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As our rock comes to rest…

Almost a week on from our performance, I am finally beginning to feel the haze of effort lift from both my body and mind. Performing, for me, often leaves such haunting traces, traces in which the performance still in some way inhabits us and refuses to let go. These are embodied traces, in which — through a shared experience — our bodies are actively transformed, as the result of doing and witnessing merge into our corporeal schema and become an innate part of our being. Leylines was for me a deeply personal performance, demonstrating a working through of certain recurrent issues in my recent work that I am as yet unable to fully grasp. It is often stated that artists keep re-making the same piece in different ways throughout their lifetime – and this has certainly been the case for the first ten years of my practice, which were almost exclusively centered on pianos. The beginning of this year marked a new phase through a collaboration with sound-artist Ross Whyte for a piece entitled Earth Sounds for dancer and amplified soil. In this performance, the themes of rebirth, death and struggle — as well as of slowness — came to the fore as qualities I was grappling with choreographically. Often this grappling is tied to a deeper reason, one which the artist is not able to fully identify and one that will keep re-emerging until whatever the question is that is being asked has been fully answered.

During our post-performance talk many highlighted the theme of birthing — as well as that of slowness, repetition and effort — themes that in Leylines became the bedrock for a performance that was also tacitly centered upon the relationship between the old and the new. Our constructed pathway, delineating materials from seaweed to slate and gravel, seemed to inaugurate a passageway from the archaic to the industrial, which was framed by the frequent interruption of every day sound into an otherwise gradually evolving landscape of humming and drones by sound-artist Suk-Jun Kim. Among the comments made after the performance was a tribute to zen, and the nature of stillness within chaos that is often so hard to find within a city of blaring traffic, rhythmic footsteps and faint electronic hums. So it was that the performance produced a relationship between sound and movement that was somewhat contradictory, the intense and often dramatically diverse sound material working in contrast to the slow, repetitive and often arduous movement on stage.

There is certainly an argument to make Leylines a durational piece, with all the sense of its protracted and repetitive action – yet, to do this would I think give our audience an easy route out. Duration, by its very definition, is about endurance — and perhaps it is unfortunate that the fashion in which durational performance has evolved is one in which the audience can come and go as they please, thereby missing the effect that experiencing the full progression of a piece can elicit. This has to do with an audience being willing to work through moments of dis-attention and discomfort. And while as individuals we may not actively choose to participate as witnesses to a performance that is inherently challenging, sometimes these are the performances that in the long run still have us thinking about them weeks or even months later.

Framing Leylines as a dance piece rather than as an installation or piece of performance art is therefore something that I have yet to decide. On the one hand, the action on stage is derived from dance forms such as Butoh and Contact Improvisation — two disciplines that I think deserve much more attention in the commercial arena. These are forms that subvert our expectation of what dance is and who should be doing the dancing. On the other hand, the qualities and the concepts preserved in Leylines are more typical of what one would find in an art gallery than on a public stage, and, as such, could be enacted in a more loose fashion, outside the theatre within a natural landscape, or as a piece of physical art into which one strays and ponders for as long or as little as one wants. Indeed, the place where dance and performance converge is often where we stumble across terms like live art and art action; terms that to the general public may have a different connotation — and indeed, expectation — about what it is they are about to see.

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Imogene Newland, Leylines project, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 21 October 2016, DanceLive and Sound Festivals. Photograph by Sid Scott/seeimaginedefine for DanceLive16 (www.seeimaginedefine.com)

Coming away from our performance, I felt myself returning to all the originating premises of working when I began to evolve my practice fifteen years ago – the sense of wanting to create a challenging environment, moving away from ‘spoon feeding’ audiences by filling their senses with something that was complete, polished and understandable. The work I have enjoyed seeing, and that has left a lasting impression on me over the years, is work that does not provide clear answers, but rather leaves one wondering. I refer to works such as the films of Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, and to a lesser extent work coming out of French New Wave cinema (Michael Haneke, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and Leo Carax) as well as the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. In Five, a series of five short films, Kiarostami provides static shots that evolve extremely slowly, preserving a temporality that we rarely encounter in modern day living. In one such film, the framing of a beach scene provides the backdrop of a bare and hazy line between sea and sky, which in turn depicts distant moving figures, eerily redistributing themselves in a series of minimal but highly intriguing arrangements. The observer cannot decipher what these moving beings are — humans, dogs or birds — since the perception of distance is left unresolved by the absence of a referent. In watching such films, one faces the challenge of having to maintain the attention to a framework that habitually does the complete opposite — bombarding us with umpteen frames per second and smearing the screen with more than most brains can imaginably process. By contrast, Kiarostami’s work invites us into a meditation, one not only of trained observation, but also of self-reflection as we witness our own responses to what we see before us.

When interviewed about Five, Kiarostami memorably talks about his process by describing how he set up his video camera and promptly fell asleep. The emergence of the figures in the distance were therefore created in the film purely by chance. This is an element that seems important to Kiarostami in another of the five shorts where a piece of wood is left to drift in the sea and is eventually split into two by the force of the tide. He describes how the wood-splitting could have been orchestrated for a precise moment, using explosives. For Kiarostami, however, the process was more poetic by awaiting a response from his collaborators ‘the wind and the sea’. In Leylines it was thus not only the sense of a slow progression to our performance that was important, but also maintaining such elements of chance. The movement, being almost entirely improvised, meant that moments occur that are unexpected for the performer, bringing to the material a freshness, and dare I say realness, that could not I think be achieved in an extensively rehearsed piece. Such moments in our performance occurred, for example, when I strained to resist the weight of the rock as I lifted it over a two inch lip — the first time it caused me to unexpectedly vocalise as the weight of the rock became too much and it yielded to gravity — the second in which I myself yielded to gravity from the final effort of meeting the rock with its resting place.

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Imogene Newland, Leylines, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 21 October 2016, DanceLive and Sound Festivals. Photograph by Sid Scott/seeimaginedefine for DanceLive16 (www.seeimaginedefine.com)

Yet, in Leylines it is not just the sense of endurance for an audience — as they realise that there is a long pathway full of dead ends to transverse and it is all happening rather slowly — but it is also the sense of effort invested in moving the rock itself. I recall here choreographer and dance theorist Emylin Claid’s writing on illusion in dance, in which she describes how effort is habitually concealed during ballet performance so that the observer is constantly in search of a ‘real’ (i.e. non-illusory) body that is hidden from view. To do the antithesis in dance — to deliberately choose to manifest effort —  is difficult territory in which, if we are not careful, we can easily fall into fakery, mime and hamming. So in wishing to manifest effort in Leylines we were careful to choose an action that was impossible to ham – the effort of moving the rock was genuinely difficult and, rather than choosing to hide this quality of effort, we chose to frame it as a central premise of the work. This, perhaps more so than the sense of duration, was uncomfortable for the audience as, in all performance, we have a certain sense of going through something together — with all the physical empathy that this can evoke. The spectator struggles to hold their attention to an object that is interesting enough to engage with in moments but is difficult to sustain. However, through this process they experience a very real identification with the body of the performer, whose physically exhausting act triggers an empathetic pathway in their bodies as if they were executing the act themselves (Reynolds & Reason, 2012). This sense of identification frames Leylines as a performance that is as much about the spectator as it is about the performers as well as by presenting the observer with their own critical self-reflection as an object of performance.

The action of moving a heavy rock at a more or less constant speed is in itself limiting. One cannot do much in the way of dynamic movement — or indeed convey much contact with the environment outside of the physical objective of moving the rock — to diversify the watching experience. I feel quite strongly than any attempt to diversify the movement material in this way would have resulted in something that was false: we were clear from the outset that all movement should be directly derived from the act of moving the rock itself and in fact my wish was that the rock, rather than the performer, should become the focus of the piece. Through the act of moving, the rock begins to take on a life of its own: by the end of the performance, the body of the performer is no longer moving the rock but has rather become an accessory to it, following it, as if it had somehow acquired its own volition. So it was that the performance in fact became about this transforming relationship between body and rock, as well as between the old and the new, the archaic and the industrial, the static and the fluid. This was not a performance of enacting, but a performance of doing, a performance of reflection rather than a performance of predetermined thought. In this sense, the legacy of Leylines is an embodied one, not only for those who executed the performance itself, but also for all those who entered into a kinaesthetic dialogue with an as yet unfinished process of empathetic observation, physiological endurance and self-reflection.

— Imogene Newland

Bibliography

Claid, Emilyn (2006) Yes? No! Maybe … Seductive Ambiguity in Dance (London: Routledge)

Reynolds, Dee & Reason, Matthew (2012) Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices (Chicago, IL: Intellect Ltd.)

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Choreographic Process

I am not the first to shy away from hard physical work, but I have to say that working with a heavy piece of granite on a daily basis for the Leylines project has been pretty tough stamina-wise. Though our rock may not look big, the effort required to move it slowly and in a controlled manner is demanding. Not only this, but it also requires a special kind of attention — one that needs practice, something like a meditation. There have been a number of issues to tackle when working choreographically with a heavy spherical object, not least of which is preventing it rolling away and taking off on a course of its own choosing. Our decision to have a rock with a ‘punched finish’ — a rough, uneven surface that creates a dappled appearance — means that when moving the rock slowly there will be both points of inertia and points of almost unavoidable momentum. The body is put into the position of a push-pull scenario where for several seconds one is struggling to get the rock to move forwards, only then to discover a moment in which one must prevent the weight of the rock from moving forwards too fast. The punched finish thus results in a series of small craters in the surface of the rock, so that towards the apex of each dimple the rock resists motion while moving out of the crux of each indentation causes the rock to suddenly lurch forward. And so it is that I have spent many a rainy hour trying to smooth out this process as much as possible, giving my full intent to keeping the bolder in perpetual motion.

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Beginning rehearsal for the Leylines project. Photograph by Jen Clarke.

The idea of perpetual motion in this case is actually stolen from music – the moto perpetuo character of a repeated line, or ostinato, for example, being used as a compositional device to drive forwards a piece of music and give it an unabating energy. And as I began to experiment with our rock I faced a conundrum: was it my body that was in perpetual motion or the rock? I wanted to be able to do both, somewhat awkwardly raising one leg in slow motion in a squat position at the same time as continuing to roll the rock forwards at the same speed, for example. And perhaps in moments this is possible, but in many other instances, it transpired to be an either / or. Turning points in this regard prove pleasing both in terms of body and rock motion, made simple by the act of rotating the rock on the spot. This is of course not the only consideration in our moving of this object either — for it is the sounds that the rock will create against a plethora of materials — from seaweed through gravel to corrugated tin roofing — that will also generate the atmosphere for our performance. This is a relationship between sound and movement that is symbiotic, where the sonorities produced through physical actions and materials meet and combine to feedback into the movement, generating a complete cycle, or miniature ecosystem, of performance elements. Perhaps to a lesser extent all performance in some regard feeds off a similar kind of system, in which elements become part of a larger whole that are both individually and collectively indispensable and at the same time mutually interdependent.

In Leylines we consider my engagement with our rock to be more art action than as a pre-planned or rehearsed piece of choreography. Due to the logistics of rehearsal space, materials and so on, there are certain aspects that are not possible to try out before the performance. Materials such as seaweed can only be squashed once! Since the set building will take place at the Lemon Tree in the two days run up to the event itself, the exact route that I will take through this series of constructed pathways may remain open. Indeed, it could be taken as in character of our concept — as well as the nature of experimentalism in general — that certain decisions are left open, the task of the performer being to negotiate and problem-solve in real time. And problem-solving has been at the fore of my rehearsal process: faced with the exercise of keeping the rock in motion, I find myself in situations where I wonder how it is possible to get out of the position I arrive at, quite often by surprise, as if something other than my body is leading me. At the core of this exercise has been an embodied recall from contact improvisation — a dance form founded by Steve Paxton in the 1970s based on the idea of resistance, yield, and momentum. Having stumbled across CI by accident as a music student in 2002, I have since become an avid fan of ‘jamming’ – open sessions where fellow dancers meet to improvise together initiated entirely through a point of contact. Thus it was that the point of physical contact between myself and the rock became a central premise to our Leylines performance.

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Moments of rolling contact, Leylines project. Photograph by Jen Clarke.

Yet, to say that CI is my one and only emergent influence when working with our rock would be false – especially when considering the defining characteristic of CI: momentum. Here, I am at all times resisting a momentum, never quite actually in state of yield, always in a point of negotiation and often in a moment of surprise. By bringing down the tempo of movement to barely perceptible, one is able to maintain the greatest sense of control out of the most unpredictable of situations. And it is the slow motion character of Leylines that will I think make it the most challenging but also the most thought-provoking to watch, as we attempt as performers to stretch the temporal plain into a realm that most of us don’t enter very often. This is a realm, as Walter Benjamin describes, of ‘unconscious optics’: an opportunity to see movements that we take for granted — such as the act of standing up — being slowed down so as to become wholly alien. In this situation, unlike the photograph to which Benjamin referred, we cannot resist gravity: we are rather in a constant state of balance between ebb and flow, give and take, expand and contract. This is a practice of the liminal then, an inbetweenness of not only time, but also of physicality.

I cannot complete my post without giving Butoh a mention, if only in passing. I have not trained much in Butoh, and I cannot by any means claim to be a practitioner, but I have watched and studied Butoh for several years and the slow motion aesthetic used in Leylines is in part borne out of this observation. Some months ago I was lucky enough to co-lead a workshop on slowness with legendary Butoh practitioner Marie-Gabrielle Rotie, in which she introduced some textural choreographic scores by Hijikata Tatsumi. The scores were created as part of Hijikata’s Butoh-Fu, words used to inspire the dancer during movement improvisation. For the dancer interested in improvisation this way of working is a unique opportunity to delve deeper into one’s sense of bodily being:

A person is buried in a wall.

S/he becomes an insect.

The internal organs are parched and dry.

The insect is dancing on a thin sheet of paper.

The insect tries to hold falling particles from its own body,

And dances, making rustling noises.

The insect becomes a person, who is wandering around,

So fragile, s/he could crumble at the slightest touch. (Fraleigh, 2006: 135)

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Post-rehearsal conversation, Leylines project. Photograph by Jen Clarke.

Developing my own textual cues in this way has helped to develop the movement material for the Leylines performance by focusing my attention more fully upon particular qualities – especially during moments of stillness, where I wanted to evoke a certain emotional presence. This is not an emotion that is actively felt, but rather an act of creative imagination in which the performer enters into a poetic internal dialogue in order to nourish the external images that they wish to convey. I am as such working with certain moments of textual influence, including the opening sequence in which the practice of circling a mark stone during funerary processions — a purpose for which ley lines were purportedly used — is augmented by a gradual lifting of the gaze and magnification of performing presence. It has thus been as much an experiential exercise in working with our rock as it has been a technical one — and I must confess to being less interested in technique than in experiences here. It was not my purpose to train to such an extent that I was completely able to move this rock — for me, the moments of interest arise during performance when the performer works at a the point of a specific limitation, rather than when a movement is executed effortlessly. This is not for the purpose of creating drama but rather to maintain a sense of human irrevocability — the sense of being on a journey and that journey always being more than that which is within our capability. In this sense it will be the emergence of frailty from moments of exertion, and the struggle to resist inertia throughout this process, that will help to define our performance.

— Imogene Newland

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London: Penguin).

Fraleigh, S. & Nakamura, T. (2006) Hijikata Tatsumi and Kazuo Ohno (New York: Routledge).

Lines and Slowness (and Boredom): Composing Leylines with a Different Set of Mind — Part 1

The ideas of Leylines, a collaborative project between me and Imogene Newland (choreographer and movement artist), had in fact started a long time ago. Having become increasingly dissatisfied with the ways in which I compose or approach sounds in general, I have been imagining and attempting various schemes of making and exploring sounds. The more I think about these schemes or strategies, the more it became clear that they (which you can also call processes) are manifestations of three fundamental, and intrinsically connected questions, which continued to be asked while composing Leylines. However it may be experienced by others, therefore, Leylines, for me, is a project of searching out the potential and implications of these three conundrums of mine:

Question 1: how much do I need in order to call something a piece of sound work?

A few years ago, I was explaining to a small group of people what composing may entail. In the midst of entertaining various possible answers, something occurred to me that I felt was akin to the ways I composed. I then told composing was like playing Jenga where the goal of the game is to remove one block at a time until the whole structure loses its integrity and collapses. And I supposed that the goal of composing, thus, would be to find the moment just before the work disintegrates.

jenga

My explanation at the time was on a whim, but I thought there was some truth in it. I was perhaps indulged in the poetic beauty of the equilibrium in musical work between what would make and what would break it. And the precarious activities of a composer invested in such a balancing act on a tightrope seemed surely to bear it out.

This, however, is rather a strange idea if viewed from the perspective of the established, and at least Western, musical practice, which considers a piece of musical work ‘a constructed artefact’ (Goehr 1992). Based on this conception, a piece of musical work is borne out of building blocks of elements to erect an architectural, formative entity; you’d not build it by taking things away.

In his book, Lines, however, Tim Ingold points out that a musical work being a constructed one actually is a rather modern concept:

‘So far the musical aspect is concerned, as Lydia Goehr has shown, the very idea of the work as a constructed artefact—with its connotations of monumentality and architectural form—has its roots in a conception of composition, performance and notation that emerged, around the close of the eighteenth century, alongside the separation of music as an autonomous fine art (Goehr 1992: 203). The actual work of music was understood to lie in the labour of performance, not of pre-composition. The idea that every performance should comply with detailed specifications, set out in advance in the notation, simply did not exist.’ (Ingold 2016: 13)

What would you do if there is no intention of pre-composing, no architectural pre-planning with regard to what to sound and when to sound? What would such a notion mean to you if you are a composer, bearing in mind especially that this will require a sort of commitment you would need to make continuously for it will challenge you in every aspect of you being a composer? And how would it condition your listening if you are an audience?

My immediate and naive answer to this question, when I raised it in my mind, was simply that I’d then issue a sound, and another and so on, in space. Before I think about anything, no burden to be had—no tightrope for sure—I would make noise and see what happens. And as an audience, I would start listening, giving equal and committed attention to each and all sounds issued to me, in space, and at the same time, I would listen to the space and its responses.

If you take my answer from another viewpoint, you will see two interesting attitudes toward sound, and composing for that matter. As soon as a sound is released, as soon as the performance of that sound starts, listening starts—strictly speaking, listening has already started even before the sound is heard for you are in the context in which there will be a performance, that is, there is someone doing something that would make some sounds.

Furthermore, the act of listening does not necessarily have to be that of construction, but rather of constitution. Telling a story of his student who had been blind, but was recently regain some slight through treatment, Ihde points out how her experience of the world is reconfigured for herself:

‘She noted that one quite detectable difference in her lived spatial organization when given sight was a gradual displacement of a previously more omnidirectional orientation and spatial awareness to a much more focused forward orientation. Although she noted that even when blind there was a slight “preference” for a forward directed awareness, this became much more pronounced with the gaining of vision.’ (Ihde 2007: 65)

Just as Ihde’s student’s vision was not the missing element that would make her world finally perfect—that would be a constructed world—but a difference in her lived spatial organisation against which she would have had to go through a series and range of reconfigurations that would make her spatial awareness more forward-directed, another sounds in a piece are not ‘sense-data’ which you’d need to establish a complete piece of work; they are differences in your auditory field that would make its reconfigurations possible. Thus, following Ihde’s thought, think now about the first sound you heard: that sound, by itself and in itself, is full and (more than) sufficient for you to start listening. You’d not really need another sound right at that moment. In other words, you do not really need the atomistic concept of elements which you’d need to construct a piece of work. Only one sound may be enough as it constitutes a piece as you listen, and the other sounds that may follow the first would not be absolutely necessary for the piece to stand, but they would help or impel you to reconstitute the piece. And perhaps being a composer means to condition the flow of these reconstitutions.

Taken together with the recognition that a piece of composition as a constructed artefact is a modern concept and that listening is an act of constitution and reconstitution, not of construction, I would like to return to the case of Jenga and reconsider what it really signifies. I now think that the erected pillar with wooden blocks was a false image, an analogy whose workings were clinging to the belief of gravity called construction or structure (and even form) that holds the blocks. In reality, I can take out any block at will, and whichever that stands (or lie on the side) will continue to stand, albeit reshuffled, which demonstrates how powerful the act of listening can be. Taking the argument further, we could completely abandon the image of Jenga for it was based on the assumption that we’d start with something that had already been assembled.

I said just before that conditioning or affecting the flow of the reconstitutions in listening might be the (perhaps only) role of a composer. Out of a few possible conditionings, Leylines focuses on slowness and boredom, at which my second question will be directed.

— Suk-Jun Kim

 

Bibliography

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Clarendon Press, 1992.

Ihde, Don. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. 2nd ed ed., Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Ingold, Tim. Lines: A Brief History (Routledge Classics). Routledge, 2016.

 

On Costume & Body Drawing

Working with the concept of ley lines for our performance project, we considered not only the external lines that visibly or invisibly cross the landscape, but also the internal lines of the body. In this sense, the body can be discovered as a map or network of arteries, veins and capillaries. These networks of viscera can be considered as a chain or rhizomatic course way connecting and nourishing the different tissues of the body, linking organs and sustaining communication between one major part of the corpus and another. These are lines, on a microcosmic level, that not only feed the body as it moves, acts and thinks, but are also passages that in their own way produce sound. It was John Cage who, early in the 1950s in his search for complete silence, entered an anechoic chamber only to be presented with the sounds of his own body — a notion that was to be a major influence in his later compositions. And though we may not actively feed off these sounds of the body during our Leylines performance, it is important that they are still there, in the distance, somewhat inaudible or perhaps unconsciously registered.

Drawing from this idea, we considered externalising the vessels of the body as part of our costume design. Rebecca Westguard, a lecturer at Gray’s School of Art and visual artist specialising in nudes, has developed a practice that engages with the perception of lines within the body. Her highly detailed drawings not only expose the many curvatures and muscular outlines of the human figure, but delve deeper into the realms of observation, tracing the pathways of nerves, veins, tendons, and even the subtle dappled textures that differences in circulation can produce on the skin. Through working with Rebecca, I became fascinated by her ability to perceive details in the body that I felt were impossible for an untrained observer to see; and it must have been only with skilled practice and an acute attention to detail that she has been able to produce such a comprehensive and honest view of the body.

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Nude Drawing, by Rebecca Westguard

For the Leylines performance, Rebecca will not be creating an image of my body on paper, but rather, drawing and painting directly onto the skin. The lines that she will create will be a mixture of detailed observation and anatomical externalisation, the nerve and vein pathways being the most visible and therefore most predominant of which to realise. As a perceptual exercise, being drawn upon has its own unique effect, bringing to my attention the interior of a body that is otherwise somewhat alien; a body of parts for which the only evidence I have is its external source as a reference point. I cannot see the inside of my body and in some way I cannot feel it either; the processes by which my body operates do so on an unconscious level and until now I have not practised an attention to its minute workings. Perhaps somewhat unintentionally, as I was drawn upon, my sense of energy in the now exposed parts of viscera became heightened — as the veins appeared above the surface of my skin, in all their depth and transparency, a ‘flow’ began to emerge; that was the sense of my blood flowing, brought to the surface by a visual evidence of their course. And as with all costume, there is also a certain sense of ritual —  for the body drawing itself will take approximately five hours, slowing down the senses in preparation for our performance. Not only this, but the costume itself produces a kind of ‘becoming’ a stepping away from our usual appearance and accompanying mannerisms: a invitation to transmute.

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Leylines Body Drawing, foot sample, by Rebecca Westguard

This invitation to transmute is as much in the body drawing aspect of our costume as it is in the material structures created for our Leylines performance. The addition of what has become affectionately known as the ‘armadillo’ — an origami cape conceived and made by Lisa Campbell Designs  — adds a further influence to the sense of movement and perceptual parameters of the body. Used in the opening for our performance, this origami cape will conceal the drawn and painted body, as well as our rock, encased within the confines of an alien architecture, like a dinosaur egg waiting to be hatched. Often in garment making we talk about a ‘line’ — most frequently referring to the seam of an item — that serves more of a decorative than practical purpose. Lines of course are prevalent in the art of paper folding — or origami — with different types of lines indicating whether a sheet is to be folded, cut, perforated or creased. In our performance, action origami (origami that has some element of movement, such as the flapping bird) is taken one step further by the addition of a moving body underneath the costume structure. And wearing the ‘armadillo’ cape feels more like a structure than a costume in every sense — it transports the body, allowing movements to enter a kind of prosthetic extension of folds and points, a mobile stellated rhombic dodecahedron. As with the body drawing element, when enclosed within the fabric of our armadillo, I felt the structure as an externalisation of internal lines, not now the veins, arteries and capillaries of my body, but as a representation of cartilage. This structure is like a brand new ossification, a formation that is still somewhat soft and malleable, like the bones of a newborn infant as they stretch and contract to meet the growing needs of their expanding form.

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Origami cape, Leylines project, courtesy of Lisa Campbell Designs

It is with these two elements together, alongside a more simple muslin body wrapping, that will transport us as performers and witnesses to an event that has something a little more than the archaic about it. It is not only the reptilian appearance of externlised veins and exoskeletal formations, but the softness and frailty of the body beneath — a body that struggles against the increasing demands and limitations of moving a heavy rock with an expanding sense of dis-ease. And perhaps there is something prehistoric about this vision and movement overall; the slowly evolving and repetitious lines of the body transmogrifying against the backdrop of an insistent and prolonged humming.

— Imogene Newland

Walking the Straight Old Track

Leylines are a series of straight tracks or pathways that crisscross the landscape, joining up natural features and ancient man made landmarks. The concept was originally written about in Alfred Watkins’ book The Straight Old Track in 1925. Watkins conducted extensive research into leylines in the UK, travelling many of these passageways alone and on foot. His method was to follow sight lines between various points of significance: long barrows (or burial mounds), earthworks, churches, castles, moats, ponds, lakelets, holy wells, beacon points, cross roads, hill peaks, stone circles and standing stones were all among the many elements that he would scan the landscape for. Standing at one point, he would look towards the next, examining the ground in between for remnants of a faint track. Often the track ways themselves had already marked the landscape, producing ‘notches’ in a hillside horizon, though in many cases the sites that Watkins discovered were as yet unmarked. He describes how the appearance of three scotch firs in a straggling line, or the ‘confirmation of a road with a footpath’ were often enough to indicate that a previous ley had existed there. Through his study, it was Watkins’ aim to gain a better understanding of the lives of the people dwelling in Britain before the construction of Roman Roads, a practice that he was to dedicate many years of his life to.

There are many such discoverable lines in the Aberdeen area, and, as is characteristic of ley lines, a brief glance at the map will reveal that most run from east to west in tandem with the rising and setting sun. Watkins suggests beginning with an Ordnance Survey map with a scale of one mile to the inch. The area of Scotland as a whole when divided into leys falls into a quasi pentagonal shape, demarcating a line from Mavishall to the now largely indiscernible Skelhmuir Hill Circle and Grey Stane of Cortricam in Ellon within the region of Aberdeenshire. Walking even a small part of such lines produces a re-evaluation about our relationship with the environment, inviting us to view the lay of land as something more than as a means to merely transport us between two places. This practice of walking slows down a way of life that otherwise threatens to disassociate us from the ground that sustains us, drawing us in not to the intractable glare of a relief which is overused and ill-replenished, but as a landscape that is abundant, durable and resilient.

In the 1970s, the concept of ley lines was re-appropriated by the New Age movement as a series of ‘energy’ lines with a special mystical significance. The convergence of these lines at places such as Glastonbury and Stonehenge draw many to their sites during the summer and winter solstices. Gatherers at Stonehenge witness the alignment of the sun within the direction of the many leys as well as witnessing the ‘solar corridor’ emerge as the sun appears behind the Heel Stone, illuminating the central platform of the site. Though speculatively this phenomenon has been linked with ancient astronomy, it is mainly of interest as a site of energetic significance and as a place of power. However, Watkins insisted on a more practical and even ceremonial purpose for the establishment of leys, not only throughout the UK, but also in many other archaically habituated sites around the world. Leys were not merely originated to get from point A to point B, but rather served specific functions such as for funerary rites. Death Roads — straight tracks formulating a path along which a corpse could be carried for burial — were therefore used within particular and highly structured rites that had a special significance for all those who walked them. These rites would be punctuated by the performance of certain customs; for example, the mourner would carry a pebble that would be added to a pile of previous mourners’ pebbles when they passed a particular spot. Similarly, stopping at a cross-roads to offer a prayer — a practice that is still used today — often occurred in tandem with the walking of leys, as did the circling or ‘bumping’ of mark stones before entering a church.

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Map detailing the convergence of leylines at Glastonbury, UK

The word ley itself is derived from the Old English word lǣge meaning fallow, relating to the usage of lǣghrycg, meaning ‘ridge left at the edge of a field’. The word was used quite closely associated with the words lea, lee and lay, which are used to describe a ‘tract of cultivated or uncultivated land’. The term is also connected to the word ‘lucus’ meaning ‘shine’, as in the Latin derivation of ‘lucus a non lucendo’ – literally ‘a grove of trees is light’. There is recurrent connection throughout history between the track and light (as is demonstrated, for example, on numerous occasions in the Old Testament), and indeed a single letter addition to the word ley, leye, means blaze. Watkins suggests that the straight character of the ley derived from the ‘lay’ of a gun in artillery in preparation for fire. The crossing of the threads in a loom are also known as a ‘ley’, where the ‘threads stretched for weaving are straight as a sighted track’ (160-61). Furthermore, the ending of -ley to many of our towns and cities throughout the UK draws an immediate correlation with the idea that leys traditionally ran through thoroughfares and market places, calling to the name ending of the track upon which they stood.

I originally discovered the concept of ley lines during a walk across Dartmoor at the turn of the millennium. Having been gifted Watkins’ book, two others and myself sought to discover our own ley line by laying a ruler across a map of the area and looking for particular features that lined up. Along the line we discovered a series of stone circles, standing stones, churches and natural features such as tors. We walked this line for three days, attempting not to deviate by more than three feet in any direction. Our walk, which ran through Kestor, Scorehill Stone Circle and Cosdon Beacon Circle, was a decisively meditative one. There was something strangely soothing about the act of following a simple line of direction where the sense of progress was always slow. Spotting our next distant point, we trained our eyes upon it, sensing as if almost a mysterious magnetic presence drawing us on.

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Scorehill Stone Circle, Dartmoor: Millenium Ley

Our performance research in Leylines builds upon a workshop I recently co-led with British Butoh practitioner Marie-Gabrielle Rotie at Citymoves Dance Agency, Aberdeen. Entitled Butoh and the Art of Slow, the workshop explored slowness, and in particular, actions derived from every day movement such a standing and lying over extended time frames of up to twenty minutes. In addition, Suk Jun-Kim’s recent research into Slow Soundwalk and Livecoding has formulated another relevant starting point for our research. In conducting this research we enter our second performance exploring the relationship between sound and movement, following our previous collaboration with Aberdeen-based dance artists for The Point is This. An emergent theme for my own work has also been the amplification and choreographic re-appropriation of objects, a theme that has become the central premise for an even more focused and protracted action in Leylines. The moto perpetuo character of our performance will therefore examine the slow rolling of our granite sphere — an action that recalls the myth of Sisyphus, who was destined to roll a boulder up a mountain for all eternity. And perhaps it may be more suitable to consider Leylines as an art action or a piece of live art than as a constructed piece of choreography,  with all the signs of duration and process that these terms elicit.

In our consideration of the concept of leys for the purposes of our performance project, we considered the various ley potentials in the Aberdeen area. In this sense we considered not only the direct alignment of the many ancient megaliths that predominate the landscape throughout Aberdeen and beyond, but also the materials that a walker would encounter along these wayside paths. In our performance, we want to encapsulate not only the sense of directionality and decisive energy insistent within the practice of ley walking, but also the sounds, sights and smells that the walker might be confronted with along the way. We have therefore drawn a collection of materials that reflect the Aberdonian landscape: granite being the most prolific and possibly the most in demand of the materials that we will use. Watkins’ description of the mark stone, or boundary stone – a rock about 40cm in diameter that was used to indicate the progression of a ley from points of uncertainty such a cross-roads – has been our main point of departure for choreographic interaction. It will be through a prolonged and profound physical exertion with our rock that our soundscape will emerge as the rock passes over seaweed, juniper and corrugated tin roofing, to name but a few.

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40cm diameter granite sphere, punched finish, Leylines Project, courtesy of Fyfe Glenrock

It is with these concepts that we have begun our own ley journey, a journey that takes us both through a known landscape and into an unknown way: a way that leads us into the unfamiliar territories of the body and mind.

Through the mist the light glides the way. Nearer comes the formless shadow, and the visible earth grows smaller. The path has faded, and there is no means on the open downs of knowing whether pursued is right or wrong, til a boulder which is a landmark is perceived (Richard Jeffries, Open Air)

– Imogene Newland

Bibliography

Watkins, Alfred (1925) The Straight Old Track (London: Abacus).

 

 

 

 

 

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