As well as watching rehearsals last week, I was able to conduct a series of
In interviewing them, and in observing the rehearsals over the last month, I have been struck by the degree of cross over between personal and professional identity. Whilst the performance is not a confessional monologue, or a sentimental mining of personal histories, many of the performers, Jonathan, and others who have visited the rehearsals, such as Robert Cohan, have observed, what you are seeing are these people. At once ordinary and extraordinary, they are ‘old’, as are a sizeable chunk of the wider population. As I sit feeling the creak in my
He’s recently shown me a beautiful picture of himself dancing with the Royal Ballet as Puck, but as Brian strides across the room now, all graceful arms and purpose, it is to him that my eye is drawn, and not to some wistful image of a younger Other behind or beside him. Apart from the technique that the dancers are still so wonderfully capable of, Matteo and Jonathan have also drawn out something of dancing as a sense of self, which is as oddly mundane as it is extraordinary. Technique or virtuosity aside, it is the extent to which even the quotidian remains coloured by being a dancer that is striking. Lissie spoke interestingly about this, describing how she approaches crowded areas like station concourses as dancer – a choreographed space of other bodies to move amongst. She reminded me of the geographer David Seamon’s description of the ‘place ballets’ engaged in such environments, and although we may not have the personal or professional histories of the dancers in the Elders Project, what their performance underlines is the extent to movement shapes and informs our everyday sense of self.
Given the extent of the collective and individual experience at play in this project, it perhaps comes as scant surprise that I’m led to note the significance of the ‘presence’ of these performers. This is a a slippery term relative to performance, but I like it. At the very least, it’s a useful shorthand for describing the energetic relationship you feel with performers, and for the sense of that special,
Watching Betsy sinking low and sweeping her arms up in a graceful
The psychologist Daniel Stern identifies what he calls ‘vitality affects’ as a means of trying to describe the force, speed, flow and temporality of shared or intersubjective feelings. Thus, although I don’t feel myself making an ‘inner’ sweep of my arms as a sort of mirroring of Betsy’s, in feeling it, I experience force, speeds and flow along the temporal line or contour in correspondence with that that her movements carry through space. What makes the movement achieve its presence I think, is the attention to the detail of line, forces, flow and so on that she brings, and that I feel, tangibly, in myself.
There’s a lot of laughter in these rehearsals. Laughter at mistakes, at moments of recognition, or failed memory. There is laughter at dancing that is funny, because its cliched, wrong, or just soooo right for that particular moment. And there is laughter at notes, at gossip, at anecdotes and indiscretions. There are even jokes. Laughter enters the room with the dancers, wraps around them as they work, and drifts off as they leave.
The laughter is working. The company are at ease in it and with it, and with leaving it alone. To be, laughing, together, is important to the work itself, even if won’t be what you see them doing on stage. Of course, rehearsing is about devising, designing, remembering and repeating movements, sequences, texts, entrances and exits, but it’s also about working on those more numinous things that keep company with them, that keep this group of people from being just who they individually are. These are the things that make and keep them a company.
Laughter works, or at least makes space for it, in the company it keeps with work itself.
Although I’ve been watching the rehearsals for a while now, it took some time for a final clearance from Queen Mary’s Ethics Committee to come through, allowing me to publish any thoughts about them. In any situation where academics observe or work with ‘human subjects’, this kind of clearance is a formal requirement. As reductive as ‘human subjects’ appears to be of those who are artists, dancers, parents, citizens and teachers, pausing to think about how and why one watches, and what its consequences are — an impulse coming from social and
I’ll sketch out three illustrations of this in a moment. However, in the spirit of ethical good practice, I also want to preface this posting by clarifying my own role as an observer further, and what this implies for the blog posts that will come from it. In an effort to be faithful to the privilege of watching the company rehearse, its is on the matter of rehearsal that I will be focusing my attentions. It’s important to me to consider what they are doing as a matter of rehearsing towards performance, an undertaking that is particular to the time and place it is happening in (the studio), rather than trying to imagine myself as a spectator, and what I am watching as if it were presented on a stage (albeit sketched out with gaffer tape and shoes). In the studio I deliberately try not to watch the dancers’ practice and discussions from a putative front, in order to try and avoid considering what they are doing as ‘performance’. What interests from these positions, in which one looks through or into the practice, rather than at it, is the extent to which the stuff of everyday life — laughter, gossip, work, family — feeds into, what is an
Having worked on sequences of movement in isolation (in the sense that they’ve been developed separately with Jonathan by each individual), the dancers have this week worked on putting these into duets, and larger group choreographies. One of the difficulties of doing this, leaving acts of memory aside for the moment, has been in negotiating around one another’s pathways through the space. At times this is fixed by a simple shift in direction, or a fractionally later start, but sometimes it’s done with a look, a deliberate opening of attention to one another that seems to say, ‘it’s at this point we meet, and it’s here and now that we’ll shift torsos, turn or skip around to let one another pass’. The very fumbling way in which I’ve just written that perhaps gives a sense of the complexity of what that look holds, not only in the expression shown by one to another, but also in the way that it must be held between them, even if only for a moment. It’s an engagement with what is about to happen that’s not altogether unlike the momentary ‘and…’ with which musicians and dancers also gather themselves just before playing or moving. In a duet, where Kenneth steps into a long, low turn across Namron’s pathway, without pausing to explain what he is doing, Kenneth raises his head slightly and looks at his partner. It’s an action that seems to gather the moment temporarily, in a brief inertia, so that Kenneth is able to step just across Namron, rather than into him. At first, this moment is repeated a couple of times and the look between them is marked and noticeable. Later, when this section is rehearsed again, I notice it only as a fleeting thing that passes over their faces. Although it’s a look that ‘says’ something (‘here I come, don’t crash into me now’), it’s more than that. It passes between them. It’s not exactly Namron’s or Kenneth’s, but a moment of attention that they share together. Throughout the rehearsals, Jonathan has noted the extraordinary ability of these dancers to work together in common purpose. This is perhaps what experience brings, a degree of freedom from how I perform, that draws one’s attention, instead to how we do.
Part of the structuring of the piece is based around that of La Folia one of the earliest European musical themes. Although it is thought to have had its origins in Iberian peninsula in the sixteenth century, variants of La Folia are found all over the continent. Melody travels and is translated, and so it is that elements of La Folia are to be found in folk songs in the Netherlands and Finland and in the compositions of Bach and Rachmaninoff . Its rhythmic sequence is being used by Jonathan and Matteo to give a common structure to different movements developed by the dancers following a common order of ABA, CDC, AB, in which A contains a count of 4, B 8, C 6 and D 2. This week, the company have worked together to learn a series of movements developed by Kenneth that used this structure. It’s complex, and the shifting count, together with the playful shifts that Kenneth has worked on saw much hilarity and looks from one to another as the dancers sought to both remember and maintain the flow and rhythm of the movement. La Folia is not only a rhythmic structure however, but also a melody, for which not only the sequence, but also the playing are important. Although the dancers do not follow the notes of La Folia itself, the sense of playing or following a melodic line, in which one note is in a kinetic relationship to those that precede and that follow remains. Moreover, if listening to a melody is to follow and feel the dynamic movement between the notes and the ebb and flow of their intensity, then the exchange of looks between the dancers appears as a kind of listening — an attention to a temporary, tangible presence. Movement, like sound, is disappearing in the instance of its occurrence. At first, with Kenneth showing the movements to the group in a mirror, this
It might seem a bit glib to comment on at first, but what these dancers bring with their age and experience, is a considerable presence. Of course its not age and experience per se, but what these in turn allow; what appears as a control of the moment one is in, a willingness to simply ‘be’ within it. This is the ephemeral stuff of performance that has scholars regularly tying themselves in knots. It’s such a temporary, impermanent thing, that resits an effort to capture it in language, but here goes. There is a rather beautiful duet between Namron and Linda in which they walk to centre stage, wait and then he lifts her (there’s more to it than that, of course, but I don’t want to give the performance away in its entirety here). As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I try to watch the rehearsals from places other than at the front. Arriving a little late to the afternoon session on Wednesday, I found the company running through this section, and not wanting to distract them, was stuck in this position. As uncomfortable as this made me feel, it did allow me to watch a simple, yet beautiful way in which Linda and Namron showed this presence. Arriving centre stage, they stand together for a moment, Namron behind Linda, and look out at us.
In Old English, the primary word for speaking maþelian also implies meeting, and in speaking together, there’s still perhaps a vestigial sense of coming to and being in a temporary community that is more than just oneself. This is what Namron and Linda’s look affords us. As simple as it is, it is astonishingly difficult, technical even, in that it takes considerable physical and personal power and control to simply stand and just be there, looking at and with others, and not trying to fill the space that forms between you with something predetermined. Their look speaks to us, meets with us, and affords us a moment or so of a shared sensibility.
This post follows our second batch of rehearsals.
It is in many ways a surreal experience juxtaposed with the feeling of familiarity. A quiet confidence exudes from within the studio walls – that of knowing ‘
Like Kenneth, I was asked to take part in this project by Jane Hackett. Having watched Pina Bausch’s elders project, which I found exciting, I believed that taking part in a similar experiment would be a huge inspiration. It is! Working with Jonathan Burrows is a joy and opened areas of dance that I had previously never had the chance to explore. The choreographer Frederick Ashton, with whom I had worked during the 1960s, encouraged improvisation but within a balletic framework. With Jonathan, any movement is acceptable and since I haven’t danced or performed for some time, this was essential for me. I hadn’t anticipated having a frozen shoulder either and this of course has restricted my movement range but it has also caused me to be more innovative.
Interestingly, my movement memory is still informed by the choreographers in whose dances I performed, chiefly, Bronislava Nijinska and Ashton. When Jonathan asked for each movement to be given equal value, it was difficult. Both Ashton and Nijinska required contrast, some movements should dominate over others. This approach is evident in my embodied style and it was challenging to move otherwise. Another inspirational moment was watching Brian perform the Cecchetti port de bras, this must surely be its most perfect rendering and a further example of embodied movement style. Our training allows us to do some things but not others, at least that is until we are aware of this. For the audience, I anticipate that watching a group of dancers from very different dance backgrounds will prove to be engaging, particularly because of Jonathan’s inspirational choreography which is both humorous and innovative.