Clod Ensemble movement workshop with osteopath Leon Baugh

As an actor and puppeteer with many years of dance classes behind me, I am greatly interested in how and why my body moves the way it does. This is particularly true when it comes to injuries that impede my movement, and how to both deal with them and prevent future injuries.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take part in a free workshop on the body and how to keep it moving and performing the way we need it to. The workshop was run by osteopath and former dancer Leon Baugh, and aimed at dancers and other performers for whom movement plays a key part of their work.

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Leon Baugh working with a client

Leon is a qualified osteopath, Anatomy in Motion practitioner, acupuncturist and sports injury massage therapist working in London. Before training as an osteopath he enjoy a career as a professional contemporary dancer, dancing with companies such as the Hofesh Schechter Company, before becoming an Olivier Award winning theatre choreographer.

On a snowy Sunday in early December I made my way into London (the trains were miraculously running), dressed in my usual movement get-up of leggings and baggy top, armed with a water bottle and notebook. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the following seven hours would turn out to be some of the most useful of my career.

Persistent back pain

About nine years ago I injured my back. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but over a period of several days a pain started to appear in my lower back and grew worse and worse, until one day I couldn’t move without horrendous painful spasms coursing up my spine. I’ve seen physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors. I’ve tried pilates and swimming. Although each of these things gave me some immediate relief, it never lasted (though I can credit the swimming with improving my mobility and getting me walking again). After two weeks the intense pain had settled down to a persistent dull ache, and I was able to move about more or less as I had done before, with one exception – fear. The pain and immobility had been so terrifying, that ever since then I never made any sort of bending movement without an element of fear that it would happen again.

In more recent years I have injured the cartilage in my left knee playing badminton, and also feel niggles in my right. Perhaps lower back and knee problems are not the best recipe for a life as a puppeteer, but I think it can have some advantages, in that it makes me more aware of how I need to look after and protect my body when I’m working.

I’ve often wondered if the knee issues could be directly related to the original back injury, and through Leon’s workshop I discovered that this could very much be the case. I learnt how, when we suffer an injury, our body adjusts its centre to cope with this. However, long after the injury itself has healed, the body can continue to perceive this off-kilter centre as its true centre. This leaves us with a greatly reduced amount of mobility. Could my body have readjusted its centre when I hurt my back, and when it didn’t revert back to its true centre once my back had healed, could this off-kilter centre have put extra strain on my left knee, making it more susceptible to injury?

Listening to the body

Leon took us through several exercises to tune into our bodies and become aware of any trouble spots. Alongside my work in the theatre I work in communications at a university, which involves sitting at a computer for most of the day. Recently I’ve been very aware of how I’ve almost tuned out my body as I jostle the crowds in the tube, cram onto the train, or sit for hours staring at my computer screen. Leon’s workshop reminded me to listen when my body speaks, and to actively ask it how it’s feeling by taking the time to tune in.

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Leon Baugh

Most of the other participants at the workshop were professional dancers, but the majority of what we covered could be directly applied to working as a puppeteer or other kind of movement practitioner. The warm-ups Leon took us through will be particularly useful, following the basic principle of preparing your body for the work ahead by doing a lower-intensity version of that same activity (for example, if you’re going to be jumping lots in a rehearsal then it makes sense to prepare your knees by doing bends and low-impact jumps). One revelation was to not always bend knees over toes when warming up (shock horror!). You cannot guarantee that in a rehearsal or performance you will land perfectly every time, so you need to prepare your knees for those times when you don’t.

There is so much useful information I took away from the day that I can’t possibly include it all here or I’ll end up writing a book! Suffice to say, that one workshop alone has changed the way I think about my body and its pain, and I can’t thank Leon and the organisers, Clod Ensemble, enough.

This workshop was organised as part of Reboot, Clod Ensemble’s free artist development programme for emerging and established practitioners. The programme provides a space for performers and performance makers, teachers and academics to explore ideas and develop their practice.

 

Images: courtesy of Leon Baugh

6,000 miles away part 3: Bye

Photo: Bill Cooper

Photo: Bill Cooper

The piece we had admittedly all been waiting for, Guillem’s solo Bye, arrived at last. Choreographed by Mats Ek and set to Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the piece was a delight to watch.

Mats Ek is not only a choreographer, but has also staged productions of various plays in his native Sweden. A former stage director and ballet dancer, he has become a guest choreographer for many of the leading companies in the world. His style is known for conveying the feelings and emotions behind a storyline rather than just the narrative itself.

This style is beautifully apparent in Bye. The choreography bounced from flowing arms and legs to clunky child-like movements, channeling joy mixed with discovery. Guillem’s exuberance and energy filled the stage as she leapt and bounded about, belying her 48 years. This looked like a woman rediscovering freedom, breaking free from the confines of her daily life and revisiting that childlike joy of dancing just for the sheer pleasure of it.

As first the cardigan and then the shoes and socks were removed, I sensed the carefree abandonment of youth, like when you strip off your socks and skip across the slippery stones to paddle in the icy cold river, knowing you’re late for dinner and will surely get a telling off, but just wanting to feel the water run between your toes.

The staging of the piece included a screen the size of a doorway, on which we were first met with Guillem’s eye looking around at us all before the face pulled back. The projected video footage showed Guillem trying to figure her way out to us, a human leg unfolding from around the side as the film Guillem stuck a leg out beyond the parameters of the screen. This use of film in harmony with the physical, tangible dancer delighted the audience.

The ending of the solo saw Guillem put back on the cardigan, socks and shoes and return to the world of the screen, where a curious crowd had by now gathered to watch her dancing antics. As she returned from whence she came, the people seemed accepting and the crowd dispersed as they presumably went back to their daily business. It conjured in my mind images of village life, where everyone knows your business and leaping through the fields would most definitely draw a crowd. Once returned to the flock and what is considered as ‘normal’ behaviour, the interest wanes and you return to routine… until the next time you venture out without your shoes and socks on!

6,000 miles away part 2: Rearray

The second piece of the evening, Rearray, was choreographed by the internationally renowned choreographer William Forsythe. A former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Forsythe was director of Ballet Frankfurt for 20 years before founding The Forsythe Company. He is an Honorary Fellow at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, holds an Honorary Doctorate from Juilliard, and has pioneered new approaches to dance documentation, education and research.

Photo: Bill Cooper

Photo: Bill Cooper

Despite the brilliant Sylvie Guillem dancing in this piece, I have to say it was my least favourite of the three. The music, by David Morrow, was discordant and jarring and made me feel strangely uncomfortable. There was one particular note whose high pitch physically hurt my ears, and brewed within me a sense of violence that put me on edge and filled my muscles with the urge to lash out. That said, a friend sitting next to me enjoyed the piece, and said he could detect a pattern within the music so the discord no longer seemed apparent.

I can see how the music set the mood for the choreography, which was brilliant. Massimo Murro partnered Guillem with strength and grace, the two dancers complementing each other in their physicality and lean, flowing arms and legs. I got a feeling of a disjointed relationship, of two people not quite on the same page – perhaps wanting to be, and at times achieving this with beautiful moments of harmonious choreography, two bodies reaching an elegant symmetry, but then falling away to their individual rhythms.

The choreography was firmly rooted in a classical training, but at parts it would veer off to something more abstract than I was accustomed to, which really opened by eyes to the artistic possibilities of contemporary dance. A stalwart of classical ballet, it could be said my preferences are a bit tame!