The 57 steps

The second of this academic year’s four terms at LISPA finished last week. I think everyone has found it a difficult term, and I’ve been very up and down from one day to the next.

The last couple of weeks our creation theme was “the 57 steps”. In previous classes we’d learned a series of precise moves that described the actions of someone escaping from other people: you run down an alley, find it blocked by a wall, hide in a doorway, watch a pursuer walk past, walk across the alley, climb a wall, jump down and then run. While one could improvise this situation we’d learned it as one might learn a complicated dance. Every move was prescribed, from the foot or arm you used to the angle of the body. You take nine steps into the alley, you take 17 distinct moves to mime climbing the wall, etc.

We were in groups of about ten and had to perform these moves to music — either recorded or played by people in the group. Anyone not playing an instrument had to do all 57 steps, but you could start anywhere in the routine, and go back and forth within it.

We spent the first week trying to shoehorn a coherent narrative into the piece, accompanied by great live accordion and guitar playing. At our first presentation we, and the other two groups, received awful feedback from the teachers — pretty much everything was awful, particularly our complete lack of attention to detail.

I think this was because in previous projects we’d got into the habit of creating some kind of narrative, however abstract, and we’d tried to do the same here. But we realised the teachers were more interested in us doing the 57 steps well and then creating something interesting out of that. We’d spent all our time on making a story with the result that our movements were extremely messy.

The second week we simplified the piece a lot and spent more time on moving better — keeping straight lines in our bodies when required, moving in sync with each other and the music, not rushing through the movements. By the end it was more enjoyable — once we’d spent time on just going over and over what we’d got, rather than adding ever more ideas, we were more comfortable with it and could then play a little.

The final presentations were much better from all groups — less ambitious but much more coherent, precise and enjoyable. One interesting thing was that the three groups from the morning class all had some element of narrative in there, whereas the three afternoon groups seemed much more abstract and almost dance-like. I’m not sure if this is chance or if the two classes have evolved different ideas and ways of working.

Although the 57 steps process is very prescriptive, it was useful for us. I always feel that, when creating something new, there’s a tendency to keep throwing more and more ideas in, as if that will make the piece better. Often this means we’re always trying out new things with little, if any, time at the end to run through the whole thing. I usually find myself trying to turn down new ideas immediately, which is probably too far in the other direction — the balance is probably to try new ideas but be more prepared to reject some of them, and recognise there comes a time when we should focus a bit more attention to what we already have.

For some reason I was really nervous on the final Friday, much more so than I had been for any previous presentations. I think everyone was a bit excited and with 70 or so people in the room, all about to present pieces, the atmosphere fed on itself and the nervousness grew and grew. But, along with seeing the Advanced Course’s mostly great Commedia dell’Arte-based presentations the previous evening, it was a good end to the term.

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Thursday 1 March 2007, 5:21pm

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