Building the Ensemble: Artistic & Reflective Collaboration
My style of teaching is transparent. It is my intention that this writing add to my transparency so that the people I work with here in Canada, Switzerland and expressive arts institutes around the globe will have more of a sense of how I work. Ideally, it will serve as permission for them to see how they work and to reflect on their influences and to bring their history to expressive arts training for its next ‘turn of the spiral’. The intimacy that comes from delicate heart-ears within us listening to each other sets a tone for being together that’s larger than the art-making. The manner with which we hold the art-making sets the tone for what we do.
There are many facets to a nurturing environment. Cohesiveness happens all at once and gradually. There is a recognition of an ‘us’ that comes very quickly and then is gradually given form, flushed out through the art forms we work with. That initial recognition gets a chance to get lived through story-telling, visual art, dance, poetry and sculpture. We get a chance to co-create an ensemble, a community, a class, with an awareness of a potential for that cohesiveness that is not yet in form, to take form.
Accessing your Resources
Often, expressive arts therapy works with the incredible resources inside us rather than the issues, so that when one goes back into their life, they are connected to all these resources to respond to the difficulties of life. In my work as a therapist, it has been not to take away people’s difficulty, but rather to help them recognize that life is full of difficulty. The therapist’s role is to facilitate a creative response to the difficulty and help the client discover ways to do that. Within the expressive arts frame, it is important that it is clear that the arts are not the resource. The arts provide various means for getting to the resources that we have within us, like kindness and openness, the capacity to be nurturing and be nurtured, as well as playful. These are resources in us that the arts are able to access and give form to. There is so much beauty inside of us to be accessed. In the course of the work, a difficulty, issue or a concern can arise and that is fine, but it is in the room at that moment; we are not going back to the past to work on the issues. We work with whatever comes into the room in that moment. The arts have been a remarkable vehicle for getting what is in, out and also a vehicle for getting in. Someone might use writing as a way to get in and painting as a way to get out, or singing as a way to get out and dancing as a way to get in. Everyone is different.
Skill vs. Technique
We cannot do good work with a client or a class if we are not inspired, no matter how much skill we have. When I am in an inspired state, there is some kind of thickening. I may not understand it, but I can describe the phenomena involved. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003/2013) states that, “phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity.” As a practicing phenomenologist, I can try to find a way to describe the phenomenon, and as an arts-based psychotherapist who uses phenomenology, I can do an aesthetic analysis of what happens when I am inspired and find the poetry to describe that. Eugene Gendlin (1986) first described this phenomenon as a ‘felt-sense’ which he describes as:
A felt-sense is usually not just there, it must form. You have to know how to let it form by attending inside your body. When it comes, it is at first unclear, fuzzy. By certain steps it can come into focus and also change. A felt-sense is the body’s sense of a particular problem or situation. A felt-sense is not an emotion. We recognize emotions. We know when we are angry, or sad, or glad. A felt-sense is something you do not at first recognize – it is vague and murky. It feels meaningful, but not known. It is a body-sense of meaning. (p. 11)
It is my responsibility to teach what I have learned, to find language for what is intra-psychic or intra-personal, and to take that intra-psychic wonder and magic and point to what actually phenomeno-logically occurred. My ongoing intention is to slow it down and break it down to show the difference between learning a technique and evolving skill. If you are not inspired you are not doing expressive arts therapy work because the foundation of expressive arts therapy work is based upon the inspired state.
What each of the primary research methodologies, Creative Process-Based, Phenomenological, Rhizomatic and Heuristic, has in common is a multi-leveled, ongoing directive to notice, and notice what we are noticing. This is achieved by my asking the individual participants to have an increased, conscious awareness of their physical life within themselves and between themselves and others, as well as an ongoing noticing of the flow of thoughts that were woven through the dance theatre explorations. Improvisational, ensemble dancetheatre is by nature rhizomatic, i.e. we don’t know where it will go from moment to moment. The phenomenological approach asks the dancetheatre artist to set aside the need to understand choices and to simply ‘notice’ what is occurring. In the execution of the written reflections, participants are invited to make the Creative Process-Based Research methodology complete. This methodology consists of three components: the creator, the product and the internal/ external experience.
Discovering More Ability
I worked with a client who was having difficulty in her marriage who said, “I cannot express myself with him!” She felt victimized because she had gotten out of the habit of expressing herself. “He will not understand if I express myself.” I responded by saying, “Oh, you mean you cannot communicate yourself.”
We do not need anyone in the room in order to express ourselves; to communicate is something different. We say to the client, “Do you want help with expressing what is so for you, or communicating what is so?” It is very helpful early on to identify the difference between expressing and communicating. Are we working with something that is a difficulty in expressing it or in communicating it? Is it stuckness in the client’s being able to express him or herself or, is it frustration because they have not found a way to communicate what they are thinking, feeling, knowing or experiencing.
In terms of being authentic, there are people who can be unkind and say, “I am just being real.” There is something presumably authentic about their expression of frustration, but there can be insensitivity as to whether what they are saying is going to be effective or not. Is it landing or not? Very early on, when I wanted to be authentic as a practitioner and as a teacher, I realized authenticity is situation specific and moment specific. There is a particular flavor of kindness that might come up in meeting a new person, and in comparison to how I was a minute before, that is not me. At any moment there is the opportunity to discover more ability, more levels of you, and more opportunities for surprise that different situations and different people bring out in you. So another expression for authentic might be rested. If I feel rested, within, with this person, I could laugh, be silly, and say pretty much anything and it will be seen as authentic. I am not thinking about being authentic; I just have this wonderful restedness within my heart because I feel really relaxed with this person. I feel they are not judging me. That kind of phenomeno-logical description of authenticity is important in this work. I tend to avoid the word authentic because it can make people self-conscious since it has been used so much. The work in the DanceTheatre Lab creates an environment ofunselfconsciousness because of an emphasis upon a moment to moment, relaxed okayness and congruity that is the foundation of our common criteria for beauty.
Permission and Allowing
As the practitioner or the instructor, it is my job to create an atmosphere where people look around and say, “It looks like I have permission to allow what wants to happen.” That approach supports the heuristic values which expose the participant’s inner process and supports rhizomatic criteria for how to move forward. It lends trust to the one who is improvising so that the work can move forward which, in turn, fosters a kind of ongoing checking-in of “I give myself permission to allow,” so the permission-giving is very quick. Otherwise, it gets into something else which is a permissive atmosphere; anything goes, versus very quick permission to trust your impulses, to surrender to your own unique way of following something. It makes my role as the one who ‘gives permission to keep taking risks’ essential but quick. As soon as that is done, we can move on so people are not looking outside of themselves for permission. As a teacher of expressive arts therapy, that is a cornerstone of how to be a good facilitator: very quickly create an atmosphere where the participant says, “I have permission to allow.” The atmosphere changes from permission, which is from the outside, to allowing, which is from the inside. The participant looks around, “Can I be vulnerable in this space? Okay, I can allow that because I see this is a space where there is real permission for openness.”
Flow and Stillness
Flowing into stillness flowing into flow. I know flow within stillness and stillness within flow. It is almost like flow is the movement of stillness. (Participant reflection.)
Phenomenological values in this writing as well as the entire creative process of the DanceTheatre Lab demand that I explore the nature of some of the basic phenomena of the creative act. When looking carefully at stillness, for example, it is generally misunderstood. Stillness is not stopping; it is really a restedness in the flow. The purpose to still my surface bodies and my surface self is in order for that vibrancy that precedes that to then fill me. It is not stillness for stillness’ sake. It is not to just take a nap or have a break from anything. The stillness is so that a more vibrant, beautiful me can have this body and so that I can think with more color and articulation. If my mind is not still I cannot really follow the subtlety of awareness. In the midst of that stillness there is so much color and play and delight, simultaneously. Then the delight somehow helps me breathe a sigh of relief that I am indeed in my life, in the heart of it. It helps me to be still and enjoy the moment. It is cyclic on one level: the vibrancy helps me to be more still and the stillness helps me to be more vibrant.
Lao Tsu, Feng & English (2011):
Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind rest at peace. The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return. They grow and flourish and then return to the source. Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature. The way of nature is unchanging. Knowing constancy is insight. Not knowing constancy leads to disaster. Knowing constancy, the mind is open. With an open mind, you will be openhearted. Being openhearted, you will act royally. Being royal, you will attain the divine. Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao. Being at one with the Tao is eternal. And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away. (p. 31)
Tenderness and Difficulty
Foundational to the expressive arts work that I do is having a relationship with difficulty that is tender. It is not about the difficulty; it is about how we respond. If our vulnerability can be encouraged in the midst of difficulty, if our not knowing how to be in the difficulty can be absolutely okay, then there is a certain openness to the difficulty. If we do not tighten, it does not feel hopeless. It is just not knowing. Not knowing how to be in the difficulty but being okay with not knowing, and the vulnerability of not knowing makes the difficulty not a problem.
I bring to the work what I know about creating an environment where difficulty, openness, vulnerability, and not knowing are all woven together. All of that creates what I call the phenomenon of tenderness. Directing the awareness of individuals and communities to the phenomenon of tenderness as an asset rather than a liability points to the essence of what makes this resource-oriented work consistently effective and impactful in the context of great difficulty. I do not have to move out of the difficulty too quickly. It is just difficult; no problem. I am vulnerable; no problem. I do not really know what to do with this difficulty; no problem.
Years of working with my own and other people’s difficulty and liking it, my positive relationship with difficulty, is in my body.
We spend maybe two to three hours in a dance or in a painting or in a poem or in a combination of them, stepping through some art form to create a kind of a structure, context, or place to be with the difficulty and give it form. Knill uses the term ‘frame’ to speak about holding or containing the experience (Knill, et al., 2005). If the difficulty has to do with longing, for example, or loss, or letting go, in that moment, if I am open or vulnerable and okay with not knowing, it is like creating a lab or a studio for staying with the question. “How can I be with this?” Not, “How can I fix it? How can I change it? How can I get past it?” Simply, “How can I be with this?”
Tenderness contains profound humility: a willingness to see if you can even find what the question is, never mind the answer. Even if I do not know what the question is, it is for us to create an atmosphere in the studio or the theatre where we are all working together to ask, “Where do we begin?” This openness finds its way into the participants’ writing, as well.
Foundational to my thinking is the secure belief that we all have incredible resources in us that the arts help us to access. My ability to enter into dance, for example, will tell me what I need to know, through my body, about what is next. “Right now, I do not know what is next. Oh, I am moving my left foot. Ah! That was good. Oh, now I am moving my right foot!”
What do I know about making art? What do I know about making DanceTheatre? What do I know about knowing? All of the prior influences come together in a bountiful convergence.
The excitement of youth has softened and is being replaced with a quietness within that has its own kind of vibrancy and vitality. I am grateful to my teachers who encouraged my enthusiasm and in their own way pointed to the place where that enthusiasm emerges from my core. This writing serves as a context for listening in a more core manner, in a more core-full way, to what I love, most specifically what I love about learning and what I love about creating aesthetic environments for learning.
Gedlin, E.T. (1982). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books
Knill, P.J., Levine E.G., Levine S.K. (2005). Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetic. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
About the Author: Markus G. Scott-Alexander, PhD, REAT, is an international leader in the field of community art. He is senior faculty at the European Graduate School where he teaches at the Switzerland and Malta campuses, currently playing a role in the implementation of an EXA and Global Health program. He is director of World Arts Organization, an EXA training program in Edmonton, Canada.
(Reprinted from the IEATA 2017, Edition 1, Newsletter)