Category Archives: Dance

The Clown in us all

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I recently attended a weekend workshop with LISPA, the London International School of Performing Arts (based in London and Berlin). I knew the school focussed on physical theatre, after the work of Jacques Lecoq at his school in Paris, but didn’t realise how relevant the focus would be to be my own interest in masks, clowning, mime, puppetry and the expression of the unknown, the unseen. We don’t always think of the links between clowning and acting and we tend to brush off the term ‘clowning around’ thinking of it as just silliness but you don’t have to look far to see how clowning can work hand-in-hand with acting. Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon MacBurney (Director of Complicite Theatre Company), Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Rush and Kathryn Hunter trained under Philippe Gaulier who was a student and teacher at Lecoq’s school in the 1960’s and 70’s and is known for his ‘Inverted Clown’, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm. Gaulier was interested in the pupil finding a ‘wonderful spirit’, rather than teaching a ‘style’. (Just as Tom Stoppard, according to actor Joseph Fiennes, says ‘imagination will take you to a greater truth than academia.’) He popularised the ‘buffoon’ genre of 1960’s theatre – during festivals, the ‘ugly people’ (buffoons) would entertain the ‘beautiful people’. These beautiful people were often part of the Government or Church. The idea was to make the ‘beautiful people’ think, and realise their lives were meaningless. There is a slight irony here in that the acting world (at least Hollywood) tends to favour more commercially good looking people. But if we think about what really makes a good actor, we’re attracted to the ones who portray truth more than how beautiful they are. Speaking personally as someone who performs, it’s difficult to be truthful and beautiful as those two things mean different things to different people – and truthfulness is unfortunately less valued than looking beautiful in this society.

Lecoq

Lecoq

However in opposition to this, in a recent interview with film director Harry Macqueen on his film Hinterland (opening February 2015), Macqueen talks about the importance of truth and honesty to him saying ‘this ‘truth’ lies in the spaces between words – the unnoticed glances and mutual experiences, as well as the tacit acknowledgement of the things that cannot be said…’ Later I will talk about how mask plays a part in taking this further. Philosophically speaking, truth, beauty and ‘goodness’ are all inherently linked but that’s a subject in itself. The programme at LISPA itself, integrates relevant elements from the Junguian concept for personal growth and additional body-movement-performance based practices.

The type of physical theatre I explored was very much rooted ‘in the body’ and asks the actor to think about resonance with an object, or a person (or just something – for example a colour), and once that resonance has been activated, to then embody that ‘other’ (the object, person, colour). I found this a very useful way in to truthfully portraying something outside myself, whilst using what I have within me. Lecoq and Gaulier theatre is about the actor finding the most successful performance outcome for themselves by rejecting technique, and that acting is ‘play’ which creates a rapport with the audience by speaking to their imagination. You only have to see a few pictures on the Lecoq School’s website to understand this.

lesson

‘Neutral Mask’ is a cornerstone of LISPA’s philosophy. Masks are creations of our individual, collective or universal imagination and can have a similar function to myths, which can be seen as expressions of our longing for something much larger in life. At the same time, they are the access to the Invisible, giving us a glimpse of the yet unseen and unlived. Thomas Prattki, Founder and Director of LISPA (and tutor on the course I did) says ‘there are also masks which are capable of opening for us the gate to the grand mysteries of humankind as a whole. Masks can also be seen as amplifications of the different inner drives rooted deeply within our body and psyche …an experience of the collective or transpersonal dimension within us.’

Lecoq called the Neutral Mask ‘the mask behind all other masks’. The Neutral Mask is a unifying ‘reality of body, psyche and world, which has been described in mythology, science, philosophy and depth psychology as the ‘Atman’: the Implicit Order, the Real, the Flesh or the Self.’

Wearing the Neutral Masks that LISPA provided made me feel bigger than I am – by that I mean I felt my own presence. I felt more alive and comfortable in my own skin, maybe because I wasn’t showing my own face – which looking back, in fact is rather unsettling. The course says it is for artists, actors, dancers, educators, healers, therapists and human beings. The mask forms a dialogue with the person wearing it, as well as those watching it being worn. An inner dialogue is formed which tells a story between the conscious and the unconscious. My movement and expression in the mask became more defined – it is what the school calls ‘staging the shadow’ – as myself I don’t live certain elements of myself because of constraints or expectations of society, work, friends, family – the conditions that govern my life. In the mask, my shadow surfaces.

People recognise that they need to integrate the shadow into their personal and collective lives. Movement, theatre and performance are some of the most direct ways to unearth the Unlived – the body, play and imagination are pathways into the anarchic vitality which are there in us as children but get covered as we grow. The paradox is that uncovering them is done via this mask.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

The art of clowning I learnt comes from picking up on the little details about life (how we walk, how we hold our head etc) and then blowing these up into a chaotic act. To celebrate the strange, the untamed and sublime and find your own clown, the buffoon (via the Grotesque mask – moving on from the Neutral) which you become, announces the arrival of the Fantastical and Mystery. Prattki calls this ‘the untamed Other within yourself who deeply enjoys failing, falling and the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life. Contact with your clown shadow will enrich your creative potential and unearth the pleasure of being truly stupid.‘ We find we develop the dialogue between our shadow and conscious mind, between chaos and form. You find who you are via ‘the other’ – though ‘the other’ is more you than you know, since you are simply making visible the Invisible.

Philipp Schaeffer is a professional clown, actor, TaKeTiNa Ryhtym teacher and alumni of Lecoq, and says ‘Rhythm is my tool as a clown and as a teacher in order to create space…there is no need to learn a new instrument, since you are your instrument. You will find out how to play it in the best possible way.’ Many times on the course, we were told to give ourselves permission to ‘be’.

The puppeteer Basil Twist III (an example of his work below) was one of the creators behind Kate Bush’s comeback concert in 2014 and has been at the Barbican in January 2015 with his own show as part of the London International Mime Festival – he says that although puppets are marginalised, he says this has its benefits as when they make an appearance, they surprise people – by virtue of the surprise, they have a powerful message. The unseen/invisible puppeteers are behind the seen/visible puppets – it is ‘reverence for something beautiful…a rare, strange thing…To see something coming to life that is not alive, that you know is not alive, is an existential experience…puppetry has very sacred roots. Fundamentally it’s dealing with the frontier between life and death. There’s nothing more profound.’

Twist

 

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Being truthful whilst performing

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Here I go again with this theme (I’ll be brief) – but again, we see that the best dancing on Strictly Come Dancing comes from those who give themselves to it in an honest way.  The dancers are as real as they can be whilst ‘performing’ (and yet can often express much more whilst performing than they could off the dance floor).  It’s good to see this, and hear the comments of the judges on this, on a fairly light-hearted programme on Saturday night.  You don’t have to read philosophy to think about all this deep stuff – it’s in the everyday.

Strictly

‘Dance First. Think Later.’

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The quote is from a favourite writer of mine – of ‘Waiting For Godot’ and many other plays (see below).

dog quote

This is all very well – and a good idea most of the time, I think, but we are rarely able to.  Numerous examples show where people have danced – in other words done what they’ve wanted…and there are consequences for themselves and others.

Perhaps not so long ago I would have said yes to this philosophy with no hesitation as I do think it’s important to grab the moment and enjoy it for what it is – without thought.  I think I’d still say this but I’d add ‘as long as you don’t hurt yourself or other living beings (animal or human).’

Hollywood

What’s the link with Hollywood I hear you ask?  Well, Hollywood is the place where I suppose people do, and can, dance, and achieve great things – if they have the money and contacts.  I recently spent some time at Universal Studios LA and I was blown away by the dreams that have become real.

It is a place of dancing and thinking simultaneously and film makers would not have achieved anything if they had thought and then danced.

Dancing therefore is a metaphor for living life to the full and Universal is a place that takes you to where imagination takes over from reality.  In a world of 3D – which Universal uses to the full in its news rides and shows, we watch a fixed image which we think comes out at us and part of our world.  As we know, this is not the case – but we believe it to be the case.

Terminator

In the Terminator show, above, the Terminator is not really touching us but we believe it to be so.  Even when we are told ‘it is not real’ – we still jump when it happens!

Universal shows us – in a fun way – the benefits of dancing and not thinking.  The dimensions of the mind would not be stretched to their full capacity if we did only the latter.  And, dancing is often the more objective approach to life; thinking too much can be unhealthy as judgements can creep in.

Universal

Walking into Universal is walking into an impossible yet possible world.  It is not so far from the way real life works.

The Script Within Us

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We write a script for ourselves that sits within us – we probably don’t know we do, and we often use the wrong words or write the wrong story.  There’s an internal monologue in our heads that narrates our lives.  Are we always our most honest narrators?

It’s why art forms which use no words are necessary and valuable.  Matthew Bourne, known for his radical reworking of classic ballet, says dance is telling a story without words.  His new project, Sleeping Beauty, has been turned into a gothic romance where Tchaikovsky meets Twilight.

Sleeping Beauty

In many ways, non-spoken arts forms offer us a more neutral commentary on our lives.  Our lives are so full of words (which are not always truthful) – our own and other people’s, they crowd our heads.  Images, dance, puppetry, leave things open.  Bourne says ‘if you’re telling stories, it’s important not everyone looks the same.  I’m drawn to people who can act, who are “searchers”.’

We can look at a piece of dance, and it will communicate something different to each person, whilst letting us escape ourselves for a bit for ‘time out’ but at the same time, ‘time in’ to focus on other truths which we might not have considered.  The novelist Barbara Kingsolver says ‘It’s about how people can look at the same set of facts and come away believing different things.’

If you think about it, this comment applies to other areas in life as well as the arts – apply it to religion, love, people, the world…remember the ‘duck rabbit’ – which is it, and how do you know?

 

Dancing your Way to Truth

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One weekend in August 2009 I was fortunate to spend a Saturday matinee at the Victoria Palace watching ‘Billy Elliot’ and a full day Sunday with theatre company Frantic Assembly doing a workshop on Physicality.  Both events tied in brilliantly, unplanned.  They both stated two things.  ‘Billy Elliot’ is resounding in its push for the arts and the expression of every human (within the context of the arts and outside it).  The workshop echoed this (though it wasn’t articulated verbally) and we all ‘moved’ our way into being ourselves.  Lee Hall (book and lyrics for Billy Elliot) says: ‘whilst we might not all become ballet dancers we are capable of finding moments of real profundity and creativity whatever our circumstances.’

You can only work with what you’ve got.  Acting, like dancing, is about being, and bringing your own truth to a part enabling you to explore a character.  If you’re not yourself before you try to be someone else, the character you are playing will be false, unreal and ‘performed’.  Performing is only the term we use for expressing a character – in visual terms, it is like wearing a mask but if the face underneath isn’t settled, relaxed and grounded, the face won’t be able to keep that mask on.  This is my metaphor to show how I perceive the difference between acting and being.  Billy sings in the audition he goes to for the Royal Ballet when asked how he feels when he dances: ‘I can’t really explain it.  I haven’t got the words.  It’s a feeling that you can’t control.  I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are.  And at the same time something makes you whole.’

For me, body informing emotion is particularly effective.  Billy Elliot not only shows one boy’s desire to succeed in this particular art form but the show is such that it transforms emotion into dance and we feel that, amazingly, this is organic and not rehearsed (which it obviously is of course!).  When he can’t move on in his dance practice because of the obstacles of the miners’ strikes and his family’s inability (financial and emotional) to support him, his frustration is articulated in his feet and this is incredibly dramatic.  ‘All art comes from terrific failures and needs that we have.  It is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected.  Art is a way of recognising oneself.’  (Louis Bourgeois, www.insiderart.org.uk, an art psychotherapy website).

The activities with Frantic Theatre encouraged me to work from movements – automatically encouraging a theme or emotion to develop: it’s actually a two in one deal – move in the space and whatever you need to establish will happen and no one will have imposed it, least of all yourself.  Then put it together with a partner and you have a scene without a word of how to construct it.  It is the most natural way into theatre and in fact mirrors life – one doesn’t plan how one reacts, one just does; using your body to initiate this in theatre compiles a planned scene which has been reached by an unplanned method.

 
I can’t finish the article without a quote from Elton John, composer to Billy Elliot: ‘The show demonstrates everything I love about the power of art.  It can inspire you.  It can transform lives.  Art can make you look at life in a way you never have before.  And it can take you to places well beyond your wildest dreams.’