It is unusual for education projects to become an integral part of any company’s creative and artistic output. In this respect, STEP (Saburo Teshigawara Education Project is something of an exception, an educational initiative that has been transformed into a piece of company choreography.
Generally, most major professional dance companies’ education work plays a supporting role to the main artistic activities of choreography and performance. It’s often seen as a valuable sideline (sometimes merely a worth one), important for training, raising awareness, outreach and audience development. Dancers may lead workshops repertory, or illustrate the choreographic process.
STEP began in 1996, the result of a proposal by the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) that Teshigawara’s Company Karas collaborate with The Place to develop a youth education project. It ran for a year, with exchanges of workshops and videos between London and Japan. The participants not only learnt about the work of Karas, but also worked towards their own piece directed by Teshigawara. The culmination was Invisible Room, presented at the ICA as part of LIFT 97, to considerable critical acclaim and enthusiastic audience response.
Building on that success, the collaboration between Karas and The Place continued with STEP 2 in 1999. This time the co-producer was Stratford Circus, a new purpose-built arts centre in East London (due to open later this year), and the project ran concurrently in London and Helsinki, where the groups finally joined together for the final performances in both cities this past summer.
Chris Thomson, director of the community and education department at The Place, pointed out the two most unusual aspects of the STEP project: first, that a choreographer of international standing was working directly with local youth groups, and second that the process of creation began with asking searching artistic questions of the participants rather than by the more usual process of teaching routines and devising phrases.
Three of the participants in STEP 2 were visually impaired, and Teshigawara’s artistic questions related accordingly to ideas of vision, sensing and the body in space. The resulting piece, Flower Eyes, is a deeply sensory experience – by which I mean that vision doesn’t dominate, as it frequently does; that other, more internal senses come to the fore.
Flower Eyes plays with light, and sound and sensation. It opens with sound, not sight: the intricate music of a violin. Soon the violinist appears in a projection above the stage, but it’s only gradually revealed, as the light comes up, that he’s been right there live on stage all along. And it’s only when he’s led off stage that we begin to suspect that this virtuoso, Narimichi Kawabata, is in fact blind. It feels as if this opening section has begun from a shared experience – sound – and gently led us to our separateness, sight.
Their breathing forms a meditative undercurrent, a gentle tide which swells and ebbs. And our breath, too, gradually merges with its soothing rhythm.
That double sense, of maintaining our common connections while simultaneously revealing our differences, marks the piece as a whole. It’s set to a medley of different music, and a spoken poem (please leave that out if it’s performed again); but the most striking sound is of breath. Throughout, the 13 young performers breathe slowly and deeply, in synchrony. Their audible breathing forms a meditative undercurrent from which the action emerges, a gentle tide which swells and ebbs. And our breath, too, gradually merges with its soothing rhythm.
The action itself, then, seems to float on the surface of this tide, now fast, now steady, now sinuous, to shifting patterns of light and shade. Stuart Jackson, the second blind performer, jerks and twists on the spot as if possessed by restless energy, an energy he unleashes into a series of whirling spins. Another dancer curves and coils her torso as her arms reach around and outwards, as if they were sensors registering the space around her. Her fingers stretch and fold; I imagined her hands to be the ‘flower eyes’ of the title. The pieces closes with that image, the dancers receding into darkness as the light fades, leaving the ghostly pallor of their arms waving like antennae, and finally just the hypnotic spell of their breathing.
If STEP 2 was a considerable challenge for the performers, it’s clear that Teshigawara considered it a creative challenge too. Final congratulations, though, go to the participants, who performed with remarkable conviction, holding the stage with a powerful sense of presence and creating an aura of quiet strength.