Reflections on the first stage of the EncoreEast / Russell Maliphant Dance Company (RMDC) choreographic project 2021

Reflections on the first stage of the EncoreEast / Russell Maliphant Dance Company (RMDC) choreographic project 2021

A year into Covid-19 pandemic on/off lockdown life and one of the considerable upsides has been the opportunity for these two companies to work and learn together.

With RMDC being afforded the time to focus on reaching a wider range of individuals, in a different way, through the development of online classes, and EncoreEast beginning their journey as a self-managed performing company, we came together to explore our mutual interest in the aesthetic performance potential of older dancers.

In normal circumstances this project might have consisted of weekly in-person sessions for a period leading to a performance, but with the uncertainty of Covid-19-related restrictions we had to think differently.

In the Autumn we will spend time together in the studio at DanceEast for a series of two-day intensives before a performance (live and live-streamed) on 3rd November. However, in preparation for that, we planned some ‘getting to know each other’ Zoom sessions where the dancers could begin to explore movement possibilities with Russell and his dancers’ somatic-based approach to teaching and creating dance.

At first it seemed unideal to be starting the project virtually on Zoom, but we were all becoming accustomed to the medium and decided it was worth doing, if just to keep moving and begin connecting, without any pressure to make yet.

This first stage of the project, with its focus on learning from and with each other, was also a time to plan how we could thread some robust research and evaluation through the project, that would work in the hybrid, uncertain, pandemic circumstances, in order to usefully share our learning between and beyond the two companies in the future. 

RMDC and EncoreEast share a curiosity in the way we work and move as dancers and companies. We set out our main research aims to guide how we reflect on the project both for our own learning and reporting purposes to contribute to the wider research fields. With a consistent overarching goal of becoming better dancers, the research has two main areas of focus:

  • Exploring EncoreEast’s developing ‘Distributed Leadership’ model and how this is contributing to the operational, artistic and social growth of the Company and
  • questioning the preconceived ideas of aging bodies dancing and examining the aesthetic performance outcomes following participation in this somatically informed, healthy, creative dance activity.

While we will be carrying out some quantitative research with the dancers, using dance science methods to attempt to objectively measure improvements in strength, range of motion and ease of movement, the really rich information will come from our ethnographic research with both dancers and researchers collecting and collating their observations throughout the process. We were interested from an aesthetic and pedagogical perspective how the teaching translates into changes experienced internally and seen externally in the body, and particularly how much was observable even through the 2D small-tiled windows of Zoom.

Already, following our five, 2-hour ‘getting to know each other’ workshops, which culminated in EncoreEast’s joyous open workshop for over-50s, we are gaining some fascinating insights which are feeding back into our collective learning journey.

EncoreEast’s reflections 

EncoreEast are bound together in many ways, but our shared desire to be better dancers is pivotal in motivating our direction as a newly independent company. Lockdown and Zoom afforded us the opportunity to work with dancers and choreographers nationally and we decided to spend this unique year sampling a wide range of dance styles and techniques. It has been fun and each ‘taster’ excited and inspired us. Subsequently we were thrilled to get the opportunity to take on a bigger challenge of working with the Russell Maliphant Company. This gives us the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of who we are as dancers and how Russell’s teaching can affect our technique and performance aesthetic. 

We began terrified and exhilarated in equal measures; each of us wanting to believe we can develop and improve but daunted by the task. Time constraints dictated the workshops needed to be two-hours and Zoom added to the pressure. Would we cope physically and mentally? At the end of the first stage of the project, it is safe to say, ‘the jury was out!’

Over the six weeks Edd, Russell and Alethia have guided us through Russell’s technique. We have sent our focus deep inside ourselves, attempting to locate the connections between toes and pelvis, fingers and scapulae. We focus on our feet, struggling to articulate the 33 bones and how they relate to every movement we make. Each week we have slipped deeper into our minds-eye discovering what our bodies are capable of or more frequently our limitations. The honesty that Russell’s technique requires has exposed us. We scrutinise ourselves with our new deeper understanding and it was hard not to judge ourselves wanting.

It feels as if we have taken apart a faulty machine; we are surprised by all the valves, resistors, capacitors and coils laid out in front of us. Having started the job of cleaning and renewing them, we are beginning to panic, doubting our capability to put them back together again. 

We reached this interim stage more daunted than when we started. We lost confidence in our capacity as dancers and our reasons for wanting to push ourselves this hard. But we are all committed to the process.

Can continued practice of RMDC’s technique penetrate our bones, freeing our minds to let our bodies lead the dance? Can we learn to trust what we have learnt, so it translates into improved technique, freeing the flow and aesthetic of our movement? Only time will tell.

We have made the most of the time between phase 1 & 2 of the workshops. The summer has given us space to revisit the RMDC classes recorded on Zoom. Three times a week we have reengaged. Familiarity with what was once new and challenging has calmed our minds and focused our attention. Repetition has helped us begin to trace connections that eluded us. Gradually we are sensing small changes and with each improvement our faith in the process builds.

Going into phase two we are still terrified and exhilarated in equal measures. However, we are sure it is possible to improve and be better dancers. It will be interesting to see what that improvement means for us as a company and its wider implication for older dancers.

Reflections from Russell Maliphant Dance Company

From a research/evaluation perspective it has been really interesting looking in from the outside, trying to remain as objective as possible as we observe the teaching and learning process through the Zoom lens. We were initially sceptical of how much we would be able to perceive this way rather than being in the studio together but, reassured by the fact that some of the dancers were keeping diaries and that we were using a range of methods to evaluate the project, we embarked on some ‘unstructured observation’ keen to see how what we observed might relate to the dancers’ experience and other more objective measures further down the line. 

Edd’s first session was intentionally structured to be a gentle start with focus mainly on the upper body but also how weight is carried through the feet. These 2-hour sessions were planned to allow time for explanation as well as movement, although there may initially have been a worry that two hours of dancing was longer than the dancers were used to.

While being taken through the progression of exercises exploring weight, breath, and opening of the upper body, it was fascinating to see the shared focus through the screen as the dancers played with their own ranges of motion, and even so early on there was a truly beautiful moment where they were all softly lifting and lowering their arms with the breath in perfect unison and even in their separate 2D windows you could feel they were a ‘company’ of dancers. It was a definite ‘wow’ moment recognised by more than one member of the RMDC team.

At a later point, when improvising, the dancers were invited to stop when they wanted to and observe each other, many took up the opportunity, in part perhaps relishing the rest?  One dancer insightfully and helpfully asked, “when you do this [work in this somatically-led improvisational way] it doesn’t make sense to stop – how do you conserve your energy?” Edd responded that you can pause and demonstrated how it is possible to arrive at a comfortable place for you and then move out of it when you’re ready, without necessarily interrupting the overall flow. This seemed to resonate.

Russell’s second session with the dancers took the form of a foundational information and practical session. He talked through some of the background to his approach to movement practice in general and the inspiration behind Silent Lines; sharing his experience of learning to ‘let go’ of some of the ballet specific movement patterns he had ingrained and how his subsequent research into different movement forms, somatic practice and anatomy had allowed him to improve his range of motion even as his body aged and recovered from serious knee injury/surgery. The dancers were then lead through an exploration of movement through different parts of the body, still thinking about breath and connection of weight through the foot into the floor. It was possible to see different levels of flexibility experienced in different movements by different individuals which was all part of the process of getting to know ourselves and each other. There seemed to be reticence at certain points about some of the more floor-based work which led to an open discussion between the dancers and Russell about the difficulties of getting up and down without effort as we get older. They discussed the idea that by giving the right thing attention [within the body] and thinking about how to ‘distribute stress’ it needn’t be the case that we only get ‘stiffer’ as we age.

In Alethia’s third session the dancers were gently pushed further with more floorwork, taking weight into the upper body and increasing challenges to their balance. It was fantastic to see them rise to the challenge. You could see moments of doubt flash across faces at times at what they were being asked to do but looking through the individual Zoom windows you could see Alethia’s intense and careful consideration of what they were doing and how she responded with gentle, targeted encouragement. The confidence she had in the dancers to try some work leading to handstands was born from what they were showing they were able to achieve already, and huge beams were forming on the RMDC team’s faces as from the outside you could see the dancers were getting there and perhaps surprising themselves! 

By this point in the process, you could see the EncoreEast dancers were working hard and when they were getting tired but you could also see the results and progress. It came as a surprise how much you could already see that and in 2D! Those leading the sessions tried to include frequent ‘check-in’ moments to allow the EncoreEast dancers to share how they were feeling physically and make sure they were pushing themselves healthily and not into pain.

We started this process with no preconceived ideas about what we might achieve in just 5 sessions, and on Zoom at that. It was pure ‘exploration’. However, by the 5th and final ‘getting to know each other’ session it was amazing to see the change in the dancers. Five weeks earlier, in that first session, there had been a moment towards the end when the dancers were asked to choose something they’d been improvising and work on it a little to share with the group. At that time, it seemed that without Edd leading for those few minutes you could see the dancers ‘thinking’ rather than just moving and they looked more different to each other and less a part of a group. Perhaps old movement habits were understandably creeping back in, we were only two hours in! However, just 5 sessions later we witnessed a truly exceptionally beautiful, sustained period of improvisation from them all, which followed an exercise on ‘focus’. One of the dancers commented afterwards that they felt they “weren’t doing what they had learned” and were self-sabotaging by “going into old ways”, but actually, from the outside, with the focus on focus and not on ‘making movement’, what we saw was all of the dancers moving beautifully and rhythmically, choosing their own paths through different elements of the music that must have resonated and suited their natural preferences but they were all completely in the flow, using the movement pathways they had been learning and now embodied, making them their own, working hard and sweating but looking really good! The increased strength, trust and confidence in their own bodies to move in ways and with a range they hadn’t in week one, was clearly visible, even in 2D, and their individuality had a connectedness. There was a performance quality being achieved that was beautiful and mesmerising, drawing the observer through their individual Zoom windows. The RMDC team came away super-excited about the possibilities for the creation period ahead.

By Helen Laws & Stella Eldon