I was lucky enough to get a place on Frantic Assembly's latest series of physical theatre workshops. As a company they use a lot of dance in their productions to explore the subtext in the work they produce. They find their movement vocabulary for each production through task-based choreographic exercises. For example, one of the tasks from their production of 'Lovesong' was to recreate the way that you casually brush away a piece of fluff etc from a lover's clothing, mid-conversation, without interrupting the flow or them reacting to your having invaded their personal space. From this starting point an intimate duet developed that travelled through space and included lifts and weight-sharing. The end result was a highly physicalised yet gentle and tender duet that from an audience perspective demonstrated the loving nature and ease within the relationship of the characters. We also explored how changes in dynamic, use of focus or using unison movement etc changed the reading of the duet and therefore opened further choreographic potential from a very simple starting point.
Several of Frantic's rehearsal workshop techniques follow structures like the one above in that specific pathways of movement are not set absolutely but it is the intention behind the movement that drives it. I.e. in the example above I was visualising the fluff and removing it instead of thinking that my hand was coming to my partner's shoulder and then spiralling away anti-clockwise through space. Once this intentionally pedestrian movement vocabulary has been generated (or assimilated from another source, e.g. boxing club warm-up movements in the case of 'Beautiful Burnout'), Frantic will then use strong compositional devices regarding pathways through space and the finding of movement and spatial connections between two or more different sequences to structure the dance as a whole. The combination of the highly stylised structure and yet very pedestrian or 'ordinary' movement combined with their gravity-defying lifts and often frenetic pace come together to produce their signature style which is both very exciting and accessible to audiences.
One of the real strengths about Frantic Assembly is the care and attention they place on the environment in the workshop room and, as they told us, it is the same in their company rehearsals. They have developed several warm-up games that they use to effectively develop unity and team work, co-ordination, musicality/working to complex counts and to enable creative and playful engagement with the various devising tasks they set. As they either develop their own games or have adapted existing games to suit their purposes every exercise works towards the aims they
have set for each particular session. No random games of zip-zap-boing just because 'that's what you do'.
One of the early lifting exercises I particularly enjoyed involved being lifted to arms' length above 5 people's heads. The lifters were arranged in an open-ended rectangle shape (horse-shoe) and were standing almost shoulder to shoulder and the liftee walked, and later ran, into the open-ended aspect before being gently lifted to arm's length by the 5, vertically, and then being lowered down. The liftee then joined the lifters, starting at position #a (see below), and all the lifters rotated around one position with the person originally at position #b leaving the horse-shoe and joining the queue of people being lifted. We had 20 people in the group overall and ran 2 sets of this exercise simultaneously and co-ordinated the timing of the lifts so that the group still worked as a whole and also that each group fed into the queues of the other group. Like a big lifting machine in a factory.
#a X X #b
I find it a liberating experience to be lifted. Trusting other people to support your weight, especially when you are being lifted to high places or are upside down or in any other precarious position, takes a lot of confidence but to know that the support is there for you and that you are safe and that you now have access to a new playing field of space is extremely exciting.
Therapeutic aspect aside it is also very useful to be able to use this type of movement when creating theatre as the spectacle and thrill of a gravity-defying lift conveys directly to an audience. Neil Bettles, the workshop leader, talked about the range of movement vocabulary involved in each Frantic piece and how the style of each production, while carrying similarities, is very different but that it is the lifts that people always talk about first. I think this is understandable as the lifts, even when not particularly acrobatic, provide strong standout moments that the audience can a) remember as an individual movement within a dance and b) provide a strong kinaesthetic thrill in that the audience feels, to some degree, the movement they are watching but within their own bodies.
I could write for days about my experience of Frantic Assembly so far and I know I will return to their concepts and ideas for a long time in my own work in the future. For anyone who hasn't seen them I can't recommend them enough. Get tickets to their shows, get on their mailing list and sign up for a workshop, persuade your school/college or University to bring them in for a residency, buy their book (the frantic assembly guide to devising theatre) and bring Frantic into your life. I promise I'm not on commission, I've just gained so much from my experience with them and loved every minute of it.
I have some exciting Frantic-related projects coming up soon including workshops I'm going to be leading in a school and for the RedTIE theatre company on the Isle of Wight (yes I am available for hire as workshop leader ;o) and something even bigger which I don't want to talk too much about just yet for fear of jinxing it, but watch this space!