Movement on the edge of stillness…sound on the edge of silence…

Sound for Butoh workshop, South Devon, 22 and 23 September 2012.

Space and time seemed to open up on this weekend workshop – perhaps it was the voice and breathwork that stilled my monkey-mind and allowed me to see more deeply into the heart of things. I remember Kate standing on the rocks of Bell Tor on Dartmoor, hair blowing in the wind, her long limbs mirroring the flight of a crow and the sweep of the desolate landscape; Fabrizia rolling her soft body on the jagged rocks by Prawle Point as the wild whipping sea crashed around her. This was the fourth in a series of workshops co-led by musician Adrian Freedman and myself exploring how butoh dancers can create soundscapes within which to move.

We spent Saturday and Sunday mornings stretching and doing sensitivity awareness exercises in the studio space in Adrian’s house in Dartington before moving out into nature. On Saturday we began in the forest behind Adrian’s house, starting from stillness and waiting for the impetus to move. We each had our own adventure finding our moving place in the larger pattern, eventually regrouping in a beautiful nest sculpture created by children from the nearby Steiner school, that was perfectly fitted to our purpose. I had a sense of entering into that state of grace which seems to occur so often in spontaneous improvised movement where things fall into place with a wonderful serendipity.

From here we moved to Dartmoor, to a kind of dell among the gorse bushes where we were sheltered and able to explore using voice. Adrian led us through some exercises contrasting consonant and vowel sounds, using this as a starting point for creating sound textures. After sometime developing this we each went off to find a location to create a solo dance, incorporating sound. Adrian gave us each a word and it was fascinating to witness how the resulting performances expressed the meaning of the word while also playing with the vocal possibilities.

The landscape provided visually stunning backdrops; each location contrasted the others and each performance expressed the dancer’s unique connection to their surrounding. Flavia chose a fairy glen; boulders, gorse and bracken formed the foreground, with Bonehill Rocks behind; her voice accompanied by the sound of the stream. She created a piece of lightness and humour, her quick sharp movements echoed in the gibberish she uttered. Finally we did a group improvisation at a pile of rocks with an artfully twisted oak growing out of a crack in the middle. We crawled, climbed, whispered, rocked, swung, leapt etc etc This was all very well as far as it went: we had a great time and I have no doubt it looked pretty amazing, but none of us used voice to great effect. I think voice is a challenging area for many dancers, with corresponding potential for development.

Sunday morning therefore had us working on building our confidence on creating strong, pure sound. Adrian worked with breath and endurance, culminating in a 40 minute improvisation where we dancers matched the pitch he played on his shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) while exploring every possible movement that naturally arose while singing! Slightly exhausted, we drove through impossibly narrow green lanes to the wild, wild sea; which the wind and rain had whipped into a fantastic frenzy. After clambouring down to the rocks we played the well-known party game: tag-butoh, each dancer having some time alone, before interacting with the next and so on. The tide was coming in, the rocks were slippery, the weather outrageous – perfect butoh conditions, in other words!

Soft bodies, ragged rocks, bone and sea, gulls tearing at the wind…my turn came: I screamed and laughed and I waved and whipped and the sea met me and laughed too!

In terms of the workshop’s stated aim to ‘explore the subtle connections between sound and movement in the deep inner self, and how natural sounds and voice might combine into a soundscape within which to create movement’ it was a success. However I felt a conflict between learning new techniques and developing vocal skills and the overwhelming impact of the natural landscape. This serves to emphasise the richness of both lines of investigation and to inspire thoughts of more dedicated indoor work focusing on voice and sound-making providing the impetus for movement, perhaps separate to further work on developing dance in natural landscapes.

Previously Adrian has worked with us on sound-making using a range of percussive instruments and found objects. We have learned to listen effectively and work together as musicians in ways that complement our skills as dancers; also to exploit sound potential and experiment with various improvisation structures. We are planning to work further with voice in the new year, with another landscape project in Devon next summer, perhaps culminating in a performance in Hertfordshire.

Jeannie Donald-McKim

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