The Ordinary You

As well as watching rehearsals last week, I was able to conduct a series of on-camera interviews with the dancers, extracts of which should begin appearing on this blog in due course. Watch this space.

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 forty-odd year old hips, I wonder what could be more ordinary than that – being or becoming old. What makes it extra-ordinary perhaps, is that in our own, and others’ perceptions, age is always being assessed to something other than itself, to youth, real or imagined. It’s something of a cliché but age is seemingly something that happens to us inspite of ourselves – ‘inside, I’m still twenty two’. Given the virtuosity and athleticism that these former twenty two year olds once possessed, this could set the stage for either nostalgia or frustration, as inner-selves demand shapes and shifts that more worldly forms can no longer quite manage. One might imagine that their professional identities are also bound up to this demanding youth. Does being a professional mean being able to stretch, leap, repeat, stretch, leap, repeat without tiring or undue injury? To an extent it seems that yes, it does, that one’s self image or feeling about oneself (at least in the case of some of the dancers I’ve interviewed) retains that agile twenty something sensibility, even if one’s body is in denial of it. What remains fascinating about watching the performance develop over these last several weeks however is the foregrounding of their bodies as they are here and now.

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.

 

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Vitality

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, extra-qualitative ‘it’ or ‘something’ that personalities and circumstances can sometimes bring about. Other people might talk about power or energy in similar ways, and I suspect that we’re talking about a similar sort of phenomenon. Bearing that in mind, one might wonder whether (as I’ve sort of inferred), older and experienced performers are apt or able to bring a presence to play as a consequence of that age and experience, and whether or not there’s a different quality to that presence itself. Does age give you a qualitative edge?

Watching Betsy sinking low and sweeping her arms up in a graceful swan-like sweep, her movement has a beautiful, almost plangent presence about it. Or is that quite right, there’s a quality to her movement that gives her presence, that draws the eye, and makes you feel that sweep, the subtle articulation of a line from the ground up that flexes through fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, shoulder blades and spine. I’ve watched her make this move repeatedly, and have been taken each time by the dynamic quality of her movement that gives it and her and the moment of its performance, a presence I can feel in myself. It’s a sense of a body hangs upon itself, and plays against gravity. Certainly, with age, and possibility of feeling that ‘I ache in the places where I used to play’ as Leonard Cohen puts it, such movements do not have the ease that they do with youth. With ease comes, if not indifference, then inattention. It is in difficulty that we return to our bodies. I’m not trying to suggest that Betsy is moving with difficulty here, far from it. However, one is aware of effort, that it takes ‘more’ to produce these movements now than in younger years, and that that effort is here an aesthetic quality. There’s no sense in which Jonathan and Matteo are trying to push the performers’ bodies into places they no longer can or wish to go. Rather, the choreography and Jonathan’s process of directing it seems to be more about opening up spaces in which the performers can play through and with this sense of effort. There’s a vitality in the way that Betsy presses the weight of her torso down over her flexed knees, and draws her arms upwards that isn’t the explosive or expansive stretch one associates with dance as its ordinarily practiced (i.e. by those under 35), but is a way of putting a presence there. The movement is so inhabited by, and so belongs to her that it’s hard to imagine someone else making it in quite the same way. It is not hung upon the technically trained, almost abstracted body in the same way that one often hears of choreographers putting their work on their dancers. That said, it occurs to me not only that we might often tend to assume a loss of vitality with age, but also of how short the English language falls in terms that might otherwise describe that.

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.

 

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Company

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.

 

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Human Subjects

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 bio-medical science in the case of universities — can’t be altogether a bad thing. Watching, and looking are not innocent or neutral things. Looking changes things, for which dance is perhaps a case in point.

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 extra-ordinary undertaking for those involved.

  • Look One — between ourselves

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.

  • Look Two — looking and listening

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 looking-as-listening was obvious in both the concentration on the dancers’ faces, and the glances that they made towards him or towards the others, in trying to follow the flow of one movement into the next. As the rehearsals have developed, the glances and concentrated faces have dissipated, but the dynamic quality of attention is still there. Where before, I was conscious of individual dancers’ attentions to their own movement, what appears now is their sensitivity to the way in which their individual dynamics are caught up in a larger whole.

  • Look Three — a look that speaks

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.

 

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A post from Anne

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 ‘our-selves’. With this experiential knowledge and as the rehearsals progress, we find ourselves delving into different physical dialogues (some by choice, others from physical necessity!) investigating/ testing our familiar boundaries. This is nuanced with instructional interjections from Jonathan and Matteo that seemingly intersperse the unfamiliar territory to explore…

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A post from Geraldine

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.

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The Memory of Movement

Why keep a record of rehearsals, when ultimately it is the performance that matters?

Why make public that which is often necessarily kept behind closed doors?

These (and probably many others) are questions that any account of a creative process must address in some way — and perhaps especially one that puts itself in the public domain using social media.

So, by way of introduction, let me say who I am, what I am doing here, and, what I hope that this blog may be able to do through my participation in it. I am a Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary University of London. I’m neither a dancer, nor in some respects a dance scholar, although dance has often been a major part of my research. I’ll say a bit more about that slightly evasive set of qualifications shortly, suffice to say for now, that my role might be thought of as that of the interested stranger, a curious other who sits to one side, observing, noting, thinking but not intervening. Although much of what I write will inevitably involve an effort to transcribe the detail of what happens, and to try and illuminate the details with my own thoughts and reflections, these will inevitably be partial. I don’t pretend to be about to report on the whole thing. In fact, it’s really only certain details that will follow – those that stand out, those that are curious, anomalous, or revealing – and that, despite their partial nature, might help to give a wider sense of what is going on. Similarly, I’m not going to pretend to be impartial. What you read is inevitably refracted through my own experiences, both in the rehearsals I watch, and those I bring to them.

In writing and thinking about dance, I’m less concerned with the ways in which we might think of it as especially different from other art forms (although in its technique, and some of its modes of expression it may well be). Rather, I am watching it and thinking about it as a theatrical form (live, public, staged) that is meaningful because of what it does, says, shows and affords through movement.

This piece, Jonathan suggested several weeks ago, concerns the memory of movement. It is in part a memory of technique, of steps, sequences, patterns and rhythms that are personal to each of the dancers, but it is also shared amongst them as repertoires, trainings, teachings, and predilections intersect. Part of what this blog, and the videos, photos, and interviews that will contribute to it will be trying to do, is to point out and illuminate these individual and intersecting memories. It will also attend to the memory of movement necessary to making and rehearsing the piece, and to the acts of remembering that serves (and in some respects become) the act of performance, by noting and reflecting on it as it happens.

It is already clear in the process that age serves a certain sort of remembering, evidenced by the timing, effort and awareness in movement of a collective body as much as any individual one. As a curious, not-dancing other, who sits to one side of the rehearsal room, I will be using the blog as a forum in which to try and bear witness to some of this. However, the memory of movement is also what connects dance to the rest of us. The feel of turning, sinking, sliding, spinning or coming to rest are present to all in our own feelings of moving through the world, and in the way that the world of things and others moves and moves with us. Watching dance is a memory of movement elsewhere.

 

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Why am I doing this?

Originally posted by Kenneth Tharp on The Place website on 25 June 2014 (link):

Kenneth_Tharp_LCDT

Today (25 June 2014), eight and a half years after my swan song, and after nearly seven years working behind a desk, I’m back in the studio… as a dancer. Why am I doing this?

Late last year, I had a lunchtime meeting with Jane Hackett from Sadler’s Wells, who told me about an idea they’d been cooking up at Sadler’s Wells to do a dance project involving older ex-dancers, people like me, who had been professional dancers but were now no longer dancing. I was fascinated by the idea of what that might entail, in the way that one can become fascinated by terrifying insects, and then Jane asked if I would consider being part of it. I smiled. I thought for a brief minute and then said I’d be really interested in giving it a go, if I could make it work with my busy day job at The Place.

Today is the first rehearsal. The reality of that is sinking in and I’m sitting here at my desk in-between one of many meetings, asking myself why am I doing this? Why on earth am I doing this? I think I’m still in denial. It’s been rather a long time since I’ve danced in that way. Nearly seven years in fact, with one small exception. So why put myself in that position again now?

Let me rewind a little.

In December 2005 I had my swan song as a dancer, at The Place, in a season called White Christmas, in which all the walls of the theatre had been painted white. I was dancing a short solo called The Swan, choreographed by Siobhan Davies’ to Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals, music known most famously as the accompaniment for Anna Pavlova’s The Dying Swan solo. The costume was normally white, but because of the white walls everywhere, I wore a black shirt and trousers and became a ‘black swan’.

I thought that would be my last fling on stage and then in October 2006 I found myself unexpectedly back in the studio rehearsing Aletta Collins’ Stand By Your Man for a Dance Umbrella Gala Then again in summer 2007, I was invited by choreographer Kim Brandstrup, for whom I’d danced for many years, to take a small supporting role in a short film/installation commissioned by Opera North from Kim and the Brothers Quay, to celebrate Monteverdi’s centenary. Entitled She So Beloved, the work featured Royal Ballet Principal Zenaida Yanowsky, with the music, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, sung by her husband Simon Keenlyside. We had a fabulous few days in a studio in Rotherhithe, where all the costumes for the Royal Ballet’s Tales of Beatrix Potter had been made. We had fun and it was a joy to dance with one of my favourite ballerinas. About a month later I started my role as Chief Executive of The Place.

I didn’t have time to even think about dancing for the next three years, until as part of The Place’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2010, I agreed to take part in a revival of Victoria Marks’ Dancing to Music, where I found myself on stage with Richard Alston, Eddie Nixon and second year LCDS student Dominic Mitchell-Bennett.

That was the last time I performed on stage. My only steps on to the stage these days are for public speaking, welcoming guests at fundraising events and the like.
So why am I doing this?

I am not entirely sure; it’s easier for me to articulate the reasons why I am not doing it:

• I’m not doing it for the money, or for the sound of applause and I’m certainly not doing it because I have spare time to fill!

So… I suppose I am doing it most of all because I’m curious:

• I’m curious to know whether it will feel alien or familiar to try and behave and think like a dancer after at least seven years
• I’m curious as to which will have withered more with age, my physical instrument and its possibilities, or my ability to learn and remember movement and work creatively with a choreographer
• I’m curious to see how a choreographer and composer will want to work with a group of old has-beens
• I’m curious to know whether in the years of watching, and not doing dance, my knowledge and skills have somehow magically increased
• I’m curious to see how I, along with my fellow brave explorers, will cope with this whole journey, something in me says it will be character building
• And so, I’m waiting to see over the next couple of months what that journey will be about and I appear to be regarding myself as both the scientist and the object of scientific study at the same time.
• And I’m trying to ignore the fact that at the end of this, sometime in September, it will involve stepping on to a stage in front of an audience at Sadler’s Wells

Oh well, here we go….

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp


Photo information:
Dancer: Kenneth Tharp, London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT)
Photo: Bill Cooper
Work: Three Dances for Trois Gnossiennes (1988)
Choreographer: Christopher Bannerman, LCDT

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Quotes

Quotes from Jonathan Burrows during Friday’s Elders Project rehearsal:

A friend from the theatre once gave me a note about speaking on stage: The audience will hear you, if you want them to hear you, no matter how quietly or loudly you speak. So imagine you’re on that big stage and that you want the audience to see every detail…

I pay my money to watch the dancer actively figure out the thing that they’re meant to be doing (William Forsythe) – that’s it in a nutshell.

You don’t have to show us the installation, you are the installation. (Deborah Hay)

It’s all Matteo and I seem to rehearse: it’s not what the material is, it’s the gap between this thing and the next thing. If it gets too stretched, we lose the logic, we lose the story.

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