Embodying the University
by Alexandra Baybutt
Lesson one: we don’t know
I paused by the purple cladded Tour Guides who were showing a small group a picture of the building from a bird’s eye view, The Cruciform, the St George’s cross design. ‘The entrance though is off-set a little to the left. To this day we don’t know why, but…’. I carried on pushing my bike past. An off-set centre was enough for me. Displace the viewpoint, readjust the pelvis to see the building square-on, consider different centres of attention. Embodying the university is taking place all the time. I collect these passing-by overheard partially seen moments that co-exist in-between events not intended for me but including me; not for their choreographic potential to rework them in another dramaturgy, but for how they choreograph me.
Lesson two: always bounce
In April, I collaborated with the organisation Independent Dance in the frame of their research called ‘Dance, Intimacy and the Civic’. At UCL, I hosted a meeting with colleagues who all function in a plural space of artist-teacher. Or, dance artist-facilitator. The issue we all face is how finding space to simply meet together in London is expensive, or if it’s cheaper, it’s over-subscribed. This meeting reflected the ways in which bouncing between institutions and infrastructures can involve redistributing the resources, and creating little pores in the institution to allow other people and things to flow in, and perhaps some things to flow out. Being temporarily institutionally aligned at UCL meant the advantage of having something to share.
How do you respond when something in the flow of the work
is interrupted, messed up, shifted off-centre?
Facilitating process-orientated creative movement work is often grounded in somatic studies (which is the sensing of movement from the inside out, exploring seeing and sensing form and reforming). Sometimes this is a foundation to then move towards specific techniques, sometimes towards creation of choreography or performance, sometimes towards injury prevention or rehabilitation when injury might not just mean soft tissue but nervous system and coordination. The aims of such work amongst these colleagues varied depending on the context: Higher Education or professional conservatoires; prisons; youth groups; open public workshops; retreats. But the tactics we discuss resonate across the variations. How do you respond when something in the flow of the work is interrupted, messed up, shifted off-centre? As facilitators, often working without institutional continuity and working solo, such occasions are up to you to hold. In that courtyard of a space between the end of the session and going on your way, a lot of feeling gathers and considerations bounce. What could I have done differently? Was that the most ethical way to ensure what happened didn’t make anything or anyone worse, left out, considered, cared for? What could have been set up differently? Did I end that time together that acknowledged the process we all went through in a way that wasn’t too glib but neither too precious? Is there even anyone to complain to?
Lesson three: keep it subtle
Gathering together with colleagues was to exchange our work. It was intended that we might learn from each other and find a sort of cathartic space amongst peers for what can be otherwise lonely and disjointed. Holding such a gathering at the IAS invited the occasion to explore what it might mean to enter through the off-set entrance towards the Portico, along a diagonal to the south cloisters. We gathered together outside the gates: some people knew each other, others didn’t, the small circle of us getting slightly larger as ‘so and so, meet so and so’ flicked on the points of connection or recognition. So much of somatic work and dance training is about entraining a possible agency of awareness. We float open questions about things like what is already there in sense perception to notice, or what can be shifted in one’s attention through conscious choice. I asked my peers to pair up, and to give each other a small ‘noticing’ task to do whilst entering into the building. Don’t think too hard about it. It can’t be too extensive as we had best not draw too much attention to ourselves – I don’t know the security guards, they don’t know me, and I don’t expect movement beyond the pedestrian to be particularly welcome.
Lesson four: keep your senses open
spot high heels
notice the trees
look for the columns
notice the ground beneath your feet
see how many people make eye contact with you
meet a bench
Lesson five: activate your push reflex
The doors in UCL are particularly large and heavy. These awkward contact improvisation partners, unyielding and imposing, evoke the difficulty of passing a threshold, of alleviating difficulty, of getting in and getting out, of the time taken to stop and reorganise oneself to find the best leverage.
They protect, resist, offer security.
They protect some, not others.
They are more resistant to
some bodies than to others.
Embodying the university is one of responsivity, and response-ability. But my ability to respond is to an extent shaped by years of learning how to move, how to move doors, how to navigate things going wrong, how to shift my centre. The institution changes some doors, some fire hazards, some barriers, some widths. It can do more. It can continue to pay attention to itself in these in-between moments, these thresholds and encounters. It can consider designing for the everyday, not only for crisis breaking points. Some people push far too hard, others not hard enough. ‘Impact’, a concept so beloved in academic institutions, begs the question of how soft you could be, maybe need to be, to still affect something? Remember to trace the ripples from where the stone has broken the surface of the water, not just the splash itself. Where could you push for others? Who pushes for you? Could a slower, softer university be a kinder and more equitable university? Could a slower, softer university leave less cause for complaint? What would it look like and feel like if the university really mobilised its institutional courage at every threshold?
Emily Beausoleil, Embodying an Ethics of Response-ability, Borderlands, 14(2), 2015
ALEXANDRA BAYBUTT works as a researcher, movement educator and
artist in the field of movement and dance.