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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
The skin of our nature/the nature of our skin
Angus Balbernie reflects on his experiences of creating communities of dancers and of the underlying philosophies of 'community'
The skin of our nature

"I believe I have come to whatever I understand by listening to companions and by trying to erase the lines that establish hierarchies of knowledge among them. My sense is that the divine knowledge we yearn for is social; it is not in the province of a genius any more than it is in the province of a particular culture. It lies within our definition of community. Our blessing, it seems to me, is not what we know, but that we know each other." American writer Barry Lopez, from 'The Language of Animals', published in Resurgence magazine.

How to define 'community' beyond, say, the brutal simplicities of fascism, fundamentalism and autocracy? Ours must have originally been built around primate concerns (go to any town or city in Britain at closing time and they often still are). Concerns of food, forage, safety, aggression, communication, power, procreation... Now we use the word to define areas, collectives, shared geographies, activities, subcultures, institutions...

I grew up often living in communities for very damaged people. My father was a psychologist, whose work was with treating very damaged folk, mostly children, whose lives had been destroyed by the adults, environments and events around them. When I was 20, I went to an old ruined farm high on a lavender and almond plateau in Haute Provence. Here a basis of community was that everyone could sit around a table and talk, eat and drink together. We built, herded goats, made cheese, took in individuals with difficulties, organised art-events, sometimes fell out, enjoyed much local wine, and flew kites. I also spent a lot of time on the Isle of Man, off and on, living on a hill-farm, with a sculptor/artist/philosopher and his remarkable extended family, living and working in a form of communal existence based on smallholding, art-making and shared subsistence activity. I'm sure these experiences affected my views of "community".

Perhaps it is more that the multi-stranded sets of powers, possibilities and processes between people, place and production can create a kind of flexible glue that coalesces into something that sometimes, occasionally, holds people together. Perhaps the real basis of community is a container or filter, for ongoing, evolving, complex process, rather than any one result.

In our multi-stranded (post-modern?) existence, maybe the best example of a community-as-process is in any form of democracy that mostly works: often an excruciating tangle of complexities, as full of failures and issues as of support and success, but by definition as complex, annoying, ever-changing, questioning and individual as the people who fund it and live with it's reflected systems of power and political intervention that they can collectively, theoretically, engage to govern them. (Now... just ask George and Tony!)

So we search for the glue that is called community.

I came to dance late. I'd spent months training in Tai Chi on an island in the South China seas, where discovering a joy of movement was balanced by understanding no Cantonese, endless bruising from 'the master', and many halts by the entire school during training for Marlboros and cans of Chinese beer.

My dance training was at Dartington, with Mary O'Donnell (Fulkerson), based on her extraordinary process of Anatomical Release and the investigations of artists such as Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Kirstie Simson, Katie Duck, Nancy Topf, Julyen Hamilton, Stephanie Woodard etc, who came to teach and experiment, and, as a friend recently reminded me, "Maybe not to make us dance that brilliantly, but to THINK so much about dance".

We rolled and slept, lay and fell, improvised and contacted, opened and closed, composed and created for four years. But if not a community, the sense of democracy wired within the possibility offered to all to express something in movement form which Mary created, had the feel of a communal activity. The sense of a community of chances. And in its way, Dartington was another form of community. A small, idiosyncratic arts college in the depths of Devon's fat green world, defined by shared artistic variation, an 'open field' of experimental possibilities, and occasional bouts of small kingdom syndrome.

So what could a 'dance community' be?

Over the last ten years I've taught a lot at the European Dance Development Centre (EDDC) in Arnhem, and now at it's changed form as the Dancemakers dept. At the EDDC, students, staff and artists from all over the world contributed to an experiment in dance training, in what it is to be an individual artist first, and what this training might, or might not consist of, in order to develop the individual. But the sense of community was a delicate, often fractured thing, formed by a world-wide group of individuals (both students and teachers) being offered artistic freedom and individuality as an ongoing process, and then mostly left to investigate how to share ideas, events and actions, sometimes successfully, sometimes shattered by the fault-lines of self-expression and ego.

Sometimes I feel that the truest sense of a dance community I've known with was with a group of teenagers and adults from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I directed a dance project Moving Issues for three years, jointly funded by the Scottish Office and Youth Clubs Scotland. It was created to see what use an art-form might be in relation to exploring social issues in youth work in Scotland. Against the directive to do a little work with everyone everywhere, (to justify the 'numbers achieved' mentality of much of high-level management), we developed work mostly with one evolving group of folk, sensing that a long-term focus on a small number might bring some possibilities of genuine change, rather than sound-bite numbers and little real effect. And in some ways it did.

We created over 30 events and projects, and over the three years there was both a sense of collective responsibility by those involved with the project, and a real growth of artistic expression. There grew a sense of support between individuals, out toward the community, woven through dance and performance work, that had collective strength, collective activity, but space too for all individuals to express their own developing ideas.

Maybe this could define a dance community?

As a mentor for Dance South West, I go from Plymouth to Bristol, Dorset to Devon, to dialogue with dance-related artists and their ideas. There's a weave that brings people together in various loose alignments and activities, and some active channels of communication bringing some support over distance. Also the work of the regional dance agencies and the two National Dance Agencies in the region, all offering some support to folk who try to survive and grow in a funding system with seemingly little focused, coherent, structured managerial philosophy.

Beyond the national and regional agencies, we look for a clarity of support for the growth for the varied levels of dance-work from birth to maturity. For structural dedication, sustained artistic support and revision of accountability for the aesthetic and managerial decisions that really affect careers.

This sows seeds for something that can grow to cover us.

The nature of our skin

There is a community of opposites. Of dancers and drowners. Of techniques and instincts. (Technique: knowing the note. Instinct: risking how or when to sing it!)

This year there are fewer swifts gabbling over the hills above my house. The limestone commons are grazed by the small, round, un-tippable Belties (1), who delicately leave the orchids uneaten, keeping their owners the National Trust, and us, happy. They are perhaps a true community. Here they dance, here they drown, here they don't eat orchids or fall down.

The difference?

How many notes to a scale? (and so many hinted others.)
Orchids, roses, the memory of ramsens. The blank tapes, imposed like song between the living and the dead.

You have to work the shell of the animal into shape.
You have to believe in it.

The 'centre' of dance is transition ('remaining positionless').
Therefore nothing is surprise.
Instead all is.

There are notes to the body. There are octaves of movement. Communities of sound, of action, of choice, of persuasion

I look at maps. Maps of the Cuillins, Glen Coe, Dartmoor, Haute Provence, King Hereford's Nob... Can cartography and topology be catching? Is a map the shape of a community?

Choreography and composition also consist of acts of instinct, technique and recognition. Of locality, observance and architecture. Of tuned action. Of issues of self.

The construction of self. Core, body, circuits, nervous system, brain stem, dialogue, transition, engagement, response, reaction, limbic system, observation, thought, recognition, language, culture, society, cortex.

This could be our community.

Signals sent and received, through the nervous system, the proprioceptive systems, the senses, thoughts, actions. It's about the energies we are. About rich levels of realising what it is to dance, finally, any shape, any way.

It is a community of no age at all, no boundary, no opinion. Of moving now, here, now. Of the effect of being moved, and for a moment moving.

And anyone who can speak through their skin can speak through their skin.

Community is maybe about how to tune the chances in a room, on a mountain, in people.

About thinking less of the central authority of body, mind, imagination, and more of what space contains.

Of what is offered in dialogue with other shapes, other events.
Of what is between objective and subjective?

A vital dance will contain the effect of surface. More than informed, infused. With all kinds of other interpretations.
As will a vital community.

And a bone language. And one of every moment. Frozen and unfrozen. Made clean.

To think less about yourself is to call space a duet. The exact shape needed.

Perhaps a good artist is someone who tells something about themselves, through other people, other shapes, other songs, other dances. Perhaps a good artist has one chance left. Perhaps a good artist is everything else the world forgot.

Perhaps a good artist has both impulse and control...

Perhaps not.

Of all trades, this is one that often maintains an uneasy balance between being, working, knowing, and unknowing. A kind of discipline to read and interpret almost everything you can perceive, and understand how much you can't.

An action involves many combinations. Those of body, muscle, tissue. Those of instance, recognition, response.

Perhaps there is a looser community of dancers and choreographers who think of their work more as ongoing research than entertainment, who work with social process, people, the whole damn mess of community...

Artists who work to explore some of the same issues psychologists and neuroscientists investigate, asking questions about the relationships between body, communication, thought, memory, consciousness. Asking how we can understand embodied thought?

Sometimes bringing their investigations to others, to the stage. Attempting to communicate these questions on the workings of the mind through their work in dance. This kinetic search is about recognising and mapping inner landscapes and the relationship between awareness, thought and movement. How movement travels in the body, and how memory affects this, in both the individual, and the group.

To discover and map inner body patterns that are fluid landmarks to how thought and emotion move. A kind of cartography in the multiple curves and patterns that create a whole inner and outer dance. Often perceived in more intuitive fashions rather than in external, formal ways.

To form for a moment, an unspoken, fluid event. Something shared.

A form of community.

Just like maps, there is information in one dimension that offers imaginative movement in more.

One of potential. Of living fluid maps of communication, beyond this fractured, post-modern sense of non-community we often live in.

Living in our lives, beyond words, where the skin speaks it's own language.

Perhaps an ongoing search for the movement of thought is an ongoing search for community?

What is thought anyway, before it becomes a memory?

Why do we move this way?

Or forget to...

Perhaps it's just the skin of our nature. The nature of our skin.

"A central task facing modern Western cultures is to redefine human community in the wake of industrialisation, colonialism and, more recently, the forcing power of capitalism. In trying to solve some of the constellation of attendant problems here - keeping corporations out of secondary education, restoring the physical and spiritual shelter of the family group, preserving non-Western ways of knowing - it seems clear that by cutting ourselves off from Nature, by turning Nature into scenery and commodities, we may cut ourselves off from something vital. To repair this damage we can't any longer take what we call "Nature" for an object. We must merge it again with our own nature." American writer Barry Lopez, from 'The Language of Animals', published in Resurgence magazine.

Angus Balbernie, independant director, teacher, choreographer and mentor for Dance South West. Contact Abalbernie@aol.com

(1) Belties, just in case you were wondering, are beef cattle!

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Animated: Autumn 2004