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

 

 

 

 

 

The hunting season

Hunting look-out post

Summer holidays

Hunting in rural France is etched into the landscape.  Not just in the blood of deer or boar, but in structures and traditions embedded in local life. It’s common to spy simple wooden look-out posts at the field’s edge, camouflaged car parks, or towering structures giving high vantage points.  I don’t venture into the forest if I hear guns and dogs, so when I chance on them these places are silent and sinister. Even on a sunny day, the wires, pulleys and platforms for hanging game always hint at some darker purpose.

Shelter for cars

Wooden look-out post

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hunting days are noisy, and start early in the morning mist.  There are distant horns, the jingling of dog bells, then much shouting and intense activity as hunters hurtle by car down steep woodland tracks to the latest sighting. Gunshots echo. It goes quiet at lunchtime, as the rough-hewn tables and benches in the woods become scenes of satisfied meaty feasting.  A forgotten dog wanders by, sniffing its way home.

This year I was present at the start of the hunting season in mid-August.   It was a national religious holiday for something quite different, but the celebrations for Saint Hubertus, the patron saint of hunters, seemed to take centre stage.  Behind the altar in the village church hung an embroidered stag, magnificent in his pagan glory. A troupe of musicians on traditional hunting horns played out the service, then performed to the crowds outside before heading for the cake stall and the vin d’honneur we’d all been waiting for.

Cake stall

Hunting horns

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the celebrations were over, I wondered about the implications for the body of being a hunter. FM Alexander had something to say about this. Concentration on one spot was to be avoided, he wrote, it stops you from seeing accurately what’s going on around you.  More important for the true hunter was a general alertness, an ability to take in the whole landscape, to be prepared for whatever happened wherever it happened.  He also saw in animals hunting in the wild a reminder for humans to wait, hold back and not spring into action immediately.

Thinking about hunting over the holidays gave me a way of seeing the changes in my own perception.  I’m moving away from a focus on detail, what I want to happen, what I’m hunting, to a wider awareness of my own reactions and what’s going on around me. I’m less likely to be wrong-footed, more likely to pause, see what’s hidden, what’s really out there.  It’s taking time, but I’m becoming a better hunter.

Gargoyle

Player and hunting horn

Angles and Spaces

Owl (2016) Bronze
Owl (2016) Bronze by Terence Coventry – stillness yet the possibility of effortless movement

Term 4 (of 9)

Recently I came by chance on a sculpture exhibition, mostly of birds and animals (Against The Tide at the Pangolin Gallery). Something about the steel and bronze creatures reminded me of what I’m learning in my training, but it took a while to work out what.  I think it’s a sense of internal space, coupled with angularity, creating stillness and movement at the same time.

The sculptures were by Terence Coventry (1938-2017), a Cornish pig farmer who returned to sculpture in his fifties, and died earlier this year.  In a short film from 2010, Coventry said

“My interest is in trying to express form in a rather angular way, in simplified planes… Parallel space or parallel lines are not going anywhere.  But if you’ve got an opening space or a closing space, it’s either being compressed or opened up… so the space around it is doing something as well as the three-dimensional form”.

He was talking about birds taking off into flight, having observed them for many years while ploughing his fields. But his words reminded me of the internal angles and spaces we need in our bodies to create poise and ease of movement.

Spaces come in various guises and places.  To stop us clamping our arms tightly to our sides, we imagine having space under our armpits to hold a ripe tomato or small egg without breaking it. As our bodies lengthen and widen under the teacher’s hands, we find more space in the torso and ribcage for our internal organs and our breathing becomes less forced.  As we bend or sit down, we keep the space from sitting bones to the top of the spine as one piece, so we don’t shorten ourselves as we move up or down.

When we lie on the floor in semi-supine at the end of each day’s training, we think of expanding internally, allowing the space between joints to increase. We also take up more space externally, in our daily lives – I’ve got taller as I’ve done more Alexander work and I’ve gone up at least one shoe size as my feet have opened out. I’m more conscious of the space I take up in the world, whether passing through a crowded street market or sitting on a busy bus, rather than shrinking myself to fit with other people and their requirements.

The angles in Coventry’s figures create an opposition between body parts – limbs, wings, torso -that enables balance or movement. As I progress in my training, I’m starting to think of the body in a simplified way, as a series of angles – head and neck to hip joints, hinging with hips to knees, and knees to ankles. If we can keep the internal spaces open, lengthened and not compressed, then the angles between joints spark off one another to send us up from sitting to standing in one easy movement. Or they hold us, like his bronze owl, balanced easily within ourselves, ready to fly off effortlessly when we need to.

In some of Coventry’s pieces there is a narrowness and stiffness that is the opposite of what I am looking for. Even so, in the sculptures I saw, he used angles and spaces to suggest dynamic movement, balance, strength and possibility. I’m moving away from compression and beginning to open up, and I think that’s why his work so resonated with me.

Bird I and Bird II (2015) Bronze
Bird I and Bird II (2015) Bronze
Cormorant I and Cormorant II (2011), Bronze
Cormorant I and Cormorant II (2011), Bronze
Table I (2016) Steel and glass
Table I (2016) Steel and glass
Swifts by Terence Coventry
Swifts II (2013) Charcoal on Paper
Boar II (1999), Bronze by Terence Coventry
Boar II (1999), Bronze
Acrobat (2016) Bronze
Acrobat (2016) Bronze
Joyrider IV (2016) Bronze
Joyrider IV (2016) Bronze
Woman Releasing Bird Large (2016) Bronze
Woman Releasing Bird Large (2016) Bronze
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel