Yesterday I was invited to work with undergraduates at Chelsea Arts College in Pimlico. The session was part of a course on “Subtle Interventions” run by Lorrice Douglas, an artist and social dancer. Lorrice wanted to introduce her students to the physical element of site-specific work and thought that my approach to jazz dance would work well with people who had never danced, may never want to dance, but who might be incorporating the body into their created spaces.
After a brief introduction we dissolved the seated, intellectual, seminar for a standing circle and I started to work with them on turning their natural walking into rhythms. During our planning session, Lorrice explained that, due to the embracing nature of the course, she was hoping I could somehow avoid reference to specific eras which would occur as soon as I used a piece of music (be it Ragtime, Dixieland, or Swing for example). This made perfect sense, so I began with a metronome. This was interesting to me because I never use a metronome but had often wondered about whether it might be useful. I will write about this in another post. Suffice to say, it was the best solution in this situation. Serendipitously, my metronome is a very old family object and a little off time, so any concerns I had about using mechanics to introduce life-pulse to a silent space was very well served by my wonky time-keeper.
We soon gathered three distinct rhythms that the students were comfortable to move between. Upon Lorrice’s suggestion, we opened the door and went into the corridor, down the steps and out into the courtyard. Lorrice held the mechanical metronome and I clutched my mobile phone which was also keeping the same time through an App. The movements were still quite exaggerated as the students worked through the rhythms. Someone had the idea to go into the foyer of the art museum next door and so we released ourselves from the block formation (required to hear the metronomes) and, using our own internal pulse for tempo, took one of the three rhythms each and wandered across to the other building. Suddenly, the group seemed to grasp the idea which was to own the rhythm as if it were their natural walk. Although nobody was dancing per se, and the group was reasonably small (ten people), everybody we passed in the museum noticed the difference in our walking. Someone asked where the music was. The desk staff smiled broadly. The security guard seemed ready to react if and when we took it up a notch. Someone took a video and an older man tried to copy one of the rhythms before leaning against the wall laughing.
When we gathered outside afterwards and discussed our improvisation, it was not the footwork that they had learned but the kindly attention and smiles that they raised in strangers that turned an earnest group of young student-artists into people with ideas and a grin. I left them going home in pairs and groups, streetlights flickering on in the darkening afternoon. They were choosing the edges of the pavement, where their walking took shape and sound in the rustling leaves.