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



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