issue 26 Winter/Spring 05
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Dynamic stillness

Lalitaraja was a successful ballet dancer but, inspired by Taiwan's Cloud Gate Company and western choreographers, he has pursued the blending of dance and meditative awareness.

When I was a teenager I saw a documentary on China that included an interview with a 90-year-old Taoist monk and footage of him performing a t'ai chi sword form. Watching him in the stillness of his meditation and moving with the sword, his combination of fluidity and athleticism moved something deep inside me. This image has been a sort of myth for me ever since.

Aged seven, I was like Billy Elliot in reverse: I found myself in Miss Preston's dance studio even though I had insisted that I didn't want to go. The joy of moving and learning to use my body eventually took hold of me and allowed me to express myself in new ways. By the age of 16 I knew I wanted to dance professionally and started training at the Rambert School in London. I continued to train in ballet but I also encountered contemporary dance for the first time. In ballet technique one is always striving to give the impression of ease and lightness - pointe work evolved out of the desire to create an impression of weightlessness. But in these contemporary dance techniques the connection of the breath to movement was more organic and they used gravity rather than fighting against it. I was deeply inspired and worked hard to adapt my body. But when I finished training there were few contemporary dance opportunities in Britain; so I found myself working for a leading ballet company and having a successful career, content for the time being with one triple bill of modern dance each year.

In my late teens I was also spiritually restless. The Church of England made no sense to me, so I started looking for something else. Remembering the footage of the Chinese monk I found inspiration in Lao-tse and the I Ching, but there was no living human being to show me the way. I embarked on a journey through hallucinogenic drugs and the occult.

Meditation seemed the most important part of what I was seeking and by the time a friend told me he was thinking of taking a meditation course at the local Buddhist centre I was ready to go with him. I was immediately impressed by the straightforwardness of the teaching. One of the teachers taught me loving-kindness meditation and, as we were sitting together in the tea break, told me about his earlier life in Glasgow gang violence: on a Friday night after work at an abattoir he used to slip a razor into his pocket and head into town. Here was a living embodiment of the transformative power of practice.

Around the time I started meditating, I also took up t'ai chi chuan. This offered not only a way of connecting with the image of the Taoist monk but also of exploring the mind/body connection more fully than was possible in the dance techniques I had been trained in. In t'ai chi I could bring together the physical training of my career and the spiritual discipline of awareness I was learning at the Buddhist centre. The slow movements of the t'ai chi hand form seemed to get me deeply absorbed in the body, but when we practised self-defence techniques at speed a lighter, broader awareness presented itself. I realised that many of the dancers I was working with were interested in awareness only so far as it helped them do an extra pirouette. I wanted much more: I wanted my art to reflect my values, not those of a 19th-century choreographer.

Before long I left the ballet company for life as an independent artist on the contemporary dance scene. I was now free to work for different choreographers and to be more selective about what I performed and how I worked. By now quite a few contemporary dance techniques were available in Britain and in exploring them I was able to pursue my search for a way of moving that felt more meaningful to me.

A turning point came when I made friends with a Taiwanese dancer, who had taken leave from Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Company to study in Britain. Her training had involved t'ai chi, gong fu and Beijing opera, as well as western dance. I was glad to find that there were others in dance already pursuing the areas I was interested in. Over the years my conversations with my friend about meditation, dance and Chinese martial arts informed my explorations. I was especially struck by the methods used to create one of Cloud Gate's signature pieces 'Songs of the Wanderers'. On a trip to Bodh Gaya (site of the Buddha's Enlightenment in India) Cloud Gate's choreographer Lin Hwai-min was inspired by his experience of pilgrimage. On his return he started to explore meditation as a way of enabling dancers to connect with that experience for themselves by entering into highly absorbed states.

In the initial period of rehearsal the company spent a month just doing meditation: no technique class, no rehearsal, just meditation. The company doctor who works within the Taoist system taught meditation that focused on the circulation of chi or energy round the body. Sometimes they would focus on the tan tien (an energy centre a few inches below the navel) and at other times they undertook complex practices of moving the chi through the body's energy channels or meridians. Later, as the dancers came out of long sessions of meditation they improvised, and this enabled Lin to explore movement that embodied meditative states. Work with a t'ai chi master offered an approach that enabled the dancers to move more while staying in refined meditative states.

'Songs of the Wanderers' became a huge international success: a testament to Lin's ability to draw on universal themes in great depth without becoming inaccessible. Even a London audience on a Wednesday night sat on for 45 minutes after the curtain calls to watch a solo performer meditatively rake a spiral as big as the stage in three tons of rice. Once the rehearsal period was over, the dancers continued to practise meditation, each performer following the practices they found most helpful. My friend tells me that the piece is impossible to perform without meditating first - in fact the quality of the meditation determines the quality of the performance. As the spiral is being raked the dancers often sit and meditate in the wings until it is finished.

What I admire so much about Cloud Gate is the presence of a choreographic voice that is at once true to who they are, yet universal enough to resonate across cultures. The key seems to be in the meditative consciousness they are accessing. However, one of their strengths is that by using Chinese movement styles they have freed themselves from exclusive reliance on western dance techniques. While fascinated by Cloud Gate's work, as a westerner I need to find my own way.

Cloud Gate represent a Chinese response to the meeting between western culture and eastern spirituality, and to survive they quickly had to become part of the Taiwanese arts establishment. In the West this fusion was explored in the counter-culture movement of the Sixties and it was an influence on the development of post-modern dance, offering dancers solutions that were unavailable in their own dance traditions. Among early post-modern performers and choreographers (such as Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilley, Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay) improvisation became an important performance form. And it was in improvisation - rather than any specific dance technique - that I found a way forward on my own journey. Good improvisation requires the same kind of presence and awareness I had been exploring in meditation and t'ai chi.

The approaches of these choreographers made available to me ways of paying attention to being in the present through dance. These pioneers used eastern techniques to pursue their own enquiries into new processes, opening up possibilities for how dance was understood. I was starting to build my own relationship to this material through meditation, t'ai chi and the dance forms they had created. I found new layers of listening in the body, in order to hear and act from deeper layers of the self. I found ways to be more available to the flow of the composition in each moment, and to express that immediately in improvisation. I slowly found the confidence to choreograph again.

In the early 1990s I came across the 'small dance' - a standing meditation on the subtle dynamics of fall and recovery while standing still. Steve Paxton - the initiator of contact improvisation - had developed it as an awareness and perception exercise, but in contact improvisation it became, for a time, a central practice. For me it was a way to join the calmness of meditation with dancing and falling at high momentum. The unconscious reflexive parts of the brain are better able to support the safety of the body when present and unafraid. Rather than just being a practice to survive the physical risks of falling, I found a way of accessing states that appeared to be inherently creative in themselves. In contact improvisation I started to engage with practices in which meditative consciousness was implicit even though it was not explicitly stated. As Paxton says, 'Inside [improvising dancers'] minds the many touch events and constantly changing relationships blend into a continuity of moving masses which creates a logic reached only in the heat of the dance'.

I also found that the discoveries I was making as an artist were relevant to the students I was teaching. Today improvisation, release work and mind/body disciplines are a normal part of a dancer's training and many dancers are unaware that in their training they have been introduced to meditative consciousness.

As a Buddhist choreographer, meditation itself is central to my work and a vital way of integrating the artistic and spiritual aspects of my life. What fascinates me is the combination of going deeply into meditation before moving - similar to Cloud Gate's work - and the compositional spontaneity that comes from practices like the 'small dance'. In rehearsals for one piece I started in shivasana - the yogic corpse pose - while contemplating Buddhist reflections on death. I found I entered a mind state that was both highly present and flavoured by the reflection, and from there I started to improvise. At the end of each session I wrote down the images and thoughts that had occurred to me. From these images I developed the score of a solo work, 'After the Dogs the Dead'.

In 2003 I travelled to Taiwan and spent three weeks watching Cloud Gate at work. The visit renewed my connection with their inspiring example. There is also a lot to be said for the model of western post-modernists, who have influenced me so strongly, where the meditative aspect is integrated into movement practices. But taking a group of dancers into a choreographic process with the depth that Cloud Gate have achieved would require a more intensive engagement with meditation, for instance through doing a retreat. That is for the future. For the time being I am continuing to improvise and to teach improvisation - with its implicit introduction to meditative awareness - to the next generation of dancers. In years to come I hope to follow the thread that has been present throughout my career, stretching back even further to the dynamic stillness of that Taoist monk - the expression of meditative consciousness in dance and choreography.

Lalitaraja has worked as a performer with Scottish Ballet, Michael Clark, Charles Linehan and others, and choreographed for his own company, Oracle Dance Co.