Striding Out Of The Body And Into The Mountain
I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
- John Muir
We are all products of our environments according to self-made businessman W. Clement Stone. If that is the case, it should come as no surprise that I often feel between places, straddled across the boundaries of urban and rural geographies.
It is probably no coincidence too that I work with an interdisciplinary curiosity, hesitant to define myself specifically as a maker of dance.
When I was younger I walked everywhere. The council estate where I grew up sat on the brim of farmland and wide skies. I could walk down a small snicket (an alley way or ginnel depending on where you're from) that would act as the threshold into a different sense of time and rhythm.
Walking offered me agency as a child and a teenager. I walked away and into places, looking far out to the horizon and expansive moors. Dancing and walking were the ways I both escaped from, and connected to, the environments around me. I danced into fictional worlds, the inner world of my own body and the aesthetics and techniques that come with the territory. I walked for pleasure and necessity, as I got older it was a free way home at night. I learnt to think through my feet as though in Aristotle's Peripatetic school, only I didn't know about him back then.
The constant reconfiguring of one's understanding, of how to interact with and relate to environments, is a key factor in dance making, whether inside a studio, on a street corner or the side of a mountain. After all, we are always in relation to something or someone or somewhere.
For the best part of 9 years I have most consistently been working with Body Weather as a physical practice. Japanese artist, Min Tanaka, developed this movement training and, to put it very briefly, one of the basic principles is to consider our bodies as ever-changing environments within and in relation to the larger environment which, of course, is also constantly changing. This practice goes beyond producing dance. I could even dare say that it is a philosophical approach rather than just a physical training.
I am part of a small collective that organise workshops in the UK with Body Weather practitioners who come from all corners of the globe. At the beginning of June we will be on the Isle of Eigg off the west coast of Scotland. On June 5th, whilst we are there, it will be World Environment Day. The theme changes yearly, but somewhere in their aims is the belief in individual power to become agents of change.
It seems quite apt to be on this off-grid island at this time, with the islanders contributing in to their common goals of living sustainably. As a visitor though, I have to ask myself, what is my contribution to 'the environment' that is not just thinking and talking about change, but actual action? How do dance artists and choreographers create change to environments through our art making? The scale of these questions has often overwhelmed me.
Some time ago I read the collection of essays in, Hope Beneath our Feet, edited by the dancer, Martin Keogh, and more recently Lucy Neal's, Playing for Time, to which I made a small contribution amongst a plethora of artists with 'recipes for action'. These collections remind me to look closely at the details of a practice, and how to explore other approaches that may bring me closer to creating agency and change for myself, and possibly for others. They have encouraged me to start small - and that seems like a good way to get things moving.
In my work, I am still walking: alone, with others, with a variety of intentions or walking with a purpose. I don't name my work as site specific, but I am interested in how the porosity of place can seep into the bones, the muscle memory to inform how you move, feel and interact with both micro and global attentions.
For the past few years I have focused less on performance making and more on facilitating experiences physically. I have lead walks that contain invitations to explore and question how we choose to be in spaces, how we are governed by space in both urban and seemingly 'wild' environments. To a dancer some of the invitations would seem very ordinary, but outside and with other conditions such as changeable weather, textures underfoot, the myriad of information we receive and welcome into our perceptions is multiplied. Our tacit knowledge comes into its own, and I feel like this is the place I want to investigate further. I believe that this small starting point, sensitizing ourselves to our surroundings, can contribute to changes in how we live. Like I say, it's small things but, for me, it's a way to begin thinking about how to work consciously with the environment, with all the problems, the politics and disturbing forecasts.
During the winter this year I began some research for a new project with support of Creative Scotland's Artist Bursary scheme. The work begins with the motivations to explore the mountainous area of the Cairngorms Plateau that Nan Shepherd wrote in her book, The Living Mountain, during the 2nd World War. In her book Nan describes her physical and spiritual relationship to this place through all her senses and physical immersion. I had been working with this book as a guide for another walking project I was doing in the North East of Scotland the year before.
Through this project I was leading walks with experiential invitations for people to explore. I was looking for new perspectives and, beyond the voice of Nan Shepherd, writing and my own accounts of journeys undertaken.
Inside this work is a greater need to connect with others, to stop walking alone and to find common ground and ways of gently collaborating. I began to speak with other women about their experiences of the Cairngorms, trying to find a language that emerged from interests and experiences that could begin a new movement work.
I have so far been in contact with around 70 women who experience this particular environment through many different lenses: from the silent gliders riding with the eagles, to the serious female mountaineers facing mental and physical challenges.
Walking in winter in the Cairngorms certainly offers a new movement vocabulary to acquire. Learning to walk in thigh high snow and 40 mile per hour winds, to move with appendages such as crampons and ice axes across snow brings a whole new relationship to this environment. I look at photos of women from the Scottish Mountaineering Club from the early 1900's and have a greater respect for these women. Often walking in winter relying on so much equipment to stay safe, warm and dry alongside a whole range of other skills of observation and knowledge to stay avalanche safe or to dig yourself a snow hole. To be in these mountains at this time of year is an incredible experience, but there is always part of me that is aware of the extreme power of our environments.
At the time of writing this I'm back visiting my family on the estate in Bradford, West Yorkshire. I go past the local shops and I see a few changes. They are small but very significant in this particular landscape. On the shops' shutters are the words HOPE and BELIEVE are written in brightly coloured letters.
I want to leave you with a sense of hope and belief that dance makers, somatic practitioners and movement artists have a huge contribution to make to bringing a sensitivity to the world. To remind you to have a great summer and to do something on June 5th. I encourage you to let the outside in, as a way to feel the small movements that can become larger than the sum of their parts.
Currently based between Scotland and London, Simone has been working as an artist, performer and producer for the past 15 years working within contexts between Dance, Theatre and work exploring walking and environment.
She has developed a variety of walking/movement/environment based projects for both urban and rural contexts including lead sensory walks and solo long distance walking projects such as The Heilan Way project and the 28 day walking performance with Tamara Ashley for The Pennine Way: the legs that make us. She has worked collaboratively with a number of artists most notably her work with Neil Callaghan. She is also currently training to be a Feldenkrais Practitioner.