Solway Walk – Moving On

My visit to the Solway was prompted by a need for a large space without physical barriers to explore what would happen if I walked a drawing of an model of experiential learning through the arts. In doing so my idea about my model changed.

The original model

Models are slippery things. Their appeal is that they appear to give a fixed image of a thing, but in practice whilst they serve as a very useful signpost about which way to go when you set off, the thing you find when you get there is never fixed. So the walk was undertaken as an experiment ‘to explore what would happen…’

  • learning model

What the model predicted was that a number of factors would contribute to the art making. In this case my thoughts were that source material would be Richard Long and the walking and land artists. My personal arts practice or art made included using a GPS and walking to make a mark on the landscape and experience of film making as a means of exploration, reflection and expression of experience. I drew on ongoing research and theory about the outdoors as a liminal space and art making as adventure, as a journey of uncertain outcome, and Shaun McNiff’s ideas about witnessing in the arts therapies1.

The model was correct in that my path would lead in to and out of the art making on the day and on to more art making, research, source materials and theory, and that the generic coloured blobs would be specific to the art making experience. My initial thinking after the event went to ideas about performance and the epistemic object and further trips to photograph and film, reporting this through blog posts.

At the centre of this, an act of art making and poiesis occurs. Something comes into existence that did not exist before and it is called art. It is art by convention, because all this could describe the making of a cup of tea. To this conundrum ’Why is this art?’ one asks the question asked by artist John Baldessari, “Why is this not art.” It is art because it was my intention to make art and my act was guided by research, reference to existent artform and artists, theories of art and my experience of art I made before.

But there was something incomplete about the central concentric circle structure. I was interested in the model showing how each experience of art making occured within a loop of experience, like in Kolb’s learning cycle.

  • kolb

But like the Kolb model is an ideal form which would be expressed differently depending on the setting, the strict concentric form may vary depending on the setting. My experience of art-making was, however, that in making art I stepped away from the day to day life experience and went to a different place. This could state is sometimes known as a ‘Flow’ state from work by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. You get in the zone of concentration and attention, of doing and the senses. But for art-making as experiential learning or personal research or art therapy, you enter a state that is similar to a meditative state, like flow with awareness. You are focussed on making art but also on what it is that you have made and what happens when you make it.

So in the model, as well as cycling through an iterative learning process, there was a linear path away from the world, into a creative state where something happens in partnership with your artform, then back to the world.

Reflecting on how the model changed

On return home from the Solway and recollecting the emergence of performance I went back to my Dramatherapy training. In a dramatherapy session you work with a basic three part structure. ‘It begins with a physical warm-up leading to the Main Event, the place where the real action is. It concludes with the ‘grounding’, returning people from the ‘Land of Imagination’ to their own everyday selves.2

During the walk recreating the drawing, the shift from walking to dancing, from recreating the drawing to improvising and performance emerged unbidden. One could say this idea came out of my imagination or my unconscious, or it was the product of a state of flow, or having danced in the past, I simply remembered something from my past related to what I was doing in the present.

So there are two things here. One is a linear journey into a place with some degree of separation from the everyday world, into ‘flow’ or ‘Land of Imagination’, followed by a return. This is a linear journey in an iterative looping cycle of learning. The other is the experience of being in ‘flow’ or the ‘Land of Imagination’. This is an experience of art making as somewhat separated from ones day to day life.

Something like this three-stage process occurs in many settings. In story and in film and theatre there is a thing called the ‘Three Act Structure.’ On one hand, this is as simple as a beginning a middle and an end or it is sometimes understood as set-up, confrontation and resolution. Many interpretations exist and there are examples to be found of its use in say cinema, but it is not without some contention. Like one article says ‘The true three-act structure isn’t a formula, it keeps your beginning separate from your middle and your middle separate from your end. That’s it.’

But the ‘beginning, middle and end’ could be seen as a universal or archetypal structure. For example at Outward Bound, in experiential learning, you worked with a ‘training, main and final expedition’. Your training expedition was where you taught skills, the main expedition was where you had the conflict as you got the people to move from being a group to being a team. Final was the unaccompanied independent journey.

In care, we worked with a conflict model and resolution tool called ‘ABC Charts’ meaning A – antecedent, B – behaviour, and C – consequences. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has a specific expression and detail but is also a three-stage form, the call to adventure, the test and the return.

But the simple, warm up, main event and grounding of dramatherapy mentioned above can be also seen in a form described by Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep as Rites of Passage.

  • Turners Initiation Model

From Schechner3

The above diagram is from Victor Turner a British anthropologist who theorised the above from studies of non-western settings at the top, and western settings at the bottom. This is a three stage journey of return that is linear and cyclical and has a central liminal or liminoid space somewhat separated from everyday life called The Land of Imagination in the dramatherapy model.

Art as liminal space

My proposal is that art making and experiential learning could be understood as having some some elements of the above structure in their practice. I don’t think it is coincidental that after a while on the Solway Walk, I spontaneously rediscovered that I could do the walk as performance. This could be seen as me, albeit briefly, entering a mild ludic state.

There is a lot to this seemingly simple experience of walking in circles on a beach like an idiot. Not least the idiocy. I was being playful throughout. I was in the land of the Trickster or the Court Jester, at once playful and challenging, the one who can perform recombination and inversion.

This is also adventure. The journey between departure and arrival. The journey of uncertain outcome with misadventure available. The three part expedition cycle of Outward Bound. On a slave ship, the middle passage. The refugee in the hands of the trafficker. It is not a thing of the past.

To me there is also something in this of being in the Solway, a liminal space if ever I saw one, between two countries, high and low water, land and sea. To me this is also a state of walking. In walking you are between places, outdoors, in a state of flow, and returned to a mode of existence that predates all of the modern world.

So after a few weeks of reflection my research led me a realisation. The experience was ‘like’ a lot of things, from experiential learning, theatre, anthropology, adventure sports, performance art, and conflict resolution, to Outward Bound and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

This could also be applied to many arts based contexts and the model has ART FORM as a liminal or liminoid experience at it’s heart, the same as dramatherapy. But the artform that fits this experience best if what is known as Walking Art.

My exploration of my Solway walk has reached a convenient place to move on and in my next set of posts I want to look at Walking Art with a particular focus on it’s scope for promoting health and wellbeing.

  1. Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies – Theory and Practice – Laury Rappaport ed.  ↩︎
  2. Discovering the Self through Drama and Movement – The Sesame Approach. Jenny Pearson ed.  ↩︎
  3. Performance Studies – An Introduction. By Richard Schechner. Routledge.  ↩︎

Solway Walk – How to Perform a Walk

Introducing Augusto Boal’s ideas about performance as a creative space for experiential learning

The act of reflection on my Solway Walk led me back to performance. Performance, like art, is a variable and often contested phenomenon. It can include theatre, dance, music, sports, business, ritual, play, performance arts and general social functioning. It can be a source of entertainment as actor or audience, but here it would be useful to connect with performance as a form of experiential learning. All art making could be understood as experiential learning as a source of knowledge, but performance has a particularly strong affinity with experiential learning as an active embodied process. My take on performance has to be influenced by my Dramatherapy training, in which a group or and individual can engage directly with performance to learn from experience.

One practitioner who works directly with performance as learning is dramatherapist and Social Activist Augusto Boal. He starts with theatre but develops it with the idea of the spect/actor, simultaneously spectator and actor. The spect/actor is performer and audience in one.

In Rainbow of Desire Boal describes theatre by quoting 16th century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega as ’two human beings, a passion and a platform’. This confirms the theatrical mode of performance as being a collective experience. In this case the ‘company’ is two, (and possibly more) persons interacting with one another. The passion is a reference to strong feelings and often suffering. Passion implies experiences beyond the mundane. Finally there is reference to the platform. In theatre this is usually the stage, as separated form the audience. Boal however moves beyond the actors and spectators as physically separated on auditorium and stage.

What is important to Boal is the act of separation rather than the form of two physically separate spaces. He says ‘The separation of spaces can occur without the ‘platform’ existing as as an actual object. All that is required is that, within the bounds of a certain space, spectators and actors designate a more restricted space as a ‘stage’,: an aesthetic space’.1 By this he says ‘In its greek root ‘aesthetic’ means ‘of or pertaining to things perceptible by the senses’’. Boal goes on ’So theatre does not exist in the objectivity of bricks and mortar, sets and costumes, but in the subjectivity of those who practice it’. He establishes theatre can take place anywhere you want it too. I chose a beach.

Boal continues ‘The ‘theatre (or ‘platform’, at it’s simplest, or ‘aesthetic’ space’, at it’s purest) serves as a means of separating actor from spectator; the one who acts from the one who observes. Actor and spectator can be two different people; they can also coincide in the same person.’ (Boal’s italicisation). The individual performer is witness to their own performance in real time and retrospectively.

Boal says ‘The aesthetic space possesses gnoseological properties, that is, properties which stimulate knowledge and discovery, cognition and recognition; properties which stimulate the process of learning by experience. Theatre is a form of knowledge.’ Here he describes theatre and performance as experiential learning. But away from the confines of theatre as a building with a stage, as a state of entering aesthetic space as a form ‘in the subjectivity of those who practice it.’ then theatre and performance as separation between actor and spectator, could be seen as having occured when I made the beach a stage, an aesthetic space, in which I was both spectator and actor. This is reflective practice.

My reflection, or my ‘review’ was live in the doing and the senses, direct in my direct recollection of the experience, reviewed by the witnessing of the camera and my seeing and editing the footage, in the production of the gps track, as a direct reflection of how I recreated an image of an idea, and how I deviated and moved form representation to improvisation. I witnessed myself in performance. Now you witness what came form my performance.

Boal offers one perspective, and there are other perspectives from other arts and performance theorists and practitioners, but in my reflection, reconnecting with Boal’s idea of aesthetic space resonated with my experience of going from walking an image of an idea to making the beach a place to improvise or perform a new image of an idea. He goes on to further develop the idea of the aesthetic space which offers some interesting insights.

He talks about how aesthetic space has a property of plasticity. It can can be anything we want it to be. ‘A battered old chair will be the kings thrown, the branch of a tree a forest…’ The Solway beach became a canvas to draw an image of an idea, then it became a stage on which to choreograph a dance with a piece of seaweed. Boal says ‘The aesthetic space liberates memory and imagination’.

He also says it offers an affective and oneiric dimension which ‘exist only in the mind of the subject… The affective dimension fills the aesthetic space with new significations and awakens in each observer, in divers forms and intensities, emotions, sensations and thoughts’. In the affective dimension the performer is in the moment and observing them self in the moment, they become spectator and actor. The affective dimension is ambiguous and dichotomatic. I think this is the bit that makes reflection on experience in situ available.

Boal goes on to say ‘Oneiric space is not dichotomous because in dreaming, we loose our consciousness of the physical space in which we the dreamers, are dreaming, here she penetrates into her own projections, she passes through the looking glass; everything merges and mixes together, anything is possible’. Which is why at the end of the walk/dance/performance I knew something had happened, but only on reflection at home did this thing that happened decompress. The act of making images of the experience helped with this. I think this aspect is the bit that makes, in the words of Monet and Rothko, the art the experience. The art form becomes a form of knowledge. The art making is research with the art made is the process and product of research.

The dichotomy of the experience is a key element. Of dichotomy Boal says ‘ This property is born out of the fact that we are dealing within a space within a space; two spaces occupy the same space at the same time.. And all those who penetrate it become dichotomous there.’ As a member of the audience watching Macbeth, I am in the auditorium and also on a heath, there to meet Macbeth. As a walker on the beach, I was on the beach but also on a canvas to paint a picture, then on a stage to do a dance. On a ropes course I am safely moving over a step across, but I am also a person who fears that may fall to their death. I want to return to dichotomy in my next posting, but from the point of view of the art object in fine art.

As a therapist Boal also talks about the effect of the dichotomy on the protagonist actor in the aesthetic space. In theatrical mode, he says, ‘..the protagonist-actor produces thoughts and releases emotions and sentiments which.. Belong to the character, that is to say, someone else.’ In therapeutic mode ‘..the protagonist-patient (the patient-actor) reproduces her own thoughts and releases anew her own emotions and sentiments.’ In the case of my Solway walk, the beach was the aesthetic space and the work done was partly about my material I brought, ie the image of an idea, but also my experience of the place as an active participant as art form and process. In all of my work and ideas about art as a form of experiential leaning, the approach is much closer to the therapeutic mode. From experience I have found this sets the whole mode of working with art appart from ideas and practices found in ‘The Arts’ or ‘Fine Art’.

Finally Boal talks about the aesthetic space as being telemicroscopic. ‘In creating the stage-auditorium division, we transform the stage into a place where everything acquires new dimensions, becomes magnified, as under a powerful microscope, thus brought closer and made larger, human actions can be better observed.’

Boal as a therapist and social activist has a good deal to say about how theatre and performance can enable spect/actors to reflect on their own experience and ‘ the spect/actor transform himself into a protagonist of the dramatic action and rehearse alternatives for his situation so that he may then be able to extrapolate into his real life the actions he has rehearsed in the practice of theatre’.

In moving from representation of an image of an idea to improvisation of a new image and thus a new idea I believe the Solway walk did this for me. The dichotomy or ambiguity in the experience invited me to ‘rehearse alternatives for the situation’. This is a creative act, it is experiential learning, it is adventure. Creativity is a state of uncertain outcome. The journey of uncertain outcome is built on ambiguity. Art is adventure, and whilst misadventure was absent here, it is present in some arts practices and, if I got my tide times wrong, the Solway is a dangerous place. My suggestion is that art making can be an inner adventure or an outer adventure. This is a thing I will discuss elsewhere.

The key themes in this are 1) that performance is an invention of experience not place 2) and as such, by being dichotomous and ambiguous, offers scope for new experiences, and 3) the performance or art made is not just a representation or symbol of experience, it is the experience, and 4) the performance or art made can be understood as research and knowledge of personal experience. This, alongside other modes of understanding experience, offers some unexpected dividends.

  • Ig talking about curiosity
  • Ig talking about curiosity
  • Ig talking about curiosity
  • Ig talking about curiosity

Performer, Iggy Pop on a beach talking to someone about curiosity.

In further posts the ideas of performance and art making as a transformational experiential process will be further developed. But a key theme is that this experiential process is dichotomous, subjective, situational, emergent and multi-dimensional, and no single account can describe it in complete and concrete terms and working through direct expression of my own and other peoples working practice is the best way to do this. What I present is art making as adventure, the journey and not the destination.

  1. ‘The Rainbow of Desire’ by Augusto Boal  ↩︎

Solway Walk – The Experience

The Experience of Walking an Image of an Idea about Art as Experiential Learning

Dubmill Point in Allonby Bay was empty and big. From the road to the low water line was about a kilometre. I chose a spot to walk in the centre of the image above, a low bank of hard sand.

Dubmill Point on the South Solway

My intention was to walk the image below; my sketch of an idea about art making as experiential learning. I wanted to recreate this as a walk on the beach. I would use gps to track the shape I made, and record the walk on camera, and see what happened when I moved an idea from one artform to another, from an image to embodiment. I would walk with intention, attention and attitude. I would then write about my experience, reflect on theories and practices from the arts and learning, and see where this took me next. In my model below I would follow up this experience of art making into reflection, inquiry, reportage and further art making. I would not only walk my talk I would walk my thoughts.

art as experiential learning model

I set up my camera so as to get as much of the walk as possible without me becoming a dot in the distance. I set up my GPS and found my central point, meant to be the ‘Art Making’ part of the image of an idea. I set off walking in big loops.

Music : overdub1 by Chris Reed

As I walked it I kept seeking to return to the centre point. At first I found I lost sight of the central point. This would mean my GPS track would not reflect my drawing, so I put a marker there, a bit of seaweed and started again. I treated this as a rehearsal, an initial loop round my experiential learning model.

I set off again to recreate my drawing. I walked a line, one foot in front of the other, but by passing through the central point, I also walked in wonky looping circles. I got into a rhythm, I started to pay attention to how this might reflect art making as experiential learning. The central point became the place I returned to, but the loops took me to different places on the beach.

After a while I started to develop a kind of relationship with the central point. It occurred to me that instead of just walking the shape of the image of the idea, I could do a big slow looping dance with the centre as my static partner. I trained as a dancer and wondered why I had not thought of this before.

In the moment of being in moving as an artform, in the intelligence of that material, in witnessing my doing and the senses, it felt like this had significantly changed the experience. I found a freedom from mere representation, from figurative form, and improvised a new form. It became performance. Through this experience I learned a new thing about my art making practice.

All in all it was a quick and easy thing. It took me about 20 minutes to walk a mile. There is quite a strong tradition of walking as art and performance art in outdoor settings. These forms are interesting in that they are durational, the art making only happens when the person is walking or performing. The experience may well be documented through film, photography or other forms, but it is unlike a painting in which the artform exists after the making it. The artform is the experience. Performance based arts are very experiential and offer interesting opportunities for experiential outdoor learning. But Mark Rothko stated that the art, even a painting, is the experience.

This is something I want to explore further. If the art is the experience, and we work with the outdoors as art, the art we make outdoors can tell us not only tell us something about outdoor experience, it can be the outdoor experience. We make something that is outdoor experience. This interests me a great deal.

Doing strange things in the name of art, like walking around in circles on beach may seem meaningless, but often I find that the most important learning comes out of what seems to be the simplest most meaningless experiences, or experiences that seem to have many different meanings. Ambiguity is important.

Walter de Maria, made action-art and land-art, only available when experienced directly in the outdoors. He said…

“Meaningless work is potentially the most important art-action experience one can undertake today”

…but also

Any good work of art should have at least ten meanings.

Walter de Maria 1968

See video here

Read article here

But my intention was to use this to explore my model of art as experiential learning, and at the time what struck me was that by changing from walking the shape of an image of an idea, to performance, dancing, improvising the idea directly in the space, my model changed, and so did my idea about art as experiential learning.

The image that immediately came to mind was my life as a map with different experiences and interests, different places, other artforms made, with the artform I am currently working on as the one with the closest proximity to where I was at the time. In my next post I want to reflect and report on this aspect.

About that stroboscope in the attic.

Creating an image showing thinking, doing and making art.

This week two things happened at the same time, potentially in the way Jung talked about Synchronicity, an idea brought to my attention by that Police album of the same name.

  1. I found a need for a single image for my blog which showed thinking, doing and making art. A Google image search for <thinking AND doing AND making> complete with search operators drew a blank. And…
  2. I went into the attic and saw the old stroboscope I got from a car boot sale.

As a 60yrs + person I remember frequently having strobes in discos before their connection to seizures was noticed and they were banned or controlled. For people who don’t know, strobes in discos were seriously cool. When switched on in a darkened room everybody appeared to be moving very slowly and your eyes tendency to retain an image for a few milliseconds and produce traces, made people look like they had many arms and legs.

Using the strobe at night in my garden I had an image of me, mysterious in black, moving in the dark through space highlighted by a series of frozen frames from a strobe.

This image could show thinking, in that I would need to think about how a stroboscope could be used with my camera and a long exposure, it would show doing as I could do this at night in my back garden (hoping the neighbours would not see it and call the police), and it would show making as I would make a photographic image.

A plan was formulated and family warned and I felt sure that if the police were called they would understand as they did do that album called ‘Synchronicity’ in 1983 and they could quietly play a bit of it to placate the neighbours should the need arise.

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The camera was set up on a tripod, the strobe connected to the mains, as dusk came tests were done to give a sufficiently long exposure. I dressed in black and did a few test shots and what became apparent was that even at dusk, a person dressed in black was invisible to the camera. Kind of obvious in retrospect but hindsight always gives you perfect vision. The strobe had to be much closer and I needed to dress in white to be seen.

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A shorter exposure was used with the strobe closer but my expectation that the strobe would be like a flashgun showed that it was not bright enough. Also the rate of strobing had to be increased assuming doubling the speed would double the level of illumination. I had hoped for a set of clear seperated exposures but with a faster rate of strobing the effect was more like that of a non-strobing light. I look like somebody walked by with a vape and blowing a cloud of smoke.

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This image is later, so it is darker. The strobe is fast enough now it appears to be a continuous light and is much closer to me. This is a 30s exposure at f8 and I time a walk across the space to fill the 30 seconds of the exposure. Here the image is more dense the slower I go.

After some experimentation, I can use the speed at which I move to deepen the density of the image recorded. I use the 30s exposure at f8 and a 10s delay for the shutter firing so that I can control my start point and count 30s to control the point at which I finish in the frame. The review screen on my camera provides feedback on what the effect of what I do has on the final image. The image is the review in this experiential learning process.

A powerful and simple function of a photographic image is that it is a re-viewing of experience but also a significant catalyst of director of the experience. The making of the image is the experience and the re-view and as such influence thinking about how the image is made.

After about 50 exposures and an hour and a half of playing around and experimenting with using my movement to control the exposure, I got to a couple of images I was happy with.

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This one has an interesting contrast between different parts of the image of the moving figure. This has some cropping and some modification of the image with dodging and burning to control highlights and darkness. To me this best showed thinking, doing and making.

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This image was most interesting and was made by simply raising my arms fast at first them slowing down over the 30s exposure. As a preview, it looked otherworldly, like an angel was landing, but as a full sized image it was less otherworldly. I did quite a lot of modification to make the full-sized image look like the pleasing impact of the preview.

Summary of this as art as experiential learning.

  • This was all situational. Experiential learning is founded on learning in the here and now.
  • I had an intention and an image in my head of what the final form could look like. This did not happen but something else did, not better, not worse than the original intention, just different.
  • It was a journey of uncertain outcome. I had to change what I did over the time I was working on this. The path emerged from the walking.
  • It was an active process that emerged from an active physical experience.
  • I made something. Poiesis occurred. An image or series of images existed after this that did not exist before. Each image was witnessed by me and through each witnessing, the ideas for the next image emerged. Art is witnessed by an audience in the end but it is witnessed by the artist or maker before this.
  • Making each image was the process. The image is the experience and witness to the experience. Experiencing and reviewing are the same thing.
  • The whole thing could be understood as a form of research in which a hypothesis is formulated and tested, but each iteration of this changes the direction of the research. This makes it different from quantitative and qualitative research and can be best described as performative research. The outcomes of this research are situational, subjective, emergent and personal. This, done as research by someone else, somewhere else would produce a different outcome.
  • Thinking, doing and making art is shown in one image. An attached description or exposition helps clarify this. But without an exposition, each viewer would see a different thing. Words used to describe doing are more objective and more universally understood. But the experience was personal and subjective. The image is closer to the experience but more open to subjective response. The image is more a accurate representation, but more subjective. This is a paradox of how we do and how we show experiential learning.

How dancing helps me think, and thinking helps me dance

A good article about dance as embodied cognition, the idea that we think with our bodies as much as with our minds, or that they are one and the same.

by Glory M Liu,

I’m a lifelong dancer and a political theorist. ‘Work’ and ‘thinking’ in one part of my life are entirely physical, while in the other part they’re wholly intellectual. For most of my career, dancing and academic research were two separate but equally weighted spheres. However, over the years, I have become more and more aware that many people viewed dance as a less valuable way of thinking and working. Dance, in their minds, was a purely emotive activity consisting of uncritical, spontaneous movement or a purely athletic endeavour whose sole purpose is to defy our body’s physical limits.

Part of the reason why this view of dance persists, I think, stems from a deeply rooted prejudice against embodied vocations. In Aristotle’s ideal state in the Politics, for example, mechanics, farmers, shopkeepers and those living a banauson bion – a life of physical and menial labour – are excluded from full citizenship. Their modes of existence leave no time for leisure, yet their physical labour is essential to support those who carry out the deliberative actions of the city. Today, we continue to stratify work into ‘high-skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ hierarchies. We wrongly presume that those whose work is primarily physical have little to contribute to those whose work is primarily mental, and vice versa.

Dancers exist on the cusp of this prejudice. Our bodies are the primary instruments with which we absorb, distil and produce ideas that are intangible and ephemeral. But, in doing so, we are also seen as high artists. And it is precisely our highly trained capacity to combine physical with mental thinking that makes dance not only possible but powerful.

We dancers learn, maintain and teach what’s possible with physical expression. I, like many, began very young, and was quickly programmed into a world of rules, patterns and habits. Left hand on the barre to start, and always turn towards the barre to switch sides. Close in fifth position, but go through first. Front-side-back-side. Elbows, wrists, fingers; heel, arch, toes. As a dancer in training, you learn to dissociate your self from your body, to relinquish your agency to the structure and aesthetic of the form – whether that’s classical ballet, modern dance or something else. But treating dance purely as a physical form to which we subject our personhood is deeply problematic. As the American choreographer and dance writer Theresa Ruth Howard argues, it ‘romanticises the dehumanisation of the body by regarding it as an instrument, a tool akin [to] clay’. It turns our physical bodies into mere instruments for the ideas, beliefs and expressions from some external source – whether the teacher, the choreographer or even our own ideal of what the technique demands. Where, then, does the dancer find space for freedom, for individual agency in the strictures of this kind of physical practice?

The practice of cultivating agency and autonomy is essential to our physical and moral selves. I learned how to appreciate and respect agency relatively late in my dance career, but relatively early in my work as a political theorist. In 2013, I’d started graduate school and was continuing to dance and perform contemporary works, though the majority of my routine practice was in classical ballet. I had sustained multiple injuries and undergone a surgery. I became anxious that my body was past its prime, no longer suited to the demands of the art form, and that it was time to quit and find a different outlet. But a moment in a ballet class changed my mind.

Muriel Maffre, a former principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet and my then-ballet teacher at Stanford University, called our attention between combinations. ‘Dancers,’ she said, ‘get into the habit of breaking habits. Demonstrate you have agency over your body.’ There was only a brief pause before the accompanist gave us four counts before the battement-tendu combination started again, but the words resonated in my mind and my body for the rest of class. For most of my life, I believed that dancing consisted solely of building particular physical habits – habits that I could unthinkingly execute as soon as I crossed the threshold between the ‘real world’ and the dance studio. But Maffre’s admonition helped me see the wisdom in questioning and even undoing some of the habits, both physical and mental, I’d worked for decades to build. This didn’t mean that suddenly ballet itself – its organisation, combinations, its vocabulary and its grammar – was turned upside down. Instead, it meant that even the most technical, formal structures of the form had to be filled with my own agency.

I scrutinised my movements from the largest jumps to the tiniest gestures, wondering about their origins. An overextended port-de-bras in an arabesque – the iconic ballerina pose – puzzled me: it threw off my balance, but somehow I thought it looked beautiful. Where did the integrity of arabesque come from: my sternum, my standing leg, or my fingertips? Other times, things that manifested themselves as physical ticks or involuntary movements were actually within my control, but had a long physical history that I needed to investigate. I scrunched my toes too much, even when I didn’t need to balance. I premeditatively ‘fell’ out of an additional turn even though I had the physical power for one more revolution. And I thought I cast my gaze downward as a stylistic choice, but really I was checking out my feet. I started noticing and observing dance differently on my own body and on other dancers. The simplest movements, gestures and steps could convey such a wide range of textures, sensations and feelings. Tendus, I decided, were a display not of the arch of my feet but of the floor’s resistance. A renversé – my favourite step – was not just a shape I could make with my legs and arms, but an expression of my back body moving forward in space. Instead of striving for an appearance of weightlessness, I practised giving in to gravity and harnessing the power of my weightedness.

That all these qualities, which constituted the dancer’s artistry, were subject to choice inspired me. Dance, then, was my physical practice of independent and critical reflection – on received ideas, on formed habits, on the basic values and beliefs I held – not just about dance but also on what it means to be a flourishing human being. It was at that moment that I realised that my education as a dancer and scholar were converging and becoming inseparable ways of investigating ideas about personhood and the good life. The knowledge I acquired as a dancer physically expressed ideas about autonomy and freedom that I was investigating as a political theorist. My dance practice was an everyday, real and, above all, physical experience of what it means to have the capacity to direct one’s life, to be able to redirect it, and to see those capacities ‘as testimony of the strength rather than fragility’ of our fundamental personhood, as Rob Reich puts it in his book Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education (2002).

We learn by practice, the American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said. Our practices – both physical and intellectual – can be so much more than routine work and the accretions of habits. By choosing to perform the ‘dedicated precise sets of acts’ that we do, we can access ‘achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit’. We embody our autonomy and our humanity.

Shakespeare, icons, archetypes, current affairs (and riots)

Two great programmes on BBC Radio 4 today, Mon March 16th.

The common theme is Shakespeare, but the relevance of his works today is, as ever, telling. He handles this through connection to archetypal material. An archetype is a symbol of some universal theme, or to cite Richard Dawkins, some current theme, the meme. When I trained as a drama therapist we worked directly with archetypal material in our work. An archetype, when understood as a universal symbol, stands in for one idea or phenomena, to allow shifting of dicourse from one form or context to another. The archetype of archetypes is Hermes as he can travel between worlds. He is the god of thieves and all art starts with theft. Learning is theft.

In both of these programmes, originally run back to back, Shakespeare’s work becomes a conduit through which to shift ancient and archetypal phenomena into the present. Hermes, through creativity, art or journalism, or writing, steals the idea from the past, from the gods, and gives it as a gift to humans today, like Prometheus stole fire, another archetypal form.

There is stuff about Trump and Twitter Spats, American history, the role of popular movies in political or philosophical discourse or not, and the astonishing tale of the Astor Palace Riot in which Shakespeare and ‘The English Actor’ was responsible for the deaths of 31 rioting commoners at the hands of the US militia. The only other ‘art riot’ I know of is Ballet Russes riot at the Rite.


Sally Potter and the best time to start is now

This is from Simon Ellis’s site.

Great advice from Sally Potter, maker of Orlando with Tilda Swinton.

Great art as research on two levels, the artist and the artform. The movie explores and researches gender, time, identity, place… Also Sally tells us what she learned from her research of movie making. Both help us in our exploration and research of our own experience.

Simon also introduces us to dance and art as performance at the artistic, personal and academic levels on his excellent site.

The best time to start is now (don’t wait)
Take responsibility for everything (it saves time)
Don’t blame anyone or anything (including yourself)
Give up being a moviemaker victim (of circumstance, weather, lack of money, mean financiers, vicious critics, greedy distributors, indifferent public, etc.)
You can’t always choose what happens while you are making a film, but you can choose your point of view about what happens (creative perspective)
Mistakes are your best teacher (so welcome them)
Turn disaster to advantage (there will be many)
Only work on something you believe in (life is too short to practice insincerity)
Choose your team carefully and honour them (never speak negatively about your colleagues)
Ban the word “compromise” (or the phrase “it will do”) (the disappointment in yourself will haunt you later)
Be prepared to work harder than anyone you are employing
Be ruthless – be ready to throw away your favourite bits (you may well be attached to what is familiar rather than what is good).
Aim beyond your limits (and help others to go beyond theirs) (the thrill of the learning curve)
When in doubt, project yourself ten years into the future and look back – what will you be proud of having done? (indecision is a lack of the longer view or wider perspective)
Practice no waste – psychic ecology – prevent brain pollution (don’t add to the proliferation of junk)
Be an anorak – keep your sense of wonder and enthusiasm (cynicism will kill your joy and motivation)
Get some sleep when you can (you wont get much later)

– Sally Potter

I think I first happened across this list when the choreographer Theo Clinkard posted it on FaceBook many years ago. Simon Ellis.

Folk Music

I was raised on classical music, show tunes and folk music. I discovered rock, reggae, techno, thrash etc etc. I love it all. But I was always struck by what John D Loudermilk said, (a ‘Folk Singer’ from the US of A) when asked what folk music was. He replied ‘Well I ain’t never seen no horse playin’ a guitar.’

People play folk music the world over, and tell us about their lives, their strife, their loves, their woes. This song is from the borders, a land with a long history of strife and conflict, bloodshed and blackmail. The Reivers coined the phrase. I like the idea that folk music in Brixton is the same as folk music from Hexham. Here’s a toast to our differences and to our commonalities. Like Rhianna says of strife, ‘ You break bread with me, you like me, it’s our problem.’