This section contains writings that were generated during the research and creation process and will be added to over the course of the year.
conversations between forest and city
From the summer of 2007 to the fall of 2008, Guy Cools and Tedi Tafel communicated through letters; Guy from his travels in Europe and Asia, and Tedi from the Boréal forest. Though on the surface their journeys were radically different, their shared reflections on art and on our relationship to place are surprisingly connected. For Tedi, the intimacy and the regularity of the exchange played an essential role in the articulation of the Calendar project. These letters, included here in their entirety, offer an intimate look at her creative process.
Summer 2007 (La Macaza, Quebec)
I begin this letter a few days later than I had originally intended. I took longer leaving Montréal than expected, feeling a need to take my time thoughtfully preparing. I did not want to rush anything – what was my hurry after all?
I have been here in the woods since Saturday, each day feeling more and more that I am here. It took time to get the cabin in good shape – when no one has been here for a while it gets quite musty and cobwebby. So, much cleaning and organizing. The house is a small, hexagonal, one room wooden structure with a huge window in the ‘front’. I also have a tent in the woods that I am preparing as a studio space – a place eventually to move and draw, write, etc…
The land is 300 acres, 100 of which have trails. Some local friends have just finished clearing them, as they get almost completely grown over each spring/summer. Soon I will begin to expand my territory. Up till now I have been either at the cabin, the tent or the picnic table. Summer is at its height with very hot temperatures. There is a lake nearby but I have yet to navigate my way there – since there is no trail.
So far I have spent my days in the daily chores of eating, cleaning, organizing, reading and just plain slowing down. I observe the patterns of the day; acquaint myself with the shifting of the light, the sounds of the woods, the change in temperature. I do feel, the more I am here, that I am preparing for something. I am not sure what that is – the space to begin researching? It doesn’t feel quite formulated in my mind yet. Maybe I am simply preparing the space to be.
The following is a page I wrote for myself, but I include it here nonetheless. It speaks to where I am …
“ … seeing what the flow of my day is without any prescribed schedule; asking what is necessary now?…the freedom of necessity. This huge privilege I have to listen with nothing to worry about, with no desire, no impulse, nothing. What I think I’m getting at is a deeper trust in myself and maybe a deeper look at the layers both inside and outside of myself: life and creativity, life in creativity…
What happens when a life is left to create itself with no other intention than to be as true as possible, and with a softening of judgment to whatever is next? It’s hard to explain what I am doing now, being here, stretching out and taking tiny risks, with less hesitation, allowing a lot of space… (Although sometimes I still feel very busy and focused. like yesterday when I cleaned out the tent and began to make space for a studio).”
Monday I went just south of here to join my Authentic Movement group for a day of practice in nature. We have been meeting twice a month for a year now. I have done this practice outside before but never in a group. I could say many things about this day (I wrote a great deal afterwards) but here I will try to summarize some of my experiences.
There was something so elemental about the movement I witnessed. Away from the confines of an empty, ‘walled-in’ studio and in a space that was alive and open, the movement became very basic, simple, and seemingly, less psychologically or internally driven. I felt myself, as a witness (me seated, others moving), more intimately connected to the movers. I sensed that in the sharing of this space, so full of life, we were brought closer together as a group. Perhaps what I discovered is obvious but we all experienced this intimacy and with that a heightened sense of vulnerability as if we are all more exposed.
I felt myself in constant conversation with my surroundings. I still kept my eyes closed, though others chose not to. There was something about my inner world becoming sensitive to, and inspired by, the shifts in, or stillness of my environment and, at other times, by my inside world projecting out onto my environment. This wasn’t a new experience for me, but it was a joyful reminder of the way this practice has of directly connecting one to mystery and liberation (not in any sentimental way).
And it got me thinking abut the notion of living in cities, in man-made containers, and how ‘dead’ these worlds can feel, so far away from life that is not human driven. Again an obvious thought, but it struck me with more clarity than usual (and seems central somehow to what I will create). Maybe that is what I’m doing here: listening for cues regarding what to do next (which will likely be as much about not-doing as doing).
I am so content to be here. It is a place I have come often but always with a notion of not staying long. It makes me grateful that for now I can stay, and as I said earlier, stretch out.
I hope you can read my writing. Some people have trouble with it. I am still arriving so it feels too soon to even be writing outside of my own journal. If you have questions I’d be open to trying to answer them. I am happy to be doing this exchange of letters and I am glad you suggested it. I am a bit shy but imagine that will wear off soon enough.
I hope this finds you well.
Bye for now,
It is a rainy morning and feels like a good time to write. I have just passed the two-week mark of being here and it now feels like home (in fact when I think about leaving, I get upset). I am expanding my territory both physically and in actions. I waited until last week to take my first real walk in the woods; up until then I stayed close to the cabin and the prospector’s tent, which I have set up as a studio. I felt like bit like a young animal that starts close to home and then, when the time is right, heads further and further astray. I have been intently listening for the right timing and going against any inner voices that try to tell me I should be more adventurous. Something in me knows when it is right. I am also, as I said, expanding my actions. At first I have been mostly reading and writing but this past week I started drawing and painting. I am finding that, for now, this is how my inner world is taking form. I have never used this in my process before, so it is new and exciting. I leave the judges at the door- as I have no training at all in what I am attempting- and as with Authentic Movement, allow the impulses to come to visible form. When I connect to the materials, the colors and the lines, something emerges. The images are coming from my body, from my dreams (my nightmares) and as well from my contact with this place.
It has been an interesting challenge to allow experiences the chance to resonate before, too quickly, developing them into ‘art’ ideas. I have noticed this tendency. I feel something strong and very quickly want to translate it, to capture it, to imagine how it could be communicated. I am trying to slow this response down…by trusting, staying longer and deepening my involvement. It has been interesting to observe this in myself and to work with it. To find the balance, and to gradually understand that I don’t have to do something with everything that happens.
This notion of doing, of being productive is a funny one. In some ways, there is nothing to do here, nothing that needs doing, besides the basics of eating, shitting and sleeping. So the rest is left for me to decide. No pressure except what I put on myself through years of cultural conditioning. Listening. Listening for what needs to happen next. I spend my days doing that and struggling, though less and less, with the pressure to be productive.
I am here to research a new work, so that is my context. But my challenge is to deepen my practice of responding so that my actions come from, or are the result of the connection that I have to ‘here’. This place, this time of year is full of celebration and I am feeling that it is drawing out a kind of celebration in me, but the slowing down, waiting until… brings me to a clearer attention and ignites things – images, understandings, resonances – in me. Creativity calling me to create. … Hmmm, I will come back to this.
Yesterday I filmed for the first time. I haven’t had a lot of technology around me and as such, I am even more aware of what this tool -my camera – offers. Mostly I shot close ups: a fly I had callously swatted which struggled to get its wings straightened out, then flew away, an inchworm hanging by its thread that was trembling and contorting, until I realized it seemed to be shedding its skin. Both were quite miraculous events and I held my breath as I witnessed them. The camera allowed me to get closer and also to frame and contain what was happening. I felt an intimacy that moving in close allowed, but also a distance created by the very thing that was letting me move in – a paradox. The other day I read: “much of our task is to learn to listen”. But who is learning and what are we listening to? It seems to me that language, which divides subject and object, tends to reinforce a separation between the one who experiences and the thing that is experienced. Yet as I learn to listen, I notice a shift, a subtle but profound sense that what I pay attention to enters me in a way that dissolves this division, that I become what I am listening to.
The other thing I have begun is to learn about the flora and fauna of the area. I bought some books on the Boreal forest and some guides for trees and wild flowers. I am learning, not only the names, but also fascinating tidbits about how they survive in this complex web of life. (deeper reflections about where I am and what I am doing here) I have also been reading The Universe Story by mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimmer and cultural historian Thomas Berry. It is, as the title proclaims, the story of the universe from the first ‘Flaring Forth’ 15 billion years ago up to the present day. It is quite the book, needless to say, and I couldn’t even begin at this point to summarize it. It has, at the turn of every page, filled me with wonder and amazement and I am reminded how futile my education was that I was never instilled with due awe in regards to our existence, nor encouraged to celebrate our planet as it should be!! Shameful! Perhaps the best way to give you an insight into the book is to quote Thomas Berry in an interview. When asked, ‘In what ways the humans reflect the consciousness of the universe?’ Berry replies:
“The psychic aspect of the natural world is activated in our awareness, and in turn responds to our awareness of it. (…) That is the entire purpose of human intelligence – to enable the universe to reflect on itself through us. It is not so much the human knowing the universe, as the universe reflecting on itself in human intelligence. The whole purpose of the human – with our self-reflective consciousness – is to enable the universe to have fascination with its own beauty and its own aesthetic qualities; to have the experience of intimacy with itself, and with the ultimate numinous source from which it emerges.”
Berry, who also wrote The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work, sees the destruction of the wilderness as the loss of critically needed psychic experiences for human beings. I try to imagine how my life would be if I had had never seen nor sat beside a river. He also speaks about going beyond the sense of the universe as a collection of objects (the result of our own mechanistic science) and into a perception of the universe as a communion of subjects. Something that humans have intuited for centuries and that quantum physics is now revealing. A final quote:
“We know the interiority of any mammal is a result of a long and complex process of creativity beginning with the star making powers of the Milky Way. Walt Whitman did not invent his sentience, nor was he wholly responsible for the form of feelings he experienced. Rather, his sentience is an intricate creation of the Milky Way and his feelings are an evocation of being: an evocation involving thunderstorms, sunlight, grass, history and death. Walt Whitman is a space the Milky Way fashioned to feel its own grandeur.”
- Thomas Berry
Hmmm, I love the notion of the human being as a ‘space’.
Anyway, the book is an inspiration and is filling me with thoughts that I have yet to fully understand. That may take years! But it is helping me enter this place that I am in and ask questions about what I am doing and why.
I will leave it here for now. Perhaps I will get a letter from you soon. Hope your summer is full of interesting and provocative things.
Summer 2007 (London, Regent’s Park)
It is my first day off in a month. Yesterday Lin arrived and, from Monday onwards, we will start teaching a workshop. The past month I traveled to and spent time in Antwerp, Gent, Amsterdam, London, Athens and Kalamata. I imagine my moving so much quite in contrast with your choice of staying in one place, and I am a bit jealous! I haven’t yet reached the tranquility of mind to allow myself stillness.
I am actually sitting in a beautiful Rose Garden in Regent’s Park, at the halfway point on one of my favorite London walks – up Primrose Hill, one of the highest natural points of the city, down to London Zoo through Regent’s Park back into the centre. The past month was very rich both in professional and personal experiences and I like to share some of them with you:
Traveling south, the contrast between London and Kalamata, deep in the Penepolesus, was striking. In Greece, they are experiencing one of their hottest summers ever (with temperatures up to 45 °C) and there are forests burning everywhere. While in London, it was raining most of the time and England was suffering some of its heaviest floods in history (read Waterland by Graham Swift). We do have to change our behavior in order to improve our impact on the ecology. But I also find something very reassuring in these catastrophes – nature and the weather remaining uncontrollable and being stronger than men.
In Greece, I went, one day, deep into Mani, one of the most rural and wild areas of the Southern Penepolesus. My Greek friends brought me to a village on the coast, Trachilus. We were the only ‘outsiders’ and when we left in the evening all the locals had to move their chairs in order to let our car pass the only road. Meanwhile the village children had started watching a documentary projected on the wall of the village church. Again, it was such a contrast with the dense, multicultural population of London and its overcrowded metros. Each time I go to Greece, I find myself articulating a new phase in my thinking. This time, I gave a lecture about ‘the mythical and the political body’, much inspired by the book, Myth and the Body by Stanley Keleman and Joseph Campbell (to which Lin introduced me). I’ll try to reconstruct my line of thinking for you:
- All myths are about the body: its birth, growth and death.
- “One of the intentions of a mythological system is to present evocative images; images that touch and resonate in very deep centers of our impulse system, and then move us from those very deep centers into action.” Stanley Keleman
- It is my strong conviction that the real function of art is to create such images. The last dance production I worked upon is called Myth (by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), which has this ambition.
- Such images are able to function as a catalyst to get blocked somatic processes back into movement.
- The transformation of our body, the awareness of it, is our ultimate destiny as human beings.
“To be embodied is to participate in a migration from one body form to another. Each of us is a nomad, a wave that has duration for a time, and then takes on a new somatic shape. This perpetual transformation is the subject of all myth.”
Whether traveling or being in one place, it is what is moving inside us that is important. This is what I called in my lecture the ‘political body’, the body in action, its agency. In the Hayward Gallery in London, there is, for the moment, a retrospective of the work of Anthony Gormley, who captures this ‘inner, energetic body’ as no other sculpture has been able to. I include a postcard of one of the many sculptures he situates outside the gallery on rooftops, bridges… close by or distant. When we meet next, probably in October, I‘ll bring you the catalogue of his work that I think you will find very inspiring.
I am looking forward to receiving your first letter. I‘ll probably find it in Antwerp in two weeks time when I pass there to change suitcases and clothes on my way to Italy: Rome, Toscana, Umbria…
PS: Only in the last two days has nature again become gentle over here.
Moving from summer into autumn, 2007 (La Macaza, Québec)
It has been awhile since I last wrote. I seem to fluctuate between not knowing what needs to be said and having so many thoughts that I don’t know where to begin. But I want to attempt to put to words some of what is happening before much more time passes. Though I am acutely aware of the cycles of time – dawn, high noon, bedtime, etc… and also aware of the myriad shifts within the day, the hour, even the moment sometimes, I get a bit lost in terms of specific dates and times. There is a fluidity about my perceptions, along with a sense of the constancy of cycles that parallels or lives within all this movement. Time passes the details and in the larger rhythms of day into night, fall into winter.
I have twice been down to Montréal since I last wrote, both for brief periods. I am presently up north for the final summertime retreat. The weather has shifted. Fall has begun, and although today is quite warm, I lately have had to make a morning fire to warm up the little cabin. It is an immensely cozy place to sleep and wake up in and I am endlessly grateful to be able to do so, night after night. This is the first time in my life that I have spent so much time alone in the woods. Of course, something else begins to happen in time, or better, over time (with time?) which is both more challenging and rewarding. I am learning what I need to do to ground myself, especially after I have been to the city. Presently it is walking that brings me most here. I have started to go off the trails (which is quite daring for me since I can easily get turned around and, therefore, lost) and I have discovered some beautiful parts of the land that I didn’t previously know of. Due to of my fear of getting lost, I have to really pay attention to where I am so I can find my way back. This has begun to feel like witnessing, paying attention to details while tracking my general progression. Perhaps this is what being grounded is: paying attention, really seeing and sensing. But it is also being on the land and not specifically focused on the work. I think I mentioned in an earlier letter the challenges of staying open, listening, and really allowing where I am to enter me and stir me up, as I to enter my surroundings. It is such an intricate balance to hold – and when I begin to grab onto things, something moves away from me. It is much more interesting to see each day where I will be lead, not passively but creatively, if that makes any sense. And images do come. I see elements of the work, like flashes. They are parts of ideas, but when they come right out of, or through my experience, they feel somehow right. I write them down and in some ways it doesn’t matter whether I walk or I read or I stretch or breath, etc… it is the paying attention that brings me insights. I don’t have to force my art making onto the situation at hand. This is a given. I am here to make work. And this is always with me.
Yesterday, my friend Jeane and I took a walk together. For the first part we followed a designated trail and I became aware that, due to the demarcation, I wasn’t paying the same kind of attention. I think of the roads and sidewalks of the city and how our paths are decided for us. When I go back to the city, I intend to wander more, even get myself lost, and see if I can find the same kind of open focus that I am finding here.
I have been reading a lot as well. Two books, specifically – Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (edited by Jacqueline Baas and Mary Jane Jacob) and Site Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation (Nick Kaye). The former has me thinking less about the work I will make and more about the audiences who will be experiencing the work. I am here in this forest, touched at all levels of my being by this place and I ask myself (often) what am I doing? What is it to have direct experiences of something and then imagine transplanting something of that to another location for an audience that hasn’t had my experience (or maybe has, in their own way)? Of course, this is what artists are always doing even if the creation comes in an empty studio and is then transplanted into a ‘black box’, theatrical space. So this is nothing new. I have done it many times. But this particular project seems to force an inquiry that encourages further articulation or consciousness around ‘what I am doing?’ and ‘what do I intend with this project?’ And though some answers are lingering on the edges of my awareness, reading this book has made me think that the object made (whether that be a video installation, a performance or a blending of the two) is a vehicle or catalyst for provoking or stimulating different kinds of attention from the audience. Perhaps one of my goals is to create situations that offer ways for the public to participate in ways that echo what is happening for me here? The challenge is to take a direct personal experience, born of a particular place and transplant it into another very different place, with the desire to avoid putting the audience in a voyeuristic position, and instead propose events that speak to their source (again this sounds like what every other artist, or most are trying to do). I know that when I begin to insert these events/pieces into the urban setting, a whole other layer of reading will inevitably emerge. I guess part of what I am trying to express is that I don’t want to make pieces about the disconnection that we have with nature. I want to make pieces that celebrate our intimacy with it – but of course juxtaposing images from nature in the urban setting will confront a certain alienation.
Anyway, I am getting a bit ahead of myself. I just think there is so much work about alienation. I want to go elsewhere. I hope that it goes without saying that I am not speaking about a romanticized image of nature – this is not my experience! What being here has provoked in me is layered, moving, never fixed, and only sometimes simple and clear. Here there is death and change, fragility, surprise, difficulty, acceptance, tension, surrender, friction, existence, sadness, beauty, decay, mystery and on and on…
I am beginning to understand the following, in reference to modern physicists:
“… they have come to a clearer and clearer understanding of how imprisoning our notions of inner and outer, of self and object, can be. Because nothing can be found that exists in its own right, because nothing can be seen to have inherent existence or a persisting individual nature, everything is seen to be dependant on everything else, and therefore relative.”
Language can tend to fix things and then our attention goes to the next object/label. Experience is much more fluid. There is a sense of intersubjectivity between all things (which are themselves inseparable from their environment) rather than subject/object relationship: subject being observer, object being observed. Is the perceiving mind so obviously separate from the object it perceives? And where is consciousness located? I can go to the same places over and over and each time my experience is different. A place perceived: both place and perceiver are in constant flux so how does one locate and define either? I guess what I was speaking about earlier, this challenge of listening and not ‘imposing’, brings me to ideas that seem to spring directly from this in-between space, neither me nor not-me, neither place nor not-place. Something that arises out of this interplay and strikes me.
Out of all this reverie, I do have ideas. There is a setting of a bed, and someone sleeping and waking and sleeping and waking and a large window above, which transforms from opening into the outside, to becoming the screen on which a dream appears – a woman entering the forest… Another image came from gathering beach tree branches that had broken off in the forest. I have been taking off the leaves and saving both branches and leaves. I had an image of an installation – branches suspended overhead, leaves on the floor and a man walking the outside edges of the leaves. Yesterday I realized that this is a piece about death, about grieving and ultimately about acceptance. Perhaps there is another person placing the leaves, making an ever-widening circle.
I have also been gathering video images of the details I have found here. I envision these (and images of people and the city), breathing in and out, emerging from and disappearing into black. There is someone in the space but I don’t know what he or she is doing. Or perhaps the dancer and his/her dance are included in these glimpses of life. I also have an image of a woman walking into the lake and floating and maybe going under water. It is night. She dissolves into the water at moments. There is another image of a room – on one side the sun rises and on the other, the sun sets, over and over again. Someone is in the space but I don’t know what they are doing: repeated actions, cycles, patterns, the same but different. There are others images but they are presently less formed. I am thinking about the relationship between real and virtual spaces and reading this book on site-specific art is assisting in this inquiry. I will write more of that later. That is a whole other area of research.
At the end of this week I will go, for about three weeks, to Montréal, before I return here again. While in Montréal there will be sporadic rehearsals. I do need to start imagining, with the dancers, what they might be doing. I am thinking of starting the work from the dancer’s experience. Perhaps I will begin by posing a series of questions like: do you have any strong memories that connect specifically with a season or a place in nature? What are your early memories of nature? I need to think this through more. I also want to look at working in different situations and not necessarily in a studio: maybe walking outside, then moving blindfolded?
Anyways, Guy, these are some of my thoughts and actions. I appreciate your words about myth and the body, about migration from one body to another, about being nomadic and the notion that perpetual transformation is the subject of all myths; that we need these stories and images to push us wherever we are psychologically being asked to go; and that good art can truly be transformative, healing in this way. Isn’t this the root of art, of theatre, of music, of dance?
I also believe that we learn these lessons from being in the natural world, which is, as well, in perpetual transformation and celebration: the abundance of existences. But then, maybe where this brings us, is to the relationship between body/psyche and nature, which is another conversation…
I am off for a walk in the woods. Hope that you are doing well in all your travels, your teachings and your creative endeavors. Look forward to hearing from you again.
Still summer 2007 (Antwerp)
I am taking a still moment at my mother’s place, in between two rehearsal periods, to reread the two letters you already send to me, to reflect on, and to respond to them. As I already articulated in my first letter, we are in very different positions – your stillness and slowing down in one spot in the woods; and my traveling from one city to another (with an occasional excursion in the countryside), but this doesn’t prevent us from having similar, or even shared experiences.
I recognized your description of how you are slowly expanding your territory. This is how I always explore a new place, even in a city. It is my addiction for walking. In London, Lin and I stayed at the October Gallery, an art gallery specialized in non-Western contemporary art which, is linked to a network of mainly American, ecological projects – a ship, a biodome, a rainforest project…(worthwhile to check out on the web). The Gallery is very centrally situated in an old neighborhood of London. Part of the fun of staying in such a place for a month, was to walk and to discover this neighborhood in all its details. The past spring and summer, I have been revisiting some of my favorite places in Europe: Venice, Greece, Barcelona, Umbria and Toscana. And I always surprise myself and my traveling partners at how easily I can find my way back to my favorite bar or restaurant in a place I haven’t been to, sometimes for more than ten years. It is the ‘walking in circles’ or ‘slowly expanding one’s territory’ that gives one this sense of orientation, understanding and belonging.
Another topic that I recognize and can easily relate to in your letters is the sense/power of listening. Lin and I gave the Repeating Distance workshop for the first time, over a period of two weeks. The experience was, for both of us, and the participants, a very deep and intense one. One thing we came to understand better was that a lot of our practice is focused on the “act of witnessing”: each other, the space, and ourselves, and then to deepen the quality of this energetic attention given to the other. This becomes, more and more, also the core of my practice as a dramaturge and as such, I relate very well to the philosophies of the Authentic Movement practice, which I have started to research, develop and integrate in the workshops I teach. Thank you for introducing it to me and guiding me through my first steps of exploration.
I had a week of holidays, which I spent in Italy. I spent four days in the countryside which was quiet and impressive: earth, ploughed fields, and the richest variety of trees possible… with an occasional medieval town on a hill, looking just like a tiny punctuation mark in the landscape. On the fifth day we arrived in Rome and I got quite depressed by the city environment, deserted by its inhabitants who had all gone on holiday, but overpopulated with tourists. It took me a day to adjust. I changed hotels for a place with a view and found my way out of the centre into a popular, ‘real’ neighborhood with ‘real’ people. I loved the Yann Martel book about tourism, but I also understand the need and the urge to travel, to see and explore, which I sense and feel in my genes (my father was a sailor). My present professional life makes me a ‘nomad’ and although I miss the lack of privacy sometimes, I enjoy the freedom and liberty of not belonging, not being too attached to one place, and to my possessions.
I very much enjoyed the quotes you sent me by Thomas Berry. I studied Whitman as a student. And to finish this letter, I would like to share with you some quotes from my reading. Out of Hold Everything Dear, Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, a new collection of very political essays by John Berger:
“For Nomads, home is not an address, home is what they carry with them.”
- John Berger
And about Jitka Hanslova, a Czech photographer who takes photos of the woods:
“Yet in a forest there are ‘events’ which have not found their place in any of the forest’s numberless time scales, and which exist between those scales. (…) The Ancient Greeks named events like these dryads. (…) Every one of the crossing energies operating in a forest has its own time-scale. From the ant to the oak tree. From the process of photosynthesis to the process of fermentation. In this intricate conglomeration of times, energies and exchanges there occur ‘incidents’ that are recalcitrant incidents, un-accommodated in any time-scale and therefore (temporarily) waiting between.”
- John Berger
Maybe when we meet again, we can exchange our books. For the time being, I also include a little book of my poems that Lin and Michael helped me to realize. Every three or four years, I revisit my creative writing and destroy most of it in a ritual fire. Then, to close one period and start a new one, I send the remaining poems, the ones I feel are worthy to be passed on, to close friends and relatives.
Looking forward to your next letter,
Autumn 2007 (La Macaza, Québec)
When you get this letter you will obviously be back in Montréal. I seem to recall that you aren’t staying long, but it probably feels nice to be back in your apartment amongst your things. I too am probably now back in the city, as I am writing this just a few days before returning there. I have been in the woods just over two weeks now. Today is a glorious day, sunny, breezy and warm. Not many leaves left on the trees except for the yellow of maple and birch, which makes for a particularly special stage in forest life with yellow/gold as the only remaining fall colour. Later I will go for a walk, but for now I would like to share with you some of the events and thoughts that have occurred while I have been here.
Each day I watch the leaves falling, sometimes one at a time, sometimes in gusts of many. I have watched the colors change with the lessening of light and incoming cold. It seems a time of letting go, which has lead me to reflect about my own need to release old parts of my story, and to hold and trust that which needs to remain in my heart, as memory, and release the rest. At times it has been difficult but I have been inspired to continue by the movements of my surroundings. So I have done my own burnings (remembering that you periodically burn your writing) and put my faith in renewal just as the leaves must also. Perhaps it is this knowing (that spring will come and new growth will happens) that gives them (and me) the courage to let go, to fall…
I know about seasonal change. I have lived all my life in a part of the world where the seasons are distinct. Yet living even more closely to the shifts inside them, has strongly affected me psychically and in other important ways. Like the loss of myth that you spoke of earlier, I believe the loss of contact with the natural world has also stunted our understanding of the necessary flow of life and death, death and regeneration, and change and transformation. With this heightened intimacy to the change of season I am experiencing glimpses of a kind of ‘dissolving of my boundaries’ and an extension of my awareness that reaches out into my surroundings. I am less an observer and more like one of a multitude of life forms. I am reminded of the ego structure and how it can be a barricade against the outside world, yet when small holes are pierced (by seeing the constructs and compulsions for what they are) the membrane that ‘separates’ inside and outside, becomes permeable, breathing, and fluid.
The other day I was laying down on the forest floor (I have been doing a lot of this lately) and I began to see that what separated me from where I was, was actually so thin that it was almost insignificant, and that perhaps it was more my mind than my body that insisted on this division. That it was arbitrary, another construct, perhaps not as essential to my wellbeing as I had imagined, or as I have been taught to believe. This thought brought me (back) to reflections on our Western dualistic mode of thinking – opposing all the time, opposing one thing against the other: I/You; inside/outside; good/bad; male/female; and on and on… body/mind being a significant one to Western ideology.
The books I have been drawn to read lately are by nature writers, I want to know more about ways of being that are attuned to the Earth’s stirrings. The following is a quote from Aboriginal writer, Linda Hogan from her book The Woman Who Watches Over the World:
“Religions have searched for the location of the soul inside the human. The poet Rilke said that ‘what is within surrounds us’. We create the world from ourselves, he means, and our perception of it. But for the native mind, the world creates and gives birth to us and our spirits, along with all the rest. The soul resides in the world around us; it shares itself with us. We breathe its breath. We are blessed by its light.”
This understanding comes from living so close to the land. In my moments where resistance and expectation are stilled, I touch something of this meaning and with this an appreciation of the magnitude of what I have lost, both through my education and my lack of direct contact with nature. I feel compelled to somehow make work that speaks to what I am learning, what I am being taught here… things I have touched before that I now trusting more.
Another quote from Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art:
“In a dualistic envisioning of the self and the purpose of art, the self that is expressed is the alienated, lonely self – absorbed ego – I, perpetually set apart from others, and from the life of the universe. (sorry, can’t locate the author…)
It has become more clear that what I am desiring to express has to do, not with my separation, but with my growing knowledge of my connection, my interconnection with the life forces (in all their diversity) that are my temporary home of late and to try to bring these experiences into form in a way that celebrates our human place in the larger world. In referring back to Linda Hogan’s quote, my experience being here (and previous times spent in nature) coupled with my long exploration in Authentic Movement brings me, at present, to a deeper and more balanced look at the ways I perceive. There is a constant movement between inner and outer. I continue to project myself into where am and am also receptive to the outside entering.
I suppose this movement and its evolution, as I grow as a person, will change. I am more and more acutely aware of how my education, with its insistence on the observer and the observed has kept the wonder of the world much more diluted than what is potentially possible. I feel myself most part of the world when I stop demanding confirmation or understanding and open myself to the mystery of what I don’t know.
David Abram speaks about the reciprocal relationship that occurs between humans and ‘the land’ or anything outside of us in The Spell of the Sensuous:
“Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounters – of tensions, re-mingling and communication. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor – as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation. We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement.”
Maybe you have read this book. I know it is a favorite of Lin’s. I like your idea of exchanging books and was particularly intrigued by the quote about the “forest time scales” and those that fall between. I also so much appreciated receiving your poems. What a lovely book! I like the images very much. I read the poems out loud, touched by the layers, the honesty, the images, the wisdom, the kindness and the surprising juxtapositions. I am grateful that these weren’t burned.
I will close now. I need to wash my dishes and head into the woods. Slowing down, lying down, letting the weight of me go, letting my breath rise and fall as it does. This is a particular time in my life where my longings are bound intimately with the trees and the uneven ground.
Winter 2008 (La Minerve, Québec)
In this winter season, with its cessation of growth, I find myself slowing down, becoming still, and letting my movement come out of a full and quiet space. My body needs this. I arrived with an injury. So I listen. What needs to happen? Mostly nothing. I am looking to re-find that place inside me that is simply breathing, simply being breathed, and from there, allowing all that springs from the outside entering and the inside to emptying out.
In comparison with the summer and the fall, the snowy time is much more monochrome. And like a black and white image, it seduces me into a kind of timelessness that pulls me to other realms of reality: shadow-realms, memory and dream realms.
Excerpts of my journal:
Time passes in shadows – through shadows. Memories of previous life covered over, seeds of future life sleeping. The howling winds blows shadows across the frozen lake, across the walls of this small house – the shadow of which moves ever so slowly along the edge of the lake (and disappears out of the edge of the camera frame).
I have been drawn to the shadow – stretched by the lowness of the sun, intense against the snow. I am not on the Boréal land, but staying in another small house on a small lake. I am learning how to breath, slowing myself down enough to see what is natural and what is contrived, habitual. This takes time, but it feels like it is what I have to do. It is so basic and yet so telling. I am putting down my own seeds, reconnecting to a physical practice and an embodied understanding of balance, to be centered, and to be grounded.
An evening walk: Mist, fog and darkness. The trees are barely visible. Layers of presence, real yet ungraspable – like a memory of a place. I feel my own edges unclear, unformed as I meet this – as I am met by this.
Idea: two men facing each other (eyes closed or open), they move, one at the time, but only just barely communicating (making visible) what they imagine doing. When one is finished, he says ‘ok’ and the other then moves in response. I see this as a place to begin.
“Our impetus to do gets in the way of our listening to what is necessary.”(Ann Hamilton)
And this is so with my breath: not grabbing for the next breath in or insisting on the next breath out. Same with my relationship to here, to where I am now.
Phusis is the ancient Greek word for ‘nature’. Phusis is ‘nature’ understood as the coming to be and passing away of all that is. I find this information in a book entitled Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy: Dwelling on the Landscape of Thought (edited by Suzanne L. Cataldi and William S Hamrick)
This seems to apply also to breath – allowing the fullness of manifestation into the fullness of emptying. So I practice this. I notice when and where I grasp. I notice this too with my video camera. Having this one small piece of technology makes me mindful of a tendency to start grasping, looking for moments to register, rather than being present to them when they arrive.
“Practices that do not seek to master but to enter the mystery.” I like that. (from old notes, sorry I don’t have the author,)
Idea: working with a small group of people around the notion of stillness. Creating tableaux in space. Staying still for extended periods of time or one person is still while the others move from place to place around him/her. (Three people still, one person moves around) I have a longing to see bodies in space, in stillness.
I know this is coming from my own need now to be still and from the calm of most of these winter days, where life is mostly dormant, and where I track the time in other ways than the clock.
… reflecting, not only on memory held within the body, but also of the memory held in places. The forest I enter each day is the forest I knew from years ago. This is where Boréal used to do its projects before we acquired the land. I remember certain works that were created, certain events, performances… spectacular walks just after rainstorms with the sun on everything! If we are imprinted by the stories, the events, and the encounters of our lives, why is not the forest (or any place) as well? Of course this not an original thought, but it is one I have been pondering these last two weeks and it is another way I begin to understand this permeability between the self and the world, between what I imagine inside me and what I imagine I am inside. Again I come back to breath as an instrument for this continual and ambiguous dance.
Idea: an image of a forest: Brief, barely visible glimpses of various people doing various actions. We see them as shadows, as blurs of movement coming, going, superimposed onto the trees and snow of a single place, making visible (briefly like a memory) some of the things that came before, some of the things that have happened here.
(End of excerpts)
Well, I am back home and now well into a rehearsal process. It feels great to be working with others. At first it was a bit startling to have live bodies in a studio to play with. I was more drawn to their reflections in the windows or their shadows on the floor. Their actual forms seemed too hard-edged, too separate from these surroundings. So we explored stillness. Long moments of positions, which, every time, begin to take on different readings. Through exaggerated immobility the form, (or my reading of it) changes. I then played with stillness while adding almost imperceptible movement. So the form seemed somehow liquid (only slightly) and my desire to blur the edges was more satisfied.
This week I have started to be more specific. There are images that have been coming to me and I am ready to investigate them further.
A solo for Bill: A man in a large empty space moves alone. His intention is to reveal the birth, life and death of a gesture and continue this cycle of regeneration over and over again. Bill has a beautiful sensitivity and I am beginning to see something that connects the human to the cycles of the organic.
A solo for Dean: I see a man, again in a large space. Overhead is a big screen onto which are projected images of the sky. Some are scenes that would occur only by looking up: treetops, clouds passing, moon passing. I would also like to work with the play between near and far skies by using images of outer space: star clusters, galaxies etc. The man plays with gestures that are about the geometry of the room, the geometry of his body and others. It also contains childhood memory, playing animals, caged and wild, prisons and open fields. This is where we are starting. I love Dean’s wildness and want to juxtapose this with the kind of open presence that he embodies.
So there we are. It is still a time for allowing exploration and I am giving myself this freedom to try and try and try. I am, of course, grateful for the inspiring people I am working with as I am throwing out a lot of ideas and not yet developing many of them. So they are generous and very open to playing.
I will end now, as I need to prepare for today’s rehearsals with Leslie. My image begins from a photograph I came upon of a woman walking out into the water, into the darkness with one arm extended towards the void. I will begin with the experience, last summer, of floating on the lake. We will see what happens.
I trust you are full of new sensations and experiences from your time in China. That must have been amazing. I look forward to hearing from you. I think you said you would be back in Montréal mid-February. I am heading back up north March 1–20th.
Winter 2008 (Beijing)
My first experience of Asia through my residence here in Beijing has been very inspiring. I am keeping a diary for you, which I will send at the end of my stay. You would love the quality of the art here, the way they balance the traditional and the contemporary…the urban and the natural.
Hope you are well and looking forward to the next stage of our dialogue.
I have decided to keep a diary for you, and through you, thereby also for myself, of my first impressions visiting Beijing. I will send it to you at the end of my stay.
This is the furthest I have ever travelled and it is my first time outside the comfortable zone of a known, cultural heritage (Europe and North-America). So I am curious to see what will strike me more: the differences or similarities. The immigration form they handed out on the airplane mentions ‘alien’ for ‘foreigner’, which gives a possible indication of what I can expect!
Coming down on the plane, the landscape looks very much the same as on any other landing. The closer to the city we became, the more the natural landscape was invaded, first by farms, then by industry, and finally by suburban residences. The pilot had to draw our attention to the Great Wall, a tiny, lingering human trail along a mountain range, for us to even be aware of it.
I experienced the same familiarity in the airport and on the drive into the city to the hotel. If not for Chinese characters on announcement boards, I could be in any other capital. Even the language is relative since all the important information is also indicated in English: ‘exit’, ‘ring road’, … and most companies advertise both in Mandarin and English. English is the Esperanto of our globalized world.
While queuing for customs it happened to be shift change. All the officers are changed at once, in one smooth procedure with both the new and the old ones lining up to greet their superior. This changing of the guard reminds me that we are entering a communist country where the state is supposed to control everyone. But within the superficial formality, the individuals remain informally themselves. Some are even playful. So maybe they are finding a better balance here between the whole and the singular?
The ugly, suburban countryside on both sides of the highway leading into town is hidden by small stretches of humanly planted birch trees. Birches are present all over the city and for the moment it is the only particularity giving me a real sense of where I am, which climate, which latitude. As if nature, even within the city, still differentiates what the urban development erases.
Recovering from the jetlag and 24 hours of not sleeping, I decide to stay in the hotel for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Tomorrow morning, at dawn, I will start exploring this city the way I usually do, which is to draw ever-expanding circles of walking. I already noticed that people walk and cycle a lot, even amongst the heavy traffic. This makes me feel comfortable and at ease.
While writing these first pages, I am having dinner in the hotel restaurant. The menu has exotic dishes such as: ‘sea urchin cucumber’, ‘testicles’ or ‘marinated duck heads’ but I decide for this first day to stay with the familiar and order beef and broccoli.
I got up this morning at 6 am and I was out before sunrise on my way to the Temple of Heaven Park, which is the closest temple. It will also show me my daily route to the theatre and the studio where we are rehearsing bahok, the new company piece by Akram Khan, on which I am dramaturge.
This morning I do feel like a foreigner because once I leave the hotel lobby, I don’t see any other Caucasians until I return 3 hours later, which is where I am now, writing these words while drinking a delicious green tea.
The Temple of Heaven Park contains several key buildings where the Chinese Emperors undertook their seasonal rituals. All the buildings play with the dual symbolism of square (earth) and circle (heaven) motifs. The dominant trees here are century old cypresses.
But what is most amazing about this place, is its function as a social gathering place for the elderly who practice Tai Chi, ballroom dancing, Chinese calligraphy, backward walking, rhythmical hand clapping and shouting, badminton, … or simply just stroll through the park, and although I am the only Westerner or ‘alien’, at this moment of the day, nobody seems to take special notice of my presence. When I came out of the Great Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which is the highest point of the park, the sun has just risen and for the first time I have a view of the skyline of the city.
On my way back to the hotel, I walked through a local mini-market and admired the variety of bicycles and tricycles. I will try to keep up with this morning routine. This morning I went east. Tomorrow I will go north to Tiananmen Square, this other, more recent, landmark of human worship.
I stuck to my intention. Up at 6 am. Out at 7 and walking straight north. The weather is mild and sunny for the time of the year. Straight north lays Tiananmen: `the largest public square in the world`, but in order to get there I have to walk through the maze of the ‘Hutong’, the original, old, small alleys, which are full of local businesses.
The theme of today seems to be: how power, whether political, economical or cultural needs to affirm itself by creating empty space. While real life is, by its very nature, more discrete and hides behind enclosed quarters and narrow alleys, Tiananmen is impressive by its mere dimensions. It is already pretty crowded this early in the morning. As was the temple yesterday, with only Chinese, queuing up to greet the mummified Mao in his Mausoleum (which can count for an alliteration!). I cross the square from south to north until I reach the entrance of the Forbidden City, which I will visit on another walk.
I then turn east on one of the main boulevards in direction of the shopping mall, where we ate last night, and where I forgot my favourite hat. The diner isn’t open yet and I have coffee in the Starbucks opposite while waiting. The Starbucks has the advantage that it has local English magazines – Time Out Beijing and another similar one. Later, when I cross Tiananmen again from the east to the west, I am rewarded for my efforts. A teenager from the provinces visiting the capital wants to practise his English with me and is proud to show his knowledge about Belgium. He is a very pleasant alternative to the street vendors for whom I have been, the whole morning, a lonely prey.
Before I return south towards the hotel, I venture a little more to the west, just behind the square to where the new National Centre for the Performing Arts has just opened its doors. It resembles an immense ‘egg’ of steel, and glass that floats on water. Again everything is out of proportion – budget, size, and the 4 huge theatre spaces inside. But today in the winter sunlight it is really beautiful. If power needs to express itself with space then I prefer cultural spaces than shopping malls or mausoleums.
Just before I arrive back at the hotel, I experience another reward: moments of real, suburban Chinese life, one next to the other: an elderly men with his singing bird, a street barber whose mirror and seat are installed on a bicycle and a funky, female fashionista imitating Japanese magna style.
I have seen, this morning, all social classes, from homeless to government officials and I am pleasantly surprised by how much people smile. Very different from some of the European towns I am used to. The energy of this place feels good.
I skipped walking yesterday. I needed to get tuned in to the work, so I spent all day in the studio or behind the PC working. There is a constant static electricity in the dry air here – in the lift, using the PC and even with some taxi drivers, if you touch them, you get small electrical shocks. In the late afternoon, I took only a small walk, straight north, to an old area where one can find all the music shops, and shops that sell brushes, paper and ink for painting and calligraphy.
This morning, I resumed my habit. I walked west and discovered how all the religious buildings in China tend resemble each other. I visited two Buddhist temples, a mosque and a Taoist temple. The structure, each time, is the same: a number of temples with statues set in a straight line, and in between, courtyards where people burn incense to greet the four directions, and pray. One in particular housed a beautiful pagoda, built on a six-sided base, and again, people would walk around it and pray in every direction. I felt to shy to join in, but in a way, my daily walks in the four directions are a similar ritual. The Taoist temple was the most popular. It also had the most deities and of those, especially, the ones for health and wealth, were most prayed to.
I already mentioned that on the immigration forms filled out upon arrival, the word ‘foreigner’ was replaced by the word ‘alien’. One wonders, is this a conscious pun of the Chinese looking down on the ‘other’, or just an error of translation? In a similar example, it reads on the mini bar bill: ‘all the refrigerator shit is not included’. I must say I do start to feel as an alien at times. On all of my walks, I have crossed paths with, maybe, three other Westerners. This is due partly to time of the year, the areas and times of the day I choose to walk, and the fact that I am walking instead of taking taxis. Yesterday I felt a bit oppressed by this outsider status and the difficulty or even impossibility to communicate, but today this feeling has again passed, and I am feeling better.
I have been here for a week now and I have slowly started to settle. There is still a lot to discover: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Lake District and the temples in the North. However, the eagerness of the first days has been replaced by the comfortable thought that I can spread my explorations out over almost a month. The luxury of being able to give oneself over to ones own rhythm and to tune in with the rhythm of the environment.
In 2003, during a workshop I gave, I researched, the geometric patterns of the ancient labyrinth structures which you find in all cultures: Greek, Indian, Celtic, Native American, … By reconstructing and walking this labyrinth, I discovered its energetic qualities. But even more importantly, it seemed to represent an intuitive, basic insight into the rhythms of our lives. One that moves between order and creative chaos, a day up and a day down… Since then, I am much more able to give myself over to these rhythms, to trust their justice and organic logic. Now being here, I seem to move like a pendulum that swings between a sense of not belonging and being a foreigner, and then the next day, feeling able to integrate, to blend in.
On Tuesday night I met with Els, (a Flemish woman who has been living here for four years and who organizes international residences for artists) with Wayn, (a Flemish theatre director who just arrived for a two month residence) and with Umi, (a local film director who will go in a couple of weeks for the second time to Europe, probably visiting Amsterdam, Brussels and Berlin). We all have different relationships and histories with this city and still I felt we shared similar experiences of balance and unbalance and of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Umi told me about one of her favourite places: a labyrinth in one of the summer palaces on the outskirts of the city.
After orienting myself on the basic north/south and east/west axis’s, I can now give myself over to this city more easily and be guided by it in a more ‘at random’ way; walking its labyrinth and taking time to rest.
I had hardly written yesterday’s note about giving myself over to my own rhythm or reality copied my thinking. Our rehearsal schedule changed at the last minute, which gave me the morning free to venture farther in the city. I took a taxi to the Bell and Drum Tower in the north and started to explore that area in a similar way as I did with this neighbourhood – using the tower as the centre, walking east and south. This new neighbourhood is touristy, while mine is more residential. I am happy to be staying south.
I visited two more temples: a large, Tibetan Buddhist one and a very beautiful, Confucian one. Again, the layout was very similar, but because of the neighbourhood, there were far fewer local people practising and the percentage tourists was the highest I have come across thus far.
I think you would have loved the gardens of the Confucian temple, which was once also part of one of the Imperial Courts. It and was full of cypresses, which is the other type of ancient tree this city cherishes in its parks. At the very back of the garden there was another old tree, which appeared centuries old. I will try to it draw for you: Fu Shu Huai – which means ‘coming back to life’. It was dead, replanted and blossomed again. The tree grows in a ‘Y structure’ with one central trunk that divides into two like a Y. Seeing this, I was reminded of a story I heard when Lin and I were performing on the little island, which was sacred First Nation territory, situated just off the town Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. On this little island there were a lot trees with this same Y formation. We were told they were used as part of an initiation rite for the young – to learn to integrate the opposites: female/male – yin/yang. I am sure the Chinese tree also is symbolic of a similar ritual/belief.
I am very happy with the way the work is progressing and how I am able to discreetly guide its direction. It will be presented in April in Ottawa and maybe you will have the opportunity to see it there.
I am enjoying writing to you. It is the first time in my life that I am able to keep a diary going. I feel it is only now that I have the time and the patience to sit down regularly. Thank you for inviting me into this dialogue and being there on the other side reading.
Yesterday, Sunday, we had a day off and I took a break from exploring the city. Instead I took a taxi to Dashanzi 798, an old industrial neighbourhood in the northeast, which is now completely dedicated to the arts. I wrote in the beginning of this diary how power seems to have a preference for large empty spaces. Also art, at least in its contemporary incarnation, has the potential for megalomania. So these huge, abandoned factory halls have been transformed into amazing art galleries in which both the quantity and quality of the artwork is overwhelming.
While any form and any aesthetic practised by Western artists also has a Chinese counterpart, they also have their own subjects and forms that are very much unique to them:
- The passion for the written word and calligraphy;
- The integration of their religious and philosophical beliefs, especially the notion of chi (energy);
- The recycling of the communist symbols and graphics (as in Eastern Europe);
Both their craft, especially in painting, and their understanding of the contemporary forms of expressions are superb!
I started with, as an introduction, the overview of the Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art in the UCCA Gallery, which is owned by Belgian collectors. The Belgian were among the first to give Chinese artists an international window. I will show you the catalogue when I am back in Montréal, but I will mention just some of the artists that I really liked, and titles of their work,
- Chen Zhen Chi in Motion
- Xu Bing A Book from the Sky
- Wang Yi Wall of the Saints
- Yang Jichung Layers of Ink
Later I ventured into at least 10 other galleries; many of which were also presenting international artists. I saw the work of Greek and a Brazilian video-artist whose nature-video-installations you would have loved.
At the beginning of the week, the weather changed. It is colder, greyer and has started to snow. By Montréal standards there is very little snow and I have been told it only lasts for a couple of weeks, but with the change of climate our desire to go out, to explore, diminishes.
Almost the whole week, my walks have been reduced to the short distance from the hotel to the studio where we rehearse. This is partly due of the weather, but also because we are at the decisive phase of the work, which demands more of my presence.
Often, when I am working on a project, especially during a residence abroad, I develop a temporal routine. In this case it involves getting up early, having breakfast and then moving to the central lounge of the hotel to have a coffee, while reading, writing or reflecting, and waiting for Akram to join me for our morning discussion about the work. Together we evaluate the previous day and plan for the current one. Then I walk to the studio and, while it is still morning, do any necessary work on the computer, before joining the rehearsals. I have lunch in the canteen of the National Ballet and spend the afternoon watching rehearsals and assisting with finding the right structure and transitions etc. Finally, at the end of the day I return to the hotel and go to bed early…
The older I get, the more I am susceptible to the rhythms of the seasons and the rhythms of day and night. When it gets dark in winter, I like to go to bed as well. My body is going, again, through important transitions and I need to follow them, slowly changing my habits, my nutrition… But my body is also often affected by the rhythms of others, especially in highly energetically charged processes such as the creative process we are currently involved in.
I have begun to read the Wilhelm Lectures on the I Ching, The Book of Changes. I think you will like this quote:
“It is important to point out that the oracle of the Book of Changes uses as its key the forms of vegetable rather than animal life.”
From the Wilhelm Lectures.
It is Wednesday today. On Friday we premiere and on Monday I fly back to Brussels. The last days of rehearsals have not been easy. We had to send one of the dancers home to Taiwan because she had a nervous breakdown and had completely isolated herself. She had, amongst other things, the final solo of the piece and so it was quite difficult for Akram to let her, and what she brought to the work, go. We have been researching how to rework the piece without her and this has been a bit of a struggle.
At the same time, in my mind, I am already preparing myself to leave and to let go of this group with whom I have spent an intimate three months. If I wait until the premiere to prepare myself for the separation, it will be too sudden and too hard. So, when the work allows for it, I am already beginning to take some distance. I am preparing myself to go ‘home’ (that is, my Belgian home). I am looking for gifts for people and thinking about practical things such as how much luggage I can take with me and whether the remaining money I have will be sufficient.
Although I still haven’t visited the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, I no longer feel a need to look for landmarks. Instead when I leave the hotel in the morning after my morning chat with Akram, I take a taxi to a particular destination, where I look for gifts to take home and walk the neighbourhood. Sometimes I revisit places I have already seen and new places are continually discovered. I am, at random, expanding my knowledge and orientation of this city and storing my memory of it.
I have continued to read the Wilhelm Lectures on the I Ching. Written by a father (in the 1920’s) and his son (in the early 1940’s), these lectures are some of the most comprehensive insights of this old Chinese system of reading the world. It is fascinating to see how the I Ching is a very organic, nature inspired system and yet the same time uses very formal, mathematical principles.
- Ch’ien/Heaven The creative time
- K’un/Earth The receptive space
This will be the last entry in this diary. We premiered bahok, and tomorrow most of us will travel `home`. Time passed quickly here and the experience has been wonderfully inspiring: to discover the similarities behind the differences and the differences in the similarities, and to have walked this city from east to west and from north to south. Yesterday I went back to Dahanzani 798, the arts district, mainly to visit the installation of Pistoletto, the Italian Arte Povera artist and to walk his labyrinth: a waving sea of board carton, leading to a centre, a white cube filled with mirrors– a white cube with inside only mirrors, reflecting oneself. The simplicity of his concept reveals its essence.
In the past when I discovered a city like this one, I would often return in order to renew the experience, to relive the first imprint. So I will propose to revisit Beijing with Repeating Distance, to come back here, to walk again the four directions, and to be more actively engaged with the city and its people.
I enjoyed writing to you. I write better if I know there is someone on the receiving end of it. I am looking forward to find your mail when I am back in Antwerp and to discover how you lived your winter revisiting the woods. In three weeks time, we will see each other again in Montréal.
Winter moving into spring 2008 (Montréal)
I have felt very restless this past week. A good day, feeling centered and creative, was followed by a bad day, where I had very little energy. I remember from the past years that the beginning of spring always triggers these mood changes. As if the new life that is awakening again, needs to go through a mourning process first. I don’t know whether it is my imagination, but a city like Montréal, especially at the end of such a fierce winter seems to reinforce this. So I have been questioning again my future in this place. I am curious how you are experiencing ‘the moods of nature awakening’, being in the middle of it? Probably it is much saner there in the woods, than it is here.
I finished reading Ellen McCoy’s book, The Anthropology of Turquoise. It is full of beautiful reflections on place, color, plants and animals. If you like, I will lend you the book on your return. But for the time being, I will share some phrases with you just to give you a taste of it!
“The true heart of a place does not come in a week’s vacation. To know it well, as Mary Austin wrote, one must ‘wait its occasions’ – follow full seasons and cycles, a retreating snow pack, a six year draught, a ponderosa pine eating up a porch.”
- Ellen McCoy
I wish you a lot of ‘wonderful occasions’ during your retreat up North and I am looking forward to receiving your letter.
Winter moving into spring 2008 (La Macaza, Québec)
I have decided, this time, to begin my communication with you earlier in my stay. As you know, I usually wait until nearer the end of my time here to reflect on what has happened. But, the diary you kept inspires me and, though I have been here only five days now, I plan to begin to put words down as a way of more directly sharing my experiences with you as they occur.
I have had time, while here, to read your ‘little book’ (the diary you kept in Beijing). I am not finished yet but I have so enjoyed the unfolding of your impressions and the insight into your daily walks and encounters… how we bring ourselves to a place and how a place presents itself to us. The sense of ‘anonymity’ (although you don’t use this word) reminds me of my time in Japan, and a feeling of being so obvious in my difference, yet insignificant in my not belonging. An interesting thing to experience, something so many people from other cultures feel all the time when they travel to or chose to live in the West.
As I said, I have been here now five days. It is very intense up here at the moment. There is still about five feet of snow and I had to have assistance just getting into the cabin. It was partially buried! Some of my things were brought in a ski-do, and the rest I carried up the long road with a sled. I even brought my cat! She is happy to be here, but the road up was a trial. I have gotten used to some of the aspects of being here now. I am much better at tending the fire and daily melting snow for wash water. I must also bring in new wood to keep the supply up. I am happy in these chores and they help ground me to the here and now. Everything is more challenging. What was it like for the first settlers?
I admit to having had trouble leaving the city this time. I realized what kind of a state of readiness these retreats require, a kind of willingness and energy that daily city life does not demand, especially when the climate and conditions are more challenging. But as always, I am more than happy to have arrived.
I have been able to get around with snowshoes but yesterday we had a day of rain and mild weather, just enough to soften the snow, so walking was almost impossible. Every fourth step my snowshoe would fall through and I would be up to my thighs in wetness. Each day offers up many shifts in the weather and a part of me is simply witnessing the constant change. I have remarked on what an in-between time it is, neither real winter, nor real spring…liminal- time of mediation between these two seasons. I feel privileged to be here in the transition, though I am longing for full on spring!
The solitude and isolation are always such a part of these times in the woods. Chosen, yes, but not always easy and then quite unexpectedly full of richness and possibility. It is the human encounter with natural spaces that interests me and I suppose, I am the human encountering. It is always also a deep encounter with myself. The personal is always present, though I make a point of reading about other people’s experiences and this inspires me. I borrowed Lin’s copy of the Anthropology of Turquoise before I left. Interesting to think that we might now, this very moment, be reading the same book. I love her writing, its humor and insight. It is a great companion right now.
My travels are limited as the snow is not hard enough to really get around, so I keep to the track that the ski-do created. Yesterday I walked down the hill to my car and drove to the river (La Rivière Rouge). This is one of my favorite places up here and I always feel better when I visit it. There are places where she is calm and flowing and others where she is extremely tumultuous. I like both. Being in front of both allows more of the flow inside me.
My reading is scattered. I think I am looking at five books right now. One is about the poet/philosopher Goethe and his ‘way of seeing’. When it isn’t too heavy on the references to philosophers I am not familiar with, it is enjoyable and provoking. It looks at different modes of consciousness and intuitive perception rather than the analytical aspect of the intellect. This inspired me to look at some of my images and to blur the action to the point where it is only possible to get a general sense of what is happening– blurring the divisions between bodies, between bodies and objects, creating ambiguity, unity, suggestion.
I am also reading a book on site-specific art, and beginning (or continuing) to think of spaces, of locations for my work. I am imagining a piece that occurs in several locations (maybe connected, maybe not) and that the public has to travel to see each (on the same day or different days). I would want the ‘moving about the city’ to be as important as ‘the work’. My hope would be that ‘the work’ would offer ways of seeing, perceiving, and being that would then inspire, affect, influence the transitional, traveling spaces in-between. I am already concerned about budget. How will I do everything?
Today I started gathering beech leaves. These are the leaves that stay on the tree all through winter and get whiter and whiter. I see them like ghosts or memories or phantoms. I don’t know how they could be used, but for now I collect them because they are beautiful and both fragile and durable. Looking out the cabin window, it is snowing quite hard and I am wondering if we will ever see green grass and flowers again? I am concerned for the deer, which have trouble in the deep snow and the bears, which may soon be ready to wake up.
I try to stay open and receptive for things to happen and to know when to pursue something. I guess I just keep practicing the same thing: listening, allowing attention, trust.
Saturday: it was a gloriously warm day today, a real spring day. I was up early and spent most of the morning and afternoon outdoors. I have gone off the ski-doo trail. I sink in the snow a lot, so it is slow going. But I have no destination and nowhere really to go.
I begin in the circle (an area of land that has been cleared), where I can find more of a sense of open sky. I have been struggling lately with, well, with myself. This happens sometimes when I spend time alone in the woods – not always, but often – it’s like whatever I need to look at, will appear. When I stop wishing certain thoughts would just go away, I can stop and am more quiet with myself, it can actually be a very transformative time. So, I begin my day with this. I lie on my blue sled and look into the blue sky. Then I decide to go into the woods. I bring my sled/bed along, up the hill and along the stream (which is active now!). I lie down with a feeling of despair that, here I am in such a glorious place on such a beautiful day, and I can’t be fully present to it. I feel my struggle. I let it be without any judgment and again I lie down. I think to the bottom of some of my feelings (or feel to the bottom of my some of my thoughts), searching for some understanding and relief – and I sense it coming (the relief).
When I open my eyes, I am met with such a site! I had been seeing this all morning, as it is everywhere in this part of the forest, but now I am hit by it so immediately, so powerfully. The beech tree overhead, still holding many dried and white leaves, stands tall against the blue, blue sky. The leaves are luminous, are light. The tree is not a tree but a presence. The light, the luminosity fills me, soothes me, and shifts me. All I can say is that it felt like love.
I spent the rest of the day gathering these white, luminous leaves. I had started doing this the day before, picking off the ground those that had fallen and been caught in my footprints. Now I walked directly to the trees and carefully, one by one, began gathering. I don’t know how many hours I spent doing this, but it was the only thing I felt to do and I am certain to continue tomorrow. As I probably already mentioned, I have also been gathering beech branches that have fallen in the woods, dragging them back to the tent and removing most of their leaves. But these, because the leaves did not follow their natural course, are darker brown than those still on the trees. So, this is what I am doing, gently picking leaves off trees, touched by the beauty and singularity of each, and grateful for the task. I don’t know where this will lead, but I feel that these delicate leaves will be part of a complimentary piece to the solo that I am making for Marc, in which I am using the long branches and darker leaves. For now, I imagine an intimate, subtle piece, the public as close as possible, to experience the beauty and the light.
I got your letter. It is so nice to have correspondence up here! I found it interesting how you speak of mourning and how it may be a necessary part of the life awakening. I don’t know, but for me, the incongruity I have felt between my inside experience and the awakening of spring around me has triggered an important time of reflection, which began in despair and is now moving closer to insight. Something new is awakening – inside me and around me. I am not sure how it will manifest.
I hope you are less restless and finding the pleasure of the season.
Spring 2008 (La Minerve, Des Laurentides, Québec)
“Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual”
I like this image because you can see the Beech trees shining through the forest. There is still much snow, though none in the branches.
See you soon again,
End of summer 2008 (Back in the city)
It is a rainy Sunday in Montréal – a perfect day for writing. I just spoke briefly with Lin. We will meet for coffee later, but her voice seemed fresh and bubbly after her travels. I look forward to hearing from each of you about your journeys.
My trip to Nova Scotia was lovely, lots of visiting, ocean space, good food and wine: a real holiday. I began my time there with the idea that I would combine work and play, approaching it as a sort of ‘residency’. I did do this for the first few days, but then I realized that I needed a holiday – a true break. So I let all that go and just rested. It was a very good decision! When I returned I felt refreshed and energized.
I admit having some moments (days, really) where I feel overwhelmed by the scope of this next project. I have begun to look for locations and since coming home, I check out at least one place a day. Last week, I came close to deciding to postpone the project until 2010. My reasons were multiple, but basically my search for the spaces led me to realize that this aspect of the research is just as involved as the dance and the images. It seems obvious that the context would require the same concern as the content, but until I really threw myself into the process of looking for spaces, I hadn’t realized this.
I have also come to understand that the whole event will require a kind of ‘meta-structure’ that can hold the year of presentations together. This has been a really exciting part of my reflection. Up until this point, I had ideas for almost every part of the year: images, scenes, and experiences that came to me while I was on the land, and I trusted that these would string together throughout the months of the year. Now I am seeing that there is so much more to consider. I have returned, quite simply to the cycle of the seasons to guide my thinking.
I see the larger theme that will unfold over the course of the year, moving from a shadowy, timeless more interior stillness, to awakenings, stirrings, a coming into form and a reaching of dynamic expression. The cycle of birth, life and death: a flourishing of abundance, a peak of activity before lapsing back…. How this will translate is beginning to become clearer, and this clarity is helping me understand the types of spaces I will need for each part of the series. I am realizing that there is a kind of development needed, not only through the presence of the performing body, but of the audience’s relationship to that body.
These are some of my thoughts:
That we begin in winter’s shadow, in black and white, at a distance. The body is both present and absent, seen only as an image, unclear, deeply away. Then, although still an image, we begin to move out of the shadow into flesh, and to come closer to the public. Now we are ‘live’ (no longer image) though still moving from shadow to flesh, and perhaps the audience must move to several locations, becoming more mobile as the winter recedes. Up until this point I imagine that the object (the permanent installation) is seen indoors. Perhaps at the very beginning the public is also indoors, then outdoors, then moving from one place to another.
With spring, the live performance goes outside. Maybe the public is first inside, and then goes outside to join the dancer(s). I am not sure how the logic continues. I am still discovering this, but I know there will be an increasing intimacy between the performers and public as if something is approaching and later receding. Maybe the performer stays quite physically present to the public, but his or her actions speak about the return. The audience is privy to this kind of descent inwards (sleeping, dying, dreaming). I am thinking here of Lin’s dream space and Marc’s solo with the dead leaves. So the return is present, is visible, is visceral.
For now, I am again trusting that it can all begin in January 09. My biggest challenge is still finding the spaces, but with the overall structure much more clear in my mind, this may quite quickly come together. I am hopeful. I begin a two-week residency, early September, and continue every day to scout for homes for my ideas.
I head to New York tomorrow to see the venue where a small festival will be showing an excerpt of Life-World next year. I am not super keen about traveling right now. I prefer to stay close to my project, but I may be inspired (probably!).
I hope that this letter finds you well. Lin spoke of the kinds of teaching situations you have been in. It all seems very rich. Europe appears to be much more advanced in terms of creating interesting contexts for gathering, exploring, researching, and questioning. She mentioned you were off to London to work on the Juliette Binoche project. That must be interesting!
It would be great to hear from you when you have a chance. I will keep you posted about my location adventures. I know that there is a simplicity I am seeking and I trust I will find it. I am hoping to enjoy the process in the meantime. Now that I know more about the intention of the work, it will be easier.
Almost autumn again, 2008 (London)
Sorry it took some time to reply to you. I was in Antwerp when I got your letter about the search for locations. This summer has been a very unstable period for me with a lot of severe ups and downs energetically. I find I am never sure how much of it is the present and how much is the past, or how much comes from inside me and how much I pick up from others, the environment, the weather… which has been pretty depressing the whole month of August – more like autumn than summer.
Anyway, I (re)discovered that when I am feeling down, reading is always a great comfort to me. So, in between working sessions on the Akram Khan/Juliette Binoche project, (which isn’t giving me a lot of satisfaction – too many compromises, too many distractive voices involved), I have been reading a lot.
Yesterday and today, I have been reading Richard Schechner’s The Future of Ritual and there is a lot of stuff you would find interesting. It describes, amongst others things, theatre rituals in India and among the Yaqui in Arizona. In both cases, the idea of a journey through space, the traveling of both performers and spectators, and the waiting time in between episodes of the epic, are essential components of the experience.
about the Ramilla of Ramnayar:
“This ‘going’ along with the performance is built into the mise-en-scene. If movement itself were not so important, the Ramilla could easily be structured in a more theatrically conventional way to reduce or eliminate spectator movement. But the creators of it intended it to be a kind of processional pilgrimage. Spectators move through various terrains – city, village, farm, field, forest.”
- Richard Schechner
At Ramnayar a simultaneous double transformation of place – from city to theatre and from theatre to mythic geography – occurs.”
- Richard Schechner
And about the Wachma of the Yaqui:
“Wachma’s underlying rhythm is of long hours, or even days, when time is gathered in, what an outsider might experience as waiting, punctuated by short bursts of intense activity. (…) Wachma can be thought of as a river – now flowing slowly, folding back on itself, now rushing along wildly – carrying a long its uneven yet extremely powerful current many different kind of events.”
- Richard Schechner
My work in London is almost finished and I have already started a new project with Les Ballets C de la B in Belgium. However, what I am most looking forward to is some time for myself to invest in my writing. It will be a challenge to keep this time free from other engagements.
I will be in Montréal from October 3rd till 17th and it will be great to catch up and maybe start editing some of our correspondence.
PS: My mood improved over the last couple of days. I think I really am an autumn and winter person.