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Highs and Lows/Climbing the mountain

April 21, 2013

I returned to Delhi from a two week residency in the Himalayan mountains early this morning. The residency was an extraordinary experience – an ensemble of eleven Indian and international performers living in very basic conditions in a valley in the forests of the Himalayas. Washing meant a mountain stream at the bottom of a steep, steep hill. Rehearsals took place on dust and, sometimes, under a tarpaulin cover. There was thunder and occasional rain from which there was little cover. And stars, enormous, myriad stars. We worked on ‘Macbeth’ and performed the results of our work to the local family of farmers. Each day we worked for around nine hours.

In a couple of days we perform ‘Macbeth in the Mountains’ in Delhi.

Driving down the mountain (a three and a half hour winding ride to the train station then an overnight train to the city) there were wild storms. Lightening, lashing rain and thunder directly overhead. It was as if our passing was being mourned by the mountain or perhaps as if the mountain needed to remind us that all our ‘sound and fury’ signified nothing…..

I am sure I will write more about this residency in future posts, as I will about the whole extraordinary experience of working in India. But this post is not about that. Returning to Delhi I have encountered something quite unexpected. On this day of rest and recovery I have been overtaken by bleak, bleak despair. Darkness has descended.

There are many explanations. I am brutally tired. A residency is a hard journey for everyone, it’s leader no less than anyone else. Perversely, leading an ensemble is a lonely position to be in. I feel I need to leave people space to absorb and discuss the work without me being there, so find I miss much of the ‘social’ conversation. My particular work demands high concentration and high levels of sensitivity. Strangely spending all day being sensitive makes you very sensitive….There are other things bothering me – but these are the details of now, not the substance of this post.

I teach through positivity and a suite of principles. Positivity means that the work is full of laughter and unconditional support for each individual’s journey. The principles are ways of thinking, attitudes of mind towards ones own work, that underpin my teaching – they are useful and healthy ways for a performer to think about herself as she goes through the painful process of confronting fears and pursuing growth.

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that positive feedback, unconditional encouragement and ‘easy-sounding’ principles somehow mean that ‘bad’, ‘negative’ or ‘unhappy’ feelings somehow disappear. It is not so, as today is painfully reminding me. We all carry our wounds. We all carry scars. We all have triggers that, quite irrationally, can make the unresolvable sadness of the twelve year old boy or girl we once were resurface like a lightening-flash. Deep-level training of the self, deep-level sensitisation, and open-hearted engagement with others in ensemble makes this more likely, not less. This is as true for the trainer as it is for those being trained.

The point of the principles is not to eradicate our tough times, anymore than they should eradicate moments of ecstasy and euphoria. The point of the principles is to offer a perspective that will guide each one of us through the highs and lows of living – highs and lows so often amplified by engagement with passionate and vulnerable artistic process. They do not flatten our experience to one of simple ‘happiness’, they offer a guide to navigating stormy seas.

One of the metaphors I use in the training process is to suggest that each day a performer starts at the bottom of the mountain, and each day she has to find her way up to the top. She must, each day, warm up and prepare her body and mind for the act of creative engagement. She has to do it every day. It doesn’t matter how far up the mountain she climbs, the next day she starts at the bottom again. The point of repeated training is not to remove the need to do this daily work of climbing our personal mountain, but to teach us pathways we might follow, to make us familiar with the terrain. We develop strategies that help us get better at preparing ourselves, each day, to work.

In my work, the principles are the heart of those strategies. They do not stop us having, each day, to confront the steep slopes of our own mountain. Nor do they stop the mountain some day being bathed in sunlight and some days wracked by storms. But they do offer a guide to pathways we might choose to follow, and suggestions of other pathways which might not lead us where we want to go.

Each morning in the mountains I got up an hour before breakfast and climbed the brutally steep hill to the top of the valley from where, sometimes, I could see the distant Himalayan ranges. The slope never became less steep and each day, gasping for breath, I questioned my sanity. But with each successive climb, somehow it became a little easier, the route a little more familiar, the journey just a little quicker.

So I sit here in my darkness in Delhi, recovering from the last few weeks and preparing tomorrow to meet the beautiful, beautiful ensemble that formed in that rocky, steep valley high in the hills. I feel bleak. Inside me a bullied young boy is crying inconsolably, inconsolable because consolation should have come three and a half decades ago. I am terribly, terribly, lonely, though know I would not be much good as company to anyone right now. I can at least talk with you, the mythical reader…. This bleakness too is one of the weather systems that sometimes bathes my personal mountain. The principles I teach, and that I also try to live by, do not stop this weather, but they help me, even on days like this, to travel from where I am, to the top of the mountains from where, just possibly, I will see a distant mountain range of indescribable beauty.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2013 1:44 pm

    An inspiration for the climb ahead. Himalayan Sisyphus, best wishes to you. Hope to meet again at the summit some time soon.

  2. Sunil permalink
    April 21, 2013 2:34 pm

    John, the workshop at Kattiakuttu in March feels like it happened years ago. You have seen so many new sights and had so many new experiences. And you have had hardly had anytime to acclimatize before your work started. Physically it must have been very difficult for you. I think the principles that you shared in the workshop were so fundamental, so at the heart of being human, I am always grateful to you for that. Rest well.

  3. sheilago permalink
    April 24, 2013 2:30 pm

    Hey bright light. Shine on!

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