Friday 8 February 2019

space time angles

As an artist and teacher of performance practices, I spend quite a lot of time in studios with people in general trying to make things. I am a party to their processes from the word ‘go’ to the moment at which it is shown live, if that’s the goal. In the bulk of my teaching that’s what it has been, in Australia, at Dartington and at Royal Holloway. Hopefully I am present and attentive to those people finding a way, finding forms, shapes and structures that they can work with, and trying to see where that flounders, where it's buoyant, where something moves freely amongst them and therefore in relation to me watching. I try to give them a little bit of guidance, where possible, but also to give them a bit of courage when something happens. Usually, often, ‘when something happens’ means that at some level I am engaged more than just as a pair of eyes with a brain attached to them; it feels much more embodied and implicated than that.

As well as performing, I also work as a dramaturg with dance people, with people somewhere in between dance and theatre, and then with Lone Twin. This job can take many different forms but essentially it involves a lot of watching and responding, always in the light of what it seems might be possible for that person or group, always trying to pitch any responses at a level that would encourage something that seems to be going on to develop fruitfully. So there’s a whole array of different kinds of watching that go on in teaching and in working as a dramaturg (and of course in performing). In addition, I am also a fairly seasoned spectator. I have watched a lot of performance over the years, and I have been involved in making a lot of performances. And of course there are different orders of watching and listening involved in actually making and performing ... When people talk about ‘kinaesthetic empathy’, the empathy is both kinaesthetic and affective and it is very hard to separate those things off; indeed they seem to be absolutely entangled. The cliche that one is ‘moved’ by something feels quite palpably real and lived in all sorts of ways: motion, e-motion.

Another spectating and 'doing' activity that informs my relationship to all these things is sport. From being able to walk and run to around the age of 24, I guess I did that more than anything else. At whatever level one arrives, there are all kinds of empathies as a spectator that come out of simply doing that activity every afternoon or evening for 20 odd years, in one’s spare time. I spent years of my life kicking, throwing, catching, running, falling over, usually in relation to an object that moves predictably, a round ball, or unpredictably, like a rugby ball. I fundamentally believe that that set of experiences and deep oafish pleasures for me inform a huge amount of my understanding of and my feeling for related things to this day.

When I go and watch a football match at Arsenal, I am often surprised by the kind of things people in the stands say and what that reveals or suggests as to what they read in what's going on. For example, quite often people are extremely critical if somebody tries something and it doesn’t work, rather than being sympathetic to the endeavour. Yet one can still see a thought which has not been realised because of a whole variety of conditions, often extremely minimal. Its 'failure' might be the result of some kind of blurring of the concentration because someone was moving very fast: the lack of peripheral vision at that particular angle, or the ball moving in a particular way that made it slightly unpredictable, and unplayable. Empathy informs a capacity to 'see' all of those things: the architecture of a body, its movement through space, its relationship to those variables, the speed at which things are unfolding, the moment when something goes awry, what has been attempted if not realised – and somehow those things seem very legible to me at times.

I’m surprised by the limited way in which some people who I imagine haven’t played much sport seem to watch sport, including some of the commentators on TV. You know, cries of 'Rubbish!' to Santi Cazorla, that sort of thing. Relatedly, I'm always intrigued by the relationship between those managers and coaches who have been quite accomplished sports players – footballers, let’s say – and those who weren’t, and therefore the differences in their possible understandings of the predicament of that individual or that group of people. The embodied knowledges and intutitions they may or may not be able to access. For me it is centrally about reading predicaments in a particular set of conditions. Maybe my abilities to understand and empathise with somebody’s predicament come out of sitting in studios, making work, being inside performances, watching performances, and playing and watching sport for much of my life.

At university, one of my core teachers David Bradby taught me a slightly old-fashioned mode of critical engagement called ‘close reading’ in relation to language, and this has been very useful to me in all sorts of ways. I learned from him an attention to the particularities of language, its rhythms, refrains, patterns, structures across time and space in writing. What writing does. I guess what a dramaturg practises at one level is a kind of close reading: of what movements are and what they do, how they relate to other elements, the weave and its effects. By 'reading' I don’t mean decoding towards some singular meaning, but a whole set of often ambiguous and contradictory effects or intensities, structures of energy that produce different things in me as a spectator. The work in the studio is like a proto-spectating, acting as a kind of barometer that reads the heat or feel of the texture. I think of those qualities, and of movement, very much as material, in both senses of that word.

I think that through sport, and through watching loads of stuff, lots of students and other practitioners, there are moments when I am able to be there and now with it. There is something like an amplified and sensitised empathy to many different things at play, and at the centre of that is what bodies are doing and what that produces in relation to other bodies, the space, the framing of the visible world, the audible world, the relationship with us, etc. And it's not necessarily a question of needing to know what the internal life of that is, its invisible logic, the intuitive or quite conscious scoring that goes on for a dancer: what Jonathan Burrows calls the 'internal song'. I’m always interested in those things, but not with a view to that thing being conveyed ... what's going on internally could be anything, because as we know there’s a mismatch between one’s internal life and what happens for somebody watching on the outside, what 'appears'. It’s all to do with what their actions do, and how to help someone recognise what that 'do' to me as a kind of foldback to them. So if I am ever interested in accessing their internal life, it’s only as a mechanism to help them have a fuller sense of what that seems to do for a third party.

At one time I was a gifted cricketer and at a certain point in my life people had me lined up to do this professionally as an adult. I played some representative cricket and then I had an injury and lost interest, particularly when I went to university. At other times I also played squash, fives and royal tennis, which is an extraordinarily complex game spatially and architecturally. It's played in an internal court with many different surfaces and textures. There are inert zones that you can hit the ball at and it will fall 'dead' off the wall, surfaces that you can hit which will rebound at a predictable rate, roofs that you can roll the ball along, etc. It’s very much about creatively reading architectures and surfaces and beginning to orient yourself and what you do with the ball in relation to these material effects. In a way it’s not unlike parcours but with a ball; you read and use the logic of architectural structures to play the game.

When I was very young, I played quite a bit of golf – and once every 10 years or so I still play with my brother; and that information from childhood is deeply encoded in my body. There is something remarkable in golf; it's the closest I have come to meditation outside of things that identify themselves as meditation. Similarly there is also something in football, and indeed in cricket, where everything external to what is going on right here, right now, falls away, and that's an extraordinary liberation at one level. A kind of immersion in present process. In golf that’s a singular activity, it’s just you and a club and a ball. But at the moment of settling down to strike a ball and to find a kind of flow that isn’t forced, they’re all the same thing (or not): you try too hard and you’ve stuffed it. You get in the way of ‘it’ doing it. It’s very Zen and the Art of Archery. That’s where I understood those things, in golf and in kicking, and in all of those activities associated with these sports: catching, kicking, throwing etc. To strike something with one’s foot, one’s head, or with a bat, or to bowl, or to hit a ball with a golf club – at times there’s a moment of profound stillness in and around the doing of that, and an absolute clarity which is very pleasurable for me (I'm someone who struggles with the privileging of the intellectual world at one level, and finds it hugely dispersed and distracting and off-balance). At such moments, I have felt absolute clarity in my ability to engage with the doing of that precise thing and not to be distracted by something else – those dumb bits of static: whether it will be good, whether people will like me if I do that, or who I am when I’m doing that. All that self-reflexive distraction – things that relate to a notion of self, to a notion of the quality of oneself, one’s abilities or non-abilities – they just fall away. And over time there are enough of such moments to make it significantly realigning in terms of one's sense of self; there is absolute calmness and clarity, and at its best or clearest, a joyous reunion with the thing that is being done. You are the thing that is being done; you are not doing it any more, it kind of ‘does you’. You can be a shit golfer and hit the ball very, very sweetly without effort five times in a round of golf and that will be enough for you to be full of joy.

I never took any of these things very seriously. Even though I was competitive I always thought they were joyously ridiculous as activities. I always understood and accepted the nonsense of sport, its fatuousness. Fundamentally it’s absurd and a bit pointless, both comic and serious, a 'folly' as Lone Twin suggest; and I very much like that about it. Of course it produces a great deal, with its intensities and emotions, its vectors and balls of energy, its alignments of perception, its very real and ephemeral pleasures; but it does not actually make a 'thing', it’s not productive in an instrumental way; it's a pure potlatch activity. It has no function other than in its doing and sharing. Sport is play, with all of play’s productive and non-productive attributes.

I have some odd abilities. For instance, I can for throw balls, or stones, very hard and a very long way. I don't know why. I guess it comes out of hours of chucking things as a kid, somehow endlessly fascinated by the arc of a trajectory, the curved flight through the air, the triangulation hand-eye-there. From the age of 7 to 18, I endlessly won silly competitions about throwing cricket balls. Like golf, or kicking a ball, it’s something to do with not getting in my own way and understanding the notion of not trying. There’s a kind of effort and aligned connectedness in playful visualisation that doesn’t impede your capacity to just get on and do that thing. Alain Platel of Les Ballets C de la B once talked of a fascination with something he called ‘suppressed virtuosities’. Those things we are extremely good at, but that no longer have a value, no current purchase as an activity. Throwing is one of them for me and I rather like the fact that I have this completely functionless capacity. I value its lack of value and its anomalous redundancy.

As a result when I see people who are very good at whatever their thing is, whether it's David Beckham taking a free kick, or a friend at school who could manipulate his face in a hyper-gurning way, or my friend the performer/choreographer Jane Mason moving, I recognise they have a particular set of capacities that I don’t have. I can see that Jane has a range of possibilities, and my not being able to do them somehow amplifies radically my sense of what a body can do. The horizon expands ever so slightly, and I find that very exciting. In Jane’s case, her particular quality might be the capacity to ride very close to some kind of intuitive hunch – without having to decode or understand intellectually, to explain it away. She’s very adept at that, and it takes various shapes. And so the nature of the conversation that seems possible with her is rooted in a kind of empathy for the proposition that she can run close to felt impulses she really doesn't need to know in a way she can verbalise. And I love and respect that, and try to encourage her to do that.

Of course if you play team sports you get to know your own capacities at some level: what you’re not so 'good' at, what you are 'good' at. Not necessarily intellectually ‘know’ those things, but you have a felt sense of them. And you also start to read what other people can do and where their capacities are; and so you create the conditions where that capacity can be activated usefully. It’s absolutely similar to working with a group of performers, whether they are dancers or theatre people. It’s somehow creating the conditions for the individuals within the collective to recognise, value, extend and develop their own capacities, and to find a complementarity in relation, so that collectively they can produce something that is more than the sum of its parts and that’s live here and now. Years ago I remember seeing early Theatre de Complicite shows, and talking with Simon McBurney about sport – and he made a similar set of connections between sport activities, team, playing field, structures in space that have restrictions and therefore encourage play, tactical possibility and game structures inside the restrictions. That’s what enables play, the parameters, the friction. It’s like the give in a bicycle chain; it has a structure, but it also has ‘play’ in it in that other sense of ‘give’. For me there was always a strong connection between sport, play and performance making.

I remember reading a beautiful article about footballers by Richard Williams in The Guardian, in which he writes in particular about the Portuguese player Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. It was in part about why one might conceive of them as ‘artists’. Richard Williams had been a music writer before becoming a sports journalist; he’s written a book about Miles Davis, for example. He’s one of the few journalists who has a real feel for rhythm, space, tears and shifts in space, relations of connection and counterpoint, etc. – those elements that are central to my relation to watching sport. Anyway, Williams wrote a memorable phrase in this article: ‘He [Zidane] sees space and time and angles where we see only confusion.’ The ‘we’ that he refers to is perhaps the untutored eye, the kind of a person who perhaps isn’t sensitised to those kinds of elements and processes going on. He suggests somebody like Zidane makes such things palpably apparent. A change of direction that opens up that part of the space where it was blocked. That shift in angle, that cut-back pass that opens up a gap in relation to that vector of that body moving at that speed, through what looks like a chaotic scrimmage, into a new configuration of space. So it’s a kind of choreographic practice at one level, an enabling managing of space for people to flair into the thing that they do very well. Which is thrilling and illuminating,  of course. There are very few people who make such dynamic elements and possibilities as visible as Zidane sometimes did: a kind of pedagogy for spectators.

For what it's worth, an edited transcript of an interview with David Williams by Dick McCaw, a version of which was first published as 'Space and time and angles: learning how to watch' in the journal Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 5:3, 2014, 350-3. Image just above: Anthony Gormley, 'Trajectory Field', 2001

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