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New Contributors | Elizabeth Dempster

ELIZABETH DEMPSTER

I was born in 1953 in Melbourne, Australia and grew up there with my parents and two brothers. Nothing in my childhood or family background would lead anyone to suspect that later in lifeElizabeth Dempster I would develop such a deep interest in the body, movement and performance. I do not recall attending a single dance or theatre event as a child; I did not "do ballet" and I had little interest in sport. However the horizon of my somewhat narrow suburban world changed dramatically in 1968 when my father, who was a scientist with the Defence Department, took up a post at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC.

That year lived as a high school student in the US was full of incident and turbulent change. It had a powerful impact upon me. I was exhilarated by the intense experimentation I witnessed there — in social behaviour, political action and in the arts. I began to sense something of the liberating force of artistic expression and to identify that as a possibility for myself. When I returned to Australia in 1969 I found myself unable (or perhaps it was unwilling) to reintegrate back into my old school community. I felt estranged from the values and aspirations of that culture and left school before final examinations. I began to seek out the company of artists, writers and musicians. I also began to practice Hatha Yoga.

My introduction to both Ideokinesis and to postmodern dance occurred in the context of a lively experimental art scene in Sydney, during the early 1970s. I had moved to Sydney to commence a course in naturopathy and herbal medicine. There I became involved with a group of artists from various backgrounds who were experimenting with new forms of cross-disciplinary performance. This activity was focused around the Fine Art Workshops at Sydney University and the Central Street Gallery. I began to meet some dancers who were also involved in the events and happenings generated around these sites and, observing them, I was drawn to learn more about moving. I took up Tai Chi Chuan and started taking dance classes modern at the Bodenweiser School and ballet at Val Tweedie's Australian Academy of Ballet.

My fledgling interest in dance and performance was encouraged by the support and guidance of choreographer Nanette Hassall who returned to Australia in 1975, after some years spent studying and dancing overseas. Nanette had a keen desire to share her experience of new thinking in dance, especially of the New York dance experiments of the '60s and '70s. She had been a member of the Cunningham Company and her background included study with Irene Dowd at Juilliard. She had also taught for one year at Dartington College of the Arts, England, where she was exposed to Mary Fulkerson's approach to Anatomical Release. The Release technique Mary was teaching during the 1970s and '80s had evolved through the application of,"(Barbara) Clark's pedagogy of anatomical images to the process (Joan) Skinner had developed, of going from stillness to moving," with the support of kinaesthetic imagery.*

Back in Sydney, Nanette offered a series of open workshops at the studios of the Dance Company of New South Wales. These workshops comprised a Release based movement class, which integrated imagery with movement exploration, followed by a composition lab, in which a range of problem solving tasks and exercises were explored. Later that year, Eva Karczag who had studied with Andre Bernard, and Russell Dumas (also a student of Bernard and dancer with Twyla Tharp) joined Nanette in Australia to form the Dance Exchange Company. I was invited to join the company in October of that year and began working closely with Eva. With a background in Alexander technique, Eva placed strong emphasis on the hands on or tactile aspect of ideokinetic teaching and learning. She also shared with me her interest in the exploration of ideokinetic process as a way in to dance improvisation.

As it was presented to me in the mid 1970s, Ideokinesis seemed to be relatively unencumbered by the dictates of dance genre and style. It was an accessible and effective way of developing greater skill in movement and for me this approach to learning about moving was an empowering one; it made sense to my body. I also perceived an intrinsic aesthetic quality in the work. Its simplicity, elegance and coherence appealed strongly to my growing interest in dance making. Furthermore, Ideokinesis introduced me to a distinctive form of cognitive process, namely the practice of thinking in images. This practice, fundamental to Ideokinesis, provided a support for my first experiments in choreography. It gave me confidence to explore and build connections between quite disparate materials and processes — physical action, concepts, memories and perceptions.

Between 1976 and 1979 Dance Exchange created a large number of events, concerts and workshops, primarily in Sydney and Melbourne. The company was committed to the expansion of the parameters of choreographic and performance practice in Australia. Alongside its performance activity, Dance Exchange conducted workshops in Ideokinesis and Release-based movement, Contact Improvisation and composition, which were open to any interested person. Members of the company also taught in a range of institutional contexts including teacher training colleges and university architecture and music departments.

In 1978 I travelled to the United Kingdom where I undertook an Honours degree in Theatre at Dartington College of the Arts. Majoring in dance and choreography my principal teachers were Mary Fulkerson and Steve Paxton. It was in this period that I began to develop a clearer understanding of the different trajectories of Mabel Todd's work. Among the many guest artists and teachers visiting Dartington in those years were John Rolland, Marsha Paludan, Nancy Topf and Nancy Udow. I began to appreciate some important differences between Ideokinesis and Release work — my introduction to these methods had rather blurred the distinctions. I also began to recognise and value the subtle differences in emphasis which each teacher brought to their communication of alignment principles, within the context of dancing. I appreciated the anatomical precision of Rolland's teaching, but equally valued Mary Fulkerson's engagement with the mobilisation of images as a means of art making. Mary regarded the ideokinetic process as an embodiment of creativity and she developed a distinctive approach to choreographic production based upon the imaging process. This aspect of Mary's work made a deep impression on me; it informed much of my later choreographic inquiry and also shaped my approach to teaching.

When I returned to Australia in 1983 Ideokinesis had achieved some degree of institutional acceptance, with a number of college dance-training courses incorporating Ideokinesis (sometimes identified as ideo-kinesiology or experiential anatomy) within their core curricula. During the 1980s, Dance Exchange, then under the direction of Russell Dumas, hosted tours of visiting teachers John Rolland and Pam Matt. Dance Exchange was an important vehicle for the transmission and dissemination of information about Ideokinesis in Australia. To the many young artists and students who participated in the company's workshops during the 1970s and '80s Ideokinesis offered an exploratory and experimental attitude to the body and by extension to dancing. It became associated, through Dance Exchange, with a critical artistic practice and it was, at that time in Australia, part and parcel of a process of radical re-evaluation of what counts as dancing.

My own teaching practice has evolved in the context of two cross-disciplinary performing arts programs — at Deakin University between 1983 and 1988 and since 1991, at Victoria University, Melbourne. Generally speaking, the students entering these programs have had limited exposure to dance (of any kind, much less modern and post modern dance.) They also lack coherent information about their own bodies. I teach foundation courses in Ideokinesis and Release and my primary objective in teaching has simply been to kindle the student's curiosity about their own body's capacity for movement. In these introductory courses I hope to guide the student towards an experience of their body's own intelligence and so to establish a sound foundation for their ongoing education in performance.

In addition to teaching and choreographing, my engagement with Ideokinesis has been broadened through various writing, publishing and research ventures. Since 1985 I have been a co-editor of the journal Writings on Dance. The inaugural issue of the journal arose out of a series of public workshops and forums on the relationship between Ideokinesis and dance making. Three special issues have been devoted to the discussion of Ideokinesis and related somatic disciplines.

Today I am still involved in and excited by the practice of Ideokinesis, but now I am even more intrigued by the theory and philosophy of the work. I have had many questions about it, specifically its relationship to artistic practice. I now recognise that the circumstances surrounding my introduction to Ideokinesis determined the character of my subsequent engagements with it I encountered experimental art practice and Ideokinesis in the same moment and assumed a natural affinity between the two. When I commenced my doctoral research in 1993 the relationship between Ideokinesis and contemporary dance was at the core of my investigation. Critically examining this relationship, I have attempted to detail and analyse how new ways of thinking about and through the body (as exemplified by Ideokinesis), have given rise to new ways of dancing. I have also been concerned to identify and elucidate some of the social and political implications of this process of bodily change. I am currently working on a book developed from the PhD dissertation and including more extensive consideration of the body philosophy of Mabel Todd. Todd was alert to the fact that the body lives in dynamic relationship to its world and it cannot be understood in isolation from its milieu. Her body philosophy is imbued with a deep ecological ethos, the significance and value of which has yet to be fully realised. In writing, I hope that I may contribute in some small way to a wider appreciation of Todd's legacy.

*See Mary Fulkerson's discussion of Release technique in "Release Work: History: from the View of Mary Fulkerson" in Movement Research Performance Journal #16, Winter/Spring 1999: 35-40.

Elizabeth Dempster


Elizabeth Dempster can be contacted by e-mail: Elizabeth.Dempster@vu.edu.


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