On balance

18th century silk shoe
18th century silk shoe

Term 7

The pleated oak panelling on the walls of the Linenfold Parlour disappeared from view as I wedged on the heavy virtual reality headset, took hold of my high-tech walking stick and departed for Anxiety Island.  I was visiting the Footnotes exhibition as part of London Craft Week and Dutch designer Eelko Moorer wanted to test my stability in three virtual scenarios.  A number of research studies have shown the effect of Alexander Technique on balance, so I was curious to see what mine is now like.

Four artists, including Moorer, have responded to footwear from the London College of Fashion archives. The shoes are displayed at Sutton House, an atmospheric Tudor townhouse in east London, now run by the National Trust.  Oak linenfold panelling, Sutton House

The exhibition theme in the Linenfold Parlour was Balance, hence Moorer’s involvement, with his inspiration being five shiny black leather orthopaedic shoes selected from the archive. According to the Footnotes catalogue:

“In his work there is an underlying preoccupation with balance, often taken to extremes through his focus on the psychological and physical impact that objects can have upon the human form.”

Headset on and guided by a fashion student following my virtual reality trip on a separate screen, I moved in jump-cuts towards a busy outdoor plaza as a computer-generated crowd criss-crossed around me. Many people find this disconcerting and scream. But I was calm and stable on my feet, not worried about being jostled or knocked over.

Next my guide directed me to a narrow gap in a towering black wall. Standing on the threshold I noticed virtual spiders, from tiny to giant, crawling over the floor and walls to a rhythmic soundtrack of lightly clicking arachnid feet.  My heartbeat and breathing were steady but I declined the invitation to enter, calm but not quite ready to embrace the full spider experience.

The final destination was an outdoor space where suddenly the floor ahead dropped away, leaving a gaping hole and darkness below.  I stood happily, seeing clearly through the headset that there was no ground beneath me as I looked down, but completely aware that my real feet were firmly planted on wooden floorboards and I was in no danger.  After I’d taken the headset off my student guide thanked me for undergoing the experience, as not all visitors are up for it. At the same time she seemed disappointed it hadn’t unnerved me as much as she’d anticipated.

I, on the other hand, was cheered by ten minutes with the headset.  It showed that I’m living more fully in my body than before starting Alexander work and have a more co-ordinated and accurate sense of where I am in space. I hadn’t been drawn in to the virtual reality landscape but stayed calm and grounded without going off balance.  I’d given myself time at each stage rather than feeling rushed or disorientated by the changing visual cues. For me these are huge steps in improved proprioception, integrated body use and balance, and responding to the unknown.

Exploring the rest of the exhibition, I appreciated the beauty and craftsmanship of faded silk and worn leather, even though I can no longer wear narrow shoes with pointed toes. ” It’s not you, it’s me” I whispered through the glass of each display case. My toes are opening out, I’m putting my best spreading feet forward and I definitely need more space.

Woman's silk ankle boot, c 1860
Woman’s silk ankle boot, c 1860
Woman's silk buckle shoe, c 1780
Woman’s silk buckle shoe, c 1780
Woman's silk ankle boot, 1850s
Woman’s silk ankle boot, 1850s
Leather women's ankle boots, c 1870
Leather women’s ankle boots, c 1870
Leather woman's puzzle shoe, late 19th century
Leather woman’s puzzle shoe, late 19th century
Woman's leather boot 1880
Woman’s leather boot, 1880
Shoe tree for a military thigh boot, 1850
Shoe tree inside a military thigh boot, 1850
Leather ankle boots, 1870s
Leather ankle boots, 1870s
Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10
Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10
Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10
Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10

 

 

 

 

 

Letting go

Signpost showing different levels Term 7

This week my voice changed.  Reading aloud in class I noticed easier breathing and a richer resonance coming from a deeper place inside me. It’s taken a long time as muscle tension has only slowly undone and responded to Alexander work.

I welcomed it on Tuesday, but sometimes this muscle release has been awkward, as if I’m going through a second adolescence.  At these points my usual way of being no longer fits, brain and limbs don’t mesh and nothing works. I can’t move as I did before but haven’t yet found a replacement.  After sitting it out in teenage limbo for a while something shifts, new connections form and a different me starts to emerge. Like a breaking voice it’s unpredictable, but gradually I gain in confidence, the old pattern fades and I learn to trust my new self.

A second level of mental letting go comes as part and parcel of the new physical freedom.  I’ve found new patterns of thinking emerging, unstoppable and fresh like blossom after the cold contraction of winter.  I’m becoming more open and lively in all aspects of myself with less need to hold on to the safe ground of what I know. Spring blossom, France

In the wake of this has come the capacity, gently at first, to let go even more deeply. Life changes on a broader scale, inconceivable a few years ago, become a glint in the eye. From being desirable they slowly seem manageable then after a while inevitable.  Greater awareness, clarity and vitality are beginning to make profound change possible.

I’ve just let go of something important and long-standing in my life.  For 35 years I’ve had a share of a small piece of land with an old stone cottage set into a steep wooded hillside in rural France –  an antidote to London living and holding deep-rooted memories for me and family and friends. It’s been a formative, long-term and joint project with others. But now we’ve signed the papers and handed over the keys.

Before I left I laid my hands on the once yellow cornerstone where long ago an unknown mason had painstakingly carved two distinguishing marks, perhaps to ensure payment for his work. I passed the care of the traditional stone bread oven over to its resident adder, knowing I would never now fire it up and bake. I visited the small pool of spring water below the house where the wild boar come to wallow in the mud, snorting their way through woodland at dusk, heard but rarely seen. I lay one last time in the hammock, lizards rustling in the leaves below and the oak and hornbeam holding me swaying in the late afternoon breeze as the cuckoo song echoed down the valley. Oak and hornbeam from below

Letting go at any of these levels has been emotional and uncomfortable and I’ve needed energy, courage and time. It’s been a multi-layered process and will continue in other forms long after the end of my training. I feel loss and sadness for what I’ve left behind, but I’m relieved and lighter, intrigued about what comes next.  The patterns and places of the past have served their purpose but they’re no longer what I need to move freely into the future.

Bories (stone shepherds’ huts) and lavoirs (communal washing places) in south-west France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

 

Animal attraction

Manege, Jardin des Plantes, ParisTerm 6

It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège?  Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?

Tai Chi in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.

Skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions.  Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Bird skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Turtles, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Spines in Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris

The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology, Paris

Prehistory, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Fossils on the first floor

At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this.  It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human?  I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.

Feet of Bactrian camel, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Feet of Bactrian camel – thick pads between the toes stop it sinking into the sand
Deer skeleton, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Deer use strong muscles in the hind legs to jump. Front legs act as a pivot for changing direction.

There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement.  And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché  standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.

Model of human foot, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.

Arteries of the brain, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.

Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.

Dodo Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Vertebrata by Quentin Garel
Vertebrata by Quentin Garel