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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
(A)way with words
Animated Spring 2001. 'One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.' (1) Claire Pencak reflects on the tyranny of abstraction
To bend, turn or fold back; recollect; look back over; to review; meditate on a subject; to echo; the image in a reflective surface; a near perfect likeness; to interpret an object through a reflective medium (glass, water, metal, polished wood, etc.); a motor response to a sensory stimulus; rebound; to direct attention or action away from something.

Reflection was the thread that ran through a choreographic research project (2), mentored by Matthew Hawkins at Dance Base in January this year. One of the objectives of the weeklong project was to establish the artistic foundations for the creation in September of a collaborative work co-produced by tabula rasa dance company and Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust. One Crowded Hour will include live music composed by Peter Nelson for double bass, voice and computer generated sound, an installation in glass by Keiko Mukaide and choreography for five to six dancers by myself. (3) We want to achieve a collective expression using a palette of glass, light, dance and music, to create together what could not be created apart.

Glass as a material is inherently contradictory - it is at once fragile and enduring, reflective and transparent, a substance for both seeing outwards and inwards, a liquid in solid form. These harmonious contradictions provide plenty of poetic images in themselves but reflection was the one that I wanted to take to the core of the choreographic and collaborative process. This was the starting point for the choreographic research.

Brought up in Japan but now living in Edinburgh, Keiko Mukaide's glass gardens reflect her Japanese roots. 'Many of my ideas have concentrated on simplicity and purity, on recreating aspects of nature: water, earth, light through a palette of glass materials. I love the versatility of glass... no material can metamor-phose like it'. (4)

Choreographic research
Research is the act of seeking again; it is a critical investigation, an enquiry, a return to the study of materials and sources, etc. to (re)establish and reach new conclusions. Choreographic research therefore being all of the above in relation to the art of making dances. Arguably, this is not distinct from what we hope to do as choreographers all the time, but I differentiate here between choreographic research and rehearsing. Rehearsing implies the practising of something that is repeatable, the act of 'polishing', of preparing a product. We were rather researching ways to rehearse and simultaneously developing choreographic and musical material for One Crowded Hour. I wanted to start by exploring the activities of reflecting, shadowing and interpreting - to transmit information non-verbally in the form of dance material.

A dancer firstly watches a dance phrase and then reflects it back by, for example, taking the rhythm of the original movement and embodying it differently. By reflecting the spatial elements of the phrase or taking the dance into a different body part. The aim is to take an element of the phrase and reflect it using another dance component.

A shadow is a particular kind of reflected image that reveals the approximate form of an object or body. It is not the exact reproduction of a thing in all its detail but it does somehow capture the essence and spontaneity of an object.

In this case one person dances and another tries to capture as much of their dance as they can. We tried this with the dancer dancing an unseen phrase and the shadower initially watching and then repeating as much as they could remember afterwards and through simultaneous shadowing.

A process that involves explaining something, re-presenting it in an alternative way. A dancer watches a phrase and then interprets it physically. The resulting dance phrase being in essence more a reflection of the interpreter than the original phrase.

Reflecting, shadowing and interpreting are all ways of seeing dance material, of transmitting it from one dancer to another and of developing a movement language using variation. They can also be applied to the collaborative process. Take the relationship between the dancers and the musicians. Reflecting could be an avenue for allowing the music and the dance to directly affect each other. For example, the musicians could choose to reflect the rhythm of what they saw being danced. As there are many rhythms happening simultaneously in the body as we move, the arm may be lyrical and flowing and the legs simultaneously staccato, a musician might choose to select and reflect one body part or zone with the option to swap to another if that becomes more interesting. Spatial levels can be reflected tonally, the shape of a phrase was drawn by the bow on the double bass and by the mouse on the computer screen. All of these tasks are interchangeable in that either the music or the dance could lead or reflect.

Needless to say, it is not that any of these processes are new, the very word research implies revisiting. This research was more about identifying processes that would best express the central theme of the piece - reflection. Identifying techniques that could be used to structure and develop material in any of the mediums (music, dance, light, and glass), to enhance the collaborative relationships and frame the work.

To give something form; the composing of things; ways of directing the senses and the mind; the act of structuring; construction, that which surrounds.

I understand framing as referring to how we show, present or communicate something and therefore how it is seen and understood. In terms of choreography, how an idea is literally embodied (from the Latin - incorporare) - physically through the dancers and visually through the space.

How we choose to rehearse, the processes or methods that we use, frame the final presentation of the performed work. It establishes the style and ultimately how the audience views it. Process and product cannot be separated, the one informs the other and more appropriately, the one reflects the other. The processes for example of reflecting, shadowing and interpreting implies working with dancers as interpretative artists rather than as a vehicle for a choreographer's dance technique. It is not about cloning or the identical replication of a way of moving. Rather, it allows the dancers to reflect their particular dance heritage and this returns to the heart of One Crowded Hour. Practically speaking it also makes it possible to create work within a short rehearsal period. To thoroughly embody another's style of moving demands creating, in a sense a training school from which to draw dancers versed in that particular style.

A vocabulary begins to emerge
Being one for whom dance is a means to communicate what cannot be expressed through words, it ironically becomes more apparent to me, that our use of language has a significant impact on the way in which we create and how we communicate with our collaborators.

I will mention here that much of this article is informed or framed by the experience of having attended The Art of Coaching Course with Kaizen Creative in 2000. I like to make the time to always do at least one intensive training course each year, which is normally movement based. Last year though I opted for something different. The Art of Coaching draws on the theories and practice of neuro-linguistic programming and provides a collection of concepts, words and tools to facilitate effective communication. It took a few baffled days before I realised that this was exactly what I needed to do and that honing communication skilIs was all essential part of functioning as a choreographer or teacher.

People perceive and understand the world through information received by the senses, referred to as the representational systems. Everyone tends to have a preference for receiving, understanding, and conveying information through one of these systems. There are visual people, aural people, etc. and these preferences for seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling, frame the way we understand the world and are often reflected through our choice of language. As creative artists or teachers we can make use of this to communicate our ideas more effectively.

The question of information, the giving of information when, how (verbally, non-verbally) and to whom, came up during the first mentoring discussion with Matthew Hawkins.

'Mentor' was the guide and adviser of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. It comes linguistically from a Greek stem meaning to remember, think, counsel.(5)

A mentor needs to be someone experienced, wise and highly skilled in his or her particular field of expertise. Someone we can trust and respect to act as a guide rather than a teacher, although it may be that some teaching occurs. It is hopefully a dynamic relationship and I am reminded of Dominique Dupuy who during his workshops for the International Workshop Festival this year used the word appui. It translates into the English language as to support - but he insisted on using the French word as it expresses a greater degree of activity between the support and the supported. Dominique explained that appui has a more dynamic energising sense where as the English word has a tendency towards passivity. It suggests something to be leant upon to prevent us falling, an aid to keep us upstanding.

This was my second experience of having a mentor. In 1999 Cathie Boyd, artistic director of Theatre Cryptic, spent two days guiding me through the development of the dramatic narrative for a solo - an experience I found informative. On this occasion, I asked Matthew Hawkins to act as a mentor. I had selected him because I admire his artistry, intelligence and experience as a choreographer, dancer and teacher and respected his opinion and critical eye. The choice was also informed by my experience of working with him through a series of different projects in Scotland. In 1994, I was a dancer on a Choreographic Development Project with choreographer Andy Howitt initiated by Dance Productions, which involved two mentors Kim Brandstrup and Matthew Hawkins. As a direct result of this experience I applied for a Dance Project Award from the Scottish Arts Council which enabled me to commission Matthew to create Correspondances a piece for seven dancers.

Matthew identifies various forms of mentoring. There is mentoring which is concerned with the notion of somehow improving a choreographer's practice. This implies that the choreography and the choreographer need improving and embodies a sense of judgement. It suggests that something can be right or wrong, better or worse. Then there is mentoring which concerns itself with facilitating the process of choreography by stripping away anything that might prevent a person engaging fully in the act of being a choreographer. It was this kind of mentoring that I received from Matthew Hawkins. He also documented the process on camera. The footage reflects the reactions and interaction occurring, framing the action in studio mirrors and highlighting visually, moments or events that commented on the processes being used. On the final afternoon, he led the open studio showing. This was an opportunity for me to find out what was being communicated through the work and perceived by all audience and was itself part of the research. To make this possible, apart from a general introduction, no prior information was given that might have interfered with their direct response to the work.

The residency at Dance Base was an opportunity to start to apply some of the learning that happened during the Arts of Coaching Course in a studio situation. There is always an uncomfortable interval between learning, knowing and finally understanding something for oneself. I detect some of the methods are slowly becoming embodied in my own practice whilst others sit uncomfortably on the sidelines. More significant for me though was the opportunity the course gave for reflection. It may be partly serendipity that this set the measure for the choreographic research project and partly my desire always to make connections, to watch those concentric circles as they spiral outwards from the centre point. It is rare that we have the luxury of a one to one development process and having fortunately made a wise choice of mentor, I can say that I feel I have moved on as a choreographer.

The mentoring process cleared the way in a sense to allow me to function as a choreographer in the studio rather than as the 'hostess' of this creative event. With so much activity and learning happening at various levels which included everyone, I think in some way, as well as satellite activities like photographic sessions it was a crowded week and there were moments of feeling slightly swamped. It was good though to take time out to sit and observe both for myself and for the dancers. I was able to draw on the talents and artistic heritage of others to do this. Yalckun Abdurehim taught two dances from Turkestan and Shamita Ray a session in Bharat Natyam. These sessions were an opportunity for the dancers to shift their focus briefly and for me to observe how images are encoded in different cultural dances, particularly through gesture and rhythm. This was relevant to an emerging interest during the week concerning the use of imagery in non-narrative dance and the recognition that choreographically I was moving towards - to quote a phrase coined by Matthew at the end of day one - 'breaking the tyranny of abstraction'.

Claire Pencak, artistic director, tabula rasa dance company. Contact +44 (0)131 554 6335 or email

1. Mordaunt, Thomas Osbert, Sound, Sound the Clarion in One Thousand Beautiful Things by Arthur Mee, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1932
2. Funded by the Scottish Arts Council, the City of Edinburgh and Dance Base, Edinburgh
3. Other collaborators during this week: Yalckun Abdurehim, Jenny McLachlan, Rachel Morrow, Shamita Ray, Rudolfo Rivas Franco, Suna Goencue, Richard Cockill (dancers), Mike Dunning (double bass), Paul Watt (photographer)
4. Mukaide, Keiko, Fabrica catalogue, Edinburgh, spring 1999
5. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001