An account of working as mentor for five pairs of performing artists on retreat in the Devon countryside in the form of a letter to Thomas Leabhart, a mentor to me from almost 40 years ago.
I’m sitting in what I like to think of as my garden. The sky is bright and early, the sun is at my back. As I stood looking at my garden box, this composed itself in my head:
the stem of the tomato plant leaned toward
the plastic mesh encircling the garden box
the small green baby fruit popped through
the square grid and swelled on the other side
just like the monkey’s fist full of cherries
trapped inside the jar in the fable I learned
as a child
I thought about how we are taught and what we learn, what we teach and how we remember; the disjunction between the moral of the fable with the fist caught in the jar (greed and taking too much) and the tomato fruit falling afoul of its protective cage (unchecked unguided unconscious growth). It would seem my own unconscious meaning making mechanism plucks, from the mass of experience in my decades of life in a conscious state, these two fist shapes (the monkey’s paw filled with cherries and the slowly swelling tomato) which problematically become larger and therefore trapped. How and why does my brain make a pair of these? And of what use is it?
Dear Tom, I remember a story you told about your five-year-old playmate, a neighbour child, telling your five-year-old self that it was good to eat one spoonful of dirt each day. And you did it, once. Out of all the things you used to say to us, why is this one of the things I remember?
In the studio you used to repeat a phrase to correct our posture when we weren’t fully upright — I’ve remembered it as: I’ve been down so long, it feels like up to me. Though I feel I’m missing something there about life on the oblique.
Yesterday I heard you say (on a video recorded live online, now repeated on demand) that as you get older, though you know everything is much more complicated than words can say, you are inclined to answer questions with the fewest words possible and trust that incompleteness. I took it as your trust that we listeners will re-complicate it in our own ways. Did I learn this from your younger self?
This brought to mind the scale of my current show with a duration of eight hours but, as I paused to consider this, I wrote a note at the bottom of the mostly empty page: in it we say very little, we just do it over a very long time.
Most of what I learned from you is integrated into my bones and the fabric of my mind. I’m old enough now to forego describing the immensity of it and just say this: I saw you describing circles and spirals with your answers to questions deftly skirted when they weren’t enough (not sweet enough or juicy or teeth not quite sinking in) and as you moved your hands and arms and eye-browed your stories with transport-assisted detail, I realised that I knew far more about what you were saying than your words described — so much information gathered there in that container you call yourself. Expression was there in your body. Your hat and scarf and jacket on an indoor day only defined the edges of the corporeal you yourself gracefully exceeded even while sitting so still, motionless and vibrating. A song inside.
This letter was sparked by a formal idea, an idea of form, a way of writing an account in the style of something with a specific audience in mind, an audience of one rather than an audience of everyone. A letter to someone is an account on its own terms but brings with it the flavour with which the writer imagines the intended recipient will read it. Of course this can only be a projection. But maybe it holds me to a particular standard, the standard I’ve constructed to suit the version of you I hold in my head. What follows is my account. It may not suit you at all. You are, after all, as discerning and particular as you are eclectic and warm hearted.
All day for five days I played mentor to five pairs of performing artists. We met on January fields in rain and sun. We met in bright wooden-floored dance studios and darkened music rooms. In hexagonal shapes and square shapes, with seating banks and without. We met under trees, at picnic benches, along rivers.
This is what I told myself:
Pay attention to the way the breath changes, listen to their hearts beating, be quiet in the pause.
Look into their eyes, listen to their hearts and then it doesn’t matter if what they want diverges from your own sensibilities: you want to help them achieve their own goals.
of Z & Y I told myself:
In response to a percussive noise one of them made I said: “it sounds like a horse galloping.” You never say something like that as a mentor without somehow seeing it in action a couple of days later.
When, after asking them to relate their most injured body part to a situation in the wider world, I received their response, it was as if they hadn’t heard me . . . in a workshop context I would have created two steps for the task and I thought . . . maybe I moved too fast. But in this case the connection was more subtle than I’d hoped, expected or imagined.
Hope, expectation, prediction; got to keep them in check unless they are useful. Don’t assume they are. It turns out as a child she was thrown from a horse. Something I almost missed while searching for my own mistakes.
of X & W I told myself:
They are working in a sunny warm space. Having danced they are sprawled on the floor taking notes on a long roll of paper. Go past the ending, move with the sun. New positions for the self: slide, slump, rest in a clump, crawl, spin.
Be a body.
I asked for the tired version. Insert a difference. I said, perform a section at a specific distance: a section for a field, a section in a tight room. They are creating knots and undoing them, roles assumed and released, saying I have this corner of you and then relating to it. Becoming a story.
Just as I concluded I was useless to them, the clouds parted and I saw that we heard each other.
of V & U:
They tell me they are working on unbridled storytelling, the unpalatable.
They say: school was a performance, they sat at the naughty, mixed and slow-eaters table.
And: “it was nowhere but it was already in us” and “she was not my mother at school.”
They repeated messages beginning with: “we are sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused.”
I said: create an accumulation of something, either in sound, objects or action.
I said: the material needs more of your bodies in space.
I said: you have synchronicity in separate worlds,
and don’t tidy that singing section. I like it rough.
of T & S:
They are looking at how to be urban artists in nature, describing this as the wrong people for the place. It’s a moment for “I think that’s what you want” or “be who you are and make it right to be the wrong people for the place.” They are taking the trees and the grass and the insects to TikTok. They are wearing complicated undergarments in the garden.
Watching them own the discrepancy was mind altering (expanding). Humanising the social media machine they were. Earned my interest. Turned me around.
of Q & R I told myself:
They said: I need to break art and I need it to make money.
They said: It’s about self as a person, art as a business.
And then: push the glasses up, lean too far back, puke in your hand, and, finally, a dance elegant in its reckless confidence, its nonchalant resistance.
I, making clear I saw them, said: Catch a spark while you’re in motion. An energy from within responding to the slightest nudge and a couple of points of interest to follow up on.
My experience as a mentor was coloured by my own experience of being mentored by you, Tom:
who can be sure of what was intended in the first place?
the audience brings the spark to the gap; audience as collaborator,
you just try, I guess,
something to ponder.
Long ago, instead of telling me to take the emotional content out of my expression, you described me: “Czechoslovakia, 1968” and I knew what you meant without feeling stung (light touch hits the mark).
You also said: synthesis > analysis > synthesis > analysis
And I say:
My experience as a mentor is that connecting with people multiplies possibility, precariousness, and sanctuary along with more than is measurable or felt. The things you say, the things you hear, they stay with you. Everything becomes the material. And it reaches wide, far, delicate, and right here and now.
After the silent walk I asked them:
“what did you see along the river?”
(— wild dogs — reflections of trees that looked like veins in lungs — lungs in the sky and lungs in water — 3 caravans — 2 people sitting in secret — small puddle frozen over — dead tree, rotten tree, broken tree, fallen tree)
I overheard them:
“Is it every day closer to death? or always knowing the perfect death will find you? or tired and terrified at the prospect? or being very good at holding it off? or is it simply being here now and fine with that?”
And, dear Tom, among other things, in that online video interview it was great to see how you were perplexed and what you did about it. Seeing you, I could see me.
with warmth and admiration and eternally your student,
Thanks to Jim and Gemma and Sarah of Action Hero for making this artists’ retreat possible and for having the foresight to hold it with a light touch and with beds, pillows, doors to shut, beauty to be with, food to eat and drink to drink. And thanks to the participant artists for inviting me into their practices. Our mutual engagement was rich and exhausting and I loved it.