The following exercises were developed for ISTA master classes taught in New York in June and October 2011. They are informed and inspired by my own training with butoh masters such as Murobushi Ko, Waguri Yukio, Seki Minako, SUEN, and Shinichi Koga, whose company inkBoat I performed with from 2000-03. These imagery exercises can be applied to performer training to teach students the following key concepts:
– Manipulation of space: Working with the body in ways that change everyday space, working beyond one’s own kinesphere, working beyond one’s singular perspective and becoming part of the space;
– Manipulation of time: Condensing and stretching time beyond daily time, working with the rhythm of images;
– Living the experience: Allowing images to change the performers body, space, and time;
– Transformation: Following a journey through images, allowing the image to dance instead of one’s idea of the image.
There is no “right way” that any of these images should be performed. In fact they should differ on each student as everyone’s mind body experience is unique. However, there is a proper technique, which is to “become” the image. In other words, one should work toward transcending personality and ego-consciousness, and move as if one simply is the image. Students should be encouraged to engage full in the image exploration with their whole being, to allow it to drive the improvisation, so that they might surprise themselves with new sensations and experiences. I find it is often best to give them a brief overview of the sequence so they recognize the words I am saying while deep in an improvisation, but to mostly live-direct their experience with many rich details so they are already in doing mode, rather than thinking mode.
Generally I divide classes in half so everyone has a chance to do and also to watch, and then we discuss their experiences after both groups have experienced the image improvisation. I remind them that they are not performing for one another, but rather allowing us to watch them research.
Transformation guided image improvisation – multiple states: metal theme
Begin with a solid form of metal. Make a shape and fill it with the hardness of steel. Everything is metal, including your arms, legs, spine, neck, and face. You try to move but cannot. Gradually discover how this metal creature moves. Explore very tiny rotations in the joints that allow you to change your shape. Be very specific about your movements. Imagine these rotations moving as gears. Travel in space exploring your unique mechanism. Play with magnitude and time (short – long rotations). Support your movement with breath and/or sound. (Allow 2-5 minutes for improvisation and discovery). Imagine nerves connecting the joints of your metal body, moving like electrical currents throughout your body, connecting the sequences between your joints. Transform your entire body with this image, down to the spaces between your fingers, behind your ears, the back of your knees, and under your feet. Take your time. If you get stuck or drop out, go back to stillness and reconnect with the mental image, sense its vibrations, resonance, and movement qualities. Allow yourself to be moved by these energies. (Allow 2-5 minutes for improvisation and discovery). Your electrical currents short circuit and catch fire. Sparks fly as explosions violently change your form. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery). The heat intensifies and your metal begins to boil and melt. You become quicksilver (like in Terminator). (Allow 2-3 minutes for improvisation and discovery. Recognizable shapes emerge from the quicksilver – first a foot, then a hand, then a head with no facial features. Gather these randomly appearing pieces into a new creature with a different form than your first metal creature. (A little more quickly this time) go through the process of learning how the creature functions and travels in space – explore joints as gears and nerves/electrical current connecting your body, making sequenced movement more fluid. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery) Your new metal creature is equipped with magnetic light beams, shining from tiny openings in your hands, wrists, eyes, chest, belly button, knees, tail, etc. Use them to help you change shape and travel in the space. Notice other metal creatures in the space and experiment with connecting with them energetically, and moving throughout the space. Avoid developing a human narrative at this point – Follow the images and sensations where they take you. You may be pulled away from one connection by another – allow these interruptions to happen and follow where it leads you. (Allow 1-3 minutes for improvisation and discovery) Your light beam system gets jammed and you freeze in an extended form. You have to revert to your back up system of nerves/wires and gears to travel. Gradually these systems begin to rust. The gears stick together and your whole body becomes rust. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery). Your rust body completely disintegrates and turns to dust. Sometimes large chunks of metal break off and you collapse, bit by bit. Eventually your whole body settles into a pile of red dust. The wind comes and blows your dust across the landscape. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery).
Transformation guided image improvisation – multiple states: water theme
Begin with wave patterns, travelling up and down from bottom of feet, through legs, pelvis, and spine to top of head. Travel in space with this pattern. Shift the orientation of the pattern so that it travels in diagonal spirals through the body, moving in and out of the floor, and in all directions in space. Play with magnitude, time and effort quality. Support your movement with breath. (allow 5-10 minutes for improvisation and discovery).
Imagine waves crashing on the shore of a lake or ocean. Using wave patterns, transform your entire body into this image, down to the spaces between your fingers, behind your ears, the back of your knees, and under your feet. Take your time. If you get stuck or drop out, go back to stillness and reconnect with the mental image, sense its vibrations, resonance, and movement qualities. Allow yourself to be moved by these energies. (Allow 3-5 minutes for improvisation and discovery) You come to a deep place in your body of water, a very cold place. Your water gets thick and heavy, slowly freezes, and turns to ice. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery) The sun shines on your ice body, slowly melting it. Sense yourself melting molecule by molecule. Every once in a while, chunks of ice might break off. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery) Find yourself on the edge of your ocean or lake, where it turns into a great river. Follow the river as it flows into a stream, then a brook, moving over rocks and muddy earth. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery) You pass over hot, volcanic earth and become a boiling, bubbling hot spring. Tiny bubbles bump against each other as they fight to get to the surface. Move very fast and very tiny on the inside. Sense the bubbles moving up your body gradually, increasing the pressure inside you. (Allow 1 minute for improvisation and discovery).
Once you reach the surface, you transform to hot steam. Your whole body becomes steam and floats above the surface of the earth. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery) You settle into a pool of water and cool off. It begins to rain. Sense the raindrops on your surface. (Allow 1-2 minutes for improvisation and discovery) The pool/puddle overflows until it becomes the lake/ocean again.The rain stops, the sun shines. The breeze causes ripples in the water. Sense the pull of the tide. Move with it. Come to stillness. Notice the small waves travelling deep within your body. (Allow 1 minute for improvisation and discovery)
Solo single state image transformation exercises
Note: it’s nice to have a long time to explore these transformations, and then repeat them in a shorter time as more of a dance that can be used in a choreography.
Molting snake (5-15 min) Begin by imagining your skin peeling after a sunburn. You don’t need to mime the action – imagine someone or something else slowly peeling away thin layers of your skin, going deeper and deeper until you are peeling the muscles away from the bones. Take your time and progress randomly throughout the body – it doesn’t need to be one sequential action. Peeling one layer of skin may lead to sensation somewhere else on the body – follow the sensations and explore the movement as you sense it (don’t think through it logically). Incorporate the flesh of the face into the experience – avoid commenting on your condition with facial expression and instead simply experience the sensations. Allow the dance to change your orientation to gravity – explore levels, disrupt your central axis (i.e. normally your head is on top of your shoulders), and play with timing. Keep a sense of a lighter, faster, sleeker being emerging, and explore how that creature moves through space.
Bug-eaten leaf (5-15 min) Begin in a shape that feels like a leaf you are familiar with (i.e. poplar = long elliptical, Canadian maple = ~ a wilted DiVinci man). Sense your texture, the water, chlorophyll, and other plant matter coursing through your leaf veins. Sense the integrity of that structure. Imagine a single caterpillar crawling along your surface, the vibrations it’s little feet make as it walks, and it’s little mouth starting to munch. Allow the image and sensations to change your structure. Gradually add more and more caterpillars, and more and more munching, eating up all the juicy plant food, until you are just a shell of cellulose plant fibre that can be blown away in the wind.
Blooming ﬂower (5-15 min) Begin as a seed, buried deep underground and hibernating during winter. Imagine the snow on the surface of the ground above you, and sense the hard protectiveness of the shell. Deep inside your centre, sense a little light/life force. Magnify that until it becomes a shoot that breaks through the seed, which takes significant effort. Sense the warmth of the sun on the earth’s surface, and push up through the earth toward the sun, while at the same time growing roots down into the earth. Sense the difference in air quality as you burst through the surface of the earth. Keep growing your plant shoot, develop leaves, and then a tiny bud. Opening the bud is a similar process to opening the seed, it takes significant effort and a build up of inner life force. As the bud starts to blossom, sense the weight and moisture of the petals, the fragrance and maybe even colour of your flower. Don’t worry about identifying it as a specific flower. Work from sensation and develop specifics as you experience them. You may end up with a hybrid flower, which is fine. Keep opening the flower, and follow the image through until the sun dries and withers the petals, and they crumple and turn to dust. The sun dries the whole plant out, and the whole thing turns back to dust in the earth, where you can gather your energy into a seed and begin again if you wish. Or you can follow the process through several blossoms and just end with blossoms.
Start upstage right as a group with a relatively small sense of space, and move on the diagonal to downstage left into a vast sense of space. Sense the transitions in the landscape and let them effect your movement.
– Snakes start in a pond, maybe under some leaves, move out into the sun, which dries your skin and you begin to molt, keep travelling through landscapes until you reach a vast desert.
– Flowers start as buds and bloom, uproot and travel through your green landscape getting bigger as you go. End up in a cathedral, mosque, or other similarly vast and vaguely spiritual structure where you settle on an altar (a mountain top can be a spiritually vast place too if you don’t want to use a religious reference).
– Leaves start in a forest, get eaten by caterpillars until you are nothing but the plant fiber shell, which is then blown along the landscape until it reaches a high mountain top.
Group single state image transformation exercises
Seaweed (3-15 min) You are seaweed rooted on the ocean floor. Sense your thinness and slippery surface. Feel your plant fibre structure being moved by the water. Sense the space around you and other seaweed plants around you. Connect to them through the current of the water. Sense the delicacy of waves happening in their structures and allow yourself to be effected by it. The ripples are travelling through water so it takes longer than sound waves or wind – there is a slowed down, muted, underwater quality to the impulses you receive. Keep at least half of your awareness on your own experience as well, so that you are also sending information as much as you are receiving it. Imagine the impulses coming from outside you – a fish or a boat swimming by, a bird landing on the surface of the water, the tide pulling you. You don’t have to make anything happen – if you tune in to the image it’s already happening. Then gradually uproot your plant and explore journey using the entire space, simply allowing yourself to be moved by the currents in the water.
Building Crumbling (3 min – as slowly as you like) As a group, form a solid building with right angles (without touching but very close is best). Stretch your awareness out to your collective edges and sense the strength of the entire structure. Little by little an earthquake rumbles beneath your feet, shaking the foundation. Sense the cracks in the entire structure and the domino effect they have in your own portion of the building. Work with very small impulses. Sometimes chunks of the building fall off. Little by little the entire structure crumbles and falls to the ground.
Glacier (5 min – as slowly as you like) Start up/midstage centre and move downstage centre. As a group, you are a glacier. Your whole body is ice – stiff, cold, solid, brittle. Your eyes are ice. Between your bodies is ice. Move as one unit very slowly forward, with the tension of a glacier moving (not easily). Small cracks and fissures may gradually separate you. After a while, you reach the edge of land and large chunks break off the glacier until each of you is a floating iceberg.
¹BUTOH TRANSFORMATION EXERCISES: Compiled and conceived by Tanya Calamoneri Extracted from Scene 2011-12 March Issue 3. www.ista.co.uk