Integrative Performing Training: Genesis (2014-2019)

Leading up to, and during my participation in the Research Studios (Pilot #2) at the contemporary dance school P.A.R.T.S. my artistic practice expanded into the world of artistic research.  The central focus of this research has been the development of a pedagogy facilitating interests and activities in inter- and transdisciplinary work in the performing arts.  For most of this period I consciously chose to set my personal creative and aesthetic ambitions aside under the pretense that what I needed most (and perhaps even what the performing arts world needed in general) were practical tools and strategies to facilitate artistic collaboration between, across, and beyond the disciplines of music, dance, and theatre.

What has evolved in this period is not so much a new pedagogy or practice, but rather a new critical lens through which to consider, develop, and apply pedagogy in one’s performing practice.  My hope is that what I present here can be applied broadly in a variety of performing contexts, disciplines, and aesthetics.  At the same time, I acknowledge that this claim is merely wishful thinking without wider application and rigorous assessment.  At present, I can only attest to the benefit this lens has had on my personal work as a performer, and some intermittent feedback I have received from individuals with whom I have shared its principles.

Although I wanted to develop this pedagogy without an implied or inherent aesthetic, it is important to mention that it is derived from my personal experiences in, and knowledge of, classical singing and contemporary dance.  My personal creative work leading up to (and during) the discussed period can be said to have existed within the realm of experimental ‘Muziektheater’[1] and/or the non-traditional programming of larger opera houses (generally co-productions with theatre or dance companies and directed by a theatre director or choreographer).  There is likely a link between the activities and practices of performers in these contexts with the ‘triple threat’ performers of ‘Musical Theatre’, but this has yet to be explored.

Setting the scene

Every individual artist carries a wealth of talents, techniques, and experiences; logically these must be integrated into any useful practice aiming to transgress the boundaries of well-established performing disciplines.  My goal is not to present a new method, but rather a system of core principles that help performers process the numerous inputs they receive throughout their training and careers.  The goal is to contribute to the evolution of one’s ‘integrative performing practice’.

The term ‘integrative performing’ comes from Bryon’s 2014 book Integrative Performance.  Her central thesis can be captured in the following schema and explanation:

           PERFORMER                  PERFORMING                PERFORMANCE

            Who is doing.                     Way of doing.                    What is done.

Bryon argues convincingly that ‘performer’ and ‘performance’ emerge from the central act of ‘performing’.[2]  If we believe this to be true, we must not only reconsider who we are as ‘artists’ and the ‘works’ we create/perform, but also question the reliability or utility of these identities and identifications in the first place.  Integrative performing prioritizes process and forces us to acknowledge ourselves and our performances as dynamic, living, and ever-changing.

Although the term ‘integrative performing’ may have evolved out of a need to address the ‘doing’ of inter- and transdisciplinary work in the performing arts, its application also includes discipline-specific performing practices.  The reason for this is that the reality of practice in the performing arts (if not in specific projects, then certainly in the variety of professional activities of individual performers) occurs on a broad disciplinary-interdisciplinary-transdisciplinary continuum.  As such, integrative performing must support not only what is new and emergent, but also what is already well-established in performing arts disciplines.

But how do we support integrative performing?  Any credible teacher or artist would agree that integrative performing is paramount to realizing one’s artistic and aesthetic aspirations.  The terminology used may be different (‘flow’, ‘presence’, ‘being in the now’, etc.), but, just as in everyday life, the need to let go of one’s ego and/or aspired outcomes is indisputable in the performing arts.

My basic proposition is that integrative performing emerges from integrative living.[3]  As a starting point I believe it is necessary to reveal the conditions, or the personal ‘space’, in which integrative performing is possible.  I believe the key is in the confluence of performing and somatic practices.  Although universal truths regarding breath, body, and voice function may be elusive, there are overarching principles that can be agreed upon if one looks closely where somatic practices and performing techniques clearly intersect: engagement with the body and voice in a manner that is natural, healthy, and efficient.  Such terms may be problematic in an intellectual discourse, but they are indisputably credible through the cogency of embodied experience.

The core principles outlined below stem from the lifelong work of Ilse Middendorf who developed Breathwork, a unique form of breath education that promotes a conscious experience of breath movement free from control of the human will.  Middendorf introduces this possibility with the following directives:

We let our

breath come,

we let it go

and wait, until it

comes back by itself.[4]

For many this is a new ‘way’ of breathing that resides somewhere between unconscious breathing (how we breathe most of the time) and voluntary breathing (when we consciously direct or manipulate our breath cycle).  Middendorf calls it ‘perceptible breathing’, and claims it is the key to accessing one’s ‘somatic intelligence’ – the wisdom of the body encompassing the physical realm of posture, movement, and overall health and fitness, as well as the spiritual and mental spheres of thought, feeling, sensing, and intuition.

The Core Principles of Integrative Performing

In my own practice and my work with others I regularly repeat specific exercises, often quite methodically and predictably.  I think this repetitive, even ritualistic approach to one’s individual performing and/or teaching practice is both logical and helpful.  However, I am increasingly wary of written texts that prescribe exercises outside of the dynamic context of a lesson or workshop.  This is not because the exercises themselves are not useful, but because from my point of view the objectivity of the exercise inevitably supersedes the ‘way of doing’ it.  The principles outlined below are rather meant to serve as reference points in the ‘doing’ of any exercise.

Fundamental principles:

  1. Perceptible breathing is the key to accessing your ‘somatic intelligence’.  Strive for awareness and allowing.  Trust that the breath, body, and voice know (or will discover, if you let them) their most efficient, healthful, and expressive coordination.
  2. Whether still or moving, silent or sounding, strive for a ‘eutensive’ way of doing. This ‘good tension’ lies somewhere between too much (hypertension) and too little (hypotension).
  3. The breath cycle includes four phases: inhalation, suspension, exhalation, and pause.  The duration and quality of each cycle and each phase of the cycle is constantly changing.  These changes are inextricably connected with everything we do, think, and feel.

Basic breath-movement principles:

  1. Every phase of the breath cycle corresponds to movement in the torso: inhalation – expansion; exhalation – swinging back; pause & suspension – dynamic stillness.
  2. When the body’s joints are free this movement in the torso passes throughout the rest of the body: through the shoulders towards the fingers; through the hips towards the feet, and through the neck to the head.
  3. There is a movement/breathing correlation between stretching/inhaling and releasing/exhaling. This is more or less evident depending on the complexity of the
    stretch-release activity, but indisputably clear in the yawn.
  4. The yawn also highlights the ‘suspension’ phase of the breath cycle.  The suspension can also be considered a ‘passing through’ from stretch to release.

Basic breath-voicing principles:

  1. Voicing initiates when the breath brings together and vibrates the vocal folds in the larynx. This usually occurs during exhalation, but can also occur during inhalation.
  2. When the body is free, the vibrations in the larynx can be felt elsewhere in the head and body (compare with the breath movement initiating in the torso but passing throughout the rest of the body).

‘Flow’ principles:

  1. The breath can ‘support’ moving, and vice versa. This involves distinguishing clearly between too much relaxation (hypotension), resistance (‘eutension’), and restriction (hypertension). When we use resistance and the throat remains open we are working with ‘flow breathing’.  This corresponds with ‘flow moving’.
  1. The breath can ‘support’ voicing/sounding, and vice versa. This involves distinguishing clearly between too much relaxation (hypotension), resistance (‘eutension’ in the torso muscles, larynx, and mouth in voicing or other muscles used to play an instrument/make sound) and restriction (hypertension). When we work with resistance we are dealing with ‘flow breathing’.  This corresponds with ‘flow voicing’ or ‘flow sounding’.
  2. All vowels during flow breathing and voicing have a eutonic formation of the jaw, tongue, and/or lips.

*Important note: Hypo- or hypertension can occur in integrative performing, but only from awareness (‘disintegrative performing’ as artistic choice, rather than bad, unconscious habit).

Extended breath-movement principles:

  1. There are three ‘spaces’ related to the position of one’s torso and movement done in relation to it. Each has a corresponding breath direction (corresponding to the exhalation): upper space – descending; middle space – horizontal; lower space – ascending.
  2. When breathing through the mouth, every resistance (through eutonic vowel formation) will result in unique movements/sensations of the breath movement in the body.

Extended breath-voicing principles:

  1. When voicing, every resistance in the mouth (through eutonic vowel formation) will result in unique movements/sensations in the body.
  2. Every disruption/interruption in the mouth (during eutonic consonant formation, whether inhaling or exhaling) will result in unique body movements/articulations/sensations in the body.

Extended breath-movement-voicing/sounding principles:

  1. Disruptions/Interruptions connected with flow breathing and moving will also influence voicing.
  2. Disruption/Interruption of flow sounding (on an instrument) can be more or less related to the disruptions/interruptions of moving or voicing depending on the nature of the instrument and playing technique involved.


Principles of perception:

  1. In addition to the three body spaces mentioned above, we can also acknowledge our inner space (perception/awareness ‘from within’) and outer space (the space and people around us). This shift is often connected with our gaze, but also (less evidently) in the way we listen and/or touch.

In connection with all of the principles above we can perceive a variety of things in a variety of ways.

                                                

We can perceive:

        ●  ourselves
        ●  another
        ●  the objects near or connected to us (musical instruments)
        ●  the space around us
        ●  the sound around us
                                                                
We can perceive with:
        ●  our touch
        ●  our gaze
        ●  our hearing
        ●  from within (from ‘awareness’, ‘mindfulness’)
                                                                                                        

Things we can perceive:

The Open Throat – ‘Flow’ Breathing/Moving/Sounding
                                                                
Although articulating the above-described principles in relation to performing has been interesting in many ways, I believe it is maintaining an unrestricted open throat which has proven to be the most useful detail of the pedagogy so far. I refer to this as ‘flow’ breathing/moving/voicing/sounding which is derived from the concept of ‘flow phonation’ which is an important concept in vocal pedagogy.
                                                                
‘Flow’ does not require the most open passageway for breath movement (which would be an open vowel like [a] through the mouth), but rather a ‘eutonic’ passageway for breath movement connected to the desired parameters of movement and/or phonation. This is why the distinction between ‘resistance’ and ‘restriction’ is so important. Any form of resistance could be desired or required to execute specific movement or make specific sounds. This resistance may not always be conscious (indeed to exist in everyday life we require breath and body to establish and work with resistance unconsciously), but it should not impede our desired result. Restrictions are impediments, and the goal of somatic work is to recognize them, and either eliminate them or embrace them as new (desired) resistance.

                                                

From a vocal-pedagogical perspective, this requires the most efficient formation of vowels and consonants with the lips, tongue, and jaw. From a movement-pedagogical perspective this involves identifying restrictions in the breath and body and revealing the increased possibilities of working through awareness and a ‘eutonic’ and/or ‘flow’ approach to breathing/moving.        


[1] Muziektheater (Music Theatre) is a small but importantly unique ‘field’ within the funding structures of both Flanders and the Netherlands.  It should not be confused with Broadway-style ‘Musical Theatre’.

[2] Experience Bryon, Integrative Performance: Practice and Theory for the Interdisciplinary Performer (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 60.

[3] This has major implications in terms of diet, health, fitness, and more generally our relationships and interactions with others and the world.

[4] Ilse Middendorf, Der Erfahrbare Atem (Paderborn: Junfermann Verlag, 2007), p. 19.