Last Saturday we had the first performance of our Dancing the World into Being outside in a landscape overlooking both the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons. You can see some more pics here. The response of audience was warm; in some cases people seemed deeply affected by the dance and its music (a capella choir,squeeze-box, gongs and percussion). One old friend said to me that she felt the dance spoke to her body and I was pleased about that, because that’s what we intended.
Every since I started teaching beginners’ T’ai Chi, I have been aware of how tense most people are, how armoured our bodies are, and how long it can take for people to relax, breathe and move without strain. It may be that our compulsive digital activities are closing down our physical and sensory awareness – after all, so far there’s no smell, touch or taste on the internet. We can get trapped in a world made of words and images, imprisoned by a circle of angry flaming, conflicting interpretations of reality, competing views of what reality is. I can’t be the only one who can finish an internet session feeling tense and stirred up – not in a good way.
Thank God for music, poetry, gardening, films and novels which know how to lead us out of this trap. And dance, I believe, both doing it and watching it, is the means par excellence of bypassing the sinister sentinels of the linear-verbal world and offering us a way to vivid, sensory and emotional experience,
Dance has a strong connection with mathematics – many folk dances weave complex knots and patterns, play with twos, threes, sixes, sevens, eights, here’s a diagram from our choreographer, Gillian’s notes.
These can all be related to sacred geometry, which is one of the ways I discovered years ago to lift my mind up a level into a liberating (though sometimes scary) and more abstract realm.
This realm is a simpler place than our crabby catastrophising world, and it points the way to understanding how something can come from nothing (some scientists and mathematicians can take us there too, as long as their agenda is not too narrow). If you are interested in this kind of thing, have a look at these sites – Sareoso and Singinghead.
But for me, the biggest virtues of mounting a dance performance like ours is that it hints at a real mystery – how something comes from nothing – via a creation myth buried in an ancient Welsh tale, the story ‘Math son of Mathonwy’ from the Mabinogion. Our dance is intended to take you back into a mode of being and perceiving which our ancestors knew. Certainly they could not afford to be cut off from their bodies and their senses.
These ancient tales are a gift from them to us, but the rub is that the stories from the Mabinogion can’t be appreciated properly and understood by the linear-logical mind. They need to be acted out, danced, played with, listened to in English and in Welsh. And then, just maybe we can hear our ancestors whispering to us, dancing with us. And I think we need to listen, we need to join in.
There’s another chance to see our dance at the Globe in Hay on Saturday October 21. details here.
This morning I came across a taster which I made three years ago for The Dancing Floor, then called The House of the Waters. I edited it with Windows Moviemaker software on my PC, so it’s a bit rough but it does give a strong sense of the film, and the mystery underlying it. It also has a strong ‘solstice’ feel to it and the Mabinogion connection is clearer than in the pilot. Gill and Dylan’s music is on there and sounds as good as ever. You can see it here
It shows how the ideas behind the film have developed over time – and no doubt will continue to develop. Meanwhile we have been busy making contacts and thinking about the next phase – getting some serious finance for this microbudget film. But we needed a break to allow the darkness of the solstice to seep into body, mind and spirit and invigorate us anew for the next push, so more news in the New Year!
Meanwhile, enjoy the soft solstice dark, soft and damp solstice dark this year. And do take a look at the old taster – it’s only two minutes long, and share if you can. We need to create an audience for the feature film, and your help and support is needed and appreciated.
The pilot-teaser film has had its first previews, and so far the reception has been warm and enthusiastic. ‘Beautiful’, ‘so intriguing’, ‘fabulous music’, ‘extremely atmospheric’, ‘I can’t wait to see the long version’ are some of the comments I collected along the way. The first preview was for my Samatha Buddhist friends in Manchester. We set the screen up to one side of the big golden Buddha, and the room glowed with anticipation. I was surprised and pleased when I heard the audience make little gasps and snorts of recognition at key moments, such as when Sita, the heroine says ‘it’s the nothingness between the somethingness which holds the key’. There were many meditators there, and since meditators spend a lot of time exploring nothingness, it is not a scary thing for these guys, as it is for some people in our highly over-wrought and distracted world. The second preview was for my Welsh-speaking and learning friends, at Brechfa Chapel where I live.
It was prefaced with a talk in Welsh by me about the Mabinogion (be very impressed) and a chunk of story from the Mabinogion by Marion Oughton (be impressed again), a learner-friend. I watched my audience watching and could see that the spell of the film was working on them. Their attention was steady throughout and did not waver. They responded particularly strongly to the atmosphere and the uncanny beauty of the drone shots of my pool. The mythic resonances from the Mabinogion also appealed. They liked the actors, and were the first audience to understand the bits in Welsh! The third preview is still to come: if you live near Brecon come to the George Hotel at 7pm on Monday May 18 where I will be giving a talk for Brecon MIND (Exploring the Edge of Reality)
and showing the film, followed by a discussion, I hope, about creativity, meditation and mental balance. All are welcome and this is a great group of people who put on interesting talks every month. Other news is that I have found a couple of people with skills differing and matching mine who may be going to help me with the next phase: financing and producing the feature film. I won’t name them yet because I don’t want to tempt fate, but I hope very soon there will be a showing in Hay on a big screen, maybe with live music to follow. A London screening will follow soon after that one. If you can’t get to a screening, leave me a message here or on FB and I will send you a special secret link. A crowdfunding campaign will be the next stage, plus the filling in of many forms and the canvassing of more serious investors. There’s a way to go!
Some people have asked me to say more about this film and so I am going to try to do that – without giving away anything which would spoil it for you when you see it. I am especially going to try and avoid analysis: ‘this stands for this and this is what is really happening here, and this whole chunk actually means this.’ There is already too much analysis out there and it is an enemy of storytellers.
So, the story is about a forty-something psychiatrist, Sita, who lives in London and is trying to get money for research into the role of the brain ventricles in mental illness. Sita is half Indian and half Welsh, and in my film is played by Renu Brindle who is a medical woman herself! She is called back to Wales when her uncle Mal dies and finds she has inherited his house – and a mysterious and troubling task. At first reluctant and sceptical, she meets the Welsh builder, Gethin (played by Seiriol Tomos) who has been looking after the house and thinks that he should be Mal’s inheritor. Misunderstanding and anger arise between them and then….
Sita finds out that the tradition which her uncle Mal carried is that of the ‘Children of Don’ (Irish: Tuatha de Danaan, Welsh: Plant Don), the tribe who, in the oldest tales were said to bring magic to these islands (which we now pitifully call ‘The UK’). In particular they brought the four ‘Hallows’ which are the Sword, the Spear, the Cauldron and the Stone. These crop up everywhere in our mythology: think of the ‘stone of Scone’ which the monarch sits on to be crowned, think of Lleu throwing his spear through the rock to kill his rival, Gronw. To me, magic is about understanding the basic principles of creativity, especially how something comes out of nothing. It’s something I have studied and discussed endlessly (yes, often in smoke-filled rooms) with kabbalistic friends, explorers of metaphysical philosophy in Saros/Sareoso groups and Buddhist meditators. You could say the quest to know something about it has haunted and animated my life.
I wanted to weave all this in to a film and it has taken me five years to get to this point, where I am making a short film which will be used to gather finance for a full-length feature. This is only possible because I am working with a group of highly-skilled people who are, actually, magicians in their own way. Cinema is in essence a magical art which seeks to put a spell on its audience. These skilful people (Aes Dana?) have been doing it for love not money so far – not love of me (though there is plenty of affection around) but love of being part of a creative process. “It’s all smoke and mirrors, Mal, cheap magic” says Sita to her uncle in the film. Well below you see a smoke machine over the mirror-lake at Brechfa, ‘smoke and mirrors’ indeed, but without them, we would dwell in nothing forever and never know the joys and pains of somethingness.
I have re-written and re-drafted the screenplay about twenty times. Patient friends have read it and commented, sometimes very candidly (ouch!). I have attended two Ffilm Cymru Wales writers’ labs, which both provided screenwriting mentors who helped me see what needed to be done. Believe me, screenwriting is a hellishly difficult process – and yet, the day you see your words, your painfully crafted scenes, brought to life by actors, you instantly forget all the angst. My real breakthrough came this summer when a fine writer called Rebecca Lenkiewicz said she liked my screenplay (the film she co-wrote, Ida, has had brilliant reviews). Then another of my mentors said he thought I should and could make it as a ‘micro-budget’ feature for £250,000. So that’s what I am going to do.
We have just spent three days in an ancient Welsh manor house (graciously lent us by the inhabitants, Emma Beynon and Roger Capps) telling our story on film, plus one day around Brechfa Pool where I live in a little chapel overlooking the mountains. I think every person involved, from our seven-month pregnant make-up lady, Danielle, to our most distinguished DOP, Richard, felt the magic of that ancient place seep into their bones and out into their work. As we sat in the kitchen at dawn or dusk with a fire flickering in the open fireplace a hush would sometimes fall on us and we could feel infinity pressing up from the earth under our feet. The Children of Don were present then, not in ghostly form, but in us, their inheritors, as modern magicians and storytellers trying to keep an old tradition of understanding reality alive in a new form.
The last morning, with a smoke machine coming and a friend (Tim Browning) of a friend with a drone-camera, about to arrive from far away (God bless him), I lay in bed praying for good weather. I went out at five and felt the soft breath of dawn coming as I looked up into a clear sky. No fog, only stars – Caer Gwydion (The Milky Way), Caer Don (Cassiopeia) and Caer Arianrhod (Corona Borealis.) Yes, there are names for these constellations in our own old tradition, though few people know them now. Later the drone sailed out over the still, glittering water of the pond, tinged with pink, and on through the dancing trees, then soared upwards to see them from high above. Little Sita (played by Isha Gurung, a child of Gurkha parents from Brecon nearby) raced up the hill in her red duffle coat and the drone followed her from above. The force certainly seemed to be with us that day!
Isha’s dad, Bel, brought us home-made momo dumplings to eat. Our youngest crew member, Jordan, must have had at least twelve.
I felt dazed. It was in the can, except that there is no ‘can’ any more, only a ‘stick’ or hard drive. After everyone had gone, I realised we had forgotten one shot, but I didn’t panic. As all film-makers know, there is usually a ‘way round’ it. Magicians have to be flexible and ingenious, don’t they? Isn’t that part of the secret? That, and the right people coming together at the right time and the right place? But I am saying all this very quietly: I don’t want the gods to hear and think we are getting cocky…
I had a rest day on Sunday, having been racing around and doing my OU final marking and rewriting screenplay for eighth (and not the last) time. I was sitting in my cabin reading ‘The New Confessions’ by William Boyd and drinking wine when I heard a whickering noise. Immediately I was on my feet and a good thing too, because here they were, the new ponies, cantering down my drive, nostrils flaring, three hopeful sheep close behind them. I had left my gate open and they had already escaped from a holding field somewhere (Nigel or is it Lewis, will you put a fastening on that bloody gate?) and, had I been closeted with my computer marking, my hedge/fruit trees/veggie patch would have been trampled/consumed/desecrated. I soon chased them out with shouts and waving arms.
Later that evening I stood at my gate and watched the high-spirited newcomers galloping around. They are funny little horses, these Welsh ponies, usually white or grey, with big flared nostrils, not pretty but animated. When it rains or snows they just stand there, immobile, enduring, until their owner (breeding them is a hobby round here) either moves them or sells them on. I always ask Edna, my neighbour, whose husband is one of the fanciers, what he does with them. She told me the first year that ‘he puts them in tack’ which I took to mean they were tucked away in some nice warm stable for the winter. But doubt set in when I was told how little they earned on the market. Could it be that he sold them to overseas buyers for horsemeat? I went hot and cold at the thought of my stolid companions through the long dreich winter, being minced up for burgers. Edna is unspecific and evasive, so I don’t know the truth.
I only know that, at the winter solstice, when I walked out in the pitch dark to stretch my legs after a long meditation session, I could hear them rustling near me as I skirted the lake. Perhaps with senses heightened from meditation, I began to sense them perceiving me, examining me curiously and in a not particularly friendly manner. It was a clouded, moonless night and I could see nothing in the dark. My heart started to thump. I was scared. It seemed that the darkness was revealing their true agenda. I walked as quickly as I safely could back through my gate.
I have had more respect for them since that. Last night I heard them galloping, whinnying and neighing on and off throughout the whole night, disturbed no doubt to find themselves so suddenly transported to this open common, with kites, curlews, coots and lapwings for company. And me of course. I raked up the grass cuttings from a strimming session and put them out on the common for them to eat. They glared at me balefully, clearly wishing to get over the cattle grid and back to my rich grass, not be content with my offering. But they did eat the cuttings.
An ITV film crew film in wind and rain outside my chapel
Well the equinoctial gales and rain brings a film crew to Brechfa to film an ITV station ident. Today you can’t even see the mountains, but the queer trees still stick up in the middle of the pond and a lone swan swims disinterestedly around. The crew is big – they even have a tea-tent! Then there’s my neighbour Pam and her friends on their horses – I hope they are getting well paid for their hours standing about in rain and mud, and then galloping picturesquely towards camera.
And this morning I made my first inroad into Kickstarter, to support a great-sounding documentary by a woman director my own age – fair play to you Penny Woolcock. The film’s about peacemaking between two gangs in Birmingham. I reckon learning to control our anger is the most useful thing we can do on this earth. (Salute to my friend Mary who managed not to clock two people whose dogs knocked her over and hurt her in a park, and who didn’t even apologise.) Here’s the link, if you’d like to support it.
Lastly, had a happy day yesterday with two friends, celebrating the spring equinox by foraging for food along the banks of the river Wye. This was Sabrina’s idea, and, to be honest, I thought we’d find nowt, but we collected young nettle tops (she, being Italian, made a tasty frittata with them plus eggs), wild spinach (lots and lots of it – I made soup with potatoes and onions – it was good too) plus dandelions and prickly stuff (name forgotten) which Iris, who knows all about herbs, made into salad. I found the prickly things difficult at first but got to like them. Had a slight tummy ache afterwards – my system not used to all that bright green food, but it seemed a great way to mark the spring and made my realise how much there is out there to eat for free. Iris recommended fennel tea for the stomach ache and it worked!
Once you have been learning T’ai Chi for a year or two, your teacher will normally suggest it is time you did some pushing hands. I teach beginners’ T’ai Chi in the Welsh town of Brecon, and I have found that a high proportion of my students don’t like pushing hands or don’t see the point of it. I wonder if this is a defence mechanism? Pushing Hands is really about intimacy and interaction and most of us are pretty scared of that, I reckon,
Pushing hands is a flowing back and forth movement which you do with a partner. Its object can be to push your partner off her centre, or simply to ‘join’ with her and move together, turning at the waist to deflect the incoming energy. It is more fun if you test each other of course, but it is true that the process can bring up some difficult stuff for people along the way. When I was first learning it, I was partnered by a chap my own age who pushed me rather too strongly for my liking. I would find tears jumping into my eyes when he ‘got’ me. I reckon I was being reminded, through my body, of childhood contests with my brother where feelings of rage on both sides ran pretty high. Fifty years later they surfaced with a gush.
If you have been bullied or abused, then your defences might be challenged by this exercise. On the other hand, it is a safe way to practise interaction and intimacy which might teach us all to do it better. That’s what Andrew Heckert suggested at a recent workshop in London. This charming, talkative Yank, who wore a tweed sports jacket throughout the session, teaches a kind of T’ai Chi where yielding is always preferred over ‘rooting’, a ‘way of weakness’ if you like. Fascinating idea!
It is not just pushy chaps who upset me. Small, wiry, insinuating women I find even worse, snaking their little hands towards my centre. I just want to thrust them away and go and have a cup of tea. What am I so afraid of? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s centuries of ancestral Glaswegian aggression which have built up a pattern of defence-attack in me which is difficult to dismantle. When I do manage not to fight back, either in pushing hands or real life, the results are often extraordinary.
I was on a walk once and hit a path which was blocked by brambles and nettles. I didn’t have a stick with me and noticed that, alongside the path was a field with a couple of horses in it. They looked calm to me, and I reasoned that the owner would not mind me nipping through the field to the gate at the end. So that’s what I did, only, as I neared the gate, I spotted a woman marching towards me from the nearby house. I put a conciliatory smile on my face and began my excuses.
“What makes me mad about people like you…” she began and ran through a litany of complaints about uppity ramblers invading her property. Every so often, when she stopped to draw breath, I would interject:
“Look, I’m your neighbour, I’m really sorry but I don’t want to fall out with you…”
For some reason that day I didn’t feel aggressive. There was something about the woman’s performance of rage which did not convince me: if I had been reviewing her, I would have said she was ‘exaggerated and over the top.’ Finally, after perhaps five minutes of her shouting and me muttering apologies, she suddenly slumped to the ground and started sobbing.
“I can’t get planning permission for my stables,” she bawled. “The bastards won’t listen and our dream is at an end…”
I listened, and, within two minutes we were sitting at her kitchen table having tea with her husband.
Our bodies hold tensions all the way from childhood and when we push hands those tensions emerge and condition the way we move, the way we sense and feel others and their energy. Which is why the lady at the stables tumbled melodramatically to the ground like a tantruming toddler when she broke through to her real pain. It is why, I guess, we fall in love when we encounter someone whose energy mysteriously and deliciously complements and enhances our own. It can be addictive!
“The secret is in relaxing” as many T’ai Chi teachers have said. But how do we learn to do that? It is a long path, but I do think pushing hands is the royal road to dropping fear and anxiety about interaction with other human beings. Therefore I plan to attend again the great pushing hands event run by Adrian Murray at Worcester University at the end of August. This is not about competition, fighting or aggression (though some people there do enjoy a bit of that) but about relaxing, joining, yielding. Sounds good to me.
I’d just seen the film On the Road when I went to the Cardiff launch of a book about a group of artists in Wales, A Taste of the Avant-Garde; 56 Group Wales, 56 Years. The room was full of ‘older’ people who had been arty beatniks in the fifties and sixties, like my much admired cousin Dave (who was not only a painter but played the sax, and is still cool of course.) These people were (mainly) still elegant and hip-looking: they had the ever-youthful freshness and bold style of those who had witnessed the dawn of the New Age, an age of self-expression, sexual freedom and spiritual adventure. ‘Oh the parties…’ sighed one woman I met, and I recalled the ecstatic frenzy of the jazz club scene in On the Road. Where would you find that vibe nowadays?
The group was founded in 1956 by a three abstract artists who wanted the power to show and promote their own work – David Tinker, Eric Malthouse and Michael Edmonds. Before long their numbers had swelled and they were deservedly successful, touring their work round the UK and Europe. You had to be invited to join. As time passed they even allowed a few women in (though never more than 25%) including feminist artists like Erica Daborn and Sue Williams (powerful stuff). Gradually they became part of the art establishment, were resented and reviled by some outside their orbit. They still exist today, though now all sorts of art is represented, not just cutting-edge abstraction.
The earlier pictures in the book are evocative of a world recovering from WW2 when it seemed everything was being discovered for the first time – jazz, sex, drugs, etc – but also an innocent world, a world where sports jackets were still worn, smoking was good for you, and women were usually decoratively secretarial or wifely. Abstract art, like jazz, was a badge of this world. If you didn’t like it, you couldn’t enter. The Welshness was an added touch of cool – in one black and white photo from the seventies, Sally Hudson stands in front of her husband, Tom’s paintings featuring the Welsh map, clad in a long dress, with sleeves and hems bordered in a repeated pattern of the same map.
I am not myself part of the art world and was only at this event because the people who created this book are friends – the scholar and collector, David Moore, and his partner, Sue Hiley Harris, a sculptor-weaver whose extraordinary textile version of her own family tree has been widely exhibited (including a brief, partial glimpse in my chapel.) These two are part of a genial group of artists who animate the small world of Brecon, with their un-self-regarding enthusiasm for art and sociability. At the weekend Sue and David opened their Georgian house overlooking the canal for an exhibition of work from the 56 group Wales. My favourites were the vivid, animalistic canvases of Will Roberts and the dynamic glass sculptures of current member, Antonia Spowers – plus Sue’s own work (though she is not in the group), especially the ghostly veil called Hidden Wave in her attic studio.
To find out more about this fascinating book and other artistic activities in this quiet-yet-buzzing part of mid-Wales, visit the Crooked Window website.
And if you like abstract art, take a look at my talented brother’s website.