January 2014 Performance Lab

The questions underpinning the Lab arose out of several different approaches to improvising that have inspired me over the years. The terrain is  neatly summed up in this passage from Melinda Buckwalter’s book “Composing while dancing: an improviser’s companion” where she talks about preferring  improvisation techniques that allow movement to come from the senses and “unfold at its own luxurious pace” in contrast to improvisation that requires  “quick frontal lobe decision-making”. She continues, “These preferences became clear to me from an experience I had in Nina Martin’s Ensemble thinking workshop. Martin, looking to simulate “choreographic time” and the ability to jump-cut in improvisation, prohibits a slower, organic development of movement in her training exercises, referring to it aptly ( and wryly) as “glacial timing”.  This approached worked well for those who wanted to get on with the compositional dialogue of the shifting elements in the stage space; they happily accepted Martin’s toolkit for ensemble work. However, a few dancers from somatic backgrounds (like myself) had trouble separating the compositional dialogue from the developing of movement material; the two were entwined in our training.” In my own work I’ve found Nina’s Ensemble Thinking Skills a supremely useful compositional toolkit. At the same time I’m deeply drawn  to somatic, organic body process modes of improvising, the work of Caryn McHose, Miranda Tuffnell, BMC and some Butoh, to name a few.  I’ve often wondered about the nuances of this apparent polarisation. Can instant composition and “glacial time” (or “evolutionary time” in my book)  coexist performatively. In “somatic” based work I’ve seen the room transformed into a stunningly beautiful aquarium of primitive life. Is it possible, and how, to stage such a world – as performance? In other improvisational modes I’m fascinated by the deliberate cerebral play of composing the space moment by moment.

The lab was an attempt to consciously bring these two approaches together. The working process involved exploring evolutionary movement juxtaposed with sessions to develop our group skills and collective language in instant composition. We worked roughly through the evolutionary timeline with exercises to attune to evolutionary stages and then cut to exercises to sharpen our ensemble skills working with composition (space and time),  status, solo and chorus. At first I was concerned that this was too great a jump to keep making but through the course of the weekend a continuity emerged.  We began referring to the jump into compositional mode as – “now let’s be apes with brains”. This began as a joke but actually unified any apparent schism.  The result of 3 billion years of evolution was our becoming apes with brains with all our human faculty to play, be creative, make decisions and be conscious of what we were doing. Working with the different bodily resonances of evolution was like shining a torch to bring to the surface different features, the heritage of evolutionary process was always there though, complete. Showing up in the studio to improvise was an end product of  evolution.

My intention for the performance was to have an open score where the work from the weekend could form a palette of possibilities – body states, compositional games, human creative decisions with which to inhabit the score. I wasn’t seeking to deliberately include or exclude any options but to see what from the process had permeated our improvising selves. As such it was important that we committed to total permission to take space, to tune to whatever was emerging for each of us and collectively, to embrace “evolutionary time”. The 30 minutes was to be occupied as a kind of installation or environment. Interestingly another kind of evolutionary process had diminished our numbers from the start. Environmental factors: illness, recurring injury, offers of work, domestic emergencies and the looming tax deadline had all claimed people.

By the performance we were five and in spite of the storm we still had a small audience. The performance did seem to move in a different time, often slowly on the surface yet the 30 minutes passed quickly for us and the audience according to their feedback. Some commented that the overall changing choreography of the space held their interest as much as any one person. Another commented that both very primal beings and human dramas seemed present in the room. I’m planning to continue developing this exploration in future labs, workshops and performances. Big thanks to everyone who came to the lab and to those who performed we me, K’lo Harris, Itta Howie, Kathleen Downie and Saskia Chaplin. Thanks also to Lisa May Thomas and Kathleen Downie for their help organising and to all the Bristol Practice Group for their support with the studio.

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