I’ve been doing quite a bit of moving at home during the period of withdrawal from live public engagement. I found my focus in exploring movement a little different from usual. I think this had to do with multiple factors: The presence of new themes, flowing from the big world into my small space and into my movement. Moving in a room with a mirror (there are not, by design, any mirrors in Echo Echo Studios). The opportunity to be radically process orientated – a time of pure research not driven by demands to produce, perform, teach.
I watched lots of videos posted online by dancers, but I found no real desire to share anything of my own. I’m rather wary of what I’ve experienced as the rush to replace the shared, complex, vibrant, four dimensional weather of live engagement with the flat, constrained, framed, rectangular coolness of the phone and computer screen. A dis-ease process that has been well underway for quite a while, regardless of any zoonotic virus.
That being said, I did feel privileged to have a video of Almost Blue, the solo piece I made in 2019, under the direction of Oona Doherty, included in the virtual version of John Scott’s “Dancer From the Dance” festival, in June, and Echo Echo artists did sustain several participation projects in an online form throughout.
I kept Echo Echo’s Body Wisdom project for over 50’s going from April to July with free, weekly online sessions of movement exploration and improvisation, with a bit of rambling philosophy thrown in. Joining this group of around a dozen people for a couple of hours each Friday morning has been a wonderful regular focus and a joyful privilege. Such an amazing bunch of people. Playful, witty and serious, and very committed.
I was very aware that the possibility to maintain quality and depth in the online experience seemed to be largely dependent on the strong and deep, pre-existing, shared practice of the group. It didn’t seem appropriate to invite new people to the group in its online form and I didn’t feel any strong desire to establish any new, online, classes.
A surprise offshoot of the “covid-crisis” and online connection has been a continuous exchange of emails among the Body Wisdom participants around all sorts of issues; deep and trivial, serious and humorous, mundane and spiritual, grounded and philosophical. These exchanges have included streams of poetry, from several people, shared with the whole group. Maybe there will be a moment to collect these profoundly sociable writings created under conditions of necessary physical distance and to publish them in some form, as a kind of collective diary of pandemic time.
At this moment of “return to the world” Echo Echo has been fortunate to receive some emergency funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to support our work. It is specifically aimed at supporting the freelance artists of the Echo Echo Ensemble, whose usual income streams have run very thin, over the next few months. We have designed a project with two parts. One part of it looks at strategic and organisational issues facing the company along with specific concerns related to the pandemic such as safety protocols for public performance, classes, studio use and artist residencies etc. The other part is practical, in the studio (with appropriate distancing guidelines).
We had our first studio session, together, in almost 6 months, on Wednesday. I found it a strange, and rather pleasant, mixture of intensely emotional and intensely normal.
At one point I had a brief weep!
We started on the practical part of our project. This is focused on re-learning the foundations of remembering, repeating, watching and imitating movement. The theme arose from discussions during the forced hiatus since March, but goes back much further in its roots.
For many years Echo Echo’s work has had a strong focus on improvisation, both in performance and in movement exploration. We have made work which is relatively “set” and had sections of pieces that were “set” but these usually grew out of shared, exploratory, processes and improvisational structures rather than the more traditional ways of creating repeatable, imitable, detailed movement patterns. Often these strongly “set” elements have been based on interactive movement rather than “unison” material. Our teaching work, in recent times, has also had a far stronger emphasis on movement exploration, interaction and improvisation than on copying and imitating, learning, remembering and repeating movements, sequences and dances.
This emphasis hasn’t been because of any in principle rejection of “set” forms. Rather we chose to focus on the development and strengthening of fundamental attentional, creative and compositional concerns in our movement practice, which we found hard to sustain when in the mode of creating, learning, imitating, remembering and repeating.
We shared the feeling that, generally, the experience of learning and remembering and repeating movement material is very stressful. This feeling seems to be common among dancers. I think this stress comes from the pedagogy of “copying” classes (usually called, in my opinion misleadingly, “technique classes”) and from the typically pressurised, time-poor process of making performances. Personally I have almost always felt very rushed in those classes and rehearsals where I had to pick up and remember movement quickly. Being in a rush, in an often competitive environment, works against detail, depth and understanding and can favour the ability to reduce complex and detailed movement to sketchy stereotypical copies rather than the ability to engage deeply with the process of understanding through imitation.
I have always loved to copy people’s movement and dances. I think my primary motivation in doing this has been to understand a point of view by entering it, rather than to achieve some status or get a job (that last bit is very clear from my professional history!)
Echo Echo Ensemble’s project over the next three months is to go back to the beginning of the process of learning and understanding and joining in through imitation. We want to re-experience the joy of creating and sharing repeatable dances; imitating, remembering, taking our time, starting simple, remaining concerned with detail and nuance and meaning rather than function.
Our broad aim is to strengthen and deepen our ways of making “set” dances, inspired by the desire to dance “in unison” with each other, which are rooted in the qualities of movement characteristic of the Echo Echo Ensemble which we have developed over the years of research, creation and performance together.
This will offer a new input to the creative work of the company as individuals and collectively. It also happens to align with some of the concerns thrown up by the current pandemic. Online teaching with a focus on improvisation with new groups is challenging. Finding a way to embody Echo Echo movement principles in small, but complete and repeatable, learnable dances, will, hopefully, offer a helpful extra way to engage with the public online should limits on public gatherings remain.
Our first session on Wednesday was very gentle, stress-free, profound and moving. I am looking forward to our twice weekly sessions on this theme over the next weeks and months.
I’ll be posting a weekly blog about the work and what discoveries and insights arise.
I want to send my best wishes to everyone in this time of re-emergence. Particularly to colleagues and friends in the performing arts. Musicians, actors, dancers, circus performers, comedians, most of whom are freelance and self-employed, are having the hardest of times in relation to the pandemic, compounding the frequent insecurity and precariousness of their lives at the best of times.