The morning routine of individual centring through drawings in Phase-1 was replaced with collective embodied work in Phase-2. I used a mix of my warming up and stretching exercises, with Pranayam (focused breathing from yoga), followed by a ball game and then exercises in movement; ending the first session with Savasana (focused relaxation exercise from Yoga). This hour-long routine is intended to centre the participants not only with respect to their mind and body, but also in relation to each other and the space. I believe this to be an essential beginning to the day as we proceed into the design of a place for performance. While the warmup, stretching and yoga are filtered from years of my scattered practice, I was introduced to the ball game and movement exercises by Yorkshire-based theatre practitioner and educator John Britton through his 2018 masterclass in New Delhi and week-long residency in Kamshet, Maharashtra.
The Ball Game
This is an incredible exercise for its playful simplicity and the profound insights it offers us about ourselves and about working with others. The rules of the game are extremely simple: we stand in a circle and throw the ball without announcement to anyone we choose. The throw has to be gentle and underarm – as though a gift – to reach around the torso of the intended recipient. We have to anticipate throws from any points on the circle and release the ball(s) we receive immediately. Thus, sustaining a continual flow of energy. To the participants of my workshop, I present the ball as a chocolate, which isn’t for one’s own consumption but the said gift. If it stays in one’s hands for too long it will melt and make a mess; however, if you drop it, you get a few seconds to pick it up before it gets sullied.
preparing the balls
The balls used for this game do not bounce. While John uses seed-filled latex-covered “juggling thuds” that he procures in the UK, for lack of quality products of the kind in India I’ve improvised by getting participants to fill raw rice in balloons and achieve the quality of the thuds. This preparatory process itself provides for a very entertaining and insightful opportunity to observe participants negotiating tasks and interpersonal relationships.
ball game in session
screen grabs from Siddharth’s video
Just in the continuous throwing and catching, we observe how ‘the monkey of judgement’ is almost always sitting on our backs. Getting angry with another or oneself for not catching, always waiting for others to be ready before throwing, feeling sorry for another struggling participant and wanting to help without being asked to, the disappointment of dropping and the fear of disappointing oneself or another… we are highly invested with our sense of self-worth at stake even in such a simple game. However, these expectations and the inevitability of ensuing emotions tend to keep our minds and consequently us out of the game. The stress of ‘doing well’ stiffens our bodies and makes us inflexible for participation and unreceptive to pleasure. The ball game is to teach ourselves the pursuit of pleasure in our engagements, which begins with kindness towards oneself. The game also has lessons in the chain of stimulus, impulse and response. Response can be immediately checked, provided we are observant of our habits and acknowledge the impact of our actions. Impulse is deep-seated and takes extremely long and rigorous practice to regulate. Stimulus is almost always already outside, which we have no control over.
Dance & Movement
Moving to random music the dance exercises follow various structures at different points in time: locking one’s gaze with the partner’s or on some point on their body or on one’s own body; responding to the static form of one’s partner and the space that they displace around as well as becoming static to make your partner move, perhaps around you; dancing with oneself, exploring the space within & around.
Participants are encouraged to observe habitual patterns of movement that they may be following across diverse rhythms and melodies of music playing in the background. They are encouraged to frequently challenge these patterns, challenge the tempo of the music and also their eye level with respect to the ground that they are moving on. The dancers thus become aware that it is not the external music alone that they move to, but their own body’s capabilities and limitations, the space around and others’ bodies in space, all influence their dance. Acknowledging and channelising this can create magic.
solo, duo and group movement explorations to diverse music
We witnessed an amusing thing on a particular morning when one of the four participants did not arrive in time for the moving & centering routine. I improvised the structure of the moment exercise to make all three participants dance together with each other. The rule was that one participant would be static with their eyes closed until another tapped them for replacement. The other two dancers could choose to move keeping continuous contact with the other through touch or locked gazes or any other structure. Mugdha chose to be the static performer. Charvi, who usually struggled to move her gaze in a directed manner, turned out to relish locking her gaze with her partner. In a surprising move she went down on her hands and knees and prowled towards Ketki with her gaze locked into the latter‘s eyes. Watching the intimidating predator come towards her, Ketki walked backwards until she came up against a wall. In a quick escape, she pranced around Charvi to reach Mugdha and tap her for replacement. Besides being a wonderful exploitation of the game’s rules, the series of movements created a beautiful narrative through spontaneous initiative and responses. This is the delight of improvisation.
In another session, I gradually slowed the participants down and then abruptly asked them to shut their eyes while continuing to move. Most of the lights were then gradually turned out. Of course, in a natural response, the dancers contained their gestures and expansive movements across the space – cautious to not bump into other bodies. The movements were now more rooted, exploring the world within. Few minutes later we stopped dancing, the participants were asked to gather their thoughts and feelings before opening their eyes and we gradually turned the lights back on. The participants spoke about their experience of dancing with their eyes shut. Mugdha observed that for a while after shutting the eyes she remembered where the walls and the curtain were. However, following about a minute of movement, she wasn’t aware of her location or orientation and was totally dependent on sense perception to blindly negotiate the space and other bodies around. This observation is critical to connecting the dimensions of perception, memory and navigation. Our working memory registers our environment for a short while; however, to navigate it we need to constantly re-orient ourselves. This point has been discussed in the section on Visual and Spatial Representation exercises of Phase-1. I insist on live drawings for this very reason of the need to reorient ourselves every time we raise our head from the drawing to look at our subject. It helps build our working memory as we re-frame to visually record what we see. However, this is tedious and can exhaust us if you do not rest or take a break from unfamiliar environments.
Conversely, this insight makes it obvious as to why we may end up imprisoned within our comfort zones. In fact, the urge for a stable environment and location is so strong within us that we impose permanence even when/ where there isn’t any: people’s character, culture and even geographical landscapes.
While it may be annoying to find the visits on a smartphone displaced, rearranging the furniture does help in creating a feeling of newness.
While perceptiveness often helps us anticipate people’s responses, it is a grave mistake to stereotype a person or community.
While the blocking of space and positioning of props and players helps us remember the choreographic sequence of the performance, it tends to take the performers’ agency away; unless, of course, the creative ensemble/ director is sensitive to this dimension of the process.
While well equipped auditoria provide an enviable destination for socially ambitious performers and audience, they tend to isolate us from the real and can kill creativity while becoming instruments of propaganda that perpetuate the status quo and extant power structures. It isn’t surprising that every regime change leads to or emerges from the breakdown and overhaul of institutions.