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Working on Viewpoints with SITI company

I’m in Saratoga Springs, New York for a month’s training with Anne Bogart and her SITI company.  At the core of SITI’s work are two approaches: Viewpoints (an approach first developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and then adapted by Anne Bogart for theatre) and Suzuki (a method of actor training developed by Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki).

Viewpoints was the thing that brought me here and I had little knowledge of Suzuki, which meant that the first Suzuki class at 9.30 on Monday morning came as something of a shock.  We had been told to wear shorts or tight leggings (“So we can see the bend of your knee”) which might have served as a warning.  Suzuki, it turns out, is very different to Viewpoints.  It is a form (in the way that tai chi or ballet are forms), which makes it very different to any western style of actor training.  There is a series of movements to be learnt, and the whole approach is designed to create a sense of control over the body, built from the centre.  It is physically demanding and highly disciplined, not unlike a martial art.  Viewpoints is much more freeform, and what is fascinating is starting to understand how these two quite different approaches to performing work together.  The schedule is this: in the morning we do two 90 minute classes, one in Suzuki, one in Viewpoints, alternating daily which is first.  In the afternoon we do related classes – dramaturgy, speaking, movement and composition.  For the last two days of each week we do two Suzuki and two Viewpoints classes each day.  Today is the end of the first week and its fair to say there’s quite a mix of physical exhaustion and physical exhilaration at play.  The exhaustion comes from the sheer effort of learning a new discipline, the exhilaration from the accumulation of this effort over a week.

In the first week we have learnt the first two parts of the Suzuki form – Basic no. 1 and Basic no. 2.  No 1 is a sideways movement, no 2 is a forward movement.  In both of them there is a sequence that involves weight shifts and controlling the body so that you don’t fall over.  Different members of the SITI company have taught each day and it’s been fascinating hearing their slightly different takes on the form.  Yesterday, Leon (a big bear of a man with an imposing presence and a beautiful lightness) said that the point of learning Suzuki was not to be the best at Suzuki but to develop an understanding and control of your body in order to be able to perform to the best of your ability.  Today, Bondo focused on the separation of the elements – in one exercise we were pausing the sequence to recite a speech from The Cherry Orchard (Ranyevskaya’s “Oh my childhood, my innocent childhood” from Act I) and he emphasised the need to separate the elements: first finish the movement (which also involves taking the breath for the line), then making the gestural action (in this case a movement of the arm) before speaking – each element separated cleanly so there is no bleed from one to the other.

In the morning class on Friday, Stephen made a really helpful analogy for working with the Viewpoints.  He suggested thinking of them as a horizontal plane, with all of the elements at play at any one time, but that at different times we could turn the volume up on one of them to examine its effect.  In Bogart’s version there are nine Viewpoints, divided into two groups – Time and Space.  The viewpoints of time are duration, speed, kinaesthetic response and repetition; the viewpoints of space are shape, gesture, spatial relationship, architecture and topography.  As is frequently pointed out, the viewpoints have always been there and have always been used, this system is merely a way of codifying them in order to use them more effectively.  What is important is that Viewpoints is post-modern in structure so there is no hierarchy – all the viewpoints are of equal importance (hence Stephen’s image of the horizontal plane).

Over the weekend we are all busy with our first composition assignment.  In groups of 4 we are creating 10 minute site-specific compositions using texts from a number of plays by Charles Mee (a regular collaborator with SITI) and a number of given elements that must be included (a slap, a kiss, 3 movement sequences).  For me this means an unusual discipline – learning lines, something I have not needed to do since I was a student.  I’m enjoying the structure this imposes and it emphasises to me the muscular nature of the brain – the act of learning makes further learning easier, much like lifting weights (or practising Suzuki some to that). 
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