Moving the piano: a conversation between two ensembles

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Impressions of the ConArtists after a week-long residency at Double Edge Theatre with the SITI Company

By Ria Samartzi

Thinking back on our time in Ashfield many images come to mind, training in the barn, frolicking in the snow, mountains of kale, the endless supply of coffee and the conversations that accompanied it and moving pianos. 

But before any of that of course, we had to leave New York City. We arrived at open space, quiet and an entirely different time signature. 

‘We received a Wonderful, generous welcome from Double Edge today. They welcomed us with delicious food and then performed for us, a stunning, athletic, beautiful survey of the entire 20th century called The Grand Parade. Then they fed us again.’

This is what Megan Hanley wrote on that very first night to our SITI colleagues that couldn’t be with us. How concise and accurate! During our entire stay we really were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Double Edge ensemble and trainees alike. This warm and welcoming atmosphere would prove a fertile ground for artistic exchange and the cross-pollination of ideas.  Whether during training, over meals or while washing dishes and shoveling snow we met and we exchanged opinions. 

Training or ‘studio’ time was split equally between the two companies with each alternately leading the other during the mornings, afternoons and the occasional evening through a variety of training and creating sessions. 

When Double Edge led there was silence as soon as you entered, a reverence to the space and the other artists. Communication happened almost exclusively non-verbally, through sophisticated leading and following. There was the sense that questions were being asked, but the questions went unspoken. This training was long-form and free-flow, yet there were distinct rules in the ‘games’ we were playing. The use of highly evocative music and movement was prominent. Work with objects (large spools, see-saws, aerial equipment of all sorts) as well as partner work (weight-sharing, balancing, lifting), singing, dancing all seem to be cornerstones of their practice.  Overall this work required stamina, focus and awareness, of one’s self, of the others both near and far, of the event in the room, the story that was unfolding. 

Some of the vocabulary that was introduced was from the company’s forthcoming summer spectacle and there was an attempt to evoke the spirit of the Latin American carnival. During the final session etudes were made in order to re-examine prominent moments from the improvisations. These were scratches, whiffs of something… 

This training seems to exist in the land where you can be simultaneously very right and very wrong. There is a mystery to it. 

Casey’s thoughts seem to run along a similar vein:

‘I was mesmerized and struck very deeply at the intensity of the sense of ensemble in the room. We all seemed to be sharing in the same wave of energy and rhythm with one another. Once again, I was struck by the generosity of the ensemble and the danger/safety of the room itself. Always walking the edge between right and wrong. Never right, never wrong.’

SITI training has a duality of its own. Suzuki belongs in a classical, hierarchical world. In this world right and wrong exist and succeeding is impossible. Yet we must try. On the other hand, when practicing the Viewpoints with their Post-Modern roots, we enter the horizontal laboratory and here there can be no wrong. 

Instruction for both during the week was formal, with the leader explaining, demonstrating, guiding through the fundamental principles of each subject. For us a lot of the work during this time is about the new space, not because we have in any way mastered the Suzuki form or the flexibility of mind required for the Viewpoints, but rather because both of the trainings are designed to bring us face to face with the reality of our surroundings. The barn is much bigger than our NY studio, it has different history, a more challenging floor, distinct acoustic qualities.  All of this has to be accounted for in our practice and our practice is informed by it. Another part of the work is observing and learning from the new cohort training alongside us, an important aspect of the SITI culture. Having fresh bodies to observe and new sensibilities to respond to in the room was exciting. It was also exciting to be sharing something that we have committed to long term with other artists and to observe their responses. 

Here are some of Jackie’s thoughts:

‘… Akiko introduced a king or queen fiction, heroic sensibility. It is a fraction, I’m sure, of what SITI Company feels when you share your training for the first time to a new group, but it is just so rewarding! I feel this…’

Leon and Anne also led a few work sessions inspired by John Cage. Researching Cage through the night, staging bits of his ‘Lecture on Nothing’ with Leon’s guidance through an elaborate procedure derived through (what else?) chance operations, constructing a litany of his innovations through the medium of song, using some of his words in hastily created scenes and hearing them anew… It was a John Cage extravaganza of sorts! More to the point though, I suppose, is that this was a way for SITI to share their way of starting a devising process with the good folks of Double Edge. 

On Friday morning, our final day, instead of training we went for a beautiful winter walk, or rather, as Carlos at Double Edge would say, this was also part of the training. And so it was. Walking through the snow covered pastures, rolly-polly-ing down the hills, making snow angels, but also shoveling snow, washing dishes, sweeping floors and moving furniture, are all part of the training up at the farm and also for us elsewhere even though we might have fewer opportunities for such concentrated practice. They are part of the training, I think, firstly because they posit the same fundamental question as all theatre ‘How can we all live together?’ but also because they have tons of other useful side-effects like inspiration, developing problem-solving skills and practical thinking and clearing one’s mind to name but a few.  

My sense over the week was that the ensembles were echoing each other in multiple ways, in their ethos, their history, their work. They do not reflect each other like mirrors, but maybe they are at opposite ends of the same valley hearing the echoes of each other’s voices. It is certainly too soon for me and probably for them to make any kind of comparative study of the companies’ working practices, but we each have our experiences which are both unique and tangible. 

‘Moving the piano’ as a metaphor for making theatre is very telling not only about the way both these ensembles make work, but also somehow describes our week together. 

And for those of you wondering if there were tearful goodbyes or tears of joy at departure, let me say this: We were sent off with a beautiful song which was Double Edge’s brilliant way of telling us to go now and not milk our exit, but us being us we stayed till they finished and hugged each of them adieu anyway!

P.S. No actual pianos were moved during this residency.