29/09/2013

In Situ by Tara D'Arquian


It’s not often nowadays that I see a work from which I am so inspired, so intellectually stimulated, that I feel the need to scuttle out of my hiding place and commit some words to paper. But Tara D’Arquian’s In Situ, a Compass Commission by the Trinity Laban and Greenwich Dance partnership, has done just that.

Arriving at the majestic up-lit chapel, I already get a sense that something special is about to happen. Nestled deep in the backstreets of Peckham is Caroline Gardens; a gated residential area that looks like some kind of re-developed Victorian institution, with a small chapel housed within.  We are welcomed inside, and guided through a small dark corridor which is littered with scraps of tea-stained paper - what one can only assume are old letters.

The dancing has already begun inside, and even though we had been invited to walk around the space, as audiences often do we first hung sheepishly against the surrounding walls, not wanting to disturb the action. What struck me first was the magnificence of the building within which we were standing. Expertly lit, shadows rippled and bounced against the powdering-blue fa├žade, as it seemed to crumble under my very gaze. The building seemed neglected, yet somehow kept its once stately elegance intact, seemingly growing old with style. I think it’s what the cool kids call shabby-chic.

Dancers in burgundy dresses and faded white shirts twirled and suspended around us, floating this way and that, their eyes misted and melancholy. A compelling soundtrack flicked between heavy bass rhythms, hi-fi clicks and ticks, and a more dream-like soundscape which seemed to give shape to the piece, as the dancers became more frantically involved in their own secret narrative.

A man leaves, a woman writes, a couple wed, a man whistles, a woman sweeps, tea is served, several half-embraces linger in the air, over and over again as the jigsaw is fitted together, piece by piece by piece by piece…

They are ghosts, trapped, constantly building and fragmenting the very fabric of time and space within which they exist. An eerie breeze flows through an open door at the far side of the chapel, and unsuspecting passers-by also weave their own way through this matrix of warped time.

Occasionally, the film crew cut abruptly through these layers as they discuss shots and edits. They are a constant presence in the space, as are the lighting and technical professionals, and are more often than not indulging in some technical consultation with each other. At first I am a bit frustrated that they speak so loudly, and I find it increasingly difficult to keep out of the way of the dancer’s slicing kicks and the film crew’s enthusiastic manual panning both at the same time. However as the piece gradually fits together, it becomes obvious that this is just yet another layer to add to the already multiple faceted space-time continuum that was happening in that building. As was the audience, as a matter of fact; we were slowly then escorted out and the dancers just kept on going through the motions with that glazed-eyed look.

Clearly something happened here. The resulting emotional vibrations which pulsed through time are so tangible yet impossible to fit together, echoing a building which has been left to its past. I wonder when all the lights are taken down, the dancers pack up their belongings and all evidence of modern life is removed, are there still creaks in the floorboards? Do hands still brush longingly against the walls? Is the whistling of some forgotten soul still carried on the breeze?

13/05/2012

On Graduate life - one year on


I’m unsure how long it has been since I last blogged; life just gets in the way doesn’t it. With this in mind, I thought it high time I part those heavy curtains of life-stuff and commit a few of my recent ponderings to paper.  It may also be the small fact that it’s been pretty much an entire year since  I finished my course at University, after four long years of dancing, thinking, making; and eighteen even longer years of full time education.

I feel a noted point of reflection is required.

However, after only recently finishing working at the University that I went to, being around campus is not so much a distant memory as a clinging reality that I’ve only just been able to shake off.  It will always mean a great deal to me, but I wanted to expand, go elsewhere and keep those positive memories of student life associated with the campus. Because, let’s face it, a campus environment, with all its throngs of excitable student campaigners, midday bar-cralls, busy student eateries, graduands; shiny and happy faced with the jubilant feeling that you only get directly after you thrust your dissertation into the cold, waiting hands of an administrator (along with your blood, sweat and tears), it’s just not the same for a staff member. Firstly, all students are just SO LOUD. They become annoying; they become the ‘other’ - “surely I wasn’t that immature when I was a student?” Truth is, yes I was, and yes, I still am. But the campus experience is entirely different when your friends, course, and free time have all been removed.

So, you can imagine the emotion stirred inside me when the final years had their dissertation handing in celebrations.  I’m sat at my desk pretending to be busy and suddenly I’m back there, feeling the tingling excitement start in the base of my stomach and the feeling of the year old knots in my shoulders loosen up as my head floats upwards for the first time in what feels like an age… or… maybe that was just the champagne.

Witnessing this turn of the year was like the world asking me ‘so what exactly have you done since this happened to you?’ Seeing the reality of this event; that it occurs year in year out, like clockwork, as the University processes students through their short-lived studentships, made me realise how quickly life goes by outside of the pre-determined structure of institutional education. I feel like I’ve done quite a lot, and I’ve come a long way since my dreary Summer blogs full of unemployed graduate woe. I’m where I wanted to be a year on; it just doesn’t feel like I thought it would.  I’m still learning to slow my life down. Being goal driven can have its virtues, but one must be careful of wishing one’s life away.

So yes, point of reflection noted, mind centred, positivity reinstated. Now… what’s next?...

21/02/2012

Arts internships from an insider - my response to labour MP Luciana Berger on her call for arts interns to be paid at least minimum wage

So, I’ve just finished the second year of a physically demanding and mentally challenging dance degree, despite what some might assume, and am pretty darn thrilled to be offered the opportunity to complete a year’s internship at Siobhan Davies Studios; a contemporary dance student’s mecca within the London arts scene. I’m making a sandwich, happily contemplating this fact; when my housemate, a nuclear physics student, comes hurtling into the kitchen and announces he’s just been offered a year’s physics placement in America, with a wage, plus most of his expenses and living costs paid for too. Amidst the mandatory jumping and hugging that friends do to support each other, I’m left feeling somewhat deflated (as you would guess my internship was of the unpaid variety).
That was almost three years ago. Now, my friend is doing a PHD and I’m slowly but thoroughly rinsing all of the available contacts that I built up throughout that year. That precious year, that life-changing year, that without it I’d have left Uni not having a clue what to do and nowhere to beg for casual shifts. It is undeniable that an internship is pretty much essential within the world of arts employment. It’s the old catch 22 – no experience, no chance, but then no chance, no experience. You have the lucky few who can apply for a Jerwood creative bursary from the DCMS, but that’s just about as competitive as a single acorn in a cage of squirrels.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed my placement, and it gave me the best possible chance to get my foot on the crazy-fun-house inspired sliding staircase, I would have felt so much more appreciated if I had been paid like a proper member of staff. And maybe I would have worked harder, maybe I would have taken my job role more seriously. I managed to support myself financially by taking extra shifts on reception, but this then resulted in me sometimes working a full 12 hour day, and mostly 6 or 7 day weeks. This and my (thanks but no thanks) massively reduced student loan. 
I guess maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, managing to get an internship as part of my degree. At least then I had access to a dribble of student loan. But perhaps it’s the actual degree programmes we should be questioning here. If they provided us with a little more knowledge and experience that’s actually relevant to the outside world then perhaps there would be no need for internships.
The sad reality is however, that these poor arts organisations have been cut down to their very stumps of financial stability. What were entry level jobs have now become unpaid internships. But what is the world coming to when companies have had to resort to free labour to keep themselves going? But - they do keep themselves going, because these internships are like gold dust.
It’s very well the government demanding arts organisations pay internships minimum wage, but then maybe the government should stop obliterating the necessary arts funding. It seems strange to me that the government hasn’t considered WHY arts organisations have had to cut their budgets so drastically. This is of course only my personal opinion, but in my experience unpaid internships are like UGG boots within the graduate arts employment scene; horribly popular but undeniably useful.

06/12/2011

Crossing Borders: 25th October with Gill Clarke

The 25th October; just a bog standard Tuesday evening one would think. Not, however, at Siobhan Davies Studios. The largest gathering of thinkers, creators and movers I ever seen at a Crossing Borders event thronged through the building’s reception, swarming their way up to the roof studio in anticipation. A credit, I think, to Gill Clarke; who’s immense intelligence and deeply somatic and innovative understanding of the body begs a substantial following of artists, scientists and dancers.
Gill begins to talk, prompted by Sue Davies, on her own journey as a dancer into a more somatic and experiential considering of the physical form. After technical vocational training, and a stint dancing for Sue Davies, Gill described how her perceptions changed radically when she started working with contact improviser and Body-Mind Centering practitioner Jeremy Nelson. Over 10 days of ‘very little movement but a lot of visualisation’, Gill proposed that her movement changed over this short expanse of time. Made more aware of bodily structure and its relationship to the ground, there is an increase in sensory information and energy flow, and movement seems to become directed by sensation rather than by specific intention. The body is more aware of itself moving, giving way to a deeply connected and grounded dancing experience and a more informed performativity.
We then move on to that ever expansive question... what is Dance? Gill remarks intriguingly that people can only recognise what dance is when confronted with something that definitely isn’t. We are constantly in negotiation, in conversation with a persistently changing environment which shifts and develops alongside evolutionary intelligence. Through our understanding of this, an acceptance of the inability to actually really pin down what dance is seems to become important. Perhaps the nature of dance itself is that you can’t capture it in one description or definition. It has the potential to take on more and more forms and meanings as our perceptions develop and deepen. Gill describes this in her approach as releasing ‘the muscular thought and bodily containment to alter our perception and find something deeper’. Movement then becomes the resource of dance. Dance is unto itself.
Gill then goes on to describe dance as a kind of currency. Like an aural tradition, it is passed through bodies and it changes and develops depending on the unique attributes of the human form that it inhabits. This can be seen through the choreographer’s and teacher’s roles. When these become more about dance facilitation; where a situation is set up so that learning is possible rather than a mere transference of information. A great knowledge seeker herself, Gill has read more books than one could possibly count, and describes this importance of learning through finding something out yourself as fundamental, an aspect of life that that helps us to evolve. Gill’s approach is naturally all about exploration; it’s less deliberate, less predictable. It’s not about appropriation; it’s about tuning in, pairing away, embracing the process and being in the moment. This ‘pairing away’ Gill describes is a little like the scientific process, such a practice also engages in the simplicity of stripping down the amount of variables involved. Everything in this process is considered and influences the final findings, and in dance terms final performance, even though they may not be immediately present. The only difference of course is the lack of a definitive answer. The results of this pairing process may well be sets of questions themselves, feeding back into the process and propelling it on, an evolutionary momentum with an indefinite amount of possibilities.
Gill then moves on to consider the influence of meaning-making during moving, especially through performance. It is important to let the movement speak, and to give imagination its role to play, however the unsayable is also valid, for example, the pulse speaks, our bodies use movement as communication without sometimes even being aware of it. Why then can’t we use this movement as our own theatrical language? Dance is struggling to validate itself as a discipline because we speak in movement, and this cannot always be recognised within traditional forms of academic communication. How do we harness language from our own practice without alienating others?
Gill stipulates that through this disciplinary openness and ambiguity there must be some element of rigor and purpose. This often comes in the form of theorising the concept that the movement provokes, rather than the movement itself. There is some form of distributed cognition that makes the dancer tune into their movement, and in turn allows the audience to see the embodiment. This, according to Gill, is the difference between dancing and not dancing. There is a sincerity and powerfulness in the ability to be able to keep the gift of experience in the moment without having to talk about it and assign it to a theoretical concept. It can be unto itself.
And so in true Gill Clarke style the talk ends in a seemingly organic circle back to the initial question of what dance is. An expertly crafted and articulated aural essay that seems to just glide effortlessly out of Gill’s stream of consciousness, deeply intelligent ponderings that settle like feathery layers of understanding to create a completely clear sense of comprehension within the listeners, who through their intent attention rapidly nod their heads in agreement.
Gill Clarke died on November 15th 2011, exactly 3 weeks after giving this talk. Her strength and determination shone through even more vividly during her final few weeks of life. She never faltered in her generosity and immense passion for dance and knowledge; a legacy that will continue within the hearts and lives of everyone she touched. It is hard to put into words how much she meant to the dance world, and perhaps true to the final statements in her last talk, our sentiments will play out through a deeper understanding of our own bodies, through her teaching.

04/11/2011

Crossing Borders: 11th October with Guy Claxton

It might seem unusual that Crossing Border’s next guest, cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist Guy Claxton, seems so at home amongst dancers and artists alike. He appears as part of the first in a series of talks resulting from PAL’s Movement and Meaning Labs which’s aim, in line with that of the previous Crossing Borders talks, is to ponder the questions and artistic potential that surrounds cross-collaboration. However the gap between the ‘logical’ science discipline and the ‘creative’ dance world for me can sometimes seem more like a gigantic chasm rather than a hair-line border with osmotic potential. Claxton believes otherwise, and carries on to completely fuse the two in a mere hour and a half, leaving everyone in the room wide-eyed.
The cavernous space of the Siobhan Davies roof studio suddenly feels more intimate as Claxton begins to speak, his voice confident and inviting. The room bristles with excitement as Gill Clarke warmly introduces this acclaimed writer and author of the innovative success Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. Claxton’s work to date has centred on his enthusiasm for teaching, which has been heavily influenced by his own Buddhist practice.  He speaks about his interest in the link between mind and body, and the intriguing concept of unconscious autonomous intelligence.
Claxton starts to explain the interesting ways your mind seems to work things out for itself while you are completely unaware. Giving meditation as an example, an issue that I’m sure a lot of people come across, he explained that good ideas; those which may not arrive fully if you try and will them to, seemed to come along by themselves whilst he was trying to concentrate on his breathing during meditation.
This is something I certainly came across whilst writing my undergraduate dissertation. I surprised myself by how little time it took for me to grind to a writing halt. For about an hour and half I would write continuously, with little attention paid to editing my work, however after this time it felt as if my brain had taken on a greyish hue, my eyes turned into rectangles and my face felt slanty. At this point I had to leave my seat; sometimes mid sentence – my words would just flap away like trapped birds willing to escape, and I would not return for at least two hours. I’d go for a walk, wash up, do laundry – anything physical. And the interesting thing was that during these times I had my most inspired ideas, where they came from I can’t say, but my mind seemed to store them all up ready for another 1 ½ hour full-pelt laptop marathon. Slow progress one might think, but my productivity during my writing times was increased tenfold.
It is interesting then, as Claxton brings up, how the education system in this county has developed. Children are encouraged to sit at a desk and work for hours at a time, and are taught that comprehension comes before competence. When, in fact learning through doing, through physicality, encourages wider brain usage and capacity. Claxton remarkably explains that the physical and verbal attributes of the brain actually derive from the same root. With this in mind, he asks the audience of mainly dance artists whether speech during movement seems integrated. Clarke notes that they do feel separate, and part of two different mindsets. I can partly agree with this, I find speaking and moving incredibly difficult and somehow incongruous. However using language through writing comes naturally, and as writing can be considered a physical act, I find words come so much easier through this method than if I was to speak and move. I think of myself as fairly articulate with language, but when it comes to verbally expressing myself, I struggle and often sound as if my IQ has dropped by about 50%. So it’s the physical act of writing, the movement, which encourages and develops my cognition. It’s is also the fact that writing allows you to think before you write, and also move around before you commit to paper. It could be said then that language is a tool of expression, and the verbalisation of such requires a different process all together. Claxton also mentions that movement in children is often a lot more mature than their words, and therefore if deprived of movement, children find it harder to understand. Why then is the education system forcing children to understand the concepts of things before they are given a chance to try it out? This also true in my experience as a musician, if playing something by memory, it’s a complete waste of time to try and remember the notes or picture the stave, or even hear the music. It’s the muscle memory I fall back on, the way my body moves around the instrument; which only comes if you try and disregard everything else.
Claxton mentions that the common perception is that we think in consciousness, not so, according to Claxton, in fact we think into consciousness. By slowing down we notice the act of conscious thoughts arising; in the form of ‘glimmerings’ and ‘inklings’. From a phenomenological point of view, we often disregard the act of perception as automatic and immediate, when in fact perception is active and can be directed. It becomes a form of ‘doing’. It is a building up of imagined images that derive from pre-judgements due to a lack of mental capacity and an inability to process countless possibilities and outcomes. This is what some phenomenologists call a frontality of perception. We understand something through our previous engagement with it; it is integrated into our perception which therefore feeds our knowledge.
So, if perception is a form of doing, and movement equals giving your brain some space and time to think on its own, and if this movement equals better, more informed ideas, then why do we force children to focus 100% of the time? I for one am glad to have figured this out early on, before I stick myself behind a desk for the rest of my life.
Right – I need a washing up break.

13/10/2011

Say Something Live music night - Bear Cavalry, Random Impulse, CODA, Rizzle Kicks

Say Something, a live music night and inspirational brain child of GU2 radio has been ambling alongside Surrey’s sub-standard union events since December 2009, slowly collecting fresh-faced and eager music fans along the way like a slow-motion snowball, frosty and determined. And, a lot like a snowball, mildly unnoticed by the majority until it gets MASSIVE and then causes an avalanche. More on this shrouded metaphor later. This year it lay deep in the merciless pit of fresher’s season cheese – sorry – fun, and provided a glimmer of hope for those seeking more alternative forms of entertainment.
The evening of the 6th October was loudly shaken out of its Thursday night sleepyness by none other than Bear Cavalry. Originating from Gosport, kooky four piece Bear Cavalry give a new definition to the word fusion. A group of musicians, all sensationally talented and with the most intricately mature sound I’ve heard from a ‘first-band-on-the-bill’ for a long time. Foals inspired licks combine with calypso rhythms and a bit of thrashing metal added in there for good measure. A valiant blend of Nordic folk harmonies, Vampire Weekend inspired cross-rhythms, and all tied up with the string of indie wide-boy cheekiness. A shame to have had such an intimate audience, they truly outstood their slot in the bill.
Next up is rapper and song writer Random Impulse. Nothing really random or impulsive about this dude but his tunes are catchy enough. An NERD inspired mixture of slamming guitar chords and bouncy hip hop lyrics with a grimey undercarriage.  A little too lyrically repetitive in his choruses compared to his quick witted verse spits, but he seems to get the crowd nodding. Openly inspired by the White Stripes (I think he mentions it in one of his songs) with a twist of WTF, Random Impulse could afford to test his genre fusing impulses a little more. A nod-worthy act for the second slot, which is always a hard one to fill.
The infallible CODA were next to grace the stage, the band who were tipped to headline the last Say Something before they unfortunately bowed out. With their soaring live trombone melody backed by pumping dub step, it’s almost impossible not to dance. Currently London based, this five-piece have been mastering the synthesis of dub step with live musicians since 2009. Their sets are a trippy blend of chilled out reggae and jazz rhythms, highlighted by live electric guitar and the most rock star trombone player I have ever seen. Beach-side paradise imagery gives way to ecstatic dancing as the bass kicks in and we are thrown a gushing bucket of a remixed The Prodigy’s Firestarter, finishing the set with tremendous energy and, yes, a lot of sweatiness.
By this point in the evening the dance floor had become increasingly difficult to move on, students piling in left right and centre to catch a glimpse of the infamous Rizzle Kicks. What did I say about an avalanche?!... The Rizzles kicked their way into their set, bounding on stage in Fresh Prince inspired attire to great applause. Through the sea of blackberries and i-phones that were immediately thrust into the air,  the most I saw was a few fuzzy barnets bobbing up and down and a heavily dreadlocked guitarist who seemed to be enjoying himself. Now, I don’t want to sound like a grump, but where were all these people when Bear Cavalry got down with their trumpet? The Rizzle Kick’s songs are full to the brim with identifiable lyrics and mainstream catchiness; and it’s clear by the audience’s reaction that these two baby-faced rappers are onto a winner. Slightly disappointing that they felt the need to rap over a recorded version of Jessie J’s Price Tag – sorry- who are we coming to see here?! – a mere way of padding out their limited set by getting the audience excited by other people’s songs. Still, the audience seemed to enjoy it so that’s the main thing right? But for this reviewer, it is very rare occurrence when the first act on the bill totally trump(et?) the 80’s inspired shorts off the headliners.


12/10/2011

Crossing Borders: 4th October with Ben Duke

Ben Duke sits at ease on a sofa below the majestic ribboned ceiling of the Siobhan Davies studios. His appearance here comes as part of Independent Dance’s annual series of talks called Crossing Borders. The series aims to challenge and question the ideas behind inter-disciplinary work, and explores the ways in which different art forms can be enriched and informed through cross-collaboration. In collaboration itself with The Place’s postgraduate course Edge, and this time also with PAL (performing arts labs), Crossing Borders brings to its platform Lost Dog co-founder and choreographer, Ben Duke. From a company renowned for its inter-disciplinary use of movement, theatre, text and live music, Duke’s seems like a perfect brain to pick to kick-start this series of talks.
Sat in front of an impressively sized audience for the first in a series, Duke begins to contemplate how the concept of crossing the disciplinary border is addressed in his own choreographic work. He talks about beginning with a story and characters, the way one would assume a theatre director would begin. However he goes on to describe how his approach to ‘story’ is not necessarily in the linear narrative sense. He speaks of expanding a single moment, and exploring the millions of possible moments that could take place within a mere couple of seconds. Almost a theatrical approach to chaos theory, Duke explains how within his work these minute moments are stretched, sometimes through the use of dance or other abstract forms, to create a sense of parallel realities. As an agent of illusion, the physicality of movement seems to emerge, dream-like and embedded through an immersive narrative as a way of generating believable frames for the dance.
To create engaging pieces of work that successfully combine dance, text, music and narrative without ending up with a spangly tits and teeth musical theatre piece requires some serious thought. It begs the age-old question, mulled over by audiences and choreographers alike, how do you make it so that the characters within a piece believably choose to dance? Duke asks ‘how do you bridge the gap between reality and an abstract reality?’.  He provides us with an undesirable example of musical theatre and its harsh changes between spoken text and show-tunes (group-shudder).
The answer to this seems to hover around a certain element of subtlety. He describes a delicate balance between providing the framing devices of narrative and character for the dance in order to tie the piece together concisely and not leave the audience utterly perplexed, yet also leaving enough space for ambiguity and imagination. The level at which an audience’s emotions are directed can be controlled through the subtle marriage of text and movement. A choreographer must take control of an audience’s emotional journey through the piece if they have any hope of communicating some tangibly emotive meaning or leaving behind a form of reactive residue. Duke describes his use of layering as a way of inducing subtlety and combating the clunkyness that could arise if movement and text are put together haphazardly. By allowing an expansion of the audience’s imagination through carefully constructing this blurred connection between theatre and dance, the audience member then has the agency to interpret what they see differently. They can relate it to their own lives to make it more emotionally relevant, rather than some distant story about some removed characters that may or may not bare any social or cultural relationship to the viewer. Duke also adds here that in the building and layering of character; when developed in conjunction with text and theatre and most importantly improvisation, a feeling of immediacy can be conjured. Through the use of improvisation, characterisation and physicality can be kept alive, leading the audience to believe (but at the same time not really believe) that this series of events unfolding on stage is happening for the first time. A sensitive balance between letting the audience know that this is a performance (yes, very Brechtian) and tempting them to become emotionally involved within the story creates this two-way pull that seems to fuse the use of dance and theatre. Almost like saying – yes, audience, I know this is completely unbelievable because two people wouldn’t ever go from a very verbal confrontation to a twisty-turny-lovely-dancey phrase in normal life but, oh, don’t we wish we could... wouldn’t it make so much more sense...