Friday, 11 December 2015

Ovid's Garden

Ovid's Garden - December 2015 - Winterbourne House and Garden
Avid for Ovid are very excited to announce that in summer 2016 we will be performing at the official opening of Ovid's Garden at Winterbourne House and Gardens, a unique Grade II listed heritage site.
Ovid's Garden forms part of University of Birmingham postgraduate Miriam Bay's PhD exploring the invocation of classical mythographer Ovid in Italian Renaissance gardens. Designed by acclaimed landscape designer Kathryn Aalto, in Miriam's own words, 'the purpose of this garden is to recreate the plantings of the past, enabling me to explore how Italian Renaissance gardens were designed to impart narrative, retelling ancient mythology through botany and its inherent symbolism.' Needless to say, we are thrilled to have been invited to perform in this beautiful, multi-sensory living museum...

The team made a first site visit to Ovid's Garden yesterday and, despite the heavy December rain, were very excited by the different performance possibilities with which the garden presents us – both in terms of space and of subject matter. Now to work on new episodes inspired by Ovid's narratives of the plants in this garden...

Date and time of performance to be announced shortly...


Thursday, 10 December 2015

Night at the Museum

Avid for Ovid were thrilled to perform at the Ashmolean Museum's DEADFriday evening event on Friday 30th October 2015. It was a very fitting setting: under the shadow of Nike in the museum's Cast Gallery, we performed for hundreds of evening visitors. It allowed us to showcase some new pieces, created for the evening – sorceresses Kirke and Medea, Mother of Dragons – as well as revisit some old favourites: mourning Aurora, werewolf Lycaon, Tisiphone, Shades of the Styx,  and Myrrha's transformation, all suitably eerie subjects for this special Hallowe'en event. We also engaged the audience in some participatory activities – the casting of Roman curses for us to embody / improvise through movement and music. Thanks to the team at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, especially Sarah Doherty, Public Engagement Assistant, and, of course, to our wonderful audiences.
Tisiphone -
Dancer: Susie Crow; 
Musician: Malcolm Atkins
Photo: Marcella Vigneri
Lycaon -
Dancer: Ségolène Tarte; 
Musician: Malcolm Atkins
Photo: Marcella Vigneri
Myrrha -
Dancer: Marie-Louise Crawley; Musician: Malcolm Atkins
Photo: Marcella Vigneri
Kirke -
Dancer: Ségolène Tarte; 
Musician: Malcolm Atkins
Photo: Marcella Vigneri

Myrrha, Birmingham Dance Network Introducing event, mac Birmingham, October 2015

Some beautiful photographs of Myrrha (performed by Marie-Louise Crawley) at Birmingham Dance Network's Introducing new dance platform event, October 2015 at mac Birmingham. Photo credit: Christian Hunt

Myrrha -
Dancer: Marie-Louise Crawley; Musician: Malcolm Atkins
Photo: Christian Hunt

Myrrha -
Dancer: Marie-Louise Crawley; Musician: Malcolm Atkins
Photo: Christian Hunt

Myrrha -
Dancer: Marie-Louise Crawley; Musician: Malcolm Atkins
Photo: Christian Hunt

Friday, 30 October 2015

'Myrrha' in Birmingham

Birmingham Dance Network's Profile PhotoMarie-Louise Crawley and Malcolm Atkins performed Myrrha to a sold-out and very appreciative crowd at mac Birmingham last Friday 23rd October, as part of Birmingham Dance Network's 'Introducing...' evening, presenting new dance and performance work. We were part of fabulous line-up of artists including Yukiko Masui, Joss Carter, Rachel Liggett, Outspoken Dance Theatre, Kopal Vedam and Sara MacQueen & Christopher Radford. Many thanks to Birmingham Dance Network and mac Birmingham for having us - it was a pleasure to bring the work to Marie-Louise's home city!

Monday, 26 October 2015

Avid for Ovid at Ashmolean for DEAD FRIDAY 30th October 2015

This Friday 30th October Avid for Ovid will be taking part in Dead Friday at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum as part of a special Hallowe'en programme with live comedy, performance, music, workshops and gallery talks.  Put your Hallowe'en glad rags on to explore ghosts and ghouls through history; you can enjoy a drink in the crypt cafe or on the rooftop, have a go at death drawing with Art Macabre; listen to Hallowe'en funk with Porto Flip, meet the dead funny Oxford Imps, and discover more about deathly objects in the collections from curators and researchers from Oxford University.  Avid for Ovid will be in the Cast Gallery embodying some suitably ghoulish characters from Ovid's Metamorphoses - furies, sorceresses, werewolves, ghosts and mourners - as well as casting ancient Roman curses...

Fancy dress is optional, with a prize for the best costume...

Date:  Friday 30th October 7.00-10.30pm

Venue:  Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH
Entry to this event will be ticketed. Timed advance tickets are £5 each. Book tickets online here. Tickets, if not sold out, will be £7 on the door.
Follow the event on Facebook here

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Avid for Ovid performing at GOlive Oxford

Donald Hutera's playful and eclectic festival of dance and performance, GOlive, comes to Oxford's Burton Taylor Studio for the first time for four performances of two diverse programmes by performers both from Oxford and elsewhere 15th to 18th July 2015.  We look forward to being part of the GOlive team on 17th and 18th July where we will be performing as follows:
Friday 17th: Ségolène Tarte in Lycaon, Susie Crow in Shades of Tisiphone.
Saturday 18th: Marie-Louise Crawley in Myrrha, Susie Crow in Shades of Tisiphone

You can find full details of the GOlive programme and how to book tickets here

Friday, 19 June 2015

Transformation in Sound and Movement - Children's Workshop 26th June 2015

Avid for Ovid, Artists in Residence at the East Oxford Community Classics Centre, have been invited to host a children’s workshop for the MCS Arts Festival 2015.  See below for further details...

Malcolm Atkins and Ségolène Tarte demonstrating 

Date: Friday 26th June
Time: 16.00 – 17.30
Tickets: £2 (8-11 years)
Venue: Cheney School
You can book for this workshop here
and via the Facebook event page here

Avid for Ovid’s music and dance workshop looks at Ancient Roman Pantomime techniques for telling stories without words.  This workshop takes as themes the character Proteus and the idea of transformation.  Following a general sound and movement warm-up we introduce the character and his transformation into different creatures explaining the idea of the Roman pantomime performer and some of the skills needed to play many different roles.   Through guided tasks the children will then explore ways to portray different characters and creatures through posture, gesture and movement; and natural world environments and elements (e.g. thunder, rain, fire, river, stone, tree…) in sound using their voices and bodies.  In small groups children work as teams of musicians and dancers to make short studies involving characters/creatures and environments either from the text or of their choice, and the transformation between them.  The workshop will finish by sharing these short studies.
The workshop will be led by Malcolm Atkins and Susie Crow.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Embodying emotion: where do we feel it?

Embodying emotion: where do we feel it?

On Wednesday 3rd June 2015, I performed Myrrha, with Malcolm Atkins playing live, at the Body and Being Network's event 'Embodying Emotion' at St. Hilda's College, University of Oxford, on the kind invitation of co-conveners Karin Eli (University of Oxford) and Anna Lavis (University of Birmingham).

The Body and Being Network is a research initiative that aims to develop innovative interdisciplinary dialogues about the body. It supports collaborative encounters between scholars and performing artists, and challenges participants to develop analyses that involve their own embodied experiences. 'Embodying emotion' aimed to explore a range of questions about the embodied expression of emotion. Where does emotion reside? How do we share it? To whom does it belong? Our performance of Myrrha would act as a springboard for further discussion of these and other questions such as, why use a mask when conveying emotion? Where is emotion located? Where is it held? Where does it come from and what boundaries does it cross? Who shares in emotion?

More than anything, during this event, I was struck by the notion of performance as a shared experience of emotion between character, performer and spectator. Last Wednesday's spectators were in fact, to borrow Augusto Boal's term, 'spect-actors', responding to our performance in a rich exchange of emotions. In the generous discussion that followed our performance, audience members revealed how they physically 'felt' the performance : as tension in the neck and arms, or of being drawn forward from their seats so much so that they wanted to 'leap' into the performance space to save the harrowing drama from taking place, or in 'feeling' the weight of Myrrha's emotion – the burden in her viscera, the burden in her womb. I realised that Myrrha is indeed a visceral piece in the truest sense of the word.

We spoke too of the resonance of emotion in the body, the resonance of sound, music, text, and feeling, of how emotional energy resonates through the body. With each character I play, I deliberately start work by choosing an energy source that is clearly located in some specific part of the body from which a character's energy radiates out. It is this energy source located in that centre that leads the rest of the body through space. Emotion is not excluded from this process but is at its very core: I try to make an emotional as well as physical commitment to that centre. Myrrha's centre is unsurprisingly located in her womb – and it was interesting to hear the audience say, without knowing about my process of working from movement centres, that they felt the energy of the performance resonate in their viscera too.

However, the fact that I perform Myrrha with the neutral mask means a constant negotiation back and forth between this off-balance centre to the neutral, 'centred' body. So, why use this mask when conveying emotion? The neutral mask has no expression which means it is capable of every expression. It depersonalises (what Peter Brook calls that 'sense of liberation when liberated from your own subjectivity') and essentialises the wearer – you discover what is uniquely you. The neutral mask is not designed to be performative, but I have increasingly felt that for Myrrha, it works. Denied of emotion to be read in facial expressions, the mask puts the emphasis on the embodiment of emotion in different parts of the body, which paradoxically seems to make audience 'see' a range of emotions flicker across the masks face – passion, shame, despair, Myrrha's first and only smile at her newborn child – even though these facial expressions cannot, in reality, actually be there. As well as revealing the extreme (someone described it as 'alien') physicality of the piece, the mask also expresses Myrrha's very human vulnerability. I have tried to play Myrrha without the mask in rehearsal and when I did, I felt very vulnerable as a performer: in putting on the mask, I am able to let go of my own (the performer's) vulnerability and allow the character to be vulnerable.

Interestingly, to this audience made up not only of classicists, but of anthropologists, medics, dance therapists and neuroscientists, we performed the piece without giving any prior synopsis of the story. This was partly because Mal and I were keen to use the experience as an experiment to see how much of the narrative was 'readable' on its own, with the newly added layers of text recited in both Latin and English which are now part of the score. What was interesting in the discussion afterwards was that those who didn't know the story beforehand responded with key 'things' that they had seen which were all linked to an recognition of the emotional states played out. They claimed to have seen (forbidden) passion, shame, despair, a pregnancy, birth, maternity – in fact, they had pretty much seen the whole story. The audience recognised and responded to everything that is human emotion in this piece. The only thing that was not immediately 'readable' to them was Myrrha's transformation into something inhuman, the tree. And yet one audience member described this moment as a death. The way in which I have worked in this section on the embodiment of the material in the physical (blood turning to sap, marrow hardening, bone turning to wood) rather than on the emotional content / playing a state, as I do throughout the rest of the piece, then reads as death, which I suppose in one way it is...It is Myrrha's letting go of human life, her resignation, sinking into the wood as it rises to meet her...

Sketches of Myrrha reproduced by kind permission of the artist Imogen Foxell.
Imogen is an Oxford-based lexicographer, classicist and artist:

Monday, 11 May 2015

Retracing Myrrha

Retracing Myrrha - notes from EOCCC residency session, 17th March 2015

Retrace (verb) [with object]

1. Go back over (the same route that one has just taken):
1.1 Discover and follow (a route taken by someone else):
1.2 Trace (something) back to its source or beginning.

For me, the very first session of our residency at the East Oxford Community Classics Centre was primarily a time to retrace and to rediscover key episodes that we had already explored. Although I had thought a lot about Myrrha since our performance in November 2014, I had not danced her. There is always a huge challenge in going back to origins, of finding those original pathways in body and in space once more, of stripping the choreography back to the source. As we warmed up to Mal's improvised work around Beckett and Joyce texts – rather appropriate for a rehearsal held on St. Patrick's Day! – I was a little fraught with thoughts as to whether Myrrha would (or indeed could) be found again, as to whether she still existed in my body somewhere and how I was going to call her out. Yet the body possesses a memory of its own, and prompted by the sound-world and, primarily by the evocative theme that Mal has developed for Myrrha, the overall patterning of the solo came back fairly quickly.

Yet there was one main difference. I usually play Myrrha with a neutral mask, and this time around, I chose not to use the mask, as an experiment to see what might happen without it. Something quite extraordinary happened. Suddenly very aware of my facial expressions, and of eye-lines, feeling 'unmasked', vulnerable, and exposed, I was also suddenly aware of my humanity as a performer and so Myrrha suddenly felt much more human. This was of course workable when she is the seductive then shamed and pregnant young woman, but her tragedy - her transformation into the tree - suddenly felt incomplete. Although the tree needs to have a human element – Myrrha is 'woman-tree' – this time my tree was all too human. I needed to re-identify with how I originally translated her transformation into tree into my own body:

'While she was still speaking, the soil covered her shins; roots, breaking from her toes, spread sideways, supporting a tall trunk; her bones strengthened, and in the midst of the remaining marrow, the blood became sap; her arms became long branches; her fingers, twigs; her skin, solid bark. And now the growing tree had drawn together over her ponderous belly, buried her breasts, and was beginning to encase her neck: she could not bear the wait, and she sank down against the wood, to meet it, and plunged her face into the bark.' (Ovid, Met 10. Kline's translation)

Originally, when first creating the solo, I had improvised around the changing quality of the body, of bone, of blood, of muscle – feeling skin hardening, bones hardening, sensing the liquidity of marrow and blood flowing like sap, sinking down to meet the rising wood, yielding to it, giving in – all this had been lost...and now needs to be found again.

Furthermore, rather than give birth as a human woman might, Myrrha gives birth through the bark:

The child, conceived in sin, had grown within the tree, and was now searching for a way to leave its mother, and reveal itself. The pregnant womb swells within the tree trunk, the burden stretching the mother. The pain cannot form words, nor can Lucina [goddess of childbirth] be called on, in the voice of a woman in labour. Nevertheless the tree bends, like one straining, and groans constantly, and is wet with falling tears. Gentle Lucina stood by the suffering branches, and laid her hands on them, speaking words that aid childbirth. At this the tree split open, and, from the torn bark, gave up its living burden, and the child cried. ' (Ovid, Met. 10, Kline's translation)

Ovid evokes the 'dat gemitus arbor' (the groan of the tree) and the 'fissa cortice' (the bark ripping open). This time, I had not found the creaking of the tree, the bark cleaving open, nor the final moment of cradling, more human tenderness before the rigidity of tree takes over once more.
The birth of Adonis and the transformation of Myrrha. 
Oil painting by Luigi Garzi (1638-1721).
Source: Wellcome Images

Next time then: a return to the mask and a concentration on the elemental...

(Susie and Ségolène observing also pointed out the need for a more explicit moment of passion in the flashback to justify the overwhelming sense of shame; as well as giving more space on the upstage right diagonal for what I call the 'weeping woman' – Myrrha wandering the desert, in exile. This should better balance the performance space: downstage left being the past, the downstage left diagonal the path between past seduction and shame / torment, and at stage centre the point of final transformation and child-birth)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Sound of Transformation in a Text

I was asked by Stavroula Kounadea to bring some texts to the AudioHearth Book Club.

The idea was to bring texts where the sonic property of the text was significant and casually read and discuss the texts.

This seemed extremely straightforward at first and I immediately thought of a range of texts I could bring. But as I reflected it seemed much more problematic. I started to question what differentiated the sonic and the musical. I started to question whether any poem could not be a sonic exploration of some sort and most poems have a relation to music,

My initial interest was to find texts that were created for their potential sound as much as their potential for reading on the page.

I picked Metamorphoses because I have been working with it and it is written with a playful joy in story telling and using words that has made it a focus for recital and performance. In addition, there is the close link between poetry and song in the Ancient World (where they are often far less distinguishable than in ours) and the fact that Metamorphoses seems to have been used in tragoedia saltata the extremely popular pantomime dance form of Ancient Rome where it may well have been used as a libretto and sung.

Publius Ovidius Naso
(Ovid  Statue Piazza XX Settembre, Sulmona, Italy)
As a comparative text I initially picked Under Milk Wood which like Metamorphoses (and arguably all poetry written before the Printing Revolution) was written for the ear more than the page because it was created as a radio play.

Dylan Thomas
I planned to compare the two texts on the following terms
  Both written to explore sound
  Both create a unique world – even though Ovid creates a makrokosmos and Dylan Thomas a microkosmos
  Both explore a range of perspectives – in Ovid the narrator often identifies with the focal character for a story and much dialogue is included. He also sets up layers of narrative with protagonists telling stories within stories. In Dylan Thomas we have a narrator and a series of memorable characters who reappear continually
  Ovid’s stated aim is to talk of transformation of things (including people). Dylan Thomas seems to be about creating stasis. Nothing transforms in Under Milk Wood. The cycle of the day shows the villagers caught in an unchanging world.
  Both poets question the standards and mores of their time. In Ovid there is a concealed cynicism and criticism of authority. The poem ends with a statement that all empires will fall and only art (especially that of Ovid) will survive. Dylan Thomas affectionately derides the Welsh village which is named Llareggub – Buggerall – but the joke evades censorship of the British establishment. This gives both works an ambiguity and playfulness in the use of language. Meaning is deliberately confused and sound takes precedence

I then decided that this was becoming a didactic rather than reading discussion and decided to focus on Ovid – mainly passages I have used and sung in performance – and focus on the way the language evokes a sense of transformation.

I was intrigued here with whether the sonic properties of words support the unfolding narrative (not necessarily in a banal onomatopoeic film score) and decided to read in Latin and ask the listeners for opinions.

I decided to use, where possible Ted Hughes' translations and take as a comparison an extract from Finnegan’s Wake where two washerwomen transform into a tree and stone respectively.

In the end I read from the opening of Metamorphoses and the transformation of Lycaon into a wolf (also from Book 1). I read Hughes translations of these passages immediately after the Latin reading.
I read the start and end of this passage from Finnegan’s Wake ( here it is as recorded by Joyce himself).

James Joyce

In the session people seemed to be struck by the power of the Latin language – despite my poor reading- and Hughes translation although admired was felt to be less sonically effective than the original Latin texts of Ovid. In reading Lycaon the preponderance of guttural or even vulpine sounds really made the Latin text an effective sound world irrespective of whether you knew the meaning.

Joyce’s playful relation to language is a different world to Ovid who does not continually create new words through reference to a range of different languages, iconic works, registers and dialects. The reading from Joyce showed how sonically and musically sensitive his writing was and, like the Ovid text, even if incomprehensible for different reasons, rhythm and sound and especially cadential ending brought to life the text. Also, Ovid like Joyce is playful within the genre limitations he operates. He is adept at changing sand exploring different styles and more than anything this has highlighted to me the need to engage more with using the text of Ovid as a starting libretto for exploration in music and dance in Avid for Ovid.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A school workshop on metamorphoses

As part of our artist in residence programme with the the East Oxford Classics Community Centre, Avid for Ovid ran a short workshop yesterday with primary school children (year 4 at Phil & Jim's), with the assistance of a team of supportive and involved Cheney students.

We decided to use the character of Proteus, the prescient sea-god who changes shape to avoid capture by those who seek to uncover his knowledge.
Proteus by Taddeo Zuccaro ~1560
Coffered ceiling in the Stanza della Primavera at the Villa Farnese

We felt his constant metamorphoses into various animals (a boar, a bull, a snake) as well as natural properties (water, fire, stone) gave substantial scope for exploration to a group of sixty nine year olds. As well as this the figure of Proteus bears similarities to the pantomime dancer in the constant shift of identities and attributes.

We began by exploring change within steady motion. A constant musical pulse for children to walk to was overlaid with attributes that the children modified their movement in response to – high and low, or loud and soft (big and small). We then explored different qualities in movement – jelly-like or liquid, stiff and rigid, lastly striding with authority.

In order to achieve a series of transformations in sound as well as movement we divided the children into six groups of ten – each with a specific property: gods and goddesses; trees; wild animals; water; stone; fire. They were then encouraged to find words appropriate to each property. The words would be used for a rhythmic or musical exploration of the quality of their character.

From here we explored large group conduction (techniques developed by Butch Morris to enable a conductor to facilitate the creative response of individuals and groups through prescribed hand signals) – treating each separate group of 10 children as units to be conducted in and out and explore contrasting sound worlds associated with their groups.

After these exercises in using sound and movement we recounted the story of Proteus and left each group to create a transformation in sound and movement starting with the attribute set and moving to the attribute of the next group.

Divinity -> tree
Tree -> animal
Animal -> water
Water -> stone
Stone -> fire
Fire -> divinity

The transformations each group created were impressive – rhythmic and melodic and textual sounds supported inventive representations in movement. The series of six pieces became an interesting and coherent work.

We were impressed at how quickly the children assimilated ideas and created their own response from these. Although our instructions were more focused on transformations than on stories, each group working on their particular element gave life to that element by using implicit scenarios. For example, the wild animals had a unicorn; the movers of the water group ended up encircling the sound makers, creating a vast expanse; the tree was solidly rooted, with four children making the roots of a single tree. The children demonstrated how the simple device of creating a series of transformations could be turned into a more detailed gestural and sonic narrative.

We had prepared some material that we intended to teach to help them with their response and this included the attached round based on Ovid’s text on Proteus. This proved unnecessary as they found plenty of material in the mere twenty minutes they had been allocated.

We concluded by giving some AvidforOvid demonstrations of transformations of Lycaon and Arachne. In both cases the nature of the transformation was accurately assessed by the children without fore warning although this did seem to be a group who were aware of some of the material they were presented with.

In the transformations, when the children evoked the gods and goddesses through movement as well as when they spoke of them, it seemed that the predominant characteristics were not regality and pride, but grotesqueness, mischievousness, and pushiness - a view of the capriciousness of divine power that actually reflects that of Ovid and of many in the classical world. In contrast, in their reaction to Arachne's story, it was obvious that some of the children knew the story, and that they knew it as a tale of punishable (and punished by Minerva) hubris and arrogance, when our interpretation tends more towards seeing it as a tale of creativity stifled by the powers that be.

Overall the ability of children to create narrative through sound and movement rather than prose was impressive and perhaps illustrates how we lose these methods of communication as we become more focussed on textual communication alone.
We hope to develop this work further with this age group – as yet not fully corrupted by a scriptocentric educational bias.

Malcolm (with substantial help from Susie and Ségolène)