I began the project “Persephone Bound” a year ago, although the experiences that have informed this project, and this method of creation, has been something I have ben developing for quite some time. I don’t recall the exact moment the myth of Persephone became my point of interest either, but I’m grateful it did. I have always been inspired by Greek Mythology, it’s larger than life nature, it’s dramatic and often devastating stories. As for the straps, I began taking classes on straps to strengthen my skills on silks. There was something about the simplicity of the equipment (in shape, not in technique), and the fact that with the straps the body become the main focus, that made me fall in love. One by one these elements began connecting to each other, and as I researched the story of Persephone, the movement on the straps become even more clear.
I performed a monologue on the silks (recovering from an injury meant straps were not possible) at a work-in-progress showcase in Toronto know as AER Time, curated by the talented circus women “Femmes de Feu”. In a way this performance launched the project. This was the first time my director (and husband) Jed Tomlinson and I worked together on a show that I had conceptualized, and that he was directing. Although we have collaborated on many theatre projects in the past (Shhh, Freak Show, and various cabarets). Jed and I were exploring a new type of process. We wanted to integrate the movement and text on the aerial equipment as authentically as possible. Some key things we learnt along the way were:
- Poetic or virtuous movement is strongest when it is a metaphoric representation of the characters struggle, as opposed to mimicking the words being spoken.
- All movements need to be carefully selected and justified.
- The words spoken must be honest.
What is Virtuostic Movement?
To me, virtuostic movement is a demonstration of skill. For example, in Ballet, a virtuostic movement might be a series of fuettes. Usually this is a movement that the audience sees that they recognize as difficult, or that they themselves can’t do.
Circus is ALL about virtuostic movement. The emphasis in contemporary circus is on skill level and technique.
But, I’m a theatre artist and I believe in storytelling. I’m also a professional circus artist and I can do some pretty crazy things with my body. What Jed and I discovered was that if you’re going to put these movements, like the splits for example, into a performance it is important that the movement is justified, honest and it should avoid being a literal representation of what the character is saying.
The performance at AER Time in Toronto was a vital first step to our project. Adam Lazerus, a well know physical theatre creator and performer in Toronto facilitated the talk-back afterwards and also gave us many good questions to reflect on.
Find out more about Femmes du Feu and AER Time HERE
The project didn’t end at this 10-min presentation. I took all I had learnt from this experience and went to work. For the next 6 months I wrote, and re-wrote my script. I would trained rigorously on the straps. My goal was to gain as much strength, endurance and straps vocabulary as possible, so that when we entered into creation mode I would be ready.
Authentic Movement in the air:
On some of my training days I focused on creation. I took a theme, an image or an emotion that I was writing about in the script and I embodied that thought or image while in the equipment. This technique is inspired by Authentic Movement and my movement training with Val Campbell. While traditional Authentic Movement is not usually performed alone, I was able to glean from its guiding principals. With eyes closed I dropped the thought, or feeling into my body and I allowed my body to organically respond to it’s own internal clues. Using this technique I was able to discover new movements, new pathways, new ways of using the equipment. Now, instead of only having my wrists in the straps I had my legs, waist and even neck in the strap loops.
Authentic movement was pioneered by Mary Whitehouse, and later was transformed into lay-practice by Janet Adler It is a movement practice that “physicalizes the active imagination”, where the mover and witness is asked to suspend judgement, interpretation and projection. (Recommended reading: Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow)
All of this ground work was ensuring that my movements and text were authentic, and honest. And, because I was creating both the text and the movement at the same time I was ensuring that my choices were remaining justified.
Here’s an example of one of those movement explorations:
At the end of June I began a 3-week creation blitz. I had the great fortune of getting a research and creation residency with La TOHU. These residencies are offered by La TOHU with the aim to “stimulate the evolution of circus aesthetics. It encourages the exploration of new forms and practices in the field by offering a space dedicated to research activities and innovative initiatives.” (http://tohu.ca/en/services/artists-services/research-and-creative-residences/)
During my 3-week creation period with Persephone Bound, it was vital to my process that the movement and the text were developed together in an organic way. The following is a brief overview of how that process was realized.
I wrote the first draft of the script before the rehearsals started. Jed and I had several discussions about the content beforehand, and I wrote several other subsequent drafts.
I wanted to have a script as a frame work. I find it very helpful with devised theatre to have a text to work with, even if that text will change, and boy, did it ever change.
On the first day of our creation workshop we wrote down all the scenes on sticky notes and put them up on the wall. Then we literally cut up all the different versions of the script and placed the parts we liked under each scene.
Whenever we’d reach a hurdle in terms of the story line, we would begin a movement exploration or clown improvisation exercise.
The process for developing the movement, as well as applying the text to the movement was as follows….
1- Authentic Movement practice
Either Jed or myself would be ‘the mover’, and the other would act as ‘the witness’. The mover would drop an intention, word or character into their body. Then with eyes closed, they would let their body respond through movement to that intention word or thought. Sometimes sound or words would also come out. Once the mover felt like their expression of that thought was complete they would stop and open their eyes. Then the witness would repeat certain things that they saw. This was a technique I had used with Val Campbell when creating another solo show of mine “The Disembodied Lady”.
After the Authentic Movement practice was complete I would then select some of the movements and develop them into gestures. Anne Bogart and Tina Landau describe gesture in their book The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition as: “A shape with a beginning, a middle and an end” (p.9). When I’m turning an organic movement into a gesture, I’m defining it’s beginning middle and end. I’m memorizing it and being as specific as I can with it. Bogart and Landau go even further to breakdown gestures into “Behavioural Gestures” which “belongs to the concrete, physical world of human behaviour” (p. 9) and Expressive Gestures which “ express an inner state, an emotion, a desire, an idea or a value” (P. 10). The gestures that I was refining from the Authentic Movement practice were Expressive Gestures.
3- Work with choreographer to build movement phrases
Once I had collected enough gestures I began working with my choreographer, Lucie Vigneault, to expand the gestures into movement phrases. I like to describe a movement phrase as: a series of gestures with a beginning, a middle and an end. Something that Lucie helped me with was ensuring that the gestures didn’t become false once I incorporated them into a movement phrase. As if the gestures were words, and the movement phrase was a sentence.
The gesture cannot be an over exaggeration, or a demonstration of what you are already saying. If this happens the movement risks seeming false, exaggerated or unnecessary. The gesture is an opportunity to layer poetic suggestions or themes.- Notes from rehearsal
4- Apply the gestures and movement phrases to the aerial equipment through open improvisation with live percussion
From the beginning, I had a desire to incorporate live percussion into this project. Luckily, I had an insanely talented team of people working with me on this project, and Jed was one of them. Besides being my director, Jed is also an experienced drummer and he would accompany me live during our rehearsals at the National Circus School. In an open improvisation structure, Jed would play different rhythms on the drums and I would improvise with the movement phrases I had developed with Lucie, only this time I would incorporate them on the aerial equipment.
At the end of the improvisations, we would take an inventory of the sequences on the equipment that we liked and ask ourselves if we saw any possibility for them to be included in the show. After that, we would apply the text.
Sometimes the sequences were never put up in the air, but we would follow a similar process: Authentic Movement, Gesture, Movement phrase and apply movement to text.
Other times we would take a step back from the open improvisation and use other strategies such as:
- Exploring the aerial equipment as Architecture
- Using Open Viewpoints to develop new floor patterns, or try integrating the text in a new way.
It is important to note that the development of text and movement was happening simultaneously. This is key because one would often influence another. We would begin the day working on the text, applying what we had discovered in the movement exploration the day before, and in the afternoon we would apply the changes in the script to new movement vocabularies.
This would happen continuously throughout the process. Writing, cut-ups, movement exploration, repeat.
I also feel compelled to mention that we had a lighting designer, Luc Valée drop-in to a couple of our rehearsals to offer his perspective. We would show him our progress and he would offer us ideas either for the script or for the staging. I can’t wait to perform the full-length show with his ideas!
Although we were not able to present a full-length performance of the new work in this particular residency, we were able to participate in a Sans-Filet hosted by La TOHU. “ A jump into the void” as the name suggests, the Sans-Filet was a public presentation of works-in-progress by various circus artists in Montreal, QC. We had decided to perform the opening section of the play, which begins by interacting with the audience, leading up to a 5 min performance on the straps. The presentation took place in front of nearly 800 people, and our act was warmly received by the audience.
Here is a sample of the work that was presented that the Sans-Filet in July 2015:
This project is now being presented in partnership with Imago Theatre and Geordie Theatre.
Here is an updated video!
For more information on the upcoming world premiere of Persephone Bound visit: https://www.imagotheatre.ca/persephonebound/