Improvisation Exchange workshop
What: Improvisation Exchange is a monthly workshop led by artists exploring different approaches to improvisation. On this occasion I was leading the workshop which was entitled 'Improvise from the breath - move from the moment'
Where: Studio at NSCD (Northern School of Contemporary Dance) When: 11 May 2013 11-1 pm workshop followed by 'jam' 1-3 pm
Who: Workshop was open for all levels of participants interested in movement improvisation.
In many ways this workshop was the culmination of the previous workshops I'd been teaching. Read my previous posts here: Mathilde Improvisation workshop, Life Coaching session and Yoga intensive.
As stated in the blurb below, I used my experience and vocabulary from the disciplines of yoga and life coaching as a frame to structure the workshop.
'To listen inwards to sensation and to listen outwards to others and surroundings is the most immediate way to enter the moment. This is the lesson of my yoga practice and work as a life coach for my improvisation practice. In this session, we will start with the breath so that movement emerges from listening inwards and listening outwards, exploring physical play alone and in response to a partner.'
The most wonderful thing about the Improvisation Exchange is the mix of people. Many professional dancers and students from NSCD attend, but also less experienced movers come along and ages range from 18 to 60. It's very beneficial for all participants that the experiences are mixed as everyone brings something different but very valuable to the floor.
I began the workshop with a score I first did with a teacher I met in 2008 called Al Wunder. We started his workshop every day with a score or exercise called 'primary movers', in which you bring awareness through joints of the body and investigate their ability to rotate, lengthen and move through space. You explore the joints as initiators of movement but also how moving them reverberates through the rest of the body. It's a score that sharpens your awareness as the instructions are very tangible. Working with eyes closed can be a valuable tool to bring awareness to inner sensations but also to be less self-conscious about how you move.
Life coaching and yoga in improvisation
In life coaching the use of eyes is an important element when showing a coachee that you're paying attention. The last 'primary mover' "joint" was therefore the eyes. How does movement of the eyes affect the movement of the rest of the body? How does really seeing something: someone's yellow t-shirt, a mark on the floor or a fellow improviser spinning very fast, how does this influence how we move? After warming up body and awareness of others I got the improvisers to return to a more introverted aspect of movement: breath. Coming back to stillness we explored the breath for a while, simply observing and listening like you do in a mediation or yoga practice. The final 'primary mover' was therefore breath. The score was simply to listen to breath and allow it to move you. As soon as you lost the connection with it (you forgot about breath and realised you were moving for other reasons) you had to acknowledge this by coming back to stillness until connection with the breath was reestablished. Then you would start again.
In to partner workImpro Exchange Photo: R. Meneghini
With the same score the participants partnered up and took up roles as 1) mover and 2) witness. The witness role was simply to watch and 'hold space' for the mover to play with the 'movement from the breath' score. We often judge or label things we see as good or bad or according to whether we like them or not. An essential principle in life coaching (and in yoga) is not to judge but to learn to see things for what they are - so, to witness not to watch. A task for both mover and witness was to make a note of something during the minutes the improvisation lasted to afterwards tell the partner in one sentence. Short and sweet. The only constraint was that they had to make an observation stated in neutral or positive terms (I suggested they began the sentence with 'I enjoyed...'). For me this was an important element, as being encouraged to observe both self and others with a 'neutral (or positive) eye' can help us move without censoring ourselves. More about this in a later post!
After changing roles, I added 'vision' and the use of eyes, i.e. the scores from the beginning of the class. While movement from the breath was still at the core of the exercise, how would 'seeing' determine direction and relationship with others? While in this score the witness was still passive, the following score had the witness change proximity to the mover. Very close, as far away as possible, below, above or turning your back. How would this change their relationship?
Initiator and responder
Going in to more direct partner work I introduced another score: 'initiator and responder'. Again an adaptation from Al Wunder, this score invited the witnessing partner in to the movement score. Mover 1 returned to working with their eyes closed moving from the breath/stillness and as a consequence became the initiator of the 'duet'. Mover 2 responded to the movement/stillness - now an active part of the dance. I chose this score particularly because I liked the use of vocabulary. 'Initiator and responder' brings a more non-hierarchical feel to the score than 'leader and follower'. Without having directly encouraged it, many of the duets towards the end had moved in to contact improvisation.The couples still exchanged observations in the pause between swapping roles.
Trio into 'jam'
Towards the end of the workshop we went from working in partners to working in trios. The final score was an extension of the previous one, now with one initiator and two responders. First each trio designated the roles clearly between them but eventually the roles blurred and the participants could then decide for themselves which role to take on; whether they wanted to initiate movement or respond to others. The score was to stay true to the initiator/responder role but at the same time with a constant focus on the use of breath and 'seeing'.
Moving into the 'Jam'
The term 'jam' derives from the musical vocabulary of 'jamming', suggesting a free improvisation without predefined arrangements. In the same way, a dance improvisation jam is a practice session for free improvisation where you can dance on your own or in contact with fellow improvisers. It's often done as a conclusion to a workshop/class and gives each improviser an opportunity to put what they learned in to practice, and also just to play. There is no organised structure to a jam and you can enter and leave the dance space as you wish. What has proven to be useful for the Improvisation Exchange, though, is to kick the jam off with a few instructions so that the free improvisation has a starting point. I chose to let the end of my workshop lead in to the jam by simply suggesting to the participants, as they were still in their trios, to open their eyes and awareness to people in other groups and slowly to let go of the scores I had given them.
This is the fourth of four blog posts about working within my three disciplines: two posts on improvisation (Mathilde impro here), and one each on yoga and life coaching. I decided to keep each post focused on the execution and content of the session and I will continue, in my next post, with a more in-depth analysis. My aim in the next post is to highlight the common denominators between the three disciplines by putting the sessions next to each other and looking at where vocabulary, intention and outcome correlate.
May Bank Holiday Yoga Intensive
What: 2-day Ashtanga Yoga workshop offering four different workshops of 2.5 hour each with a different focus. On the first day we taught an Ashtanga yoga class looking mainly at the technique of the standing postures and in the afternoon an inversions class with focus on moving in to headstand with safety. The second day began with a Mysore self-practice class followed by a back bending and restorative session.
Where: Yoga Kula, Leeds When: 5+6 May 2013 10.30 am - 4.30 pm
Who: Workshop was led by myself and Alan O'leary and open to students of all levels to participate.
My approach to workshops always goes via my own practice. What occupies me at the moment? What am I working on understanding or improving for my own practice? This is, in my opinion, key to delivering a informative and inspiring workshop.Handstand on Mallorca
On the basis of that the first class I taught with Alan revolved mainly around the standing postures of the Ashtanga sequence including Sun Salutations. One aspect of these postures that I am beginning to understand is the important of (a mild version of) Uddiyana Banndha. (A full and concise explanation is not appropriate for this blog post so I will just give the overall idea of the concept and then you can read further about it here. See is also this video of Kino MacGregor explaining the difference between Uddiyana Banddha and Uddiyana Kriya).
Uddiyana Banddha teaches us to work deep from the core of the body with a firmness to the lower abdominal (protecting the lower back) while keeping softness and spaciousness in the upper abdominal cavity to encourage deep breathing and full movement of the diaphragm. Many students who don't understand this Banddha will instead grip at the abdominal muscles and hip-flexor muscles, tensing and shortening the front of the body rather than lengthening and softening.Through exercises to locate this 'Banddha sensation' and partner work we went through the key postures of the standing sequence and Downward Facing Dog. The main purpose of the class was to get the students to understand the subtle lift of the lower abdominal muscles together with a sense of letting go while in the postures.
This class was followed by an afternoon session on inversions. I often omit inversions in my regular classes as it takes time to explain how to move in to shoulderstand and headstand with awareness and safety. The main focus for the inversions session was therfore to spend time on preliminary exercises to build up strength and courage to do the postures safely. Before moving in to the more extreme inversions, balancing on hands, head or shoulders, we focused on Downward Facing Dog and half dog to work on rotation of hands/shoulders. Interestingly the principles of 'lifting up' from the previous session on Uddhiyana Banddha came back when understanding how to engage the core muscles for inversions. I then introduced a few Iyengar based techniques: we used bricks squeezed between first hands and then thighs to isolate the action of first the arms/shoulders and then legs/pelvis. Following this we practiced handstand. This position is the easiest in which to identify the before mentioned muscle groups that needs engaging to keep inverted balances steady. We worked in partners again using the wall for safety. After handstand we moved in to headstand through various preliminary postures. When learning to do inversions safely it's vital to know which steps to pause at and stay with before attempting the full posture. Finally we moved gently in to the Ashtanga shoulder stand sequence focusing mainly on keeping weight through the arms and the shoulder and not in to the neck.
Mysore self-practiceUrdhva Dhanurasana in threes
Monday morning started with a Mysore class. I love teaching Mysore because it gives me the opportunity to give personal feedback to each student. It allows them to work with their own breath and internalise the practice. Many discrepancies or bad habits that accumulates when practicing for a while can be detected and therefore rectified during this practice. Also it was a great opportunity for me to assess whether my instructions on the previous day had been clear to the students. Alan has written a blog post about Mysore self-practice. Read it here.
Back bends and restorative yoga
I have out of curiosity been practicing Matthew Sweeney's Moon Sequence lately and found it a great alternative to the Ashtanga sequences. The Moon sequence focuses less on chaturanga and upper body strength and more on back bending. It became the starting point for the back bending session. After explaining the different parts of the spine that play part when opening the back we warmed in to the session by practicing the beginning of the Moon sequence. The beginning of the second series Ashtanga sequence builds up strength and flexibility with lots of control. This was a natural follow up starting with Shalabhasana up to Laghu Vajrasana with a few modifications. Last we practiced Bow posture (Urdhva Dhanurasana) in threes where the students would help each other create length and lift through the spine. See image to the right.
For the remaining part of this session we went in to restorative postures winding down mind and body after a very stimulating back bending session. Restorative yoga, where supported relaxation gives the energy back to the body, is a very valuable tool particularly, I find, as an Ashtanga yoga practitioner. In Ashtanga Yoga we become accustomed to the upwards and powerful energy of the practice and underestimate the value of letting go and giving in. The postures are set up with lots of props: bolsters, belts and bricks to support the body to rest in various supine, prone and twisted positions. The perfect antidote for two days of physical practice.
This is the end of the third of four blog posts about working within my three disciplines: yoga, improvisation and life coaching. I decided to keep each post focused on the execution and content of the session and I will then continue with a more in-depth analysis after the final post. My aim is to highlight the common denominators between the three disciplines by putting the sessions next to each other and look at where vocabulary, intention and outcome correlate.
The fourth post will be about teaching an improvisation workshop for improvisation Exchange in Leeds in May 2013.
Coaching for life and careers
What: Coaching in groups for dance students at Northern School of Contemporary Dance as part of their Healthy Dancer day. Three session were themed around life/work balance and two around career giving them an opportunity to choose the subject most relevant to them.
Where: NSCD When: 26 April 2013 10-3 pm
Who: Students from foundation to post-graduate courses at NSCD. I offered five sessions of 45 minutes with a maximum of 15 students per group.
Before the session
This is the blurb for the career session (I did a similar one for the life/work balance one) that I sent out in advance to the student who wanted to attend:
Each student is asked to bring with them one written statement beginning with: “I would like to… but…” (Example: “I would like to get in to teaching dance but I don’t know where to start.”). These statements should reflect your own thoughts about your career prospects and they will be the starting point for the session. We will use them in the group with the aim to find ways of making a smoother transition to life after college. Often solutions appear as we verbalise thoughts and share them with others.
The crucial point in order to understand how coaching works is not to talk about it but to DO it. Therefore the main focus of the sessions was to get the students to coach each other and be coached. In collaboration with staff at the college I decided on two themes that have particular relevance to the students. The first one was to do with how to create balance between dance studies and life outside college and the other was to think about career prospects.
The pie chart above represents how I planned the 45 minute session.
The orange ones were led by me. The green ones pair work and the pale blue group coaching.
'I would like to... but...'
After introducing the session I got the students to think (or re-think) the statements I had proposed them to bring to the session beginning with 'I would like to... but...'. They were going to this by talking to a partner about what was on their mind within the given subject of the session. Getting them to talk for just a few minutes helped them clarify what they wanted the statement to say. They had to boil this down to exactly one sentence capturing how they felt. They each wrote this on a slip of paper.
They all put the slip of paper on a shared table and following had two minutes to read all the other statements. The challenge from here was for the group to agree on two statements that they identified with or that they felt encompassed all the others. These were going to be the starting points for the group coaching part.
Rules of engagement in coaching
The owners of these two statements then agreed on who were to go first. Before beginning the actual group coaching I explained the rules of group coaching and how to ask open questions. The core activity when coaching is to listen actively and 'hold space' -meaning watching the coachee and giving them full attention. It's important not to interrupt the them, give advice or try to resolve their issue. This encourages the coachee to find answers for themselves. Asking questions is for when the coachee is ready for it and as much as possible the questions are kept open and unambiguous. Here are some of the questions I handed out to the students to use as coaching questions:
The next stage was the main chunk of the session where I let myself slide in the background and only intervened when a few finishing questions were necessary. I was merely facilitating this part and the students had the responsibility of 'holding space' and honoring the code of asking questions and listening together. The fact that the group coaching part was student-led was really important for how the they would experience the process. By the end of each coaching part the students that had been coaching got the opportunity to share -in one sentence- any thoughts or suggestions of encouragement that they wanted the coachee to hear.
The final part of the 45 minute session was giving each student time to reflect on and express in short what they would take away from the session.
This is the end of the second of four blog posts about working within my three disciplines: yoga, improvisation and life coaching. I decided to keep each post focused on the execution and content of the session and I will then continue with a more in-depth analysis after the final post. My aim is to highlight the common denominators between the three disciplines by putting the sessions next to each other and look at where vocabulary, intention and outcome correlate.
The next post will be about my yoga workshop at Yoga Kula in May 2013.
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