Site Specific Performance Lab 2015


Since 2013 I have been part of a group seeking to found an intentional eco-community in Cataluyna. The broad vision is for a creative community where Contact Improvisation, dance, improvisation, eco-somatics, art and performance are shared interests that underpin our daily lives and practices. During the Summer of 2015 we were able create the first incarnation of the project (Monastery of Dreams, after gaining a 3 month tenancy on a disused Marist monastery in Pontós. Almost everything about the project was an  experiment with a strong collective desire to explore the interplay between improvisation, somatics and community living. Establishing a centre for praxis, research and learning is our long term goal and now the project moves into the next phase with a 6 month tenancy in 2016.

It was an exciting proposition to run a Site Specific Performance Lab in the midst of a fledgling community which was constantly evolving on a site that contained the relics (ranging from stuffed animals to a political library) of many previous residents: originally a Marist seminary, an education centre for local archaeology and then a large scale community arts project. Important goals for the overall Summer project were to create interest across the regional and international arts community and also gain acceptance from the local community of Pontós, or at the very least do nothing to antagonise them yet stay true to our values. In formulating the structure for the Lab it was desirable then that it could be flexible and inclusive of visiting artists and if possible produce a performance that would be accessible and gain us some kudos with the local population.

The concept that evolved for the Lab was to provide an opportunity where participants could research and create their own performance, simultaneously collaborating with each other. They would  be responsible for the rehearsals, realisation and direction of their piece of work. The individual works then provided a number of “stations” that the audience visited on what in the end became a one and half hour walk. From the start I saw my role more to facilitate the whole process and provide support rather than act as the director. I wanted to experiment with a structure that could allow huge individual freedom within a coherent whole. Participants came from a diverse range of backgrounds. Some were seasoned performance makers some relatively new.

As the 5 days progressed it was interesting to see how the lab became as much an exploration of the process of co-creation as an exercise in the craft of performance making. Flow of ideas, interpersonal dynamics, authorship, collaboration, improvising resources, the emergence of collective themes and occasionally conflicts all came into play. By the end of the Lab the individual pieces were being honed and we collectively worked to find ways to include all the ideas being offered.

On the final day we performed the whole work to an audience of approximately 40 local villagers. Despite our concerns about how it might be received by a public audience no one made significant compromise to their vision. The feedback was extremely positive , the local Mayor wanting to phone the monastery’s owner in support of our tenancy this year.

From the start it always was going to be a largely improvised process with an uncertain outcome. Everyone faced challenges in different ways, mine personally was to hold strictly to the form of the experiment and not intervene with my own aesthetic preferences.

In the end it was very satisfying that the process did achieve a performance that was so well received and valued by the participants whilst providing a great learning ground in orchestrating multiple creative energies.



Proposed Performance Lab

“Our body mind is a highly organized and structured affair, interconnected as only a natural organism can be that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. An improviser does not operate from a formless vacuum, but from 3 billions years of organic evolution; all that we were is encoded somewhere in us. Beyond that vast history we have even more to draw upon: the dialogue with the Self – a dialogue not only with the past but with the future, the environment and the divine within us. As our playing, writing, speaking, drawing, or dancing unfolds, the inner, unconscious logic of our being begins to show through and mold the material. This rich, deep patterning is the original nature that impresses itself like a seal upon everything we do or are.”
Stephen Nachmanovitch “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art”

performance lab flyer

The proposed lab and performance would seek to explore bringing this evolutionary heritage more consciously into play within an improvisational frame.

My interest is in the body as a repository of experience, emotions, imagination and history and as a vehicle of willful human agency (including decision-making in improvisation). I’m interested in time. How our bodies hold residues of cosmic time (13.7 billion years), phylogenetic time (3 billion years), human time (500,000 years), familial time (100 years) yet locate their own life time as our vessel of lived experience – “dialogue with the Self”.

I am interested in exploring the performic possibilities that arise playing between these deep biological residues, the body AS NATURE, and the humanness of ego, desire, love, aspiration and fallibility. Can we play between the dramas of our daily time and our ancient Cnidarian ancestry or hold the two simultaneously and what does that look like? Are there different kinds of time which are palpably present and what are they?

The working process will involve elements of evolutionary movement, developmental movement, communing with nature juxtaposed with our very best efforts to entertain, be funny and create meaningful art. I invite members of the group to bring their own expertise and curiosity to the exploration.

To see how it turned out January 2014 Performance Lab


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.


Murmuration was the title of a residency at Dartington Space in March 2011. The residency  time was split between R&D on “Protoplasm”, a performance work in progress, and an open lab exploring ensemble improvisation which I invited local dancers to attend.

At the beginning of the residency I had a list of overlapping interests and inspiration.

Flocking and shoaling behavior in animals
A paper by Marshall Soules entitled “Improvising Character: Jazz, the Actor, and Protocols of Improvisation”
A recent workshop with Nina Martin using her Ensemble Thinking Tools
Memories of feeling disturbed by the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics
Curiousity about the assumptions and protocols we bring as improvisers to the space (our own internal score)?
The mathematics of chaos and complexity

In one way or another these themes seemed to reflect  two core aspects of improvising (and life!)– simultaneously  the relational space between structure/scores and open improvisation and the tension between collective identity (ensemble) and individual freedom (solo). From the perspective of facilitating and directing I was also curious to examine how different nuances to the instructions changed outcomes.

My plan was to explore these territories through an array of tasks and “what if” scenarios. These were not so much intended as exacting experiments as provocations. I intended to use the scores in the way free runners use the built environment- as an architecture to improvise off and around. So the outcome was always the humanness of everything that arose from the score including deviations and the reasons it broke down- humor, forgetting the instructions or dancers simply deciding to be playful and not stick to the score.

dartington res stills5dartington res stills4

dartington res stills3dartington res stills1

As the residency developed the enquiry became quite specific: exploring transitioning in and out of unison. I was interested in unison itself, the visibility of small differences and the possibility of unified qualities without exact matching of movement. In some experiments the dancers found their  own transitions organically in others different scores were used to orchestrate the transition.

Although this short residency came to a close far too soon it was still a hugely productive process clarifying existing ideas and raising many new questions. My thanks go to all those who attended including Kathleen Downie, Lois Taylor, Ruth Bell, Katherine Nietrzebka, James king, Jo Donaghey, Saffy Setohy, Sarah Hart, Sarah Jarvis, Itta Howie and Alex Donaghey.