Friday, 21 October 2011

More Water

My friend Helen Tennison and I have recently begun working on a new piece.  So far, all we really know is that its theme, starting point, call it what you will, is water.  It's in its very early stages at the moment and will probably sit somewhere between dance and theatre.  After our last meetings (on a recent trip of mine to London), we decided that in the time we were apart, we should write on water and email the results to one another as a basis on which to base some of the next round of studio-time.  What I came up with was a bit of a surprise to me.  Here it is.

I kneel to meditate. I am working with the image of an ocean, an ocean of consciousness. My thoughts arising are each a wave in this infinite ocean and resolve themselves back into it. I bow to the meditating Shiva, gold in the darkness, though I cannot quite see him as I touch my forehead to his feet. The Divine Mother, savage, ghastly, love, is behind and in me, darker still.

I settle my breath and watch it for a while. Sure enough, thoughts begin to arise. They are waves on the borderless expanse of this ocean and as they dissolve back into it, I feel my own edges dissolving. With it comes a wave of relief, relief at the dissolving of my existence as me, relief at the unreality of me as me.

Then comes a thought – or is it a feeling? Whatever it is, it is black as coal and dense as lead. It is grief, pain, injury and I am unsurprised at its arrival. But this density does not dissolve. Instead it takes me down, down, down to the floor of the deepest part of the ocean.

I find down here that I haven’t dissolved at all. I sit, entirely me, by a rock on the sand and the water around me is ink in its blackness. The surface is too far away to see, though I have a dim impression of light somewhere high. I sit for a while and wonder what I am supposed to be doing here, alone in the stillness and dark and cold.

Nothing happens, so I swim to the surface, seeking answers. Up there, a storm has risen and I am slapped and tossed by waves I am forced to drink.

I swim back down, from storm-light to silent-dark, to the stillness of the ocean floor.

When I get there I know it is time to take this ocean around me into me. I deliberately inhale the water. Old fear and sickness rise, remembered from times I have inhaled water unwillingly. The salt stings my sinuses and the lining of my lungs. But I know I must breathe it and it will not hurt me, however counter-intuitive. After a while, I reach a strange homeostasis of water inside and out. Perhaps I have grown inner gills.

A shark swims towards me, huge, a Great White.

“Will you kill me?” I ask. 
“No,” I understand.

Then comes the vastness of a Blue Whale, filling the horizon above me.

“Will you kill me?” I ask.
“No,” I understand.

Then comes a Killer Whale, its white markings startling in the dark.

“Will you kill me?” I ask.
“No,” I understand.

The shark and the whales swim above me in a wide circling as a giant squid, a creature I thought existed only in legendary sailors’ tales, large enough to take down a sailing ship and suck its contents into its beak, swims up to me from some crater I hadn’t seen.

“Will you kill me?” I ask.
“No,” I understand.

Then comes a jellyfish, its countless tentacles long ribbons of phosphorescence streaming behind it in the black water.

“Will you kill me?” I ask.

It pauses, hovering in the water for a moment, the lights of its filaments and body startling in all the darkness. Then it pulses towards me and embraces me, wrapping me close with those bright tentacles. They fill me with poison and the shock of electrocution which I both suffer and witness. But I am not harmed and I know it, whatever the hurt. When it pulls away from the embrace, I know the co-existence of love and pain and I am still whole.

I scan my body and notice a familiar ache under my shoulder blade is in fact a spear that has passed into me, entering through the top of my right shoulder and piercing down into some fathomless soft place low in my left side. The five sea-creatures line up, the Great White closest to me, its teeth on the shaft of the spear. I look up to see the five twined around one another in a long line and despite their monstrous size, the tip of this line reaching up to the surface is still far, far below it. Together they pull at the spear, swimming it out. Its head is of stone, cross-bound to the wooden shaft with a leather thong. It is a cunning weapon, designed to do more damage on its way out than on its entry into my body. The rear points of the arrowhead tear easily enough through the softness of my organs, but as it reaches my right scapula, it catches between the wing-shaped bone and the mesh of my ribs. The spear shaft shatters and as it does, four of the sea-creatures swim away.

My breath is strange.

Only the Great White is left and I feel him attacking the stone head, which has somehow shattered into the flesh and bone under my shoulder girdle. I wonder how a mouth so huge can clear the fragments of stone at all precisely. I see my wound, for all it is behind me: a funnel of torn red flesh and white bone, embedded with a few remaining fragments of splintered stone and a razor-like shark tooth, lost in the clearing. It is not entirely precise, but it is savagely accurate enough and perhaps the remaining shards will swim themselves free of this open, bleeding wound into the inky water surrounding it.

I go back to Shiva’s feet.

“What am I doing here?”

His hand presses the heavy grey coils of his serpent into my neck, the echo of a familiar caress. That hand continues to press, gently, silently, inexorably, presses me back down to the ocean floor.

I sit there in the darkness, my blood filling the water, alone except for the Great White who circles above me in a strange reversal of what I understand to be shark behaviour. He is not circling for the kill, drawn by my blood. Rather, he is circling to fend off any other attacker who may be drawn by it, that I may sit in the dark and cold to bleed and suffer, kept from death by one of this ocean’s fiercest predators.

Is this suffering with no death not the most terrible of all?

I think: is this despair?

Friday, 9 September 2011

On Pain

Pain, suffering: something I have been mulling over for a while.  Perhaps I am more Buddhist than I thought.

I spent the first half of August in London, doing some work for the National Youth Theatre and dodging riots.  With my customary flair for crisis, I was staying in Peckham, one of the unfortunate areas that was smashed and looted.  I was fine, though saddened, and there were a few wry comments on my Facebook page referring to the fact that Bangkok was also in riot when I passed through last.  But while plenty of people suffered as London burned, I was not one of them.  Well, in no more than the societal existential sense.

I was working with fourteen to eighteen year olds at NYT, not an age-group I generally have a lot to do with.  On three occasions, I was called upon to deal with minor injuries.  In all cases, they were the results of some tension or other causing muscles to go into spasm, probably brought about by the shifts, both physical and psychological, of the first experience of living away from home and immersing themselves in an intense (and in the case of my group, physical) workshop.  I’m not convinced the cocktail of rubbish food and chemical sugary drinks, the preferred diet of many of them, didn’t have something to add in terms of sending confused bodies into spasm.

As I palpated and organised hurting limbs, I frequently found myself uncrossing arms, urging  “Breathe.  Try and breathe.  Try not to hold your breath.  Breathe.”  I’d place my hands across their chests, encouraging breath into them.  I remember doing similar the last time I accompanied my brother to hospital with a bad asthma attack.  “Uncross your arms.  Breathe.”

What is it about pain that stops our breath?  

And not just physical pain.

I’ve noticed the same when practising yoga asana while in the grip of a bout of depression.  Impossible to breathe deeply.  Impossible for the breath to be anything other than shallow, for it to reach and stimulate my shut-down core.

It’s as though a (my) being in pain rejects any form of inspiration (inhalation, inspiration, the inhaling, breathing in, taking in of spirit).  I sometimes wonder whether this isn’t pain turning us away from life itself.  After all, without breath, what are we?

Dead, that’s what.

Often, by the end of my yoga practice, my breath has shifted, deepened, and with it something in my state of mind shifts.  But sometimes pain isn’t possible to move through and I must give in to stasis.  Interestingly, this is more true (for me) of emotional pain than the physical variety.

There’s a paradox here.  Pain is life-denying and binds me in stasis, perhaps the state I fear most.  Yet it is pain that pushes me to transformation.  This is how Tantra (as I understand it) explains the usefulness of suffering: it leads us to seek higher states of awareness, of consciousness, to learn to move past, to move with pain.  This too has been my experience.

So pain binds me and propels me to liberation.  A paradox.

A couple of months ago, after a particularly trying morning, I was surprised as I drove into the Tesco car park to find my neck wet with tears.  I dried my face, ran my errands and saw the cafĂ© above Swansea’s one bookshop advertising a £1.00 deal on filter coffee.  I walked up the stairs, paid my pound and took my coffee to a high table overlooking gracious Victorian windows and drizzle.  I can’t pretend my thoughts were cheerful.  Mainly I remember thinking that the nature of my suffering was exactly what it had been when I was a child. Nothing had changed except perhaps my relationship to it.  The only difference being that when I was nine, eleven or thirteen, I had the impetus to detail my pain and perceived injustices at length in one of my diaries.  At the time it felt vital, unique.  So many years on, it strikes me as desperately mundane.

What’s so interesting about pain, about my pain in particular?  We all have it.  It’s no more unusual than skin, or a digestive tract.

On my way out, I passed a table where I‘d noticed a woman with short silvered hair.  She stopped me as I went by.

“Are you all right dear?  You looked so sad.”

I had a disembodied sense of witnessing myself simultaneously from two angles.  The first was one of intense gratitude that someone had noticed, someone was kind enough to care.  The other vacillated between grief and desperation;  sweet Lord, what am I become?

Yes, that transformation can be painfully slow in coming.

You may remember that I wrote some time ago about the sensation I have of walking over the earth and leaving no prints.  This most vividly came to me as I was circumambulating Tushita’s gompa in Dharamsala under a full moon, conscious of my feet treading my walking meditation.

I have been ambivalent about this sense of leaving no mark behind me, unsure whether to embrace it or correct it.  Should I force myself to root, to anchor?  It feels as unnatural, unattainable and unlikely as forcing my hair to grow blonde.

In February, my lovely friend Simone came to visit from Switzerland.  We went walking one day on Rhossili’s beach and at a certain point turned back to look at our footprints.  Simone is probably 10kg lighter than me and yet there were the marks our passing had made: hers clearly marked into the sand, mine barely visible.  So perhaps this is not simply something I imagine.

Somehow this feeling of passing without trace connects to my sense of my essential wateriness.  Fish leave no marks in the water they swim through.  I’ve also felt it connects to some of my deepest pain.  For a long time, I thought the solution was to earth myself, to find ground and force a mark upon the place where I stood.  Whenever I have tried this, it has resulted in me trapped, unhappy and scrabbling for survival.

Of course, I am still scrabbling for that.

A little while ago, during a craniosacral therapy treatment, the image came to me of my sacrum.  It was exactly as I imagined the stingray that lanced my heel in Thailand, and it was trying to swim free.  Only perhaps I was treading on it. At any rate, the left side, swimming along, was free of pain, while the right, which the rest of my skeleton was desperately holding onto, was in great distress.

So perhaps, I thought, the answer is not to tether, to root, to ground, but to swim.  Embrace the movement of water.

I haven’t found a way yet, but I am working on it.

From Lucy, with love. xx

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in.


Yes, it's a long title (as Ieuan, Jane's ten year old son tells us). So if you can’t make it to see our film on Sunday, July 3rd in Cardiff, here’s a preview.  It's best to watch it with decent sound, if at all possible. Feedback is very much appreciated.

Or if you prefer, here's the link direct to its Youtube home (my Youtube channel in general is linked at the top right of the blog, under my profile, if you'd like to see more dancing).

This performance for the Wales Dance Platform is suddenly much nearer than I realised - which is slightly alarming.  But then that's the nature of these things.  If you care to click on the link, you'll see the pictures advertising the platform, which look nothing like what I will be doing.  But that is also the nature of these things.

Both works I'm involved in will be on Sunday, 3rd July (which also happens to be Jane's birthday).  Both are happening at Chapter in Cardiff (ignore the variously mistyped dates and forgotten names; it really is all happening there).  

Wonder of wonders, it looks like I have found some rehearsal space for next week, thanks to the nice people at Volcano.  So it's time to say hello again to La Blanche.  Remember her?  And see how she is faring since her last outing in Bangalore in January 2010.


The script and sound will stay (though shorter, due to Dance Platform requests) but after my work with Nancy Stark Smith and Mike Vargas last January and Kirstie Simson and Adam Benjamin a couple of weeks ago, the plan is to let the improvisation have its say for the rest.

Let's see what's been percolating all these months.  And how I hold Nancy's question of how we bring the essence of practice into performance.  And how I terrify myself with another step into the void.

So if you're in Cardiff Sunday after next, please come.  I'm pretty sure the 12:30 film screening is free.  La Blanche is showing in the evening (18:00) in what seems to be a series of triple bills.  She is not (free, at least, not in the gratis sense).  But I promise to make her worth it.

From Lucy, with love x

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Be Like Water

I can’t say I underwent any great epiphanies at Kirstie Simson’s and Adam Benjamin’s workshop in Plymouth a couple of weeks ago.  But it was affirming and I was glad and grateful to be there.  I’ve heard Kirstie described as “a force of nature” a few times now and really, it’s accurate. One of the many wonderful things about her is that while she taps into that sense of power and connection in her own dancing, she helps lesser mortals like myself touch it sometimes too.  

the crack at Pwlldu

Adam’s work is more heady and we head-butted quite a bit (me and my questions…).  I found him very generous, and ultimately, the whole experience was affirming, both of myself and what I do.  I’m not sure if that’s because of or in spite of all the things that get in (that I put in?) the way.

I had a day’s birthday grace after I got back to Swansea and then went straight into filming with Jane Hosgood.  I met Jane after my return from Earthdance last January, when I was looking for something tangible to do to tackle some of the physical questions that had come up after Nancy’s work.  Jane runs the Gower Aikido Club with her husband Steve, a convenient five minute walk down the hill to the sea from my grandmother’s house.

When she’s not teaching Aikido, Jane is a film maker.  Some time last spring, she emailed me.  She’d had a dream about an improvised dance Aikido film.  Did I fancy it?

Well, there was no way I was going to turn that down.

Perhaps it was Kirstie’s elemental influence or the preparatory discussions and moving with Jane over the last few months or just the beauty of the location (Pwlldu Bay, which translates to “black pool” but bears no resemblance to the northern English town of the same name)… but the whole experience felt very Earth Mother, Shakti, Prakriti... the Goddess everywhere…

Or perhaps it was all that wet moss and sand between my bare toes…  At any rate, filming was fun, and in such a beautiful place, I thought of Adam’s “ghosts” and Nancy’s “states of grace” and Kirstie’s descriptions of the underlying vibration of our bodies and everything else and Mike’s “transcendence”.  I thought that essentially they are the same thing and when the wind whispers in leaves above me, moss cushions me and the sea sings to me, it is easy to touch them, if only fleetingly.

Our working title, which we’ve never got round to changing is:

There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

(with thanks to Leonard Cohen and a book I’ve been reading on dealing with grief, fear and despair, inconsequentially).

We filmed and edited the whole thing in a week, and a day after dropping the DVD in the post to the Wales Dance Platform, I still feel square-eyed from long, long days in front of Jane’s computer, her dog and three cats curled up nearby, as we worked out how to piece our footage together over innumerable cups of tea.

But it’s pretty much done, bar a few probable tweaks.  For anyone not coming to Cardiff to see the screening on July 3rd, I’ll post a link to it once it’s online.


All pictures in this entry are stills from our film footage.

And here's a lovely, if not always convenient, old dog who was determined to split up any perceived fights and be part of the first day's filming:

I had an email from my brother shortly after my birthday.  I’ve been swallowing my envy this last month of his current trip around Southeast Asia (I had my turn, I know). He and his girlfriend were in Kampot, exactly where I was, exactly a year ago, when I was dancing with the lovely people at Epic and eating Cambodian mango birthday cake.  I love these random coincidences, how they bring people, places, experiences washing back into immediacy…

From Lucy, with love xx

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Dancing Transcendence

I’m once again at one of those points in my life of re-evaluating my relationship to dance.  I’ve come to expect these mini-crises as I expect their existential counterparts, a periodic wrestling with growth and despair before lurching off once more in some vaguely unforeseen direction.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this has been a life-long tussle.  From the little girl who was told “you mustn’t dance; it will give you ugly feet and fat thighs”, to the teenager who was considered far too clever even to contemplate such an idiocy as dancing, to the adult who could never make ends meet doing it, not to mention all the assumptions of what a dancer is, what she looks like, how she moves (none of which I fulfil), I have yet to reconcile the pull dance exerts on me with the practical realities of survival.  This is ironic, because if I’m really honest, some part of me has always felt that if dance isn’t some part of my life, somewhere, I probably won’t survive at all.  More to the point, whenever in periodic despair I’ve made the attempt to give it up, to do something “sensible” instead, I’ve been inexorably drawn back to work, art, learning through the medium of my fragile, broken and infinitely resilient and wise body.

Even my dance training happened by default.  By the time I had completed my various degrees, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, I found myself at the Laban Centre (as it was then called), not to train as a dancer but, as I thought, to hone my physical skills so I could transfer them to my theatre practice.  I’d survived ritual humiliation in ballet classes as an adolescent, which had quite convinced me that, however much I longed to, mine was not a body to dance.  So physical theatre it was to be.   Plus, in the uber-competitive world of beautiful dancers, it was just easier, infinitely less painful, to take myself out of the running altogether.

Somehow, despite all this, while I was at Laban, I found that, like it or not, I am a dancer.  In the years since, I’ve realised that it’s a bit like having dark hair or hazel eyes – not something chosen but something that is.

I have often credited the fact that I kept dancing after further ritual humiliation at Laban (the dance world is full of this – for me, at any rate), to my encounter in my last term there with a very charismatic dancer called Laurie Booth.  He was teaching a class called “repertory”, which basically meant a choreographer came in and made a piece on the group in the allotted three hours a week, which we then performed at the end of term.  It was sheer luck I ended up in this class at all, initially certain I couldn’t possible be good enough even to contemplate “rep”.  A dear friend and classmate convinced me otherwise.

Her encouragement notwithstanding, I definitely felt like the poor relation during my first term of rep, the phalanx of technically adept, hyper-competitive German girls in the class looking on at me in a bemused combination of pity and contempt.  This shifted when Laurie came to work with us, and suddenly the martial arts that underpinned his dance were techniques that I assimilated more easily than many of my beautifully-arabesqued peers (to their visible shock).

I think there were two factors in Laurie’s work that convinced me that there was no point hiding from the fact that I’m a dancer.  The first was his insistence that we take responsibility for our work, as dance-artists, and just get on with it.  This was the first time I’d encountered genuine improvisation in performance, the first time I’d encountered improvisation that wasn’t a choreographic tool or an excuse for not doing any work.  There was no room to wonder whether I was good enough, whether I was really a dancer, whether I was just pretending; the work required me to be there and be there fully and if the undermining mental chatter was still dancing around my head, well let it.  It could dance all it liked; I was simply not to heed it.  In this way, I first discovered the relationship between dance and meditation practice. 

Such an attitude to dance practice feels second nature now.  I can’t emphasise enough that it was completely revolutionary to me at the time and shook up all my assumptions of my right to inadequacy.


The second factor was Laurie introducing us to Contact Improvisation.

I still find it virtually impossible to define Contact Improvisation (often abbreviated to CI) and usually end up tying myself in knots trying to do so.  Here’s a definition Curt Siddall gave in 1975:

Contact improvisation is a movement form, improvisational by nature, involving two bodies in contact, Impulses, weight and momentum are communicated through a point of physical contact that continually rolls across and around the bodies of the dancers…

Of course, that could mean virtually anything, and technically, CI can look like virtually anything. 

On safer ground, I can tell you quite easily that CI was created in 1972 by a dancer called Steve Paxton who had danced for Merce Cunningham and was influenced/inspired by the compositional techniques of the composer John Cage.  It played its part in the creation of what became know as postmodern dance and in its early days, someone called it an “art sport”, which I still rather like as a definition.

Laurie had been taught Contact by Steve (Paxton) at Dartington in the seventies, and although I’m sure he had his own take and preferences colouring what he taught us, what we learned felt very much in tune with what I then studied with Steve a few months later (Steve being my second experience of Contact Improvisation, lucky me).  We learned to cultivate the presence and awareness required by the “small dance” (an essentially meditative practice that demands absolute attention to the tiniest shifts of the body in all its subtlety of standing upright); we practised the various puzzles and rolls Steve has since developed into what he now teaches as “Material for the Spine”; we practised giving, taking, sharing weight and the task-based nature of this.  I particularly remember the admonishment not to “use your partner’s body as a vehicle for your own ego”.

I was struck, in those early days, by the inescapable fact (for me) that whatever was blocking me mentally, emotionally (spiritually?) would manifest as a physical reality in my dancing that demanded to be addressed.

This was roughly the same time I was beginning to develop a more sophisticated understanding of my yoga practice, though it would be a long time before I found a path for this.  Looking back, I now know that what I practised alone as a child in the living room when no one was about, was a sort of instinctive asana (yoga posture) exploration.  I had an intuitive understanding of the body connecting to and channelling something more subtle than its physical reality, if worked in certain ways.

The body is a device to calculate
the astronomy of the spirit.
Look through that astrolabe
and become oceanic.

wrote Rumi, that early Sufi, credited with instigating the danced spiritual practice of turning, whirling.

Somewhere, under all the rationalism of my academic attainments, I carried an instinctive sense that my body is my lived map to the “astronomy of the spirit”.  During my dance training, through the daily work on spinal alignment and the beginnings of an understanding of the relationship between this alignment and the inescapable force of gravity, profound shifts took place in me.  One friend at the time commented “your body has changed shape!” and by that she didn’t mean that I had become stockier or thinner or more toned.

But whatever I looked like, the real shift was not externally visible.  Quite inexplicably to my sense of rational logic of the time, I started to feel currents of energy, as clear and fresh as flowing water, moving through my spine, out the crown of my head, through what felt like glowing coins in the palms of my hands and soles of my feet, tangible and real as the sensation of my weight shifting over the bones of my spreading feet against the floor.  I’d never heard of “reiki” or energy healing before I experienced it as a tangible danced reality in a choreography class.  Call it “prana” or “chi” or “energy” or whatever you fancy, it was unquestionably real to me, as was the increase in so-called “intuitive” senses, which, under appropriately focussed circumstances, allow us to sense space and navigate unharmed through the speed and apparent chaos of bodies hurtling through it.

Of course, this is how it works on the good days, on the best days, and there were plenty of days in between where I struggled to find these connections and bumped and jarred myself and wondered what on earth I thought I was doing.  But what kept me coming back to Contact Improvisation in those early years was that I most often had these heightened experiences of connection when dancing Contact.  So over the last decade and a half (or so), it became the cornerstone of both my dance and teaching practice.

When I was about to depart on my travels in October 2009, I had reached one of those points where I thought it might be time to let the dancing go, no doubt brought about by the seemingly unbreakable relationship for me between the UK and the sensation of banging my head against a wall.  I would travel, meditate, study, do my marine conservation, and maybe, just maybe, if it came up, I might do a bit of dance teaching, but only as a way to re-connect with past friends. 

I am not the first person to observe that India has a mind and logic all her own.  And India had other ideas.

Suddenly I was more solidly a dancer than I had felt in years of half-apologising for my insistence in Britain.  My calling and my identity were quite clear to me (and what a relief that was). 

Some people expressed bemusement that I, supposedly a yogi, was in India dancing (and ok, meditating) rather than studying asana.  In this I should probably clarify that my dance and yoga practice don’t feel separate to me, but rather twines of the same rope.  I have often said that I more regularly encounter and work with the conundrums of yoga philosophy and meditation when dancing than I do in asana (which feels like it serves a completely different purpose to me – but I won’t get into that now).

As a re-introduction to dance in Europe, I thought, last August, on my way back to that continent after nearly a year away, that I would try the Ibiza Contact Festival.

Well, there was a faith-shaker.

Then, in January this year, I went to dance with Nancy Stark Smith and her partner, Mike Vargas, for the three weeks of her “continuing” workshop at Earthdance in Massachusetts in the U.S (the pictures in this entry were all taken in and around Earthdance at that time).  Nancy is one of the dancers Steve made Contact Improvisation on, and I have long held her as a role-model (I’m not sure what she’d make of that).  Among many other things, Nancy is the author of “the UnderScore”, a subtle dance between prescribing and describing the possibilities of a jam (a jam is an open improvisation, much as most people might associate the term with what jazz musicians are thought to do).  UnderScores, usually between two and three hours long, have provided the containers of some of my most profound dance experiences.

Some of the UnderScore

Silent Day Schedule

Here is some of what I wrote for myself after the workshop ended:

As always, it was a pleasure and a privilege to study with Nancy.  I have long felt that I carry her work in mine, frequently stuttering and incomplete and confused, but nonetheless carried with great gratitude and love.  With this third period of study with her, I have more fully realised (or perhaps articulated to myself) how affirming and inspirational a model of artistic and human practice Nancy is to me.

I said to Mike that I appreciate his input more each time I meet him.  This is true.  Mike’s insights and thoughts are very much with me as I attempt to digest our three weeks of work.  His music always fills and holds and empties the space for me in a way I can’t articulate but find a profoundly supportive dialogue with the dance.

Our last Thursday together, Nancy held a discussion period over lunch.  I remember saying that I was coming more and more frequently to a place of wondering whether I should be doing this work at all, wondering whether there is a place for me in it.  This isn’t for a lack of love or interest or questions in it, but mostly due to the fact that I feel the gravity of the “contact improvisation community” has moved to a place I find neither interesting nor (personally) healthy.

Almost immediately after this discussion, I read Daniel Lepkoff’s article in the latest edition of Contact Quarterly (“Contact Improvisation: A Question”).  It came timely into my mini existential crisis.  I found it affirming and reassuring that at least somebody (and somebody with a lot more experience and knowledge than me; Daniel Lepkoff is another of the original CI dancers from the early seventies) seems to be interested in the same starting point for Contact Improvisation (of the many possible) as I am.

Below are some extracts that resonated with me.  (The bold lettering is my own highlighting.)

My understanding of the original intention of Contact Improvisation as an art event was to display to the public the body’s innate ability to respond physically to its environment.  Implied is an interest in the diversity of people’s survival strategies and an indication that this spontaneous physical material can be viewed as danced composition…

…The underlying technique needed to prepare for and survive the surprises of a Contact Improvisation duet is to pose and maintain a question…  The idea that a question can be the definition of a movement form is sophisticated.  The dominant association triggered by the word form is perhaps the idea of the shape of a physical object.  In the case of Contact Improvisation, however, the word form refers to synaptic architecture…  What is commonly referred to as the “duet form” has no knowable outer form…

…Some of the developments and directions the work has taken have not aligned with my own understanding of its essence.  Does the name name what I think it is or does it name something else?!...

…Almost four decades later, with more distance, I’ve decided to decide that however much Contact Improvisation is codified, presented as a collection of 562 techniques, made to be entertaining, dressed to be pretty or graceful, shaped to be therapeutic, practiced in rooms filled with social interaction and conversation, used as a basis for building a community – ultimately, its initial stance of empowering individuals to rely on their own physical intelligence, to meet their moment with senses open and perceptions stretching, and to compose their own response remains intact.


…I think that a little bit of a problem arises for me when the resulting intimacy or feeling of aliveness or of connection with partners becomes the point, rather than the result…       (Nancy Stark Smith)

It seems to me that for a proportion of practitioners of CI, somatic and interpersonal enjoyment are the chief motivations in the dancing.  I am finding this increasingly problematic and increasingly distant from my own interests.

It is not that I do not enjoy the pleasure of release or touch or weight-sharing.  I was reflecting recently that I have been missing more focussed, slow, weight-bearing engagement with a partner, and that sometimes, being given specific tasks can temporarily remove my responsibility and a lot of the mental chatter that goes with it, and allows me to find a deeper connection to myself, the earth and my partner which later feeds adventurous, physical dancing supported by genuine listening.  I have been reflecting that this is an element I wish to re-focus into my practice.

An important aspect to this kind of somatic sharing for me is that it is “transpersonal” (to quote Nancy).  We are not engaging in this physical practice because we wish to sleep together or to chat as best friends.  We have no need to talk at all (and generally, I find such work much more satisfying if we don’t).  The interest for me in such somatic explorations is that they function beneath the layer of personality.

This is very different to what I saw at the CI festival I attended in Ibiza last summer, and what I saw in some participants of this January’s workshop.  At Earthdance, a few of us joked that for certain kinds of dancer, there are only two kinds of dance: the patterns of lifting dance (which requires both partners to know and wish to engage in these predetermined patterns) and the rolling around the floor hugging dance (which again, seems to require only specific partners).  Both these forms seem distinctly personal and often extremely hormonal – and frankly, not very interesting.  What I also observe is that these behaviours have a huge impact on the people and space around them; they generally seem to take over.  What I witnessed at Ibiza was a significant minority involved in these patterns and a small majority either trying (and failing) to be part of them, confused, or trying (with varying degrees of success) to forge their own dancing in the face of what some only half-jokingly referred to as a “hippy love-fest”.

The argument is usually posited that the “contact community” is large and varied and that there is space for everybody within it to pursue his or her interests.  This sometimes seems to me to be an excuse not to take responsibility for our behaviour.  It also fails to address how this wider “community” reflects on any of us who goes out into the world working under the label of Contact Improvisation.

In Ibiza last summer, about 120 dancers met with varying degrees of pleasure and success.  Regardless of our experiences, a significant minority of the dancers involved were either from Ibiza or further afield in Spain, and most of us belonged to a culture that was either European or American, hence broadly sharing the culture of our hosts.  Recently, via Facebook, I was sent a flyer for a somatic dance festival in Goa (India).  The flyer featured two gloriously fair Scandinavian-looking people.  I posted a comment on my Facebook page, to the effect that I wondered where the brown Indian somatic skins were.  Immediately, I got a comment back from a friend, saying he had similar thoughts when seeing pictures from the Goa Contact Festival (almost no brown skins visible).

I feel hesitant here, because I don’t particularly wish to take high moral ground and bang a drum on this undoubtedly complex issue.  However, I grew up in a post-colonial country where white Western enclaves went about their business and their pleasure in comfortable compounds, surrounded by the rest of Africa going about her generally much less comfortable business.  The two seldom met.

It disturbs me that in parts of the wider “contact community” we are effectively following a neo-colonial model, justified, it seems to me, by the same self-involvement that allows some dancers to follow their somatic preferences above any other consideration.  If we consider ourselves artists (which most of us claim to), then it seems to me that we have a duty and responsibility to remove our heads from our navels long enough to take into account how our artistic activity impacts on the world around us.  Perhaps this definition of an artist as someone who reflects back to the world s/he inhabits is an old-fashioned one, but if we don’t follow some broad interpretation of this, I don’t see how we can expect the world we inhabit to support or nurture our artistic activity.

I know there are Indian dancers who are interested in Contact Improvisation.  I know because I have taught or danced with quite a few of them.  I have found myself in the awkward position of having to explain or defend what they see as the narcissistic hedonism that occurs in such Western-dominated events as the Goa Contact Festival.  It’s a position I find awkward because in part, I share their reservations.  I have not been to Goa and so perhaps these accusations are unjustified.  However, it disturbs me that Contact Improvisation as a whole is in danger of being defined in this way by people who are actually very sympathetic to its practice as danced physics.  

…I can imagine that people who are not in that social group are not interested in becoming cuddly with people they don’t know – why would they?  But I’d say that if you go the other way, where you present it quite neutrally as just a physical phenomenon, as something to do or experience, a physical conversation, that many more people are right there for it…                                                 (Nancy Stark Smith)

Which is absolutely my experience.

I’m not sure exactly what I’m saying here with regard to some of the most publicly visible branches of the “contact community”, other than I am uncomfortable at what I see as a hypocrisy: a hypocrisy in which people proclaim their dance as open and welcoming to all when it is increasingly exclusive in practice, on all sorts of levels.  In my head, I hear Nancy talk of our different values.  The problem for me is that some people’s values seem to have drowned out others.

I suppose that another discomfort is that the CI I thought I was taught and the CI I teach is not what I or any of my students seem to encounter when we move into the wider fora of such festivals.  Hence arises my question as to whether there is a place for me and my interests.  Perhaps I need to be more assertive, but frankly, that’s not where I’m wishful to spend my energy.

So one solution is no longer to take part in the sorts of festivals or gatherings with this focus of personal relationship and somatic indulgence.  One of the difficulties with this choice is that it is hard to know that this will be the theme until you get to such a festival, because they usually advertise themselves as focussing on the dancing.  My other (and far more pressing) question is: where do I go?  Where do I go to find the kind of dancing, the kind of training that empowers “individuals to rely on their own physical intelligence, to meet their moment with senses open and perceptions stretching, and to compose their own response” (to quote Daniel Lepkoff)?

Certainly I try to foster this when I teach, but my own skills are limited.  I want to be stretched, to be challenged (in a way that isn’t just about dealing with the unpleasantness of difficult inter-personal relationships), to be challenged physically, from the gross acrobatic to the subtle synaptic.  How do I find this?

I have found in recent years that the interpersonal dynamics have swallowed such a proportion of my attention that my physical skills have actually regressed.  Certainly other skills have improved. I am far happier soloing now than I have ever been.  But I don’t come to dance Contact to spend most of my time in solo.  I can do that all by myself without forking out a festival or workshop fee.  I feel like my basic skill of managing weight (mine and others) has deteriorated significantly and I haven’t yet figured out how to remedy this, or where to find concentrated dance practice that is about Steve’s physics and not the “gland game”.

Sometimes I think it must be all down to me and my terrible interpersonal skills.  Then I reflect that I have been all round the world for extensive periods alone, during which time I have taught, made and studied dance with people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds.  I am happy to take responsibility for my reactions, but on balance, it feels disingenuous to lay the blame for my frustrating experiences solely at the door of poor interpersonal skills.


…there was a prioritising of the work and of the discipline of the work, and we were encouraged not to bring the socializing or the teasing or the so-called “gland-game”, as Steve called it, into the dancing… And Steve’s attention and therefore most of ours most of the time was focused on the physical phenomena of the form.             (Nancy Stark Smith)

Reading back through my notes, I am struck by Nancy’s remark that there is a “utopian” sense to some workshops.

I have rarely felt any sense of utopia within dance workshops.  Perhaps this is a question of semantics (perhaps Thomas Moore’s work inaugurating that term is too present with me from the first year tussles of my English degree).  I have felt stimulated, inspired, exhilarated, connected, elevated, transported (the list goes on) but this has always come with a certain challenge that at its best makes the experience (for me) an expansive and rigorous working environment rather than a utopia.  Fundamentally, while I enjoy making personal connections and friendships with co-participants, I am primarily interested in a workshop as a serious artistic enquiry.  I am not interested in it as a forum for personal development (for which I would seek counselling or other appropriate channels).  That the work may touch on personal matters is inevitable when we are dealing so completely with the physical body (and indeed, the fact that this work resonated with so many other aspects of my wider Self was a strong factor in what drew me to it in the first place).  But, for me, the appropriate place to further investigate and develop any personal issues that may arise is not on a dance floor which is supposed to be hosting an investigation into artistic practice.

Perhaps my apparently unfashionable attitude comes from my training and teaching in theatre, where the accepted etiquette was to leave your baggage at the door and enter the studio ready to work.  However, looking back over Nancy’s words, it seems that Steve Paxton shared this preference in the early years of CI’s development.

I left Ibiza to stay with a friend (a physical theatre practitioner) in Valencia.  When I recounted my experiences to her, her strongly-accented response colourfully (and probably more honestly) reflected my own reaction:

“I hate it when people use the work like therapy!  I’m not interested!  If that’s what you need, pay a f****** psychologist!  Just don’t make the rest of us sit through it when we are trying to work!”  

The dorm building at Earthdance


I’ve been contemplating the definition of generosity Mike gave us as that which is given “expecting nothing in return, not even acknowledgment”.  In some nebulous realm I can’t quite navigate, this feels like a key I can’t quite grasp.  My question in the face of this demand (from myself? because some of my life is only bearable, manageable, if I can be generous in this way?) has been: how do I resource such a generosity?  How do I give in this unconditional way and yet remain whole, undiminished?

Nearly all human interaction is transactional: I give you this attention and you return it in this manner; you give me goodwill or time or support or love and I return it by my investment in our relationship somehow, somewhere along our timeline.  Where and how do we give when we genuinely expect nothing in return?

This question has been all the more vivid to me because of my frequent confrontations with my own sense of depletion.  I remember a turning point when I was seventeen; I realised, when trying to meet something I no longer could, that my energy, my stamina, my attention, my very will had been exhausted in the struggle of surviving what had gone before. There were no renewable resources left, and very few of the finite variety either.  Where could I find the energy, the support, the generosity that brought my lost virtuosity into being?  Twenty years later, I still haven’t answered that question.

During an early underscore with Mike, soon after he mentioned this idea of generosity, I noticed one of the trees outside.  I can’t remember which of the windows I was looking out, but I remember the tree, winter-dark and bare.  It occurred to me then that the tree held an answer.  I derided myself for an unspecific hippy but then I corrected myself.  The tree continues to give, even in death and decay.  The tree gives (oxygen, wood, nutrition to the soil, fossil fuels) because of what it is.  Being a tree, it can do no other.  It gives by virtue of what it is, not by virtue of what it does.  Or rather, it does by virtue of what it is

I feel like I am beginning to touch an answer here, unformed, incomplete: that it is not through a focus on acting but through a focus on being that I can be truly generous (with myself or anyone else), as though somehow, the more fully I can be, the more generously I can do.

My most developed practice of being lies in meditation, which has many connections with dance.

I think back to my time in Rishikesh, sitting on the classroom floor of the Dayananda Ashram, Swami Aparoksananda sitting before us, explaining in his musical poetry the mysteries of the Kathopanisad.  “Everything is Brahman.  And the nature of Brahman is saccidananda: pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss.  We are by nature full of bliss.”  His cadences fall on and emphasise the “full”.

Our task is simply to uncover this essential nature of reality.

I feel very far from this resource, but I also feel that I have touched on the only way I know so far to cultivate it.


Relative values were on the agenda for a few of our discussions.  On reflection, here are some of mine:

·         Cutting through comforting self-delusion

·         Honesty

·         Rigour

·         Physical virtuosity – of all and varied sorts (and that a choice is not pedestrian simply because the dancer has no other vocabulary available to him/her)

·         Courage

·         Kindness

·         Expansion beyond the preferences, interests, limits of the self to encompass something greater

·         Enquiry (philosophical and physical)

·         Intuition – “Is working with intuition also working with when I have no sense of it? and if I allow that, it seems to re-emerge…” (from my notes, day 3 when my secret aspect for the afternoon  – of Mike’s 86 Aspects of Composition – was intuition)

·         The support and influence of alternative body/mind/spirit practices

I often feel my tastes and interests veer to a less fashionable ascetic / monastic / puritanical pursuit – that any pleasure experienced (and it can be profound) comes as a result of the work rather than as its focus.  I suppose, fundamentally, it feels narcissistic and limited to me to devote my time and energy to something that has no greater goal than enjoyment.

This ties in very neatly with a lot of my yoga practice, both scripturally (there’s the famous verse in the Bhagavad Gita: “Your right is for action alone, never for the results”… but that’s a whole other thesis) and in its practice.  I suppose that it is no coincidence that the focus of my yoga practice is connection, expansion of my Self, transcendence. 

Fundamentally, I have to admit (to myself as much as to anyone) that I am looking for my dance and artistic practice to assist this transcending (both mine and others’), and in this I echo some of Nancy’s thoughts on her “States of Grace” and Mike’s wish “to model and manifest transcendence”.

I feel that I have mentioned dance and Contact Improvisation so often through the course of this blog in passing, that it was time I gave it an entry all of its own.  Many (most?) of you, dear readers, are not dancers and this is a subject which perplexes and divides people who practise it, let alone anyone who chooses to devote his or her time and energy to other pursuits.

I’m not sure I have clarified anything for anyone, least of all myself.  I am yet again at one of my impasses, wondering how to continue, in all ways, and more to the point perhaps, where to continue.

Some time at the beginning of Nancy’s workshop last January, we sat in a circle in the circle of Earthdance’s round dance barn, the windows all around us framing the snow-filled vistas of the bone-deep cold of a North American winter.  Everyone was asked to state an intention or a wish.  Mike Vargas’s was “to model and manifest transcendence”.  I remember feeling slightly shocked.  Such a wish felt too ambitious even to dare to articulate.

So I’m grateful Mike is more courageous than I am.

I have been reflecting a lot on what he said since.  In reality, Mike’s wish differs very little from the core of my own wish and intention in my yoga practice (which ok, while we’re being honest about these things, is to know and fully experience myself as divine consciousness – and if that isn’t transcendence, then what is?).  And I have said all along that my yoga and dance practice go hand in hand.  Perhaps it’s time to start acknowledging and naming things for what they are.  How else are we ever supposed to manifest them?  And perhaps the dancing has served its purpose in my journey in this.  Perhaps that’s what the unsustainability is telling me.  Perhaps…   But somehow I doubt it.

Next week, I am going to Plymouth to take part in an improvisation workshop with Kirstie Simson (another early CI practitioner and great inspiration) and Adam Benjamin (co-founder of Candoco, among many other things).  The question I go with is whether this is my swansong.  I wonder…  But I can’t quite believe it.

At the beginning of July, I’ll be taking part in the first Welsh Dance Platform in Cardiff.  I’ll be shortening and re-working La Blanche, my solo from Bangalore (if I can ever manage to find affordable rehearsal space in Swansea) and I am enjoying collaborating with Jane Hosgood, aikido sensei and film-maker, on a short film.  It’s scheduled to be screened the same day as I perform my solo and its working title is There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

After that, I have no idea – though I feel a tidal push, urging me far, far away.  Maybe it’s time, once and for all, to stop banging my head against walls.

How, is the question…

Wishing you answers to all your questions and sending love, love, love,

Lucy xx