitions (such as walking, running, creeping, changing of direction). Through repetition of the sequence, the participant would find proficient ways to move in and out of their Idle, developing a seamless, direct and natural physical performance method.
The workshop participants generally felt that the session allowed them to access their own movement and discover particular movement qualities in a different way. They were able to lay the foundation of character creation and its development using an in-depth and analytical approach but also developing an effective and efficient physical language that enables flexibility within performance work. This supports and strengthens my initial views on movement training benefiting MoCap performance through its applicability. It seems that the participants also picked up on this and one of them commented that the workeshop offered ‘a great opportunity to play and explore a movement quality applicable for Mocap‘.
The main purpose of this workshop was to allow participants to use movement-based approaches to connect their imagination with potential virtual worlds in order to execute thorough performances and gain an embodied understanding of the technical procedure of Idle Poses. I intended for the Virtual Body and Space workshop to explore qualities of movement that reflected certain environments. I wanted the participants to find a physical connection to these elements before contextualizing it within a video game scenario. By doing this, they would have a physical experience and a sensory impression of the ‘space’. However, I had not anticipated that the participants would begin to create characters and scenarios of their own. They had naturally responded to these exercises by creating psychological journeys/stories driven by what was physically initiated to guide them through ‘their’ space. An example of this can be seen in Clip C with the participant on the left. Through his Idle sequence, he has clearly created a character that is moving through a particular environment, and in effect, producing a sequence of actions and a consistent line of intention.
I found this quite refreshing as it was beginning to show evidence of what my following workshop will soon be exploring with building and developing character types. This third and final workshop will continue to utilize technical processes to support and contextualize the performance work created and will be shortly followed by a blog post documenting my discoveries and reflection.
Photography by Sarah Ainslie
Workshop Venue: Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company
* An Idle or Base Pose is a video game animation term, denoting the range of positions the actor performs that will be placed at the beginning and end of an action sequence. For instance, an Idle Pose may be used when the player character is ‘paused’. Each movement would be stationary but still maintain a sense of life within it and would be flexible to move in and out of any action sequence.
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
I have previously argued that ‘the concept of training is limiting insofar as it emphasizes the transmission of knowledge over its creation, discovery, or production’ (What a Body Can Do, p. 117) and suggested that we need to go beyond performer ‘training’ if we are to adequately represent the depth and complexity of what takes place in our studios and embodied practices. Here I would like to share a document — actually a catalogue of documents — that for me illustrates both the power and the limits of training as a concept around which to organize sustained embodied practice.
The Songwork Catalogue is a set of nearly two hundred short videos documenting embodied studio practice. Its focus is the various kinds of work — especially psychophysical, interpersonal, and cultural/political — that can be done around and through songs and singing. About half of the videos (‘Songwork II’) were generated during the Judaica project core laboratory phase using a narrowly focused methodology with three practitioners alternative between the roles of practitioner, director, and videographer. In addition to this core set of videos there is an older set of selections from materials dating back to 2010 (‘Songwork I’) and a more recent set of videos produced through an expanded methodology involving the presence of additional guest artists in the laboratory space (‘Songwork III’).
Do these videos document training?
I am certain that the kind of work documented in these videos is precisely what we aim to address when we talk about actor and performing training; and also that the people reading this blog are the most qualified to understand and assess this practice and this archive. At the same time, I am certain that the Songwork Catalogue is not a catalogue of training but of research.
A crucial point of difference is in the method of producing the videos. As seen in the image above, each video has a title. These titles did not exist at the time the recording was made. They do not name the tasks we set for ourselves in the studio. Rather, they name what happened as articulated from a later perspective. Additionally, these short clips were selected from many hours of footage. We did not set up a video ‘shoot’ and choose from one or two ‘takes’. Rather, we thoroughly integrated video into the studio process and then made selections from a large corpus of material, sharing via the Catalogue perhaps only ten or fifteen percent of what was recorded. This reversal of standard videographic practice is crucial in shifting the focus of the Catalogue from performances or demonstrations of established exercises (training) to unexpected outcomes of dynamic improvisational and interactive processes (research).
I know what it means to render songwork pedagogical in a training context and that is not what we have done. I therefore notice a tension between concept and community: Our community is gathered around the idea of training, but on its own this idea undervalues and underserves what we actually do. In emphasizing the pedagogical and transmissive dimension of embodied practice, we risk being complicit with the dominant reductive view of embodied practice today: namely that it is an optimization of the body rather than a mode of knowledge, discovery and thought.
I am not suggesting a simple shift from training to research. Although I am committed to exploring the possibilities opened by an explicit focus on embodied research, there is a risk here too: Without training, research disintegrates and becomes a free-for-all of unstructured voicings. Rather, as I argue in my most recent article, we ought to put more attention on the phenomenotechnical research edge between the technical (known) and the epistemic (unknown); between embodied training and embodied research.
1) All research involves training. We need to acknowledge this, for example by more clearly specifying and articulating the bases and lineages of the embodied training that underpins any given PaR research project.
2) All training involves research. We need to acknowledge this, for example by expanding the kinds of epistemic claims we make for what we do and continually tracking the points at which repetition is interwoven with difference.
How do you trace the edge of training and research in your practice?
Six selections from the Songwork Catalogue:
partner contact through shared associations (J017)
Practitioners: Ben Spatz, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Gary Cook
Date: 11 May 2017
perezhivanie or structured delirium (J029)
Practitioner: Agnieszka Mendel
Director: Ben Spatz
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 17 May 2017
structure with songs and movement qualities (J032)
Practitioner: Ben Spatz
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Agnieszka Mendel
Date: 18 May 2017
five songs, five associations (J043)
Practitioner: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 23 May 2017
following through voice (J049)
Practitioner: Agnieszka Mendel, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Director: Agnieszka Mendel
Videography: Ben Spatz
Date: 24 May 2017
Practitioners: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel, Ben Spatz
Director: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin
Videography: Gary Cook
Date: 15 June 2017
The title “Motion Capture” suggests there’s importance placed on the motion of the performing body.
In the beginning…
This post discusses my initial interest in Motion Capture leading to the creation of a series of workshops that I have called – Embodying Your Mocap.
My interest in “mocap” began to take form whilst studying at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama for a Masters in Movement: Directing and Teaching (previously Movement Studies). I had initially expressed this interest to my fellow classmates and tutors and in time I had come across a past student’s dissertation on the subject surrounding the actor’s preparation for work with mocap technology. At this point it was evident that there was awareness, however small it was, that actors had to enter this particular field with a slightly different approach than when working in film or theatre and that movement training could be beneficial to mocap performance.
Andy Serkis was, and still is in some respects, the face of motion and performance capture and although his performances are fascinating, I was hoping to find examples of a deeper analysis of his physical work. Looking on YouTube, I found that many clips of motion capture performances featured scenes from Avatar and Lord of the Rings discussing the relationship between performance and animation but not an in depth examination of the aspects of the performance from a physical perspective. There was no real acknowledgement that there might be a different approach to working with mocap, that actors would need to consider how their performance was being perceived or “captured” and how this would affect them creatively. The title – Motion Capture – suggests that there is significance placed in the actor’s movements (motion) and the process of how this data is collected (capture). However, I felt that there was more emphasis on the capturing of the actor’s motion rather than the actual performance itself. I had discovered that during a typical shoot for a video game, it was most likely that any suggestions on the performance would come from the animator/supervisor who would be commenting from a technical perspective. Furthermore, there definitely was not a movement director present in the studio. This was something I had to investigate further and over the next few years I took part in various workshops and intensive courses that allowed me to get a deeper insight into the actor’s performance and what would be required due to the nature of this very unique industry.
Developing the Workshops
The inspiration behind the Embodying Your Mocap workshop series came from the need to create a regular movement training opportunity that concentrated on motion capture performance. Solely the physical performance. With this specific focus, there would be a natural separation from the specialized skills that are usually associated with motion capture in film and video games such as martial arts, stage combat, sword fighting and animal work. I wanted to delve deeper into the aspects of the actor’s physical work regarding the moving, performing body and how this could be utilized to create characters and enhance the general performance. Much like the way I’d approach a regular movement class, I wanted to explore the similarities between actor movement for theatre and motion capture performance. I also wanted to discover if the specific demands of the technology would make an impact on the performance.
As well as researching the more technical side and working procedures of a typical mocap shoot, I began a line of enquiry by sending out a questionnaire to whom I identified as my “mocap contacts”. This consisted mainly of actors who had either experienced a professional shoot or those who were aspiring to enter this industry. The questions were based around the level of experience, what training they were currently doing to prepare themselves for work and the reasons why they felt movement sessions could benefit their on-going training. The response I received was very insightful. The more experienced actors noted the importance of the creative aspects of their work such as the creating of characters, imagining environments and ultimately their physical acting performance skills as a whole. Generally, I learnt that actors wanted specificity regarding the technical requirements of the movements that were captured. They craved opportunities that would allow them to engage in created environments with various characterisations that encouraged full immersion into virtual world scenarios physically and psychologically. Some actors also wanted opportunities that would prepare them for working with physical obstacles such as suits/markers, camera angle awareness, props etc.
On the basis of these responses, I decided that multiple workshops could be more beneficial than trying to squeeze all the material in one session. Only 3-4 sessions, mind you, but nevertheless each one covering a particular area in a fruitful and productive way. These would include exploring movement components such as weight, space and body shape in performance, character types and imagining virtual environments. Thenceforth the Embodying Your Mocap workshop series was created with the taster workshop being launched on 21st May 2017. Within the taster, I wanted to create movement exercises that were influenced and informed by particular mocap procedures so that the material had noticeable reference points. For example, I used the process of ROMs* to create the basis of the warm up, highlighting areas of the body (mobilising joints/strengthening muscles) that would be in use within the work that we’d continue to explore. For instance, lubricating the ankle joint and engaging with the soles of the feet informed the movement seen in the picture below where the participant is jumping during a travelling exercise. The main aim was to release the body, opening the ‘backspace’ and using the floor for take off and landing.
I had also used the T-Pose** (as seen in the picture below), as a way of connecting the participants with the sensations of their movement and drawing attention to the surfaces and core structure of their body.
The overall content of the workshop was based on movement components that I felt were the main factors of a well executed motion capture performance. This included the awareness of the space surrounding the body and performing 3-dimensional organic movement. Using an analytical approach in these explorations, I wanted to provide a space for the participants to investigate their own natural movement to understand how this can be applied to performance and character work in Motion Capture.
Reflections and Future endeavours
The Motion Capture industry is not as accessible as other art forms and because of this, artists and performers are intrigued to know ‘how does it work?’ and specifically ‘how does it work in relation to my work?’ My intention is to develop an accessible approach to motion capture performance and thus, by giving a little insight into the world of mocap, allow performers to stretch their physical performance skills to a new dimension.
My ultimate aim with the Embodying Your Mocap series is to provide a seamless merging of technical knowledge with movement exploration and self-discovery. This then allows the participants to inform their performance through a clear understanding of what the technology requires of their physical work. Furthermore, I am using these workshops as a way to formalise a method to approach motion capture performance that considers significant technical factors which could have an impact on the performance quality. The next workshop I will be running will be looking at using some of the tools introduced in the first session to explore virtual environments and creating in-game content and procedures linked to video games. The blog post will be another sharing of my reflections on the workshop and its outcome. Overall I hope to use these blogs as a platform to start a dialogue with others interested in Motion Capture, actor performance and movement training.
Photo credit: Chloe Knott
Workshop Venue: Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company
* ROM stands for Range Of Motion where the actor moves each body part for the animator to track the markers on the body and see how they move in relation to the rest of the body.
** A T-Pose is the position the actor stands in for the animator to locate the markers on the body in order to create a digital skeleton.
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.
Mei JiaoYin is a PhD candidate in “Theory and Research in Education”, at The University of Roma Tre, Italy. Her first 20 years of life were in Hangzhou, China, where she studied “Art Education” in Zhejiang Normal University. For the last ten years she has been living in Italy and teaching creativity dance. Mei recently attended one of DUENDE’s training & performance residencies and is now at The DUENDE School for just the first two weeks of the course, before returning to Italy to complete her PhD.
I started to observe my state of body, emotion and movement, without judgment, just simply observe all that is there: fear, qualities and aliveness.
I accept everything that appears though observation, just like an adventure, I don’t know where it will take me, but every moment is so exciting to explore myself. For example, these days in the Ball Game, I notice my body when I react in the moment of catching the ball: breathing becomes rapid, toes grip the earth, sometimes I try to beat the ball. By simply observing the body I can connect with my fear and it is interesting to play with fear. When is the next ball coming? I just focus on my breathing, and a new feeling comes, that moment is so wonderful! This experience gives me the opportunity to discover myself.
Hannah Waters is a UK-based performer. She studied both BA and MA (Physical Acting) at The University of Kent. Her Masters dissertation explored ‘Applying the systematic principles present in constructivist artwork to a method of physical theatre composition’. As part of her time at Kent Hannah also studied at the University of California.
I came to the DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre this autumn dragging all the traits of a life spent in formal education in the UK with me, traits that I am beginning to address, unpick and challenge as I approach my third week of training at DUENDE.
This is my first foray into vocational training after four years at university: I previously undertook a BA in Drama and Theatre Studies and an MA in Physical Acting, the latter of which I completed a matter of weeks before I made the journey to Athens to begin my work. And so I have made the leap from the world of academia to another, very different world, where my perceptions of myself and my work have suddenly been challenged in ways they never have been before.
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:
The special issue 7.2 of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training was themed on ‘showing and writing training.’ Edited by Mary Paterson (with Training Grounds contributions edited by Dick McCaw), this issue includes contributions that show themselves beyond the realm of the written page.
One of these contributions is Elke Mark’s paper, ‘A Moving-Thinking-Reading Practice.’ Mark describes her performance practice as a type of knowledge production that interweaves sensory experience, the potential for difference, and participatory relationships. Her practice therefore blurs the lines between academic thought and artistic training, suggesting they are collaborative elements in a holistic process of learning and discovery.
She describes her philosophy as follows:
The more I succeed in understanding plans, ideas and concepts that have been well thought through as a mere framework, in putting them aside when a performance begins, when I start to work intently, and to allow intuition and chance encounter to carry me along from one moment to the next, the closer I feel to unintended actions – a form of working that has scope for the unthought, scope for unfurling processes that evolve unpredictably, processes which I follow and accompany: a knowledge that opens itself up to anyone moving attentively, that finds potential in encounter. My horizons broaden, extend all around me, meet with points of intersection, resistance and centres of attraction in space and in my activities. If I succeed in following the rhythm, in finding the tune, in taking it up and developing it, a powerful coherence unfolds, one that both attracts and includes the viewer unintentionally.
Elke Mark, I Set My Foot Upon The Air Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 7.2 pp. 216-230, p. 219
As part of her artistic and training practices, Mark’s writing expands beyond one medium. Her paper for the printed journal was also an installation, which required audience members to read and move in relation to its words. She describes the work as follows:
These images show part of an installation at the Künstlergut Prösitz in summer 2015, which was developed whilst I was participating in an Artist Residency for female artists with children. The pictures show an essay-installation, in which the essay appeared as one long, paper tape, installed inside the building and in the garden.
In order to read the text, the reader had to start outside, first winding round and round an empty potato sack. Then, she could follow the text line, to be guided step-by-step through the whole installation. The act of reading was therefore also an act of movement, making readers aware of the subtle differentiation in their attention between alertness and passivity, as experienced incidentally within their own bodies and in relation to other people’s moving-reading practice.
An edited version of this essay is printed in the special edition of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, ‘On Showing and Writing Training’ (7.2).
Photos (c) Elke Mark
How should we warm up at the start of a workshop or rehearsal?
What is it that we need to warm up?
It’s obvious that performers need to prepare for the physical challenges of a workshop or rehearsal. If a session is likely to involve lots of movement, it is useful to start by increasing blood flow to the muscles and getting the joints working. But what about those times when the class or material doesn’t involve much physical exertion?
The movement teacher Monika Pagneux makes a distinction between warming up and waking up. It’s a distinction that I’ve found really helpful when structuring workshops, classes and rehearsals, because rather than thinking about increasing blood flow, flexibility and stamina, Pagneux’s term places emphasis on attention and awareness. Instead of oiling the cogs of a machine, Pagneux entreats us to open our eyes, take a breath and see what’s going on.
For me the best way of waking up in preparation for a class or rehearsal is to set myself (or my students) a task that coordinates mind and movement. At the beginning of each session I like to set a movement pattern that acts as a kind of heuristic puzzle, forcing brain and body to work together.
Complex, whole-body tasks like the one demonstrated in the video can’t be done automatically or mechanically. As such, they prompt students to become sensitive to the timing, shape and quality of their actions.
I guess one of the most important things to think about at the start of a session is where you would like to be at the end of it. A good warm up should lead us to the state of being that feels right for the task we have set ourselves. More often than not, the answer to the question of where I want to be relates to a feeling of embodied attention. While it’s true that any action can be practised mindfully, in my experience, it’s the more complicated patterns that force us to slow down, take stock and actively locate our experiences in our bodies. Copying a pattern like the one shown above demands an active process of investigation – a kind of kinaesthetically engaged thinking that I find helpful as a baseline for a wide range of performance work.
Where do you like to start? I’d love to see some ideas and exercises in the replies.