Body regimes

RealTime-Performance Space Forum

Suzuki Tadashi, Meme Thorne

Suzuki Tadashi, Meme Thorne

At the fifth in the RealTime-Performance Space series of open forums for artists working in contemporary performance, 50 performers, academics in performance studies, emerging artists, students and teachers of a range of skills and body regimes gathered to discuss the meanings, functions, effectiveness and availability of training. Visiting scholars and artists from Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, and a number of choreographers and dancers, joined in the dialogue which was informally hosted by director and performer Nikki Heywood and RealTime editor Keith Gallasch.


Nikki Heywood I wonder can we feel our training in our body. How aware of it are we? How useful have those training methods been and what particularly attracted you to the particular discipline.

Meme Thorne (performer) My speciality is the Suzuki Method otherwise known as stomping. I started in 1989 doing classes with Nigel Kellaway who was probably one of the first Australians to go to Japan and study with Suzuki Tadashi and his company at Toga. The Suzuki Company came to Australia in 1991 and performed The Trojan Women. What excited me most was that although Suzuki was working with something like 35 people on stage it was possible for me to look at every single person and feel, wow, I’m getting something from every single one of them. What is it that they do that enables them to harness this kind of energy, this kind of presence and make not just the principle interesting and able to engage your attention? Even those who didn’t speak a word. Even the one who stood for an hour and 10 minutes without moving. So I wrote to Suzuki and asked if I could participate in some kind of training with his company which I did in 1991. In 1992 he invited me to go back to Japan and train as a teacher of that methodology and I’ve been teaching it ever since.

I think the difficulty for a lot of performers is that you have an idea of how you want to be received and you have an idea of what you want to say but often the 2 pictures don’t come together. Through the Suzuki training I have found it more possible to arrive at those two ideals and bring them together. It happens to me because through the training I’ve been able to understand what it is my body does at any given moment while I’m on stage. I can do away with extraneous gestures, I can be crisp and precise and I can make a clear picture, and I’m talking not just about what I say and do but the visceral qualities, the aesthetics of the whole thing.

Simon Woods?(performer, Zen Zen Zo, a Brisbane-based performance group) We also found that there were a lot of wonderful benefits in the training which I believe transformed our company and took our work to a whole new level but there were also elements that we found a bit limiting. It’s a highly structured style of training, very formal. We found when we were working only with Suzuki Method, in rehearsals and eventually performance, a lot of the acting was rather stilted, a bit lacking in freedom and vulnerability. Our main influence has been not so much the Suzuki Company of Toga but one of their children, the City Company in New York, run by Anne Bogart. Our training now comprises Suzuki as well as the Viewpoints Training. Viewpoints is about the group. It’s a series of improvisational exercises that allow the actor to take into account their relationship to the rest of the company. It focuses a lot on spontaneity, on creating material in the moment, on reaction to the other performers. There are 9 different viewpoints that enable the performer to create that awareness. There is a book, a collection of articles called Viewpoints, and it was put together at a conference in the states. It’s been a fantastic influence

Yana Taylor (performer, teacher) I’d like everyone to stand up who has found only 1 of their training backgrounds useful in performance, whatever exciting thing it is that hooks you and engages you. How many people have found 2 things in their background that they’ve carried, OK 3, 4, 5, 6 (this is much more than I’d thought), 7, 8, 9, 10. Put your hands up if you think I haven’t reached your point yet·11, 12, 13, 14. Stand up anyone who thinks their training has been totally useless for them.

I did this to see how you might think and partly because of my own experience. I have a range of training backgrounds, the short list of decisive ones÷years of classical ballet, quite a substantial amount of work in corporeal mime, Suzuki, I’m a tap dancer·but in some ways all of those things have a relationship with where I am now. I remember one of my earlier teachers who came from Europe. A very fierce person she was but I worked with her for about 4 years. And one of the things she kept saying about Australians was that we were all dilletantes who didn’t take ourselves seriously and that we would therefore be cast out into the cultural tundra. And something about my rather adolescent and flimsy wavering sense of what I was doing still went no, I’m gonna stick by this dedicated eclecticism as I’ve come to call it, and see if in fact I might find others who are in the same situation because they live here too.

Celia White (director, physical theatre performer) I started performing because I got seduced by circus and the idea of it. Not circus circus but circus tricks as an avenue to doing other things with them in the late 70s. That was to do political theatre, which became feminist theatre, when there was the idea of making the female body strong. There was also the ooh-aah factor, the kind of spectacle that you could access really easily with circus. This is an interesting thing for a body like mine. There was no training. There was make-it-up-as-you-go and probably hurt-yourself-in-the-process. I love Feldenkrais now. Then that idea of whatever circus theatre was, which we never really knew, became very limiting and we found ourselves calling ourselves something different. And in the process I grabbed at anything that was passing by. I’ve invented my own training. But there’s still that little sense that I haven’t had a regime to hook into and perhaps I’m looking for one…but perhaps I’ve missed the boat. The idea of another regime on this body seems impossible now.

NH Where does the aesthetic of the discipline start to shape the aesthetic of the work we make and how does that break new ground and create form?

Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company in a Viewponts training session

Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company in a Viewponts training session

SW In Zen Zen Zo we’ve found the relationship between performance and training to be a very circular one. You go from training into performance and that creates problems and issues and questions and then you’re back into training to address those issues and back into performance to test the answers.

Gavin Robins (performer, teacher) I felt that the virtuosity that you see exemplified every Saturday at the VFL finals or even any sporting arena around Australia, that risk taking wasn’t apparent in the theatre. But I’d walk down to the Dance block—I did a drama degree at Kelvin Grove in Brisbane—and I’d see virtuosity there and some of the Physical Education people doing it and I’d say, why can’t theatre embrace this and why can’t actors be as developed in their physicality as they are in their intellectual ability and their vocal skills? I was driven by that. When I went to the NIDA Movement Course I saw a lot of stuff and I was involved in a lot of conventional work. It’s a very classical training, and it was boring and kind of anti-physical, and it really got up my nose. Then in 1994 I saw Legs on the Wall’s All of Me here at Performance Space and it was that first step towards a merging of virtuosity and eloquence with storytelling. So part of my experience with Legs has been touring throughout the world and performing and really locking myself into a system, and after a while I thought that’s it, I need to go out and apply these skills in other areas.

And the Bell Shakespeare Company is an exciting company for me to work with at the moment because John has embraced this notion of the ensemble. He has 11 core performers who work with him for the whole year and I teach them Ashtanga Yoga and basic balance acrobatics÷things to empower the actor so that they might be able to lift a person above the chorus or have Ariel run across the backs of people. And then it’s a question of how that language furthers the theatrical aesthetic, does it say the same thing? We see examples of it working in great companies like Theatre de Complicité who have a seamless merging of so many skills. And it is that search for holism that I’m excited by, and the dynamic eclectic training. And I think that’s what we should be striving for.

YT One of the things that afflicts this network is that training regimes are considered an uncreative area and are very hard to support and fund—unless it’s part of creative development or rehearsal—because it’s considered somehow unthought, unconstructed. This is why I respect the project of the Omeo Studio [Sydney] crew because they’re working really hard to create the kind of milieu where training is possible. And without that, these things stall despite all the sacrifices from several generations of performers in a whole range of related work.

One of the things that I think I might be seeing here tonight is that institutional practice is all right÷it’s okay to go to Kelvin Grove or WAAPA but it ain’t enough. And beyond that these tracks are ones of people self-teaching and finding their own path through. There needs to be room for that and it’s getting increasingly difficult to find space for it.

Matthew Fargher (musician, vocal teacher) My training is largely in physical theatre and traditional theatre via Philippe Gaulier and people like him, Yoshio Ida, a Japanese actor in Paris and subsequently a bunch of voice teachers who had a very body-based approach. My understanding of the relationship between the body and the voice came from an accidental moment in the lead up time for a class I did for a Contemporary Performance Week at Sidetrack in which I went partially deaf due to an ear infection. Suddenly I realised that I could hear my body from the inside. I could hear my breathing and suddenly sense the whole voice thing at a kinaesthetic level and suddenly it was like, there’s the clue. You can translate all of that body approach, feel the interaction between yourself and the space and yourself and another, whether that’s from a contact improvisation point of view or any discipline that puts an individual in a space with a degree of sensitivity. You can suddenly translate a lot of that work into voice work.

The tricky thing is getting an individual or group of people to do physical work and then translate that into voice—I’m doing it every week with the choir I sing with. We do a lot of physical work in the lead up. Every time I do a choir that doesn’t do that, they’re like, oh, you mean, you can kind of move before you sing. It’s a revelation. I think it’s easier to bring physicality to people who use their voices already and have an effect than the other way around. Apart from a few individuals who make noise while they perform there isn’t anything like what you might call a school of vocal physical performance. So I’ve had to look elsewhere within Australia to see if there is a cultural lead and the obvious thing for me is the way that the Cook Islanders and others perform because they have a very physical way of singing and the singing and the gesture are one.

Silver Budd I’m a Body-Mind Centering© practitioner and I feel that through that technique I get tools or ways of working with myself. Say right now I’m having to talk and I feel nervous and so I’m looking for my belly and I’m looking for my blood and I’m looking for what connects me more with the earth and I’m going into my body to find what can soften in my organs, how can I make more space in my throat. All the time I’m using this inward vision that I got from Body Mind Centering© which very much has taught me about all the different systems of cells in my body that are making me be here at this moment, the way I’m being here.

Sue Broadway (performer) All of my training from when I was quite small right up to more recently is the exact opposite, starting from the external. I’ve only come to learning about any kind of internal training much much later in my career. I counted 20 training regimes in answer to Yana’s question and I was only counting the ones I’d done for a month or more including some exotic ones like Peking Opera and Balinese mask and Kathakali. I think I’m with Meme, I think they all become so ingrained in the body that when I set myself the task of going out to do the work I feel a subconscious level in the muscles and not in the brain at all. A lot of the things I do are about focussing on getting one throw right. When the object leaves your hand, you know as you take the beat, you know whether you’ve done it right or not. It’s a state of mind that you’ve managed to locate, a tempo in your body that repeats the action for you.

Alice Cummins (dancer, Body-Mind Centering© teacher) You do it in your mind but your mind is in your body. Your intelligence is all over your body.

Lowell Lewis (academic, anthropologist) I agree with what you say although I think it’s a duality. I call it the embodied mind and the intelligent body, and trying to get to a third place which is somewhere in between. Somebody brought up this notion of rapping and hip hop where the vocal and physical do come together. But when they start breaking, they don’t sing. You try singing while spinning on the top of your head. It’s like another degree up. The artform that I’ve worked on quite a lot is Capoeira, the Brazilian martial artform which also involves singing. The best players can actually do Capoeira and sing at the same time. Although they’ll only do certain movements.

Alison Richards (academic, performance studies) I think it’s really important to understand that every training produces a different you and comes in at a different point. It isn’t just static. It’s dynamic and you are making yourself all the time as you do it.

Paul Selwyn Norton Choreographer, autodidact, never went to formal school. I was very fortunate to be taken off the disco floor and put on stage at the age of 23. I just had quite a strong sense of proprioception. this ownership of what we have here.

Andrew Morrish (improvisor) I was taken from a disco floor too but asked to stop doing that.

PSN As a choreographer I believe I’m privileged to be able to manipulate body space time mechanics which is what we all do as artists. That’s my fundamental. So if I was working with, say, a gymnast, someone who had a strong sense of proprioception, I would teach them a sense of musicality, rhythm, timing. There are many, many systems that I’ve picked up over the years. I spent my first 4 or 5 years dancing for other people, not too happily, and ended up having to choreograph by default. I became a hunter gatherer for resources that suited my poetics best. I think the poetry governs the work and you find the tools which will best express the poetics of that work. For me it’s the poetics that govern the work, not actual technique.

KG Nigel Kellaway has said that significant Australian dancers have either been trained by Russell Dumas or Leigh Warren. What do you give to people who come to you in terms of training?

Russell Dumas (choreograper, dancer) Access to an embodied heritage. My own practice embraces the modern and postmodern and I worked with Cunningham, Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp and everyone in between. I think it’s interesting in the last 20 years, for reasons that I think are associated with rationalism and globalisation÷by which I mean Americanisation and free markets and the way this is playing out÷that there are no significant breaks to the canon. It’s habitus, this notion of what you need to forget so that you can have a present. It’s more what you can have—you need to forget the past so that you can have a future. But you also need to have a practice to have a future. And having a practice in Australia is like being a homosexual in a Roman Catholic seminary. It’s all right as long as you’re not out.

You’re talking about technique, but what for? This whole thing is like some Foucauldian notion of bodies and disciplining bodies. About 30 years ago I came across the notion of the thinking body and experiential anatomy. Basically it comes down to the sense of touch. It’s probably the first sense and the one through which we know the other senses. That relationship to touch is distinctly related to the mother’s touch and it’s often denied as a sense of knowing or a way of knowing. You’re also talking about embodiment. There’s a history of denial to do with the body. We’re always talking about the body of knowledge, the body of wisdom, the body incorporated but what’s the relationship of my body to Dance Exchange Incorporated? What’s the relationship of the private and the public of this body. It’s not so much about the visual. You’re talking about wanting people to look at you. I became interested in dance as a homosexual growing up in central Queensland where I did ballet and became interested in the notion of a performance of absence. If people looked at you, you got bashed up. The performance of absence was something that later was quite useful to me. Cunningham asked me to work with him because he was interested in that quality.
Probably the most interesting bodies I’ve worked with have been the untrained ones like Keith March and Nick Sabel. The other ones very often have had ballet training. It’s something that’s barcoded into children’s bodies. I’m interested in the notion of a colonial ballet practice and how people talk about Republicanism in this world of dance.

YT The opportunities and support mechanisms for training have become thinner on the ground. At the same time, the appetite for them is on the increase. We are actually at an interesting point. I can think of some ordinary things to do. When people are making applications to funding organisations, that they see training as part of the creative pursuit and intimately woven into it. At the other level, there’s the way the field’s run for a long time—making do, barter, exchange. But in Sydney there’s less and less infrastructure for that to happen, the space, time and access to it.

Body Regimes, RealTime-Performance Space forum, Performance Space, Sydney, June 4.

Read full transcript.

The next in the series of RealTime-Performance Space forums, The Place of the Space, on the relationship between the artists and the contemporary art space. Performance Space, September 3, 6pm.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 12

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1 August 2001