Imprinting and Returning to – my experience of learning ‘Trio A’

At some point in the last year, I had a sense that learning Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 solo, Trio A, needed to be a part of my artistic research and practice. I’m not really sure how I came to this decision. Perhaps it was the fact that it appeared physically accessible to me, or the fact that, having a clear means of learning it ‘correctly’ via the handful of official transmitters, made it possible to learn the dance in a way that honoured Rainer’s original work and her rightful ownership of it.

The decision jarred with the other practices I had been learning through my mentors, notably working with Rosalind Crisp with her practice of ‘choreographic improvisation’, and more recently working with the UK based dance maker Amy Voris, devising through a slow accumulation of material over time. Both these approaches to self-choreography* involve improvisation as the primary format. ‘Are you sure Trio A fits in here?’ was the question put to me by my academic supervisor. I could see her point, but does it follow that all self-choreography must be improvised? Or that all ‘set’ choreography is somehow not ‘selfed’ enough?

Listening to Sara Wookey (one of Rainer’s ‘transmitters’) describe the process of what she calls ‘holding the dance in her body’, you get the immediate sense of a work that is in a constant process of coming into being. The live-ness of its transmission allows it to remain ‘slippery’, to use Wookey’s words. I think it was this very slipperiness, this idea of a work constantly being brought into being, that drew me to learning it. That, and the fact that it’s such an important piece of work in the postmodern dance lineage that learning it, embodying it, is like tasting history, biting into a chunk of it and feeling its textures and flavours.

After some emails backwards and forwards, an opportunity came about for me to learn Trio A from Sara via an online workshop organised in collaboration with SITI company in New York. The sessions were spread over two weeks, meeting daily from 6-8pm UK time via zoom. There were 9 other participants, including Barney O’Hanlon from SITI company who led daily warm ups, and Melina Bielefelt who expertly co-ordinated and hosted the workshop. People joined from across several time zones in one of the ironic achievements of a pandemic that has introduced the term ‘social distancing’ into our language: to bring together a bunch of people on opposite sides of the globe.

Even with this convenience of just opening your laptop, it’s funny to think how hard it is to make the space in one’s life and diary. At first I thought I’d have to turn the opportunity down. May was super busy. I had just started working with Amy, perhaps I should focus on that? I’d have to shift or cancel all my evening teaching, which is not an easy thing to do when you’re a freelancer in a pandemic. And then there was the small matter of getting married on the second Tuesday of the workshop. Could I really get married in the morning and learn Trio A in the evening?

Yes you can, and I did.

I’m not writing this to give a full academic account of Trio A or my understanding of it. The resonances are still too new to be really known. But I want to note, right now, whilst the ‘all’ of the experience is still present to me, the things that carried my attention whilst I learnt this dance.

As my learning of Trio A overlapped with my work with Amy, I couldn’t help oscillating these two practices inside myself. I found that one rubbed against the other, making their edges both more distinct and more porous. For clarity I’d like to briefly describe the process that I had begun with Amy, before explaining how this came to resonate with my learning of Trio A.

In my practice with Amy before the start of my Trio A experience, we had begun a process of: opening into moving, recalling, or what Amy describes as ‘harvesting’ (after Nancy Starks-Smith), and then returning to material in order to ‘deepen’ understanding of it. The three step process, is the core of Amy’s accumulating choreographic process, which draws on the framework of Authentic Movement. After a period of moving, or waiting for movement to arise, we sit down to remember what happened, recalling shape, feel, texture, image, thought or anything that arose in the experience of those moments. Amy responds to my recollections with her own observations and reflections, before inviting me to return to whatever might be calling. Amy describes this process as follows:

‘The process of harvesting writings and drawings cultivates sensitivity and clarity toward the embodied memory of moving which, in turn, gives rise to certain verbal and visual markers that serve to simultaneously reflect, project and in a sense thus ‘re-invent’ that experience.‘ – Amy Voris, 2018

Amy clarifies that ‘returning’ remains open, it is not a closing down of possibilities, but a honing in on a potential area of interest, so that something can grow from there. I struggled with the idea. Surely the point of improvisation is that it cannot be returned to, in a way? I wondered whether I could actually return to something after the event. Surely the spontaneity requires me to let it go?

A snapshot of my ‘Harvesting’ notes from 13th May 2021

With this question sitting on the shelf of my mind, I started learning Trio A. It’s been a long time since I learnt set material, I wondered if I was going to struggle to remember. It turns out that the ability to learn movements is still there, (once I worked out the zoom mirroring thing). Sara reminded us of the labelling of corners 1,2,3 and 4 and I chuckled at the memory of learning this in my Cecchetti Ballet theory (I think it was followed by walls 5, 6, 7 and 8). I had completely forgotten all of that! But another curious experience was the feel of the process of memorising, or is it the process of embodying? Learning?

Each day we recalled the previous days’ section and added on a new bit of material. And each day I was aware that the new stuff was in a different place in my body-mind to the material we had learned previously. I suppose this was the difference between short and long term memory. Although a few days difference probably doesn’t quite count as ‘long term’ enough. I wondered: perhaps I didn’t really ‘know’ the material until I had returned to it? Perhaps there’s something about learning that starts off as being superficial, or unconscious copying, until it is re-learned, re-encountered?

I found that when I returned to the new material on the next day, I was experiencing it through this half known feeling, and that made me aware of what aspects of the material I had not consciously learned. It’s like an initial imprint that doesn’t quite sink into the sand deep enough to be sustained, so that when the day’s weather passes over it, what remains is just the points of contact that were most assured, most present, most known? I cannot find the right word. So when I return to the imprint a day later, I can feel what’s missing, what’s smudgy, and then I re-imprint, placing footprint over footprint, carefully noticing what I missed and being interested in finding ways to make those movements more acknowledged, more known. Sara encouraged us to find ways to annotate the dance for ourselves, which I began with the drawings below. On subsequent days I found myself adding more information to the initial drawings, using different coloured pens to indicate the new information and creating a way of tracking my own learning, that mirrored my practice with Amy.

A snapshot of my notes from my learning of Trio A with Sara Wookey, May 2021

If I bring that realisation back to my work with Amy, I notice that in some sense, there is a similar process at play. I’m relieved by the thought that returning-to might not lead to a dilution of the original, but is, instead, a more conscious kind of knowing. It’s as though the space/time provided by re-encountering, gives enough perspective for the material to be approached through new eyes. Perhaps where the two diverge is that with each re-encounter with Trio A there’s a deliberate attempt to re-imprint a specific shape, whereas in Amy’s practice, it’s inherent slipperiness is the very means by which material emerges: the imprint is allowed to shift, to stretch and compress as it’s honed over time.

Either way, the deepening of the imprint remains a constant quest, a ‘never arriving’.

I had a strong sense of this idea of ‘carrying the torch’ throughout these two weeks. Both Sara and Barney described their lineages, their love for their mentors and their desire to share their work in as undiluted a form as possible. It made me think of Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of consciousness that he describes in ‘I am a Strange Loop’ (2007). Born out of his grief on the death of his wife, Hofstadter, a physicist and cognitive scientist who famously wrote ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: the eternal golden braid’ (1979), wonders whether our consciousness is really so solely located in our physical bodies. Instead he posits the thinking that perhaps consciousness is more like a resonance that is at its most undiluted in a person’s being, but which, through communication, can be embodied, in a less pure sense, by someone else.

It is no wonder that we naturally assign consciousness to the living. It has to move, to resonate, for it to be present, in much the same way that a dance needs to be danced for it to be present. I find it interesting that Rainer states that the 1978 filming of her performing Trio A, (which is available on You Tube), is not an accurate record of the dance. Rainer’s insistence on the transmission of the dance through people with whom she has had direct contact, also seems to echo this ‘liveness’ or ‘lived’ process. And surely within that decision is the realisation that, as with any live process, it becomes open to dilution. All of which problematizes the idea of Trio A as a set choreography, or what it means for choreography to be truly ‘set’. The way I imagine it is as a work that is always trying to be asserted. If Rainer’s original performance is like a tightly closed fist around the work (which can never be a complete vacuum), then subsequent learners offer increasingly looser holds around it, until it eventually is just about contained within a space. I find it interesting that Rainer describes the process of re-asserting the work as a ‘tune-up’, a re-tightening of the grip, re-enclosing of the gaps around it. And, as with Voris’ process, each returning involves a deepening of the performer’s relationship to it, so that conscious re-imprinting engages a different level of knowing and learning.

What I found most encouraging, and most interesting about the workshop, was that it was itself a holding of space, a container for people to meet within. The point of focus was clearly delineated, but around that there was this emergent process of diverse practices, knowledges and experiences that was forming into its own locus. The group emails, which at the start of the workshop mainly contained links that contextualised Trio A and Rainer’s work, started to shift into notes that recorded all the diverse responses and the webs of ideas that people brought up in discussions or daily check ins. I have to say it’s both incredibly liberating, and heart warming, to be able to plug into a wider field and find a new sort of belonging. I want to make space for that going forwards.

A phrase that recurred in my mind as I went through the workshop came from one of my first sessions with Amy, where I wondered what to do with the busy-ness of my mind as I moved. Amy responded that ‘it was all welcome’ which seemed to capture the democracy inherent in the learning of Trio A too. It seemed to suggest that all of this is present, (the fear of losing income, getting married, the anxiety of meeting new people, the alternating practices) and all of this is welcome, just as long as you stick to the dance.

*In carving out this field that I describe as self-choreography, my intention is not to hold rigidly to the delineations of improvised versus set material, but instead to locate ‘choreography’ within a wide range along that spectrum.

Being-With-Alone

The question I’ve been asking myself recently is this: Where does my work fit?

And the reason for the question has been both a frustration at two years worth of rejection emails coupled with, and perhaps also resulting in, an overwhelming sense of creative nomad-ness.

It’s not so much a problem of my ego being wounded, but more a feeling of not being within a community, a movement, a shared energy and feeling lost on the edges of a profession. And I think all this is slightly compounded by the fact that I now chose to work solo, providing all the more isolation.

And like my decision to work solo, I also acknowledge that the nomad-ness is also partly a result of my resistance to fit in, and a desire to really know who I am, to really excavate my own creative identity without the persuasions of audience and programming expectations muddying the water. I think sometimes you just have to be alone to know yourself.

Being alone does not mean being lonely or isolated.

Which is why another area of interest for me, alongside the aesthetics of my compositional practice, is the notion of working alongside others, in parallel.

Whilst developing this idea for my PhD application, someone recommended I looked up the work of the philosopher Jean Luc Nancy. Nancy talks about the notion of singular / plural, a situation where there is no individual outside of our relationships, and that there is no community without our singular identities.

“Existing never means just being, but ek-sisting or being-toward. The I is not a self that is immediately present to itself. Existing is always a being-exposed to, being-outside-oneself,…” pp97

If I apply this to how I work in the studio, then somehow even if I am working completely alone, I am always working “with” or “toward”. I just have to notice how this is. For example, I work in a studio run by artists, so each time I show up and work there I am “with” the historical and current community of artists who form that space. When I bring resources into the space with me, I am “with” the originators of that resource, be it an author, artist, poet etc. When I move, I move “with” the knowledge of movement that has already been imprinted into my soma. And when I make creative choices I do so “with” the socio-historical and cultural legacy of modern and postmoderen dance that is so deeply ingrained in me I am absolutely not separable from them.

The notion of being with or being toward has given me a new sense of empowerment around my nomadic state. Being a creative nomad allows me to pitch my tent wherever the resources are most nourishing. I have the option of being toward any artist, resource or idea I find interesting. And I have the option of framing those encounters in whatever way feels right, authentic rather than through some kind of mechanised process.

Choreographic, Choreography, Composition

What is the difference between choreography and choreographic?

At the end of last year, frustrated by the lack of opportunities, I decided to commit to a weekly practice session, on my own in the studio. Every week I enter the space to ‘practice’ being a choreographer. The only problem is that I seem to have forgotten how to ‘choreograph’.

A quick dictionary search reveals what it means to ‘choreograph’ :

compose the sequence of steps and moves for (a ballet or other performance of dance). “the ballet was choreographed by Diaghilev”

The quickest explanation is: to set steps.

And how does the word to choreograph differ from the notion of ‘composition’? From the Cambridge English dictionary:

When you talk about the composition of something, you are referring to the way in which its various parts are put together and arranged.

Composition is the technique or skill involved in creating a work of art.

It feels as though choreography relates to something of the intricacies of setting movement, whereas composition is more about the whole…. In the dance world the two are often used interchangeably, but I feel that there is something to be unpicked here.

By contrast, improvisation is about not setting movement, but responding in the moment. This is not to say that improvisation is easier. It’s an approach which requires a different set of skills.

A shift in the dance world has been the use of improvisation as a means of resourcing movement for choreography. Perhaps this is similar to the devising process in theatre? Rather than walking into the studio with a script, a final plan, we have a general aim and we develop the actual material through an organic, emergent process.

I’d like to think that the latter is a better way to work, because it’s more democratic. The performers have more sense of agency, more creative input into the actual content of the work, rather than focusing on delivery alone. But it raises questions. If I invite a performer’s collaboration, how is my role different? Is increasing performer agency, reducing the choreographer’s ownership? Perhaps it’s no wonder that a dancer colleague remarked that “it’s dancers who make the choreography anyway”…

I think my own struggles with this relationship between dancer / choreographer have led me to be both and work alone. And so here I am stuck in a space wondering how to be both the resource-er and choreographer. How do I capture my own material and give it shape from inside it?

Muddying the water, solo performer and choreographer Rosalind Crisp calls her practice “choreographic improvisation”. She has developed a set of tools that she engages with as a means of directing/ choreographing her dancing. She doesn’t know what will come next, she says, but she knows how she will find the next move. Sometimes she calls her tools “choreographies” because they give shape to and direct what’s coming out. They are choreographic in nature because they carry a logic, a direction, a specificity. But they are improvised because the actual resulting steps are not pre-set. They simply happen by being present to the choices in the moment.

I cannot help feeling that what Crisp is talking about when she talks about “choreography”, “Choreographic” and “the choreographer” is choice. And I agree that the resulting performance is engaging, playful and choreographic.

But where does that leave me, as I wonder back into the studio on my own? Am I setting? Must I set material? Is the desire to set simply a lack of confidence in my ability to improvise in a way that is engaging and choreographic? Or is there something else? Have I forgotten how to choreograph? Is the presence of my own body and my own movement just getting in the way? Have I spent so long improvising that I cannot shift my approach back to setting? My sense is that just moving is such a seductive option, that it takes some curiosity beyond the movement to engage with its composition, to choreograph. And then setting feels so bland, like flattening the material resource. Is there a way to keep the fullness of material whilst setting? Is there any need to actually set?

 

 

The Virtuosity of Paying Attention

Have you ever played with a child? I mean spent time with them building castles that are never completed? Repeatedly banged out the same tune, because each turn never stops being highly amusing to them. Children have an innate ability to just play, not to find the meaning of things, but to explore the pleasure, run with it a while and then change, move on, let go. It’s highly frustrating for an adult, because we’re so used to seeing the end game, or seeing the point of it all. I know I am.

The resounding impact of a 3 day workshop with the improvisation performer Andrew Morrish, was this realisation: perhaps I’ve forgotten how to play!

Andrew’s workshop was titled ‘Solo Performance Improvisation Practice’. It involves at least three of the most terrifying propositions anyone could face: performing, solo and improvisation. Imagine entering the space, facing a whole audience, no score, no pre-rehearsed movement, just you and the space and the audience. No props or other performers to lean on. Andrew’s starting point is always to think that the audience likes you, they’re on your side. But I’ve seen audiences walk out of theatres, so I’m less convinced.

As an experienced improviser Andrew admits that there’s a lot of bad improvisation out there. Improvisation is often the fall-back of choreographers and directors when they cannot quite fill a section of their work, or performers when they forget their lines or make a wrong move. “Just improvise” is an often heard comment back stage, “no one will know”.  But when improvisation becomes a practice in its own right, the result is a performance that is skilled, authentic, endearing, humorous, engaging. An improviser over-comes so much of the natural chatter that prevents us from fully revealing who we are, they place themselves in a place of ultimate vulnerability. The experience of being in this space develops new muscles of authentic communicating, which is what gives this work its multi-dimensionality. The good news is that it’s not magic, it’s a practice that takes time to develop. And the key to developing this skill is to pay attention:

improvisation is the virtuosity of paying attention”  – Andrew Morrish

To frame Andrew’s teachings, I’m going to use his own structure of Beginning, Middle and End.

Beginning

Beginning starts with noticing.

Andrew says that having ideas is great while you have them, but what happens when the ideas run out? The key to being present, is to notice what’s here, now. We’re taught to listen in to sensation, and become aware of where that takes us in terms of movement, sounding, talking, imagination. When you attend to what’s there in the room, you never run out of resources.

“Pay attention to the child”

Andrew relates how he worked on a project where his job was to improvise alongside a child. Paying attention to the child was his source material for his own role in the duet. I know that Andrew was talking about a specific event, but I couldn’t help drawing parallels with Julia Cameron’s suggestion that our creative side is a child. Suddenly this idea of tapping in to my inner child just opened up something for me.  I’m here in this workshop because so many years of dance training dulled down any real ‘presence’ in favour of physicality. We were physical beings, but not human beings on stage. And now I just find that presence so stale. I’m here to work out what it might mean for me to be present on stage. If I could cut out all the negative chatter that prevents me from making a fool of myself and notice what my inner child was drawn to, perhaps something more real would come out of me?

Staying in this childish space, Andrew suggests following your pleasure. The game is not to find something that’s “interesting”, it’s to find something that’s fun for us now. It’s function-less, frivolous. But if you find it then developing it is a pleasure too. It sounds like a good life mantra…

Middle: Developing what you’ve noticed

I’m very bad at the middle bit. I find myself wanting to know the outcome right from the get go. Only a few seconds into an improvisation task, I find my mind panicking to know the end point. I find  it so hard just to settle in, notice and develop what’s there, whatever that may be. I sense that Andrew knows this and one of his tools is to get us to move around the space.

“a solo is a journey”

Andrew places groups of people around the space, so that as we improvisaed solo we have to move from one audience to another, shifting ourselves spatially. Each new audience, or new sapce brings a new energy. Somehow, using this structure, we each do a 4 minute solo improvisation on the first day!

“Change!”

If the first job of an improviser is to find something pleasureable, then the second job is to find the next thing that’s pleasureable. It’s so easy to get stuck in what we’re doing, that sometimes we forget to change. Andrew suggests introducing something that prompts us to change, like a change of scenary or a change of focus. I think that my inability to change more frequently comes partly out of feeling very invested in what I’m doing, so that I find it hard to let it go, and partly in the fear of not being able to find the next thing. Andrew suggests the Andrew Morrish App: it follows you around shouting “change!” every 30 seconds. Sadly it doesn’t exist, but it’s not a bad idea.

“you need to feel safe to be creative”

There’s something about this remark that holds so true and yet is so little understood in the arts world. Everyone somehow expects artists to bare their soles, to be really ‘out there’. But that’s not a safe place to work from, and when you’re acting from a place of fear, you cannot really be creative, you can only do what you already know which is the opposite of being present. So how do you create safety when you’re facing an audience with no pre-known moves / score etc?

“supportive architecture”.

Andrew talked about creating supportive architecture. One exercise involved each of us performing with other members of the group sitting / standing around the space. When you’re in relation to another body the space feels less empty. More resources appear. Later Andrew suggested using our imagination to create that supportive architecture, or thinking about the audience as a supportive architecture.

Ending

“Be aware of what’s happened”

Finding an ending involves the ability to be aware of what’s happened and to somehow hold that in our body in a way that will lead us to an ending.

I don’t think I ever really found an ending. It would be safe to say that I’m still trying to find a sense of play. But each time my turn came to an end, I seemed to come out of performance and suddenly I was me. In Andrew’s words: how can I find more of her?

This blog is dedicated to my work as a dance artist and choreographer. If you're looking for my Pilates work, please visitmy Pilates website at www.margueritepilates.com

 

 

On Solo Practice

What are your thoughts, issues, frustrations, ideas around developing your work on your own? When you book yourself into a studio to finally get your ideas out of your head and into your body, or you’re super chuffed about getting a residency, you walk into the studio on your first day, all alone with your music and that bit of text you really liked…. then what? Does this way of working, work for you?

A few weeks ago I decided to take a week off from teaching so that I could get back into the studio and move again, bringing my focus back into my dance work. I’m starting a new piece as well as rehearsing an old one. It’s all solo material, plus quite a lot of tech, literally just me and the machine. Working in a studio is an investment. It costs time and money. Even when it’s free, it comes with some kind of a cost. So one does kind of feel obliged to ‘achieve’ something. Compound that pressure with all the problems that arise from working alone (distraction, boredom, self-doubt) and you have a recipe for the ultimate frustration. Working solo has to be one of the most difficult aspects of a dance maker’s practice. By the end of that week of rolling around on the floor, I put the above question to my fellow dance makers. Here are some of the responses I received:

 “I almost never go into a studio on my own. I always feel lost whenever I try to do that. I’m usually either making group work or if I’m practicing solo improv then I always share the practice with someone so I have an audience.” – Seke Chimutengwende.

“I never go into the studio alone either. No one should. All solos need a director 😉 as not to be left at some point – lying in a shaft of sunlight falling asleep in desperate lonely inadequacy – before then bursting into tears, getting inspired, coming up with something small; it’s hell.” – Sally Marie 

“It’s usually great for the first hour…and then I’m bored, not sure what to do next, messing with documentation and note taking instead of developing material… I’m not good in the studio alone but I also feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do to be a good dance maker, so I tend to make myself do it for a day or two at the beginning of a project.” – Kate Sicchio 

“For me, working on a solo is like learning a foreign language; you need to pass through the point where everything seems impossible, really push yourself and “learn the grammar” to finally let the body speak. And I go to the studio on my own because it is the only moment I feel my body is a subject and not an object. It is honest and a process that lets me connect with myself first.” – Danai Pappa

The bottom line is that working alone in a studio is tough. I’m curious about the combination of reasons that people chose to work in this way: sometimes it’s out of necessity, sometimes it’s just a starting point, sometimes it’s because of a feeling of obligation. I’m grateful to those who expressed that this way of working simply isn’t necessary in their practice at all. Working solo is hard work, so if you can avoid it then by all means do. I think it’s fair to ask ourselves, in the first instance: Why choose to work alone? Is it really necessary?

I started working alone partly for practical reasons: I got tired of asking people to work for free for me, it never felt good. But once I started working alone, I realized that actually working with others was even harder. The reason for this is that developing an idea from scratch puts you in a very vulnerable place to begin with. It’s all very raw and unimpressive and more importantly, it’s easily trampled on. Having another collaborator in the studio with me made me feel like the idea was threatened, partly by the presence of another person’s ego, partly by the fact that another person will bring their own baggage to the room. I’ve also become hyper sensitive to the way that someone else’s movement can take over the aesthetic of the work, and this probably has something to do with the subtle nature of identity in my practice.

After the first two rehearsals, working alone in a studio space, I found myself wondering whether I was really getting anything out of it. I came away and showed some images to my collaborator, who instantly saw the progress and encouraged me to keep working. If I hadn’t had that feedback I think I might have despaired.

What I realized is that some of what we think of as frustrations, may actually be a consequence of the continuous expectation of being productive. But the productivity scale does not reflect the value of what we are doing. Richard Newton puts this so well in “The Little Book of Thinking Big”:

“The cult of busyness requires a certain type of thinking. You could call it instrumental thinking. The consequences of the thinking must be instrumental in achieving value: sales, innovation, cost savings…wealth and power. This is valuable but it is narrow, focused and constrained.” – Richards Newton

In some senses, remaining in the undefined, non-linear space of creative practice is a quiet protest against the dominance of ‘getting somewhere’ in our goal oriented culture. There is something pre-verbal about solo practice (I read that somewhere) and I wonder about allowing it to remain in this space. How can I allow myself to roam in that initial idea without getting trapped in self-absorbed, self-conscious fantasy?

So the question isn’t “How can I get more out of this time?” but “How do we get better at being in this space?” by which I mean both the physical space of the studio and the psychological space of solo creative practice.

And another thing: shouldn’t it be fun? Why does it always feel like such hard work?

I recalled the writing of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly who talks about the state of Flow. Here’s what he says:

 “These are the eight main components people mention when what they do is fun and enjoyable: they have a clear sense of goals, they know how they are doing, their skills are matched to their challenges, their attention is concentrated on what they are doing, they operate in the moment, they are not worried about being out of control, or about how they look in the eyes of other people, time then passes fast and one is glad to be doing whatever it is that provides such an experience.”

The reason that I like this idea is that is suggests that if the first three principles are met (clear aim, feedback and skills matched to the challenge) then all the other frustrations disappear.

So how does all this fit together? I’m just at the very start of my research, but this is what I think we might need, to develop a better solo practice.

a.) The right approach.

I think we need to remember that working solo is a practice that takes time to develop. We need to approach each session with curiosity and kindness. We need to enter into the mental attitude of practice rather than achieving outcomes. We need to be ready to suspend judgment.

b.) Resources

In preparation for my workshop on Sunday, I’ve been spending time walking around hardware stores and stationers. I’ve bought ‘toilet reading books’ and searched through online resources for anything that resonates. Having a box of physical tools (I don’t mean hammers and nails), is a great oblique way of getting the mind focused on making. Resources don’t have to be physical. They can be simple constraints or tasks you give yourself, like using less space or trying to make 10 versions of something. You can tailor them to the ideas you’re exploring. Having small task based goals gives us something smaller than the bigger picture to get our teeth into. I think a lot of the time we’re so devoured by the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do, that we feel paralyzed by it. Finding a way to focus on something small, either related, or unrelated, is a good way to keep the analytical side of the brain engaged, so that the more elusive original ideas can surface.

c.) Preparation

I have this idea that if I’m about to spend 4 hours alone in the studio then I should spend at least 4 hours preparing in some way. Creative practice should be an ongoing process. Admittedly this takes a lot of discipline, but setting time aside in the week to go and look at something, or research ideas that you can take into the studio with you, will massively enhance the quality of that time alone in the space.

d.) RSPV

If you’re not familiar with Anna Halprin’s RSPV cycle, then I’ve written about this here. RSPV stands for Resources, Score, Performance, Value-action. We all know how to structure rehearsals, but what about structuring the process? I like to think of the preparation time before the session as a time to collect resources and set a score for how I want to work in the studio. The time in the studio then becomes the performance, which I film to watch later. I then evaluate what I’ve done by reflecting on my process and the documentation after the rehearsal. This allows me to refine my score and resources so that I can repeat the cycle in the next rehearsal.

e.) An observer

The most effective solo practice sessions I ever had involved working with the dramaturg, Chris Higgins. You can read about my experience here. What I realized from this way of working, was that having an external eye, not directing, but supporting me staying in the space, was the most conducive set up for my own physical practice. On Sunday 18th June I will lead my very first lab on the observed / observing practice. This presents a score for supporting each other’s solo practice by simply being present. I’ll also be exploring some of the resources I’ve been gathering to facilitate solo making. You can find more details on the workshop here.

I’m so grateful to all of my fellow makers who contributed their thoughts and allowed me to share them here. This is just the beginning of these ramblings. In the meantime let me know what you think. Do any of these ideas resonate with you?

On Dramaturgy – Prepare

I wrote this post before the start of my recent project, but never got round to publishing it! So here it is. Just imagine it’s still July 2016 when you read it…

“Excuse my ignorance, but what exactly is a dramaturg?”

The process through which I came to be working with Chris was such a fluid one that I never stopped to pose this question myself. It was obvious to me that I would be working with a dramaturg on my next project. At the beginning of the year I had no idea what a dramaturg was either. I just had a hunch that a workshop being run by South East Dance was exactly what I needed to do. And so, by a series of coincidences, I had landed myself an incredibly generous and patient Chris who had already, in a few sessions, got me back into thinking of myself as a maker again. “He’s like an outside eye who’s also an inside eye” I said. “He listens and teases out what I’m after, suggesting ways of getting there and then suggesting ways of not getting there in case they might actually get us there anyway.” Tom, my collaborator, looked confused.

My first meeting with Chris was at the British Library cafe, or the echoing lobby area where you literally have to pounce like a vulture on a free table. I had no notes from the session. Chris wrote loads. What was I doing? Where was I going with it? What did I want to do? By the end of the two hours Chris pinned me down on one thing: “One of the conversations we need to have is around ‘Everything you hate about dance'”. I had no idea that I’d said that. I guess I was talking about the contemporary dance cliches, but the reference stuck. We now have a number of shorthand references like this.

In a second meeting Chris tried a technique that Lou Cope spoke about: he reeled off a list of words asking me to chose between two similar but different options. “Green or Grey?” he asked, “Grey” I answered. These are our oblique questions. We’re talking about the piece without talking about the piece. The result is a list of words that actually feel very connected to the work: close, lines, restless, shoulder, fact, held, grey, violin, made. There are also a number of words that don’t have anything to do with it, like “toast” and “lemon”.

By this point we were lucky enough to be able to shift our conversation into a studio. On our first day in a studio space, Chris came prepared with stuff: an elasticated string, paper, postcards, objects, wool. It’s kind of a relief, I thought, when someone else has thought about things. We stuck a long piece of blank paper up on the wall of the studio, sharpie at the ready. It’s our key questions board. This has been religiously rolled up and re-posted for each rehearsal. Even now, at the end of the project, it’s remained mostly empty, but then there’s a lot more to come I guess…

I’m making a piece about control and freedom that involves a dancer pulling a string that’s attached to a record player, playing an old relaxation record that’s telling her to relax. So our first question was: What else might it be? We had no sound to work with, which was a good thing. We tied the elasticated string to the ballet barre in the studio and began improvising movement informed by the string. At some point in our earlier discussions we had thought of using a dog leash to replicate the gadget my collaborator had built for me last year, a kind of retractable string. But it just didn’t give me any impetus. Apart from this, Channel 4 had just aired a documentary about adults who dress up as dogs. “Is this about control and freedom, or is it just a piece about dogs?”, Chris asked. Of course he wasn’t just talking about the dog-people, he was talking about seeing what we’re actually doing, rather than what we think we’re doing. We discarded the dog leash, but now Amazon thinks I own one…

We attached one line, then two lines to the Ballet Barre. We worked on facings, different uses of the line/s. My problem is that I often get a bit stuck in my head. I worry about creating movement just for its sake. I need a reason to move. I tried “just moving”. My “Suspending Judgement” sign was hung up on the door handle. To take my mind away from my movement Chris tries to get me to relate a story. He begins and then he says he doesn’t know what happens next, which is my cue to pick up and continue until I decide to hand the story back to him and so on. “He keeps hi-jacking the story!” I think. I bet he thinks my story telling is just as crap. The good news is that I’m so hung up on how terrible this story is that I have absolutely no idea how I’m moving. This is good, because it gives my body time to warm up to the string, to absorb something from it unconsciously.

We then try to give the movement a little more shape. Chris throws out random lines from a collection of poetry. “It never let up until morning”, “I melt for the first time”, ‘A formal line through beach and open ground..” I answer each line through movement, allowing myself to get stuck, to repeat, to try to embody something from that line. It’s not a literal translation (it can never be in movement). At one point I shake my head “everything I hate about dance” I say, referring to something I was doing. Chris gently encourages me to keep going. Just beyond that block something else happens. In our discussion afterwards Chris wonders if my fear of falling into cliche is stopping me from moving, and maybe if I suspend judgement and allow the cliche to happen, maybe just beyond that, there’s the gold.

What I’ve realised about working with Chris in the space is that it’s like having a clearer headed (and kinder) version of me on the outside. Chris is absolutely there with me through each improvisation. He knows what I’m after and luckily has none of my baggage to colour what he sees. So when he says there was something there, I know what he means. My experience is an embodied one, his is a visual one, but we’re still talking the same language.

Our second session in the studio. Chris hangs some postcards up on the wall. I pick three images to work with. Again we use one string attached to the barre. In the next improvisation I work through the images. Again, I’m creating an embodiment rather than mimicking. I feel the license to use the images however I feel. What comes out of this improvisation is the following realisation: “When you create movement with purpose, it has meaning.” (Chris’ words).

Our third studio session is with another dancer Joel. Two strings, two movers, multiple relationships start to unfold. Joel’s physicality is totally different to mine, but his playfulness and attentiveness to the string is exactly why I want to work with him. In a later discussion with Chris we talk about how to work with this difference without flattening it out. I don’t want Joel to move like me. Somehow I feel that if we both attend to the task, the physicality for this work will come out of that.

Our last studio session is with the sound artist Tom. All these sessions have been a preparation for our actual project which starts in August. We talk about the technical aspect of the work and put together some ideas for the string which Tom now needs to find a way to incorporate into the build. Then we start working with sound and movement in the same space. We don’t have any interactive stuff yet, so Tom just improvises via his laptop whilst I attempt to use his sound as a score for my improvisation. This time my movement just isn’t as fluid. It’s been three weeks since the last session, during which time I’ve been to San Francisco for Anna Halprin’s workshop, returned to a Brexit vote and sleep walked through a week of teaching on jet lag. But Chris is supportive and stops me hitting the self destruct button. At the end of the session we walk to Gordon Square to talk about collaboration and brainstorm some ideas about how to structure the process.

At some point in that last rehearsal Chris had brought up a question he had asked me to keep thinking about whilst I was away in California: “What moves you?” I hated the question. When Chris asked me to have this at the back of my mind during my last improv with Tom I dismissed it almost immediately. It doesn’t really fit. I almost wanted to cross it off our “key questions” board. Well I’m not in the business of making sentimental crap, I thought. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I was in Malta for a fleeting visit home to celebrate my parents 40th wedding anniversary, that the answer hit me. My mother stands up half way through the meal and gives an unexpected, unprepared little speech, the kind that’s so heartfelt and messy round the edges that its rawness is palpable. She has us all in floods of tears. And then I realise that what moves me isn’t something dressed up to be dramatic. It’s something that’s just so real it hits you in the gut. And this realisation is such a relief, because it means I can make something that might move people and all I have to do is be absolutely real.

I’d like to thank Lou Cope for inspiring us to work like this and for creating the ground work for our discussions to grow from, South East Dance for hosting the Doing Dramaturgy workshop and The Place Artist Development for giving us access to a studio space during this time.

A week with Anna Halprin- Arriving

Gate 1.  As you enter and pass through the gate leaving the driveway and leading to the studio, become aware of descending, of a procession and a change of atmosphere.

It’s Monday 20th June. After 5 hours in airports and 11 hours in the air, I arrived in San Francisco last night. The word ‘gate’ is a loaded one. I think about the gates I passed through to get here: tube gates, departure gates, arrival gates, the invisible policed gate that is border control, the Golden Gate Bridge and now this one. You cannot travel to the US without becoming excruciatingly aware of the politics of gates. Gates as a means of control, St Peter standing at the gate, “do you have your papers?”, “how much money are you carrying on you?”, “do you have proof of a return flight Ma’am?” I thought I’d negotiated my way through passport control quite neatly, but then another officer caught sight of my Maltese passport and sent me over to import control to have my bag scanned in case I was carrying any nasties. Lest you forget, let us make it absolutely clear that you are not welcome to over-stay your stay…oh and welcome to the US.

Anna’s historic Mountain home studio is nestled into a forest of redwood oak trees on the west slope of Mount Tamalpias in California’s Marin County. A long staircase takes you down from the driveway to the lounge area. A sign at the side of the entrance invites you to consciously attend to your descent: “walk slowly, pause periodically, look, listen, breathe, smell, touch.” It’s immediately clear that the users of this space revere the environment as much as they do the history of the studio. When Anna moved here with her architect husband, Larry Halprin, he knew that she needed a space to continue to develop her movement work. Together with Arch Lauterer (Martha Graham’s lighting designer), Larry designed the outdoor studio which was built in 1948 and later the indoor studio in 1950.

Anna and Larry’s work sought to redefine social structures in art and life. Their home studio became a seed bed for postmodern thinking in the 1960’s, attracting artists from all over the US to the West coast. This is how I had placed Anna’s work. Historically she is one of the founding artists of post-modern dance, a title she naturally refutes, along with the idea of choreography altogether. “We’re all choreographers” she says.

By 10am a group of around 30 of us have assembled in the lounge area, a hut space with kitchen and bathroom set on a lower level to the studio. Tomoko, one of Anna’s assistants, leads us up to the studio through a dance. Barefooted we’re invited to hold hands in a long line. We enter the space like a procession, ascending the stairs to the outdoor deck. In the far corner a frail Anna sits in a wheel chair. A minor injury means she’s a little less mobile, but she’s OK, they assure us. As we file passed Anna she asks each of us for our name and where we come from, and “please speak up ’cause I’m a little deaf”.

A leaflet they gave us on arrival spells out the significance of this space. It’s history is not lost on those of us present. A sense of reverence for the environment, for the people who have been a part of it and have literally sweated into the deck, takes over each one of us. As Anna explains:

This place has a long and fascinating history. It is here that the Dancer’s Workshop did its early experimental work..Artists who are now well known started here; dancers like Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, A.A. Leath, John Graham, Norma Leistiko, Shirley Ririe…; Musicians like Terry Riley, LaMonte Young; Ruth Beckford who led one of the first all black dance companies, Merce Cunnigham, Min Tanaka… all performed on this deck… And of even greater importance are all the many talented and wonderful students and teachers who have shared so many creative dances and laughed and cried together here.I believe there is a field of energy that keeps growing, bringing the past into the present, and giving this space its particular beauty and sacredness. I hope you will enjoy being here and that you will be able to experience the power others have invested into the Mountain Home Studio as an addition to your own creativity – Anna Halprin.

Anna’s words spin in my jet lagged head. I have no idea what time zone I’m in. I find the outdoors overpowering and cannot feel my body. Worst of all my feet are so dirty it looks like it will take a month of hardcore scrubbing to get them clean again. But in the back of my head I hear Chris telling to me to just go with the daze, to surrender to the unfamiliarity of it and who cares that you haven’t had a warm up.

As Anna says, life and art are never separate, and here I am on this creative journey negotiating with an unfamiliar space whilst a part of me frets about whether they’ll let me back in when I fly home. The Entry Score provides a welcome direction for my unsettled brain. The rules are clear, inviting engagement, framed/ held together by years of other entrances down those stairs. All gates have entry scores, I think… and then I wonder what airport gates might be like if people were invited to walk slowly, pause periodically, look, listen, breathe, smell, touch….

My trip to Anna Halprin’s Summer Workshop 2016 has been made possible thanks to the support of the Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund. 

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This little patch of grass…

I think it must have been some time in 2007 or 2008, during ID’s crossing borders series of talks, that I heard this story from Heather Ackroyd. She had been going through a difficult time and withdrew into a comforting process that she had often turned to in her artistic work: planting patches of grass. The story is that at the same time an artist named Dan Harvey had begun making work using grass and was told by an associate that there was this artist, Heather, who was copying his work! The duo became Ackroyd and Harvey, sharing both a personal and artistic partnership and creating work using grass, such as their chlorophyll images ‘Mother and Child’.

Today I was supposed to complete and publish a post about the importance of glut balance for lower back health. But on the last day of work for this term, I felt the need for something more reflective.

A number of conversations that I’ve had in the last 3 months have prompted me to think about the idea of control. I think it’s easy to feel that we can have no control over events in our lives, in our relationships, in our profession, in our country, in the world. So much so that we resign ourselves to just taking what ever is tossed in our direction. Rather than being pro-active, we get stuck in re-activeness. Re-activeness is pretty safe. There will always be something to complain about, and as long as it’s someone else’s fault, at least our abilities, drive and focus are never brought into question. But if the ball is always stuck on someone else’s side of the court, then how will you ever serve an Ace?

In January I was scheduled to meet with a programmer who runs one of the major production venues in the UK. The meeting had been planned from two months before, so I was well aware of the need to be prepared to get the most out of the event. Naturally I was after some kind of commitment towards my next project. (It’s an irony that as artists we’ve clearly put the need to make money secondary to our drive to create, and yet we always seem to be asking for money…) I don’t know if I really achieved my aim. Asking someone to support you is very much like leaving things up to them, again placing the likelihood of my next project in their hands. But what I did receive was some extremely insightful advice. He said that opportunities are great and always worth applying for if they suit your needs. But you cannot build a sustainable practice on the back of opportunities alone.

We all know that selection processes are highly competitive. We moan about how closed or un-transparent these processes seem. How is it that some artists are always supported by certain institutions? The truth is that success is often down to an underlying relationship that has already been established and this is a good thing! In the past I’ve submitted tonnes of applications (I still do), carefully scrutinising the guidelines. I felt as though I was always answering everyone else’s questions and then getting genuinely upset when applications fell through (which I also still do). When I look back at the perfectly planned schedule that I set myself on leaving college back in 2003, I realise, now, how flawed it was. Almost every goal I had set myself relied on my success in open auditions and application calls. Each one placed the ball squarely on the other side of the fence, I was at the mercy of the elements, totally disempowered. No wonder I was so disgruntled!

I’m writing from the perspective of a dance artist, but it applies to a much wider community. I think we can become so desperate to prove ourselves, to gain validation and recognition or to find security through regular income, that we hurl ourselves all over the place, never stopping to think: what are my questions? Who do I want to work with? Where do I want my work to go? I think we could all do with tending to our own little patch of grass, sowing the seeds, watering, pulling out the weeds and watching it grow.

I’m writing this on the back of many fresh disappointments, and one surprising achievement in the last few weeks. It’s a frustrating business building a project from scratch. But as I retreat away from it all to rest, my aim is to re-focus the compass inwards on this little patch of grass that’s under my feet.

Why do we all follow Liz Lerman?

In September 2015 I was lucky enough to show my latest work in progress at The Place’s Touch Wood season. This platform follows the bi-annual research period, Choreodrome, hosted by The Place. I was terrified because not only was it my work in the frame, but for the first time in 7 years I also had to perform it! Each Touch Wood night four companies presented their new ideas, fresh from the studio. Afterwards the audience was divided into 4 groups and each group was joined by one of the artists whose work had just been performed.  Over the following 20 minutes the groups were (very skilfully) led through a feedback session, providing their input into that particular choreographer’s work that evening, following Liz Lerman’s critical response template.

The Liz Lerman structure is aimed at providing artists with the feedback that is helpful to them, and protecting them from the less helpful input. It has an artist led focus. The artist can ask for feedback on specific questions, audience members could then ask their own questions before the floor is opened to ‘opinions’. In offering an opinion, audience members had to first ask if the artist wanted to hear an opinion they had on a specific aspect. The artist could decline or accept before the opinion was offered. This is a well-known structure that I have followed a number of times. I was grateful for the structure on that particular occasion because I was feeling extremely nervous and insecure about my own performance. However I also sensed that I wasn’t fully getting to the crux of what was not working. Something was sticking and I wasn’t quite getting the reaction that I wanted.

After this I went to every single Touch Wood night and participated in feedback sessions for each one. The really intriguing thing was that I noticed that not only was the experience painful for me as a receiver, it was also quite strained as a feedback-er. You simply cannot say what you think! Sitting on the other side of the fence I was painfully aware of my enforced restraint. Sometimes this turned into sheer panic at the thought of having to say something when all I had to say was an opinion. I started to wonder whether all this protection wasn’t in fact a little too sheltered. Are we actually extracting constructive feedback, or are we hiding away, too scared of knowing the truth?

Surely the real question to ask is: what do I want for my work and for the profession in general? Do I want to keep myself safe, to hide behind a protective framework for fear of being found out, for fear that someone will realise that I do not have all the answers and that most of the time I have no idea where I’m actually going? Or do I want to use the lens of people’s external viewpoint to help me to make the best possible work I can make?

In Ed Catmull’s ‘Creativity Inc’ he talks about the importance of ‘candour’ and how this is a valued and necessary part of the creative development at Pixar Animation Studios. Catmull states:

The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions and criticisms. Lack of candour, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments. – Ed Catmull, ‘Creativity Inc’ 2014.

Now to be clear, what I’m not saying is that the critical response should be thrown out with the proverbial bath water. I’m certainly not qualified enough to say so and there are contexts where this system is a very useful tool. But I wonder if we may be taking it a little too far.

When we invite feedback, we’re aiming to use other people’s external viewpoints to help us to see what we cannot see.  We have to be open to hearing what we might not want or like to hear. It’s always tough. But without access to candid feedback we cannot learn from each other and progress as a profession. We may well all be walking around in circles wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes. Waiting for the critics to shout ‘he’s naked’ is just a wasted opportunity to make something amazing. Rather than adopting a framework because it exists, we need to be mindful of what it is and what it is not achieving. We need to have open discussions with people we trust to speak their minds and with the knowledge that their thoughts are not personal or resulting from competitiveness. What we all want is just to make the best possible work at this time. Our egos are surely secondary to this.

 

1 performance that you all should have seen in 2015

I don’t mean to get all gushy about it being the end of the year blah blah. My inbox and news feeds are crammed with “looking back”, “taking stock” followed by…. wait for it… “what’s next?”

But… sometimes punctuations like year ends are a good opportunity to raise the poignant moments out of the avalanche that is general life. This one is an important one, so I’m saying it again here because I’m worried that many people missed it. The most poignant moment of 2015 for me was a performance of “Celebration Florida” by Greg Wohead. People think that because I’m an artist, therefore I always get what artwork is about. That’s not at all the case. I’m never really sure. I think this work was something about saying goodbye, about surrogacy…about using people as a surrogate for someone else… I think. Whatever it was about, it had nothing at all to do with Celebration Florida. Maybe it wasn’t so much its aboutness that gripped me. It was its honesty, it’s realness. Two performers stand in for the artist himself. They’re instructed via headphones to perform the piece he created. They are surrogates for him in a piece about loneliness and saying goodbye (sorry if I got that wrong), but by the end they are real surrogates for us, the audience. Audience members walk up to them to give them a hug, they hug them like they were hugging someone they lost, someone they may never see again.

The work had such a deep impact on me it caused a surge of feelings that changed my life a little. That night did actually become a good bye for me. It crossed into reality in a way that could not have been more elegantly crafted.

I’m never sure who, if anyone, reads my blogs. Some of you know me as a Pilates teacher, some as a colleague, some as an artist or friend. There’s a reason I combine both my teaching and artistic work and that’s because my motivation as a teacher is just as much fed by my artistic endeavours as my artistic work is fed by my teaching. (Though, perhaps the latter is more literal.) And, something I’d really like for 2016 is to encourage more of the people I teach to see some of the amazing work that I get to see. Who knows, it might just change you.