This short study was created during the Covid-19 lockdown. Reflecting on my own isolation and need to reach out and touch the world, I created this duet with a Mirror, building on my research with Mirror in 2017. I was initially drawn to the way the mirror created an external ‘partner’, with the crop of my arm seeming both connected and disconnected from my body. In the final section I play with the perspective and framing of the camera, which mirrored that of the mirror itself creating a double dialogue and commentary on the ways we are contained and ‘enframed’ by our real and virtual spaces.
– John Cage, Composition in Retrospect, 1993
Today is the 26th October 2020. This date might be different to the date that this post is published, and that is because I want to be deliberate and considered in what I write here. Today is the start of something, something as of yet unknown, and I am writing this so as to capture it, as though to take a verbal photograph that I can pin to this time and space. The description below consciously aims to describe my experience within the work. At Crisp’s request, I have not shared any direct instructions. My aim is to find a way to describe the work that is not reductive, to get across the feel of the work without stating it in absolute terms.
The ‘something’ began with a chance web-search, looking for a workshop, which then led to an email, which in turn led to a zoom call at 9am this morning with Rosalind Crisp on the other end, sitting on the other side of the world and at the other end of a Monday.
We spoke about the aim, the purpose of the session. My difficulty is that I have a problem with just moving, I said. Just moving is so coloured by unconsciously/consciously ingrained patterns. It feels bland. And this leads me to not moving. What is it that I do when I am not moving? Well, I choreograph through frames. I set up a mirror or a camera and I craft material through my interaction with that frame. Rosalind suggests: ‘the frame is a decoy that engages your attention, but it doesn’t address the moving’. Moving, then, is the purpose.
We unpick what is means to just move. Rosalind suggests another definition for just moving as ‘moving without a purpose’. This is where we start: purposeless moving for 2 minutes. And already, just doing this, gives it a frame, a kind of permission, paradoxically it feels purposeful. We begin to layer frames. The point is not that moving without a purpose is a problem, the point is to find strategies to work with it.
We settle on two ideas. I work alone for 3 minutes. I am aware of my working through the task. I notice my tendency to focus on a body part, with my eyes, whilst moving it, and realise this is not necessary. The eyes are just another limb, they can respond but need not constantly point at the moving part. And I struggle with the whole body moving. What does it mean to have the whole body moving? Is it even possible? Surely even if I send movement out into my whole body, that movement has been initiated at one point? At what point is it just whole body? And whilst I am working through this question I am almost unaware of how expansive and liberated my movement becomes in those moments.
Rosalind demonstrates another tool. When it’s my turn I instantly struggle. What become clear are the habitual co-ordinations. I am now locked in a battle of disrupting/ interrupting the ‘flow’ of those deeply ingrained patterns. I have to almost mechanically break myself down. Constantly stop myself. Every time I get it wrong I grimace, shake my head and try it again. It feels as though I am un-learning.
By holding onto a purpose, I maintain my interest. It’s as much about developing the ability to attend to the whole body as it is about the dance. At some point the task transitions into art. Right now it’s just an exercise.
I work again. I notice my desire to start shaping. We discuss this. What is my aim? Is the aim to show just one thing, to craft the movement, or is to remain in the expansiveness of the process? To craft the process?
We go back and forth between scores. I am aware of the comedy of those moments when I lose control and I find this curious since I would not consider myself funny… Can any body create humour? Rosalind notes how I stay with things. Yes I do. I don’t let them go, I respond. Partly because I do not know them well enough to register that they are there, and partly because I enjoy them and want to know them. Can I let things go? Can I stay ‘in the transition’.
After discussing a few logistics, we agree to meet next week.
I spend another hour continuing to work alone. At first I time myself. 2 minutes. 3 minutes. But my phone isn’t really working properly and the timer doesn’t signal the end of the time! I stop caring and find that I am just dancing, purposefully.
I sat down to write this out and remembered Cage’s quote ‘purposeful purposelessness.’ I kept reading and came across another line that seems strangely relevant:
‘Boredom Plus Attention = Becoming Interested’
– John Cage, Composition in Retrospect, 1993
Images taken with autophoto app documenting self practice 26/10/2020. Score: Just one thing.
“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
At the start of this scholastic year, when things seemed so certain, dates were fixed and real life plans were made and normally kept, I started a Practice as Research PhD. I began thinking, aiming, intending to unpack the solo form. I cannot really say that working solo was an absolute choice. It was more a situation that I found myself in, and when I tried it out, I found it sometimes fitted and sometimes did not. And so I began to think…
On the occasions when it worked, I was working with some kind of technology, by which I mean, a physical device of some sorts. It could have been a projector in the space, a mirror, a physical frame. Inanimate (although I’m sure that in later writing I will tear that assumption apart) but yet dialogic partners.
On the occasions when it did not work I was on my own in a (usually cold) space, rolling around on the floor, writing increasingly frustrated notes in my diary, like this one on the 14th March 2019: ‘Why am I doing something that I’m just finding really hard? Why do this?’ Or this one on the 25th April 2019: ‘I can’t just improvise!!!!!!’.
I was a maker, a choreographer even. I felt that I had to choreograph in some way, whatever that meant. And there I was, on my own, completely stuck. But I knew I had to ‘do this’, because as an artist for 17 years, I was on the brink of being annihilated. I had shifted so far to the edge of this thing we all call ‘the dance world’ that a gentle sneeze would have shoved me off. I was there, in a freezing cold studio, because I had to be, because being there was the only stake I had left in my claim to being an artist.
If the first two realisations were the basis for my PhD enquiry, then this last one was the motivation for pursuing it. And starting has been like a sigh of relief. Reading, thinking, writing in long hand, un-editing, listening in to this space around the solo and around my work with the solo. I was tired of fitting in to 200 word sections of applications. I now have 50,000 to write and I am going to enjoy every one of them! (Note to self to re-read this post in 4 years time).
I’m using this blog to document, track and share my practice research as it develops, in the hope that, by making this seemingly indulgent enquiry public, I might be prompted to think beyond the scope of my singular work.
You have my reasons for starting a PhD, but you might still wonder what the point of it is. In all honesty, I do not know, but I have a hunch, or a number of hunches: It is about the empowerment of the artist /self, about the problems with choreographic models (the assumptions within and the structures of support that enable them) and about recognising the layers of technology (both visible and invisible) that frame and enframe (to use Heidegger’s term), our practice, so as to reveal the wizard behind the screen.
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.
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:
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?
Last night I watched / played / participated in what is undoubtedly the best immersive theatre work I have ever come across: The Justice Syndicate at Battersea Arts Centre. In brief, 12 audience members sit around a table as ‘jurors’ and proceed to review evidence in a case, discuss their thoughts and then go on to cast their vote of “Guilty” or “Not-Guilty”. Apart from highlighting the flaws in the judicial system (or are they flaws?) the work brings to the fore the nature of decision making itself, and especially the dynamics of decision making within a group of people. At the end of the performance the neurologist, who advised the company in the making of the work, talked through the particular patterns of decision making that have been observed in this work. A key point was the interplay between intuition and reason in the making of decisions.
Dr Kris De Meyer explained that intuition is like an elephant and reason is a small rider sitting on the elephant’s back. What most people would like to think is that their decisions are governed by reason, who tells the elephant where to go. But in fact this is seldom the case. For most of us the elephant is calling the shots, with the little rider on top making up stories for why the elephant is moving in one direction or another. To take the reins back into reason’s hands involves an active engagement with a different perspective, causing moments of dissonance. It is interesting to note that neither reason, nor intuition are necessarily right or wrong. Ignoring intuition can be just as harmful to us as ignoring reason. De Meyer pointed out the significance of this in the current political climate, where an in / out vote on the EU, led to entrenchment on both camps and a thoroughly divided UK.
Our ability to disrupt our patterns of choice, to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing, of accepting our own fallibility, our inclinations towards manipulation and coherency. To really see ourselves. These are all aims of the solo practice I am developing, using the process of disruption as an awareness generating tool. The aim is not to hang in perpetual uncertainty, but to understand why we make the choices we make, not just as artists but as individuals.
Over the last couple of months I have committed myself to a weekly solo practice session. I spend three hours per week alone in the small studio at Chisenhale Dance Space. As you walk into the reception a sign-in sheet asks you to tick off why you’re using the space: Rehearsal, Workshop, Performance etc. Somehow I find it hard to tick the ‘rehearsal’ box, because I don’t feel as though I’m rehearsing. The word ‘rehearsal’ suggests something known, linear, attainable. But when I walk into the space I never feel that I “know”. Instead I feel immersed into a constant inner dialogue of self-doubt, frustration, boredom. When you’re on your own in a space you are confronted with yourself on every dimension. What I’ve learnt to do is settle into the process, accept the chatter and self-doubt and be present to the space. I carry words into the space with me, because words have a comforting clarity when all else you have is form and motion. This week I was buoyed by a line from John Cage:
Not working = Knowing
Working = Not Knowing”
– John Cage
‘Hands’ is a short dance film that can also be performed live with real-time projection. The work explores dialogue and form through hand gestures that reach, curve, invite and retreat. Hands is a soliloquy about loneliness and longing, drawn out through a dialogue between the artist’s right and left hands.
Today is the final day of my residency at Dance City in Newcastle. Well, technically it’s “tomorrow” because I’m cheating and writing this a day earlier to save time for the looming deadline of Friday’s “sharing”. In Hink’s Five Facets model of creative processes, Assaying is followed by Articulating. ‘Articulating’ is the stage where the work becomes known, established, defined. But it simply doesn’t feel right to suggest that this is where I’m at. It feels impossible to know what a work is until it’s been “seen”. Which is why I’m skipping to Outwarding and placing Articulating aside for the final evaluation.
I normally find sharings more terrifying than performances. The work is always messy and unfinished and there really is no hiding behind stage lighting. The bare bones are revealed for… dare I say it… judgement..? And it’s all of you out there that people are watching, in-between lunch and a cup of tea.
This is where I’ve found Hink’s description of Outwarding most useful. He frames it as a part of the process, a chance to see “if the work lives beyond me and brings liveness to others”. The idea of empowering artists to gain and manage useful feedback in a way that supports their process, is well-known in the dance world, thanks to the excellent work of Liz Lerman and her Critical Response Process. But Hink’s poses questions that highlight the process of Outwarding itself:
Is it important to you that your work is seen?
If so, do you have a more precise sense of what it might be like for it to be seen more? What might come from that for you?
And do you have a sense about who you would like to see your work?
If so, how can I introduce this work to its right audience? How can I help it find its lovers?”
Whilst sitting in another artist’s sharing yesterday, I realised the importance of this last question. A member of the marketing team, sitting in on the sharing, offered her description of the work that we had just seen. Not in a judgemental way, but as a means of explaining the importance of clearly articulating the work so that it found its right audience. I had never considered this before. I just thought, and still do to some extent, that good work is just good work. But of course it’s pretty hard to know whether something is actually good or not. All we can know is that we’ve put something out there. In Seth Godin’s words:
Here, I made this. I hope it changes you.”
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 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!
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?
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.
“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