Friday, 5 December 2014

Arachne: swinging between actions and emotions

Building up to our "Morphing in progress" showing on 28th November, I felt uncertain of my choice of episode and unsettled by the difficulties it presented. I had picked the tale of Arachne - I really like this story, it feels so simple and yet in its simplicity it manages to evoke so many issues that remain relevant today (e.g., authority, creativity, skill, recognition, and how society operates with/around/against those notions) :
Arachne, a talented weaver, finds herself refusing to pledge allegiance to Minerva, goddess  of crafts, who seems to think that as a goddess, she ought to be thanked by Arachne for having such skilled hands. A weaving competition ensues, where Minerva and Arachne each produce a tapestry. Minerva chooses to depict the gods in all their splendour, and Arachne depicts the gods in all their turpitudes evoking scenes of transformations where gods turn themselves into animals to seduce mortals. Minerva, shocked, berates Arachne, who, in despair, hangs herself. Taking "pity" on Arachne, Minerva sprinkles her with powder provided by Hecate and turns her into a spider so that Arachne can keep weaving for the rest of her life - her and her descendants after her.
I picked this story for a number of reasons amongst which are the following :
  • previously I had only been characterising males (Lycaon, Daedalus, and Icarus) and I wanted to try myself out at a more familiar gender (!)
  • the story involved more characters than the previous ones, and two different "levels" of storytelling: the story between Minerva and Arachne, but also the stories evoked by each of their tapestries (which I heavily edited, as Ovid evokes 24 rapes in his description of Arachne's tapestry)
  • these stories were more easily defined by the actions that unfold than the previous stories I had worked on. 
This last point proved to be a sticky point. For Lycaon and Daedalus & Icarus I had first relied on their internal states and on their feelings to tell their stories, and then I devised corresponding actions (and for Icarus for instance it took some time before I was able to make him do things that felt right, that felt like him). Here, for Arachne and Minerva, the actions were so very clear that they imposed themselves to me. It seemed obvious that, for weaving, I had to use ballet for both of my main protagonists - in contrast with my Lycaon who had a butoh quality, and to my Daedalus & Icarus who had each their own physical space and texture. The pointed feet, the crisp shapes, and the stylised flowing movements of the ballet vocabulary had to be my choice for this story of weaving.
So the layering that first concerned me in rehearsals was that of adopting a specific texture or body quality for each character, and that whilst they were both undertaking the same activity, weaving, denoted by balletic vocabulary. And that somehow got me stuck in the realm of actions.
The lovely 15th century woodcut illustration below describes quite accurately the elements of action I had latched upon to spin Arachne's tale.
A crucial dimension that was missing was the emotional dimension (which is ironic, provided that I turned to Jung for my two previous pieces!). Why was Minerva so angry? And why was Arachne so desperate as to hang herself?

In a sense, Gustave Doré's evocation of Arachne in his illustration of Dante's Purgatorio represents what I was missing. Doré's depiction of Arachne oozes sadness and despair, without any hint as to what might have happened to her to get her there. What happened to her however is all in the woodcut illustration which in turn doesn't seem to convey much emotion.
Arachne in Dante's Purgatorio - by Gustave Doré
"Pur 12 aracne". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Luckily, thanks to various discussions with Marie-Louise, Malcolm, and Susie, I was able to identify this important lacuna before the showing. 
I had to rectify my course and strike the right balance between the descriptive of the woodcut that almost spells out the whole narrative and the emotional of the Doré illustration.
Intriguingly, that sends us back to our character-emotion-action warm-ups... It's almost as if I had concentrated so much on the characters and their actions that I had all but forgotten about the emotions. In the end, based on the reactions from the audience, it seems that I did bring an emotional dimension to my performance and that it got through. 
I did feel Minerva's anger, her authority threatened by a nobody.  I also felt Arachne's despair, her sentiment of injustice, of being denied her own voice.

And I couldn't have done it without Malcolm's fabulous sounds. As the sequence of interventions of the characters was more complex, I instinctively concentrated more on the actions in order to not loose track of who comes next and doing what - but Malcolm's music was always there to, in turns, provide hints, support, provoke all the three (character, emotion, action) dimensions that we wanted to convey.  
In any case - that was yet another fascinating discovery and I'll have to keep working at it. 
I can't wait till we get back into the studio!  


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Working together on new tales; rehearsal at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building 13th November 2014

Thursday 13th saw the Avid for Ovid group come together again to share progress on the new stories that we are developing for showing on 28th November as part of the Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers Colloquium on Communicating Verbal Emotion; full information on this to be posted very shortly. Our afternoon session was in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at St Hilda’s; great to have access to this space with its beautiful resonant Steinway, a big thank you to Helen Slaney for organising this.

Tackling new stories is challenging our abilities to take on different characters and more complex narratives, finding ways to explore clear and seamless shifting between characters not only through altered physicality, but through selection and refinement of movement motifs and demarcation of the geography of the story in the space. Malcolm’s recent prodigious output of musical themes for specific characters brings its own challenges for him in being able to remember and instantly access a wealth of rich material while remaining alert to the potential progression of the dance. Although very much still in exploratory and improvisatory territory both music and dance are beginning to crystallize as we make decisions as to what we can discard as inessential, and get a sense of how long is required to establish character and situation.

We begin with all four of us warming up in our own ways, morphing gradually into individual explorations and practice of movement and musical material. Then a sharing of our sketches of each piece, with mutual feedback and discussion after showing. First Marie-Louise with her moving interpretation of the story of Myrrha; fascinating to see the effects of her working this in the neutral mask. Then Ségolène’s telling of the tale of Arachne raises intriguing questions about the potential depiction of a narrator and who this might be.
Minerva and Envy.
Crispin van de Passe the Elder c.1600

Stringing together some sections of my Aglauros begins to reveal how this complicated story might be stripped back to essentials. In all cases we are reminded of the significance of seemingly minute details in projecting the narrative and its emotional heart.

Helen contributes a discreet presence and a welcome outside eye, and over tea after clarifies the arrangements for presenting the work. At the end of the session we are all surprised at how much has been achieved today, and how much more effectively we have worked. A coherent working process seems to be emerging; together with an encouraging realisation that we have progressed over the last six months.


Saturday, 25 October 2014

A tune a day

As part of the preparation for our next performance at the end of November and as a way of comprehending the scope of Metamorphoses I am attempting to write themes for characters from the work in relation to the narratives that Ovid recounts.

My approach is to write one short theme every day finishing it the same day – whether perfected or not (usually the latter). The response has to be immediate and intuitive – similar to the approach within unplanned performance such as the exercises we have undertaken where a character, an emotion, and an action are specified to elicit a response from dancer and musician. However, in this case I am trying to find something essential about the character (divine or mortal) within a given story.

I hope to build a repository of motifs that can be memorised and used in performance. I have found that some themes morph into representations of other characters or emotional states – but the process is useful as a continual clarification of what can (and can’t) be signified by a theme.

Here are some examples.

Mercury dresses up:

Narcissus sees himself:




Malcolm Atkins

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

On Metamorphoses: Ovid and Jung

[reposted from]

So - we've shown our work-in-progress in the striking Al-Jaber auditorium of Corpus Christi College Oxford, in front of what turned out to be a very enthusiastic audience! (Looking for pictures of the event? Check out our images section!)
The response to our performance was amazing, and so very rewarding - we still feel like it's work-in-progress though (and accordingly, we didn't plan any fancy costumes or lighting as the pictures in the gallery show). Here was our programme (click on pictures for a larger view):

The programme allowed ample time for questions and answers with audience members, and we were able to give people a glimpse into the creative process that we, Avid for Ovid, have adopted.
One of our main "warm-up" technique has been to set ourselves exercises whereby we set out to improvise around a character (either named or identified as a typical profession), an emotion (or state - as defined by the greek word pathos), and an action (one in the list of choreographic terms from the original ADMD May 2013 workshop), these are randomly associated from three lists which we had previously drawn up. Examples of such triplet associations would be: Vulcan/doubt/extending-reaching; or Minerva/joy/walking; or sailor/grief/head-tossing (these are three of the four random draws we interpreted at the showing). This technique, although sometimes very unsettling is very effective when it comes to establishing characteristic gestures or stances for a character and setting it in motion. And when the audience was blind to the random triplets (as it was the case for two out of the four draws we made), it was extremely rewarding that they could identify what the triplet was. Even more so when they seemed to naturally append a story to a triplet; as an example, when I did the sailor/grief/head-tossing triplet, it was suggested I might have been Ulysses. 
This seems to point to the fact that even if we don't set out to tell an actual story (each triplet defines a basis for a character study rather than a story) both as a performer and as an audience, we have a natural tendency to make up a story that explains the association.

And that is already fascinating in and of itself! 

It also leads us back to the question of how we can make ancient Greco-Roman myths resonate in our contemporary society. Instinctively, I believe that any kind of resonance comes through emotional connection - and this has naturally lead me down the route of Jungian archetypes. In ancient Rome, it would have been reasonable to expect that everyone knew the myths, at least to some extent, but in contemporary society we cannot realistically assume a collective knowledge of these ancient myths - so what might be a common ground that we might be able to rely upon? Have any of these stories been conveyed down to us in different/modified forms, through folk and fairy tales for example? And this is where Jung's theory of archetypes and collective unconscious becomes an invaluable source of inspiration. Here are some of the texts I consulted throughout the process (and which I am still reading). 
Ovid's Metamorphoses, in the company of a volume assembling
 Jung's writings on archetypes and of some more focused texts
 dealing with specific archetypes and how they manifest
themselves through literature and in the real world. 
If you missed our work-in-progress and this has intrigued you, Avid for Ovid will be making a short appearance (twice 15 min, at 15:45 and 16:45) at the Festival of Ancient Tales on 3rd October 2014 organised by the IRIS project, feel free to come along... 
And we're still planning a full performance of course... Stay tuned :)

Monday, 11 August 2014

Disantiquating Antiquity

[reposted from]

It all started with a call for dancers to participate in an academic project from the University of Oxford in May 2013. The project is called Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers (ADMD) and its aim is to investigate through practice-based research what Ancient Roman Pantomime might have been like. The ancient evidence available to us is sparse and mostly textual. Ancient Roman Pantomime was a solo narrative dance form, performed with a closed mask (no declamation) to music at festivals. It recounted episodes from the Greek and Roman mythology.

The ADMD researchers were looking for dancers to participate in a workshop where each dancer was paired with a classicist. Each pair was given an excerpt from Ovid's Metamorphoses put to music by Malcolm Atkins, a list of choreographic terms (gathered from ancient sources), and three hours to draft up a danced interpretation of it in the style of Ancient Roman Pantomime. (Susie Crow reports on this initial workshop here)
I signed up and took part. It was a strange experience for me. As an academic, I have been doing ethnography of Classicists in the context of them deciphering papyri, wooden writing tablets, and such difficult to read documents. But there, I was involved as a dancer, as a subject in an ethnographic enquiry into the process of (re-)creating an ancient dance form. 
The presentation below sketches my experience of it all - as I reported upon it at the ADMD colloquium later in October 2013.

It was a bizarre and slightly split-personality experience, but also a fun one. And SusieMalcolm, and I were so intrigued by all the ideas that the May 2013 workshops had turned up that we decided to carry on this work from an artists' point of view - an artistic research-based practice if you will, as a pendent to ADMD's academic practice-based research. 

This is how Avid for Ovid was born as a group and as a performance project. It runs in collaboration with the on-going ADMD project. 

In May 2014, ADMD (with support from DANSOX) ran three fascinating daylong workshops to further their research and feed Avid for Ovid's creative process. The first workshop was a Kathak workshop, led by Anuradha Chaturvedi. Kathak seems to be, in today's landscape of varied dance forms, the dance form that resembles the most what ancient roman pantomime might have been. Its extremely precise use of rhythms, space, gaze, and gestures lends it a high-definition quality that enables and supports storytelling. The second workshop was a butoh-inspired workshop, led by Yael Karavan. That workshop was more geared towards character building, introducing us to the intricacies of body qualities (water, earth, fire, air) and how different body qualities inhabiting/propelling different body parts in combination (eg water in the knees, fire in the upper body) can help generate richly textured characters, lending them very readable yet unique traits of character. The third workshop, led by Marie-Louise Crawley, was centred around the use of the neutral mask. That workshop introduced us to the notion of the body as a tuning fork. All emotions impact the body, resonating through it like vibrations; so before entering into performance mode, and engaging in masked (e)motion, it was essential to explore the notion of the neutral body. 

As we're now ramping up to a showing of work-in-progress on 28th August 2014, it all seems to be slowly coming together; the textual ancient dance testimonies, the techniques and methods we were introduced to in the workshops, and the richness of the texts of Ovid's Metamorphoses are constantly (although not always obviously) supporting and informing each other in all of our rehearsals. At each session we seem to stumble upon something new, and the discoveries we are making range from the span of the incredible skill that ancient performers must have mastered (physical as well as technical and emotional), to questions of relevance of the greek myths to today's world and society(events, human nature, etc...) and of universality of expression of emotions.

Here are some of the more specific questions we're grappling with:
  1. How does character-switching work in narrative solo dance forms? And how do we signal a narrator? Can the dancer express two different characters simultaneously, and their interaction?
  2. What are today's equivalent of the Ancient Myths, known by all? What kind of unconscious collective knowledge can we draw upon to tell danced stories that today's audiences can relate to?
  3. For lack of precise knowledge of ancient dance technique and vocabulary, how do we negotiate our use of our own technique(s)? How much do we improvise? How much do we blend some of our own styles?
  4. Isn't an exercise in reconstruction of an ancient dance form futile? Is this an exercise in contemporary reception of the culture of Ancient Rome? And what might it say about our own society?