A month of research
“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain
I have been studying Fighting Monkey (FM) with co-developers Jozef Frucek and Linda Kapetanea for over four years. FM is an evolving movement practice centered on context driven, collaborative practices that prioritize communication, intuition and whole-body coordination through play to accelerate skill development.
My approach to movement and artistic development is inspired by Fighting Monkey. I study. I practice. I teach. These days my class descriptions include the words:
There is no obvious way, for example, to teach ‘whole body’, (at least not to me). I employ tasks. I observe. I indicate. I suggest. I direct focus and frame. I destabilise. I support.
I spend time in tasks. Tasks do not necessarily prescribe forms, and as such involve a dance of or with ‘the unknown’. Sometimes the work feels a bit blurry. I adore asking questions. It simultaneously feels important to embrace banality and encourage boredom. (I am often in search of what is impeding connection to these often-neglected things.) I love to sweat. Endurance has always been a big curiosity for me: (how can I keep this going?)1 I love to continue. A little bit of grit is pleasurable.
To keep something going is simple… maybe. To keep something going and have it connected qualitatively – to the room, to the community – demands nuance and skill. And I am interested in such a contribution. In meaningful connectedness. In doing something with others, (cause alone is so… alone).
Parcours, part 1:
“To be a (good) teacher, one needs to teach.”
I will lean in a little here and share with the reader that to secure paid teaching work is not a straightforward process. It is a rare occasion that I teach class for more than a week. I wanted to look at my FM learning over a bigger block of time. This was not possible – and maybe not appropriate – to undertake during a paid teaching contract. A designated research period seemed an ideal solution. June 2019 a teaching residency at Agora de la danse in Montréal helped me tackle the question of how my knowledge of movement practice might contribute meaningfully when shared with the dance community. I explored how my learning of FM interfaces and intersects with the experience of a closed group of participants for 60 studio hours.
The participant artists were people I was interested in working with and with whom I had previously practiced. Additionally, there were those who reached out to me, keen to participate. The artists were: Abe Simon Mijnheer, Bailey Eng, Cara Roy, Catherine Lalonde, Charles Brecard, Gabrielle Desgagnés, Geneviève Robitaille, Guillaume Loslier-Pinard, Jenna Beaudoin, Kimberly De Jong, Lara Oundjian, Lolo Terán, Marie-Reine Kabasha, Marine Morales-Casaroli, Marijoe Foucher, Mathieu G. Lauzon, Mathilde Loslier Pellerin, Melina Stinson, Neil Sochasky, Nien Tzu Weng, Rodrigo Alvarenga, Roxanne Dupuis and Lucy Fandel.
With different availabilities in schedule, we were often eight to twelve people per 3-hour session.
I’ve got notes. I’ve got lots of notes and I wish they were of a Susan Macpherson2 quality. (Marie Claire Forté says Macpherson is a stellar note taker.) (…. I’m not quite there yet, especially organizationally speaking….)
So, I brought my notebooks into the studio with me. No wait, that’s not true. To support a clear inventory, I transcribed the exercises from my notebooks, and brought those transcriptions to the room, along with original notebooks as a reference. I planned to reconstruct and relive some beloved moments (and movements) from Fighting Monkey workshops of days past.
Four years of notes from about thirteen FM workshops taken, plus notes from my own sessions. I faced a conundrum much like the one of the digital era: what the fuck to do with all this information?
Other things I considered important:
Notes don’t necessarily help me be intuitive, to better know the participants in the room, or respond to what is happening in the moment. So, even with all this information (read: cues for material) and learning, I am not yet consistent in my ability to offer applicable responses or articulation of concepts in the classroom. I investigated ways to get better at this during my time in studio.
Can my teaching fulfill a diversity of objectives? (I am interested in delivering such a practice).
I am curious about destabilizing forces (often a component of injury). How to build capacity (expand). How to support aptitude awareness (what skills does the participant possess or lack? Examples include coordination, creative problem solving, perceptiveness, adaptability, and so forth).
I want practice to be utilitarian and poetic. Arm the participant with the tools necessary to change their movement behaviors, as opposed to enabling a relationship where they are dependent on teachers and therapeutic practitioners to offset the effects of their unsupportive habits. (Autonomy!) Invite new pathways by stimulating participant intention through relationally driven contexts or tasks. To relate in this way a personal kind of poetry manifests, one which is unique to the individual in that it expresses a singular way of interacting with others and the world.
Parcours, part 2:
While I had ambitioned to cover everything - all the material I had encountered in my FM training - it quickly became evident that this was unrealistic as an expectation.
My research period protocols drew on my learning from the following FM workshops:
September 2015 at SEAD, Salzburg, Austria, 4 weeks / 20 days long
January 2016 FM Intensive 1, Athens, Greece, 5 days
May 2018 US Intensive, Oregon, USA, 6 days
(I strayed from chronological order, and in doing so bypassed notes from workshops attended in Philadelphia, Barcelona, Athens, Zilina, Quebec, Toronto, and Athens again.)
For the four weeks at Agora I had 20 type-written pages. In composing the protocols, I assigned names to tasks, and included a short bullet list of indications for each. One example looks like this:
Standing Grip / Embrace:
Slow pick up or weight transfer of partner
Change body orientation to find new possibilities
Find weakness of partner – structure, connectivity
Make yourself vulnerable – don’t just offer resistance
I was very plain about the daily order of things: I just went down my list and I forced myself to do what was next on the list, no matter if it seemed counter-intuitive given what came before, or if the indications were unclear. The goal was to expound my articulation of what was important and at work in any given task, offer cues for iterations, and so forth. It was my hope that this way of working would help me circumvent:
my assumptions of what constitutes productive learning
my tendency to create an environment that is constantly stimulating for the participant
In doing so I think I (we) expanded our relationship to time (what is the time it takes to understand and connect to something practically, meaningfully), and to appreciate those corners of practice that are a little more banal (to identify and live their purpose or usefulness).
To give an example of how I wrote about tasks as we were working them in studio, here are my expanded notes from the task ‘Standing Grip / Embrace’:
-Saying weight, versus weights:
Weights indicates an attention to many ex. weights of the body
-Changing the eyes / focus – so that the ‘bust’ (torso / head) doesn’t fall asleep, become complacent
-Changing rhythm – continuous slow flow, versus staccato
-Quality of touch – caretaking vs investigating (different intention)
Practice is intentional
Intentions have to do with pre-existing (or understood?) relationships
-Staying with possibilities influenced (extended) by having to solve (x) something
-Important (a good reminder) to not have assumptions about what stimulates engagement (each person is different, meeting a unique circumstance) …. In other words, being present or being aware are not the only ways to be open or active in a task
-Small weight transfers on the part of the embracer
-Eyes stop working…. Could use #’s on wall, or an outside person moving in space to keep eyes of person being embraced engaged, alert and active “
My writing during the research period (as above) activated my thinking as we practiced. Different possibilities and questions emerged in the moment and that was really great, as it gave me insight into my intuitions and observations. It felt problematic however that I created more notes for myself.
I anticipate vigilance in how I organize my notes, so I may apply my learning to my upcoming workshops. One idea I had was to organize my inventory based on questions. For example, I could collect all the tasks that address ‘how to move the feet?’, or ‘how to meet the body of my partner?’, or ‘how to challenge rhythm? Next week I will teach a workshop at Studio 303, and I focused on groupings - tasks that are solo, duo, trio, whole group, etc. - in my course plan. This is one way to carry out a variety of relations for participants, between themself and toward others. It also offers a frame for emergent details in a task, which could impact how details are received, embodied, and remembered.
Jozef has said on numerous occasions, “…qualities, not forms…”. How to perceive, shift or adapt to fluctuating situations (within tasks) by means of one’s qualitative engagement. As a guiding principle it is a means to hone one’s approach.
There are many overlapping variables to keep track of in an FM-like approach to movement practice. Tasks have complexity in their structure. I navigate the complexity and facilitate the navigation of the participants. I never expect the tasks alone to supply or resolve the work to be done by the participant. All moving parts of the material are a conversation. I rely on participants for some input, for some solutions, for their expertise to fill in the gaps of my knowledge, and of what is not visible to me. We activate and motivate this thing (practice) together.
It is nice to return to my writing of the past four years as it supports reconnection to the threads that weave through my teaching practice. Like many of my colleagues, I work on many projects each year and wear many hats. I do not teach continually: to have strategies to connect to my practice is something I both need and value.
An important outcome from my residency was a reaffirmation of the value of who is in studio with me. I have a few thoughts about this, one of which is that to build a community of people to engage and who are interested in my practice is significant. This makes me think of my time with Peter Boneham, when I was company member of now defunct Le Groupe Dance Lab3. As a teacher, Peter loved teaching the same artists for years, (these people were often referred to as the “old people”). There is potential for a particular development to occur over a longer period of time together, one where teacher and artist know one another a little better maybe… a different quality of work happens. If my memory serves me, in Peter’s classes there was a playful back and forth between the artists and himself. Of imagining and reimagining ways to challenge one another technically, creatively, and communicatively. We often giggled about – then tried – the impossible in class. More turns, a jump with body over the legs, investment in the non-sensical or eccentric. Out of the process grew mutual respect for one another, and trust (a foundation from which to try). This expansive sense of possibility and meaning were generative for me: I developed a great deal of physical and artistic capacity working with Boneham4.
The other thought I had was that within the community of people I practice with there must still be an invitation for new and less frequent participants. These individuals are also essential. They challenge my awareness of what I offer and how. They ignite my observational skills (who is this person? What are they working on, and what is the feedback that makes this apparent to me?) in a way that is different from - to borrow from Peter – the old people. I observe others when I teach. I want to know them – discern something of their thought process, problem solving, ability, etc. – and not just make assumptions5. Practically, I want this conversation to manifest in the class work. It supports (I believe) a possibility for a meaningful exchange. The tasks, in their variety and fluctuating complexity which I drive, help provide such insights and connection.
A recurring statement in discussions on learning and development at FM workshops is that you need “to cook6”. The process of development is alchemical. Jozef Frucek and Linda Kapetanea evolved FM together. They are two. Together they work on FM. At its core, FM is a dialogue, a conversation.
As I think about my task-driven class, I consider what are the materials, circumstances or variables that might inspire transformation for a participant. (Transformation I understand as a process of change, but also imply such a change could be becoming more oneself).
What supplies the pressure? What will support the participant’s generosity of investigation, and willingness to be exposed or vulnerable? How can tasks provide feedback, as well a framework to implement findings immediately?
The questions continue and so does the practice. And it is very, very nice to practice.
1. One of my early dance teachers had me participate in her RAD teacher’s exam. I was seven or so, and we did an exercise where we ran one at a time en diagonal to the corner to finish in a position of our choice. I think I chose retiré, arms in fifth. When I got to the corner, I just stayed there. Dancer after dancer went, took a pose and then continued off to the side. But I stayed. Little Alanna in her retiré-arms-fifth. Is it possible I missed an important directive, and held my position because I didn’t know what I should do next? (Probably.) Or was I a determined fucking kid? (Probably.) Have these qualities – absent minded-ness, determination - spilled over into my adult and professional life? (Most certainly!)
2. Susan is an Artistic Associate at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. In technique class one day, she taught us an exercise using her notes from when she was a student at the Graham School. It involved many familiar movements in a sequence that we weren’t accustomed to. It was living history. It was great.
3. I worked under Peter’s direction from 2004-2008.
4. My ability grew in a different way working with Peter, then it did when I was a student at dance school. My first encounter with Peter was a two-week masterclass at Dancemakers in Toronto, and it transformed my facility radically.
5. To be systematic (I think) is a way to assume that most everyone will respond the same to material, or that the material will work most everyone in the same way.
6. Jozef Frucek says “You always have to be cooking.” What are the things that let us know that what we are doing works? As circumstances often change – in studio, or professionally over time - we should experiment with what we consider meaningful feedback, and then what provides this feedback.
Photos 2 et 3