The Dance Class

One question that often emerges among those who are training with me, especially when conversation turns to the notion of ‘ensemble’, concerns the relationship between group identity and individuality. Put simply, does training together, through the same exercises, focusing on connectedness with others, tend to make people more alike? At it’s most extreme, the concern is that training as an Ensemble involves a loss of individuality, that  the individual is ‘formed’ into a ‘type’ of performer – the type the Trainer imagines. Were this to happen it would be at the expense of their unique and individual nature  – as if an ensemble is constructed rather like Dr Frankenstein constructs a monster using the bits of human that are brought to him.

This goes to the heart of the question about the nature of an ensemble and whether – as I believe to be the case – an ensemble is inherently different to a corps-de-ballet or any other structure that can see individuality hidden by an aesthetic.

For me an ensemble is founded on the unique qualities of its individual members. It’s very clear to me, from the perspective of one who trains ensembles, that a group, going through roughly the same process of training as another group, will emerge very differently. The four ensembles I trained  at Huddersfield  University when I ran the MA Ensemble Physical Theatre, all emerged entirely unique, each with very clear strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncracies.

How does the tension between same-and-different, or homogenous-and-individual emerge? All of the training is predicated on the interdependence of self and others, however there’s one exercise in particular, not one I run very often, which seems to encapsulate this paradox: that the more we try to do the same things in the same way, the more different we discover ourselves to be.

It’s an exercise called The Dance Class. It’s very simple. One person stands in front of the group with her/his back to the others and moves slowly, concentrating on enabling those who are behind her to read her movements with clarity. Usually this involves her moving slowly, incrementally and with a continual awareness of being observed from behind – so  she makes no sudden changes of movement as, to do so, would prevent the others from keeping up with her.

The  rest of the group try to copy the leader exactly – not seeing-then-doing, but trying to do what the leader is doing at exactly the same time as s/he is doing it. They are reading intention as well as copying how that intention is manifesting. I ask that when they discover they have missed something – that the leader’s foot shifted angle, or while they were watching the bending of the knee they missed a tilting of the head – that they do not try to ‘catch up’. They simply absorb this new impulse into their developing action.

This involves a rigourous mental discipline. For the inclination we encounter when we find we have ‘missed something’, when we discover that we have ‘failed’ in our attempt to imitate another exactly, is to try to ‘correct’ our mistake. However I’m asking people not to treat something they missed as ‘a mistake’. Rather I am asking them to accept that if it took several minutes for the stimulus of ‘the leader’s foot moving’ to enter into their consciousness,  they can only react at the moment that they perceive the stimulus and experience an impulse. Therefore there is nothing to judge themselves for. It is an exercise about acceptance and non-judgement, both of which seem essential to me in the training process. Only if we accept who we are, without opinion, can we start to sculpt our psychophysical reality rather than wasting energy trying to manipulate fantasies of who we think we ought to be.

So what is the effect of an exercise that asks everyone to try to be exactly like everyone else? Both for the watcher and the doer, it makes absolutely clear the unique nature of each individual. The doer discovers, among other things, that however much they try to ‘be’ someone else, they remain themselves – that we cannot copy anyone exactly, we can only imitate another person through the structures of our own bodymind. The observer (usually me) gets to see how, even when the form of movement is very similar between two individuals, their way of inhabiting that form is unique to each and every member of a group.

It seems to me that this paradox is the heart of the development of ensemble, that by giving of ourselves to others, we discover ourselves to be uniquely who we are. If we are to make a full and selfless contribution to the ensemble we need humbly but without reservation, to accept our uniqueness and to make a gift of it to those we work with.

There is a further development of The Dance Class during which three ‘leaders’ stand in front of the class, all moving in ways that enable them to be copied. The rest of the class need to copy all three of them exactly. Of course this is impossible, but in encountering this impossible attempt to be exactly like three different people at once, the individual performer also encounters the choices she makes, as she tries to absorb and negotiate a complex of stimuli. On reflection – if she has done both versions of the exercise – she will discover that it is no more impossible to be exactly like three people than it is to be exactly like one other person. An individual can only be her/himself and that is the role they therefore MUST play in play developing ensemble.

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