Feature: An Inventory of Falling

Wednesday 7 September 2016


Definite Article is Dance Umbrella’s series of long form, in-depth articles on the subject of dance and movement in the widest sense. The year’s Guest Editor, dramaturg Ruth Little, is curating a series with the collective title: The Institute of Controlled Falling. Alongside three of her own essays on the subject of falling, choreographer Liz Lerman and singer-songwriter Karine Polwart have contributed illuminating and moving reflections. Now, in the final piece in the series, Suzy Willson, co-director of acclaimed performance company Clod Ensemble, writes on brinkmanship and fragility, and on the company’s exploration of falling and the meanings of falling over two decades….

‘There is a dent in a wall at Battersea Arts Centre where the actor Jason Thorpe banged into it night after night in Clod Ensemble’s first ever production, Feast During the Plague (1995). The force of the bang caused him to fall backwards.
The piece was based on Pushkin’s ‘little tragedy’ in which a group of villagers throw a party in the midst of a great plague much to the disgust of a local priest. It depicts a society living perpetually under the stress of disease – drinking, dancing, weeping, fighting, saying the wrong thing, falling apart, putting themselves back together and falling apart again. So, when Jason, dressed as a ghost with a tablecloth over his head, banged so hard into the wall it was very funny. A relief.
This was the first of many falls I have watched in the 21 years that Clod Ensemble have been making performances.
I have never had any formal training in dance. After doing a degree in Drama at Manchester University, I studied for a year with the brilliant teacher Jacques Lecoq at his school in Paris.
Lecoq said every dramatic terrain operates in a different plane in space. Tragedy happens on the vertical plane, melodrama on the diagonal and clown on the horizontal. Falling can be comic and tragic. Clowns are nearer the ground so there is less far to fall than for elevated tragic protagonists who have a lot to lose. When the fool laughs he falls into a somersault. When King Lear falls the whole country dissolves into conflict and destruction.
In his book Why is That So Funny John Wright talks about the ‘banana debate’ – how an accident, a fall or a near miss can provoke humour. He recounts the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran’s hypothesis that the common denominator of all jokes and humour is an unexpected twist that makes us reinterpret all the previous facts. Citing the banana skin routine:
‘A portly gentleman striding purposefully along, only to slip on a banana skin and be sent sprawling to the floor’, he explains that if the man was lying in a pool of blood it would not be funny.
‘Laughter evolved as a way of signalling the all clear’.
I’ve been struck while writing this piece by how the falls in our work seem to signal extreme moments. Whether comic or tragic – a fall is an interruption, a clearing, an opportunity to start again, a ground zero.’

Clod Ensemble’s work frequently incorporates falling as a metaphor for precarity, vulnerability, despair, desire and recklessness. From its roots in Lecoq’s practice of embodying natural phenomena and forces, to its groundbreaking work with medical practitioners in their Performing Medicine programme, Clod Ensemble investigates the movement dynamics of our personal, social and political lives. Ultimately, in Willson’s view, the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with falling challenge our linear and binary ways of thinking, and bring us to the in-between and incomplete space where new possibilities open up. Throughout their work, in the words of physicist Marcelo Gleiser, “imperfection and imbalance are the seeds of becoming.”

Read the article in full here and browse the series:

Ruth Little is a theatre and dance dramaturg, a teacher and writer.

Photo: Clod Ensemble, Red Ladies

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