2012-2013 was period of academic leave for me during which I travelled to Europe and Asia. I did quite a bit of teaching and facilitation but most importantly I had the opportunity to meet with fellow artists and to receive guidance and instruction from senior artists and scholars from around the world. Some of the highlights included...
The Amalfi Coast
...visiting my teacher Richard Fowler, who is now retired and living near Positano, on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Between and during endless conversations I learned much about Italian cooking, plumbing and small-holder farming on a terraced mountainside!
Richard Fowler at his home on the Amalfi Coast
In London, UK I spent time with Japanese swordsmanship and yoga teacher John Evans. In addition to acquiring more background material for my planned stage adaptation of Evans’ poem Trog, I was introduced to his Kurikara Tanren, a martial training practice of his own devising derived from the various arts he has practiced over the last 40 years.
While in London I also had the opportunity to visit the Central School of Speech and Drama with my colleague Robin Nelson and to discuss with him his recent book on Performance as Research. From London I travelled to Canterbury to give a master-class at Kent University hosted by artist and teacher Frank Camilleri with whom I hope to offer an intensive training and creation workshop in Europe in the near future.
Heading north to the University of Lincoln to give a master-class and a seminar hosted by Prof. Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe I also met with Prof. Sreenath Nair author of a fascinating study The Restoration of Breath. From Lincoln, I travelled to Carnforth (famous for its train station, where the film Brief Encounter was shot) to spend a few days with Taiji friend John Bolwell. A widely studied Taijiquan player, John and his partner Dee Swift have also spent time learning Jingju or ‘Beijing Opera’ as well as Thai Khon theatre and Japanese Taiko drumming, so we had lots to discuss and exchange.
The next stop was the Odin Teatret in Holstebro, Denmark. Here I visited with my old friend and former teacher Donald Kitt, a Canadian actor who is now working with the Odin Teatret and living in Denmark. I also spent a few hours speaking with director Eugenio Barba; I imagined that I’d be posing him questions about directing and while I learned a lot from our conversation, I left our meeting with a full compliment of artistic and teaching assignments, enough to keep me busy for a few years! Be careful what you wish for... I also visited the extensive Odin Teatret Archive and watched some videos their more recent performances.
In Berlin I visited with former students and stayed with Taiji friend Sam Masich. Berlin reminds me of Montréal in the late 1980s - studio space abounds and artists are making the best of it! Here is Sam’s painting of the Daoist deity Zhen Wu, the patron of Wudang Mountain Martial Arts, painted in under a minute with a single continuous brush-stroke; it now adorns my practice-room at home!
Sam Masich’s Brush Painting of Zhen Wu
In Brittany, prior to beginning work with Teatr Piba I spent a few days in Brest with my friend and mentor Allen Pittman and my friend Erwan Cloarec. It was great fun to wander and chat with two kindred spirits. We had a fascinating evening together with Breton traditional wrestlers Benoit Foll and Jean-Paul Goarzin who agreed to meet with Allen to share the fundamentals of Gouren at the excellent facilities of the École Wushu Brest, a contemporary Chinese martial arts school run by Ms. Ren Ping Goarzin, Jean-Paul’s accomplished partner. We had a very interesting and productive evening that ended in a style both typically French and Chinese with a very good and very large chaotic family meal!
With Allen Pittman in Brittany
Back in Canada I spent the first three months of 2013 on a personal training retreat. Thanks to the Ottawa Dance Directive, I managed a regime of 4-6 hours daily of solo Qigong, Taijiquan and physical conditioning, six days a week. My work consisted of fundamental conditioning, of the foundational and advanced sets of the Zhi Neng Qigong system, of the Jibengong or foundation exercises of Chen Taijiquan and of the actual forms of Chen Taijiquan, namely the Yi Lu, Er Lu, Jian (sword) and Dao (sabre). My teacher, Master Chen Zhonghua says that we need to complete 10,000 repetitions of the Yi Lu form to sufficiently assimilate its movements: only 5,400 left to go!
In addition to solo training I met weekly with my friend, training partner and mentor Michael Babin for Taiji swordplay. I also spent time each week with another good friend and collaborator, dancer and expert body-worker Sionêd Watkins who shared both Gyrotonic and Active Isolated Stretching techniques with me. On the weekends I travelled to Toronto to get a very comprehensive ‘tune up’ from Dr. Chu Chow, which in addition to acupuncture and herbal therapy included instruction in Dr. Chow’s Chang Shou Gong, or ‘Longevity Qigong’ which is a subtle, very simple and surprisingly effective practice.
In February I also attended a lecture on Bhutanese Buddhist Dance given by Prof. Geoffrey Samuel who was a guest speaker at Carleton University. We met up a few times over the winter in Toronto where Dr. Samuel was the Tong Lin Kok Yuen Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at The University of Toronto. Dr. Samuel leads a research group on the body, health and religion, or BAHAR, and has recently edited a study on the Subtle Body. I feel a little more confident in my understanding of the Himalayan Buddhist traditions thanks to his guidance.
The Sleeping Buddha at Wat Phot in Bangkok
At the end of April I flew to Bangkok, Thailand en route to Bhutan. There I met Liu He Ba Fa expert Khann Conor Foxx. His opinion on what is ‘internal’ about the Chinese internal martial arts, his perspectives on the relationship between Thai and Chinese traditional medicine and his ideas about the types of fruition produced by different kinds of physical training were all most enlightening. He is a fine host and very good company.
Climbing to Paro Tak Sang, the ‘Tiger’s Nest’
From Bangkok I boarded a Druk Air flight over the Himalayas and began what felt like a journey back in time. The trip to Bhutan was organized by two longtime students of Buddhist practice, Lama Jigmé Jinpa and anthropologist Ian Baker. The objective of the trip, named The Path of Luminous Fire, was to introduce participants to the practice of the Rigdzin Trulkhor, an ancient yogic system revealed by the Himalayan Buddhist sage Jigmé Lingpa (1729-1798). The principal teacher on the trip was Tsewong Sitar Rinpoche, who was assisted by his brother Lama Pema Tenzin. Every part of this voyage was extraordinary: the inspiring, beautiful people and landscape of Bhutan, the fascinating group of travelers assembled by Lama Jinpa, the sites chosen by Ian Baker who is simply steeped in Himalayan lore and the teachings shared by Masters Tsewong and Pema combined to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
With Tsewong Sitar Rinpoche
The Rigdzin Trulkhor is an important artifact. Most of the Asian physical practices now popular - especially the ‘big two’ of Hatha Yoga and Yang Shi Taijiquan - date from the mid-19th century and all of the Western somatic and performance practices currently taught are younger yet. Not only is the Rigdzin Trulkhor old, it also seems to be composed in equal parts of elements that resemble Chinese martial exercises and Indian dance theatre as well as ritual movements, mudras and sounds. Clearly a subject for more research and practice!
With Lama Jinpa
We were introduced to the ‘Trulkhor in the isolated Bumthang Valley, several days’ drive over airless mountain passes into the interior of Bhutan. Upon our return to the capital city of Thimpu, which felt like a ‘booming metropolis’ after the quiet of the mountains, Ian introduced me to his friend David Verdesi, a charismatic, well-travelled and experienced student of meditation and qigong. David was in Bhutan conducting investigations of his own and he kindly shared his ideas on traditional practices with Ian and I.
With Ian Baker
After a day in transit through Bangkok I flew north to Beijing where I spent a few weeks with my friend and colleague Prof. Lu Suosen at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing. Prof. Lu had been our guest at the University of Ottawa in the fall of 2012. NACTA is an impressive and inspiring performing arts school, with approximately 2500 students practicing and performing at every conceivable hour of the day. I could hear the joyful cacophony of drums, gongs and voices from a taxi out on the ring-road a kilometer away! It was a great pleasure to spend so much time with my friend Prof. Lu, who is a master performer and teacher of the Wucheng or martial-arts-character roles in Jingju or ‘Beijing Opera’. I observed Prof. Lu teaching both Jibengong or ‘foundation training’ and stage-fighting classes as well as teaching repertoire, including a short solo performance of the Monkey King Sun Wukong that he had composed himself. Prof. Lu also introduced me to his colleague Wan Xiao Yan, who specializes in the women’s roles. Ms. Wan is a master of the relationship between impulse and action and is one of the finest actors I’ve ever seen.
Professor Lu Suosen teaching fight choreography
I also got to know Finnish performers Elias Edström and Antti Silvennoinen who had travelled to China to study with Lu. They are studying the Wucheng roles, including one of the famous ‘fight in the dark’ scenes. Maya Tangeberg-Grischin, their Finnish mentor who had introduced them to Chinese theatre was herself visiting China to study with Prof. Wan. Maya had created and run the contemporary theatre program at Novia University in Finland and it was great to hear about how she had put her curriculum together.
Antti and Elias in costume
From Beijing I travelled to Daqingshan, the mountain training centre of my Taijiquan teacher, Master Chen Zhonghua. Master Chen had organized a Taiji festival and competition in collaboration with the local tourist authorities. It was a gigantic event, with disciples, students and competitors coming from all of the world and all over China. I met with friends new and old and while my visit this time was short it included Taiji practice, conversation, great music, good meals and even a small typhoon! Jonathan Bluestein, a young martial arts researcher from Israel has written a comprehensive account of the festival.
‘Chinese Lion Dancers on Daqingshan’ and ‘Preparing for the Opening Ceremonies’
To conclude, in June of 2013, Master Jason Tsou, a well-known teacher of Chinese martial arts, came to Ottawa to give a workshop. The highlight for me was his fencing with the Chinese straight-sword. Master Tsou is a very capable and down-to-earth teacher. He is also an extremely hale and fit 64 years old! Thanks to Master John Hum who hosted the event.
Fencing with Master Tsou
With that I return to full-time teaching inspired, energized and very thankful to all the people who made my leave year so rich.