Miranda Tufnell is a dance artist, writer and teacher in movement and imagination. She is also an Alexander teacher and Craniosacral Therapist. Her work is concerned with the body, with improvisation, and our imaginative engagement with the world around us.
Following a degree in English, she trained at LSCD (London School of Contemporary Dance) and the Cunningham Studio in New York. She then worked to develop a more personal movement language through skills developed from Contact Improvisation, Release work, Tai’ Chi and bodywork and was an early member of the Rosemary Butcher dance company. Since 1976 she has been making her own work for galleries and theatres throughout Britain and abroad, often creating site-specific events with light and sound environments. Over the years she has collaborated with a wide variety of visual artists and musicians. In the late 70s and 80s she helped pioneer the development of New Dance and then Independent Dance in Britain.
She has taught widely in the UK, including periods at Dartington College of Arts and Fellside Alexander School where she taught experiential anatomy and creative work in movement and other arts. With Chris Crickmay she has co-authored two handbooks on sourcing creative work entitled Body Space Image (1990) and A Widening Field (2004).
From 1990 – 2004 she worked part-time within the NHS for a GP surgery and has done pioneering work in the field of dance and health. For five years with dancer Tim Rubidge and writer Brenda Mallon she ran an arts and health project, A Breath Of Fresh Air, for people living with chronic illness. She recently produced the Handbook for Dancers Working in Health (2010) commissioned by Foundation for Community Dance.. From 2010 she worked as a Visiting Tutor at UCLAN (University of Central Lancashire) on their MA Dance and Somatic Wellbeing. She continues to work as an independent dancemaker, teacher and body therapist and is currently involved in many forms of collaboration. She has two sons and now lives near Oxford, England. You can see her most recent performance PNEUMA https://vimeo.com/124109190.
Artist Statement: “For the last forty years I have been pursuing a profound interest in the body, environment and the language of movement. My work has evolved through ongoing collaborations and research in performance and teaching alongside working as a body therapist/ movement educator (both independently and within the NHS). My work has followed a passion to listen more deeply to the body’s subtleties of movement, and to explore the human need to find a language for what is beneath our words.”
Mothership: In his book Poetry and the Body John Vernon notes that “we are both divorced from our bodies, and driven too deeply into them.” And it’s partly this strange estrangement that makes the exploitation of nature and others possible. Your work as a performer, dancer, and teacher cultivates embodied awareness, through sensory exploration of the moment by way of movement and imagination. You also lead workshops that incorporate visual arts and writing. And you are not only a dancer and improviser; you also have extensive practice and training in bodywork, in modalities that help cultivate a sense of the body and its habits, and its patterns of tension from the inside This wide-minded and embodied approach to experience allows you explore how clear vision comes from the whole body. Here by “body” I mean a deeper intelligence that drops below our ordinary habitual thinking about situations, and moves into a more immersive, sensing mode. As such “body” becomes a field of awareness wider and deeper than our skin.
And your well-practiced understanding of the body from the inside seems to bring you closer to the outside, to the land. The prevailing culture has become so cut off from the land, and your work helps find a sense of our place again as co-extensive with the land, as of it and within it, rather than as outsiders living somehow apart from it. Your book, A Widening Field, creates experiences around themes of skin, of bone, of heart, and you map these inner places to outer places as well.
Can you say more about your life in dance? And also about your somatic training–and in all of this, what body means for you? These are huge questions, I realize, but you have long experience in Alexander Technique and craniosacral work that must have brought some amazing insights—insights that took root in especially fertile ground, given your years in improvisational dance!
Miranda: For over fifty odd years of my life I have been tumbling in and out of various worlds of dance and body work seeking a way of being in the world that brings me more fully, more vitally into connection with what is around me. How is it that our relationship to our bodies, to this most essential aspect and root of all that we are, is so unacknowledged, so reduced to the gross and mechanical. These are times of deep alienation from both our bodies and from the natural world. Perhaps the current ecological crisis could be termed a crisis of aesthetics, a lack of feeling for and awareness of the vital yet fragile biodiversity of life on this precious Earth.
Along with many others, my work has been a seeking for ways to strengthen a sense of personal and embodied knowing, a search to deepen and widen my awareness of the life forces that form and connect each and every aspect of life. This seeking is both new and old, drawing on ancient indigenous ways of perceiving relationship between land and body, along with seeking out new ways of making sense.
I am a dancer because movement is the means whereby I see, where the everyday dominance of the visual sense and of language dissolves and another, more holistic way of seeing, becomes possible. As I breathe and let my attention drop into sensation and movement another richer whole-body seeing awakens that gradually begins to weave connections between the many disparate parts of my self with what is around me.
A sense of disconnection, fragmentation, separateness and not feeling real in oneself belongs particularly to our fast paced times. Making sense of our lives , finding purpose and meaning is a sensory, bodily activity that arises through, movements, perceptions and feelings. The poet Yeats is quoted as saying “God save me from the thoughts men think in the mind alone.“ It has seemed to me that only when imagination and creative energy flow through the body and all it’s faculties can we connect and engage with appropriate sensitivity with each other and with the world about us.
For me the passion and the inquiry began as a child outside, away from the adult world, in the garden and along the river bank—entranced by the evening moths fluttering and shimmering amongst the luxuriantly seeded grasses; intoxicated by the whispering and mysterious beauty of life around me, a sense of joy and connectedness that vanished as the drudgery of school drowned out that more ephemeral and fragile world of my senses; no time for wandering or reverie in the noise and clatter of classrooms; no time simply for listening, for seeing without in some way naming, owning. And the natural world seemed to retreat and hide itself away from my confused and timetabled mind. I remember the deep aching loneliness of that absence. A sense of not quite being here, of life going on at one remove. Our schooling trains a particular aspect of mind, prioritises words, language and linear thought in counter to the myriad world our senses which respond to the shape-shifting multi dimensionality of life. As Alan Johnson says it “we educate from the waist up and mostly to the left side…”
I became a dancer out of a headlong desire for freedom, to escape from what Tom Myers has so aptly termed the dis-ease of our age “kinaesthetic dystonia,” a loss of the ability to listen and be informed by our senses. I began dancing to shed the narrowing burden of my own history and to find a way to engage more vitally with the world about me. Pain, and our repression of pain, creates a wall around us—it is as if we are shut in with our fixed and repeating story and there is no way out. I threw myself into the rigorous world of a dance training in an effort to exorcise what felt like a poisoned body. Yet so swiftly the rigours of the dance training seem to numb and stifle this wild call for freedom? Why did I feel like Andersen’s ugly duckling, awkward, graceless and, yet again, dispossessed. I soon realised the inadequacy of this escape route and like Dick Whittington was forced to turn again. Something compelled me, a quest for the body, a sense of a landscape or submerged continent lying so close and yet remote, just out of sight of my everyday eyes. This strange unknown that we term “our body”. How diminished that tidy Cartesian word can seem in relation to the mystery of our human beingness. We do not have a word to convey the exquisite interweaving of physical and metaphysical that is our bodyself. Just as the universe is a vast dance of stars and planets spinning and turning in mysterious space so the human body is a complex and beautiful creation made up of trillions of cells constantly moving and changing in their unique and particular ways in response to whatever is occurring.
Despite the disappointment of that dance training some inner compass continued to draw me towards other approaches to the body. I studied t’ai chi with its delicate nuanced understanding of breath and the flows of energy throughout the body, Contact Improvisation with its focus on a wilder dynamic dialogic movement with another, along with a study of experiential anatomy through the Release teaching influenced by Simone Forti, Nancy Topf and Mary Fulkerson. Coming back to England in 1976 after this adventuring in New York I began to make my own work and to immerse myself intensively in the Alexander Technique. These parallel events were for me the beginning of landing into the imperative of my own work. In the quiet and non directive touch of my Alexander teacher, Bill Williams, I began to perceive more clearly the nuanced and subtle complexity of my body, to sense the way everything that happened, each thought and feeling resonated and reflected throughout my being. I began to experience my body not simply as a confused tangle of muscle and bone but more as a living river, the confluence of many streams, where tissue and cell responded to and reflected on every thought feeling and event ….the flight of all we see and feel mirrored in this matter we call ‘the body’. With the touch of Bill Williams my chattering mind began to rest and the confused storms of emotion and memory to find coherence.
I see the teachings of F.M Alexander as the foundation of all that I do. His work taught me to listen without interfering or interpreting—and to notice the complexity of all that is at play in what we call “body.” That no sense operates in isolation, that each moment of perception is an intricate weaving of sense impressions (touch, sound, sight, taste, etc ) coalescing within the deeper strands of memory, dream, thought and imagination. I realised what really interested me was less dance in itself than perception, that movement was perception made visible—as a cardiogram makes visible the fluctuating field of the heart. That my quest within movement was a quest to see, to make visible the exquisite particularity of our moment-by-moment perceiving. I love to watch the slow evolution of movement in a body, how a person unfolds, become more richly present as their sensing deepens through movement.
MS: This embodied perception is about direct, preverbal sensory experience, so it’s kind of a reclamation project from the neck-up way of seeing and being that perpetuates itself in various ways from screens to scorn. This is something about seeing more variously, more deeply and widely. It’s about allowing space for other experiences, interpretations, beliefs about reality to emerge. Something our society needs to learn and learn soon as the planet warms and suffers from our notions like utility and prosperity. In your improvisation and the choreography that comes of that, you are working within a somatic process of the body leading the way. You have said that your “process is to begin moving in order to perceive,” can you say a bit about how that happens? How does letting the body lead to surprise, to new seeing?
And there’s something coming in my memory now about Noh actors keeping focused on the task and letting the next thing emerge from that…What insights come from your “danced” physical action, even ordinary action like walking and sitting? And how does this deliberate work influence your everyday movements as you go to the shop or clean up the dishes? How can we experiment with our often rather mindless everyday motions so that we experience them in fresh ways?
Miranda: Since the 70s and Judson Church movement there has been a complete shift of emphasis from learning through imitation—teaching a style (Jazz, Ballet, Graham, Limon)—to a more exploratory and improvisational focus and an interest in the subtleties and nuances of everyday movement. The act of walking examined, played with in patterns, turns, pauses, accelerations, becoming in itself a kind of music. Another key shift was for dancers to look inside their own bodies for movement for resources and movement.
Since then many different approaches to training the body have emerged with the emphasis on a felt sense. Thomas Hanna has given the term ‘Somatics” for these disparate approaches—the body experienced subjectively from within. I remember how it took several years of intense work to free my own body from the patterning of traditional technique—and to learn to listen to and train awareness of a different physical territory. For people of my generation it was a long series of ‘No’s’ to what had gone before.
Below is a list Eva Karczag, Chris Crickmay and I compiled for a workshop in Coventry to describe what we saw as important in this post-Judson period.
A Yes Manifesto*
Yes to discovering what feels ‘real’
Yes to experiencing the present moment both within and around us
Yes to using anything as material for a dance Yes to the everyday—the extraordinary within the ordinary
Yes to the personal as political, believing in a voice for everyone Yes to the mystery of the body as portal: to memories, histories, and peoples
Yes to a dancer as independent artist, who asks questions and explores choices
Yes to curiosity and research into the matter, mystery and meaning of the body Yes to improvisation, risk, play and freeing the imagination
Yes to exploring the multitudinous nature of things
Yes to new sites, audiences and contexts
Yes to curiosity and research into the body—to bodily knowing Yes to improvisation, to emergent form, to finding order within apparent chaos
Yes to skills of attention, perception and responsiveness (as much as ‘training’)
Yes to a lightness of being, to humour, wit and laughter, resistance and rebellion Yes to particularity
Yes to refreshing of ‘language’ and working across art forms
Yes to engaging with metaphor and the poetics of experience
Yes to a democracy of the body—any part available at any time
*Acknowledging Yvonne Rayner’s ‘No Manifesto’
The body remains an exquisite mystery and landscape of inquiry. I am aware how swiftly any method or technique can contain and reduce perception. I think of us working in the seventies—seeking new ways of training the body and deepening understanding of what we mean by ‘body’. I think of us then as border or between people—always drawing on different disciplines and approaches, always seeking to find ways of working that felt true to the mystery and meaning of the body. I liked that lack of name—it seemed to offer a freedom—an un-naming—in order to see more particularly and clearly.
Dance and movement are not the exclusive domain of dancers— life IS movement and when any partof us, body or soul, begins to fix, ceases to be responsive to the movement of life, pain and ill health result. We are each of us unique patterns and rhythms of movement; I see a beloved friend emerge from a crowd, my eye instantly recognises the particular shape and movement of their body. And movement is essential to being well in our being. Throughout many years of working as a body therapist with pain and poor health I learned that through a quiet and spacious listening the subtle and nuanced flow of movement through an injured spine or limb restored health and function. The osteopath Jim Jealous has suggested, that healing, is not a resolution of the past but lies in allowing the future to come in to the present. “Allow…to come in…the present”—these qualities of quiet receptivity so obscured in these times so pressured by the demands of specified targets and outcomes.
MS: You’ve done a lot of work in bringing the creative process to people struggling with chronic pain or illness. It feels natural that art-making, the grappling with materials and material limits in a state of deep attention that is play, can help us with the aging, the sickness, the dying, can help us meet these processes as something new to learn from, and to meet them more as friendly teachers than as terrible diminishments. How do you balance your fine arts practice with your work introducing others to art as medicine?
Miranda: A friend, Dr. Malcolm Rigler, a GP who pioneered the use of the creative arts in his surgery, commented that a central concern in general practice is inspiring people to care for their own bodies, something he felt artists/dancers are uniquely able to help with:
“I always wanted to do all I could to help patients fully appreciate and understand the fragility and complexity of their own bodies, but I wanted this to go beyond biological facts and simple health education. I believe we could sow the seed of total enchantment with the human, help us find meaning in life and so value ourselves, our neighbours and the community in which we live…”
For me there is no separation between creative work as a performer and my work as a body therapist that total enchantment that Malcolm writes of inspires everything I seek to do. To heal is not a mechanical event or fixing of a part but a bringing back, bringing together what may be lost or fragmented within us. My longing has been to make visible something of the astounding beauty of what it is to be alive, and to be human Whether my hands listen to read the silent Braille of the body or whether the gestures of a dance sing an inner melody in a performance—each are a messaging across time and space to connect, communicate and to belong.
What I seek in any performance as in life itself is to see a person able to stand in the moment of unknowing and move with a depth of awareness that makes visible something more of the nuance and complexity of what they feel and see. For me this one of the most beautiful things that I witness, a courage to be here, now alive and responding.
MS: With this note of your seeking to “make visible,” I think of how you help chronically ill people find ways of accessing their insight (the voices, if you will) of their bodies. You speak of this as a process of “taking what is inside outside where you can see it.” Can you say more about what people find inside? How does this new way of seeing and listening reduce suffering/spark healing?
It also is worth noting that our culture tends to think of thinking and imagination as in the head; we’re taught a “head in the clouds” idea of it. We think of mental pictures as being in the head as well, though the richest ones don’t seem to come from there. Can you say more about imagination as an embodied way of experiencing? What about image as a deeper language of the body? What is imagination’s role in our world right now—why/how is it important for us? How is it not some kind of escape from commonplace reality but something relevant and useful?
Miranda: In my work in the surgery I was aware that people failed to get well simply with body work—something else was often needed than simply recovering movement and function, something that gave meaning back to a life fractured by accident of illness. The meanderings of art-making of any kind offer a creative space in which some guiding image, what I call the necessary angel, arises and reconnects body and soul. This is where a medicine from within appears—some resource or insight that we can never plan for or predict, but it is there and always surprises and delights me. In the osteopathic world it is said anyone can see what is wrong, the skill is to find what is well and to support the health which is always present, however invisible.
Like Ariadne’s thread, it has been a lifelong and meandering journey to define this territory of what I and my colleague and long term collaborator Chris Crickmay term “body and imagination.” This idea has emerged through what are essentially co-creative non-hierarchical improvisatory techniques, ever seeking an arts practice that awakens and frees a person’s own unique imagination, kinaesthetic sense and understanding through their bodies. I love the personal transformation that occurs through this work: the kindness, humour, sensitivity, and intelligence it cultivates. It is not a competitive field; I witness what I would call real and creative relatedness.
We are as bees
and our body is a homey comb,
We make the body
cell by cell
we make it.
At the surgery I worked in J. was referred following a motorcycle accident in which her partner had been killed. She had had successive surgeries on hip and leg and could walk only with great pain. Over our two years of sessions J.’s leg and hip found a measure of mechanical easing, but inevitably, the impact of the accident left her depressed, and she attempted suicide. I knew we had to find something else that would help find her way back to life again. Over the weeks that followed, we explored and played with different art materials, from a basket of materials she chose a broken piece of wood, and seeing it as a metaphor of herself, she ‘danced’ the character of the wood with her hands, then wrote and in her writing the character of a gypsy appeared, irrepressible in her pleasure in life about her, sleeping under hedges, greeting all who passed by. This seemed to hearten J., and she began to initiate things in her life again.
Artists working in the context of healthcare have often found themselves on a cleft stick between the worlds of ‘therapy’ and of ‘art.’ In 1887 just before he attempted suicide, Gaugin painted a large colourful painting, one of his rich and glorious works from the South Sea Islands. He gave it the surprising title: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” These words speak for our ongoing human need to find purpose and meaning within the storms and seas of experience. I think whenever we engage with the arts we reclaim a vital sense of personal connectedness. Despite the rhetoric of our politicians, creativity and art making are not decorative and fanciful luxuries but rather essential aspects of being human, strengthening our capacity to evolve, adapt and make sense of our experience.
MS: In your autobiographical notes to A Widening Field, you talk about how, in your childhood, words at times felt “thin and empty, creating a sudden distance between myself and the experience.” And yet you love and draw from stories and poems, and you embrace writing, not only to share a poetics of living in your beautiful books on improvisation and embodied imagination, but also as a means of deepening the artwork/experience in your healing work with others.
Here I will play devil’s advocate to say that while the page can be a magic space of connection and becoming, and words can be powerful doors and forces, there is always this question of the gulf between word and direct experience. And added to that, there are the distortions of culture. This last bit is particularly tricky when the culture is founded on competition and acquisition, when words are used in increasingly subtle ways to market how to live (which translates as what to buy/what to be/what experiences to collect). There are so many words today, more than ever, really, too much of them stemming from and in service of a disembodied, sense-less culture. Against this backdrop of increasing senselessness, improvisational dance feels like a radical act of coming back to our senses, out of the rigid, one-way vision and into variousness. And dance is itself an articulate language rooted in the body, unfolding in response to the moment. So I am curious of the place of written language for you in your work.
Earlier, we mentioned that you’ve said that you begin moving in order to perceive—can you say more about how that works with words? I’m curious too about how are words are useful in your workshops as a way of deepening the experience of the movement/visual artwork you make together? In a time when we are so disembodied, how might words help? How can the words not confine but further open up the experiencing?
Miranda: Finding ways to refresh our language is as vital as reclaiming connection to our sensing body. Language has a tendency to dominate our consciousness. Words have a way of determining meaning and thought—they can control, name, explain and reduce, shutting out, shutting in as much as conveying the complex, fragile sense we long to communicate. The very wordlessness of movement in awakening our senses and imagination inevitably impacts on and thereby refreshes our language drawing it closer to the immediate feel of things and thus stimulates a more qualitative language that is often laced with metaphor and images.
“All teeth and jaw, the crocodile rests low in the water, the strong body unmoving, eyes watchful…The architect in his office measures with a long black ruler. The dry, dusty room smells of…what?—floor polish? Copying machine ink? Acetone? It makes him wrinkle his nose…He measures the depth of the water by stepping in up to his knees, his skin under water appearing white turning to blue. The gentle pressure of the water embraces his legs, water dribbles from a dipped hand. Later, as he creeps along the bank he wonders whether the loose earth will give way and he will fall into the stream. There are dense beds of watercress in the shallows, peppery to taste. After the storm they threw off their wet things…He dips the tip of a finger in the water. The fish are shy, wary – he is wary too.” — Chris Crickmay
These words written by my collaborator Chris in the wake of moving capture something of the textured qualities of our perceiving, the multiplicity of layers present in any one moment that only metaphor can capture.
When the circumstances of our lives feel unbearable and our words, our prose fail, an arts practice can help open the door to new perspectives—reconnecting us to our own inner resources which brings a measure of solace. The arts cannot solve or cure our problems, but as they awaken our inventiveness, imagination and inspiration, they bring a greater sense of wholeness and connection in our sense of ourselves; and so strengthen our capacity to meet and adapt to life’s challenges. Finding a means of expression, a language, and feeling able to communicate, feeling seen and heard are at heart of any healing.
I will tell you a story of a young woman who came to one of our arts and health groups. I will call her Helen. These are her words recalling that first time of coming to the group:
“. … I really didn’t know what it would do—at that time I was struggling just getting out of the house so the whole thing was a major feat just to get here and be among people—certainly didn’t want to open up and tell anyone who I was or what had happened to me—I found it very stressful, the first week especially.”
Helen was tense, unable to speak, as if her voice was clutched tight in her throat Throughout the session she seemed not to engage, her body held rigid—yet towards the end of the session she began to mould a piece of clay, smoothing and rounding it endlessly. Afterwards as others were engaged in writing, another participant came up and asked if he could read her something he had written as response to what she had done. She nodded mutely. These were his words:
“Sleep little pod
Sleep as long as you need.
Wake up little pod.
When you are ready”
Helen did not seem to respond, but the following week she returned and began to speak and connect with others. The following week she painted with energy and vitality a tree with branches full of colour and life. Over time Helen became more communicative, even taking a lead in sessions. It made me realise just how potent the ‘right’ word or image can be, how potent it is to feel seen and accepted for who you are—this in itself is life affirming and healing.
MS: As Beckett said, “Habit is the great deadener,” and at the heart of your work is the practice of the arts and specifically improvisation as a way of freeing perception of our mind/body/world deadened and deadening ways of seeing and being. Your improv prompts ask us to enter rooms in new ways, to be whatever new ingredient a moments needs, to speak in new tones, to make new places and play in them. How does this art-making connect to our collective moment?
Miranda: Coming back to our body and senses, and finding an expressive language is in itself a political act, connecting us to others. It strengthens our capacity to dissolve the helpless numbing that the speed and culture of materialism engenders. John Berger writes of needing to create pockets of resistance that break down the walls and deadening fixities that keep us from engaging and seeing through the false rhetoric of consumption, targets and goals, and the devastating ways in which we are plundering this precious Earth’s resources.
MS: You’ve spoken of how a simple, small thing like a smile can “surprise someone into another kind of mind,” and this made me think of William Carlos Williams’s “unless there is/a new mind there cannot be a new/line.” And, as you say above, this never feels to be just about art; we keep making the same old things in our own lives and in our collective lives together until we have a shift of vision.
In closing, would you offer us a simple prompt to help open up the moment through embodied awareness? Most of us may be untrained in terms of dance, but we are all movers, though right now we’re likely stiff in our necks from peering into these screens…
Miranda: Let your attention come back from reading this text, then close your eyes and listen to your body.
Close your eyes
Take time; to feel the support of chair or ground
Notice what sense feels most awake? Hearing…smell…touch
Notice… information from inside you
or from outside you
Sense the feel….of air on your skin
And the ebb and flow of breath within you…
Notice… the feel of sounds in your body
… and the touch.. of light… of shade…
Rest… and let
your breath go
where it will
in the body
Notice… how you…how your body changes… responds… feels now
Open your eyes…
what do you see and feel NOW