Interview: Getting to the heart of the matter - Suzy Willson Q&A

Monday 24 October 2011

Theatre director Suzy Willson is the co-founder of Clod Ensemble, which produces projects using theatre, dance and visual arts. Her Performing Medicine: The Anatomy Season season starts with a promenande performance for an audience of 200 in the main house at Sadler’s Wells (Fri 28 – Sun 30 Oct) and includes others performances, conversations and workshops at venues across London exploring the relationships between anatomy and performance.

Performing Medicine is a programme orginally put together to provide training to medical students and healthcare workers – but there is plenty for the wider public and dance audiences in particular to enjoy and be intrigued by in this season…

An Anatomie in Four Quarters. Where does the title of your new work with Clod Ensemble come from?
The piece is inspired by the theme of anatomy and draws much of the choreography from anatomical images through history. The piece is also in four quite distinctive movements or quarters and the audience change their viewing position in each movement. We have called it An Anatomie because it is a breaking down of things into their component parts and, to some extent, an anatomy of the study of anatomy itself.

You draw a parallel between the theatre (in this case Sadler’s Wells) and the body..
Yes. The piece is concerned with the human body but also with the body of the theatre itself. Throughout the piece we move closer to the bodies of the performers. Anatomy is about getting closer to things to understand or analyse them – to reveal the structure of the body. We also reveal the structure of the theatre. The Roman architect Vitruvius made a parallel between bodies and buildings – it’s funny, we have a diagram of the human body and a plan of Sadler’s Wells theatre that are almost identical. In a way, it is the movement of the audience itself that cuts through or dissects the space of the theatre. The audience will begin to get a glimpse of the theatre mechanism and internal structure – attention is drawn to the lighting rig, the fly bars etc.

An Anatomie in Four Quarters is part of Performing Medicine: The Anatomy Season, a series of talks, workshops and performances. What’s the idea behind the season?
Clod Ensemble has always created outreach and participation projects. Making performance work in theatre spaces is just one of the many things we do. Ten years ago I started Performing Medicine, primarily to bring some of the skills I had learnt through theatre training to doctors. It seemed like the arts had many practical skills and ways of thinking about the world (voice skills, body language, interpretation, thinking about identity, representation, communication etc) that could be very useful to clinical practice. Now, Performing Medicine runs courses for medical students at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry and other medical colleges but we also curate seasons of work that engage the general public with issues concerning medicine.

So Performing Medicine is about what the arts can bring to medicine. What does a knowledge of medicine or, in this case, anatomy bring to the arts?
Many dancers and performers have a pretty good working knowledge of anatomy but have gathered that knowledge through an experience of their own bodies rather than in the ways that medical students learn anatomy – through dissection, for example, or through looking at diagrams or through examining patients. I would say the more understanding and awareness we have of our own bodies – how they function and change, how they relate to others and the environment – the better. It’s great to share different ways of thinking and seeing human anatomy in a different context, beyond the usual professional environments in which these things are discussed – the rehearsal room or the anatomy theatre.

For me, thinking about anatomy for this project has made me think again about the ways of looking at things and how meanings change or are created depending on the point of view you take. In this way there is a lot of similarities between performance and anatomy.

What drew you to this work at the intersection between art and science?
I’m not a scientist myself. My interest in medicine, particularly medical education, came from my own experience as a relative and friend of people in hospital. I felt that in my own theatre training (first doing courses in applied theatre when I was at Manchester University studying Drama and then at the Jacques Lecoq School) there were a lot of exercises and ways of thinking that could be useful to healthcare professionals. When I began this work I felt that ways that medical institutions looked at people’s bodies were sometimes brutally reductive and I was interested in offering medical students some other ways of thinking about human bodies and sharing some practical skills to help them use their own bodies more sensitively and skilfully when working with patients and colleagues.

What performance/workshop/event in this series of Performing Medicine would be of particular interest to dancers/dance audiences?
Hopefully quite a lot of the programme will be of interest. *Anatomy Lessons* at the Lilian Baylis Studio is a series of pieces by artists and will include contributions from Wendy Houston and Anna Williams who are making new pieces for this which I expect will be deeply rooted in dance.

There’s a UK premiere of Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods and Magali Desbazeille’s *sand table* – a stunning piece for live performers and a projected image of a body.

Sheila Ghelani’s piece is very beautiful and I find it incredibly cathartic. Peggy Shaw will be performing a piece I co-wrote with her called *Must* and there will be a workshop based on Jacques Lecoq’s work (the Poetic Body) which may be of interest to dancers unfamiliar with his ideas. There is also a workshop weekend where we will be exploring these ideas.

Another workshop that may be of particular interest is the Anatomy Through Movement weekend which is led by acclaimed teachers from a range of disciplines including Olivier award-winning choreographer Leon Baugh.

There has been quite a bit recently in the press about the links between art and science. Something that Bjork said in the guardianonline struck a chord with us: “Well, seems like science and art were pretty much the same thing for thousands of years until the industrial revolution and the enlightenment separated them. I feel the 21st century is going to be the one where not only can they unite again but they have to…” Any thoughts on that?
That statement opens up so many different questions. I don’t think I can be as bold as Bjork, certainly not in one sentence!

I think dividing and labelling ways of seeing the world into arts or science can sometimes be very crude and reductive and risks alienating people on the other side of the divide. There is also a complex web of power relations at play about different kinds of knowledge that has built up over hundreds of years and which can be very dangerous. It is very stultifying when people get stuck in old ways of thinking or abuse their power or privilege, whoever they are.

I work with many medics who feel intimidated by arts and many artists who are intimidated by science. But this does seem to be changing. Over the last 15 years many more artists and scientists seem to be interested in similar themes even though methods of enquiry are very different. I am sure that the internet and new ways of communicating to each other which involve technology and science as well as art and design have a lot to do with that.

I hope that Performing Medicine: The Anatomy Season will bring people together and audiences will enjoy the multiple perspectives on offer.

Performing Medicine: The Anatomy Season
28 Oct – 10 Dec, at venues including the Welcome Foundation and Whitechapel Gallery
Full listings: **”“:

An Anatomie in Four Quarters
_*_Sadler’s Wells, Fri 28 -Sun 30 Oct. Some performances already sold out.* **”“:

What’s On