Azzie McCutcheon · June 2021

June 17th: introduction

Hello all!

I am a dance artist living and working in Berlin since 2015. Originally completing a BA in drama in the UK I shifted my focus into dance and later completed an MA in Choreography. Since then i furthered my training in contemporary dance (as well as becoming a fusion belly dancer) and have spent the last years developing my practices as dancer, teacher, movement practitioner and choreographer. Within the contemporary dance scene, I have worked in a variety of projects across multidisciplinary fields including dance theatre, dance film, dance comedy, audio-visual performance, performance installation as well as plain old dance. My own choreographic work currently focuses on topics of perception, illusion, the uncanny, and creating performances that endeavour to affect a particular state in an audience.

As this residency is just 10 days, rather than work toward a current project, i have decided to work on developing one of my practices. Since Covid i have spent a lot of time alone in the studio, and took the time to deepen, fine-tune and clarify my practices as movement practitioner. These are currently: moving body awareness and intent, working ‘with’ or ‘against’ gravity coming up and down/into and out of the floor and sequencing through the body, and working with movement qualities/tensions).

Now I feel drawn to research and develop a practice that has emerged from a few different paths that led me here. During a residency last year I worked on a project called Limbus. I developed a choreographic practice using recorded voice; syncing and dislocating the voice from its associated mouth movement through abstraction/manipulation of movement and gesture. The aim in this project was to create an ‘uncanny’ sense about the performer: creating movement and voice that seemed familiar, yet strange. However i realised this use of voice, movement and text is something that can also be used in the creation of a character. During the last few years I have also been working with artist Fergus Johnson in a ‘dance comedy’ duo, in which we developed practices working the creation of character through physicality.

These paths, alongside a background in Butoh and finally referring back to that drama degree, I feel the pull now to explore elements of voice, text, gesture and facial expression within movement in the development of character and narrative. I am very much at the start of this particular journey, so at this point i could not tell you what research ‘title’ this will fit under, and thus far i assume it sits as both a choreographic practice as well as a movement practice. During this residency I will therefore create task-based exercises to explore these topics which i will update on this blog, along with my findings, to research, discover and begin to establish this practice…Let’s see what happens!

“The idea you need will spring out of nowhere when you need it”

Jonathan Burrows (The Choreographers Handbook)

June 20th : creating character (and character physicality) from text

The last two days in the studio i spent exploring some tasks created by Dorinda Hulton, a wonderful professor and performance-maker i had the pleasure of working with 12 years ago (amazing what helpful notes you find from so many years past!) These tasks were combined and adapted from The Actor as Storyteller by Mile Alfreds, and The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, and focus on creating character from text.

The first task was to create 3 texts including the description of a character (past tense), a memory from that character (present tense) and an interior monologue of that character, and then to work physically with features from these texts.

The exercise that i spent most time working with was to explore physical ways of ‘becoming’ an image in a metaphor i had written in the interior monologue. The made up character that was born that day was a successful woman in her 40’s, an architect, who sits at the same cafe every morning drinking her espresso and smoking a cigarette, and is somehow feeling unsure about her life’s decisions. (I’m not sure how i sit with this character and the texts i wrote but for now i put aside these doubts and continued to use her to research the task!)

The key metaphor that has arisen in the text was:

“I can feel the cogs turning and the clock ticking, as i return to this spot every day. To sit in someone else’s seat and drink someone else’s coffee. Holding myself up, one hand to lift the coffee, the other to make me smile”

I explored this physically until i found a quality i felt was interesting. I then abstracted this further, using change of speed, repetition, change of position and plane, to see what came up. I found it was interesting to find moments of abstraction mixed with glimpses of more naturalistic moments (and I noticed how rhythm also became important in this experiment):

It was interesting for me to do these tasks as 10 years ago it would have been a more familiar way to work for me when i was an actress: creating movement from a character or text. However having spent the last decade working as a dancer, it was exciting to work this way again, using text and character as impetus, but with added knowledge as a dancer allowing me to develop it further into a higher physicality. I was curious what would happen if I took this sequence off the chair, so took the key part of this movement quality (hands picking up and placing the body) and through improvisation took it into a more physical sequence, where the key feature became the hands giving impulses to the body and allowing that impulse to send the body through space:

The key finding in this first two days was the vast potential movement has to convey an inner sensation or key aspect of a character, however abstract, and especially in a way speech cannot (of course, the essence of the genre of physical theatre). It excites me to work with this idea in finding juxtapositions between speech and movement: e.g. a naturalistic face and speech juxtaposed with abstract movement, or vice versa, or perhaps an inner sensation of a character conveyed through movement and not through speech. I am also excited about the potential to take these findings into a very physical direction; having the option of working both with gesture and more pedestrian movement, as well as high physicality.

June 23rd: creating character from physicality

The last few sessions i have worked with creating character from physicality. First of all i determined what physical attributes make up someone’s characteristics. I decided these to be:

  • facial expression
  • gesture or mannerism
  • gait

I then created tasks with the aim of creating a character from one of the above. For my experiments i focused on using facial expression as a starting point (though i believe the same tasks could be used using one of the others as the initial impetus).

I created 3 random facial expressions, careful not to think about a character already, just physically creating something, and came up with these: (i’m pretty sure this exercise alone has increased my wrinkles by 50%..!):

I then chose for each 2 things: the first character archetype that came into my head, as well as a word relating to the physical sensation occurring for me when doing these expressions. (I decided to use a physical sensation in order to help me deepen a physicality later, rather than choosing e.g. an emotion the face depicted):

  • Expression 1: ‘The jolly drunk’ – ‘lifting’
  • Expression 2: ‘The grumpy old man’ – ‘creasing’
  • Expression 3: ‘The busy-body’ – ‘forward’

Then i created for each a gesture and a frozen pose for each, and then a gait by applying the physical sensation of the facial expression to the rest of the body (lifting / creasing / forward):

From these i also wrote down more adjectives and thought about what body part became somehow a strong feature. For example, for expression 2: ‘the grumpy old man’ i wrote down: crushed, boney, rocking, hunched, key body feature: shoulders ‘.

The next step was to find a higher physicality for each character. For each i took time to develop a movement quality through improvisation using the list of adjectives, main body feature, and any sense of character that felt apparent so far. I also began to create a movement vocabulary for each. The following video is the movement quality i found for ‘The grumpy old man’:

Lastly, now these 3 characters seemed much more established in their essence, i was interested in how it is possible to play between performing a more ‘naturalistic character’ and performing this character purely physically. I therefore set up improvisations for each character. The task was to begin as a naturalistic character, and gradually go from 0-100% into physicality from there.

One discovery was that what i meant by ‘a naturalistic character’ was not how this person might be if i met them in real life, but more how they would be if they were performed by an actress in a play: a ‘theatrical naturalistic character’. Of course as I am dealing with character ‘archetypes’, already aspects of each character are somewhat enlarged, and this was important to recognise as i realise now that one of my over-all aims in this research is how to bring out key features of a character through physicality. Also during this exercise speech came easily for ‘the jolly drunk’ and ‘the busy-body’ which helped distinguish the character even more, and for ‘the grumpy old man’ not speech but sound came easily, a kind of grumbling mumbling under the breathe. (This reminded me of work i have previously made in my collaboration with Fergus Johnson, creating grotesque characters using sound/talking gobbledigook which is a practice that i feel could definitely also further this work in a very interesting way).

I then made an improvisation for each character, combining my discoveries so far, including abstracting gesture and facial expression, gait, movement quality, movement vocabulary, and the ‘theatrical naturalistic’ character for each.

These investigations were really interesting to see how a character can come from physicality, in this case, merely from a facial expression as a starting point. It also made me aware of character archetypes and made me fascinated in how we have constructed these (e.g also how they are often very related to gender as well as other social constructs: e.g. my initial immediate sense of the jolly drunk was ‘the jolly drunk man’ and the ‘the busy-body’ seemed immediately to be a woman, which immediately opened up many questions).

One other question i am left with is how far can i go into pure physicality and still retain an idea of the character? For example i felt i was aiming to find a really high physicality or kind of ‘pure dance’ (whatever that means) for each character, feeling that i could go even more physical but for some reason wasn’t managing it. However i did not want to ‘just dance’ as then it would somehow become ‘dancing for the sake of it’ and would lose the sense of the character all together. As such i realised that of course the character for each archetype was so entangled in the physicality from its very birth, that to go ‘too far’ into ‘pure dance’ might threaten losing the sense of character, which of course is contrary to the main concerns of this research.

It has of course highlighted the possibility of mixing both more gestural, pedestrian movement and higher physicality for a character, and how these are both possible strategies in how i can bring out key aspects or features of a character through physicality.

June 25th: working with physical juxtapositions

After discovering that physicality can bring out an inner sensation of character near the beginning of the residency (see blog entry June 2t0th ), for the next stage of my research i chose to work with juxtapositions of physicality, and how these can bring out an inner sensation, thought or feeling of a character.

I created a new character using the same text-creation exercises i used in my first tasks (see post June 20th). I deliberately chose a character that was experiencing a sense of conflict with a decision he had made, in order to investigate how i can bring out this inner feeling or sensation physically. I worked with actions, metaphors and similes that i had written in the text, e.g.:

“My stomach twists and turns. I feel a weight on my chest. A chest that pulls me down into this chair, the chair where my Father sat. How this shirt chokes me, i cannot take it off, it wraps around my body like a rope, tightening with every breath”

First I explored these physically, creating gestures from the actions in the text and a small physical vocabulary / movement qualities from the metaphors/similes:

  • gesture of biting nails, putting coffee on a table, looking to the side
  • twisting arms and legs
  • pushing and pulling
  • repetitive sinking from the chest
  • an agitated quality (started from twiddling of thumbs, took into legs and into whole body)
  • using an actual shirt to constrict body parts/wrap around me and take this into movement

I also created some movements based on the sense of greed. The idea here was that the main character is feeling guilty about a decision he made involving keeping some extra inheritance money and not divulging this information to his brother. Therefore i realised that this character is experiencing a sense of revolt and disgust at himself at his actions, feeling like an awful person full of greed. So i explored with physically creating this character of ‘greed’ which was grotesque and quite ‘slimey’, and created a short movement vocabulary related to this character.

With these elements i then explored how to physically juxtapose different body parts. For example:

  • the agitated quality only in my arm or leg, or feet, while the rest of the body ‘naturalistic’
  • a ‘naturalistic’ face but the rest of the body twisting or sinking
  • a ‘naturalistic’ body but the agitated quality or greed character showing in the face

I developed this to create a short sequence, also speaking some of the text at the same time, or recording some of the text and playing during the sequence (i will continue to work with the voice in the final phase of the residency):

My findings during these tasks gave a lot of potential in ways one can bring out the inner thoughts or feelings of a character, or sense of inner conflict, or that something is hidden or being surpressed. Three moments that stood out were:

  • The physical action of tying a shirt around my body whilst speaking a monologue where the character describes that he has made the right choice and is fine with is decision (this was an interesting use of metaphoric imagery – another idea adopted from Dorinda Hulton)
  • All the body as ‘naturalistic’ as a character sitting in a chair, apart from the arm or leg only taking on the agitated movement quality
  • moments of the character of greed ‘coming out’ physically (juxtaposed to the physicality of the main character

June 26th: working with voice

The final phase during my residency was to explore characters using movement and voice. The aim of this was to explore how the use of live voice and recorded voice combined with movement can bring out key aspects of a character.

For this task i went back to work with two of the 3 character archetypes i invented previously (see blog entry June 23rd): ‘the grumpy old man’ and ‘the jolly drunk’.

I revisited the physical vocabulary that i had found for each, and whilst doing so i explored what speech came up naturally. I then chose a few sentences for each and explored combining the movement quality and vocabulary i had for each whilst speaking these 3 sentences live. I abstracted both the speech and the movement using repetition, change of speed and level/direction (movement only). I was particularly interested in what combinations could bring out key elements or features of the character, for example for ‘the jolly drunk’ repeating the movement of lifting the belly whilst speaking the sentence “i ‘ave lager on a Tuesday, cider on a Wednesday” enhanced what was being said by exaggerating a part of the body that its associated with. I also felt using a lot of repetition worked well with this character’ as a drunk person will repeat what they say continuously forgetting they already said it:

Juxtapositions also came into play during these investigations. For example, when exploring this task with ‘the grumpy old man’ some interesting ideas came forth as I experimented speaking as that character 30 years before, alongside the physicality of a now grumpy old man.

I then wanted to investigate how i could use recorded voice combined with live movement, and how this might bring out key features of the character. I began this practice last year during a residency for the project Limbus, specifically using the abstraction of movement alongside abstracted recorded voice (abstracted in pitch, speed e.t.c) with the aim of producing a strange yet familiar: ‘uncanny’ sensation. Now i wanted to explore using the same techniques to investigate different combinations of recorded speech and movement, however the aim now was to see if it could bring out particular features of the character, or what effect was produced.

Due to lack of time i didn’t develop the syncing/un-syncing part much further, finding only moments of this, however i did find some interesting ways in which the abstraction and combination of movement and recorded sound created some interesting juxtapositions and dynamics that i felt began to bring out key aspects of a character. For example for ‘the jolly drunk’ i combined a freeze-frame pose with the recorded voice making a goofy laugh, followed by the repeated physical movement of chest lifting (as if laughing) with silence:

With ‘the grumpy old man’ i explored some combinations that i found quite interesting, such as repeated gesture of pointing as he says “that’s the problem with the young people of today”. This repeated physical expression during this sentence for me brought out a feature of this character: a kind of accusatory ‘i know best’ aspect of this personality. Later i found a similar effect during the repetition of the sentence “that’s the problem with the young people of today” combined with a slow-motion pointing: the repetition of the speech emphasising the character’s opinion, exaggerated by the point being in slow motion and the slow development of the facial expression. I also liked the combination of a recorded almost inaudible grumbling and mumbling sound alongside the facial expression slowly taking shape on my face. I felt the use of sound for this character worked better than having too much text, and really brought out part of the character:

My key finding during these tasks was how abstraction, combination and juxtaposition of live or recorded voice alongside movement vocabulary can indeed exaggerate or bring out key features of a character. Sometimes it may be the that it exaggerates a physical aspect, which in turn creates a sense of character, or perhaps making certain parts of the text stand out, giving an idea of the character’s opinions or feelings, or even creating a sense of the character’s situation.

June 27th: reflections

At the start of this residency i was not sure what exact term this research would sit under. During the past 10 days i have come to situate this research under the term ‘creating character through physicality’. During this time i discovered my 2 research aims to be:

  • How to emphasise or bring out key features or aspects of a character through physicality.
  • How physically show something that is usually invisible for a character, e.g. a character’s thoughts, feelings or inner sensations.

During this research the question also came up of how abstractly physical one can be whilst still retaining a sense of the character, and can it be that a more ‘dance-y’ (for want of a better word!) sequence can still contain the character one is working with.

During my last day at LAKE studios, artist and collaborator Fergus Johnson came in as dramaturg to the research thus far. One of the tasks i had been working with was using a scale of 0-100 percent, to investigate the transformation throughout the scale when ‘0’ is the ‘theatrical naturalistic character’ and ‘100’ is the high physicality movement i had developed for that character (see blog entry June 23rd). Although i found this to be a successful task, i was left questioning: can i create something even more ‘dance-y’ and yet still retain an element of the character? – or where is the boundary that the character is lost? We discovered that an interesting use of this task would therefore be to make the ‘0’ the ‘theatrical naturalistic character’ and ‘100’ to be a more specific physical task, e.g. jumping, or a particular style of dancing, in order to explore the boundaries within this scale.

Many findings came up as we explored different things as the ‘100’: including levels of intensity, visibility of movement, or seeng percentages also as different parts of the body (e.g. if the head is about 20 percent of the body so find the character only in the head). One of the most interesting tasks was investigating what happened if i was simultaneously 100 percent ‘the grumpy old man naturalistic theatrical character’, and 100 percent a ‘Gaga-esque’ movement research improvisation that is very familiar to my body:

Overall i would say my most important findings during this residency were:

  • The use of juxtaposition in the manifestation of my research aims:

One example of this would be juxtaposing snippets of more abstract physicality based on inner sensations or feelings of a character with a ‘theatrical naturalistic character’, perhaps for example a character speaking a naturalistic monologue interjected with moments of abstract physicality coming out. This creates a sense of two worlds in which the character is inhabiting being shown: an interior and exterior. Another would be the juxtaposition of movement with live or recorded voice, where perhaps the juxtaposition can bring out a specific part of a text, or an aspect or feature of a character.

  • combination and abstraction of movement and voice to bring out the research aims:

An example of this would be highlighting a key moment in a text, or a certain aspect of a character, through the abstraction of movement and voice – e.g. the repetition of a sentence combined with the slowing down of a gesture or movement. In this example, an abstract world is created, in which an abstracted version of the character is already ‘accepted’ by an audience in the more absurd world they inhibit, and in which therefore the interpretation of this character is made possible through abstraction.

  • Different ways of creating character, or creating physicality of a character according to the research aims:

An example of this would be the creation of a character from writing texts, or using a physicality to create a character, and deepening this physicality through the research of other physicalities (e.g. gait, facial expression, gesture). Another example would be using physical sensations or adjectives as a way of transforming these more pedestrian qualities into more abstract movement (e.g. a movement quality, or a movement vocabulary).

I found this residency, although short, to be very successful in manifesting the start of a new practice for me, and i am very excited to continue this research. I would like to work more with voice, e.g. investigating the creation of a character from sound. I also wish to further research the boundaries between a ‘naturalistic theatrical character’ and an abstract or ‘dance-y’ physicality or movement sequence, and to explore how such findings could be used depending on the aims, i.e. as research or in creation toward a performance.