In December 2013 I attended Sten Rudstrom’s 3-day workshop ‘Ta(l)king Your Head Off. Here’s my account of the work.

An eclectic mix of people gather at the Buddhist Art Centre in Bethnal Green. We take turns round the group answering the inevitable question: Why are you here? I’m reassured by the number of people who admit to being scared of using their voice in performance, or who feel self-conscious at the sound of their voice. This is what we’re here to work on: to learn the tools that might enable us to ‘vocalise’ or ‘talk’ in movement improvisation. Feeling at ease I settle into a warm up. And then… the group erupts into what sounds like a spontaneous collective orgiastic choir: sighs, moans, mouth wobbles, hums and growls begin to fill the room, so that anyone walking past outside might be forgiven for wondering what we were “up to” in there. It took all the concentration I could muster not to simply burst out laughing.

Sten begins by asking everyone to notice the point when one activity changes into another. We’re all improvising our own warm ups at this stage. He asks us to be clear about when one activity is over and another one starts. The intention is not to layer one activity with another. My critical voice disapproves of the task: surely warming the body up is a kind of layering. It’s all one activity. ‘Let it go’ I think to myself. I’ve been well and truly distracted from my task of warming up. Not only do I find it impossible to follow my body with this interruption of making complete shifts between activities, but now the room is humming like a monster on heat.

Sten brings me back: the moments when you are within an activity we call ‘frames’. The changes from one frame to another are called ‘shifts’. Semantics reassuringly ground me back in the present. Frame – Shift – Frame – Shift. Further clarification: Why shift? What are you responding to? Sten pins down the reasons for moving from one frame into another:

– A bodily sensation

– A feeling / emotional state

– An association of the mind / idea

I notice that I’m married to bodily sensation, the feeling state is fuzzy in my head (I barely remember his example) and I never have any good ideas! Even though I remain quite silent, the sounds around me feel less distracting. The only real nuisance is the internal chatter box that keeps worrying about whether I’m good enough.

Another pause. Sten asks us how we’re getting along. How to stop the internal chatter? The left brain, he states, will want to qualify, to label, to reduce, all in the name of keeping you safe. He proposes a tool: let the internal chatter be the instigation for the next frame. It occurs to me at this stage that the language sounds quite similar to that used in meditation techniques. Perhaps because moving requires so little effort or concentration at this stage in my life, my brain is easily occupied elsewhere. It’s also a genetic thing. My Dad often wonders off into his own little world, and I notice that my brothers have this tendency too. So how do you bring yourself back to the present? I nearly deleted that sentence when I realised I’d written it in the second person. Sten asked us all to speak in the first person during the feedback sessions. So, how do I bring myself back to the present when my brain starts to drift elsewhere? How do I restrain the internal chatter? Sten’s suggestion is not to suppress it, but to use it. Give it a job. In meditation ‘anchors’ are used to give the brain a focus. Whether that’s by tapping into breath, or sensation, or finding a mantra to come back to. All these are techniques to, in Sten’s words:

“give the dog of the brain a bone to chew on”

He gives us another clue: ‘eyes’, the mirror to the soul. Sten says that if you allow the eye to glaze over you are retreating into ‘left brain mode’. I can’t be absolutely sure that this is the case. I know Sten highlights the left/ right brain split in order to create some clarity in the work, but I’m not convinced that he’s got it quite right. First of all, as far as I’m aware, the dreaming mode is more of a Right brain activity, whereas the left brain may well be responsible for critical thought. He seems not to have factored in the role of the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that inhibits us from carrying out actions that may not be acceptable in society. Still he’s right on one front: being present requires an active engagement of the eyes. In London we’re all particularly good at walking around with our eyes cast downwards. Not engaging. For the last few weeks I’ve tried to bring my gaze up, not meeting others, but at least not trying to cut off the world.

Sten feels that the eyes should be a part of the movement. This was a huge discussion when I was training. I was often accused of having great technique, but looking ‘dead’ and ‘expressionless’ in my face. Well, I never felt that layering on a ‘look’ could actually feel right. It just felt like a superimposed exclamation mark at the top of a moving body. The ‘eyes down’ mode is quite typical of contemporary dance aesthetic, letting the movement do the talking. But Sten’s understanding made some sense of this. He speaks about the eyes being a part of the movement. Keeping present allows me to use my eyes as an integral part of the movement, whereas retreating into my head will literally cut out my focus, draw me in… so the only way that the eyes can truly be a part of the movement is if I am absolutely present in the here and now. If I’m just doing something with my eyes but not really present, then that’s superficial. Why didn’t anyone tell me that 10 years ago!!!!!!!!

We split into pairs (oh god, I think) one person ‘directs’ by saying ‘shift’ whenever they want to and the other person carries on with the improvisation, shifting frame when directed. I move first. My partner Amara later tells me that I rarely move out of the sagittal plane. My focus and my body are either up or down, I never engage my focus when standing at eye level. I also tend to repeat an activity within a frame rather than allowing it to develop. I admit that I’m finding it hard to just stay in the present.

Sten brings in another tool. Don’t go with the first movement impulse that arises. The reason we fall into habitual or known pathways is another left brain interference (I’m beginning to think of my left brain as the enemy here). It’s an instinctive desire to contain, label, simplify and flatten a movement. He suggests using ‘spontaneous self interruption’ i.e.: pauses. “tune in to the sensation and then allow that to inform the movement”.

So far Sten hasn’t really spoken about making noises, though you wouldn’t believe that from the sound in there all morning. We come back to our partners after the break. One stands still, whilst the other massages their back, arms, legs, shoulders. (as a side note – massaging someone in an upright standing posture isn’t the easiest of tasks). ‘Make sounds’ Sten tells the people receiving the massage. My voice feels stuck in my chest. I have to breathe deeply just to let something out. Luckily I start to feel less self-conscious. At least Sten hasn’t asked me to dig deep for some unexplained reason to generate sound. He’s just told me to do it. Fine, I think. The rest of the afternoon is spent in different pairs, allowing sounds to lead into words and vice versa, using sounds as the initiation of movement. Sound IS movement, Sten says. Of course it is…

Day two arrives. It feels as though everything we could ‘learn’ was offered on the first day. So today involved more practice. Half an hour before the end of play and Sten asks us all to sit along one length of the studio. Oh no! … my inner scaredy cat starts trembling. And then, yes he did: he made each of us get up in front of everyone else and just improvise: movement/ voice the lot. Gulp.

Well having survived the disaster of my first solo improvisation, I walk back into the space on the third and final day. I finally click that the term ‘warm up’ doesn’t mean the gradual and considered layering of movement that we use in ‘training’ or ‘conditioning’ the body. It’s a chance just to get into the present, to tap in to the body and voice. Sounds/ words reverberate through my movement and vice versa. The interchange is so fluid, that I actually enjoy it! The day is spent with more exercises, more feedback, more thoughts circulated. We work in pairs and this finally starts to grate. I have partners who don’t quite ‘get’ the task, or who insist on giving me feedback (the cheek!!) The thing is, I realise, that being honest about what you’re doing isn’t always that easy. I start to get frustrated by the lack of rigour in other people’s practice. Not Sten’s of course. But other participants who are convinced that they’ve ‘got it’. If you scratch the surface you realise how superficial it is. We end with a solo improvisation during which I feel more re-assured of what I know. I’m not ‘there’ yet, of course. But after years of being chastised for being a performer who doesn’t ‘open their mouth’ I feel that I’ve proved to myself at least that the ability is there. It’s just that I never had a good enough reason to do it!