Mannequins on tiptoes

Mannequins in Oxford Street
When is my next Alexander lesson?

Last week I went window shopping, not for clothes, but for mannequins.  I strolled along London’s Oxford Street to see what messages fashion mannequins give us about body posture and movement.

There is a special language of mannequin movement, and this became obvious as I looked in one shopfront after another.  Female models only ever wear high heels or stand on tiptoes.  They never have their fibreglass feet flat on the ground, so back pain must be endemic among the mannequin community. This applies whether they’re dressed for the beach, a night out, in casual flats or running gear – they’re never balanced solidly on the floor.  Male mannequins, on the other hand, are always grounded, in flat shoes or bare feet.

The men have a military bearing, whatever their activity. Often they face straight out of the window, in a no-nonsense fashion. Or if they’re moving, they’re purposeful, going somewhere.  They mostly have heads with no features or hair, topped off occasionally with a jaunty hat or sunglasses. Their hands hang down by their sides.

Female shop models are more complicated. They often have groomed wigs, full make-up, a range of uncomfortable body positions, and a variety of hats and bags.  Two distinct female poses were repeated along the shopping street. In the first, they held their arms by their sides, wrists bent, hands facing away from the body. This is something we practise on our training to help release the wrists, but it’s not a pose from everyday life, so I’m unclear as to its purpose in mannequin world.

In the second, they stood with one leg crossed in front of the other, throwing them off balance, making movement difficult, and also affecting their breathing. One window display had larger models than anywhere else, but while the proportions seemed closer to those of most women, the crossed legs remained, making sure they stayed where they were. A female runner, dressed for the part, was balancing over backwards, going nowhere.

One department store is worth a mention. This was Debenhams, which had splashed out for its Tropical Fiesta beachwear windows.  Their three-quarter length mannequins stood out from the crowd – yellow, with interesting articulated arms that gestured in a human way.  Their heads were poised. They balanced fruit head-dresses, in line with the tropical theme, and used their bodies like real people. I warmed to the store and wanted to turn up the volume and join the party.

The usual criticism of mannequins is that their dimensions are unrealistic, diversity is lacking, and they give women in particular an unattainable image of how they should look.  This time I was struck more by the poses the models, particularly the women, were placed in.  Some were unusual, but many of them looked like many of us – off balance, pulled down or twisted, restricted in breathing, bags dragging down one shoulder, shoes cramping our feet and hurting our backs.  We don’t see good body use in the aspirational showcase windows on the high street, so how can we know what it looks like?

High heels, hands out to the sides

Three mannequins, hands out to the sides

Hands out to the sides

Handbag over the shoulder, standing with legs crossed

Three women with legs crossed

Male mannequins standing

Male mannequins paddling in bare feet

Male mannequin with sunglasses leaning

Man walking

Woman running

Debenhams Tropical Fiesta window display

Group of female mannequins

Mannequin seated

Photos taken in shopping streets in London in May 2017

Presence on stage

Alexander poster

Term 4 half-term

I love sitting in the theatre waiting for the curtain to go up, and the low hum of anticipation as the audience gathers. As my training continues, I’m interested not just in the play ahead but in observing how the actors move and speak.   The production I saw recently allowed me to do just that. Brecht’s Life of Galileo, was about a topical subject – science versus dogma – and presented the cast (11 actors playing over 50 roles) with a variety of physical challenges.

First they had to negotiate a narrow circular stage, poised between groundlings lounging on cushions in the middle and more conventional seating all the way round.  At all times they had their backs to some part of the audience, so their voices needed to project without strain.  Galileo, played by an actor of muscular physicality and energy, was on stage for the majority of the three hours, with long monologues – tiring for one performance, let alone the two back to back on matinee days.

The other cast members played multiple characters with constant changes of costume, ageing in body or shifting accent in each new scene. They stepped over sprawling spectator feet in the semi-darkness, or interacted spontaneously with the audience on the floor, remaining in character but with sufficient urgency to motion people out of the way quickly.  And they moved through a range of emotions, from despair to jealousy, relief to disappointment, exultation to resignation. All the while they had to retain their self-possession, remember their lines, be sure of their footing and remain confident their voices would carry.

I reminded myself that FM Alexander was an actor and reciter, with voice problems that led him to develop the technique. We know that he kept up connections with the theatre when he arrived in the UK in 1904 and was often known as ‘the breathing man’. So it’s not surprising that the technique has become embedded in the world of performance and acting, and is taught at many of the major drama schools in the UK. Actors, and often directors, appreciate its value in supporting performance of all kinds.

It’s a good way for actors to find the stamina they need to sustain a show or a long run in the theatre. It encourages spontaneity, and the ability to deal with the unexpected, important in rehearsal and on stage. They say it increases presence, and the capacity to listen and respond as the drama unfolds. And it helps with breathing, voice control, spatial awareness and nerves. Actors use it to avoid injury, and to step into character as they go on stage, and quietly leave their part behind when the play is over.

Theatre is about illusion, so I don’t know if the show I watched was embodied Alexander or not.  But I noticed the relentless physical energy,  and recognised the toll it must take on the body. As the theatre emptied and the audience headed home satisfied, I hoped the cast were able to lie down in semi-supine, allowing their spines to lengthen and the tension of the matinee to release, so they could regain their focus, composure and  energy for the next audience arriving in two hours’ time.

Read more about Alexander work in the theatre in Touching Lives by Alexander teacher Sue Laurie, who writes about her work with actors, directors and puppeteers at the RSC and the National Theatre.




Neck and neck at London Zoo

Two giraffes at London Zoo

Term 4

I’ve been on safari in London this week, visiting London Zoo.  It’s not that I hoped to tick wild animals off on my bucket list, but because I wanted to observe with an Alexander eye how animals move. We often talk about this in our training, and compare it with the upright posture and gait on two legs of human beings. I hoped to spot the head, neck and back relationship working easily in the animal kingdom, and also see what I could pick up about use of hands and feet, and co-ordination and flexibility.

First up were the gorillas.  Their wonderful faces and expressions make them seem so nearly human, but instantly I spotted a few differences.  I watched an adult in the sunny outdoor enclosure, with a baby straddled on its back, move gently along the grass on all fours, then stop and lift a front hand to eat while maintaining perfect balance for the baby on top, without any disturbance to its head, neck or back. We did something similar this week in our training, going on to all fours and imagining champagne glasses balancing on our backs. It was not straightforward to get into position nor to stop the imaginary glasses from spilling over while lifting a hand and balancing on three limbs only. Gorillas can walk on two feet as we do, but mostly they get around on all fours, using their knuckles to walk.  To enable them to do this, their finger bones are wider than ours, giving extra strength. Their wrists and hands have evolved to provide stability and take their weight – up to 270kg in the case of a large male.

I then saw one drop from his high wooden platform using hands and feet to come down a rope.  As he approached the ground his legs melted into the grass softly and gracefully, and off he went to forage for more breakfast. I would have reached the bottom of the rope with a thump, and would not have been able to saunter off into another activity with such easy poise. The gorillas’ strength was obvious, but I was impressed also by their speed and agility, and their grace, fluidity and playfulness.

I spotted some lovely heads, necks and backs working in harmony in the penguin pool, at otter feeding time, in the giraffe enclosure and the meerkat den.  Further on, the Galapagos tortoise and the Komodo dragon were also happy to display their wares.   But the neck star of the day was undoubtedly the shy okapi.

Okapis are the only living relative of the giraffe, and their normal habitat is dense rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here was this modest and secretive creature openly displaying the strength and length of its neck, as it raised its head underneath the overhanging leaves.  There seemed to be a great distance between the tip of the leaves and the okapi, but it kept its head raised, its tongue gently rolling in its mouth, eyes alert and neck stretched until the wind brought the leaves into touching distance.  Suddenly out came the lizard-like tongue, silvery grey and able to extend right up to the tree to lick the leaves.  Then the tongue retreated again, there was another watchful wait for the leaves to sway in the right direction, and off it went once more.

As with the gorillas, one part of the body moved, but the rest stayed still and in balance, while feeding continued with quiet focus.  There was no surplus muscular activity, all parts of the body worked easily and in harmony. The okapi prepared for the moment of action, but without unnecessary tension beforehand.

I saw perhaps 11 or 12 different species of animal during my visit.  They were in captivity and not in their natural environment, but I was struck by their natural posture, how fluidly they moved, and how well adapted their bodies were to their habitats, their food and their predators. I came to the Alexander Technique because, over time, mis-use of my body in my daily activities led to back pain, and I needed to learn a new way of moving. By contrast the creatures I spent time with at the zoo were fully at home in their bodies and moving with complete ease, whether feeding, playing, swimming or sleeping.

Adult gorilla carrying baby
Adult gorilla carrying baby, with second young one just visible underneath its chest
Adult gorilla on wooden platform, knuckle-walking
Adult gorilla knuckle-walking on the wooden platform before climbing down the rope
Baby gorilla
Young macaque, head turned, well balanced on one hand and  both feet
Humboldt penguin at ease in the water
Humboldt penguin completely at ease in the water
Otter at feeding time
Oriental small-clawed otter, using its partially-webbed paws to hold a piece of crab
Otter at water's edge with tail
These otters have a streamlined shape with a flattened tail to help propel them through the water.
Heron observing otters' feeding time
Heron observing otters’ feeding time, in balance but alert and ready to move
Meerkat looking adorable
Slender-tailed meerkat – the long thin tail allows them to balance when standing upright
Tiger, resting but alert
Sumatran tiger, sleepy but watchful in the sunshine
Galapagos turtle, neck extended as it moves slowly across the grass
Galapagos tortoise – its shell is relatively light, but they have vast fat stores, so they can survive without food and water for over a year.
Komodo dragon, scary but poised
Komodo dragon – their skin has armoured scales with tiny bones, making it into a kind of chainmail.
Giraffe feeding
The atlas/axis joint at the top of the neck allows the giraffe to tilt its head vertically and reach more leaves with its tongue
Two giraffes at London Zoo
Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as humans, but each one can be over 28cm long
Okapi waiting for the leaves above to be in the right place
The okapi opens its mouth, releasing its tongue to lick the leaves above
The okapi’s tongue can be up to 18 inches in length, and can reach its eyes and ears
Lion asleep
Asiatic lion with a long back, asleep in the zoo’s new lion enclosure

The photos were taken at London Zoo over the May bank holiday weekend