Review: Heads Up workshops stir body and soul

Alongside the specially chosen live performances Heads Up Festival also likes to offer workshops and classes while the companies and artists are here in Hull. Festival blogger Michelle Dee took her place alongside actors, dancers, choreographers and absolute beginners to embark on a journey of discovery.

Workshop - Theatre Ad Infinitum
Workshop – Theatre Ad Infinitum, Hull Truck, Thursday 9th March. Photo by Jerome Whittingham @photomoments

It is very rare to feel completely at one with your body, to be completely comfortable and in control of every movement. Leading a full day of theatre without words is Deb Pugh from Ad Infinitum Theatre (this season’s Bucket List and Ballad of the Burning Star – Heads Up 2014)

Deb’s class used techniques and exercises from the Le Coq school of movement and body training. Pioneered by Jacques Le Coq this approach to performance incorporates mime, masque and improvisation, combined with freedom of expression.

Picture 20 people in a room all moving continuously, all aware of each other, changing direction, darting in and out, continually filling spaces: that was what was supposed to be happening. By about the sixth time, those spaces were being found and filled, regular as sorting shapes into a box.

Focusing on the way the body moves, developing a hyper awareness of the relationship between you, the floor and the space around you, the group begin a series of undulations, allowing the upper half to flow forward in a rippling movement.

It was about commitment really; deciding on a movement and pushing the idea as far as it would go, so that it would be manifest not just to the performer but to an audience. When the class moved on to really thinking about inviting the audience into the different worlds, that was when it began to make sense. When we watch a performance we have to suspend our belief, let suggestion and imagination shape the world unfolding on stage; the Le Coq approach feeds into that ‘make believe’ world.

Partnering up, boundaries were broken down, as each pushed and pulled the other, finding points of resistance in order to propel them forward against their will. Then without the other, we pushed and pulled against invisible objects with the same amount of energy and calculation.

When you have looked on mesmerised by a highly skilled performer wielding an invisible baton, or move with such a sense of purpose and believability through an imaginary assault course, you will no longer be content with life inside the glass box.

“I learned how accurate you have to be with precision with all of the body.”

“I’ve developed a better understanding of my own body.”

“I’ve been relearning skills I’d thought were long forgotten years before.”

Finding Your Voice workshop with Tom Penn
Photo by Jerome Whittingham @photomoments

Everyone sings; whether it’s a half remembered ditty from childhood, full blown power ballads in the shower or snatches of a favourite tune when no-one is in ear shot. Introduced and led by Tom Penn (Neverland, BAC) a new group gathered inside Hull Central Library, each with varying levels of singing experience and responding to the invitation to Find Your Voice.

The teatime session inside Hull Central Library began with some warm up exercises, as all workshops do, then came a curious thing called sirening. Apparently a new concept to the entire group, sirening is a particular way to create a sound by pushing your tongue against your front teeth creating a nasal sound: if you are doing it right the sound will cease when holding the nose. The sound produced can rise and fall, and as it does so the vocal chords are getting a workout. “Your vocal chords are a muscle, the same as any other muscle in your body,” Tom reminds the group, encouraging them to rethink the part of the body that is so personal and individual, yet so often overlooked. The group learned techniques to overcome issues when moving through the different registers of the voice; becoming aware of the instances where the voice falters, identifying this and applying techniques that will over time smooth the transitions and extend the range.

This workshop was not about achieving perfect pitch, or singing like a pop star – it was about being given time and space and some simple tools to be confident enough to explore the range of your voice.

Moving from exercise stage – voices and vocal chords warmed sufficiently – the group developed a sense of camaraderie and trust in order to quickly learn and sing and ensemble piece that harked back to the old music hall. When all the different voices soprano, alto, tenor and bass combined, there were moments when the collective sound rang out in a most pleasing fashion.

Each feeding off the other and the charismatic, smiling Tom, a wonderful quality existed throughout the room; a feeling of lightness; an eagerness to learn; to experiment; to participate and have a go.

The final part of the session was when the group really came into their own. Gathered together in a circle, eyes closed, imagining then re-imagining the space around us, a lone voice sang into an imaginary prayer bowl. The sound resonated all around us, then one by one a new voice joined until all were singing a part. In unison guided by Tom we imagined and built a sonic cathedral, the different voices providing the glorious architecture, sweeping descants danced across the unwritten unrehearsed score. The collective sound, lifted up and soared into the air, playing around majestic arches, snaking over giant columns, each voice giving life and form to the cathedral, an edifice built entirely from the human voice, during a magical 23 minutes.

“I hadn’t expected it to have such a serene and spiritual feeling.”

23 minutes? Are you sure? We can’t have sung without stopping for 23 minutes, surely?”

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