Friday, December 19, 2014
Friday, April 22, 2011
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I thought I would consciously avoid incorporating anything at all about horse riding, as I know that I often get carried away with that -- but of course, I couldn’t quite resist.
Listen to the interview HERE.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
So many titles surfaced -- you can take your pick – it takes two / two as one / seamless / mobius / give and take / giving weight / pouring weight / follow the weight / the flow of weight / flow the weight / the shifting of the weight.
Weight, momentum, inertia and what happens in relation to these forces when one moving body comes into contact with another moving body forms the basis for an art form called Contact Improvisation. I was fortunate to have Alexander Technique students who were teaching it when I first came to New York. Created by a modern dancer who was also an aikidoist, it is an improvised exploration of bodies in motion. Sometimes more interesting to experience than to watch, it has influenced post modern dance and the sensitivity training of young dancers for over 30 years. It is also an evident influence on the choreography of the most famous ice dancing couple ever, Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean.
A couple of summers ago, my horse riding friend, Annelie, visited the USAF Summer Camp where she bravely got on the mat with me and had her first experiences of the art of aikido. She had a rather unique approach to learning which involved asking me repeatedly, ‘where should my weight be now?’ A lot of people want to know where to place their feet or what to do with their arms, but Annelie always wanted to know where to shift her weight. Sometimes I had to go through the movement several times myself before I could answer her – my unconscious competence carried me through the techniques without too much analysis after so many years of repetition, but her questions led me to a new perspective.
The more I learn about riding horses, the better I understand why she approached this learning experience based almost solely on what happened to the weight in her body – did it shift forwards, or backwards, and at which moments did it change? She knew instinctively that the quality, location and movement of the weight through her body, down through her legs and feet was fundamental to what we were trying to accomplish in aikido, just as it is in horse riding. I thought about this for months afterwards and spent a lot of time on street corners and subway platforms and also on aikido mats and yes -- even on the back of a horse while riding -- experimenting with the shifting of my weight and also the accepting of weight through my bones.
The aspect of the interaction shown above which is most interesting to me is the progressive blurring of the boundaries between the two skaters as they mirror and then match each other’s movement, gradually closing the distance and eventually each maintaining their own perfect integrity of self while both giving and receiving weight. I watch the dance over and over, invariably swaying in my seat, following the hypnotic path of the weight which they expertly funnel back and forth between them. What happens during those rare moments when two become more like one? This is what continues to intrigue me about the art of horse riding, as well as aikido and other artistic forms involving partnering.
Now in the midst of the Winter Olympics, it’s timely to share this clip and some of the myriad impressions it evokes in me. If you have the patience to watch through the rather long introductory section you will be richly rewarded. In this performance filmed during their professional career, they push the artistic envelope, having the freedom to leave some of the rules and restrictions of competition behind.
Thursday, December 31, 2009
The giant metronome in the sky – that’s how I came to think of the incessant and precisely regular sound. It would have been maddening, except for the fact that it seemed to pulse at a tempo perfectly suited to the trotting gait of the horse I was riding that evening -- another lovely autumn night in the outdoor ring. Clear and not too cold, it was apparently also perfect for the local marching band practicing somewhere off in the distance, using an amplified electronic metronome to keep them in step.
Well, of course, I knew rhythm to be important in riding and horse training but that evening I had a very tangible experience of the effect of regularity, repetition and consistency on both my horse and myself. I found it impossible to keep from posting the trot to the beat of the metronome. So after my initial resistance, thinking ‘when will that infernal pounding stop!?’ I surrendered and noticed how happily Knickers seemed to be ticking along, dropping his head slightly, blowing out and shaking himself like a big dog, quickly settling down to trot easily around the ring. We both became somewhat mesmerized and I found that soon I hadn’t a care in the world.
The experience stayed with me and in my musician’s heart I began to ponder the significance of rhythm – a concept I had come to take for granted throughout many years of musical training. I started questioning some of my musical friends, particularly those who play jazz and Latin music, I pulled out all of my various dressage and horse training books and began to think about rhythm – in music and in horse riding, soon finding more complexity than I first imagined. However, today, as we mark the end of a year’s cycle, I feel compelled to make a few beginning observations.
Rhythm is a vibrational phenomenon, and it exists at many levels and across time scales. Some say that our relationship to rhythm is established in our mother’s womb as we are literally immersed in the beating of her heart. Throughout our lives we experience layer upon layer of rhythms and cycles from the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the turning of the seasons. From the micro to the macro level, rhythm makes time apparent to us.
So, rhythm includes periodicity and regularity, contains the element of tempo, can create shape, is predictable -- the feeling of knowing what is coming next allows for relaxation. I have the rhythm of my work day, my week, the rhythm of an hour’s aikido class or a weekend intensive seminar. These days I also have the regular structure of a riding lesson – a similar progression from preparation, warm up, through gradually more demanding movements, including periods of greater and lesser intensity, ending with a winding down to walk on a long rein, halt and dismount. Like a musical phrase, a song or a symphony, a short story or a novel – each has a certain form and tempo, a rhythmic framework.
Our rhythmic sense should be completely natural and inherent, yet not everyone seems to be able to express it equally well, to “tap into it,” to “go with the flow.” If rhythm is so closely connected to relaxation, then it certainly makes sense that tension is the enemy of rhythm. Any method for releasing excess tension, whether through the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, meditation or constructive rest, allows us more access to this quality we all seem to crave: the pulse which has the ability to mesmerize and enthrall and which in turn puts us even further at ease.
The subject is deep and broad and all-encompassing and its application, especially in horse riding and training, so integral, I am quite certain that “I do not know what I do not know” – you know what I mean -- but it is so irresistibly fascinating that it must be explored.
And, what could seemingly illustrate rhythm more perfectly than – tap dancing! Ring in the New Year with this over-the-top number as Eleanor Powell dances to…what else – Fascinatin' Rhythm! Fortunately, even the low resolution film quality cannot disguise the precision of her body mechanics. Note her ability to isolate body parts, the easy poise of her head and if you wonder how she can move and lift her legs without disturbing her overall coordination – it’s the psoas (core strength) muscle. Enjoy!
Sunday, December 13, 2009
"Equestrian art is the perfect understanding and harmony between horse and rider."
Enraptured, I watched in amazement, and could only feel that this must be the epitome, the ultimate expression of equestrian artistry -- its complete embodiment. Nuno Oliviera (1925 – 1989) personifies effortless elegance in this rare footage from his earlier years. Horse and rider are seamlessly inseparable – he transcends their duality, creating a palpable demonstration of oneness. Where does one being end and the other begin?
The creation which results is it seems greater than either could achieve alone – the horse has become a willing partner, allowing the man to experience a physicality impossible without his mount. And while a horse’s movements at liberty are undeniably beautiful, somehow the rider is able to draw out and reveal to us unimagined potentials in the horse. Their synergy positively takes our breath away.
The caption of the video “travail d'un cheval” or “work with a horse” describes not a choreographed artistic performance but rather the patient, precise and utterly consistent process of communication by a master training a pupil. The addition of the wonderfully complementary musical track may enhance the aesthetic impact, yet as I watch again in silence I find it even more magical. This masterful rider seems able to place the center of himself lower than his physical body, somewhere inside the horse – creating the effect of the mythical centaur.
What is he actually doing, I feel desperate to understand -- he is leading and following at the same time! How is he able to do this? I sense an utter absence of muscular willfulness, an infinite patience and what must be great sensitivity to every nuance of the horse’s response. And, sure enough, I perceive not just the rider’s spine but his whole head and torso being used as a tool with energy directed both upwards and downwards, and often in both directions at the same time. As I watch I feel a vague kinesthetic resonance in myself – we all must have had certain experiences -- pure and unfettered, at some point before we began accumulating our many habits of movement and reaction.
The riding is really just too exquisite – I soften inside, release my preoccupation with understanding how, and surrender to the sheer ecstasy of simply knowing that someone has lived who experienced this depth of understanding and this relationship with horses.
Apparently, as he worked, Maestro Oliviera often listened to arias from the operas he so loved – the Italian masters Verdi or Puccini. Watch the footage above with and without the soundtrack and you will find all the qualities of musical expression even in silence: lyricism, drama, the dynamic shaping of a phrase through accumulation of energy and its release, rhythm and tempo, and of course harmony, and even – harmonic dissonance! Do you sense it?Click HERE to view another much shorter video clip of this incredible master.
Sunday, December 6, 2009