London to New York: two movies, a bit of sleep and one article read.
New York to Philadelphia: trying to figure out how to post in the blog, reviewing the paper for the presentation and thinking how nervous I will be tomorrow.

I landed yesterday in New York, and now I am in the train to Philadelphia. I was invited to present my paper at the annual Congress On Research in Dance (CORD) Conference, that this year is going to be held in Philadelphia, 17th to 20th of November 2011. My paper titled “Dancing Nationhood in Spain” address the problems of gender and national construction in contemporary Spain through a close reading of a contemporary dance piece, Bésame el Cactus, by Catalan choreographer Sol Pico.

Like Woody Allen when discovering the murder in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), just before a conference, I enter in a state of excitement where I feel “I have adrenaline coming out of my ears”. I love academic conferences. And maybe, this is the paradoxical feeling of excitement and nervousness that drives me crazy until the end of my presentation.

The opportunity to meet renowned scholars and socialize with other researchers is a great chance to check the actual status quo of the profession. However, at the end of the conference, safely back home I normally need five days of forced repose to restore the normal function of my brain, after such research presentations overdose.

Now, while getting ready for my talk, I leave you with the Mission Statement of CORD: “(CORD) promotes a globally inclusive respectful dialogue around embodied and discursive approaches to dance research. Building on the rich legacy of dance scholarship, CORD advances innovative and creative understandings of dance. Through mentorship, advocacy, and outreach, CORD fosters an international community of current and future dance leaders.”

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It seems like digital storytelling is taking over the world – or at least my world. Last time I wrote for this blog, this past June, I had just come back from a day’s conference in Aberystwyth, discussing the promises and the challenges of California-style digital storytelling as it spreads around the globe.

Now I’m just back from Newcastle and a day at the Culture Shock! conference, discussing the outcomes of a large outreach project in the north east of England, using digital storytelling in the world of museums and archives. I got to hear from Peter Wright and Rachel Clarke of Newcastle University’s Culture Lab, who kindly hosted me for a couple of days, and to take part in a story circle workshop by Barrie Stephenson of digistories.

What about results? Well, the keynote at the June conference was by a digital storytelling evangelist in Singapore. She has created a fledgling company whose purpose is to bring together people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’ve just heard that her project – young and small though it is – was endorsed a couple of weeks ago by none other than the prime minister of Singapore during his National Day Rally speech. Now she and her team are knee-deep in stories, trying (successfully, I hear) to keep up with their success.

The Culture Shock! project might be over, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a similar story from any of the participating organisations I heard from last week.

And maybe it will all rub off on my thesis…

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In the end of June the Postgraduate students and staff from the DFT department were invited to share a collaboration experience guided by the Map Consortium crew. The workshop was part of the Research Skills through Collaboration project of the department and supported by the University of Surrey. Curated by the Dance Lecture Jennifer Jackson, since 2009 the series has been providing different opportunities for the current postgraduate scholars and practitioners in performance from the University of Surrey to explore interdisciplinary collaborative skills and develop creative and innovative approaches to research. The second edition of “Point: Counterpoint”  was a day of experiments aiming to investigate the creative dialogue between movement, sound and film.

The group of collaborators was composed of dance, film and music staff and students including external guests. Inside the brand new Ivy Performing Arts Centre the hands-in workshop was divided into morning and afternoon sessions. It started off with an introduction to the work leaving each participant with the curious thoughts of what was really going to happen. We were invited to understand and explore different approaches into collaborative composition of interdisciplinary art pieces.

Going through the exercises proposed by the facilitators, it was interesting to notice the way in which the gaze and imagination of each one transformed the view and imagination of the other in a constant feedback process. Together we realized how each person can change and influence on what the other is thinking and doing and how collaboration can change the pathways of the work and can reach unexpected results.

Different than most (and usual) collaborations in which one person has an idea and selects other disciplinary experts to join in with their know-how, all activities proposed in the workshop involved the beginning of a new idea by each team. Although this approach is seldom explored it provides the collaborative partners an enhanced fertile ground on which to work on.

The afternoon was set for a single exercise where we were to create a collaborative performance from the scratch. There was no fixed style to be followed. The only requirement was that the whole group should be involved in all stages of the process.  We worked together with enthusiasm till the performance time. In the end of the day we were able to discuss the process and results of each work presented.

Although my current PhD research does not involve collaboration, this workshop was extremely important to enlighten creative approaches into my own thinking. Regardless that it was only a small taste of the numberless possibilities of collaboration, it was interesting to learn (and live through) that many times we anticipate and struggle to know everything that is going to happen from the start of a process. However this can kill opportunities, creative methods and possible outcomes. On this workshop we were given a chance to ease our anxiety and let ourselves take the risk and discover the beauty and richness of the unknown, something that we tend to instantly rush through in our daily research lives.

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Since the end of June, I have been out of the UK for my third annual research trip to South Korea. I always try to schedule a lengthy research trip during this time of year, as I can collect research materials while spending the summer with my family. Nonetheless, this trip was different from previous trips, where I had spent most of my time visiting the Korean National Ballet for observation. This time I have been busy collecting historical sources from various cultural institutions to evaluate the shifting notions of Korean identity.

For this purpose I went to the National Museum of Korea (NMK) for a couple of weeks to review the permanent exhibition hall, which mainly displays the domestic cultural heritage. The museum is divided into three floors, each of which presents two galleries: the ground floor is arranged into the Prehistory and Ancient History Gallery and the Medieval and Early Modern History Gallery; the first floor presents the Calligraphy and Painting Gallery and the Donations Gallery; and the second floor features the Sculpture and Craft Gallery and the Asia Gallery. I focused mostly on the structure of the museum, including the sub-divisions of each gallery, as the arrangement itself revealed the way in which the NMK constructs Korean identity. National identity is proclaimed by the NMK through its focus on the idea of national history with strong territorial, religious and cultural implications. Here, the concept of dance/movement is highly excluded, highlighting the importance of my role as a researcher to suggest dancing bodies and dance institutions as prominent agencies in articulating national identity.

It was also nice to see the current cultural exchange between the museums of Korea and Britain. The NMK’s Special Exhibition Gallery is presently featuring Princely Treasures: European Masterpieces 1600 – 1800 from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is one of a number of special events that meet the NMK’s aim of bringing world history and culture to Korean audiences. It specifically focuses on the court and upper class life of the Baroque and Rococo periods through displays of paintings, sculptures, furniture, jewellery and fashion. The Ulsan Museum of Korea has also introduced a similar kind of event, Fantastic Creature, bringing approximately 170 cultural pieces from the British Museum. While I was delighted to see this kind of cultural connection between Korea and Britain, I hope to see a more active exchange between the dance fields of the two countries. 

Before I close, I would also like to let you know of some rather pleasant outside exposure our PGR blog has recently received. The official website of the Ninette de Valois conference has recently been updated with post-conference materials, and, thankfully, it includes a link to my short conference review, posted in May 2011. You will be able to see this by going to www.royalballetschool.co.uk/dvconference/conference.php and clicking on ‘Links to articles on the conference’.

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After a manic spring dashing from one event to another, I thought I was going to settle down to a long, slow summer of reading theory at the lakeside and coming indoors (whether from the heat or from the rain) to add to the word count on my annotated bibliography. Instead, I’ve been dashing around again. In June it was ds6 in Aberystwyth, last week it was EVA London 2011, today I’m off to see The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic at the Manchester International Festival, and next month I’ll be a student volunteer at MobileHCI in Stockholm.

The ds6 conference was the annual festival of digital storytelling in the tradition of the Center for Digital Storytelling in California. Their model is to get people who aren’t performers or media professionals to create their own short film of their life story using their own personal photos. The ds6 participants believe passionately in the power of narrative in the digital age to bring people together across any number of divides: geographical, racial, social, generational.

EVA London 2011 was a somewhat more academic and cerebral event: three days of papers and demonstrations on electronic visualisation and the arts. Ruth Gibson’s motion capture visualisations of dancing stillness using the Skinner Releasing Technique (http://ewic.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/40639) and Donatella Barbiere’s film of her experience in the V&A’s performance archive (http://ewic.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/40636) would have captivated everyone in our PhD programme, I’m certain.

Tonight’s performance by and about the grande dame of live art, as Marina Abramovic has been called, will doubtless be written up all over the internet, and MobileHCI promises to blow my mind with new developments in the ways we use mobile devices, including applications in the arts.

If you triangulate (quadrangulate?) these events, you get an interdisciplinary mishmash that I’m trying to turn into a thesis. I couldn’t possibly have turned down these opportunities to get new perspectives, meet new people and gather more resources and references.

I still wouldn’t mind a couple weeks of reading theory in the sun, though.

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This week, I am pressing pause on my dance PhD research and heading off to the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts. While I am looking forward to Mumford and Sons, U2 and Beyonce, I am also excited about immersing myself in other aspects of the festival, including dance, circus, cabaret, comedy, theatre, poetry and even bingo.

Dance performance has become more and more apparent at UK summer festivals, and below are some of the best dance finds of the 2011 season.

Latitude 2011
14th-17th July 2011
Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk

Latitude festival celebrates the performing arts and prides itself in being ‘more than just a festival’. This year, Sadler’s Wells hosts its own programme on the Waterfront Stage, which includes FELA, Rambert Dance Company, Zoo Nation, Tommi Kitti, the English National Ballet and more

Guilfest
15th-17th July 2011
Stoke Park, Guildford

Guilfest is the University’s local festival, and will feature a Ceroc dance tent and barn dancing.

The Big Chill
4th-7th August
Eastnor Castle, Ledbury, Herefordshire

The Big Chill offers an all-round experience for 30,000 people including a wide variety of music and performance, art, spaces for kids, comedy, dance and film. For a full line-up, check out the Big Chill Arts trail.

Bestival 2011
8th-11th September 2011
Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight

Founded in 1995, Bestival is the last festival of the season, and has a fancy dress theme every year (this year it’s Rock Stars, Pop stars and Divas). In 2011, the ‘Time for Tease’ tent offers a delightful selection of burlesque and cabaret, while the Come Dancing tent teaches styles from the Lindy Hop and Viennese Waltz to Hip Hop, Tango and Breakdance.

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Last month I went to the UK Green Film Festival at the Shortwave cinema in London as part of research for my book on Green Documentary. The festival has been founded by Chris Brown and John Long, is supported by a property developer GVA, Friends of the Earth, and Environment Films, and takes place in Leeds, Cardiff and Glasgow as well as in London.

I turned up on the first night, without a ticket, expecting to find a largely empty cinema, as most eco-docs I go to see are watched by very small audiences. But here it was different. Two of the three screenings I attended, Michael Sternberg and David Osberberg’s The Plan and Werner Boote’s Plastic Planet were sold out, in fact, so I had to wait for returns. I didn’t mind the wait though, as not only were the films all worth seeing – I watched PlanEat directed by Shelley Lee Davis and Or Schlomi as well – they were also all followed by panel discussions which were even more interesting than the films.

Environmental film festivals, the first of which was founded in the 1970s, have been springing up at an accelerated rate worldwide since around 2000, encouraged even more by the global success of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. I have been looking at how the eco-doc has been evolving during this period towards the ‘bright green’ agenda of writers and commentators like Alex Steffen, author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. The message is that each one of us can discover a role to play in sustaining the earth and our life on it and the films reflect this pluralist, democratic approach by telling all kinds of stories about individuals who have been inspired to take up an environmentally relevant project.

My favourite individual story from the screenings was from The Plan about a descendent of Charles Darwin, somewhat cruelly given the nickname of ‘the missing link’ at school. He recovers from a near-death experience during an advertising stunt to buy a huge chunk of environmentally significant land in Australia in order to protect it against developers. He has connected with his ancestor by protecting some very dusty and rare species of shrub.

I gather the plan is to continue the festival next year. I’ll be getting my tickets in advance next time!

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Over the last week Dance, Film and Theatre hosted the Research Week. The department organizes twice a year five intensive days of lectures, conferences and workshops where PhD students and professors present the status of their research.

As it was my first Research Week I was excited to attend the expositions of my colleagues and to learn from their processes. I benefited as well from the feedback received on my presentation. Moreover I would say the Research Week is important to connect us, the researchers, to identify us as part of the same community of academics. Since there is no necessity to attend modules and classes, PhD students are often reading and writing alone. Each one has her/his own research, her/his own bibliography and her/his own outline for study; we all have different lives that bring us different choices. Nonetheless researchers of similar fields will have similar problems and different ways of resolving them. It is always worthy to see how other researchers have found a solution for a problem that can be yours in the future.

The Research Week is the place where all of this can happen. This is the moment to connect with our colleagues and share our knowledge. It is an opportunity to create a network of future academics that can make a difference to our PhD experience.

Over the last week I have enjoyed meeting other researchers in my field, and overall sharing our experiences. After this, I think the Research Week has been a successful encounter for all of us.

I am looking forward to attend the next one in November!

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In the coming days I will be receiving the proofs for my book, Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time, about to be published in early summer.  I am not making an attempt here at shameless self-promotion (ok, maybe a little), but the fact that a major project like this is nearing its end has me reflecting on how we do our work in higher education.  In particular, as the University enters its four-week Easter break, I am thinking about the amount of time we allow ourselves – staff and students – for genuine, productive reflection on the tasks we undertake.  It is no new news that we live in a culture that often demands multi-tasking and rapid movement from one set task/outcome to the next.  But it is equally important – especially in higher education, where we engage in study and in detailed interrogations of complex ideas and practices – to stretch and deepen our time as well.  We strive where we can to include as a significant part of our process focused reflection: a kind of ‘slow’ time wherein we can absorb, and thereby further, the learning that is associated with individual tasks. 

When classes resume in May, our Theatre students will be remarkably busy with a great deal of exciting work; they are preparing for major productions (the first years for a staging of Hamlet, the second years for a devised production of one-on-one theatre called 21 Tables), and undertaking the technical support for these and other shows in DFT.  They are also preparing for final presentations in academic modules, and the second-years in particular are working on plans for next year, be that a placement year or the progression through to the third year of the degree.  Both before and during this busy period, I encourage them to find some slow time, and to use it productively, and the same can, and should, be said for staff.  It is, after all, vital that while we move from achievement to achievement, we take such time to allow our activities to sink in, and become a part of us.  A great deal of learning takes place in such reflective processes, and while I’m immensely proud of all the work being done in Theatre this year, I’ll be even prouder, and happier, to see that work filled out with the fullness of considered, thoughtful reflection.

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I Don’t believe in Outer Space was William Forsythe’s recent dance piece brought to Sadller’s Wells in London in the end of February. The North American artist is known for his career of twenty years  (1984-2004) in the Frankfurt Ballet, where he established what could be called his (unique) choreographic language. Today Forsythe has his own dance company based in Frankfurt – The Forsythe Company – where he has been developing his artistic and choreographic practices.

Most of the post graduates from the DFT witnessed this exceptional dance performance of 1 hour and 20 minutes on the 22nd or 23rd of February. One week after the performance the community of researchers was engaged in a Choreographic Forum, organized by the Society for Dance Research and curated by two DFT researchers: Efrosini Protopapa and Lise Uytterhoeven. The Forum was kindly hosted by The Place on the evening of the  2nd of March which received as guests speakers Dr. Helena Hammond, Lecturer from the DFT and Tamara Tomic-Vajagic from Roehampton University.
After an introduction from a social-historical point of view presented by Hammond and a body perspective given by Tomic-Vajagic, all of the present researchers were invited to compose smaller groups according to each one’s subject of interest.

In the discussion group that I joined we shifted between different topics such as Forsythe’s uses of Rudolf Laban’s movement principles as a guide and foundation to his choreographic language; Forsythe not as a simple choreographer, but as an institution; his uses of contemporary popular culture as a choreographic motif; the presence of a dramaturg in Forsythe’s choreographic process; and his generosity as an artist – as he reveals his creative process on the public conversations he offers before his company’s performances.

The evening ended with a positive engagement between  DFT’s Lecturers, Postgraduate Researchers and the community of Dance Researchers based in UK,  having an opportunity to exchange and debate different views on Forsythe’s choreographic practice.

*Dance Film and Theatre Department of the University of Surrey
**Society for Dance Research

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