by Ali Valdez
For years, Edward Clark has had his creative hand in the expansion of the yoga universe, effortlessly melding eclectic movement in yoga with the dramaturgical narrative of theatre. Between waxing poetically on the cerebral aspects of the 5,000 year old discipline of yoga and infusing it with a wholly modern, sensual twist, Edward also masterfully exhibits an unprecedented and extraordinary embodiment because every theatre piece, each movement of the body, the magic behind the yoga means something to him on a visceral level. His techniques make even the most difficult yoga transitions seem effortless, but not without insight, process and practice.
Thanks largely to bandhas, breath and a tireless commitment to evolving his art form, Edward Clark and the Tripsichore Yoga Theatre have left audiences worldwide in awe and yoga practitioners yearning for more. Edward returns this month to Seattle for a yoga theatre performance of THE FALLEN with fellow collaborator and Tripsichorix, Nikki Durrant, at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Centre. They will also be leading a weekend of extended yoga practices at Sattva Yoga Studios in Redmond.
Tripsichore has been a pioneer in integrating theatre and yoga. What are some of the latest things you’ve been working on?
EC: The significance of form is of interest to me at the moment. Of course, this would pertain to the form of the postures themselves, but I’m especially concerned with the appropriateness of these forms in a context. For instance, there is a considerable familiarity with the way the form of a yoga posture looks on a yoga mat. But, these forms rarely have an entirely pleasing aesthetic in other situations. Something is not ringing true. We might see an ancient temple in a jungle or the mountains and find delight in the way it fits in the landscape. Our appreciation of that would have nothing to do with whatever gods or religion it was meant to celebrate. We find delight in the form in its context. If we see a yoga posture done on a busy street or on a rock, we might be amused by the juxtaposition, but there is something inherently jarring too. A person in a white bikini seated cross legged on a beach at sunset might make a good ad for a peaceful spa centre, but anyone who has sat on a beach in a white bikini (No, I haven’t) would tell you that sand gets all kinds of uncomfortable places and there are lots of insects biting you – hardly peaceful really and it has very little to do with what happens in the spa anyway. In our theatre work, we are using the form of yoga moves in the context of what characters are experiencing in a narrative situation.
It is, I hope, like getting a view not of a realistic depiction of a situation, but an insight into what their spiritual landscape looks like.
I want to make a point here that may seem suspiciously elitist, but bear with me. It has to do with big A “Art” as opposed to popular art. There is, I will claim, a significance of FORM that raises the standard of experience to a rarefied level because it transports one to a realm of aesthetic emotion or experience that is unfamiliar. And this is interesting in so far as it has bearing on some of the alleged aims of yoga.
I remember practicing for a month in Edward’s living room eight full hours a day of Tripsichore. At times this included putting on music including Nirvana’s “SmelIs Like Teen Spirit”. At once seemingly wayward choices matched by equally thought–through arrangements, Edward clearly has a great love and appreciation for music. Edward, how does music, or any art form, makes its way onto your creative palette?
EC: “I love music, but have to concede that my ability to appreciate or create it is in some fundamental way limited. I recognise this because I love things like pop songs or thrashing guitar with a good back beat. But, the experience that I get from a pop song is one that sends me – perhaps sentimentally – into my own life; previous experiences or hoped for love relationships. I recognise too, that before some kinds of music I have a different kind of experience – a sort of rapture that is hard to sustain. Something about the size of sound or relationship of instruments or the harmonies or whatever is not about my life and things I know or desire, but of some pure, almost mathematical, appropriateness. Likewise, in the visual arts, the apparent subject of a painting – say a death scene – might evoke pity or fear in one, but before certain pieces of visual art, including architecture, one is impressed by the way in which the form – the line or brushstroke say – are presented or how the building fits into a landscape or the city around it. It doesn’t matter that it is a temple or an office building; rather it is the form and how it fits into the elements around it that evokes rapture. I am humbled before this – sensing some kind of grandeur that is beyond the petty concerns of my own short life and finite range of personal experiences. The shapes and colour have something to do with what is being represented, but the power of the experience is not contingent upon this representation and all that the representation is meant to “signify”.
The problem – and not a problem that is often acknowledged – in yoga is that the physical aspects of it are usually viewed in the same way that the man on the street views the visual arts, music, television or popular theatre.
They are judged by what they represent (what does it mean? what is the message?) rather than by their form. “This painting is ‘good’ because it looks as realistic as a photograph” or “This portrait looks nothing like the subject – it looks like it was done by a five year old,” are the equivalents of “This posture is good because the leg is at 90 degrees” or “The heels are supposed to be on the floor.” They refer to something that is already “known” or “experienced” previously and not to the ineffable or possibly ecstatic. They are not about rapture. Doing, or looking, at a posture is not a mnemonic or a signifier – it is the experience. For the practitioner, there is, of necessity, a great deal of practice that happens before their technique can approach the place of ineffability, but if it is a practice that is only devoted to working on technique, how can it hope to broach the transcendent? It is only self-referential. Don’t mistake me here. I am not saying there is anything wrong about using yoga for therapeutic purposes like losing weight or relieving stress or even just because it feels good. And there is also nothing wrong with listening to musical hits from the 80s or flipping through glossy magazines or reading detective thrillers. But, the rarefied, rapturous experience is something that needs to be on offer…both in art and yoga.
How does all of this play out off the stage, and into a yoga studio space?
EC: In the yoga studio, this rapture does not happen just because there is an altar with Hindu statuary on it or because the practice is accompanied by pop bhakti music. It can only come about when there is a deeply considered convergence of forms within a vibrant and living context…where the asana is wholly present within the environment – room temperature, sounds of the room, level of tiredness – not because there is the voice of some former teacher playing in the head. The practitioner becomes an embodiment of the form in that particular space at that specific point in time – the perfect embodiment of that person which does not rely on who they have been in the past or what they hope to become – they become something beyond time and space. In a sense this is a basically creative experience. A mountain doesn’t have to try to be a mountain. It cannot play with its depiction of form. It has but one solution. However, a person has the latitude to achieve form in many ways.
How can form be more honestly represented through yoga?
EC: On some level, the lines of the body have a certain purity. If the arm is meant to be straight, it is straight. This sounds perfectly obvious, but everyone has a slightly different version of straight. For instance, if you ask someone with hyperextended elbows to straighten their arm, they may easily overshoot the mark. But, the straight line is achieved by putting just the right amount of energy of effort into the action. Try too hard or try too little and the line is not achieved. Perhaps this is because it becomes an expression who that person is at that point in time (someone who is showing how hard they are trying or how fatigued they are) rather than the purity of the form. It is the choice to execute that shape that distinguishes the practitioner from the mountain – not to be something that has come about by the accidents of the previous events that caused the mountain to be what it is, but to deliberately find a form of being that is executed according to the circumstances of the situation.
The intention is not to represent some other thing – it is to be the thing it is. This doesn’t necessarily preclude an element of representation, — that might be the way in which the artist or yoga practitioner has elected to configure the form. But, a picture of a horse or a mountain will never be the same as a horse or a mountain. It is paint on a canvas and serves a different function. A person singing a pop song about heart break may be heart broken, but they are still a person singing a song about that situation rather than being in the actual situation. The actual situation might be quite unpleasant to observe, but the performance of the song could be pleasant to experience. They are different things. Ideally, the yoga practitioner doesn’t seek to represent a posture – that is, something they have seen demonstrated or which they try to reassemble based on instructions they have heard or read.
The heel may go to the floor, but it does so for reasons other than this is the “correct” way to do it.
So, what are those reasons? One simple reason is that it is the direction it is going. But, to look at it in isolation is to miss the point. It is going in that direction while other parts of the body are going in other directions. The effect intended is one of all the pieces acting harmoniously – not only with the body, but also with the other elements in the room. For instance, if music is being used in a practice, the movement into the posture should be in harmony with that. (Though, I suppose, the use of music is a debatable point in practice.) However, whatever the sounds are in a space – birds or breeze if done outdoors or the ambient noise of any room – the body is involved in a relationship with these. On what might seem like a superficial level, it does matter what a person wears. A sleeve that bulks at the elbow when you lift an arm does change the way in which a posture is executed. Because there are a multitude of elements like sleeves or how slippery the mat or floor are and what the temperature of the room is, yoga has the espoused aim of trying to simplify. The “reasons” for “form” in this case have to do with simplicity, purity and finding a way to integrate multiple elements into essentials. It tries to find ways to conceive the experience as a singularity. For the practitioner, they try to be one with the music or perhaps they try to become one with the floor or with the air around them.
Ultimately, they are trying to be one with everything.
So, can there ever be perfection of an asana that truly elevates it into art?
EC: People expend a lot of effort refining their physical and mental (less so) skills in performing trikonasa or virabhadrasana without having much direct application for those skill anywhere but a yoga studio. Arguments of a sort might be made for yoga generally relieving stress or adding a sense of well being (hear! hear!), but one can’t bust out with a few well executed yoga poses in most stressful situations. You’d be just as well off sticking your face in a bowl of cold water. This needn’t detract from the pure enjoyment of simply doing yoga, but its forms and skills don’t seem to translate well to many other areas of endeavour. A person might enjoy singing in the shower, but that doesn’t get them a recording contract. It might be said that undertaking a few weekly yoga classes does seem to promote a healthier lifestyle, but so does taking a daily walk and following a responsible diet. It presents a question for which everyone would have a different answer – outside the studio, what are the physical (and mental) yoga skills used for?
At Tripsichore, we attempt to gain mastery of yoga forms because we want to use them as a choreographic vocabulary.
We do class and then we start to rehearse using bodies that are attuned to working in a specific way. Most people do class and then go and do something that doesn’t demand the physical and mental skills they’ve been practising.
You are returning to Seattle this fall with Nikki, conducting workshops, practices as well as your latest foray in yoga theatre. Can you provide more details on what the show looks like and the creative process behind it?
EC: Our new show is a duet called THE FALLEN and features myself and Nikki Durrant. Nikki started working full time with Tripsichore in 2007 and has made herself probably the best Tripsichore practitioner in the world. She “gets” the technique and understands what it is for – the creation of theatre pieces. She’s proved a rather versatile performer. She’s at the top of her
form and one of a very few people who has the wherewithal to perform Yoga Theatre. I’m certainly hoping that THE FALLEN helps expose her to a larger and appreciative audience. Those who make it to the show in Seattle are in for a delight. Nikki and I work together pretty much every day…doing class, talking ideas, discussing plans for Tripsichore and often considering technical points about technique. For THE FALLEN, we’ve divided the work up a bit differently. We vetted a lot of music and eventually chose the pieces that we each would be in charge of. We had decided early on to pursue a theme of “fallen gods” which gave us a lot of latitude, but seemed to fit with a number of ideas we had been discussing such as redemption, innocence, experience, honor, possession and the things people do for excitement or just to give meaning to their lives. Our conclusions have not been necessarily pleasant, but the resolution is upbeat. In the case of THE FALLEN, we hope they wish to consider the redemptive quality of love and creativity…the experience of seeking what is new.
Can non-yogis appreciate yoga theatre the way they might “regular” or more popular forms of performance art?
EC: I think the worst thing that I suppose people might think (who have never seen Yoga Theatre) is that it is just some people going through the routines they do in class. Our work is usually narrative, but the story is really a device on which to hang the choreography and it appears to us that what yoga choreography is good at is showing what the emotional and spiritual landscape is for a character. It is amusing that the current generation of yogis often prove less adept as audiences than the non-initiate to yoga. They seem to be looking at whether there are some new tricks or posture they can try later or whether or not that’s a most impressive lift into handstand whereas those who don’t “know” yoga are able to evaluate it more in terms of what is going on for the characters.
I mean, we do hope that what we do is impressive for those “in the know”, but more than that, we want them to negotiate the themes we are representing and have an interpretive experience – something they want to think about afterwards.
Please tell us more about your artistic process for yoga theatre. Is it ideated from yoga first, theatre or just plain movement? At this point in your career, is there even a difference?
EC: Hmm. No doubt there are a lot of ideas percolating all the time, but nothing really comes together without the music. It needn’t be that way, but that’s how it usually works out. All the music we use is composed for us and that means we have to give the composers some kind of idea of where we want to go. Our work is usually narrative, so we’ll ask for something that does have mood and development in it and suggestions for instruments. THE FALLEN features music by the world renowned pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole and long term favorites of ours Mark Vernon and Martin McDougall (both of whom have worked with Tripsichore for over 25 years). In some respects, there is a more “classical” sound for this performance, but we do like some dirty guitar to feature. Good soundtrack doesn’t always make for listening on its own – it is meant, instead, to accompany and enhance. We certainly use music as a background for improvisation when we are creating choreography, but that is not something for public consumption. In the past, it has been suggested we improvise onstage to music. Maybe there are others who are capable of achieving acceptable levels of entertainment through improvisation, be we can’t. There’s just too much dross while you work around the substance of your material. There is a paradox of sorts here for I do think that the nature of the yoga experience — of every breath, for that matter – is essentially improvised. Every breath is savoured for its own unique qualities and not in an effort to make it like some previous breath or some idealised breath. However, this kind of improvisation is extremely structured.
It is not “anything goes”. It’s more like, “using the techniques of Ujjayi pranayama, whilst executing this particular move, how does it play out this specific time?”
When we are creating to music, one tries out a number of possibilities for moves that seem appropriate to the music at that particular juncture of the whole piece’s narrative. It means, in practise, that you improvise for quite short spurts and then select something that will become part of the whole choreography. But even when the choreography has been set, there is still an essentially improvisational element as to how that move gets executed each time in performance. It is always a little bit different and you have to be confident to go with that difference and the way it subtly changes what comes after.
Increasingly more and more people are getting into the advanced asana “game” for lack of a better word, a craft that seems to come easy for you. How important is warming up and technique to you in preparation for your performances and personal practice?
EC: I find it remarkable how many “advanced asana” practitioners have such shoddy technique. The rush to get to the posture – the emphasis on result as opposed to process – diminishes the whole yoga experience. There’s the good bits (the trick) and then there’s a hiatus or two between them as people fiddle about because they don’t have the technique to move in or out of postures. And, so much of it is done in “imitation”. They don’t become the posture as themselves – they become a version of something they have seen or according to the instructions they have playing somewhere in the back of their heads. Not handcrafted – mass produced from a mould. People don’t look like themselves – they look like they are trying to do a trick.
The thing about many so-called advanced asanas is that they aren’t held for a very long duration, so you would imagine that that would make the getting in and out of them even more important if one is trying to cultivate a sustained yogic frame of mind. But, people throw themselves into inversions any which way and come down with a thump apparently satisfied with their achievement. They clamber about with their hands trying to grasp their feet in a back bend or in making a bind. They’ll even shuffle about for 4 out of 5 breaths in a down dog apparently unable to commit to a version of the posture that they have placed themselves in. And, to extend this rant further to even simpler postures, the amount of affectation that people ladle on to the hands in “prayer position” or “Namaste” or whatever you want to call the thing people do at the start of class or the standing posture that seems to be the default solution between sides, is astounding…that is, when they aren’t using their hands instead to fix their hair and tuck in their t-shirt. In other words, the sustained concentration that one would expect from a yogi is not really assuming a place of paramount importance. And, it isn’t just the struggle and affectation that contaminates a practice. There is a lack of awareness about both function and line. It is an all too rare (but delightful) sight to see someone fully using their legs (don’t get me started on yogic toe affectation) and their fingers –extending what they do throughout their whole being.
The apparent certainty in some people’s minds that actually touching the back of the head with their toes counts more than what they are doing to their back and how their legs are being used from the hips both amuses and appalls.
I do only do Tripsichore for warm-up – not because I think it is the only way, but because, for me, as a technique, it seems best for eliminating the superfluous and identifying the necessary. Then again, this is hardly something I’m likely to be objective about.
We all age, and bodies change. Things that used to be easy sometimes increase in challenge. Can you lend your perspective to the evolution of the body in terms of the advancement of the practice?
EC: Oh, the aging thing is sort of yoga’s dirty secret. Well, yes, people get old and they don’t look like they are 25 when they are 60. Don’t I know it? It is hardly surprising though…unless you’ve bought into the “yoga is the secret to eternal youth” idea…which a lot of people have tacitly done. It seems to me, however, worth noting that there is a particularly good decade for yoga people when they are between 40 and 50. They are mature enough – well lived-in enough – to move with elegance and real grace (in all senses of the word) and not so worn out through overuse. I’m not so sure that the emphasis contemporary yoga has placed on flexibility is bearing much fruit. Nor does the overt borrowing of techniques from gymnastics and acrobats. They are both demanding disciplines which are not known for the longevity of their practitioners. One of the things that has proved the bane of high level practitioners who are also teachers – especially if teaching is their main occupation – is the amount of demonstration they feel obliged to do. It makes for a lot of repetition – often of things that are fairly basic and, perhaps, at the expense of more extravagant movements…and it is all too often done in cold rooms on a body that hasn’t had the specific warm up it might require. This takes its toll.
Also, the demands made on people who teach a lot are such that they teach the same thing (pretty much) year in and year out. Sure they do their best to keep up their own practice, but if they teach three Level One (whatever that is) classes in one day, after a year of doing so, they will be making short cuts and teaching a similar class for each of them. They become efficient at delivering that…and because the owner of the studio needs to stay profitable (hopefully), there will be a constant influx of new people who need to be given the same information that was delivered the week before. There’s a lot of repetition and that is hard on the body and, in the long term, diminishes its range.
It takes a steely determination to make sure that the teacher’s practice is given its place of prominence.
Ignoring the teacher’s dilemma, for the aging practitioner, there is, one hopes, a better sense of how to do the difficult things more easily or efficiently. There is more economy and usually a more refined sense of distilling the work you do into the territory of eka grata. I don’t think there is necessarily a slackening of ambition about the range of postures, but there is perhaps more wisdom with regard to what it is worthwhile trying to accomplish. One’s life is not much diminished if you don’t regularly work on putting both legs behind your head (unless that is something that comes easily to you and which you delight in). There is so much to do with the things you actually do well that one’s scope is not really diminished by a degree of specialization.
What’s your greatest concern about the direction yoga and theatre are taking in this decade? Are we headed for a “Crash course”, no pun intended, as we evolve in the craft?
EC: This decade; the next decade? My crystal ball is divided on this. The gloomy half shows the further trivialization of yoga. Unable to support such great, but esoteric aims like Freedom and Immortality (as espoused in the title of Eliade’s great tome), it will endeavor to mark out a territory of smaller, debatable triumphs – as a healthful or transformational tool (the real question being something like… “Once you have crossed a threshold of healthfulness or have made your transformation, then what do you get on with doing?) and will seek more scientific support through research and study of minutiae at the expense of a grander vision.
Little bits of yoga will come into better focus through more research, but the appreciation of the whole will be diminished. Increasingly, yoga will seek to legitimize itself through the academe. Scholars who are also practitioners will study the canon of early texts (a trend brilliantly exemplified by the Oxford trio of Singleton, Mallinson and Birch) and will give us a better appreciation of yoga’s history and how we got here, but this will do little to affect the way yoga is now practiced and the permutations it will pursue.
Khechari mudra is not yet ready for a comeback.
The well known styles of yoga whose creators and innovators have recently died, will fracture without their charismatic leaders; preserved as non-evolving museum pieces by their diminishing adherents. There will be fewer Teacher Trainings because everyone in the world will, in the next ten years, be certified.
On the upbeat side, it is possible that some figures may arise who have a mix of gravitas and humor…people who are serious enough about yoga not to have to advertise their seriousness. The piety of yoga seems to be lessening its hold. Some people may figure out something to do with the physical prowess they have developed in the studio. There will be more Intensive Courses in yoga where people do more than a week at a holiday retreat. The attrition rate of yoga studios may actually raise the standard of teaching.
Yoga studios may make their facilities more entertaining and start becoming more like places you would like to spend an evening – far fetched hope – actually becoming cool places to go and hear good music and engage with interesting ideas and people…be less places you go because it is something that is supposed to be good for you (like cod liver oil) and less resolutely conformist in their attitudes. Though still naively amateurish, the trend to putting yoga into digital formats does have the promise of some creativity. Ultimately, this could become something of an art form in itself, but that will demand performance skills that hitherto have not been in the remit of yoga teachers as well as a higher degree of production expertise than is associated with homespun YouTube videos and podcasts.
But at the end of the day, it is hard to see these replacing the experience of the live class where the teacher provides insight and commentary on what is actually occurring before them, but they may become archives of insight worth returning to and studying.
You can experience Tripsichore Yoga Theatre’s THE FALLEN Friday, September 18th from 7:00-8:30pm at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center at www.tripsichoreyogatheatre.bpt.me or join Edward and Nikki for a weekend delving deep into the precision of Tripsichore Yoga Saturday and Sunday, September 19th-20th at Sattva Yoga Studios in Redmond, WA. Learn more about Tripsichore’s global performances and intensives at www.tripsichore.com or practice this technique locally with Liz Doyle.