A fusion of art forms, experimental creativity, and a healing space.
Meditation circle to begin; focus and calm.
Slowly moving as a group, in a circle
Like flowers growing towards the sun.
A pregnant woman and a midwife pose together.
A large paper everyone draws on
Outlines of women on top of each other, coloured in.
Playing instruments we didn’t know the names of
Spread out on a picnic rug to sample.
A group symphony of sound, and a tableau of nudity.
Here is the women’s collaborative soundscape, led by Sarah Kent.
Some feedback from the women’s session
“I can see retrospectively that my belief and trust in myself got totally wrapped up into the dynamic of my relationship with my ex. And I had lost my faith in myself. I didn’t think my body was mine anymore. When shit hit the fan it was my body that I blamed and victimised. When I gave myself permission to process what had happened, I had the revelation that I don’t exist to please anyone else. When I posed for Spirited Bodies I felt liberated. To be naked, without sexual purpose, was the ultimate declaration of self. This is ME. This body is mine.” Ellie.
“I really enjoyed the day, key thoughts:
– very alternative
– open and welcoming
– a bit experimental which is probably not for everyone e.g. Joint drawing was a bit 1960s art ‘happening’.
– the music and movement component was interesting and Challenging to draw.
– I enjoyed the modelling experience and felt very comfortable. I guess I also realised how comfortable and at home i felt in my body and pregnant. it felt therapeutic in some ways.” Philippa.
Here is the mixed collaborative soundscape, again led by Sarah Kent.
Kathy Dutton writes of the day
“#drawing #live capturing the essence of continuous movement #observing each second and putting it onto paper #softly drifting into sound and seeing only. #spiritedbodies
1 minute #drawing capturing the #curve of the body and a #moments #movement #spiritedbodies
During the event ….I felt our minds connected in a way that made it easy to work in silence…with only the sound and our intention. The circle at the start and the spiral within the meditation rippled into our consciousness subtle yet present… it surprised me how a few people drew the spiral we connected with in the visualisation
The soundscapes reached into us and made us melt into energy… connected by the sound into each moment, and the intense heat of that day.”
This was the blending of two projects of mine – Girl in Suitcase meets Spirited Bodies, and it was the first such encounter. It was not wholly successful for me, and for record’s sake, I will elucidate here the clearest positives and flaws that emerged.
It was born of a desire in me to perform the play – Girl in Suitcase – somewhere new, as well as to enhance the familiar format of Spirited Bodies at WOW. WOW is the Women of the World festival, annually held at Southbank Centre, London in March, around International Women’s Day. It celebrates women and girls, and looks at the obstacles that stop them from achieving their potential. I went to the very first WOW in 2011, and pitched my idea of Spirited Bodies as a means to help women to feel more embodied, to an audience in the Royal Festival Hall as well as a celebrity panel including Annie Lennox and Sandi Toksvig. Jude Kelly, the artistic director of Southbank Centre offered to host one of my events there. It took a further 2 years to bring the actual event to the festival, and it has been a fixture ever since.
I had not put on Girl in Suitcase since May ’15, and was itching to do so. It has in recent years been aired annually at Telegraph Hill festival, which is local to me, and I craved a new and interesting venue. I had put a lot of energy into creating the show with various friends in 2015, and then found their individual circumstances unable to commit further. Certainly that had been the case with Lidia, yet after working with her, I instinctively wanted to continue that sort of collaboration so didn’t attempt another. To add to that my personal life had undergone considerable turns in the last year; splitting up with a long term partner, and getting together with someone else. I was very keen to get back to the performance by the beginning of 2016, and as WOW has been the most high profile event I do in either project, I felt drawn to infuse that more with my own work. In previous years I had recorded interviews with models and artists in advance of the event, and edited them to play back during the session. For one thing my ex partner had the technical equipment for this aspect, and not unrelatedly, I wanted to ring the changes. Aside from this, during the last year I really noticed how others in the life model scene may have overtaken me perhaps – some that I helped to start out. I was losing the motivation to simply exist in order to ignite other women’s careers. I mean, I wanted to help them, but not at my own expense. I essentially needed to feel at that moment, that Spirited Bodies at WOW was also for me, not just the benefit of others (it’s not a high earner either).
A considerable flaw was I tried to fit in too much of the play; in the event there wasn’t time for it all, I had to cut big chunks whilst thinking on my feet. I had given myself too many details to focus on, and during the preceeding week I had gotten an inkling that this would be the case; it dawned on me that not all the parts of the play were so apt for the occasion. At the same time, since other performers were engaged I felt obliged to consider their needs, and not mess unduly with their already tight programme of learning the show. I was unable to perform my acting role with conviction as felt too plainly that the part did not fit; also my mind was elsewhere. I’d had three Spirited Bodies workshops during the past week and supplies of drawing materials were suddenly low – I’d been a bit caught out it became apparent as the audience flowed in at WOW, and paper seemed scarce. Too many details! I knew that really my priority and responsibility was to the models, especially the new ones, but I had made it harder for myself to focus on them.
On the plus side, the return to live interviews was a revelation. I had done away with this after our first WOW event in 2013, deeming the format unlikely to attract the truly nervous and hence some of the most magical and transformative experiences. In the meantime however, Spirited Bodies’ reputation has grown, and there is a bigger pool of people known to me for creating such a live event. Certainly at WOW, where the inherent safety factor is well understood, many more women are now willing to share their feelings live, whilst modelling. It probably helps that in the interim years, as Jude Kelly put it in one of her welcome to WOW speeches this year, “feminism has gone mainstream”. Live interviews means, genuine responses in the moment to the audience. There was some rehearsal involved, but it’s always fresh with an eager audience, and some parts have not been planned or scripted; they just catch you by surprise.
The themed sections of the event came directly from the play, and represented the stages in woman’s life. This worked very well and provided ample pose ideas for the chorus, who were a pre-arranged group of models, ranging from some with much experience to total newcomers. The chorus created tableaux for each section (the Virgin, the Mother, the Enchantress, and the Matriarch), and these were being accompanied by other interacting action, like Sabine’s belly dance and Ursula‘s Gaia poem. The three of us – Sabine Zollner, Ursula Troche and I reading facts/statistics about violence against women, during a pose representing torture and witches burning, was very effective, making for a strong dramatic arc that deepened the experience. Everyone was reminded of the unfortunate plights of far too many women around the world. Cast in this light, any of our own bodily anxieties were hopefully more ready to fall away, if only temporarily.
Regardless of any background noise in my own mind, the event was very successful. Having a well prepared chorus was powerful, and there were lots of new models trying out posing on the day from the audience. We had not had the room set out with an end-on stage before, more usually in the round, and this new lay-out actually worked well, elevating the chorus and action, so it felt more like a show. The event was well attended and well received, and I really appreciated the chance to add some theatre to Spirited Bodies. It was wonderful to revive the version from a year before, of Girl in Suitcase, that I had created with my two friends Sabine and Ursula. As ever, we were blessed with the support of regular women artists at this event, which I am especially grateful for, as well as the freedom to try new things, granted by the WOW team in support of my work.
Our recent women’s event was in a beautiful space at the Bargehouse (part of Oxo buildings, Southbank), well heated and well attended – with 5 models, and about 10 artists. Poses from 1 – 15 minutes, some with movement. We began dynamic and expansive, and perfected the art of very slowly opening up from an enclosed pose (3 and 5 minutes). In 3 minutes, they had moved so slowly, that when time was up, I found they had hardly opened at all! So I decided on a second round, longer to allow them to complete the movement.
The artists sat in a circle, some drawing in sketch pads, others leaning a board on a chair in front, one or two with their own mini easels set up. Within this circle, the models had a sheeted and cushioned area in which they created their own circles from time to time as they posed.
We created 5 minute poses for each element – Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Beautiful ensembles with flames, blowing in the wind, waves, and the solidity of Earth.
That was an impromtu inspiration as the singing model was clearly keen, and we have done that sort of thing before at A Human Orchestration a couple years back, so it felt enjoyable to revisit musical models. Really adds to their presence, and in this case, her voice was so powerful that the room shook. I’m not joking, and I wasn’t even next to her, touching her, so I can only imagine the vibrations in the inner circle. At least one artist was moved to tears, and several said they drew differently as touched by her tones.
Artists familiar, as well as some from the drawing symposium (we were a part of the Southbank Festival of Creativity) made their marks.
A real pleasure to return to my perhaps most passionate area of Spirited Bodies – the sacred women’s space! Though I don’t make much of any spiritual angle, keeping the session within life art/performance narrative, there is an extra element of care and consideration that is about feeling safe, to be all that we are. We are aware, as women together, some of us nude, that we could have body hang-ups, and maybe sometimes we do. But in that space, we are supporting each other to move past that, and enjoy the bodies we are in. We create solidarity, without judgement for ourselves or each other, embracing difference. And that is all that is needed, together with listening to each other, to make a very special warm, shared healing experience.
We don’t have to have been especially hung-up to benefit immensely; we all gain from the shared liberation, and witnessing each other being and blossoming. Creating a helpful, proactive, responsive community as well, as we connect more, building friendships. In the end, it is the love between us that grows our collective power, beauty, resonance and connection.
There is space within poses for individuals to practise their own spirituality possibly. Over years of modelling, I believe I have learnt how to very quickly access a meditative state, it is second nature. I smile automatically when discomfort prevails, as doing this alters my mind state to strengthen me, minimising pain. What is more tricky is the muscles reminding me subsequently, that it was not such an easy pose I had fooled myself so well of!
I also talk some of the time, during the session to point out how poses do or don’t work, to guide the models as well as instructing artists, in a different sort of life class! I played a bit of music too, but at the start, I instinctively wanted to let the silence take hold, bringing peace to all of us who had braced ourselves through the city to get there that evening.
I love circles of women. Last night I danced to the full moon with sisters in a church in Vauxhall. I vary in how much I am feeling it each month, but yesterday was very serene. The DJ, Sarah Davies, gave a little talk on body language which felt very pertinent, it spoke to me. How we hold ourselves affects the way we feel, and vice versa. So we can use this to make ourselves feel stronger, even when we are not necessarily there yet emotionally, or mentally. Create bold, confident shapes with our bodies to empower ourselves.
I have noticed over the years, that I had to let go of jobs where the artists were too proscriptive about poses, as if I am not in control of them, it can more likely damage my well-being emotionally (as well as physically).
I love how the full moon women’s dance is run by a bunch of women, tending to be about 10 – 12 years my senior I reckon. They and many of the dancers, are yoga, dance, alternative healing practitioners and artists, so a lot of strong energy in the space, and quite a few run their own women’s spaces. The chairs are cleared from the space and I set to hoovering crumbs, leaves and dust off the massive carpet. It takes a goodly amount of time, especially as I am enjoying being inspired by my moves with the vacuum cleaner! About two thirds of the way through the task, the sound system has been erected, and music begins to fill the church. Housework gets me into my first dance.
A pair of artists unravel and place items on an altar, immediately in front of the church’s own, which is behind decorated gates. After I have stocked up the toilets with paper, and put the moon pictures up, Sara hands me her palo santo to be burnt, and wafted about to cleanse or smudge the space.
Low-lit by highly hung chandeliers, the whole church resonates to the ska, hiphop, dance, world, ambient and darkly gothic music. We are moving through waves, rhythms of our feminine expression, of lyrical, flowing, chaotic, staccato and still bodies. I get a lot from this group. I take my friends there, and gradually get to know some of the women I meet there. It is a source of shared knowledge and deeper friendships.
For me, the instructions through the mic from the DJ about how to move (just suggestions), and what we may be feeling, are often jarring with my own inner journey. I am well habituated to getting into my groove. I discovered at 18 I think, on the dance floor at Slimelight among other venues, how to reach ecstacy through dance, and I wasn’t always on drugs believe it or not! It was a passion, and I knew movement (beyond the everyday) would always be part of my life. I trained in physical theatre at Rose Bruford drama school, in South East London in the early noughties. I wasn’t a great student, but I did appreciate the variety and intensity of some of the outlandish practitioners we immersed ourselves in.
Still, I do appreciate how having an MC helps to bind the group at times, as well as nurturing some of those who may be newer to dance or being part of such a group. It’s lovely to be in a group that is run by women, repurposing the church of a monthly evening, a church which in fact lends itself to a number of new age groups. At one particular phase of the evening, all the women start howling into the air, for a long long time. So happy to hear their voices, and to be taking up space as Sarah wanted.
I have naturally often thought, how good it would be if the full moon dance was also naked! I wasn’t thinking that yesterday though. The heating was blasting, and we were moving fast some of the time, but it is a big space, so didn’t feel cosy for nudity. Not that that’s really an option here… even in Summer. I also appreciate how it would be highly unlikely that you would get that many women at a naked dance, sadly at the moment. It is very cool to be with so many women dancing though.
My own next women’s event is on Sunday 13th December, at Tanner Street, close to Tower Bridge, from 11am – 1pm. For trying life modelling and/or drawing, with some gentle exercises to get comfortable with posing, as well as explore how the poses we choose may enhance ourselves and others. Nudity is optional. Naked, we may open up more to each other, face more of ourselves beneath the layers, and appreciate our natural beauty and body shapes. But it’s not for everyone. Artists are usually clothed, and sometimes, after a few years or so of coming to Spirited Bodies, artists pluck up the courage to bare all themselves!
I am so glad we decided to make a workshop at Sh! This is a special environment where women may explore their sexuality in a totally welcoming space. It is much more than a specialist sex shop; it has an ethos to reach women where they have not been touched before! It is an intimate space downstairs where we created Spirited Bodies magic within this new setting. Surrounded by dildos, vibrators, whips, paddles and lubricants we eased into poses on the pink oval couch that had a fetish feel. One of our artists was very comfortable directing poses due to her frequenting of fetish clubs; I took full advantage. Not that I am shy, but when you can see someone flowing with inspiration for ideal use of props and the angle of each limb, it is a gift for all to let that unfold. Thelma and I just tweaked some of these poses according to our knowledge of modelling, and making allowances for the newness of these models who want to try a novel experience more in some cases than have a realistic experience of life modelling.
Here are some pictures from this unusual workshop which hopefully we will try some time again.
I made suggestions to models about levels and relative openness or closedness of the body, as well as direction of limbs, and as well they found their own postures to fit with the other model’s shape.
Most participants came primarily to try modelling, and a couple preferred drawing, but they too had a go at posing. They said that it helped them understand the models’ point of view.
The costumed model presents different considerations for the artist; clothes draw attention to other features and shapes which the nude does not.
I thought afterwards, coming into this shop for a class, these women would not be likely to be phased!
While life or clothed modelling is not necessarily sexy, it can be. Above all we want to promote women being comfortable and confident in their bodies – sexually and otherwise. Often being at ease with one’s form may enhance sexual confidence, in a truthful way that is not about doing what is expected of us, or what we think we ought to do, but by being ready to sense our own desire and act on it appropriately. Being able to appreciate ourselves allows us to appreciate others more, and be appreciated by others. While the body can be a very sacred place, we easily become disconnected from it in our mentally driven lives. But if we take time to tune into what is going on inside, and learn to move our bodies however we can to enjoy them, we begin to intuit more the language of the body.
As I move from pose to pose, especially but not exclusively the quick (and movement) ones, there is hardly any time in between poses when I am working, to recover the body to its natural equilibrium, to eliminate aches and cramps. My body tells me which limbs to work as I form a new shape; more than the alternation of muscle groups (though that is part of it) its language is subtle and beyond logical. It knows I am performing a sequence, that there is a climax mid-flow of muscular tension when I will pass through a pain barrier and I will surpass artists’ expectations of what I can hold. I push myself because I am like a gymnast aiming for gold, I take my modelling seriously because I love it. It is my gym, my yoga and sometimes my dance. It strengthens my core and warms my very being. It takes me to places of trance, of deep joy and wild amusement I cannot possibly describe to you because it is so in the moment, the way it lights my smile challenging the artists to catch it! Sometimes it is tantra too and it turns me on, and if I were a man I would have to master myself quite heroically not to offend people and risk not being booked and getting a tarnished name. As a woman I can hide it if I want though sometimes my sexuality is discerned – naturally I am being closely observed, and enjoying it. That is even turning me on too; part of a pleasure loop of enjoying myself, being enjoyed by others. But it is not deemed offensive; though it affects me physically this is subtle compared with a man. Instead I am likely to wear a translucent glow and my pheromones reach the artists subliminally (or not). I am sometimes booked because I am sexy, though not in an obvious way, because that is not my style. I mean, it is pleasing to artists consciously or otherwise that I am in tune with my sexuality and I know how to handle it. It makes me confident and that is attractive. It is about my physicality and my nature. I know that life modelling has enhanced this for me. It was always there, a big part of me, being very sexy; but after becoming closeted a few years for social and personal reasons, the liberation afforded by life modelling was strong and so welcome. Now I share that as best I can with others.
Working so closely with my body and my beauty daily, I am acutely in touch with my cycle. I bring different energies at different times to modelling, from the highly charged and emotional, to the light and easy going, to the blatantly desiring, and commanding. Through meditation with energy work (visualising the flow and store of energy within the body) I aim to master better the hormonal drives in me. I have become so aware of my enslavement to a feminine cycle of emotions and desires, that I look to overcome this through deeper analysis, to channel all that powerful energy to put it to best use. Not to move beyond sex, but rather reach a higher source of sexual power, which is ultimately more feminine, unbound by time or undue strain.
I will add that there are many different types of life model and I am just one. Our individuality is the beauty of our game.
One of the women who participated on Thursday evening wrote to us the next morning;
“Thank you for a wonderful evening last night. I thoroughly enjoyed the modelling and the theme was right up my street 🙂 I am absolutely interested in modelling again in the future, I think my preference would be all women groups at least for the first few sessions since I am a newbie! I am not so keen on the drawing side as my skills in drawing are so inadequate!”
Thelma responded, “Thank you 🙂 It was an absolute pleasure and to see you ‘warming up’ to the experience. That is why I like SB – there is an indescribable feeling of fluidity, freedom and togetherness – spirited bodies, like minded embracing ‘the nude’, our nude in a practical, loving, flowing into unconscious way – if that makes sense! I fully understand about the drawing side – when I draw I try and do a ‘small bit’ or part of the pose or just try and get the positions to practice perspective.”
Finally the young woman wrote, “I am exploring and learning so much about myself and the world through my body and its empowering and incredibly freeing. I have always been very comfortable with my body, but unfortunately have been surrounded by a lot of people who aren’t! That can really limit who you are when trying to be sensitive to other people’s hang ups.
I am delighted to have been in the space of women who love and appreciate their bodies as they are :)”
I cannot sleep! The excitement is too much. Now I know these sessions are coming to an end, they excite me So much! Every session should be like the last one ever. Like I usually email the models a few days before the event to brief them, get them in the mood. This time I did not. Too routine. And I know. I know that the ones who want to come will be there. They will contact me if they are unsure. Then there was one I was unsure about, who doesn’t have internet, she might not have realised this was coming to an end, and I thought she probably doesn’t have money, which might stop her. But I wanted her there! She was the reason I set up the session that is tonight in Hoxton which she cannot afford to go to. I had gotten to know her via lengthy phone calls from a while back when she was gathering courage. So I called her and told her to come along, regardless of money, just be there because it will be so much easier and more rewarding than you imagine. All the barriers you build up in your mind, they are unfounded, unreal. You just need a chance to move past them, move into a new space where you reach up and out and let yourself speak through your body, tell your story that you are living today, and feel the joy of self acceptance. This comes first, and then the warm appreciation of others. Oh the liberation! It can make you high and take you far as you open your wings and take off for a while. Then you must keep learning to fly and stay flying.
This pose was a bit like a cat fight; Natansky wanted some drama to kick things off, so she and Louise began in this way to warm everyone up, as they have both posed several times before.
A scene is enacted before us
Quite randomly I picked from 95 photographs of the artwork sent to me by Santosh; I could not see them all at once, and did not open them all. There will be more, but for one tired night that is enough. Thank you to all who made this last Holborn workshop flow with magic. Now East to Hoxton for feminine fun and womanly wonder.