Tekhnē Sessions: A ‘Way’ Towards Performance

by Helga Portanier

Tekhnē Sessions, a cycle of performative presentations within Icarus Performance Project (Malta), reveal a side to the actor’s art which is rarely seen or made available to the public. How does the actor give life to his images? How does he give form to his intentions? This formative side to the creative act is intrinsic to the art of the writer, the painter, the musician or the dancer. We know that a musician needs to cultivate the technical aspect of his art, deconstruct the language of music in order to reach performative heights. Somehow, in the case of the actor’s discipline, this ‘craft’ is often ignored or held negligible. Icarus Project chose to inform observers on this less manifest aspect of the actor’s art.

A Tekhnē Session starts with a few introductory words by the session conductor, Frank Camilleri. This short introduction indicates to the small group of observers present that they are not invited to view a performance, or to witness a complete dramaturgical act, not even to attend a work-in-progress. A Tekhnē Session works like a snapshot revealing some aspects of the actor’s training regimen, allowing observers to see how the actor explores and gives form to his creative ‘baggage’. Stefan Aquilina, one of the practitioners, gives a very apt analogy to describe the nature and function of these cycles. Using the example of a football match, it is not the play and improvisation which takes place during the football match itself that was about to be shared, but rather the training, the preparation which allows the footballer to master the ball prior to the encounter with the other team takes place. The Tekhnē cycles are dedicated to this pre-performance stage of the actor’s art, or rather, as will be explained further on, to that point where the performative arises.

A Hidden Language of Action

After this introductory talk, the practitioners walk out from the observers’ view, remove any unwanted clothing and re-enter the space, placing themselves in a fixed point within the scenic space. The practitioners work through a sequence of actions, a string of precise movements. They work on the same form with rigorous precision. Rising and bending, synchronising the arms and legs to simultaneous movements, shifting weight, tilting the head at various angles, isolating the limbs of the body – a common ‘structure’ of actions is performed. The structure of these movements is reminiscent of the sequential actions performed in some forms of martial arts such as Tai Chi. This codified structure of actions is referred to by Frank as ‘the First Movement’.

Undoubtedly, the athletic nature of these actions cannot be missed. Muscular strength, flexibility, and agility are inevitable results of this work. The effect of such exercises, however, reaches far greater depths. Through the execution of such sequences of actions the performer becomes attuned to the more hidden language of action, that is, to the pauses between units of action, the rise and fall of each movement, an action’s expansion and contraction, the space occupied by the body, the rhythm sustaining the actions and their temporal quality. Indeed, such aesthetic qualities, so familiar to the musician or the dancer, here become manifest within the actor’s craft.

The eyes of Tekhnē practitioners do not rove – their gaze is fixed, distant, and concentrated. As one movement comes to an end, the next one begins, each action gently giving way to the subsequent one. In spite of the sequential nature of these forms, each action retains its integral independence and wholeness. A rhythmic grace and rigour pervades each action, each performer, and also the performers as a group. The flow and ease with which these fixed forms are performed clearly show that great attention is paid to the subtler aspects of action.

Tekhnē Sessions elucidate the fact that the actor has a craft, a skill to nourish, a language to discover and perfect, an instrument which needs to be made ready for the performative to arise. Through these Tekhnē cycles, observers are able to experience a specialised knowledge on the language of action.

The Practice of Repetition

The practice of repeating scores of action is a method of learning which characterises major art forms. In music, a young apprentice repeats and repeats a score until it becomes second nature. It is through repetition and familiarisation that freedom of the performative and improvisation could arise. In the Western musical tradition this practice has been maintained and is central to a musician’s Tekhnē. In Asian classical theatre forms such as Kathakali theatre (India), Noh theatre (Japan) and also Peking Opera (China), repetition is an essential practice which lies at the core of the actor’s apprenticeship. The teacher gives a precise, graspable unit of action to the young apprentice; the teacher performs, the apprentice imitates and repeats. In ballet and other dance forms repetition is an intrinsic element of training and performance. This method, however, seems to have somehow become absent in the art of the performer, as though, it is believed, he has no language to master. Rather than flitting from one ‘trick’ to the next, one fragmented exercise to another, the Tekhnē practice is to repeat sequences of actions, delving deep into these forms and pursuing them for a substantial amount of time. The exercise of repetition is central to the training process of the Icarus Project; a process which, as mentioned above, allows the subtler aspects of action, such as the pauses between actions, the rhythm and flow, to be revealed to the actor. The Tekhnē cycles address this aspect of the actor’s skill, giving a new name to the very nature of the actor’s creativity.

One may criticise the validity of performing set forms of actions, of repeating them for several times, as being an antithesis to creativity. Such a method of training may easily descend into a formalistic exercise, into an outwardly perfect technique lacking any inner motivation. Returning to the Western musical tradition, two pianists may perform a score by Bach, one may sound lifeless and lack flow, whilst the other may imbue the score with a fresh vitality. Whereas the former pianist remains stuck in the process of repetition and imitation, the latter transcends the score, allowing a sense of freedom and improvisation to take place. The listener, familiar to the piece of music, feels the music as though it were never heard before. Hence the pianist transcends repetition and imitation and discovers new, subtle variations within the score itself, a score which for him, no matter how often repeated, remains inexhaustible. It is through this mode of apprenticeship that Noh theatre has developed uninterruptedly since the fourteenth century. The forms which create Noh theatre today are a result of the transmutations and variations of set sequences of actions which have developed throughout the generations. Does the structure shown by the Icarus Project’s Tekhnē Sessions allow for such variations and improvisation to take place? Do the sequences of action constrain the actors into rigid formulas or do they unleash them into unknown paths?

Freedom Through Repetition

The fixed sequence of codified actions of the Session’s First Movement suddenly disintegrates and each practitioner initiates a different path, a different line of action. Eventually, the frontal position format is broken and the practitioners soon occupy the entire space, using different levels, working on the floor. Images appear before the observers’ eyes: a man picking up an apple, another having an internal dialogue with himself, mocking something close to him which is not visible to the observers and yet is so real and tangible in the mind of the actor. What we were witnessing was no longer an exercise: motives for action started appearing, metaphors were arising.

In this Third Movement, the practitioners were no longer tied to a fixed score: their resistances shed, the freedom of improvisation took the form of an abundance of vivid and also highly charged moments, fleeting moments, not yet interwoven into a complete dramaturgical sequence/act.

We were indeed experiencing a unique and very special moment of the creative act. No, we were not seeing a fully-fledged performance. Rather Icarus Project chose to share with us those delicate instances where the first seeds of creativity start to open up, where the first traces of metaphor start to arise unexpectedly before one’s eyes. Still not fully carved by the artist’s hand, these performative images were neither consciously construed, nor forcefully presented to the observers. Such images arose spontaneously through the practitioner’s creative presence/readiness, allowing the observers to witness the language of action at play.

The Tekhnē Sessions I attended lasted for about forty-five minutes – a relatively short time in which that sudden shift from training to improvisation could take place. This clearly shows that the actor’s training methods work in a very subtle manner. In contemporary theatre-making, the value of ‘training’ has gained great importance. Training has become almost an ethical necessity for the actor in order to place the art of acting on an equal footing with the musician, the painter or the dancer. The emphasis on training, however justified, is in need of qualification. The most important matter which needs to be considered is not whether the actor undergoes training or not, but rather how the training is done, whether the methods are rich, that is, whether they are conducive to creative freedom. Training, working on one’s body could simply mean working towards physical agility and flexibility, fixing the actors into set, stagnant forms. Indeed, when Stanislavski came to realise the necessity of fixing scores of physical action, he immediately felt the dangers of sterile techniques and mere physical prowess:
Nevertheless the actor’s multiform patterns of movement, flexibility of body and balance, diction and the whole expressive apparatus, all of which is so necessary to the theatre, have of late brought excellent results, as has the production side in the theatre […]. But the moment physical culture becomes an end in itself in art, the moment it begins to slow down the creative process and engenders a split between spiritual desire and conventions of external acting, the moment it suppresses feelings and experiences, I become an ardent opponent of these fine new achievements. (K. Stanislavski, My Life in Art, trans. by G. Ivanov-Mumijev, Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, undated, p. 455.)

Work procedure within the Icarus Project is not aimed at merely engaging the technical aspect of the performer’s art – it has a broader and deeper significance. The Icarus practice aspires towards giving the actor the ability to improvise and thus break free from pre-studied forms, as well as experience the magic of seeing new unexpected impulses arise. For a technique to be of any value it needs to be ‘undone’ in the sense of being transcended. Indeed, the highly codified structure of the Tekhnē first movement was ‘undone’ and the practitioners abandoned themselves to the unexpected surge of creative images. Frank Camilleri was transformed not into a fixed role but into simultaneous, fleeting ‘beings’; emotions were not fixed but flickered through him and around him … his voice was also free … at every moment as we watched we could not predict what direction the practitioners were about to take, what role they were to embody, what impulse they would follow. Their presence allowed us to be fully awake to the creative act, present to each instant, to each impulse, allowing us to experience the poetry and richness of action when it engages the performer with all his being.

In the last part of the Tekhnē Session, at the concluding section of the Third Movement, the practitioners worked upon their vocal baggage. The actors sang out a short score made out of syllables, free from any semantic meaning (such as ‘wo ya bi ti’) with the tune kept simple and clear. These monosyllabic songs were repeated. This work allowed us to see how the session conductor intervened upon his fellow practitioners. As the tune was sung, the rhythms started shifting, the tempo varied and changes were also introduced into the length of the piece. Like an orchestra conductor, Frank started suggesting via the singing itself not through verbal instructions, when to stop, to speed up the tempo, lengthen the syllables. This work mirrored the work on physical actions in that it allowed repetition to be a means to develop the vocal resonance of the actors, their ability to play with tune, tempo, and capture the subtle cadences of which the vocal instrument is capable.

Tekhnē Sessions do not merely fulfil the purpose of giving observers the possibility to witness, at first hand, aspects of the performer’s learning process. They also give a taste of the more hidden language of action, the sustaining qualities that uphold the forms performed. More importantly, they allowed me to experience the way technique itself is ‘unlearnt’, transcended. Rigorous training and precision are not antithetical to improvisation. Indeed repetition and innovation, learning and unlearning, technique and improvisation are two sides of the same coin. Its name is creativity.

Helga Portanier’s account of Tekhnē Sessions is based on the observation of two sessions: (1) Tekhnē Session Number 3 (17.02.2004), Frontal Trio Version (FC/SA/CG); and (2) Tekhnē Session Number 12 (16.03.2004), Frontal Duo Version (FC/SA). All Sessions are numbered as an indication of their uniqueness. In both instances there were eight observers in all.