Last November, in the rugged west of Tasmania, 14 dancers from around Australia converged to participate in “Body Landscape,” an experiment facilitated by Dutch choreographer Frank Van De Ven. The program consisted of one week of living on a farm, exploring how the landscape informs the performing body.
This is an excerpt from the author’s personal reflections on the first two days of the retreat.
Driving in a 1980s white Corolla with spiderwebs draped on the inside, we stop by the roadside for homemade sushi on the car bonnet—Rebecca, Cath, and I. Three strangers in one small car locked in a shared adventure. We enter the farm at sunset and meander along the gravel path, winding our way past a large dam littered with swans. This is Myalla, North West Tasmania.
A few tents are sticking out of the land and people are milling around the campfire. We set up our tent by the light of the moon. Sitting on logs around the fire we introduce ourselves and eat dinner to the flicker of the flames.
It’s cold. Breakfast is porridge and coffee around the fire, which I am thankful someone has taken the initiative to light. The sky is an omnipresent grey. At 9 a.m. sharp, we convene and start with breathing exercises in pairs.
Person 1 (P1) lies on the ground with their eyes closed and connects with their breath. Person 2 (P2) lays a hand on their partner’s chest so the breath can be felt under their palm. Repeat in a different position, warming the ribcage and the rest of the body, experimenting with different pressure. As I move through the exercise, my senses are sharpened. I am moving on and off the body in tune with my partner’s breath, his skin under my palm. I fall into the rhythm of his body and I feel his breath beneath my hand.
P1 stands with their eyes closed.
P2 manipulates their partner’s limbs into odd shapes. Embodying that shape, P1 is instructed to walk forward with their eyes closed, keeping the precise alignment.
My head is cocked at a strange angle and my wrist is tilted to the right. My partner manipulates my hip to stick out to the left. I lock my body into this shape and I walk forward awkwardly. There are many things to think about at the same time: the level of the ground, the speed of walking, and my breath.
We all get down on our hands and knees. Fourteen dancers crawling in the dirt.
Being this close to the ground, my vision goes in and out, blood falling in different parts of my body and spilling in different directions. My stockings are ripped and my knee is bleeding. Dry grass and wind, wild earth and matter, my limbs readjusting to gravity. The land changes rapidly over a short distance. There are different tensions between the parts of my body. Am I human or animal? My crawling body, dirt on my palms, my hand versus my elbow. I rest my head on a dry cowpat. I am reluctant to “imitate” an animal but it’s hard to deny this instinct.
A ladybug crawls softly along the back of my hand, its soft padded feet getting caught in the soft downy hair of my wrist. I pause for a moment and let it run over my arm, amused at the tickling of its tiny legs. This minuscule insect so insignificant in the food chain, yet moving with apparent purpose. I become aware of this micro universe that exists in the endless grass. Lowering my face to the ground, a few blades of grass stretch up to my bottom lip and I naturally want to poke my tongue out to lick them. I press a twig to my lips and the surface is rough. I taste the grittiness in my mouth and bite down hard—the firmness between my teeth sends a few grains of dirt into my throat as a bird chirps overhead.
We walk in the forest after lunch. Sunlight shines through the trees. One of the other dancers leads us to the creek under the canopy of blackwood trees, eucalyptus and white gums, dogwood and acacias. We stop at an old shed. Outside is a discarded piano covered in spiderwebs. I can’t know yet that this piano will become important to me. I start to play and the broken keys release a haunting sound. There are dead spiders littered on some of the keys so I play around them. The spiderwebs are thick and there is a live spider watching. We walk around the dam and there are coiled blackberry trees. I overhear someone behind me say to nobody in particular, “Where light gets in, blackberries get in.”
Isolating body parts in micro movements.
My partner presses the nape of my neck, then my right shoulder, my left big toe, my sternum, and finally my right hip. Ever so slowly, I can feel this animal emerging from within me. A projected outer focus towards the point of pressure, an inner focus on the body parts. My neck starts to arch as my chest sinks slowly to the ground, my hip and my shoulder rise to the sky and my big toe presses into the earth. I am moving as slowly as I can muster and still I know it’s too fast. I’m becoming less “body” more “instinct.” Nighttime closes in.
“Breakfast!” Pots clanging, same as yesterday. A day trip planned to Rocky Cape National Park. The day is grey. We arrive at the ocean. The wind is howling and the waves smack against the sand. We ascend the mountain.
Halfway up, Frank instructs us to step onto the mountain. We step off the path and scatter into the landscape. Some of us are lying down, some on all fours, some cuddling into the bushes. We find a position and start to unravel one millimeter per second.
It’s cold. The intensity at close range is claustrophobic. I am distracted and I am moving too fast. After 20 minutes of pins and needles and battering wind on ours backs, we continue the climb. The path narrows as we weave alongside impressive cliff faces and jagged edges, walking in single file and in silence. The wind howls at my cheeks.
P1 is gently moved into position and their face is adjusted to see a piece of the landscape from very close range, only millimeters away. They hold their attention to that focal point without moving their body or gaze for five to six minutes.
My partner positions me a few millimeters from a large smooth rock. I am on all fours with my head bent down very close to the earth. A tiny red spider runs furiously across the rock. The rock surface seems unusually large at such close range. There is a barrenness I associate with the moon. An entire universe exists in this one micro spot right here on this piece of earth.
We walk silently. The landscape changes over the next few hours as we continue the climb and the sky becomes heavy. The sea air starts to change as we descend and there are a few raindrops. We sit on the white rocks. The rocks here are some of the oldest in Tasmania and as the rain sets in Rach comments, “The wind is so strong we have to lean into it for a rest.” Soon enough we stop again. I lay down on the track and my partner, Fina runs dirt through my fingers and water on my forehead. I prick her palms with sticks and use my breath to gently blow on her skin.
Over the next five days, we continue to work on the farm, Rocky Cape, and the Tarkine Rainforest. The week culminates with individual performances. What emerges for me is a soundscape on the piano. A recording in the forest accompanied by Kim’s electric guitar. I present it on the last night around the campfire. The sonnet is rendered incomprehensible due to the broken piano keys and I am delighted that the birds chirping in the trees can be heard through the crackling amp. I instruct the other dancers to read out personal notes ripped from my journal. Meanderings that expose the “process” of what my performance “is not.” The process feels powerful and offers a moment of closure to the week and our “Body Landscape” experience.
Reflecting on these experiences six months on, the exercises feel more vivid than ever. My practice and outlook have shifted and I feel a strong pull away from the city where I have been living and a pull towards the wilderness and isolation of Tasmania. I have secured two arts grants in northern Tasmania and I am undertaking workshops on the environment and sustainability, working with elementary school kids.
During these workshops, I naturally want to introduce the children to nature outside their classroom utilizing the focus and improvisation techniques I learned at ”Body Landscape.“ Back inside the classroom, we co-create an enormous mandala from parts of nature using found leaves, bark, flower petals, and recycled objects like bottle tops and fabric. The sacred symbol of a Mandala can be used for visualization, meditation, and connection, and positively reinforces the students’ ideas and hopes for the future.
In the next 12 months, I aim to undertake other ”Body Landscape“ workshops in different parts of the world and to facilitate more creative workshops and retreats here in Tasmania. Inviting others to escape the city, to switch off communication from everyday life, immerse themselves in the landscape and respond to it intuitively. To play, breathe, improvise, listen, and engage in a new dialogue with their own arts practice or simply to come back to the “self.” My hope is that Tasmania can sustain her wild nature well into our future and that we can encourage the next generation to appreciate and protect her rugged beauty.