(I was invited by Laura Doehler to join the Devising Think Tank event at TripSpace and share in one way or another OPENLAB for a few minutes – I wasn’t able to attend, so I wrote this letter for them instead)
My name is Antonio de la Fe and for the last few years I have been organising this thing called OPENLAB.
Laura Dohler invited me to attend the Devising Think Tank at TripSpace last Sunday, 4 October and share in about 15 minutes, somewhat practically somewhat conceptually, what it is OPENLAB… or at least offer a taste, even if partial, of what it could be.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend as you may have noticed.
I decided, however, to take up Laura’s proposition and I proposed to write this letter instead. This is a letter through which I could hopefully share at least a facet of OPENLAB, even if OPENLAB as model is fluid and ever changing, responding to the different constellations of people who configure it throughout time.
OPENLAB normally takes the form of approximately two hour-long studio sessions which happen most Friday mornings at Chisenhale Dance Space… or it has been so for at least the last 2 years. The sessions are always facilitated by one of the participants. Normally it is myself who facilitate although any session could be facilitated by any other participant given that they show interest and propose a theme for the session – the offer is always there. Anyway, the prerogative of the OPENLAB is to offer a space for emancipation in our development as performers, in which we take fool responsibility as well as agency of our artistry. The idea is …
“do it yourself, but don’t do it alone”
… because there is something very special from doing this kind of work in the same space with other people.
… because it is reassuring.
… because it validates what we do even if we do it differently, even if our work is unique and idiosyncratic.
… because it may help us to get in the work itself instead of procrastinating or spending time working around the work of what performing is.
… and because after all it can open possibilities for activities that can only be done with others sometimes.
And the notion of a facilitator is to actually enable a common ground or frame which allows like in any laboratory that different experiments can co-exist together without interrupting one another. Basically the facilitator becomes the gate keeper who tries that truly you don’t do it alone but still do it yourself.
I said before that OPENLAB normally takes the form of regular studio sessions but not only. We have had outdoor sessions or sessions run by occupying other public spaces like art galleries, we have had sessions with audiences in different setting from studio theatres to concert halls, passing through sport centres or private homes. Although from all the forms that OPENLAB has taken I really like the form of the take-away session. So far I have only suggested a take-away session once. On that occasion the session was a recorded track that people could listen to and follow (or not) the best way it suit them.
The idea for the sound track came from the fact that I normally tell openlabbers to treat whatever I say during sessions as though they are listening to a set of instructions coming from a tape, so they can actually feel like it is not a big deal whether they follow the instructions or not, whether they missed the instructions or not, whether they understand the instructions or not, whether they achieve anything from the instructions or not…
For Sunday, I was wondering whether I could be able to offer another kind of take-away session. Take-away so you could possibly try it elsewhere. My proposition for this take-away class would be that you bring it to another existing dance (or maybe not dance) class. In any case, it is just an offer and you can work with it as it pleases you (or not). I hope some of you will try it sometime, maybe if you think that there is something interesting in it. Before I try to write down the parameters of the session let me share with you a little story that has to do in part with the reasons for me to organise and carry out this thing that I call OPENLAB in the first place.
This story has to do with education in general and with dance education in particular:
When I was a child I grow up to believe that there was such a thing as The Truth (yes, in capital letters). I believed that this Truth was complete and therefore it could be apprehended. Although I never believed that one person could hold this Truth in its entirety. However, I would see my teachers as all-knowing, or at list holding some portion of The Truth. I believed that when they were teaching they were offering their portion of The Truth, the part of it that they knew very well, and I thought that my work as a student was to gain as much as possible from that portion of The Truth. I thought learning and intelligence had to do with the ability to get the information they had on their brains and place it within mine. This may seem like I was a dumb arse who became a Dictaphone, recording everything it was told, but the truth is that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I knew that knowing had to do less with memorising and more with understanding. Anyway, I still saw my teachers as the ones who knew and me the one who didn’t know but could get to know if I tried hard enough.
Obviously dance training wasn’t so much about knowing what but about knowing how, dance classes didn’t have to do with learning about stuff but it had to do with becoming able at doing things, but even so I felt that my teachers knew something that I didn’t know, and at this point my relationship with my dance teachers started to become almost mystical. It felt to me that what my dance teachers really knew wasn’t data that they could share with the students through spoken or written word.
They new The Way (yes, again in capital letters). The Way a student should be guided through, which things they should do and when, the step-by-step order of things in order to achieve those technical skills which are required to be a dancer. It felt like they knew a secret (or many secrets) and that they would only show you a bit of those secrets each time, like the tip of an iceberg, with the promise that if you were a good student maybe one day, when you will be ready for it, the secrets will slowly be revealed to you.
I love exaggerations and my recount of the story is obviously one of those. However, I can’t help but wonder if in a way this attitude towards dance education is tacitly implicit in the many formats it takes. On the one had I think, maybe it was just me who ended believing that learning was happening in those terms. On the other hand I can’t help but wonder: isn’t it this reinforced paradigm in which the notion of a teacher’s knowledge of a class structure and of a technique are conceived as absolutes?
Throughout the years this attitude towards education made me feel a failure as a performer, because of all the skills I seemed to never achieve. No matter how hard I worked at it, it looked like I would never manage to do those idealised versions of technical treats that were thrown to me with the message, “This, my little kid, is what Dance is.”
Although from 2006 to 2011 my approach towards dance classes started to change. I kept going to classes but my attitude towards the hierarchy between myself and the teachers was shifted at first, and ended dissolving eventually (well, more or less… you know how they say, “Old habits die hard” so let’s leave it at that, I’m still working at it). I started to listen to myself more deeply, in a way through which I allow myself to try to do things but keeping in mind the gentle the task of learning new ways of doing.
The teachers little by little became these recorded tapes, only better because they were able to see what was going on and respond to it and so they would many times add valuable information. However, “valuable information” didn’t always came at the right time for me to be able to hear it or understand it, and if I heard and understood that “valuable information” it didn’t always came at the right time for me to do anything with it. So I started to accept that it. I started to accept that any given time was maybe the right time for any information to be processed, but then any given time could be maybe the non-right time for it and therefore I could let some information go. I started to accept that I could sort of do, more or less, what they were asking me to do but I didn’t have to be anxious or too worried about doing exactly what they were asking me to do.
Sometimes it would be obvious that I would do something else because I would allow myself to it really differently, or even stop doing altogether, just because it wasn’t the right thing for me – whether physically, mentally or emotionally – at that moment. Other times it would be less obvious, as I manage to continue doing something that didn’t look too different from what I was asked to do. I basically allowed myself to make any class to work for me (even those classes that I didn’t like much). A bit of a rebel, a pariah… but in a subtle way and always trying that what I did didn’t influenced me negatively with the process or with the other people taking the class.
However, this allowance to do whatever else didn’t mean that I always had to do something else by default. After all, if what I was explained and asked to do was possible for me to do it fully (because I was in the right place to do it, for example) then I would allow myself to simply do it. Or else I would do it (as I was told) and also add something of my own to it.
In a way, this thing I have just said is the OPENLAB take-away session I promised. At the beginning I imagined I would write a list of punchy sentences and I could still do so, to reduce it to its quintessence for you but… then I wouldn’t be trusting your inherent intelligence, would I? So what if simply after reading this you chose any class, maybe even a class you don’t know very well what’s about or who’s the teacher, and you decide to do the class as best as you can but doing so the best way the class fits you?
I hope that this letters has been at least interesting for you, and if you’ve fond it also useful I will be very happy.
Thank you for reading.
With best wishes,
Antonio de la Fe