BodyConstitution in Wrocław

In What a Body Can Do (Routledge 2015), I asked why there aren’t more functioning laboratories dedicated to exploring the intersection between martial arts and performer training. This interdisciplinary connection has been hugely productive in Europe throughout the twentieth century, not to mention the much longer-standing relationships between martial and performing arts found throughout Asia. But it is hard to think of even one institution in Europe or North America that aims explicitly to innovate theatre, dance and performance training practice by placing it in dialogue with martial arts and physical culture more generally. While many individual practitioners and scholars do excellent work in this area, institutions tend to be oriented towards one domain or the other. And we still tend to see martial arts as cultural entities rather than fields of knowledge.

What would a laboratory of martial and performing arts look like? In order to create substantive interdisciplinary interactions, care would have to be taken to create the kind of ‘third space’ described by Pil Hansen and Bruce Barton in their article on ‘Research-Based Practice’ (TDR 53.4, 2009): a space in which specific flows of martial and performing arts would collide without either one being subordinated to the other. BodyConstitution, a project developed by the Grotowski Institute in Poland and funded by major grants from EEA/Norway, is the closest I have seen to such a laboratory. The project is ‘programme of research in practice at the Grotowski Institute,’ which has involved numerous formats of exchange, including four annual seminars (2013-2016), each about a week long, drawing together a wide range of international performers, teachers, and participants. I was recently a guest at the final BodyConstitution seminar and want to use that experience as a starting point to highlight the value of the project as a whole. (For more details and reflections on the 2016 seminar, see Jen Parkin’s post below.)

The title ‘BodyConstitution’ (the official name is in English) suggests much more than an instrumental use of physical culture knowledge for the purposes of performer training. The idea of constituting the body resonates with the wide variety of practices discussed in the pages of TDPT and with important scholarly concepts like habitus, performativity, and the sedimentation of identity. Constitution suggests the laying down of foundational materiality, not just the passage of a body through external forms. Martial arts traditions are particularly useful for thinking about this question because of their unique relationship to particular kinds of efficacy cultivated over long periods. But the fundamental issue (pointedly articulated by Andre Gregory in his Afterword to Steve Wangh’s book on actor training) is that of duration. How can one work with deep flows of practice, designed to constitute bodies over decades, within the frame of a laboratory project, academic or otherwise?

The core of the BodyConstitution project is a small number of discrete studios, each ‘focused on distinct movement traditions/techniques,’ which work alongside ‘three ensembles that have developed their own performer training approaches based on source movement techniques’ (quotations from the website). While the notion of ‘source techniques’ potentially suggests a counterproductive hierarchy in which knowledge moves only in one direction — a question raised explicitly during the April 2016 seminar — in fact each of the studios works in a different way with multiple flows of embodied knowledge. In two of the studios (Studio Kalari, led by Sankar Lal Sivasankaran Nair and Justyna Rodzińska-Nair, and Two Paths Studio, led by Przemysław Błaszczak and Jakub Gontarski), an explicit link to particular martial traditions is maintained through continued relationships with master teachers and schools. The three martial traditions embodied in these studios are about as diverse, geographically and aesthetically, as one could wish for in an experimental context: kalarippayattu, aikido, and capoeira. The studio leaders, while remaining in direct relationships of apprenticeship with their traditional masters, represent a younger generation for whom the relationship between martial tradition and theatre or dance creation remains fluid and open. It is the dual affiliations of these leaders — with respected martial lineages and with the Grotowski Institute — that most of all incarnate the ‘third space’ of interdisciplinary research.

The three ensembles under the umbrella of BodyConstitution are Teatr Zar, led by Jarosław Fret, who is also Director of the Grotowski Institute and of BodyConstitution; Studio Matejka, led by Matej Matejka; and Jubilo, led by Diego Pileggi, Agnieszka Bresler and Joshua Doerksen. Each in a different way brings together specific flows of embodied technique in a space that exceeds theatrical creation. At the seminars, these flows come together in a semi-public setting attended also by some of the master teachers, many of whom are otherwise unconnected to the performing arts. On 4 April 2016, at the launch of this year’s seminar, I sat at a round table with master teachers of the three martial arts just mentioned (Sathyanarayanan Govindan Kutty Nair, Piotr Masztalerz, and Mestre Cobra Mansa respectively); as well as of ‘L’Art du Deplacement’, which is related to but distinct from parkour (Laurent Piemontesi), Etienne Decroux’s Corporeal Mime (Yves Lebreton), and butoh (Tomoe Shizune & Hakutobo, in the lineage of Hijikata Tatsumi). Also in attendance during the week were representatives of the theatre of Theodoros Terzopoulos (Savvas Stroumpos) and Fighting Monkey Practice (Jozef Frucek), philosopher Richard Shusterman (whose work is informed by his Feldenkrais training), and others as well. Bringing these figures together was an extraordinary organizational achievement, coordinated by Izabela Młynarz, who has been responsible for BodyConstitution over the past three years. Feeling the extraordinary levels of bodily knowledge and skill around me, I joked to my dinner partner that it felt like being at an event with top Olympic athletes, only without the paparazzi.

Passing between practical workshops, work demonstrations, seminars and film screenings, the BodyConstitution seminar made visible what is so often lacking in both scholarly and pedagogical contexts of physical culture and performer training: the incredible depth and diversity of the world’s embodied knowledge. Within this week it was possible to experience the electric rigor and cunning floppiness of capoeira; the layered somatic reverberations of Tomoe Shizune’s butoh; the sharp lines and curves of kalarippayattu; the agile flow of ‘L’art du Deplacement’; the deeply rooted breath of Terzopoulos; and much more. These differences were not only in the forms themselves (whatever that means), but also in their approaches to pedagogy, which after all is just another aspect of any tradition’s transmitted technique. Even more strikingly, one had the chance to see how a body profoundly constituted in one discipline might encounter another, as some of the masters participated in each other’s work demonstrations, revealing the difference between training in general — they all had rigorously trained bodies — and the specificity of particular lines of practice.

Never did this diverse collection of traditions feel eclectic, nor was there any sense of drop-in dilettantism among the seminar participants. The presence of the BodyConstitution studios underlying the seminar not only pointed continuously to the issue of duration but also gave experimentation and innovation its proper place alongside tradition and transmission. Jarek Fret offered summary remarks throughout and introduced a set of key concepts for a proposed ‘BodyPedia’ but he never assumed the kind of totalizing function for which Eugenio Barba has been criticized following sessions of the International School for Theatre Anthropology. Nor was there any sense of competitive athleticism, as has concerned Luke White in the development of Martial Arts Studies. This is not to say that gender issues were not present (most of the sessions were run by men, for example), only that the seminar avoided some of the most obviously masculinist attitudes that sometimes attend martial and performance training.

Some of the most important presentations were films, such as Matek Matejka’s luscious and disturbing videos based on site-specific improvisation, reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ Pina but less polished, more earthy and more dangerous; a short documentary on Studio Jubilo’s work in a local prison; and the powerful AHRC-funded documentary Body Games, which follows Mestre Cobra’s journeys tracing the African roots of capoeira. The theoretical aspects of the seminar were secondary and less convincing, with BodyPedia and other discursive sessions feeling more schematic and less organically rich than the practical sessions. The ethical-political questions raised by the films, and by the intercultural context of the event, remained under the surface. There was little engagement with discourses of difference coming from anthropology and cultural studies, or even phenomenology — just the barest trace of old-school pragmatist philosophy in the work of Richard Shusterman and some intriguing cognitive studies material presented by Michał Kubikowski.

For me this only underscores the distinctness of embodied research and the way it has been developed at the Grotowski Institute. This conversation about embodiment is completely different from what I have experienced in Anglophone contexts, both artistic and academic. Of course it will be important to place such research in thicker dialogue with critical approaches to the constitution of embodiment, but that cannot happen until we understand more clearly what it means to stage interdisciplinary encounters between critical and embodied fields of knowledge. In Wroclaw, embodied research was accorded the kind of respect, legitimacy, diversity, and depth that I more often associate with scholarly research — and that was profoundly refreshing.

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About Ben Spatz

Ben Spatz is Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Huddersfield. He is the author of 'What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research' (Routledge 2015) as well as shorter works published in both scholarly and artistic journals. Ben holds a PhD in Theatre from the City University of New York and was formerly a performer with the Gardzienice Theatre Association and a Fulbright Fellow at the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw. He has performed and presented work in New York City at Abrons Arts Center, New York Live Arts, Movement Research Festival, Cave Soak Festival, United Solo Festival, and the Lincoln Center Rubenstein Atrium. Ben’s theoretical work applies social epistemology and critical realism to embodied practices in physical culture, performing arts, and everyday life. His current embodied research explores traditional Jewish paraliturgical songs through post-Grotowskian song-action.