SKYLIGHT
Reflections on teaching and performing improvisation

Interviews with Terry Sendgraff and Ruth Zaporah by Susan Banyas

"Once, when Denys and I had been up, and were landing on the plain of the farm, a very old Kikuyu came up and talked to us:
      'You were very high up to-day,' he said, 'we caould not see you, only hear the aeroplane sing like a bee."
      I agreed that we had been up high, 'Did you see God?' he asked.
'No, Ndwetti,' I said, 'we did not see God.'
'Aha, then you were not up high enough,' he said, 'but now tell me, do you think that you will be able to get up high enough to see him?'
'I do not know, Ndwetti,' I said.
'And you, Bedar,' he said, turning to Denys, 'what do you think? Will you get up high enough in your aeroplane to see God?'
'Really, I do not know,' aid Denys.
'Then,' said Ndwetti, 'I do not know at all why you two go on flying.'

Out of Africa Isak Dinesen


Terry Sendgraff and Ruth Zaporah co-founded Skylight Studio in Berkeley, California in the early 70's and began to explore improvisational forms based on movement experience. The experiments boomeranged between ritual, therapy, tightly choreographed, and wildly improvisational performances. Terry and Ruth no longer work together, choosing instead to refine their own distinctive branches that stem from this central interest in combining awareness and performance. Ruth's Action Theatre "connects acting and movement as expression of the self-presence." Terry has integrated her work in dance, gymnastics, trapeze, and gestalt therapy into a form she calls Motivity that takes place "on the floor and in the air and includes experiences in verbal and non-verbal communication." Both have become respected teachers of improvisation, performance, and living and have taught (collectively) throughout the U. S. and in Europe, Canada, and Australia.
      It is not surprising that both women, being West-coast based, picked up on the early experiments in what is labeled the Human Potential Movement, and placed some of the processes and ideas squarely into the performance arena. What is significant is that the work continues to be responsive, like good improvisation. Refinements are born from close observation-of self, of students, and of the processes themselves. Terry told me once that teaching was so integrated into the 'discover' of Motivity that she could not separate one from the other. Ruth, mother of four children, said she couldn't really distinguish between her functions as teacher, performer, and mother. Perhaps this devotion to the integration of life and work is the key to "seasoned" teaching, and to approaches that are serious and playful, definite and changing. Motovity and Action Theatre are well-thought-out, and as such, possess a great deal of stamina as forms that are useful to dancers, actors, therapist, and others. Always I am surprised at the simplicity of what is offered in Action Theatre and Motivity (not that they are easy) and always, too, very moved by the depth of what is discovered. As Ruth says, she is working on a "theatre that feels appropriate to my understanding of consciousness."
This interview may illuminate some of the processes that these women of Skylight use to encourage a fuller expression and a more precise practice for stretching the physical and emotional limits as well as the imagination. Why go on flying, indeed, without perhaps a more expanded purpose? My notes appear in italics.

[Susan Banyas]


Terry
      I'm interested in the psychological effects and implications of moving in space, through space. When you experience motion in new ways, what is the emotion? I think sometimes I'm attached to the work in trapezes because I've gained an identification with them. This is not the important thing. What is important is when I introduce the work to someone who has not done it before, there is a joy. I see this look on their faces, and their bodies become alive, like children when they experience something and just like it and want to do it. There is a sense of freedom, of relief. The trapezes are a vehicle, a way to get people started in a process. They are creative. To watch people floating and spinning through space is exciting, but more important is that through the experience, people begin to open up.
      "Just walk," Terry begins class and I remember now these simple beginnings. Today there's disco music on the tape recorder to walk to. That's new. Before, class, warming up, talk was casually tossed around. Is it good or bad to take aerobics? Terry has just taken an aerobics class and had fun, she reported. Our warm-up that day was aerobic with focus. We didn't stop moving for 30 minutes. Walking turned into jumping, turning, leaping, dropping into crouches from the air, and combinations of aerial leaps, turns, and forward lunges. The ease with which she introduced each additional move, the teaching by doing over and over until we begin to pick it up, the steady disco beat, and her coaching from inside the situation created an exploration of technical footwork, breath, weight, shape, mental states, and physical endurance. She had tricked me again. Combined modern dance, aerobics, gymnastics, alignments, and awareness into one simple warm-up. "Now walk and rest."
      The essence for me in my work, as a teacher, performer, and therapist, is in focus, being able to focus. When something is bothering you, something htat happned before you came in, or might happen when you leave, it's very difficult for you to focus on being in the present, which interferes with and blocks the flow of movement. There is an energy flow in the ground that comes up through the body-an actual physical flow. Sometimes this gets blocked, at the waist or heart, or throat, and there is a feeling of fragmentation. In a sense, you are disassociated. That is very uncomfortable, and it's uncomfortable to be in the presence of someone like that whether they're performing or being a teacher, or a student or lover. I know that feeling. There were times when I hadn't the foggiest idea what was wrong. Crying comes very easily to me. I'm great at drama and so to cry is not difficult, like blowing off steam. I worked with a woman in bioenergetics (bioenergetics, esoterically speaking, is the study of energy). She as very careful to direct my breathing down into my belly and I began to understand that underneath the crying, there are very deep, strong feelings. Crying is a nice way to avoid those deeper feelings. Laughter can work the same way-become a superficial cover-up. I experienced a tremendous amount of power in that work. Not power over others, but I'm finally the once in control here. So the aim or goal of this movement work is to integrate, to feel the ground before the air, to take the movement as it comes, and to move, through the breath, to a deeper sense of attention. Whether on the floor, or on the trapezes, performing or improvising, the focus is focusing. I have found this to be very healing.
      Walking again, we are asked to verbally respond to the last 30 minutes. Terry seems to have an interest in investigating the experience through immediate response, like an anthropologist conducting field work while the Natives are actively engaged in the activity. I've always found this useful, especially as I feel more able to admit what I was or had been or wished I'd been feeling or thinking.
      As a child, I had difficulty concentrating. There was severe criticism and deprivation and my lack of self-esteem has been a problem all my life. Maybe that's why I chose this work. It doesn't take much to throw me off. I need to constantly remind myself that to stay in contact with myself enables me to stay in contact with you. It's a moment thing. I'm not sure I understand this, and the talk about "energy." In his book, The Silent Pulse, George Leonard talks about moments when people experience profound energy states, like the martial artist who finally lets go of the ego and is in rhythm with the natural forces. Put simply, in my work as a teacher and a person, I am watching how my breath moves me. My contact with others depends on my coming back to the sensations in my body, my breath. I rather imagine I'll spend the rest of my life in the process of practicing that, and applying that watchfulness as the most fundamental elements of my teaching.
      The word "energy" comes from the Greek, "to work, the force or vigor of expression." The definition expands to include the idea of being "possessed at any instant by a body by virtue of its motion." Terry reminds me that the word Motivity as defined in the dictionary is "the energy that produces motion." Tracing the roots of Terry's dance work back to her early training with Hanya Holm illuminates the interest in kinesthetic awareness. Holm worked with Mary Wigman in German and Terry states the Wigman would spend an entire class working with the movement of the hands, isolating and exploring movement from an internal experience. This biological and kinesthetic understanding of motion, combines with Gestalt work, which also originated in Germany, became the foundation for dance techniques of Alwin Nikolai (another student of Holm). Al Wunder, another Bay Area performer, was a student of Nikolai and brought the work to the West Coast in the early 70's. Al, Ruth, and Terry worked together initially, and Terry describes this early relationship as important in creating a base from which to explore movement, performance, and the application of Gestalt principles to their developing forms. Terry has often used the technique of blindfolding students during class in order to intensify and clarify the kinesthetic awareness. In one class, she reversed the situation and blindfolded herself.
      There were all sorts of responses from the students to my being blindfolded-anger, delight, relief that I wasn't watching, disappointment that I wasn't watching. Anything unusual will get an unusual response. We're so patterned, so used to things. Then we're not aware. Once you put the blindfold on, you've eliminated that data that comes in visually, so you have other data to pay attention to. The idea of focus is the same thing-bringing the self back to the body. Without the blindfold, you tell people to pay attention, and a bird flies by and they look at the bird because that's the way our nervous systems are set up.
      We move to the trapezes, beginning again with just walking, and gently escalating to a series of more complicated moves, with rests in between. "It's important to rest in between." The trapeze takes muscle. "Stay with the tension of it without trying to hard." Terry encourages us to go a little beyond what we're used to, to experience "a little more risk." The tempo picks up again as people swing and move, fly, walk, flip, and sway. There seems to be a collective sigh of relief as people move with what looks like (feels like) natural grace and stamina. We end with a sitting exercise, each balanced on the trapeze with legs folded yoga-style, gently swinging. Terry asks us to place our attention on the knot of the rope in front of us and to feel the peacefulness of that moment. There is a clean, breezy feeling in the room. The groundwork for the day has been carefully, sensitively offered.
      I always have something in my head to teach and I'm fully prepared to drop that because I never know what will happen when students arrive The concepts are always there anyway. I'm always working on grounding and focusing, but I just sort of play this game of planning. Well, I'll dot his today. But I always look and see what's going on, and begin from there.

Ruth
      I'm working on condensing my teaching so I can get things to happen faster, so that someone can spend less time with me and get whatever information they need and process whatever they need to process and then move on. In the beginning, I was afraid to push people because I didn't know where I was pushing them. Right off the bat now I'm insisting on things and not taking any less and so people understand that. An example? People would go out on the floor and do an improvisation within a particular score. 10 minutes. Afterward, I would give them gentle feedback. Now it seems I hardly ever let an improvisation run for 10 minutes unless everything is sailing and I'm very caught up in what's going on, which is great. Otherwise, I stop continually and people get frustrated because they have to go back and start again and do it a different way. I say, "I don't believe you. Do it again. I want to believe you." There's much more tension in the classes, but it's a working-hard kind of tension, so classes are much more exciting and I'm much more present, much more involved with every minute. I'm just trusting my perceptions more and I think that can only come with the time I've put in.
      Pre-class chatter turns to body talk. Is it good or bad to run? There is mention of the imminent fear of arthritis from running. Ruth is voicing the warning, admitting she runs and likes to run. Somewhere in the thick of laughter, comments on hairdos, burps, stretches, sighs, and jokes, the class begins with only a slight shift of attention. The recognizable gossip becomes now a focused and ritualized expression of movement and voiced sound.
      Since the source of the work I deal with is feelings, if I'm not experiencing the feelings that the students are projecting, then they're not experiencing it. They're showing it, rather then being it. My only monitor for that is my own feeling response. If I'm watching someone and I see their technique and their process and my body as the watcher is shifted all over the place, going from head to heart, head to heart, then I know something's screwy out there, that the person is going from head to heart.
      I remember a day in Ruth's class when I was having great difficulty relaxing into an improvisation. My partner was coming toward me, and my head was spinning with mnay ideas of how to respond to her. I imagine people saw a very stilted body and a very confused mind at work. I was worried about what to do. Suddenly, my partner, who was unflinchingly focused, transformed into a screaming warrior and charged me with full force. My mind gave out. I was terrified and physically reeled back. Ruth shouted, "Yes! Now you are with it."
      There's also a way I don't take any of it seriously, which is what I was talking about in class today. We got to a typical block point. All these people had been learning all this information about form. So now they have all this down, and I look at them out on the floor and they're being very safe and controlled and sane. So I asked them to be lunativs, crazy, animal, all those more spirit kinds of places rather than cognitive places. The whole tenor of the class changed and all of a sudden people were experiencing very rich states of mind. They were totally body-connected. In the discussion afterwards, their great joy was that they could play with intense emotion. Feelings are toys to be played with. Understanding this can be very useful, especially in light of the fact that feelings often have a tremendous power over us, that we are victimized by our feelings. I don't know how the playfulness would transpose to a real-life situation where there is tremendous emotional upheaval, say a death in the family. Can you still play and watch? If I am overwhelmed by my emotions, then my "inner me" falls, and I lose my sense of choice. It's as if I am my feelings. On the other hand, if I allow the deeper "me" to watch, then I can become aware that this is a passing phase. The key is to be aware, rather than blinded by the feeling, which is what this training is about.
      Watching the class warm-up around Ruth's simple direction that "those on the bench are sounders and those on the floor are movers," I am reminded of watching a baby's face express an incredible range of emotion and communication without the assistance of verbal language. For 30 minutes, the group of six women created dramatic situations-short moments, longer stories, and interconnecting relationships-through the experiences of moving and vocalizing. There seemed a natural attunement to texture, confrontation, and dynamics. Ruth spent the rest of the class magnifying and refining this "natural acting," exercising the particular skills of listening for physical information, for rhythmic and emotional shifts.
      I was a brat as a kid, very emotional. The manifestation was depression, skin disorders, migraine headaches. I wasn't releasing these emotion, but was very lost in them. I guess all I can say is it feels good [to release them]. This understanding crept in. Dance teachers were always coming down on me because I was being too expressive. Then I'd go to another dance teacher, learn their form, the combinations. Then I would start to dance and get all involved emotionally and the teachers would come down on me for it. Then I'd move on to another teacher because I couldn't see just doing the forms. When I came out here in the late 60's, this place was emotion-haven. Everybody wanted to play feeling games with me. I didn't know how to apply that to my work. Now the teaching process is pretty refined. When I first started, I was going for intensity of feeling and everything was always overblown. Now I'm seeing that all that high-powered expression is, in fact, another way of covering a feeling. You can mask feeling with a lot of pzazz, getting off on the energy and the feeling isn't there. Now what I'm asking people to do is a much more stripped down version than what I was asking for two years ago. My own performance work seems to be moving in that direction-simpler, more patient.
      Ruth mentioned two women who were inspiring teachers in her early training as a dancer. Elizabeth Waters, who was originally in Hanya Holm's company, lived in New Mexico with the American Indians. Ruth describes her movement as very powerful, dramatic, and grounded. Ethel Butler taught Graham technique. Ruth said she would chain-smoke in class, and Martha Graham would have her come to New York (she was in Baltimore) and help reconstruct pieces because Ethel had a great memory for the choreography. Ruth's improvisational work happened by accident. When asked to teach dance to actors, she started making up movement situations for them, realizing they were not interested in "contractions." When she moved to Berkeley, Ruth studied with Al Wunder, who encouraged her to develop her "great talent for improvisation." As with Terry, Ruth said that Al was a pivotal figure in her choice to work with improvisation as a form.
      Action Theatre was a name I chose in the mid-70's. I wanted the name to express the fundamental experience of translating subtextual material-the secrets that lie hidden under the surface of our conscious mind-in action. I think how I'm willing to let that label fade away, and there's really no label I would choose to replace it. What I do quite simply is performance training.
      Ruth had noticed during the improvisation a certain tentativeness about physical contact. She challenged the group to not be afraid of passionate contact and turned this observation into a series of falling exercises, one on top of the other, around in a circle, rapid falling. After the physical experience, Ruth developed a new score adding language. A trio began to improvise. "It doesn't make sense on a human level. I see the form, but not you." Ruth stopped and started them. Sure enough, the communication did become clearer as the group began to carry through with the material that cropped up on the spot. Funny, but when the carry-through happened, the material was often funny. Maybe that's what good acting all about-the audience's underlying participation in the event, the anticipation of what should or could happen next, and the delightful appreciation that id does indeed happen. Even surprises and unexpected moments do have an organic "truth" to them that the audience and the participants recognize on a non-verbal level. "If you listen to the other person, what you say next is indicated, and you don't have to worry about it." Ruth asks the trio to begin again.
      About a year and a half ago I started doing sitting meditation. I discovered this truth for myself, that making theatre is an internal affair, me with me. I always had thought it was about me and the audience. As long as I carried that in my head, I was playing for the show. Once I started experiencing that it was me with me, then I could quiet down to experience myself. My teaching has funneled in that direction. The formal elements are still there. I still spend a lot of time with time, space, shape, dynamics, developing, transforming, and shifting because that's process, that's a technique. But we can't just do stuff for the sake of doing it, just to fill up time. Now I can look at a student and say, "Stop." What's your intention in doing that? What are you experiencing?" If you putter, putter, chatter, chatter, you can't experience yourself. When students pay attention to themselves, the theatre they are producing is more powerful, cleaner, cleaner, dramatic, and subtle. They are doing it for themselves instead of doing it for me.
      I always found Ruth's work difficult. One day, to honor the basic fact that physical impulse is primary to acting (or is it being?), Ruth had me say everything I was doing at the same time I was doing it. "My right foot is taking a step. I am moving my arm forward. My head is tilting to the right. I am lifting my head up again." These things help. I think the audience appreciates when a performer notices what is happening at the same time that it's happening.
      I've gone through periods where the work has been all mushy, globby emotion, and I'd think, "Oh God, this is really getting sloppy, yukky," and then I would get totally formal again. Time, space, shape, energy. Right now I'm going further into feeling spaces. It take time to investigate all the possibilities of feeling spaces. It takes time to investigate all the possibilities of feelings states. I'm not just talking about what psychologists would label emotions. I'm talking about states of mind, other realms than what's defined in the textbooks. They're more primal, more spirit. Acting has to do with accepting the state (of mind) so you can play with it and make it useful, to transfer information inside of the context you're working in. When I'm really believing the world I'm creating, then I don't have to think up ideas. I'm in a more reactive, responsive state. Given that state, I have access to my subconscious. I have access to the psyches of the audience on a subconscious level, as we all do. When this process works, performing is a flight, and the audience experiences that flight. When I'm working hard to think up ideas, then I have to fall back on my formal skills, and the results are sometimes very painful. I get stuck. Stuckness is in my head. I've finally learned that. I go back to my body, and I'm free again. That's true for an actor. Feelings and sensations are in the body.
      I asked Ruth and Terry about aesthetics, the ambiguous set of criteria by which they judge or are judged by their work. Because Skylight represents a place where one can go for an integration of personal and technical development, the forms taught run the risk of seeming self-indulgent, self-serving, and boring. Perhaps this is part of the "California art" cliché, perhaps inherent in defining improvisation as both process and product. The question begs a definition of aesthetics. Does aesthetic choice have to do with trends? Is the work "hot?" What do critics think? Who is getting grants, money, reviews? What are people reading in art school? How is the pendulum swinging in education, T.V., film, politics? Are these questions relevant to a discussion of aesthetics? The word aesthetic comes from the original Greek, "to perceive, sense perception," to sense the beautiful, to understand the principles that depend upon the nature of the senses. In discussing the aesthetics of writing, Jean Cocteau states that he "developed the habit of liking only those writers in whose work beauty resides without their being aware of it and without their worrying about it." Cocteau implies that "natural" expression, not style, is what counts, yet Western philosophy and criticism in the 18th century began to attach beauty to current trends in re-examining aesthetic judgment. As the split between nature and culture widened, art began to be judged in purely formalistic terms. In her recent book Overlay, Lucy Lippard suggests that we re-align out terms: "Artists are rebelling against reductive purism and an art-for-art's sake emphasis on form or image alone with a gradual upsurge of mythical and ritual content related to nature and to the origins of social life." If we assume that the art we make and times we live in cannot be separated, then perhaps we can accept the challenge to re-vision our aesthetic criteria to address the political, informational, technological, natural world we live in. During the rise of Fascism in Germany, critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay, "One Way Street, " "These are days when no one should rely unduly on his 'competence.' Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed."

Ruth
      Improvisation defines the process more than the aesthetic. The aesthetic could be the same in improvisation as a piece you would put together that would be totally scripted. The aesthetic rules would still apply to the finished products, whether the process is arrived at through improvisation or whether the process is arrived through 6 months of deliberation. It either fails aesthetically or succeeds aesthetically, from the same criteria. I think nature has defined that criteria and we're just following the rules, I think there's this "bigness" about aesthetics that has to do with form and function and time and space and all that. We all have our differences around that. I think that aesthetics has to do with trueness of presentation, that the person is really where they are and nowhere else.
      What differentiates the process that I work in from straight theatre is that the images are presented through physical as well a sonoric or vocal or verbal expression. The challenge to the performer is to have total physical awareness, awareness of the formal elements of process, and articulation with all of this. At the same time I'm delivering a monologue, I'm also delivering a physical situation. And I'm totally committed to both. I can play them in opposition, put them together. The more I'm aware, the broader my vocabulary, then the more I can say about myself in the context. It's just me, me, me with my feelings and not me transferring information to you. Theatre is information transference, not just energy transference. Every action is a combination of information and energy. A news reporter on T.V. is mostly information. A traditional dancer is transferring mostly energy. To me, there's a balance point where there's an energy involvement and also information being transferred, be it verbal or physical. Gestures are functional. They say something about the situation I'm in as the actor, and are also an expression of the spirit, is that's what I choose to focus on.

Terry
      Aesthetics. Well, now we get down to a cultural, matter. I've been told Motivity is therapy, not art. Maybe it's creative arts therapy. These are simply labels. I think within this work, with people who are interested in healing and feelings and holistic approach, aesthetics is perhaps a different thing. Where does art fit in here? In Psychology of Meditation, Robert Ornstein and Claudio Narranjo talk about a shift in art today that includes healing. In many cultures, healing is a very natural element in the making and executing of art work. In this culture, art and healing have been separated. The work for many of us is to reconnect these. There seem to be levels on which we learn. In art, too, a return to more structured, more safe, more dependable, definable processes. It's very scary to work with the unknown when you're hungry and worried. I think we need to find some security for all the chaos and concern. I too have a new sense of appreciation for structure and for discipline. But rather than drop improvisation, drop the spontaneity, I simply want to have more, to encompass both.
      I think people here [in America] have a low self-image. It's a whole country problem of-I guess it takes a variety of forms-self-acceptance. Not approval but acceptance. We have so many rules and so many patterns of ways of living that we should be. Some people function fine and they're doing well, but when you pin them down, it's like, "Well, I don't really look that good, I'm not as good as she is, don't perform as well, move as well." The body image and the self image are connected. When I taught in Australia, students were very accepting, very responsive, very open to fun and, in a lot of ways, more open to their bodies. Their self-images were not so low. They complained about their own country, that play was considered self-indulgent, and they'd better get on with the ABC's, better get on the money, on the job, and quit playing around with art. However, they simply didn't seem as neurotic as my experience of people in my own country.
      I have to hustle, have to accept the fact that there's no security. I don't know whether there's going to be six people here tonight or four, whether they'll all return even though I asked them to take a series. It's very unstable. I don't know whether to lower my prices because people can't afford to pay at this price, how to advertise. It's discouraging. Well, too bad. This is what I'm choosing, so I'm going to put up with those things. Some department chairperson, a very important woman said, "Well, why don't you work in our department, work on the change from the inside." It was too rigid at the same time. I couldn't begin to see how I could compromise. Now, perhaps, I could go back and say, "O.K., I can change this a little bit, expand that a little bit, include improvisation in the department as a fully respected art form, not just something we do in order to create something else." Here's this crazy cycle again, a non-form becoming a form. Motivity doesn't have an everyday repeatable recognizable set of exercises and now it's becoming a form.
      I have appreciated spending time with Ruth and Terry again because I have found that this work is a relevant and reliable now as it was when I first experienced it 8 yeats ago. At the time, I had stopped my ballet and modern dance training in search of more open forms and redefinition of "classical training." I began to realize, through teachers like Ruth and Terry, that "classical" could mean "natural" and that "technique" could be a study into the nature of physical, verbal, and vocal expression. The work had a rough elegance to it. The skills were challenging, yet nourishing. And they still are. There is a timelessness about a process that asks one to look very closely inside, and base an outward expression or interaction on that observation. Alan Watts suggests in his lecture "The World as Organic Process" that the more we cultivate spontaneity-to listen, to notice. Because the women of Skylight have accepted this responsibility, made forms from non-forms, as Terry suggests, and are willing to continue questioning, those forms as part of an ongoing practice, their teaching continues to evolve as a model for performance training. I am reminded, in closing, of a poem by Adrienne Rich, "Transcendental Etude," which I include here in part:
No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
Make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
Or music, that we should begin
With the simple exercises first
And slowly go on trying
The hard ones, practicing till strength
And accuracy became one with daring
To leap into transcendence . . .

--And in fact we can't live like that: we take on everything at once before we've even begin to read or mark time, we're forced to begin in the midst of the hardest movement.



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