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The Parasol Project creative process

By Sophie Stanley

Phase 1 (2022) saw us kicking off the whole project. Meetings with partners during the lead-in period sparked ideas and left me overflowing with inspiration. Through discussions with Shankar, Tomoko and Wes I began imagining how the Parasol dancers and staff could embody the research that DPAG and the humanities department undertake, and what creative process might answer the question their research addresses - How do we become what we become?

Our process for phase 1 included the following topics:

  • Imagination vs reality. I loved the images Wes showed us from his book (Ravenna, the person with the elephant head etc) and learning from Wes what they could represent for us in this project - not just someone who has an eye on their knee, or an elephant’s head - but someone whose representation has been hugely influenced by the imagination of the beholder. To begin embodying this concept we drew around our bodies on huge sheets of paper, capturing as much of the reality of our body map as possible, a shape determined by the processes studied by Shankar and Tomoko, and then spent time letting our imagination reshape that outline - adding colour, sequins, cats ears etc. Features of these artworks were then embedded into the performance for phase 1, for example; One of the dancers painted sweeping arches of red, yellow and orange between his hands on his body map, so we included a dance in which we improvised with big sheets of red, orange and yellow tissue paper that arched, puffed and swished about as we danced.

  • Coordination between cells: Both EmJ and myself were inspired by Shankar sharing with us the different ways in which cells communicate with each other in order to bring about a certain outcome (eg: from a distance vs up close, with contact etc), and wanted to reflect that in our choreographic processes. We asked our dancers to listen to Shankar talk about embryogenesis and in small groups write down key words that JUMPED out at them. Body Politic’s dancers went through the same process. We then swapped a selection of these chosen words via Whatsapp - resulting in the Parasol dancers receiving a batch of words selected by the Body Politic dancers, which they then proceeded to translate into dance moves for the performance; Dividing, Expanding, Growth, Progress, Develop, Change and Body.

  • Mammalian heartbeat onset: I loved learning about how our first heartbeat begins, in particular the rhythm of this process, how it moves from a chaotic, uncoordinated situation, to one that is ‘in tune’. It mirrors the start of a dance class - we arrive in the room from the complicated webs of our individual lives, then through some kind of warm-up we get ‘in tune’, we coordinate. The rhythmic quality of the heart led to us working with Merlin, a percussionist, and experimenting with shared rhythms as a means to ‘tune up’ and get in sync as a group!

For Phase 3, sees our return to the project at its final stages, revisiting some topics and processes from our work in 2022 and exploring some new ideas that we didn’t have time for last year. This year’s performance tackles one particular question, ‘How do humans coordinate?’. I thought we could have a lot of fun, and successfully recap our learning from last year, by exploring the different ways in which we make decisions within a group, choreographing collaboratively around the following four themes, listed here in the order they appear in the performance;

How do humans coordinate?...

  • Through shared rhythms: Following the same process that embodied the mammalian heartbeat onset as in phase 1, we experiment with moving from a disparate, uncoordinated group to a united rhythmic mass of humans. We use call and response clapping games with Merlin the drummer to ‘tune up’, followed by a rhythmic sequence in a circle to synchronise our movements and energy levels as a group. This has been our warm-up for rehearsals as well as the first section of our performance.

  • Through the influence of others: We created dance moves using the same embryogenesis key words as in phase 1 (Dividing, expanding, growth etc). The resulting choreography has been staged in different ways to show how we can exert influence on each other. At one point it is performed as a duet, with no set rhythm or timings, but the dancers coordinate their movements non-verbally, with lots of eye contact. At another point the choreography is performed by a group, they use a mixture of breath work and physical contact to stay together as a troupe. Finally a smaller group perform the choreography with a completely different energy, faster and with more aggression, synchonising their movements through a shared dynamic.

  • Through the influence of a ‘thing’: We have been exploring the way a thing, in this instance a big white sheet, can impact our movements, behaviour and ability to coordinate as a group. This part of the performance is improvised, leaving space for the imagination to run riot, and for me as the director to accept the random and unpredictable… something that I was surprised and delighted to learn still exists in the world of scientific research.

  • Through the delivery of instructions: The last part of our performance is a set sequence of choreography, devised by me and delivered in a fairly traditional way as a dance teacher, “do this move on these counts” kind of thing! I have always found this a fascinating process when working with a particularly diverse group of dancers who all move and learn in completely different ways - how can we ever achieve unison, and does it even matter? Last term, before phase 2 began, we spent a bit of time learning a line dance. The act of attempting to follow an incredibly linear routine with minimal creative input was surprisingly meditative and satisfying! This section of the dance is a tribute to our line dancing moment, the journey we undertake in receiving or delivering instructions, and a gentle nod to the fact that this group of dancers is not just a performance troupe, but a workforce. (every Thursday these dancers meet at Parasol Project to prepare lunch baguettes for local vulnerable community members and NHS staff, they dance with me at the end of the day to relax, re-energise and unwind!)

Finally - the set for our performance in phase 2 is a reimagining of our body outline artworks from phase 1. Restaged this time round to appear like laundry as an acknowledgment to one of the rules that had to be followed by patients of the Radcliffe infirmary in the 1700s - that they must help with the laundry!


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