Creating a Body



By Eva Karczag

My teaching methodology reflects my history. From my parents’ decision to leave Hungary during the 1956 revolution, where I learnt that one can step into the unknown, through my first love of ballet, which proved not to hold the key to my dancing after all, to my discovery of, and involvement in, somatic-based approaches within dance training, whether it’s my rejections, or my embracing of techniques and ideas, all that I have experienced lies embedded in what and how I teach. Living and working in different countries and cultures, I also know that inspiration and creativity are fostered through a cross-fertilization of ideas and practices. In our information age, this becomes even more possible and desirable.

In my teaching I combine improvisational practice and release-based approaches with Western body-mind methods (including the Alexander Technique and Ideokinesis) and Eastern applications (including T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Qi Gong) – organic, body-based disciplines that support my interest in the balanced use of body/mind. I work within constructs that promote independent creative thought, an explorative attitude, and present moment attentiveness, and am committed to teaching dancing without having to utilize forms I, and others, rejected, as long as 25–30 years ago, as being out-dated and non-relevant to dance today.

My most immediate aims in teaching are to awaken each individual student’s love of moving, and to stimulate and guide students to experience the physical, mental and emotional excitement of moving from a deeply sensed and deeply sourced place. At all times, I present to students a body-based training that reflects attentive curiosity, intellectual involvement, creativity and imagination, and the aim of exploring and expanding the boundaries of dance and performance. My objective is to train students to be able to widen their range of movement choices and access richly textured, articulate and fully-physicalized dancing.

Meeting up with T’ai Chi

As much as I loved dancing, my early dance training created a lot of fear in me – fear of being judged imperfect, fear of failure, fear of not being able to do what I loved to do. Meeting up with T’ai Chi in 1971, through my wonderful teacher, Gerda (Pytt) Geddes, felt like a home-coming. T’ai Chi allowed me to move organically, in ways that felt right. I wasn't asked to go against some deeply felt sense of moving that I had preserved, despite all my years of dance training.

T’ai Chi is a martial art and movement meditation. Pytt Geddes taught T’ai Chi as the physical manifestation of a symbolic, allegorical journey through life, from birth to death – image supporting movement. Principles inherent in Zen inspired forms like archery and calligraphy, and many Eastern martial arts include: allowing instead of controlling (‘doing non-doing’), and economy (‘less is more’), which allows one to move with ‘effortless effort’. My own growing involvement with T’ai Chi came from what I felt it gave me – clearer and more abundant energy, and greater physical freedom and resilience, as well as intensifying my ability to remain focused. From T'ai Chi I learned about energy flow, developing internal strength, control and speed, weight and lightness, subtlety and integration. Through practicing it over time, my feet opened and I began to understand groundedness; my lower back released and I began to understand how a fluid and flexible spine sustains the unity of a strong and supportive back; my breathing opened and I began to understand the interdependence between movement and breathing. I learned about the connection of mind, body and spirit, and about the ability to ‘listen’ to what is inside and outside of me. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how to move while containing an internally expansive releasing state, and how powerful this easeful way of moving is.

Alexander Technique to re-awaken and refine

Alexander lessons were similar. When I left my lessons with my first Alexander teacher, Bill Williams, I felt internally spacious and alive, and I felt like dancing. Alexander Technique is a body-mind re-education tool. The teacher uses gentle touch and verbal feedback to stimulate directions within the body, and to re-awaken and refine the students’ kinesthetic and sensory awareness so they can then recognize and let go of habitual movement patterns that interfere with and restrict freedom of movement. Release of habitual tension into easy energy flow allows one to rediscover dynamic balance and dynamic movement within the body/mind. One can then move with natural ease, flexibility and integration. The intimate connection between habit and use, one underlying premise of Alexander Technique, allows the technique to work with any activity, so that whatever the activity is, it can be executed in a more efficient way.

Listen to your body

Release Technique and Contact Improvisation gave me similar permission to move and, within the moving, to discover myself. Mary (Fulkerson) O’Donnell, my first Release teacher, was the first dance teacher I had heard say, “Listen to your body.” Up till then, dance class had always been, “Do what I show you and tell you”. Release Technique led me to Ideokinesis, and I studied with André Bernard in NY between 1975 and 1979. In Ideokinesis, one approaches skeletal re-alignment and re-education of muscle patterning through the nervous system, through imaging and sensing changes within the body along very specific lines of action, while body and mind are in a quiet, receptive state. One is freed from unnecessary restrictions through release of tension, letting muscles return to a toned resting length as the body balances easily around the central vertical axis. Integration within the body leads to a flexible relationship of parts, which allows for the greatest range of movement. Less effort is used when moving. Balanced alignment is found through imagery not force. One can utilize one’s imaginative capacity to transform one’s body.

When I introduce anatomy in my classes it happens sensorily. The term Experiential Anatomy is now used to describe techniques that explore the internal landscape of the body in a physical, hands-on kind of way. Anatomy is experienced through images, sensation and movement, and anatomical information can become living and vital. A deep physical understanding becomes possible.

I have used these techniques, and others, to help me learn to move and create within states of openness. These states give me choices. I was able to put this into practice not only in my own work, but also dancing with Trisha Brown, in her loose-limbed, fluid style. These insights are what I wish to pass on to those who study with me.

Consciously track the integrity of the paths of movement

When I teach, I begin with the body – all exploration is rooted in its material miracle. My understanding of T’ai Chi’s weight, lightness and energetic flow, Ideokinesis’ lines of action, and Andre Bernard’s ‘tactile aid’, are merged with the Alexander quality of touch and its direction and internal expansion, Body-Mind Centering’s attention to the different body systems, Chinese Medicine’s 5 element theory as it relates to organs and elements, and any chance bits of information that happen to catch my interest. I blend all of this into a thick and potent brew that leads my students from sensation, often given through touch (‘sensation is the image’, Lisa Nelson would say), via metaphor based in anatomical imagery, into moving, where in their dancing they are able to taste freedom and, as Barbara Dilley calls it, ‘kinesthetic delight’. I think of each class as a creative act, where we can learn creativity even, and especially, through the way we train our body.

In teaching, initially, my emphasis lies with simplifying body and movement information, so that each individual can return to experiencing and understanding their most basic movement patterns. We often learn the most from simple forms, where we are able to consciously track the integrity of the paths of movement. When we can honestly see what it is that we are doing, and clarify misconceptions we may have about how we’re doing what we’re doing, we have laid a firm foundation on which to build complexity.

Touch plays a vital role when I teach. It brings us back to the reality of the body through present moment sensation. It makes us – teacher and student – equal players in the playing field; we can learn from and through each other. I let my students touch me. As they learn from my highly tuned body, I also learn from them. I tell my students that touch is a gift we’re born with. We can all use this gift and learn through utilizing it.

Exploration and play have an important function in my teaching, mentally and physically cultivating an attitude that does not wish to close or limit the options open at any given moment. In my classes I aim to create a climate of trust, both external and internal, where all movement is permissible, including the most mundane, everyday ones, the quirky or ungainly ones, the wild or mystifying ones, as long as the imagination can create it and the body can execute it. I teach my students to use their dancing to strengthen, stretch, challenge, and explore their physicality and their imagination.

I like to stimulate responsible decision-making, and encourage my students to make a considered commitment to developing the discipline of a rigorous body-mind practice, where they can explore their unique physicality, and through a deeper understanding of their own body structure and patterns of use, build a working knowledge of effective and safe procedures they can use when crafting their own personal dance practice. We can build strength through integration and combine strength with sensitivity. Dancers trained in this way can trust their body and call on their body to do what is needed. They can remain active and pain-free dancers even during highly physical dancing, and into their old age.

We can distill, extract, collect, and integrate elements from varied sources

However, I don’t believe that any of the forms I use are the only ways to train. In fact, I don’t believe there is ONE correct way to train. Bodies and needs are individual; we create different kinds of work, and one piece may require a different body-mind attitude than another; we meet up with different influences that inspire us; inevitably we age. Training that is developed through consciously tracking who we are, and what our changing needs are, at any given moment, will be responsive. Forms are no longer sacrosanct, and we can distill, extract, collect, and integrate elements from numerous and varied sources, and use them how we need them to support our work. I always encourage my students to keep looking for the forms that spark their interest and fulfill their needs at that particular time. Trisha used to say ‘You can make up the way you make your dances’, meaning that composition does not need to adhere to formulae. I tell my students that ‘You can make up the way you train your body/mind’, meaning that it’s fair game to use anything that supports your vision for a particular piece, or a particular creative state of being.

Susan Sgorbati writes about the second phase of the Emergent Improvisation Process:
the development of a physical or sonic vocabulary … marks itself very differently from another kind of tradition, where you would learn a very specific technique and perfect it. In this case, you're perfecting and discovering your own physical and sonic technique. You're taking all of your history and integrating it into an emergent place where vocabulary can continually be discovered, reshuffled, recombined to create this thinking process in the body. The development of this vocabulary is very important because like with any vocabulary, the more diverse it is, the more interesting it is, the more able you are to fine tune, to articulate and express detail and ideas. If it's very simplistic, there's just not as much to investigate. So this particular area creates an endless practice of discovering a greater vocabulary.

In her interview with Joan Skinner, Bettina Neuhaus asks:
What do you think a dance technique should give to a dancer today?

Joan Skinner answers:
I think, in general terms, freedom. I’m guessing that it would be a purpose of any technique to make it possible for the individual to be as expressive as that individual could be and be articulated in whatever form. […] to realize their full potential for expressing whatever they want to express coming from their own imagination. … I think what fascinates me is watching people in [Skinner Releasing] class – I love to see them peel away layers of programmed behavior and programmed thoughts to discover who they really are. And you see it when it happens … They look different; they have more strength, they have more serenity and they just look different because they’re no longer programmed. It’s always awesome to me to see that in class. So, I am never tired seeing people change.

My interest is in moving that is grounded in an intelligent and articulate body, comfortable in itself and finely tuned to receptiveness. A body that is opened and honed in this way is capable of listening to and being triggered by inner and outer stimuli, and being moved by intuition and inventiveness. It is informed and inspired by past, present and future. Imaginative journeys lie within our cellular structure. These can be called forth and revealed through movement.

Emergent Improvisation: Essay by Susan Sgorbati
September 2005

This article is adapted from the lecture ‘Creating a Body’. Versions of the lecture have been given at Dance Unlimited, Arnhem, Netherlands; Semana(d)ança, Coimbra, Portugal; Crossing Borders, Independent Dance, London; Bodysurf, Findhorn, Scotland; CEM, Lisbon; Tanzquartier, Vienna.