the sea onion, and how it came to be

Photograph by Gael Collin

“how to build a boat” was  the end result of a research and development project I undertook as part of my BPA(Hons) in Contemporary Dance at NSCD. It was the culmination of a massive amount of work, not only by myself, but also by the group I worked with. On the surface, it’s a dance theatre piece about a strange sea-world. Under the surface, it’s also a metaphor for the many layers of a long process – hence the sea-onion!

During Kathinka Walter’s class earlier in the year, we improvised according to Thomas Lehman’s systems of democratic improvisation. I thought the results were amazing. This led me to think long and hard about the creative power of the collective and the issues surrounding the roles we play in any group. The lessons I learnt fed directly into my research project. I had also been reading The Conference of The Birds by John Heilpern – a book about Peter Brook’s journey through Africa with a group of actors in the 1970s. I became interested in creating a sensitive community within the group and new, improvised worlds with each performance. The ability to communicate via universally understood images can ensure that performance remains accessible and rooted in human experience, whilst retaining the transformative element so essential to art.

The research period was important in order for the dancers to fully embody the theme. It allowed more freedom for the creative potential of each individual, and the time and space to explore new avenues. It also allowed for the development of the work in unexpected directions, so that each dancer discovered new ways of working and his/her own place in the eventual piece. I researched the process of various physical theatre practitioners and developed tasks and improvisations which incorporated my thematic ideas and also explored the life of objects, voice and text. I took particular inspiration from Dymphna Callery’s book ‘Through the Body’ and Frantic Assembly’s ‘Book of Devising’.

My research took the form of a weekly workshop with the dancers during a three week process. I filmed all the sessions and used the footage, combined with our commentary, in order to present the findings (filming has now become an integral part of my process). The workshop was movement-based in week one, objects in week two, and voice/text in week three. Each also developed from solo to group improvisations. I planned each session, but soon realised that I needed to leave more space for experimentation so the process could remain dynamic. In week two I gave the group total collective free reign. This is when the group began to understand what I was looking for and why. By the time the third week arrived, all was calm and the improvisations had a special quality which I felt sure was the result of the process.

To begin the development I looked at the material from the research and tried to construct some sort of internal logic. Eventually I became interested in reconstructing the structure of the research period, as the basis of the structure of the piece. By this I meant that the piece would move from demonstrating the initial struggle to communicate and understand, to a more joyful but chaotic freedom and playfulness, before ending harmoniously by constructing a ‘new world’ together in the form of a boat. Looking back, the quality of the material generated in each week of the research really reflected the trajectory I have described. The opening of the piece was the first democratic improvisation, the mid-section with the basket was developed from our work with objects in week two, and the ending came from the text we worked with in the third week and the general atmosphere of those final improvisations.

Influenced by being in Hagit Bar’s improvised performance, I did begin to contemplate whether I would be truer to the process, the group, and my beliefs if I was to present a structured improvisation as my development project. With this in mind we continued to simply improvise rather than setting material. Each session was a joy to watch thanks to the quality of attention the group were giving the task, each other, and the theme. I used the mentoring process to discuss with the tutors whether I should stick to creating a traditional piece or explore improvisation as performance. Their advice varied slightly. One said – if you can’t take a risk and explore improvisation as performance now, when can you? Others argued – keep exploring and improvising, and closer to the time it will become clear what you should do.

I was concerned that if I chose to eventually direct the piece then I would alienate those who agreed with my improvisation idea. In the end, I felt that it was necessary to direct the piece to a certain extent, but that I also wished to keep the atmosphere of improvisation. This was the struggle of the process, as it goes against the nature of the two forms. It was here that I encountered slight resistance from the group, who perhaps resented being forced to reign in their improvisation and begin to re-learn and set material, often from video, which can be a painstaking process.

However, I could see the piece beginning to form and was aware that if I wanted to capture the essence of what we had created in a format that everybody would be able to watch (a ten minute performance as opposed to a winding two hour improvisation) then this was necessary. I believe that if everybody couldn’t come and watch it for long enough to really ‘get it’, then the act of communication that I believe in would not have taken place, and the dance might be too much for us, and not enough for the audience.

In the following weeks I pieced together different elements and directed snippets into more ‘set’ scenes. We generated more material as necessary and we added elements of text. I had rehearsals in smaller groups to clean specific material. At one point, I was worried we had lost it, that the piece was becoming too set, and drained of life. I spoke to one of the group about this, and she put things into perspective. She suggested that if we were losing some of the original essence, why not mix it up a bit – throw back in a bit of improvisation to keep it fresh? This was a revelation. I had been struggling with some important transitions and there was lots of lovely material that hadn’t yet made it into the final cut. What if I was to add a little music to certain sections, remind each dancer of earlier material that they could be free to develop and improvise with, and see what happens?!

I tried it, and though it took some time for the group to reassume responsibility for the space and the piece as a whole in those sections, I could see immediately that it was the right thing to do. It brought the piece back to life, and I could see the enjoyment the dancers gained from that extra freedom. I did notice that around this time the group started acting up and messing about a bit. They were tired, it had been a long process, and I was moving the goalposts again. However we moved past this. It’s a fine line to tread between director and dancers. I learnt a huge amount from the interplay between these two roles during this process, not only about dance, but about people and life. I feel that not only have we all gained something from this process, but we are also better friends as a result. This is equally as satisfying as creating a piece that I am very happy with.

During the Ideas in Art module I looked at Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, and this eventually fed back in to the piece. The day before our performance I included Sabine Verenko as a person of stillness, sat fishing or walking slowly, a contemplative figure throughout. At one time, I would have thought it was a risk to change anything so soon, but not anymore! I also made last minute changes to the ending, confident that the group could handle this. Having watched the final run I was pleased. The group worked beautifully together and certain people had obviously developed new skills and qualities.

The final performance went very well and I have very few complaints about the choreography. My only small one was that the mid-section scene was supposed to become quite chaotic and reach a crescendo in terms of energy. It seems I don’t really know how to ‘do’ chaotic, so this was a challenge. This section could have lived up to my intention better had we had a little more material and more time to work on it. This is definitely something I could work further on – whilst I appreciate the calmness of my work I also think a few explosions would not go amiss. The sea isn’t always calm. It would be a positive challenge to work on expanding the repertoire of ‘atmospheres’ that I create with my work.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that this work was richer and more complex than my last piece. I would now like to play more with the borderline between this clarity and chaos – I think I’m looking for an ideal balance of this and also between dance and theatre. For me, this is one which treads the delicate line between theatre and ‘reality’. The best comparison I can think of is a literary one, and it’s Angela Carter’s ‘magical realism’. At one time I thought perhaps I would only be able to make pure dance, then I thought I could only make very theatrical work, as this felt simpler and more human. Now, I think I have discovered something fundamental which I can begin to complicate further again! Such is life. In my next piece, I would like to include even more dance, because there are certain strengths of feeling which dancing expresses like almost nothing else, and this could help to create new intensities of atmosphere in my future work.

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