I invited three experienced body-centred practitioners to support me in the process of consciously attuning-to experience differently. These practitioners, quite independently, used the term “attunement” when we were engaged in teaching and learning their methods and techniques. I cannot recall with whom I first encountered the term but it became a significant concept in the enactment of my project and had wide acceptance amongst practitioners in this field. The practitioners were chosen for their extensive experience within their own area of body-centred practice and because I had built collegial relationships with them either prior to or during my PhD studies.
The aim of these collaborations was to apply and, where appropriate, adapt and augment the methods and techniques I learnt from these various practices and practitioners to first, consciously access experience differently and second, make artistic performance works. The aim was also to document discoveries about the lived experience of artistic creativity as they were occurring. These practitioners had expertise in either the Alexander Technique, Body Mind Centring® (BMC) or Focusing. I provide here an over-view of each practice and the ways in which I have engaged with each practitioner. The claims made by the founders of each body-centred practice are based on substantial periods of time developing their practice. I note that whilst it might be possible, from a scientific perspective, to critically question these practices, it does not diminish the productive and useful role they have played in presenting new avenues of investigation in my research into the lived experience of artistic creativity.
i) Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique, developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander (1865 – 1955), purports to help attune more effectively and with greater coordination to the body “as a whole” (Alexander 1923/2004, p.6). Generally, the teaching process includes touch. Practitioners believe that learning this way emphasises how to focus on the process rather than the desired end. Learning is also about inhibiting that which is striving toward some particular end. According to Alexander, the technique is process driven and learning to coordinate more effectively can help to find the “means where by…ends can be brought about” (Alexander 1923/2004, p. 92). Since the 1940s, the Alexander Technique has been widely applied and researched in a range of contexts including medicine and pain management, anatomy and physiology, acting, swimming, golf, voice, dance, pregnancy and childbirth, stress reduction, running, horseback riding, exercise, and Alexander Technique pedagogy.
Alexander argued that humans were out of touch with visceral sensation and perception and therefore needed to engage in processes of bodily re-education through “the principles of constructive conscious control” (1923/2004, p. 158). He claimed that every act is a reaction to a stimulus received through the full range of the sensory mechanism, and therefore no act can be described as “wholly mental or wholly physical” (p. 52). Alexander used the term psycho-physical to describe “the indivisible unity of the human organism” (p. 23). He believed it was impossible to separate the “physical and mental operations in our conception of the working of the human organism” (p. 4). He claimed that changing mental and physical conceptions of the psycho-physical organism could help in gaining greater freedom and control. Whilst it might be argued that this maintains a split between mind and body, the impetus is towards fusion rather than differentiation. My research began in the undifferentiated psycho-physical organism.
Based on his own experience, and that of many students, Alexander observed that humans rely heavily on what he called “subconscious (instinctive) guidance and control … “in the use of the human organism” (1923/2004, p. 3). Based on these observations, he concluded that this “sensory appreciation” … is “unreliable” (p. 26). This realisation led him to further reason that if it is possible for this unreliable sensory appreciation to “become untrustworthy as a means of direction, it should also be possible to make it trustworthy again” (p. 36). Alexander, who was trained as an actor, claimed that his psycho-physical organism was becoming unusable for the purposes of performance and public speaking because he kept losing his voice. As a result, he set out to discover ways in which he could use the human organism in its optimal state. The result was a very specific but comprehensive body-centred training program that he first used on himself and later shared with others.
The primary practitioner I work with in the field of Alexander Technique is Kate Barnett (Figure 2). Kate is an embodiment practitioner based in Melbourne, Australia, with a particular interest in improvisation and performance. She has been exploring embodiment practices for the past twenty years and is a trained Alexander Technique teacher. With the help of Kate, I have used some of Alexander’s methods to uncover and shift my own bodily habits. I include a detailed profile of Kate here because she and I worked together in an ongoing way for the full duration of the project. Over that time, we co-developed attunement processes that were useful for my performance practice. Together we forged a consistent and ongoing inter-subjective dialogue that was instrumental in helping me to articulate my research findings.
Figure 2: Discovery workshop – Angela & Kate
Kate uses a mix of complementary practices in one-to-one sessions. She is also a trained as a facilitator of InterPlay, a play-based practice for improvising with movement, voice, and storytelling. Her approach to embodiment and the qualities of her ‘teaching touch’ are also influenced by her long-term interest in Body Mind Centring® (BMC). I found Kate’s combination of embodiment practices particularly useful for my research interests, and with Kate’s encouragement pursued a deeper connection with BMC practices. Kate learnt BMC practices from Melbourne based BMC practitioner Alice Cummins, who trained with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, the founder of BMC. Alice was one of the first to bring the BMC practice to Australia.
I first started working with Kate as an Alexander Technique teacher for voice. We have now been working together for almost six years in total. Over that time, deep levels of trust and collegiality have been established. I am particularly drawn to Kate’s teaching approach because of the egalitarian principles that underpin the relationships she sets up with students. Learning in Kate’s sessions is underpinned by a commitment to Alexander’s belief that “all acts concerned with learning something or learning to do something call for psycho-physical activity” (1923/2004, p. 9).
Kate and I held regular sessions that focused on questions arising from my research. At times we set up a series of three consecutive sessions to explore specific questions. Sessions varied between two and four hours in duration. I kept a personal reflective journal throughout the process and with Kate’s permission video recorded some of our sessions and audio recorded/ transcribed our dialogues. The sessions were generally co-created. Kate’s role was to facilitate the development of my attunement capacity and to bear witness to my processes for validation purposes. The structure of our sessions moved fluidly between attunement explorations, performative experiments, and inter-subjective dialogues. Our sessions were generally designed as reciprocal exchanges that were in mutual support of the specific needs of one another at any given time.
ii) Body Mind Centring® (BMC)
BMC is an experiential attunement practice pioneered by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in the 1970s. The practice purports to foster processes of attuning-to how “mind is expressed through the body in movement” (Bainbridge Cohen 2012, p. 1). Bainbridge Cohen began by exploring movement from the perspective of the skeletal and muscular systems but soon expanded to the exploration of movement in relation to all body systems. Bainbridge Cohen claims that BMC is as “an ongoing experiential journey into the alive and changing territory of the body” (p. 1).
According to Wright Miller, Ethridge and Tarlow Morgan, BMC has spread globally and is now being steered by numerous teachers and scholars who “delve deeply into one aspect or another of the work” (2011, p. 13). Practitioners claim that the focus in this work is not about arriving at a particular destination, but on continually attending to the experience of alignment between the smallest cellular activity within the body and the largest movements of the body.
Bainbridge Cohen initiated the work to “help people help themselves” (2012, p. 8). She works with the “idea of effortlessness, of not expending unnecessary energy, and also with the principle of lengthening muscles rather than stretching them” (p. 8). The notion of lengthening rather than stretching is significant in BMC. Bainbridge Cohen claims that lengthening changes the “mind of the muscle” and is an internal process of release and change that is activated by our own inner sensory receptors (p. 8). This idea that there is a mind of the muscle is a central concept in BMC. Bainbridge Cohen claims “all mind patternings are expressed in movement, through the body. And that all physically moving patterns have a mind” (p. 103).
According to Bainbridge Cohen, BMC work combines traditional physiology, non-traditional physiology, and specific BMC research results (2012, p. 66). For example, the fluids of the body are traditionally considered in isolation. Although BMC practitioners recognise that fluids can be isolated, they choose to explore “the dynamic interrelationships between the fluids as one fluid system” (p. 67). Bainbridge Cohen claims that the fluid system is made up of water but “changes properties and characteristics as it passes through different membranes, flows through different channels and interacts with different substance” (pp. 66-67). In BMC, the focus is on the cells. Bainbridge Cohen believes, the “membrane permeability is what determines the flow of fluids in and out of the cells” and “every cell has a mind” that is able to express itself (p. 75). According to Bainbridge Cohen, when new patterns are opened up for the body and “the body is the instrument through which the mind is expressed, then one can just play more kinds of melodies, or different kinds of verse, kinds of timbres” (p. 100).
The claims made about anatomy and physiology in BMC are largely unverifiable from a scientific perspective. Nevertheless, the concepts, even if they are working at a metaphorical level, do produce a pronounced sensory and experiential modification, which promotes detectable perceptual shifts in relation to lived experience that are useful for my research. These perceptual shifts are necessary for my research purposes, and therefore produce worthwhile experiential data for me to reflect upon. Bainbridge Cohen’s work on breathing, vocalisation, and the organ system of the body is of particular use in the context of my investigation. I use BMC practices to explore the organ system through breath and vocalisation during different phases of the project as a way of developing vocal capacity, generating and refining creative material, and making my body-centred processes more explicit. These experiments have proved very useful in accessing experience differently. The following chapters document how I enact this process in both discovery workshops and within the live performance event.
The primary practitioner I work with in the field of BMC is Alice Cummins. Alice is a dance artist, BMC Practitioner, and internationally qualified somatic movement educator and therapist (ISMETA). She is a master teacher who offers workshops and individual sessions throughout Australia. Alice has a twenty-year history of creating improvisational performances and has collaborated with musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers. Her solo work has been performed at PICA (Perth Institute of Performing Arts); Performance Space, Sydney; and Dancehouse Melbourne. Her work is influenced by BMC, new dance practices, and feminist philosophy. Alice has a Master of Arts (by research) from Victoria University and continues to research different modes of and realisations of the body and performance.
Focusing was originally discovered by Eugine Gendlin (1981a) in researching the question, “why is psychotherapy helpful for some people, but not for others?” Together with his colleagues, Gendlin watched hundreds of tapes of therapy sessions. They discovered that successful therapy clients paid attention to their vague, hard-to-describe, bodily, felt sense about their problems. As a result, Gendlin began to teach this technique for exploring bodily sensations and perceptions and called it Focusing.
Gendlin asserts that the experiencer’s interactions with the world happen prior to the development of concepts about the world; that embodied living, as an ordered interaction with the environment, is a knowing that exists prior to conceptual knowledge. As a philosopher and psychotherapist, Gendlin explores an introspective way of being whereby the experiencer pays patient attention to the vague and visceral felt senses of the body until meaning unfolds and is able to be articulated. When describing the process of focusing in relation to creativity, Gendlin states:
But creativity would be very mystifying indeed, if it were merely the hitting, from nowhere, of new ideas. Where can they come from? Where do thoughts arise? If you pay attention to any thought whatever, you will find that you have some words and images, and also a sense of their meaning to you just now. You will find that this meaning is much more than what the words alone say. The whole context and background is also there, in your sense of what you said. Only from this richer underlying complexity, which you do have, can relevant new ideas arise. But there is a bodily way, through quite specific steps, by which you can let this form, as a whole, quite concretely, so that you can attend to it and work with it, rather than leaving it fleeting and silent as most people do. This is what focusing is all about. (1981b, para. 21)
According to Weiser Cornell, Focusing, as a method of inner awareness, has three key qualities. These qualities include:
- Discovering a body sensation called the felt sense
- Accepting an engaged inner attention
- A radical philosophy of what facilitates change (2005, p. 13).
The first quality of the felt sense is a body sensation that has meaning. It is often very subtle because it is not emotion and it is not thought. As the experiencer focuses on the felt sense it becomes clear that it can be very intricate. Weiser Cornell provides an example of tuning into the felt sense:
If you’re operating purely with emotions, then fear is fear. It’s just fear, no more. But if you’re operating on the felt sense level, you can sense that this fear, the one you’re feeling right now, is different from the fear you felt yesterday. Maybe yesterday’s fear was like a cold rock in the stomach, and today’s fear is like a pulling back, withdrawing. As you stay with today’s fear, you start to sense something like a shy creature pulled back into a cave. You get the feeling that if you sit with it long enough, you might even find out the real reason that it is so scared. A felt sense is often subtle, and as you pay attention to it you discover that it is intricate. It has more to it. We have a vocabulary of emotions that we feel over and over again, but every felt sense is different. You can, however, start with an emotion, and then feel the felt sense of it, as you are feeling it in your body right now. (1998, p. 1)
The second quality is a process of bringing interested curiosity to the felt sense. It is about being open to that which does not yet have words to express itself. This process takes time, so there needs to be a willingness and patience that accompanies this curiosity. The taking time, the caring to find out what is there, without trying to change it, is what brings deeper knowledge to the experiencer. The experiencer is then encouraged to accept unconditionally what arises. This acceptance is confident that the felt sense will change in its own way; that change is the only constant. Gendlin refers to this as “making steps” because the inner world is never static and by bringing attention to it, that inner world will unfold, move and become something new (Gendlin 1981a cited in Weiser Cornell 1998, p. 14). Focusing brings insight, relief and a shift in behaviour that happens easily and without effort.
The third quality of focusing is a philosophical shift concerning the process of change. Focusing teaches the experiencer that change and flow are the natural course of things, and when “something seems not to change, what it needs is attention and awareness, with an attitude of allowing it to be as it is, yet open to its next steps” (Weiser Cornell 1998, p. 5). The radicality of this philosophy, according to Weiser Cornell, is in the shift from needing to ‘do’ something to ‘make’ change happen to an embodied process that is simply about being and allowing change to happen.
The primary practitioner I work with in the field of Focusing is Jo Kennedy. Jo is the founder of Focusing Australia. She is a certified Focusing practitioner/trainer and coordinator. Jo was trained by Ann Weiser Cornell, an internationally renowned, Inner Relationship Focusing teacher, and by Keven McEvenue, who originated Wholebody Focusing.
As well as working with body-centred practitioners who have particular practices that are about accessing lived experience differently, I also work with two theatre practitioners, to help ground my work within the field of theatre performance. These practitioners were chosen because of their experience in the field of theatre performance, and because I felt a connection to their artistic performance work.
In July 2015, I made contact with Melbourne theatre director, Kirsten von Bibra, after seeing a production she directed of Grounded by George Brant at Red Stitch Theatre. Grounded is a one-woman show, and I was particularly impressed with the Kirsten’s direction. The production won best director/best actress in the 2015 Sydney Theatre Awards. Kirsten is a theatre director/teaching artist with over twenty years experience in professional theatre. She was a Lecturer in Acting at the Victorian Collage of the Arts (VCA) for three years, where she directed text-based productions. Recent directing credits include: Point8Six at LaMama; TheServantOfTwoMasters for Peking University, Beijing; and Tom Holloway’s Sunshine for Red Stitch.
I felt that Kirsten’s artistic acumen would greatly benefit my performance piece and so invited her to work on my project. Kirsten agreed to join the project and during July/August 2015 we initially engaged in a series of four discovery workshops together. The sessions included feedback on performance, workshopping performance text, engaging with impulse work, developing ways of sustaining improvisational material by becoming more attentive and present to the experience, and experimenting with the Möbius Loop. In March – April 2016, Kirsten then worked on the production of ‘Imagine This . . .’ as the director.
From December 2015 to January 2016, I invited Vicky Kapo to work with me in a series of three discovery workshops. Vicky is a multifaceted artist, who lives and works in Melbourne, Victoria. Vicky is an alchemist, using whatever tools happen to allow fulfilment of the creative vision. Her works are political, evocative, and mesmerising. They encourage an experience that is timeless and sacred. Vicky has a Bachelor of Arts in Screen and Performance Arts with Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland New Zealand. She has been resident choreographer and teacher for Wellington performing Arts, The Platform Auckland, Waikato University, and Nelson Academy. Vicky has received creative arts funding from CNZ, Auckland City Council, Auckland Sky Tower, Dancehouse, Melbourne’s Next Wave festival, and Wellington and Melbourne Fringe festivals to develop creative works. Her ongoing practice is in movement improvisation under her Melbourne-based mentor Anne O’Keefe.
I met Vicky during a series of improvisation classes I attended in 2015. Through conversation we discovered many creative synergies and so agreed to work together. Our sessions included feedback on performance, movement-led improvisations, dialogue-led improvisations, sharing attunment practices to catalyse improvised performance works, and attuning to immersive conditions. I detail the processes I explored collaboratively with Vicky in Chapter Six.
Over the course of my PhD project I engaged with each of these practitioners in different ways based on their individual expertise. What brings these interactions together for my project is that there is a focus on relational lived experience, a curiosity around accessing experience differently, and a commitment to documenting the processes that lead to shifts in lived experience. In the next sections I detail what Nelson refers to as the “multi-mode” (2013, p. 6) research methods I employed to work with these practitioners and to enact my research project.