It’s like group therapy almost
On the margins of language, movement and creation
I have no verbs probably to describe what the hell just happened
Lee Brummer, dancer, Wednesday 12.09.18
On my first day observing the early stages of the ICoDaCo process in Cardiff’s Chapter arts centre, it is Lee’s turn to propose a group exercise. She would like to probe the meaning of transformation (the project’s “guide word”) more deeply – to question and deepen her collaborators’ assumptions about what it fundamentally means to transform, to be transformed, or to experience transformation.
The task she sets is simple. Each of the dancers is to sit alone – it ends up being for around an hour – and write about a transformation they have personally experienced, which they then read aloud to the group. They can approach their text, and indeed the idea of “transformation,” in any which way they choose.
I know words better than I know dance; I feel safer, somehow, listening and responding to language. As I observe the dancers writing – sat in separate corners of the room, deep in the strain and internal chaos of personal reflection – I realise this safeness has a more profound dimension than I might have initially assumed. What I am observing is artists at work; producing something (in this case, writing; usually dance) out of the raw material of memory and imagination. Does the specific medium of an artist’s response to a topic, an idea or a memory truly matter that much? A (dance) artist at work is an artist at work. This becomes a central theme of the day.
Transcultural collaboration in movement, with the goal of creating a group dance piece, which is the premise of ICoDaCo, nonetheless becomes something very different once you reduce (if only briefly) that collaboration to a language-, speech- or writing-based kind. Its intercultural nature is a central part of ICoDaCo’s fabric, but the pleasures or difficulties which we usually project onto intercultural communication are largely absent in a movement-based practice; different languages, accents, worldviews, backgrounds, approaches are elided when a group’s collaboration is so purely physical. Lee’s task foregrounds these elements to the group’s collaborative relationship, introducing the issue of language to the group dynamic.
The individual transformations explored by each of the performers in their responses to Lee’s task range from the banal to the immensely poignant. Joseph reads bilingually, in his native Cantonese and in English, withholding the specifics of his transformation to the rest of us in the room, who do not speak Cantonese. Thus, we only hear about the impact this mysterious seismic event had on him. Eddie’s – also delivered bilingually – is a two-pronged narrative, about a boy in Eddie’s school who replied to a teacher asking what he wants to be when he grows up with “I want to be a horse,” and evokes the story of the martyred Welsh Benedictine monk, Saint John Roberts. Vasi recalls the first time he witnessed contemporary dance – a piece entitled Group Therapy – and invites us, his listeners, to dream with him, imagining ourselves travelling through time like the figures in Chris Marker’s La jetée. Veronica addresses a rehearsal in which she and a collaborator appeared to switch bodies, a transcendentally intimate experience. “Language,” she says, “seems to poor to describe it.” Finally, Lee opens up with two comparably intimate experiences, exploring what it means to belong to someone in the most primal sense.
After everyone has recited their transformation, one of the dancers verbalises what we are all thinking: this exercise, it’s like group therapy almost.
Do we think transformations as necessarily having a before and after? Or are ‘transformative’ events usually more suspended in time? This becomes the defining conundrum of the day, around which all others necessarily revolve. I keep returning to how Joseph kept self-correcting as he read his transformation. Remembering is fluid, and so are writing and reciting. How do we express the act of reflecting, that fluidity, in movement? What rituals, and which details, might make very personal reflections into something collective?
The next step in Lee’s exercise is a more challenging one. The dancers are to recite isolated lines from their transformative texts at random, all at the same time, creating a collective rhythm in which their narratives collide and complement each other. They gradually begin to seem to tune into one another.
“We call it group therapy.”
“Dwishe bod yn geffyl” – I want to be a horse.
“Why does this keep happening to me?”
“It just felt right.”
“I was standing stage right.”
“Forgetting is definitely not an option.”
“What a waste of life.”
These phrases, birthed in different languages and from very different contexts, begin to assume the character of a large abstract narrative, an obscure sound essay on the many different voices of transformation, a choose-your-own-adventure story, perhaps.
Someone interrupts the vocal collage to ask: Is transformation always poetic? What does (or how would) non-poetic transformation look and feel like? Nobody has the answer.
After my first day with ICoDaCo, snippets of speech from the group voice exercise ring around my head like a stream of nonsense consciousness:
“From outside, there is one noticeable transformation.”
“Sai’n cofio beth wedes i.” – I can’t remember what it was I said.
“I tried to find respect.”
I was struck then – and the sensation lingered – by how easily these alternately profound and life-altering and disturbing recollections were rendered sort of banal through endless repetition, the phrases weaved among one another in so many ways as to make their meanings, well, meaningless.
The transformations the collaborators addressed were all very different, but some pertinent themes appeared in all of them. The voice-collage exercise, in particular, appeared to emphasise the strange continuities in these very different narratives. Almost all the dancers’ transformations addressed an element of being lost – and most of them contained an element of transformation in the sense of wanting to be someone else. Someone uses the phrase “different losts,” a method of making sense of the chaotic disorientation to which Lee’s task gave way.
What better phrase to describe the challenge, the awkwardness, the joy, of trying to evoke transformation in collective movement – or of the act of collaboration itself. We are always in the process of navigating the “different losts” which dictate our lives and creative outputs. Through the kind of collaboration which ICoDaCo enacts, we tread paths that, if they might not show us ways of being less lost, might at least guide us in making those different losts into something beautiful; perhaps, even, something transformative.