Therapist, trainer, writer

Dance in the 1970s - A crucible for de-schooling: Releasing into being danced

by Linda Hartley

First published in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training – Training Places: Dartington College of Arts. Volume 9, Issue 3, October 2018. Routledge/Taylor & Francis

Immersion  

Being a student in the Dance and Theatre Department of Dartington College of Arts from 1974-76 was a wholly absorbing and transformative experience. Separated from much of the UK by distance, far from my home in the northeast of England, and not yet linked to the New Dance community in London, Dartington felt like a whole world, entire and sufficient unto itself, socially and culturally. I remember the long train journey to Totnes, skimming along the coastline, rolling through the growing blackness of the moors; the feeling of entering a palpable darkness, a mysterious and empty landscape, would grip me as night descended. The sense of going beyond known boundaries, inherent to the work we engaged with in the studio every day, was present in the journey through moorland and coast.

I feel immense gratitude for this period of my life: for the freedom and the invitation to create day after day, to discover through experimentation, to make meaning where there was none before, and to form myself as a woman with the capacity to create my own life. Without the de-schooling and the deep immersion in creative process that Dartington offered, I could not have developed the inner resources to manifest the work I have gone on to make, and to maintain a creative life that is guided from within. The Dartington experience has enabled me to be self-directive; I learnt how to learn, as well as how to create, and this has enabled me to develop my own work over a career of more than forty years.

At Dartington I discovered a radical new approach to education [1]. One example: Writing tutor Peter Kiddle [2] and a dozen would-be poets set out in the college mini-bus each day for two weeks. We clambered over rocks to secret coves of the south Devon coast and swam in icy water, fully clothed; or hiked over Dartmoor to a Tor where we learnt about ancient pagan rituals. Inspired by the day we wrote, then in the evening read our poems to each other over a beer in a country pub, before returning to college.  

Or with Peter Hulton we went to a local town and sat in a bar or café, observing the clientele, overhearing snippets of dialogue, a word or phrase, a whole conversation. The gems of life being lived were recorded and transformed into a poem or the seed of a play. In the days before creative writing degrees had been conceived, we were given such opportunities to expand the boundaries of our writing practice.

The Dance and Theatre department sat straddled between the Art and Music departments, and in collaborative projects exciting experimentation was possible. Once, over a twenty-four hour period, we joined with the music department in a recital of Eric Satie’s Vexations. The pianists took two-hour stints at playing the ‘dangerous and evil piano piece’ (Sweet 2013), and we dancers committed to maintain the continuity of the dance over two-hour slots.

We began in the evening and continued throughout the night and all the next day. It was my turn from two to four in the morning, and when, at 4am, my replacement failed to wake, I had to continue dancing. The musician’s replacement also failed to turn up so we two kept going for four hours (in fact I danced for virtually the whole twenty four hours), while other dancers slept in the studio around us. As the thin grey light of dawn crept into the studio we entered into the magic of time extended, and of the silence within Satie’s music. That night encapsulated the mystery, challenge and beauty of my time at Dartington. As critic Sam Sweet writes:  

In the years that followed its début, “Vexations” outgrew its status as a curiosity. It became a rite of passage … Recitals were part endurance trial, part vision quest. And whether explicitly or implicitly, each successive reading paid tribute to Cage and Satie, the twin protagonists of impish illumination through music. (Sweet 2013)  

The phrase ‘impish illumination’ could sum up many of the creative challenges we were set as students, coaxed into dropping habitual frameworks of doing, perceiving, thinking and being, in favour of the search for the not-yet-known, the unique, personal and often intangible. There was no such criteria as ‘getting it right’; only moving closer to the source of each person’s creative genius. I will let poet David Whyte speak on this subject: 

 Genius is something we already possess. Genius is best understood in its original and ancient sense; describing the specific underlying quality of a given place as in the Latin Genius Loci, the spirit of a place, it describes a form of meeting, of air and land and trees, perhaps a hillside, a cliff edge, a flowing stream or a bridge across a river. It is the conversation of elements that makes a place incarnate, fully itself. It is the breeze on our skin, the particular freshness and odors of the water or of the mountain or the sky in a given, actual geographical realm … Human genius lies in the body and its conversation with the world (italics added). (Whyte 2015, 77-8)  

 This brings me to another essential element of the experience of studying at DCA – the immersion in a landscape of beauty and abundance, in a setting that is grand and historic as well as intimate. The environment within which Dartington College was located played an important part in the opening of body and soul, the uplifting of spirit, and the plumbing of depths to source the creative roots of genius. I feel privileged to have been a student there, at a time when Higher Education was free and no more academic work was required than one written paper throughout the course. Having dropped out of university after one uninspiring year, I was thankful to have experienced Dartington in its pre-academic years [3].

Although innovation and personal creative process were at the core of our training, I spent a term engaged in a very different project. Under the supervision of the head of the Theatre Department, Colette King, we researched and presented on the history and ethos of Dartington, studying the influence of Rabindranath Tagore, and Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, the three visionaries whose ideas formed the foundation of Dartington Estate’s development. On another occasion we were guided in the re-creation of part of a choreography by Kurt Jooss, who had spent time at Dartington during WW2 after he and his ballet company had fled the Nazis. Jooss founded the first dance school there, in the magnificent studio that I believe was built for his company.  

 Diving in  

In the mid 1970s there were few options for pursuing dance studies in Higher Education in the UK; my search led me to an interview and audition at Dartington, one of only two possible paths that opened up to me. I remember Peter Hulton, senior tutor in the Theatre Department, patiently trying to help me read my audition piece; I was clearly not an actor but this did not seem to matter. I had very little formal dance training either, and even though I was applying to major in dance this was not a drawback. When we, the new student group, gathered in September of 1974, it seemed clear that ‘raw material’ that could be ‘brought out or developed’ in innovative ways was of more interest to our tutors than previous experience and demonstrated skill. And thus began a marvelous adventure into creative immersion and community life.  

Having changed course from my teenage ambition to write, put off by a lack of creativity in my university course, to a passion for dance, I found that Dartington allowed me to follow both dreams, with creative writing as my second subject. This focus invited a deepening commitment to experimenting, creating, dismantling and re-assembling - not only of artistic works, but of the very foundations of my way of being in the world.

The process of de-schooling began on the first day when our timetable scheduled a double session called Release. Many of us turned up in jeans, ready for some time off (already!), only to find that we were to spend two hours in the dance studio. With its long row of floor to ceiling glass doors that looked out over the Devon hills, light poured over the sprung wood floor like water, inviting me to dive in. This space was to be the crucible for so much of my learning for the next two years.

Mary Fulkerson would begin classes with ten minutes of gentle running around the perimeter of the studio, padding softer as our bodies let go of tensions and found a fluid strength and stamina. She would offer suggestions for clear alignment and use of the body as we ran, inviting our bodies to absorb information that would encourage ease and fluidity. This simple ritual would be followed by some stretching and rhythmical exercises, before we were invited to lie on our backs on the floor, close our eyes, and allow our attention to turn towards the inner world of the body. I now know this as a familiar way to begin a somatic movement exploration, but at that time I had never imagined such an invitation, or the riches that could be discovered within one’s own body-mind experience.  

Resting … find the possibility of listening to the body. Experience the inner complexity. Breath is easy. Weight is allowed to fall – given to the floor surface. Develop the quality of patience. In stillness, waiting is not necessary. Stillness is a positive state, complete and full in its expression. Do not wait for the end of stillness. Stillness is not an absence or expectation of movement. It is stillness. (Fulkerson 1977: 51)  

While resting we were invited to begin the core practice of Release – engagement with anatomical imagery. Mary’s lineage of teachers included Mabel Ellsworth Todd (1937), Barbara Clark (1977) and Marsha Paludan. From Todd’s detailed studies of optimal anatomical alignment and function, methods that utilized mental imagery within the body were employed to facilitate improvement of posture and ease of movement. Along with her teacher and colleague Paludan, Fulkerson’s work further developed these approaches in service of supporting and inspiring creative movement that flowed through a well-aligned and easeful body. The images used in dance-making were ‘simplified pictures of muscles and bones’, which might relate to muscle and joint action, alignment, or ‘the way the whole body works as a unit’ (Fulkerson 1977: 8).

The images, like the brush-strokes of Chinese calligraphy, contained a depth of information within a simple form; they had the effect of freeing up the somatic imagination [4] so that movement was released into new, fresh and unexpected forms.

In order to think easily about the body, anatomical information can be formed into simple thoughts which imply physical sensations that occur when the body is being used properly… A body image is an idea about the body that facilitates easy action, which comes when the spread of body information from one body part to another is encouraged. Such an image gives to the body the physical information which helps the muscles to direct the way the bones balance in action. A body image can become very strong through concentrated work and can finally be incorporated within the body. Real physical change can result from concentration over a period of time working with images that are anatomically correct. The body is available for change or change is encouraged and allowed. Thus the physical information which is being spoken silently throughout the body forms the language of the axis. Body images do the speaking. (Fulkerson 1977: 3)  

An image - such as the cycling of energy and attention down the back of the body and up the front, up along the back of the head and down the face – would be visualized repeatedly until the felt-sense of the image was clearly centred in body awareness. Simple movements might be suggested as a means to embody new sensations more fully: stand, walk, run, curve, crawl, roll, rest, sit, turn, uncurve, stand. At some point the body’s own creativity, what I call somatic imagination, takes over and spontaneous improvised movement, sourced in the image, flows freely.  

An important element of the process is the use of the breath, as well as rest and stillness as mentioned above:  

The image is (then) made the centre of attention. The image is recalled on every breath-out whilst the image falls out of conscious thought on the breath-in. First one thinks the image and then the image rests. The body remains still until action is demanded from the image itself. This might take time…. Finally, the image no longer alternates between working and resting but becomes a forgotten source, a unity of body and thought. One no longer thinks the image but becomes it. To forget the image is to allow one to become the image. (Fulkerson 1977: 14)  

The rhythmical periods of rest from mental activity on the in-breath mirror some meditation practices where a similar instruction is given, thus creating an open space, the possibility of experiencing an emptiness of thought and personality with each breath. This approach to dance, indeed to ways of being, marked a quiet revolution, a turning away from effortful approaches that demand constant doing and achieving. Release invites a receptive approach that counters mainstream Western imperatives. In this lies one of the keys to the profoundly transformatory nature of studying dance at Dartington during this period:  

The image falls through the body, deeper and deeper, and then it gets light and spacious. It is present without effort. The image suggests the movement … Energy is seen naked … When mind and body are united the result is a very simple, direct expression of intention. The person becomes transparent. (Fulkerson 1977: 93)  

Fulkerson’s approach to choreography was non-interpretive – a radical step at this time for UK dance. She advocated an approach where physical presence, full embodiment, mind and body as-one, were paramount:  

Action means only what it is. Participate in action without attaching interpretive evaluations. Become very comfortable with physicality. The body speaks of the body. … Working comfortably allows separation from the question of “What does it mean?” to “What is now?” The comfortable body can consider the present situation. (Fulkerson 1977: 84)  

Although the term somatic was not yet in use within the UK dance world of the 1970s, Mary was a pioneer and initially responsible, I believe more than any other, for bringing somatic dance and the practice of Release to Europe. She was also a visionary. On her website she writes:

I believe in the vast and real forces that affect lives today – and that these forces may be turned towards the good. I believe that each person who dances or creates dance is capable of incredible statements that fill the world with light. I am certain that Release, and Dance Making/Choreography are visionary fields of discovery and invention. However small each of us is, as we create, we reach for the stars. (Fulkerson, 2017)  

Fulkerson brought her own spacious vision to her teaching, not only in explicitly stated ways, but as integral to the very nature of the practice she taught. Her approach to teaching Release and Choreography was the foundation of what inspired me during those years, creating an opening of body, mind, heart and spirit that was essential to the germination of creative ideas as well as new movement vocabulary. I discovered both a discipline and a freedom I had not known before, and I learnt that each one of us holds the seeds of something remarkable within us, waiting to form us anew at every moment.

The language of the body can be found below the language of words. Deep feeling, clear perception, the center of an idea, all these happen underneath words on a sensory level of experience. The world we call real is only a fragment of the whole world. Tremendous participation is possible between a body and a thought. The happenings underneath words can speak directly to anyone who patiently listens. (Fulkerson 1977: 32)

Widening out  

The dance department at Dartington, under Fulkerson’s lead, was critical to the evolution of New Dance in the UK during the 1970s and 80s, and more widely across Europe. She brought Steve Paxton, Nancy Topf and Nancy Udow from the USA; their first European visits were to Dartington College and I was fortunate to be amongst their first students there. Renowned teachers from Merce Cunningham’s studio, Valda Setterfield and Albert Reid, came as guest tutors. For our first term Mary brought a group of five dancers whom she had taught and formed into a troupe called the Tropical Fruit Company; one of these was Daniel Lepkoff who went on to became a renowned Contact Improvisation performer and teacher.

Almost all the guest teachers in the dance department during those years were American. We were described as existing mid-Atlantic, so tenuous were our ties with the emerging London New Dance scene and so strong our links with the USA. It meant the juice and cutting edge innovation of the Judson Church era filtered directly to us through these pioneering teachers.

This culturally mid-Atlantic location had disadvantages as well as benefits. Of course, it was exciting to be learning at the cutting edge of new practice, but on leaving Dartington for London, the obvious choice for me, I did not have contacts there. Yet the links were already forging between Dartington and the New Dance scene in London, emanating from the radical collective of five who had established the X6 Dance Space [5], as well as independent practitioners such as Miranda Tufnell, Martha Grogan, Dennis Greenwood and Richard Alston. I soon found my way to participate in this evolving world of New Dance, and found there was great interest within the small sub-culture of New Dance aficionados in the work I had studied at Dartington.

A drawback of the education I received at Dartington was that I was unprepared for the practicalities of setting up a practice as a choreographer and performer. The Dartington training had not prepared me to work in traditional dance companies, and I had no knowledge of the demands of independent work, such as applying for grant funding, setting up tours, and so on. Some of this I learnt through experience, but some doors remained closed, even while others opened. In the long-term I am glad of the direction my training enabled, but the early years post-Dartington were certainly not easy, though they were creative and exciting.

Over the forty years of my own professional practice I have continued to study and train: in the somatic movement therapy of Body-Mind Centering®, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Transpersonal Psychotherapy, the Discipline of Authentic Movement, Tibetan Buddhism, and various other approaches to embodied, therapeutic and spiritual practice.  

I have taught internationally and evolved my own somatic movement therapy training programmes, currently offered in the UK, Lithuania and Russia [6]. Fulkerson was the first of three remarkable women who inspired and deeply informed my practice; from her I learnt how to discover from within, how to allow processes to flow and unfold until expression of an impulse could find form in unique and authentic ways. Although I no longer teach Release itself, her teaching continues to deeply inform the way in which I teach somatic movement. Remarkably I find that core principles of all of the practices I later studied can be found as seeds within her work and writing. The wisdom and vision that emerges out of deeply embodied practice is apparent.

In July of 2018 an international gathering of graduates from my IBMT training programmes will meet at Dartington to share practice and research, completing a circle as I return to the place where my own somatic dance studies began and my career took root, experiencing once again the genius of the place that is Dartington. During these days, I have been invited to re-create the dance that formed my final choreographic assessment piece in 1976, a dance that embraces the spirit of the land and, I hope, something of the spirit of Dartington College itself.  

Endnotes

1. Educe, from the Latin educere: To bring out or develop (something latent or potential) https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/educe. Accessed April 3rd 2017.

2. Visiting tutor Peter Kiddle was a member of the radical Welfare State theatre company: http://www.welfare-state.org/index.htm.

3. The Diploma course became a university accredited BA soon after my time there, and academic requirements would certainly have increased with this change.

4. I coined the term somatic imagination to refer to the process by which deep inner listening and sensing, in this case informed by anatomical imagery, frees up spontaneous and imaginative, improvised movement. There is a sense that the soma imagines itself into the movement, without directives from the mind.

5.  X6, after the dockside warehouse in Butler’s Wharf, South London, which they had taken over as a studio for experimentation in dance and performance.

6.  Institute for Integrative Bodywork & Movement Therapy: www.ibmt.co.uk.

References  

Clark, Barbara 1977, Theatre Papers: The First Series: 10. Editor Peter Hulton. The Department of Theatre, Dartington College of Arts, Devon, England. Available from https://openlibrary.org/works/OL10589379W/Language_of_the_axis.   

Fulkerson, Mary O’Donnell 1977, Theatre Papers: The First Series: 12. Editor Peter Hulton. The Department of Theatre, Dartington College of Arts, Devon, England. Available from https://openlibrary.org/works/OL10589379W/Language_of_the_axis.   

________ 2017 - http://www.releasedance.com Accessed April 3rd 2017. 

Sweet, Sam 2013 http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-dangerous-and-evil-piano-piece Accessed April 2nd 2017. 

Todd, Mabel Ellsworth 1937, The Thinking Body. Dance Horizons, New York.

Whyte, David 2015, Consolations. Many Rivers Press, Langley WA. 

@ Linda Hartley 2018