martial arts

Actually, Don’t

I’m not a big fan of these inspirational-poster-style meme type things in general, lovely lurkers, but this one in particular has bothered me for a long time. And I’d like to explain to you why, in a brief rant.

Ahem.

First, allow me to describe this image, both for the sake of any of my readers with visual impairment, but also so that we are all on the same page, as far as what we are looking at:

We’ve got a sepia-toned photograph, depicting a row of five little girls at a ballet barre. All five girls are dressed in ballet class garb (tutus, tights, etc.) and look to be around four years old. From left to right, four of the little girls are faced sideways to us, looking up at what we can assume is a dance instructor, in a neat row (well, neat for four-year-olds), all attempting some vestige of a ballet position. The fifth girl, on the far right as we look, however, is upside down, ass over teakettle, her knees hooked over the barre, hands holding on, smiling at the camera. A large caption adorns the top of the photo, declaring, “Be the girl on the right.”

No.

I mean, no. Especially if you want to learn ballet.

Look, I understand the sentiment of this message (saccharine though it may be). What the creator of this image is trying to say is that standing out from the crowd is more important than being like all the others, and that self-expression is better than forcing oneself into a typical lockstep with everyone else. I get it, I do; and being a lifelong denizen of The Island of Misfit Toys myself, I, too, value the great gift of being weird.

Thing is, this picture is bullshit.

That little girl on the right is not engaging in joyous self-expression (well, maybe she is, but that’s not the point); that little girl is misbehaving. Her hanging on the barre is not just as valid as the ballet techniques being learned by the other girls, just because it comes from an authentic place. She’s not learning ballet, she’s not paying attention to the adult in charge of her learning (and her welfare), and, worst of all, she’s hindering the learning of the other girls, who are actually there trying to learn a technique. Believe me, I’ve taught many a dance and a martial arts class to little kids–that teacher who’s out of frame has to stop class to get that misbehaving girl to join the group and do as she’s supposed to. If the girl continues to be “the girl on the right,” her parents will be called in to remove her from class.

Don’t be the girl on the right.

The girl on the right is never going to learn how to dance ballet if this is what she does in class. If she grows up like this, she’ll be an entitled little nightmare with no respect for authority nor discipline in practice for whatever she does.

But, Jenn, we shouldn’t be blind followers of rigid rules and authority, I hear some of you protesting. The best artists are those who flout the rules and go their own way. Well, sure. And you’re right, except for one thing.

Those rule-breaking artists who thumb their noses at authority? Those iconoclasts of cutting edge creativity? How do you think they learned how to do their art?

The best artists learn the rules, thoroughly and completely, and from a teacher (or master, or authority figure of some kind), before they can then break them. The discipline that comes with training, that is: learning technique, comes first. Then, once the artist is a master of doing it the same as those masters who came before him, then and only then can he break those rules and make something unusual out of his art.

Art, any art, that lacks technique is nothing but a wet rag (read up on Grotowski, the great theatre movement technique disciplinarian, for more on this concept). Hirschfeld, the great Broadway caricaturist, said how he needed to learn the precise anatomy of an arm, and be able to draw it with scientific precision, before he then could draw an arm using one curving line. Pure self-expression, with no technique or structure, is not art. It’s healthy, and good for you, sure, but its audience should be limited to a therapist, if anyone.

I went to grad school for poetry at Naropa University (google it, kids). While I was pleasantly surprised at the academic and technical rigor present in that MFA training program, there was still so much of this: “it’s authentic, coming from my heart/experience, and therefore it’s good art.” No. No, it ain’t. It needs revision, and lots of it. And, seriously: editing your authentic bit of self-expression will do nothing to diminish the power of your true voice; quite the contrary. If you construct the messy vomit of your raw self-expression into a good poem, then it will echo and resonate to your readers, as opposed to being a selfish forcing of them to watch you masturbate.

If self-expression is to be art, it needs technique. To learn technique, one needs discipline. And Yes, Virginia, that discipline comes with training, which might just consist of rote repetitions, drills, and copying your teacher (and/or other masters). I mean, can you imagine a martial artist, who has never taken a class but likes playing around by punching her couch at home, getting into the sparring ring with another, who has a black belt (and you can imagine what training and discipline that requires)? I don’t care how well and powerfully that martial artist can punch her couch, she’s going to get her ass trounced in that ring. Why? No technique. Authenticity is great, but it actually doesn’t really matter to anyone but you. And art is supposed to be a communication, something that goes out from the artist into the world to be shared.

No other way to be a master oneself, unless one starts from square one, there at the barre, in a neat row, trying to imitate one’s teacher as exactly as possible.

Don’t be the girl on the right. Not until you’ve mastered ballet, by being the girls on the left.

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Sign up for Advanced Stage Combat plea #4

And the reason this time is:

Strange and unusual weapons.

At Metro, the beginning Stage Combat class covers the basics of both unarmed and rapier techniques. And as you might imagine, the whole 16 weeks’ worth of time is necessary for the introduction and especially the practice, of the bare basics.

In the advanced class, everyone enters knowing the basics, basically (we of course do a review session on our first day), and so we can use that knowledge to move forward into other stuff. This coming semester, we’ll be doing broadswords and staffs, as you’ve already heard about.

But there’s other stuff we’ll cover, too: some have to do with harder versions of the basic weapons. For example, large group fights, sword fighting up and down stairs a la Errol Flynn, circular or erratic footwork in sword fighting, advanced taihenjutsu like dive rolls, simulated (and real) martial arts throws, falling from a height, etc. (See me below, playing around on a climbing wall with a past advanced class–we learned some aerial dance rope stuff as well as basic climbing, plus falling from a height.)

In the past, I’ve also done micro-units on martial arts styles and found weapons (which are normal everyday objects used as weapons–something that pops up in current theatre far more often than, say, swords), and then of course one can also use classic weapons techniques to inform other, more unusual ones.

For example, a knowledge of basic Japanese katana technique will make you pretty decent at wielding a lightsaber (and staff knowledge helps with that double-bladed number Darth Maul had).

This coming Fall (if I can get 12 students signed up), we will be doing a video-game fight unit. And wouldn’t it be cool if I got UCD’s renowned film department in on that project. Is mo-cap, animation, or film technique in our future? Will I bring this class (as I have done for one of our summer private courses) down to one of the Parkour studios in Denver for specialized training? Time will tell. That’s if I get the enrollment numbers.

A reminder: anyone can audit, but anyone attending the three schools on Auraria campus (MSU, CCD, and UCD) can sign up for this course. As of last time I checked, I had 6 enrolled, which is half the required number I need for the class to go.

So. What are you waiting for?

Plea #2: sign up for Advanced Stage Combat

Reason Number 2 of thousands:

Six foot staffs.

Even in SAFD land, the six foot staff (what they call quarterstaff) is not often taught in the basic stage combat courses. This is certainly understandable to a certain extent, as it’s not one of those weapons that most actors will most often find themselves wielding.

This coming fall semester, however, I will be adding staff back into the Stage Combat curriculum. Fun fact: when I first designed the beginning Stage Combat course for Metro back in 2005, there were three weapons systems they all learned: Unarmed, Staff, and Sword (rapier). I later axed the staff unit, for to spend more time with the swords and the finals, and with the knowledge that the staff (though basic weapons training for me at the time in martial arts) wasn’t really a fundamental weapon most beginners would need to know about.

But it’s so very much fun!! And so this fall we will be wielding them again for the first time in about a dozen years. So if you’re an Auraria student or want to audit, get on your registration now so I can hit my minimum enrollment before cancellation. Do eet.

Advanced Stage Combat

Remember a few months back, when I posted a series of pleas, extolling the virtues of my Stage Movement class, so that students at Auraria campus would sign up for it? I ended up with a good number of students in that one, and now I’m beginning a series of pleas about a new, vastly exciting course.

Well it’s not new, exactly, but the last time it was offered was …. gosh 8 years ago? Is that true? Anyway, suffice to say I wasn’t expecting the good folks in charge at Metro’s Theatre department to ever offer it again. But guess what? This Fall, it’s there, with a real course number and everything. It’s called ADVANCED STAGE COMBAT, and I am pleased as punch to be teaching this again. (At least, I’ll be teaching it if enough people sign up.)

I’m planning on putting up a post dedicated to each of the things about this course I’m most looking forward to, so let’s start with what’s the very first and very last fight scene the Advanced Stage Combat students do: the big group fight scene.

Big group fights are challenging, as there’s more that goes into a 3 person or more fight than just orchestrating pairs. For the first assignment in this course, I have the students do a full-class-member fight scene. One year, it was an 8-person fight. Another year? It was 12. One group set the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet on a pirate ship’s port, including cannons, ladders, “water” and grog along with the biting of the thumbs.

If you’re a student at any of the schools on auraria campus, do sign up for Advanced Stage Combat. I need 12 people to join me, or it’ll get cancelled. Plus, it’s a very unusual thing for an undergraduate program to have this robust a Stage Combat training offered to its theatre students. You’ll see it (sometimes) in MFA programs, but this is something special to have on your undergraduate cv. Take advantage of it.

Stage combat as a ryu

Back in my first martial arts training experience, I had the good fortune to train at a dojo that was intensely focused, complete, and rigorously disciplined in the instruction of its myriad arts. All the ryu-ha put together made for some high quality, authentic ninja training that has formed the base and foundation for many other practices in the many (many!) years of my life since then.

One of the documents I’ve come across as I cull my belongings is a page of musing re: making stage combat a facet of the trainings offered at the school. Before I recycle this (handwritten) document, allow me to share these thoughts of mine from 2004 with you, lovely lurkers.

———-

When most people think about the martial arts these days, one of two things come to mind: sport tournaments, and the movies. Therefore, most non-martial-arts people have a completely distorted view of what real martial arts (read: actually used in combat or self-defense) are really about.

As practitioners of ninpo, I feel it’s important to know what the fake stuff constitutes, so that we can freely communicate the differences to those who inquire. Also, as practitioners of theatre, I feel stage combat is one of the most important and useful trainings one can get in the theatrical arts.

Fake fighting and real fighting go hand in hand in this culture. Mark Grove isn’t so crazy in his inclusion of stunt work and stage combat in his dojo. I’d like to embrace this cultural idea of martial arts as theatrical, and include a branch of training in this art. In reverse, too, hopefully those only trained in the fake stuff can then also come to us, to learn what a real punch feels like to throw, and especially to receive, and etc.

I get poked in the sacrum with my brother’s boshiken. My first black belt test, ninpo taijutsu, at the Genki Kai dojo. Also pictured: sensei Jason Boughn.

Sketch of the Day

I’m sure I must’ve posted this sketch before, but it’s been long enough that it warrants a re-post. (Riposte?) This is the fourth in a series of sketches based on the old ninja legend of the Four Demons. This is Ongyoki, the Concealed Demon. All four original sketches were displayed at the BEET collective’s monthly gallery, and they now live there. 

ongyoki