Delving

Today was my first day of Residency at Dance City in Newcastle. Once again, I’m developing ‘Fold’, or some iteration of it.

Working solo has become a natural thing for me. As has schlepping around a whole suitcase packed with projector, laptop, computer, tripod, cameras, a lot of postcards and other miscellaneous gadgets. Whilst preparing for this residency, I recalled an idea that Andrew Morrish taught during his solo improvisation workshop: if you build your own architecture in the space, then you’re not alone. By architecture he meant both real and imagined props, prompts, ideas that hang in the space with you. Frames?

So far, ‘Fold’ has been a visual piece. Last year I worked with camera and projector to create three versions of my movement that ‘conversed’ with each other. ‘Hands’ became the most clear image of this. But today things started on a different page. Rather than working with physical ‘frames’ I started by working with words. I created audio scripts to lead me into movement, ending up with a word score.

Score is the S in RSPV, the iterative cycle that I’m working within: collecting Resources, developing Scores, performing them (to camera), evaluating them (without judgement) in order to refine the Resources and Score that feeds into the next cycle etc.

RSVP is a system that I’ve adopted to support the making process. It’s another architecture in the space, and one that I have used for the last year. But this year, wanting to explore movement again, I’ve drawn on a second architecture: Josiah Hinks’ 5 facets process. If RSVP is the meta-structure, then 5 Facets offers different kinds of resources, questions. It’s a supportive, soft structure that feels more pertinent to the creation of movement material.

It begins with Delving.

In Delving the situation is already given and allowed, we enter and play there. We are like a child exploring within givens it would never stop to think about. This is the space, this is the size of the paper, these are the colours we have, this is the body I have and this is the situation I am in. – Josiah Hinks

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?