Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Lying on the floor and paying attention to how you move is a whole lot more powerful than even I thought it could be.
The Feldenkrais Method of Awareness Through Movement was the focus of attention on a week-long meeting and training segment for theatre practitioners from across Europe hosted by Teresa Brayshaw at Leeds Beckett University this summer. Both Teresa and I are practitioners of this method of mind/body coordination (the Feldenkrais Method ) but we were not entirely sure what it would be like for our European partners to lie on the floor and move slowly with maximum attention, instead of doing the more usual things associated with ‘training’ in theatre, performance and story-telling.
The whole thing was part of a much longer and deeper project called ATIPIA; Applied Theatre in Practising Integrated Approaches. It is initiated by Shoshin Theatre in Romania and is a preparatory, 13 month Erasmus + Project led by their association with the long-term organisational vision of training a sustainable group of adult educators (or actor-pedagogues) in Romania, who can create, share and disseminate an innovative applied theatre technique combining verbal (Theatre in Education, Drama in Education) and non-verbal (somatic, vocal) methods. There are other groups from across Europe involved. One is Kava from Hungary who are an innovative Theatre in Education group; from France, the legendary Roy Hart Theatre, who are an experimental group, specialising in what is known as “extended voice”; from Germany, practitioners from Reichenow, who represent a new generation of Roy Hart influenced artists bringing the work to new frontiers and from the UK, Leeds Beckett University department of Theatre and Performance.
I set off in my little car with my trusty assistant in the form of the skeleton that was to inspire the participants to look inside themselves. I was genuinely looking forward to the week. Neither Teresa or I knew exactly how it would run or what exactly we would do. The schedule had been organised before I arrived, and Feldenkrais was to be the starting point of the day and would provide the bedrock of the morning's explorations. The afternoon would be given over to the applications involved in the Applied part of A-TIPIA. The applications in the afternoon included wonderful sessions from ground-breaking theatre company Stand and be Counted and Lisa Stephenson's Story Makers. The former is the UK's first theatre of sanctuary making work specifically with and for refugee communities and the latter a wonderful project "giving young people the power and the opportunity to create their stories through drama and creative writing". Both outfits shared a methodology of sourcing the art from within the community they are serving, as a roots-up approach and I found both very inspiring. Luckily there was a great synergy between the Feldenkrais awareness work and these very person-orientated projects; both, also, with their genesis and operation nurtured, co-funded and supported by Leeds Beckett University.
Personally, it was a great chance to work with my friend, Teresa Brayshaw. Teaching can be quite lonesome and so teaching with a colleague was heartening and inspiring. Teresa and I had met on the Sussex 7 Feldenkrais training (one of only two trainings in the method in the UK, the other being in London). We could not be more different. Teresa is a northern, Catholic, working-class woman who is trained and steeped in experimental Performance and has made a career within what she calls ‘the academy’- or higher education. I am, on the other hand, an upper-middle-class, southern man with little religion, a passion for theatre/acting and a fairly steadfast avoidance of ‘the academy’! But you know what they say about opposites. Teresa is one of the most energetic people I have ever met. She has a great enthusiasm for living and connecting the disparate parts of both personal, but also communal, political, and academic life. I am more of a specialist in the Feldenkrais Method than she, since she also is embedded in working in a department at the university and has a string of other freelance responsibilities, so I did more of the "pure" Feldenkrais. This suited me fine; I was able to teach some of the classic lessons from the ‘canon’ to people who had mostly not done any before. It is always weirdly nerve-wracking to teach Awareness Through Movement lessons since the people lying on the floor are going through a very interior experience of themselves and you don't get much feedback as it is going on. But I needn't have worried, as when people got up at the end and proceeded onward through the day, I got reports from delegates for whom this chance to quietly reflect on their own movement and even "self-image" was profound and often quite moving. Teresa's great skill in the week, apart from overseeing and planning it, was to do more applied things with the Feldenkrais Method. She showed interesting videos, like this, of Baby Liv:
and played games with us to bring home the power and ingenuity of the method. We made a pretty good team!
One of the ‘extras’ that we provided was to give each of the participants a one-on-one, touch experience of the method. So every morning, lunchtime and evening we dedicated half an hour for each person to have what we call an FI, or Functional Integration. These sessions were revelatory to us and them. It was a great atmosphere; to give a hands-on session in the same room as my friend and colleague doing the same thing. It reminded us a bit of our training and brought with it an oasis of calm and deep learning punctuating the day in a very satisfying way.
One of my personal highlights of the week was when we divided the group in two, with half in a meeting about the ongoing funding of ATIPIA with Teresa, and the other half with me. I decided to facilitate a very basic experience of Functional Integration. I got them in pairs and simply asked them to do an exercise which Teresa and I had done on our 4-year training, called ‘non-intentional touch’. It involves one person lying on a mat and the other person touching them by placing the flat of the hand on the clothed body of the recipient in as many places, leg, arm, chest, head etc as possible. It was very well received. The mainly young participants seemed very moved by the calm, non-intrusive, simplicity of the touch. Touch is a very crucial ‘commodity’ in human life and one that is often misunderstood, abused or simply loaded in a way that makes it complicated. One of the ways that Functional Integration works so well is that the practitioner is trained to start their investigations in touch from a ‘neutral’ and fundamentally investigative way.
Again, on a personal note, it was a great pleasure to reconnect with Saule Ryan and Carol Mendelsohn whom I had spent such an invigorating week in Malérargues, the Roy Hart Theatre's beautiful tumble-down chateau in the deep southwest of France earlier in the year.
Saule had said, in France, that he was aquatinted with Feldenkrais Method and used some of the awareness through movement in his own warm-ups. He was also quick to say that he did not teach it ‘properly’ but it was part of suite of movement practices picked up as the Roy Hart Theatre evolved through the 70s and 80s. It was therefore really valuable for he and Carol, both of whom of are in advanced years (but have a great youthfulness about them which can easily be ascribed, to continual movement work and a deeply challenging voice practice down there in the midst of the French forest) to have a ‘real’ experience of Feldenkrais. It is not warm up or exercise in the commonly understood way. It is more, as the title suggests, a strategy to enhance awareness. When we asked all the delegates what kind of awareness they were gaining, having done the strange and sometimes downright odd movements on the floor, the answers were interesting, to say the least. "Surrender". "Channelling your power of Action". "Freedom; where is Dogma?" "Leaning means to be aware." "Learn to respect bones’’, “structure-content following form". These were just some of the findings from their time spent on the floor and, to my mind, they highlight an important component of the work; namely that this work is designed to get you think differently about yourself and the world you inhabit, via sensations of your actual body and your actual movement. I am sure that the practices of TIE, Extended Voice and Community Theatre and that were represented in the room will gain from these somatic realisations.
It was such a rich week with so much going on; a revisiting of Cinage's Talking About My Generation, a Leeds Beckett outreach project with older citizens coming together and performing versions and snippets of their own rich life stories. This work was particularly inspiring to Shoshin's own endeavours in reaching out into their own community in Romania. Rachel Krische and Lisa Kendall led a much welcomed reciprocal “Dance Class”. Both women had been at Roy Hart with me and their session enabled the participants to bring some of their learning from the floor and smaller movements into a larger more ‘artistic’ context. There was a ‘scratch’ of a witty and thought-provoking one-woman performance from Hannah Butterfield, and a showing of Gillian Dyson’s challenging and fascinating one-woman performance, which included the setting off and spinning of various old-fashioned spinning tops left to wear themselves out in front of us combined with an ever-mounting tension of what appeared to be grief.
I can never predict how the Feldenkrais method will affect people. There are, of course, standard responses of well-being, sometimes irritation, indifference and profound possibility, but you never quite know how one lesson or this type of touch or that kind of comment is going to drop into another human's bio-psycho-social makeup, so to experience the dropping in of all sorts of emotions, thinking and sensation in the ATIPIA group was an awakening for me and a reminder of how powerful the method is.
Feedback after the week had concluded was rich and informative to us, the practitioners and trainers. Below offers a sense of the range of participant responses:
" imagined movements, imagination as a way towards real solutions observing and letting go, a way of opening doors to emotions, approaching challenges in a fun way. Tiny movements, big changes"
"It makes sense. This will resonate for a while. Never go so far that you can't return. Forever connecting dots. Home, home, home, home.”
"I am less panicked by the chronic pain I have. I was reminded and learnt new ways to listen to my body as a way to understand better. As a way to situate in the world, a way to listen. A way to move.”
“Unlearning learning moving – doing what’s easiest."
That the method can combine the emotion of progress and the unraveling of actual physical pain is a revelation that I can associate with closely.
For me, however, in a university setting and being introduced to methods of education that may appear more real in the future, the session with Senior Lecturer Lisa Stephenson and her Story Makers was the most compelling, albeit unintentional, tying together of strands. Her method and brand is one which stands up for the stories of those to whom we want to tell stories. She is doing something which appears to me to be really radical. As it says on their website, "Our goal is to help children become engaged and compassionate readers prepared to interact imaginatively with the world around them. We use drama and storytelling with children in order to get them to explore different narratives with us, which we then aim to transform into engaging fiction books" and the key here is that Lisa is determined to unearth the stories OF the children, and not make assumptions about what children want to hear. It suggests an almost disruptive approach to education; it disrupts that pattern which says we the adults know something which we will now pour into the children. Story Makers suggests that in order to evolve, both the storytellers and the told must mingle in a way that re-ignites a proper curiosity into what it is like to be human, and that it something that is missing from so much education. Things have to be disrupted to be put back together in a more productive way.
I wrote up on the whiteboard towards the end of the week, almost for my own benefit, "Artist-Educator-Child: Re-arranging power structures: Exploring the Grey: Negotiating through Story: What is the Story you tell about yourself". This was directly influenced by Lisa's amazing lecture/demonstration of her Story Maker philosophy, and of course, is directly redolent of the major preoccupations of the Feldenkrais Method. We learn, in the method, to re-learn as babies and children learned how to move in the first place. There is an element of surrender in that and a radical belief that turning things on their heads and looking from perhaps the most unexpected viewpoint of all might be the most powerful way to progress. The week in Leeds gave me a great opportunity to share my passion for Feldenkrais but also to make connections that remind me that without a continual turning over of the "soil" of knowledge, we will cease to grow. Understanding is truly gained by the radical move of unsettling your foundations in order to gain stronger, newer ones, continually.