“If I had wanted to be a performance artist I would not have started training in Traditional Chinese Martial Arts”. Well that all sounds reasonable until you look into the history of Chinese Martial Arts. And then you realise that there were many occasions on which performance was required, and this was not only on the battlefield. We have said it many times in class – humans are primates and as such we are primed to respond to body language, and by extension “performance” of movement. Maybe scientists have only recently discovered that gorillas sing to each other, but we have long known that performance is a form of communication. And so Instructor Dave Courtney Jones asked his students to be involved with the Big Dance project, co-operating with the Counterpoint Dance Company. Dave takes up the story of how they got on with their biggest performance so far…
Dancing in the dark
“It’s pitch black. I am sat in the Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells looking down at the vague silhouettes of my students as they stand motionless in horse stance, positioned across the darkened stage.
The lights come up, the music cuts in, and suddenly three pairs of dancers rush across the stage from opposite sides to meet each other, moving between the rows of motionless Kung Fu students.
Then, on time, the Kung Fu sequence begins – the students going through an extended combination of movements that repeats three times before the choreography changes and they become part of the dance.
It’s their moment to shine, where they are the centrepiece of the show. But the fear has taken over. Instead of stage presence, they look small and nervous. Instead of exciting, flowing movements, they look stiff and disjointed. They are, literally, “scared stiff”.
The fear that robs them of their ability to perform is the fear that they will forget their movements; that they will make a mistake; that they will get their timing wrong.
Which takes me back to my “moment to shine”
I am taken back to Quanzhou, China, in 2013 when I am standing on the edge of the mat in a moment that I’ll never forget. With a borrowed horse-cutting knife in my hand, and the energy spinning in a tight ball in my belly, I’m just about to go on to perform, determined to unleash everything I have got, determined to do the best I possibly can, determined to win a Gold medal. I know that I have to take a risk and not care if I mess up, as that’s the only way I’ll be able to give it my best.*
Luckily, at Sadler’s Wells today, this is the dress rehearsal, and we still have five hours to go until the actual performance. Somehow, my students have got to learn to relax and take that risk in the next few hours.
What is it about performance?
It’s something that I’ve seen hundreds of times. At gradings, demonstrations and competitions. When people are so nervous about ruining their performance that they concentrate on what they are doing and, ironically, it is this which ends up ruining their performance.
This is the fourth time we’ve performed this piece with Counterpoint Dance, and for me this unlikely relationship has turned out to be one of my single most important experiences of recent years.
One of my daughters, Maya, is a keen ballet dancer and, on the few occasions when I have been to watch her classes I have been completely engrossed. Ballet, much as the contemporary dance performed by Counterpoint, is a performance art. Performance is in every pose, every gesture, and every movement. It is beautiful, it is graceful, and with great discipline it is practised and practised until body memory is achieved. And when one performance is complete, practice begins for the next.
This is quite unlike our normal Kung Fu training. Performance, for most of us, is an occasional sideline. “Who wants to go to China this year to compete?” Up go a few tentative hands. “Ok, you’ll need to start training differently then. And much harder.”
And so, later that afternoon, we have one final practice session before the performance in one of Sadler’s Wells studios, and I watch as Simona, Counterpoint’s Artistic Director & Choreographer (who was also disappointed with the dress rehearsal) takes the whole group of 21 performers through a preparation before they run through the piece.
It’s a joy to watch such an experienced person at work. With no hesitation, she clearly knows how to turn this around, and I am avidly taking mental notes! She talks about extending the bubble of your presence outwards, she switches on everyone’s awareness of each other as they move around the room, repeating sequences from the piece, and the energy in the room changes completely. The nervous energy lifts up and becomes electrifying. Wow! Suddenly everyone is having fun, they’ve lost their self-consciousness, and they have become performers.
Watching from the wings
For the actual performance at the Lilian Baylis I am no longer sat in the audience. I have gone backstage with my students, and I’m watching from the wings. We are closing the show (no pressure), so we need to lift the audience!
The lights go down, and my students move quickly to their places on the stage – after all the waiting, suddenly there’s no going back. The music is starting and the piece begins.
And, with pride, I can say that they do take their risks, and they do perform. The crowd clearly loves the performance, and watching from the side, I can see my students giving it their all.
Performance? It’s all about the risk.
For me it’s been a fantastic lesson in the art of performing, and preparation to perform, despite all the nerves and the stage fright, and all the other stuff that goes with it.
And the thing that made the big difference? Understanding that you have to take a risk. You have to be prepared to mess up. It’s the only way you can shed your inhibitions and perform.
The day is completed in the after-show party when the wife of one of my students turns to her husband and says “I never realised you were so cool!”
A big thank you to Simona, and to the very professional team at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, who were all amazing!”
And thanks to Camilla Greenwell for the main image. with additional images from Counterpoint Dance Company and Dave Courtney Jones.
And finally, Dave’s performance anxiety did not prevent him from winning that Gold Medal – here he is on the mat giving it his all: