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Parallel Universes

May 28, 2012

I am at the end of a big two weeks. 

DUENDE has been creating a delivering an educational/performance project with 85 First Year University Students – performers and technicians. I was working with two of my Associate Directors (Eva Tsourou and Eilon Morris) two of DUENDE’s Associated Artists (Stacey Johnstone and Hannah Dalby) and a small team of people who are not part of DUENDE but most of whom have connected with our core training (Tray Wilson, Chris Keech, Sameena Hussain, Katherine Brown).

We asked a lot of the students. In only 12 days we created four 25 minute productions (each performance student was in one of the four, each technical student had to support at least two). We curated 13 pieces of performance-installation. Each student was responsible, in small groups, of conceiving, designing, building, rehearsing and performing a piece of work that inhabited some unexpected corner or corridor of the nineteenth century building we were housed in. On top of this each student had to develop and perform a ‘roaming’ character, capable of interacting with audience. In only 12 days they achieved all this to a really excellent standard. Then we performed. The students (in quite unusual heat as summer seems to have unexpectedly settled on Yorkshire), performed from 5.40pm – 10.00pm, without a break, two nights running. They performed their installations, moved to the studios to perform shows, wandered round the building in character, returned to their installations, performed their shows again…. No coffee breaks, cigarette breaks, feeling-sorry-for-yourself breaks….

As I say, we asked a lot of the participants and they delivered. There were few arguments, little competitiveness, and an overwhelming sense of open-hearted, generous, passionate supportiveness.

But the day of the first performance – Friday – I had to leave Huddersfield at midday and drive to rural Yorkshire to deliver a performance followed by a residential training workshops.  It was a lovely small group – a mixture of recent performance graduate and belly-dancers – and the work, both in the studio and in the gardens under this magnificent sunshine, was sensitive, reflective, joyous. The clash of commitments was unfortunate (I was booked for the workshop before DUENDE was asked to deliver the education project and I seldom back out of commitments). However the clash was also revealing to me.

I was aware, running my rural workshop, of DUENDE’s huge, urban educational project unfolding simultaneously to my performing in a beautiful and silent barn. Listening to the wind in the trees, in the twilight, after I had performed on Friday night, I could hear, from inside me, the echoes of the work I knew was taking place in Huddersfield. Two universes.

On the Saturday night, after the first day’s teaching, I drove back to Huddersfield to drop in on the student show for an hour. They were doing magnificently and it was great to see how utterly unnecessary I was. The DUENDE team was delivering the project, the students were giving their all, the audience was having a strange and wondrous experience. DUENDE exists outside of me. As I walked round the building looking at the installations, as I sat in the theatre watching the short show I had directed (which they performed magnificently and which made me cry), I could hear, from inside me, the wind in the trees, the bleating of sheep, the distant sound of an owl. Two universes.

And yet, they are, of course, one.

Many artists have ‘portfolio’ careers – a bit of this and a bit of that which, taken together, fill the week and keep the bank balance above the critical line (sometimes). It is easy to think of the various parts of the portfolio as being disconnected. I am an artist here, but an educator here, a social worker here and an administrator here…. This two weeks helped me remember a deeper connectedness. I teach because I have an artistic practice to teach from. I direct because I have a continuing performance practice to direct from. I can organise and deliver projects with students because I can organise and deliver projects on my own. I can write – creatively and academically – because I have artistic experience and a continuing practice to serve as a filter for my thoughts. All my ‘great’ ideas – do they seem authentic when I think of them through the lens of my own practical experience? It is my practical experience that informs everything, every ‘portfolio’ job, every professional interaction.

I can work across a range of roles – from the most socially engaged to the most rarified – precisely because I dedicate attention to the details of being an artist. Everything I do (or at least this is what I aspire to), is a manifestation of my artistic practice and principles.

Though this might seem obvious, it is not widely accepted or appreciated as a necessity for artists. Often there is a suspicion that when artists want, or say they need, to spend time on ‘process’, on training, on creative research, that somehow we are avoiding our ‘important’ job, namely the delivery of ‘product’ to an audience. This is not so. We can only deliver something that has any worth if we dedicate considerable attention to ourselves as artists – just as a musician can only deliver a concert if she spends endless hours practicing her instrument. A musician does not practice for a year or two when young and then live off that practice for the rest of her career. She trains and trains and trains and trains. Every day, privately, sometimes alone, sometimes with other artists, behind closed doors, taking risks, (dare I say this?) having fun. That is the job of an artist.

Many who profess to value the arts are, nonetheless, deeply suspicious of artistic process. They tend to think the arts would be much better if artists just turned up, delivered product (or coaxed product from communities and left behind a ‘social benefit’). But the job of the artist is to pay attention to being an artist. To train at being an artist. To grow with other artists. If we do not do that, we have nothing of worth to give to our community. We are just promoting the ‘idea’ of art, without the attentional or practical skills necessary to create anything of any real value.

Each morning for the last two weeks, DUENDE and all of the participants met at 10.00 for a company meeting. It was a crucial time of the day, reminding all of us of the shared nature of the work we were doing, making sure everyone was fully involved in the developing process. However the DUENDE team met an hour earlier. At 9.00 we met in the studio to train together for 45 minutes. The student participants were not part of that hour – it was DUENDE’s time to be together, practically, as artists. This is not about hierarchy or exclusivity, it is about being able to do one’s job. We delivered with the 85 young artists at the University precisely because we had private, creative, training time together. Because we pay attention to ourselves as artists, we can deliver artistic experiences to others. And because we work with others – educationally, administratively, performatively (all the elements of a portfolio career) – we have something to process and filter when we return to the studio for our private work.

They are not different universes. They are interdependent. The private DUENDE time, the small and exclusive rural workshop, the huge educational production, the diverse elements of this portfolio that makes up each week, grow from a single place. They grow from the dedication to having, nurturing, challenging, developing a personal and a shared artistic practice. That is the soil from which everything grows. Unless we deeply value the time we spend being artists and continually deepening our practice, we have nothing of much value to give to anyone else. The job of an artist is to be an artist, each day nurturing the soil from which all else grows.

Afterword:

As I write this, a message comes from Eva in Greece. She tells me DUENDE will perform in Lesbos in July. Just one performance with the whole ensemble at the end of a week of intensive and private training in a remote location. Two universes that are one – the exclusive, introverted training space and the public engagement of performance. They are both essential.

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