Saturday 16 December 2017


Notes from the introduction to a presentation by Sue Palmer and David Williams, as part of the 'Ecology and Environment' lecture series hosted by the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, Aberystwyth University, December 2012. With many thanks to Carl Lavery for inviting us ...

‘Everything’s a question of how you lean’ (John Berger)

We are ‘lean-into animals’ - that's our name for an imaginary band we have: and this is our first gig …

We've borrowed this term from Monty Roberts (the ‘horse whisperer’), who uses it to describe horses - they are also called by him ‘into pressure animals’. His core philosophy is about creating conditions for a horse’s learning, and then getting out of the way: a useful pedagogical model for us all ... 

Roberts has suggested that there are three spatial zones in our interaction with horses: (1) a zone of awareness (the furthest), in which one's presence is acknowledged, but it remains too far away to have an impact on a horse’s movements; (2) a decision-making zone (closer, although in the countryside it could still be quite a long way away), in which one can influence a horse’s movements and choices – this is the zone of most ground work and schooling with horses; and (3) an ‘into pressure zone’, also called the ‘lean-into’ zone. 

'Leaning-into' comprises a horse's leaning back into predators to protect themselves. Think of when a horse has its hoof on your foot - you push against its flank, it leans back; or if you want a horse to move away from a wall and you try to push it, it will push back. The term refers to an instinctive, passive/aggressive, defensive ‘leaning’ into the source of pressure (just as in touching the horse's flank with your heel). Of course there are many different kinds of pressure at play in working with and riding horses (from direct eye contact, to the bit), and many different kinds of responses. And this is a source of a great deal of misunderstanding and miscommunication when people start to work with horses.

Our partial understanding (and misappropriation) of this term comes from our own contact with horses, as well as dogs and cats (which we conceive of as lean-into animals too), and our own desire – for contact, meeting, sharing, and so on. I (mis)understand leaning-into as an improvised dance of responsiveness, a bit like Steve Paxton’s contact improvisation. 

For me, it is also a kind of dynamic suspension between falling and flying, an im/balance provoked that leads to adjustments in one’s default settings. It suggests following the gravitational pull of an-other - ‘what grabs you’, your interests - letting it take you to see what it does, rather than trying to explain it (away) or collapse it into some pre-existing grid of 'knowledge'. It’s related to placing attention outside of yourself there-where-you-are, giving over some of your weight to this ‘elsewhere’, meeting and riding its currents and contours. So it’s about encounter, accompaniment, and displacement off one’s own axis towards an engagement with aspects of the world: ecologies of (inter)connectedness, if you like. 

John Berger has also written about leaning, in ways that explore the relations between riding a motorbike, writing and living (in To The Wedding, Pages of the Wound and elsewhere). In these texts, he considers the relations between inertia, gravity, energy, momentum and grace:

“Everything’s a question of how you lean … If anything on wheels wants to corner or change direction, a centrifugal force comes into play. This force tries to pull us out of the bend into the straight, according to a law called the Law of Inertia, which always wants energy to save itself. In a corner situation it’s the straight that demands least energy and so our fight starts. By tipping our weight over into the bend, we shift the bike’s centre of gravity and this counteracts the centrifugal force and the Law of Inertia! … Speed has everything to do with mass and weight, and is often though of as brutal (and it can be), but it can also whisper of an extraordinary tenderness’’.

For me, as someone interested in writing - writing's difficulties and possibilities, what it can do - it is also about relations between the ‘leanings’ of lived experience/events  and writing. Berger also writes about the differences between riding a motorbike and writing a poem:

"Writing a poem is the opposite of riding a motorbike. Riding, you negotiate at high speed around every fact you meet. Body and machine follow your eyes that find their way through, untouched. Your sense of freedom comes from the fact that the wait between decision and consequence is minimal ... Poems are helpless before the facts. Helpless, but not without endurance, for everything resists them. They find names for consequences, not for decisions. Writing a poem you listen to everything save what is happening now ... On a bike the rider weaves through, and poems head in the opposite direction. Yet shared sometimes between the two, as they pass, there is the same pity of it. And in that ... the same love".

So two quite different modes of experience, usually thought of as mutually exclusive. Two different kinds of attention, intuition, embodiment, exposure, 'weaving', translation, serious play. Riding - related to speed, mechanics, a short circuiting of the time lapse between internal impulse, reflex/decision and consequence: a visual, tactile, rhythmic, intimate engagement with the outside world and its material phenomena. Writing - slow resistant work, the site of memory, association, a listening internally that removes one from the here-now. Berger endeavours to bring these two apparent 'opposites' into conjunction, suggesting the possibility of them meeting and connecting fleetingly in tenderness, compassion, love.

Maybe the notion of 'leaning-into' also relates to some texts I’m working on at the moment about falling, and the relations between adjusting balance in the orientation of ‘leaning’, the point of suspension, and the irretrievable moment(um) of falling. James Hillman writes about falling into the underworld, into psyche; Helene Cixous writes about falling into the 'school of dreams'. Falling as deepening, growth: a ‘falling into place’. 

Where do representation and writing ‘lean’ and where do they ‘fall’? Or, more broadly, to borrow a phrase from Herbert Blau, how does one navigate some ‘liveable unison between panic and grace’?

Today we are going to talk about some of our own leanings, what and where we ‘lean-into’ in recent projects we have worked on individually …

For further details of Sue Palmer's projects, with links to video materials, see here and here 

For footage of Little Tich leaning, see here (thanks to Sophie Nield for the link)

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