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Everything is the body

November 26, 2012

I am two thirds of the way through a trip through Europe. After a couple of weeks in Germany and a couple more in Greece, I am en route to Stockholm. I am performing a little on this trip – two improvisations in Munich, a solo and a duet in Thessaloniki, a show in Uppsala. But the heart of the trip -as always with my work – is running workshops.

On this trip I am working with a particularly diverse range of groups. In addition to a number of public workshops, I am making specific inputs to a range of organisations. In Munich I taught clowns who work in hospitals – developing duet work and paying particular attention to sensitivity to audience (kinda important when performing for sick children). Also in Munich, a workshop with an improvisation group originally set up (I believe) to provide a space for dancers who had finished the first stage of their professional career, encouraging them to continue to grow and perform. The group ranged from people in the thirties to a ballet-dancer on the cusp of 80. Their work is a wonder to perform and it is an honour to help them develop.

In Greece, in addition to public workshop, I ran some sessions with an all-women polyphonic singing group who perform traditional Greek and other song, and I worked with young music students in a school. In Sweden I will work with a company dedicated to making non-verbal theatre for young audiences, another group of performers exploring the meeting points between circus and contemporary dance and, in my last week in Uppsala, with Gottsunda Dance Theatre where I will work with the professional performing ensemble for half of each day and for the other half of each day, train the entire company – producers, office staff, young trainees, teachers,…..

Yet, despite the diversity of groups, and though every workshop is a little different and the overall focus of each varies, what I do does not vary much. I essentially offer the same experience to them all.

What is that experience? It is an encounter with the body. And because the body does not move without being instructed by the mind, it is an encounter with the mind. And because our sense of ‘self’ is some kind of amalgam of what we think and what we experience, it is an encounter with the self.

This is dangerous territory. We live in a culture when we are continually told we are not good enough, that we should somehow be different to who we are; taller, smaller, older, younger, thinner, fatter, able to do this, not willing to do that….. Usually these criticisms are coming either from companies that want to sell us something – who see human experience as a marketing opportunity – or from bureaucracies, governments or institutions which (whether for benign reasons or not) prefer us to be compliant and to accede to their vision of how we should behave.

Living amid these endless suggestions that we are not as we should be – that we would be ‘better’ if we were different- all of us, to some extent, internalise the criticism. We learn fear. We learn shame. We learn that we are not good enough. We forget to value our unique, authentic genius.

A encounter with the self can bring one directly into contact with this self-denial. This is why it is dangerous territory. I meet my oppressor and my oppressor is me!

So I start from a basic premise. We do not need to be different to who we are, we need to me more fully ourselves. We need to notice and let go off the fears, blockages, denials that prevent us from finding and valuing whatever unique contribution it is that we have to make to our community/ensemble/audience. (And make no mistake, everyone has a unique contribution to make because everyone is unique – it really is that simple)

This all sounds very ‘nice’. ‘Accept yourself’, ‘ let go of your fears’, ‘ trust yourself’ – we can hear all the echoes of the world of self-help and personal growth. And of course it is nice – if you have been afraid of something and you discover you do not have to be afraid, that is a nice feeling. If you have been denying yourself something and then you allow yourself to experience it, that too is nice. But beyond the ‘nice’ is something altogether more frightening……. Freedom.

Freedom is a nice idea but, frequently, a terrifying reality. It demands clarity of choice. It demands personal responsibility. It requires direct engagement with reality and the discarding of comforting fantasies.

Though the idea of freedom is delightful, its experience is altogether more complex. We like our limitations – they define who we are, to ourselves, our colleagues, and our communities . ‘I’m the sort of person who…’, ‘I’m not the sort of person who….’.

But of course the start of a creative journey, a true journey into the unknown and the unimagined, is the willingness to step beyond preconceptions, limitations, habits and, fearlessly, to risk the unknown. Creativity requires freedom. But freedom is not an idea, it is an experience. Freedom is an experience of the body – for just as our fears appear in our bodies, so too do we experience freedom in our bodies (if we accept that the word ‘body’ encompasses the ‘mind’). So if we are going to train ourselves to be artists (whether ‘professional artists’ or unique individuals who choose to treat their daily life as a creative exploration of possibility), then we must start by learning to be free, learning to create, value and sustain our experience of freedom. And this is a training of the bodymind. Of course, a dancer will also develop specific technique to communicate her experience of freedom. An actor will develop different techniques, so too an acrobat, musician, teacher, office worker… But the foundation on which ‘technique’ is based is the somatic experience of freedom, the ability to organise ones thinking and the use of ones body in a way that gives one permission to take a risk, freed from the fear that one will not, somehow, measure up to the imposed criteria of others.

We do not become artists by giving others what they want. We become artists by learning what it is that we have to give, being free enough to risk offering it without shame and mastering the technical skills necessary to communicate it clearly.

This is why what I do does not vary very much from group to group. I am working with the foundational building blocks of the creative journey – the bodily experience of the freedom to be unique and to value that uniqueness.

This is very resonant to me on this trip. Before I left the UK I had spent an enormously stressful three months finishing writing and editing a book. Long, long days seated at my desk. Mind-work and a neglected body. My osteopath said he had never seen my spine in such a mess…. (I know, I should have known better….). Three days after I submitted the book, I fell Ill. My system gave up for a few days.

Then I went back in the studio and I encountered enormous clarity. That clarity was complex and covers a whole range of things that I am not writing about here. But it was a clarity characterised by the experience of freedom. I love the life of the mind. I love the theories of art and performance that I have spent the last year reading and writing about. I love philosophy and politics. But also I know this: for me all of that reading, all of those theories, all those magnificently complex enquiries into the nature of being, are only preparation. Ideas might lay a foundation for reality, but reality is an experience of the body. Theories make sense when I bring my body to my work. Those ideas feed my work, give depth to my work, but they are not my work. My work – and what I offer to others when I teach – is an experience of the body.

The freedom to create, the freedom to be in front of an audience, the freedom to follow ones individual journey, is an experience of the body. Everything starts and ends in the body.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Savvina permalink
    November 26, 2012 6:44 pm

    An amazing piece of writing indeed!

    You prepare yourself as much as you can before starting a journey, and most of the times, the things you see and the emotions you experience are far beyond your expectations. There are other times when the door opens without any warning and the journey is right in front of you, and, you either deny to see or, without preparations, you just let yourself flow. A lot of interesting things happen in this case.
    Once the door opens it remains open… it pushes you to step forward, face more personal fears, old habits, self restrictions… a quite taught process that scares you most of the times….but there comes a little moment when your body reveals to you that an old ‘enemy’ has now become a loyal ‘friend’ to guide you through the rest of the journey. This is a moment of revelation, of immense power, a feeling of growth and a self full of hope.
    From my journey so far (which is not that long)
    these moments of power are the closest I have felt to being free.

  2. Catherine Harrison permalink
    November 26, 2012 7:30 pm

    great! thanks. will save as word and  look forward to reread on a long flight. bisous xx

    Catherine HarrisonLes Chartels Serres sur Arget 09000 France +33 0561641453 +33 0604032763 56 Lakeside Drive Lake Tyers Beach 3909Victoria Australia+61 0351565648

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