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)

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