Thursday, 31 March 2011

Embodied improvisation

Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti
The spring term has ended and it's time for assessments. Yesterday I was busy auditioning the candidates for the September intake. I dont teach the audition class, I just observe how the would be students cope, together with another colleague. The audition is always far too long, I always know within the first 10 minutes who is right for the course and who is not, but the audition goes on for one and a half hour. Towards the end they have to improvise giving their improvisation a structure. The ones who do not rehash obvious moves learnt in technique class have a better chance of getting in. The best contemporary dancers learn a lot of technique and then spend most of their time forgetting about it and cultivating a softness and a pedestrian approach to movement which can be very deceiving. There was a girl like that in the audition class and surprise surprise she had already auditioned for a top conservatoire so we knew that we would probably lose her to it. The worst contemporary dancers have acquired the mannerism of 'modern dancers' but they are actually not so strong, technically. When improvising they will fall back on cliched movements. We take some of them and they spend the next three years unlearning what they learnt so badly.

Photographer: Eoghan Brennan

So far so good, this is routine stuff for me. But wait ...there is a new twist. I will have to be assessed in May for the creative process module that is part of my DMP course.
I am absolutely terrified. I have not done a solo performance in a long time. Yes, I did one for Sophie Hunter's video recently but it was no big deal, I just went there, danced and left within an hour. I had tremendous freedom and all I had to do was listen to her song and then move. But the May assessment is an exam! And the list of criteria for the assessment runs into two pages. I have to do an embodied improvisation of three minutes duration  - exactly three. It has to be an improvised piece, not a choreographed one,  but it must have a structure i.e a beginning, a middle and a clear end. I can use music and props but I have to make sure it all fits.  There has to be a theme and since this is part of DMP training there has to be a strong emotion that initiates the process. There has to be a connection to work done in class and a clear relationship with the audience while performing - the audience will be my classmates who will then give their views (peer assessment). Finally, we are being encouraged to think about presentation i.e. costume and hairstyle. The tutor looked at me when asking whether we want to be seen tucking our hair behind our ears while performing - I do it all the time in class, I always forget to tie my hair.
Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti
I have been agonising over these criteria since the paper was passed round. Finding the right music is a real ordeal. If a piece is choreographed timing is no problem, everything is set in advance, but if it is improvised and it has to be of a certain duration then the music will help with timing it, ensuring that a structure is maintained. But my preference is to go for something like Steve Reich's Drumming to work against (I would not want the movements to follow that rhythm, only to counter or refer to it, see how Sankai Juku work with rhythm) and that means I need to memorise some of the transitions and three minutes is a very short time indeed, in which such transitions will be barely noticeable.
I was given the criteria on tuesday and have been thinking about my piece since then. While assessing students I could not help thinking that I would be soon in their position. The criteria go as far as stipulating "a range of movements in different levels" which means there will have to be a couple of jumps, quick movements, and extended ones. All this is making the improvisational aspect a little contrived.

 Once the music is sorted I will have a clearer idea about what to do. I expect that in the next few weeks I shall be going to see lots of dance performances for inspiration...Open to suggestions if you have any
Meanwhile, for your delectation, below is a clip from one of Steve Reich's performances of Drumming - it's what made me fall in love with percussion.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Sunday, 27 March 2011


Photographer: DG. Model: myself

I mentioned David Alan Harris and Global Well-Being  in a previous post.  This Denver based therapist has done amazing healing work with former child combatants from Sierra Leone, doing a project using dance movement therapy in Africa, helping the young men to come to terms with their past and becoming reintegrated within the community. For this he won a prestigious prize. He is currently raising funds for another project in war torn Africa, this time working in the Congo.
I attended a workshop with David, who is currently visiting the UK,  for the whole of yesterday. I was interested in learning more about his work and see how it could help me to develop as a psychotherapist. How do you work with people in a non-judgemental way, people that have committed horrific crimes, often under the influence of drugs,  and yet are themselves victims?
To say I was deeply affected by the experience is an understatement. There were fifteen of us, David facilitated. The workshop was a mixture of presentations with videos by David, theoretical discussions on PTSD and then practical experience through role playing and movement.  At the start David warned us that if at any point during the workshop we felt we could not take it we were free to leave.  When he said so I thought it was an unusual warning - why would I want to leave? I was there to learn something new!
It started hitting us soon enough, when we watched the evidence on video given by a survivor to a war tribunal. I cannot repeat what I heard, it was too horrific, I will just say that she had been forced to witness her son's merciless killing and then forced to perform unspeakable sexual acts with the corpse.
Then we heard more. David helped us to get in touch with our feelings through a series of exercises and again offered us to get out of the workshop if we needed to. We had a break and worked through some of the theory about PTSD. Then we began the role playing, again with the choice to opt out. We had to either enact a moment from the survivor's story which had affected us most or from another story, that of a boy whose family had been decimated under his very eyes, with him forced to join the rebels, earning himself the protection of the leader for whom  he would get entrails of infants which the leader was fond of eating. Whilst a rebel combatant this young boy was on a mixture of coke and other drugs, which gave him courage, desensitised him and made him feel invincible. Sexual abuse was also part of his story.
 When I read the "script" I felt sick in my stomach and began to cry. My group chose the story of the boy and I was the leader of the rebels. I took  the role because I hated it so much, I wanted to see what it would be like to be "evil".  I had severe problems getting into character, I kept on stopping myself. I was only able to do it when I let go and totally immersed myself in the role. Then I realised  I actually relished the power I suddenly had over the boy, acted out by another workshop attendant. I was in shock. I felt terrible afterwards but during the reflection it was clear it had not been only my feeling, others who had taken on the same role in the other group - we worked in groups of five - had felt the same. We realised then that we all have the capacity to be "inhuman" beyond race, class, nationality or any other division. We can all flip and do horrible things to one another.  The whole point is to be aware of this. Only through awareness we can overcome  our very own "inhumanity". We can all be murderers, but we choose not to be.
If you are reading this please visit Global Well Being and consider donating funds for the project.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Tate and Orozco

Photographer:  DG

I am doing a course once a week in the  evening at the Tate Modern  for a period of six weeks. It is about choreographing in response to art works. It's a lively class. We get the use of the gallery with no visitors after hours and congregate in the East room, at the top, with a fantastic view of London. From there we move around the gallery then we return to the East room to do our choreographic work.
This week  we visited the Orozco exhibition and had a few tasks to complete while there. But  first we wandered around the exhibition. I was really struck by Gabriel Orozco's work, especially his photographs. Of these he says:
"I like the idea of the photograph as a shoe box in which you keep and transport objects or memorable events in your life". A shoe box! What a lovely idea. I kept on going back to it, thinking about my own photographs.

The tasks we had  to perform were process oriented. The first one was about looking for a process in the making of a specific work and translate it into instructions. I chose the heart clay, a sculpture which Orozco obtained by taking a piece of clay , lifting it to the heart, clasping it with fingers, getting as a result a finger striped heart shaped lump of clay, which he then let dry. The second one was about finding a sentence among the works on display and I chose "Ballerina with a comic touch". This was part of a series of short poems written by taking sentences from obituaries. The third one was creating a map or a trajectory out of one of his works. I chose the art work "Making strides" based on photography and geometric shapes and devised a small map which gave a sense of the work's dynamics.
Armed with these three choices I made my way back to the East room and shared them with another student, then we made a dance out of my choices and hers. The dance was not particularly complex but it was funny and fun to put together - the idea of a ballerina with a comic touch had an influence on us, I swear.
I kept on thinking of how interesting and  challenging Orozco's art is.
Art works. Do we stand next to them in silence and stillness or do we pick up their inherent dynamics and turn them into movement?

I bet you know what my answer is. And no, we do not have to perform the movements in the gallery as we walk around the objects, it can be more subtle than that.
Since doing this course being moved by an art work has acquired an entirely different meaning...

(All photos by DG and modelled by Alex B.)

Friday, 18 March 2011

Dance and healing

Photographer: DG. Postprocessing by me

A couple of years ago I had the idea of documenting dance as a healing practice in  post Pol Pot Cambodia and among Khmer refugees, of whom there is a sizeable number in the UK.  I fell in love with Cambodia when I first visited it in 1998. I always felt deeply moved by its political vicissitudes and I grieved for the tragedy that befell the Khmer people in the last  decades of the 20th century.
My project combined two of the things I love the most, dance and photography. In a nutshell, I wanted to document the 'healing process' and community rebuilding achieved by means of dance, especially folk and ritual practices, using photographic images, to be exhibited when the project was over.  I wanted to work, for  this part of the project, with someone sensitive enough to be able to capture emotion through the camera.  I thought at the time of enlisting the help of a photographer whose talent I admired and whom I implicitly trusted. His work spoke to me and I believed he would do a great job. To my utter dismay, though initially interested, as time went on he admitted he was not convinced the project had any worth at all, or that I could take it to completion. He did not believe in the concept, dance and healing meant little to him and there was nothing I could do to inspire in him any genuine interest in the project, as it transpired. So this meant that there was little discussion about the images he would produce. Nevertheless we did a "pilot", with some portraits from the London Khmer community, including their celebration of a Buddhist festival, in order to obtain  some visual material to get us started and then I sent off the application. 

Photographer: Graham Johnson

There were problems with the way I had mapped out the project and the funding body I had applied to asked me to resubmit my application, once certain issues were addressed. They viewed  the idea of dance as a healing practice as fundamentally sound  but questioned the management of the project and asked me to clarify my position. What involvement had I had in healing?What involvement would I have in the healing dance process?Those were some of the questions they asked. 
At that point the photographer withdrew, telling me I had been wasting his time. 
I know from experience that sometimes projects are not successful in attracting support the first time round. You submit an application, get feedback and then resubmit and are successful the second time round. A bit like passing your driving test on your second or third attempt. So I was not inclined to see the request for resubmission as a defeat and was surprised at the photographer's reaction.  Later it dawned on me perhaps he was hoping to get a free trip to Cambodia, when it did not happen as initially planned he decided he had other priorities. A good lesson for me. One needs to choose one's collaborators very carefully.

Soon after I got feedback on my submission I decided some drastic action was needed and began to consider some other possibilities. I went into DMP training, feeling I really needed to have direct experience of dance as a healing practice and acquire some credentials as a 'healer' through sustained, recognised training, before reapplying, as it was clear I had to specify my involvement.  DMP in western culture, to some extent,  fulfills the same function as shamanism in other cultures. The DMP works, mutatis,  as a healer, paralleling what a shaman does, although the two are not exact equivalents. In my project with the Cambodians I was interested in experiencing   the application of both practices, as can be witnessed in contemporary Cambodia  through work done by some NGOs - the psychotherapeutic one informed by core western ideas about healing and well being, framed by psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, and the indigenous shamanic practices, informed by local Buddhist beliefs. The healing process would be narrated through poignant images. I felt this visual component to be an integral part of my project.
I shall not go into further details of the project as it began to reshape itself. All I will say here is that  while mulling this over for the past one and half year,  I felt at times so utterly broken inside that I ended up  believing, on more than one occasion, that my idea was after all too muddled  and I was ready to give it up and just concentrate on my DMP training, for the time being. 
 Imagine my delight when I found out about David Alan Harris. I felt filled with a new sense of purpose, like seeing light at the end of the tunnel. David is a certified DMP who works among survivors of human rights abuse and war. He has worked in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Zimbabwe. He is inspirational. Recipient of several honours and prizes, he has founded Global Wellbeing, an organisation that endeavours to ease recovery from war and organised violence through DMP. He says:

"Survivors of war’s atrocities must learn to live with what can never be forgotten. Simply resuming daily function means contending with tangible reminders of vulnerability and loss. Where entire populations have been targeted for abuse, the impact of these losses is magnified. Traditional, collective endeavors are often torn apart entirely. Especially in the developing world, post-conflict communities coming to terms with massive violence struggle with terribly complex obstacles, and all the more so where vicious rivalries remain deeply rooted and the worst of emotional wounds ignored".

Dance heals. Now I know that what I dreamt of doing is possible, is a definite reality, and can be witnessed in action. Not only that, I can also participate and offer some healing too.The  idea of working in Cambodia is still at the back of my mind, even though at the moment I am busy studying and acquiring new skills. I know I will do it and will even involve, when the time is ripe, a photographer who will embrace my project with sensitivity, respect and a sense of wonderment for the beauty of the task he/she will take on and will  deliver the kind of images I am after (or I will do it myself, it might be after all the best solution). To my mind the visual component of the project, the recording, through images, of the healing process achieved through dance, movement, and storytelling and the context where this occurs, is what will further help remembering, working on those memories. It will be a form of healing in its own right. 
One does not heal through forgetting, but through the very act of remembering.  It is that remembering which helps to come to terms with the pain and feel renewed. 

(All photos modelled by AlexB unless otherwise stated)

Saturday, 12 March 2011


Photographer: Graham Johnson Reprocessed by me.

One of my followers, Dwayne, a deviantArt friend who also regularly reads this blog, wrote a very thoughtful comment two days ago and I have asked him if I could publish an excerpt in this blog, because the issues he raises are very powerful. He consented.
This is what he says - I have abridged the comment: 

 Thanks for the PURE definition of Nemesis...this journal comes off to me as if you're digging deeper and deeper within yourself finding the truth and meaning of life, not just yours but the phenomenon that we all are experiencing together on this planet. I know I have these kinds of moments and should more often which means I need to do more reading and such. What you said at the end of it all (along with Jung's quote) just sums it up in one word: denial, and i'm not talking about a river that runs upstream through Egypt (khemet). It's denial that holds you back, it's denial that allows people  not to take responsibility for their actions or mistakes and just dismiss it, it's denial that crushes your spirit and breaks your brain. I'm beginning to think that it's not just how you exercise your brain let alone that you exercise it with crossword puzzles or math equations or reading or writing or anything like that which keeps your brain cells active and prevents alzheimer's but the fact that you deny things that you did in your life, the mental blocks that you place to hide or eliminate horrible memories. This is what I fear for half my family because I see them going through some serious denial these days and it's not pretty at all.
The rest of the comment is very personal, Dwayne disclosed some very personal matters. I felt honoured  by his confidence but  I also feel that I cannot use that information in my blog, even though the comment has been left on deviantArt for all to read - I usually write a teaser for my blog on my deviantArt journal and Dwayne commented under that. I admire Dwayne for being able to talk about such problems openly, he is certainly being  courageous. He is grieving for all his family but is clear about what has happened and would like everyone to confront the truth. Unfortunately, he is being perceived as the person that "cannot leave it alone" and as such is being ostracised.

 Yes, Dwayne, denial is a problem and it is very common. People prefer not to confront the truth about themselves because they are afraid it might mess up the semblance of peace they have managed to create for themselves.  Sometimes they just pretend nothing has happened or is happening, they find it easier that way. Yet they are sitting on a ticking bomb ready to explode anytime, because the issues are still there, just locked away out of sight, but still festering and rotting.  Sometimes  they may meet someone that acts as a trigger, making them relive the emotional intensity of certain experiences, reminding them of their past, or worse that person may want to make them look deep inside - as may be the case in your relationship with your brother.  This is the Nemesis I was talking about. Sometimes something will effect an extreme reaction and it will finally dawn on them  it is time for therapy or maybe  therapy is  'offered' and they have to take it. And then everything comes out in torrents. 

I am talking from experience. I have met people who rather than look inside would single me out as the cause of their problems, projecting on me. The last time this happened I had no clue about what was actually occurring and I found it devastating. I had no experience of psychotherapy not even as a client and  found myself wishing I did because things could have been very different if I had been able to draw on that knowledge while dealing with what was being thrown at me. I did not know anything about transference and countertransference, I had no clue ad did not know how to deal with it.  Now I am training to be a psychotherapist, as a result of that experience, and it is the best thing that I have ever done in my life. Among therapists I have come across people whose background is quite horrendous, but rather than being crushed by it  they decided to do something to help themselves and by doing that, help others too. They used the negative experience and turned it into something positive. Maybe you need to do something along these lines? I am not  suggesting you should train, only that getting some therapy might help you to cope.
Training to be a movement psychotherapist is a life changing decision and it has not been easy. I am not talking about the studying, the reading, the coursework which are as demanding as in any other course but not impossible to handle. It is the practice that is challenging and in ways that one needs to learn how to contain. I have very intense sessions with people at my placement, usually on a Friday. Movement psychotherapy is very much in the now, it is nothing to do with structured dance, it is about working with one's authenticity, non-verbally, using images and metaphors. Have a look at the video clip below, it might give you an idea. 

Original photo by Neil Huxtable. Models myself and Cidy Souza. Postprocessing by me.
 Even though my sessions only last for a couple of hours I often find that by the end of the day I am so absolutely exhausted, I need to sleep and do virtually nothing for the whole weekend  because the weight of other people's sorrows gets at me. I do nothing at all on a Saturday, not even a yoga class or a modelling session , which normally help me to unwind. I just need to rest. I still need to learn about boundaries, I have my support system as a trainee but it is difficult to handle other people's traumas and sometimes I come away making their fears my own, their darkness become mine, and I experience an indescribable sense of doom which I know is not my own but it feels like my own. Then I recognise it for what it is and I sleep it off.
I don't honestly know what to suggest  Dwayne, except that you keep strong. You may gently talk to your brother about doing therapy, perhaps a non-verbal one. You may want to do some yourself, again a non-verbal therapy, to help you feel grounded, I am sure you can find some good therapist in your area.  One thing I know: you cannot force anyone to look inside themselves. You cannot force anyone to stop getting out of themselves with whatever means they use (drugs, sex, alcohol, painkillers, anything). No matter how much you love them and how deeply you care for them. You can help them, but only when they come to you for help. I used to believe I could, and then got very hurt when I realised it was like wanting to walk through a wall. 
Whatever you decide to do, thank you, Dwayne, for raising the issue of denial. By sharing it, others too may want to think about it. And of course, I wish you and your family will finally be able to resolve your differences and problems. 

(All photos unless otherwise stated are modelled by AlexB)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Never let me go

I went to a talk by Kazuo Ishiguro this evening. He is one of the best contemporary novelists writing in English. I discovered him through The remains of the day set in genteel pre-war England and looking at the life of English servants  of the time. It is a masterpiece of understatement, the unhappy unspoken love between the housekeeper and the butler is utterly moving and immensely sad.

But to me the best novel by Ishiguro is Never let me go, now a major film. I read the novel in 2006, when I was ill with malaria caught during a trip to Indonesia  and I cried profusely over it. A dystopia about love, friendship and memory with a chilling finale,  it is about the human condition, though ostensibly exploring the world of  cloning and bio-engineering.
Ishiguro answered questions about the film adaptation. He is very knowledgeable about films and the process of filming, having been a script writer before becoming a full time novelist.
He came across as a very laid back man, very witty and extremely intelligent.
Adaptations can never be like the book, any book, he said. Of his novel, the thread that could be translated into a script was that of the love between the two main characters, disrupted by a third person that comes in between them. The loneliness of this third character is frightening, she needs to hang on to the other two.

Photographer: Suzy Conway

But why did they not leave, someone asked, with reference to their appalling fate? They only had to leave and everything would have worked, she said. Ishiguro's answer was straight to the point. Films are always about escape. This is what we have become accustomed to. The book is not about escape because life is not. The characters stay because the possibility of escape does not even occur to them.  Being saved is not an option.
I was moved by the talk, just as I am always moved by Ishiguro's novels. I left before the frenzy of book signing began. On the way back, as I walked to a bus stop, I saw a dead robin on the pavement. I felt so sorry for the little bird. I picked it up and wrapped it in a piece of paper torn from my notebook and then buried it in a nearby park.

Throughout I kept on remembering the ending of Never let me go, when Kath says
" I was now standing here in front of it and if I waited long enough a tiny figure woud appear on the horizon across the field and gradually get larger until I'd see it was Tommy and he'd wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that - I didn't let it - and though tears rolled down my face I wasn't sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be".
It must have been a combination of seeing the dead robin and being reminded of the tragic characters of the novel, but as I boarded my bus my cheeks were wet and I could taste my salty tears.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


Photographer: Suzy Conway

Nemesis is the ancient Greek goddess of divine retribution, the one who relentlessly pursues you till your dues are paid. Her name literally means 'distribution of what is due' and thus I have always found the Roman identification of Nemesis with Invidia (lit. envy) somewhat incongruous. Nemesis is not to do with envy at all. Nemesis is to do with justice, a balancing of power in the universe and, at a deep personal level, an awakening. To some degree Nemesis is close enough to karma and theosophist Blavatsky spoke of Karma-Nemesis. Karma is the inescapable law of cause and effect, the "as you sew you shall reap" to which every sentient being, including gods, is subject to, according to Hindus and Buddhists.

Photographer: Suzy Conway

But there are major differences between Nemesis and karma. The Greek gods were arbitrary and capricious and Nemesis did not pursue the gods, no matter how unjust their actions were. She only pursued humans, that was the nature of Greek religion. The Greeks did not believe in free will - Socrates was killed because he advocated choice for human beings. Remember the tragedy of Oedipus? It was his inescapable fate that he would marry his mother and then blind himself for his sin. No matter how hard Oedipus tried to avoid his fate, mindful of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, eventually he did what he was meant to do. Nemesis relentlessly pursued him throughout the ordeal. Greek tragedies depicted the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, through a combination of hubris or arrogance and defiance of the divine law, fate, and the will of the gods. Nemesis was always there to ensure that the goal of retribution was accomplished.

We no longer follow the religion of the ancient Greeks, but Nemesis continues to play a major role in our collective unconscious. Carl Jung identified Greek gods and goddesses with archetypes and for him Nemesis was the shadow:
"man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster's body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature."

Photographer: Suzy Conway

I am quite interested in the wisdom of the Tarot (which Jung also appreciated). The Tarot is an ancient system of divination, magic and esoteric knowledge. There is a card, a major Arcana, that I associate with Nemesis. It is The Judgement, number XX. In The Judgement we see an Angel (Nemesis is often depicted as a winged woman) blowing a trumpet and people rising from their graves: the image of the last judgement. When I come across this card in a reading, I see those people as versions of myself, my past selves and actions, which the Angel is calling me to confront and let go. In other words, it is Nemesis that forces me (us) to look on what I (we) have done, forgive and move on from there.

We all have our Nemesis in our lives. We instinctively recognise her and often try to run away from her. I do not fear her. I welcome her in whatever form she chooses to come. She makes me look deep inside myself and scrutinise my actions especially those which I would prefer to forget, the things I wish I had never said or done. The past can never be rewritten nor can it ever be buried pretending it never happened. It has a way to come back to haunt us to make us look and resolve it. Nemesis sees to it.

(All photos unless otherwise stated are modelled by Alex B.)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A shoot inspired by Carmen dell'Orefice

Carmen dell'Orefice has to be The Supermodel Ever. I cannot think of anyone else more deserving of that title. She is a legend. Aged 79, she continues to model and has done so since she was 15. An American of Italian and Hungarian descent, Carmen has been inVogue countless times, photographed by the very best photographers of the 20th century and now, the 21st century. Despite her beauty and talent, Carmen has had a most difficult life, full of hardship and heartaches. Who says that beautiful women have it easy?

Carmen's look is unique. She is the epitome of elegance, no one can ever match her. There is something really special about this woman, who does not try to look any younger, who wears her age with a grace and dignity that no one else seems to have.

I have heard her name whispered with awe since I was a child. She is an icon.

What do I have in common with Carmen, apart from the  (false) Italian connection? My long silver hair, cheekbones and an almost aquiline nose.

Suzy Conway, a model now turned photographer, recently approached me for a shoot inspired by Carmen. I hesitated at first then decided to go for it. A good make up and lots of attitude can go a long way. This is how I reinterpreted Carmen's look. For me it was a great honour to be thought of being able to match her looks just a little. I am now on Suzy's website.

(All photos by Suzy Conway and modelled by Alex B)