I have been reading back on my four recent blog posts about Mathilde improvisation, life coaching, yoga teaching and Improvisation Exchange to try and get an overview of themes or approaches that overlap.
Here's a list:
The first thing I get yoga students to do in my classes is to sit with their eyes closed. This is not necessarily to listen to sound but often to 'listen' to sensation. In my opinion the first and most important aspect of yoga is learning to tune in to sensations in the body. To allow emotions and subtle physical sensations to arise. I remember doing a Vipassana meditation course a few years back where I spent ten days in mostly complete silence meditating for hours a day from early morning till evening. By the end of day nine the ability to listen inwards had become super sharp! That is the kind of listening I'm interested in and which I feel applies both to yoga and improvisation. It creates an inner awareness that in a moment of dance improvisation encourages movement to be less 'in-the-head' and more embodied. This sort of listening in an improvisation context where we're in contact with others (if not physically then by observing or being in the same space) means that the meeting between bodies is likely to be clearer and more open and therefore conducive to responding without trying to second guess someone else's next move.
Finally, listening is the core element of life coaching. Not just hearing, but active listening, where you listen not just with your ears but with your body. This is often 90% of what is required when coaching, as allowing someone to feel truly heard and giving them time to think usually means that answers appear from the coachee themselves.
Being in the moment/Awareness and attention
Much is said indirectly about 'being in the moment' in the listening paragraph above. When we notice sensations arise or we feel connected to another improviser it's impossible at the same time to daydream or plan ahead. The function of listening, you could say, is precisely to be in the moment. Awareness and attention are again an extension or different wording for listening and being in the moment. Awareness or attention to your own sensations or to someone else comes from listening.
80 most frequently used words in my life coaching post, the Improvisation Exchange post,
Mathilde improvisation workshop post and the yoga intensive post
I was initially drawn to improvisation rather than choreographed movement because I was interested in composition and making artistic choices but less interested in filtering or selecting 'good' vs. 'bad'. I wanted to be deeply immersed in the dance and still try and have an overview of the piece and make informed choices. What's fun about improvising is that anything goes, but inevitably we're (almost) all inhibited by our cultural conditioning and to some degree also self-judgment. We constantly self-censor. In fact, it's much easier to do outrageous things when someone has told us to or allowed us to, as we then let go of the responsibility for our choices. Avoiding this self-censoring means letting go of expectations of self and others and letting go of 'labeling'. By labeling I mean putting names to things. Instead of saying 'I had a really good yoga practice' or 'this improvisation lacked coherence' is it possible to just do/be (improvise movement, listen and talk in life coaching or do a yoga practice) without putting some sort of judgment or label on it?
When I did my life coach training I remember my teacher talking about being curious when listening to a coachee. Like a young child that has no prerequisite for judging, can we be curious (not nosey!) about someone's actions or statements without drawing conclusions or making assumptions about what they mean to do or say?
So avoiding self-censoring is related to not judging yourself and others and this applies equally to a yoga practice as well as an improvisation or a life coaching session.
Essential to life, breathing is part of our automatic nervous system which implies that it's independent of our conscious mind. To actively bring it to the conscious mind and observe it and listen to it is the core practice of yoga. Movement comes after.
Here's a quote by Michael Stone from his yoga philosophy book 'The Inner Tradition of Yoga':
Deepen the breath, with immediate attention, and stay with the breath for a little longer, and all sorts of movement may start. Emotion may start to surface, and held-in emotion is yet another cause of reduced flexibility. (...) As the breath moves, the mind moves; as the mind moves, the nervous system moves; and you cannot separate the movements of mind, breath, and body any more than you can take the essence "onion" out of any layer of an onion.
What Michael Stone explains is that the breath works as a bridge between our mind/emotions and the physical body and only by keeping our attention on the breath can we access those emotions. The breath is where we meet our own inner life and -personally- where I find the motivation for and access to uncontrived movement. In the place where I let myself be moved by the breath, my yoga practice and improvisation practice meet.
As much as I love teaching yoga classes and conveying my experience and knowledge of the practice to students it is the Mysore or self-practice that really captures my heart. The reason for this is to do with the shared responsibility. Yoga as self-practice means that engagement with the body and the postures comes from an internal motivation. When I teach a class, students have an expectation that they will be led and taught and that I'm 'the boss'. But in my philosophy the practice itself is the teacher and my job is mainly to ensure the students do not hurt themselves or others. In a self-practice class the relationship between me and the student changes as I no longer place myself above them. The practice - together with the students' own ability to listen and respond accordingly - becomes the teacher.
Not surprisingly this is also the principle of life coaching. The coachee already has the answers to the questions they're asking and as a coach all I do is create a space where they can search for them. My job is not to tell them what is right and wrong (it would be presumptuous of me to think I know what's right for everyone) but instead to create an atmosphere where ideas and thoughts can be explored. In this way the self-practice yoga class and the life coaching session are rooted in the same ethos: the practice itself is the teacher.
I find that hierarchy is somewhat linked to judgment. Here's what I mean:
By placing something in a hierarchy it is often labeled as good or bad or as more or less important. The food pyramid is a great example of a hierarchy that is designed to do this. We put food into categories but indirectly place it in a hierarchy. While all the fruit and veg at the bottom of the pyramid are good for us, we're made to feel that the little triangle at the top, often made up of fats, sugar and alcohol is what's bad for us (unfortunately it is also sometimes what we crave the most and the prophecy of its place at the top of the hierarchy as a 'ruler' becomes self-fulfilling!). Categorising can be handy when it comes to putting socks in the sock drawer and t-shirts on the shelf where you expect to find them again later. But when it comes to categorising ideas, people or situations we often get ourselves in to a muddle. Not many people feel they belong on one shelf only.
Being part of the Mathilde collective means working in a non-hierarchical environment. Our work ethic is based on a mutual understanding that we negotiate responsibility both practically and creatively. In order for this to work, listening and openness is required. Recently a discussion came up about placing value on what we do. (One way we value something is by comparing ourselves to other improvisers and thereby putting ourselves into a hierarchy.) The discussion was about virtuosity and what that is. Is virtuosity to be able to play an instrument really fast, to harmonise in a particular way or to do triple pirouettes? Or can virtuosity equally mean to be skillful at listening, responding and improvising freely from the imagination? The technical vocabulary we learn as we excel in our disciplines help us to label/categorise what we do in order to make sense of it, but perhaps the down-side of that is that we feel that anything that does not have a clear label means it has no value.
Letting go for me comes as a result of the ability to listen, breathe consciously and to not self-censor. It's about moving away from being 'in-the-head' into having an embodied practice. The embodied practice is where the physical body moves (as) independently (as possible) from thinking, not trying to be clever or 'work out' what's the right thing to do or to censor what we think we shouldn't say or do. The most astonishing contact improvisation duets happen when the body takes over and the improvisers act by instinct and intuition. The most impressive yoga practitioners and teachers operate under the ethos of maintaining complete equanimity of the mind by not forcing postures or breath but letting go of expectations. A successful coaching session is one where the coach lets go of responsibility of answering the coachee's questions and lets 'not knowing' prevail.
With the inner awareness created through listening and by avoiding filtering what is right and wrong we can achieve letting go.
This is the end of my series of blog posts about my three disciplines. It has been a very interesting journey for me to write this and to juxtapose the sessions I have been teaching. I would love to hear your thoughts about the post or any of the previous blog posts so feel free to comment below. Thanks!
This is a blog post about Mathilde. Mathilde is a dance and music improvisation collective I'm part of formed in 2009 with four fellow improvisers. Created through intuition rather than deliberation we came together without many words. It was all about playing and doing. Even after four years the intimate understanding between us and the curiosity for each other's practice is still there.
Who are we?
In Mathilde we are five performers, two musicians and three dancers, who love coming together to dance and play. The core of what we do is improvisation and within that we explore the boundaries of each others’ areas of expertise using various tasks and scores as a structure.
To give an impression of what we do, here's a film of some work -a performance tour in the north of England from 2011 taking place in a theatre in Leeds, a church in Manchester, a park in Leeds and at a festival in Rotherham.
On Sunday the 3 March 2013 Mathilde met up for tea, soup, ginger beer and banoffee pie. The point of the meeting was to discuss where we see the collective going both in practical and creative terms. Having this chat made me think back to the beginning of Mathilde in 2009.
The implications of being a collective
An important point to establish about Mathilde is how we were founded on a silently agreed ethos: being a collective. Being a collective meant sharing views on aesthetics and work ethics. There was no hierarchy when developing ideas and no single member leading the group. We never had an outside person to overlook the bigger picture neither in a creative nor a practical sense. Working in this way spread out the responsibility between all members. It also meant, of course, that each member always had a fifth of the responsibility! The no-hierarchy-policy was reflected in the performance space: the musicians were not in the pit playing for the dance and the sound made by the dancers had the same value as sound made by musicians. We were performers on equal terms.
The aesthetics were never actually agreed on. They sort of emerged through the slow formation of the collective without being said out loud. However, looking back on it there were some unconscious choices that made the group different from other improvised dance and music groups. We were not interested in entertaining or sending a political message or performing around themes. As Mathilde was never set out to be a performance project we had no audience to please. Practicing together was for our own amusement and curiosity and the result was complete austerity. When we made the transition from researching into performing we rejected the use of set, lighting and costume; the movement and sound was to stand alone. Our performances were to be an exploration of relationships and timing and then allowing coincidence and spontaneity to determine how the performance would develop. It was almost a philosophical experiment. Can you present completely improvised work for an audience without taking much notice of them and still give them a worthwhile experience? It was challenging for some audience members and we did receive mixed feedback and some frowned foreheads also from the established dance world. One thing that gave us this freedom was that we stayed completely clear of relying on funding or financial support. We got together for the pure love of improvising, there was no financial incentive, and no fundraisers to please.
To put it in short: Mathilde refused narrative and meaning and relied solely on the interaction between performers.
This is snippet of footage from a rehearsal at Yorkshire Dance in March 2010. The footage gives an impression on some of the interactions between musicians and dancers we were exploring at this stage:
At what point would the musician cease to be only a musician and become part of the dance? At what point would the sound created by the dancer using voice, breath or body percussion fuse with the music made by instruments? Musicians and their instruments became an integrated part of the performance space and the sounds made by dancers mixed with the 'soundscape'.
The camera was simply rolling to document our investigation as the static recording of the video implies. Entertaining or any deliberate composition was unintended.
Since the recording of this rehearsal three years ago we have developed a more open approach to our creative practice.
It was therefore interesting to come together for this recent meeting after a break of about five months and hear the collective members express their visions for the future of the group. Coming together to improvise movement and sound had always been the glue that stuck us together, without a certain degree of creative compatibility we would fall apart.
Mathilde performing in Colourscape in Rotherham 2011
Bullet points from meeting
Returning to what was discussed at our recent meeting - in short these were the points for creative development that came up:
A love affair
This meeting brought out a more serious side of us. It seemed we were more confident and determined when expressing ideas for how to continue our practice together. Our common denominator - improvisation - was always there but perhaps in the early days there was a degree of negotiating a common language. Testing boundaries between our roles was part of that and experimenting with complete freedom in the improvisation was also a variation on searching for identity. Now it seemed that our individual uniqueness as performing artists was clearer and that we were ready to bring this in to the collective.
Returning from the meeting I felt very uplifted by how committed we all still are to the group. Not because we're vigorously holding on to this before-mentioned identity but because we're starting to let go and open up. Considering bringing in a mentor, inviting guests and allowing each other more freedom to explore individual research within the parameters of the group, feels like a love declaration to Mathilde.
The whole meeting felt like a step up. Applying for funding was also discussed which seemed a way of taking the collective more seriously and acknowledging our own worth.
We have been practicing, rehearsing and performing together as Mathilde for four years. Not constantly but in little pockets of time when availability has allowed us. We're still the same five practitioners although we're probably five very different practitioners to four years ago. Perhaps the slow development and persistent work is the clue to the longevity of the collective, together with a passion for improvisation. Like a long love affair.
Below is responses from the collective members to the initial email suggesting to meet, raising questions about the future of the group:
Seth: "I still feel as excited about mathilde as ever, and would love to do more"
Daliah: "I really want to work with you all again and would love to have some time in the studio at some point"
Rachel: "Personally I'm very keen to continue. And whatever else I'm up to, what we do as Mathilde - performing improvisation is right at the heart of what I'm interested in"
Marie: "i feel we have build up something quite unusual and i really cherish the moments we have together."
Oliver: "I would really love to do some more playing and dancing with you guys, it provides me with some much needed soul nourishment! "
Had I been more Obama-esque I might have said 'Four more years'!
On Sunday the 9 September Mathilde improvisation collective performed for the second time at Colourscape in Rotherham. Colourscape is a giant inflated plastic structure in a variety of colours. You walk through the translucent interconnected chambers experiencing the different sensations and impressions the colours give you. One colour will make you feel energised and overwhelmed another will make you calm and mellow.
The round and soft architecture of the space means there are no corners and no edges which adds to this 'spacy' kind of sensation. The lack of contour means it's difficult to stay focused and orientate yourself and so getting lost is quite common. You simply have to give in to the space and allow the sensations you experience to guide you. Colourscape mainly attracts the under 10-year-old's but it seems also to be an excuse for adults to become playful and childlike. The atmosphere for sure is one of excitement and awe -at least initially- followed by tranquility and calm as the body and mind becomes more acquainted with the surroundings.
My Colourscape experience
At one end of the construction was a slightly larger dome-like chamber in white. It felt like the heart of the structure with more space for movement and a central point where the artists would come together. This was the area where the musicians set up instruments -some with amplification. Apart from this space there was no stage, no lights. The only thing that distinguished Mathilde from the audience members were the costumes. The audience wore coloured cloaks, we wore white.
In a collective you perform together, with the support, encouragement and safety of being in a group. Even if you have a solo moment, your fellow improvisers hold the space for you. In Colourscape, wandering away from the white dome chamber in to the crowds, the boundary between performer and audience becomes gradually more fluid. The absence of the physical boundary that a stage area provides means that physical proximity to the audience changes. Who is performing and who is not becomes blurry. One minute I'm one of the visitors and the next I become part of the installation that is the structure, as I morph in to my 'mover' role. This grey zone or 'no-man's-land' in which the performer is oscilating between her performer and spectator role is challenging for the audience. They have to allow this to happen.
Thankfully breaking in to spontaneous dancing will be met with less bewilderment in this setting, than if you were doing it walking down the street. In Colourscape the environment lends a lot to you as everything is warped already.
Rachel pointed out afterwards how our first improvisation in the space (a score where one improviser explores movement with their eyes closed while another is witnessing and 'minding' them) gave her an opportunity to mediate between performer and audience. In her role as witness she was holding space for the performer and at the same time connecting with the audience as a non-performer.
It is interesting how I found myself shying away from these solo moments. I found myself hesitating to go and explore movement on my own. I'm sure this had something to do with the fear of firsthand confrontation with the audience and how vulnerable this makes me feel. When there are no physical separation between improviser and spectator a solo performance can become very intimate and honest. For both audience and improviser.
I love these sort of challenges though and will be looking forward to more of them. It's so wonderful to have these opportunities with the Mathilde collective and to be confronted with obstacles. Improvisation for me is about adapting to the environment rather than squeezing a set performance in to a mould.
I have noticed that the trepidation of the solo performance phenomena seems to be less prominent with musicians. They seem to be less anxious about playing solo. This could be for many reasons. Based on my reasoning above one implication could be this: With an instrument, regardless of its size, you have a 'friend' -a prop- to lean on. It is the sound and movement of your instrument that takes focus hence the person playing the instrument moves to the background. You're never really alone! You can put the instrument in front of yourself as you please. Dancers/movers have nothing to hide behind.
This is partly why I enjoy it when the musicians put their instruments away in a Mathilde performance. Its like they put their shield down.
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Here you will find posts about subjects I find interesting and that all relate to my disciplines in dance, yoga and coaching:
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