All good things come to an end. I write this last post already back in England. Difficulties with internet made it too difficult to continue, so I am writing as a home returned traveller – returned home safe and sound. I am very happy to be home I realise, so happy to be reunited with family and with friends. The daily weave of life is being picked up slowly and with appreciation for what I have here in Cambridge.
My happiness at being home is due in large part to the great sense of delight and joy I felt in those last days in San Francisco. From the start of my travels in New York and that first afternoon in the Museum of Modern Art it has been an ongoing unfolding of wonderful people and places, and here is the perfect ending. Having had such a rich and full experience, I am content for the travels to end, and good to return home, to reflect, share, and commit afresh. I remember reading in some book that everyone looses their heart to San Francisco, and yes, I have experienced how easily that happens.
I met with Amie Dowling, Chair of the Performing Arts at the University of San Francisco – Lola Franknoi had put us in touch. Amie founded DanceGenerators, an intergenerational dance group. Amie has had much experience dancing with seniors. We talk about how and why dance benefits older people. For one thing, Amie points out, she is an older dancer herself – and ageing has brought new elements to her movement range, and new narratives she can develop through dance. The very fact that ageing brings obstacles to the body makes it essential to keep dancing – so as to better understand, experience and integrate those challenges into every day life. Although the perfection and excitement of the youthful dancers’ leap and high kick is thrilling, the richness of an older dancers one gesture that holds such experience is so important, so moving. I met Amie’s colleague, Natalie Greene, who is now the co-direcotr of DanceGenerators. We met just before the group arrived for rehearsal, and spend some time talking about how the group is structured – how participants are selected, what degree of commitment they are expected to make. Natalie tells me that it is in fact not easy always to recruit older racers. She tells me that commonly, the older person who joins a performing dance group is the kind of person who already has a lot going on culturally, and in the community. Once they retire, that’s it – they are busier than ever, and quite cautious about committing their time. This is a similar scenario in Cambridge.
We talked about the nuts and bolts of intergenerational work – the emphasis not being on age differences, but on shared experiences, conversations that are translated into movement sequences, and the training of body to perform publicly and to a high standard.
I was introduced to the group when they came together, and explained about the Churchill Trust and my research. As with the CARE group the previous day, they are all very impressed by an organisation that supports practitioners so widely and fully. We had a good laugh about the need to all become British citizens. Natalie invited people to tell me about their experience as part of the dance group. One young woman tells us that for her it’s about leaving the comfort zone of her 20 year old college self – rolling around the floor with older people, and realising that they can still do it – just because they’re not 20 anymore doesn’t mean they can’t dance. Another young woman says she loves to create art, and that for her , as a youth, she feels being part of an intergenerational group is the cherry on top – she learns so much through creating with older people, and wisdom is wisdom – no matter what age – she can take in different perspectives that she wouldn’t be able to reach on her own. A woman about my age tell us that she works with older adults (actually with movement amongst other things), and is an older adult, and has always loved to dance for fun, and loves to get away from what she is doing and thinking all day in her work, and play. Another older woman tells us that the work done around creative engagement is so good at any age. One man tells us that he enjoys the element of unpredictability – not knowing how interaction is going to happen, and where you will wind up…
Clearly the processes required in creating and making pieces form the core of this group – and the richness of expression and experience that comes from having mature dancers interact with youthful dancers contributes directly and simply to the group identity and performance quality.
The group rehearse into the night – I loved sitting and watching the different kinds of bodies move together, enjoy each others company. But sadly I have to go as I have a very early start in the morning, and night time transportation isn’t great. I end up walking all the way back – no buses. Its such a warm and balm evening, its a pleasure. And I love mapping out through my steps another dimension of the city.
Last thing at night, on a wing and a prayer, (and through constant e-mailing every time I pass the apple store), I was offered a lift to Anna Halprin’s dance studio – it would have taken me 2 hours by public transportation, and would have been a 5 am start. I meet my saviours in Oakland – turn out they are both English, and also visiting SF for dance reasons – Leeyla is a seasoned San Franciscan visitor. Its lovely to be in the car, whizzing along on another, even brighter and warmer day, heading across the bay, into the mountains. Undoubtedly, this is for me one of the highlights of my US journey. I have followed Anna Halprin’s work since I began dancing in earnest, in particular her emphasis on the outdoors dancer. And to be blessed with a beautiful day to first meet her famous deck space is wonderful.
Theres a group of about 20 people – quite a few new faces, Anna exclaims, alongside her weekly students. We begin on the deck, in a wide circle, introducing ourselves and where we have come from. The deck is built into a mountain side, just down from Anna’s house, and is built into the arms of the surrounding pines. So, as you move and dance you are brushing up against the high arms of branches – it is like a nest – a wide, strong, and on this warm breezed day, deeply perfumed nest. Anna waves her arm up towards the house – she’s come from up there.
Its a two and a half hour class. We warm up, we move around each other, in relation to each other and in relation to the space. There is greeting and familiarising, and lots of laughs. All ages, dancing together – every decade 20 up is well represented. Men and women. We go on to focus on breath, and rib cages, spines. We sit on the wooden steps built into the mountain that look onto the deck, and spend a gloriously slow and thorough amount of time really sensing and shifting awareness into the breathing areas and allowing impulses of movement to flow from our breath and bone structure.
We work in pairs. We work alone. We draw our dances, and we converse about our dances.
At times, with eyes shut, the warm sun penetrates through the branches of the nest, and dapples across face, and deck, and paper. The smell of pine resin, and maybe the ocean also, is drifting into the concoction of sensory delight. Its such a pleasure to move with strangers in such a beautiful setting, under the invitation of Anna’s firm, clear and deceptively simple instructions.
When the class ends – I sit with Anna for some minutes, with the English couple, and we talk about older dancers. To my wide opening question – why should older people dance ? she just looks at me and says Why not? Fair enough. A clumsy question.
Anna tells how important it is to her to view her ageing process as material to bring to the dance studio – she can’t imagine not working with her ageing body. She continues that it is essential for older people to overcome fears of falling, or fragility, and engage with movement so as to be able to know their frailties more fully, and more positively. Being Anna Halprin she doesn’t experience the usual difficulties in recruiting older participants – her 94 year old dancing self is enough to prove to people they can do it…but she shares how exciting it is for her, still, to work with older dancers, and experience the zest for life surge through them and lift them into doing so much more than they thought possible. Famously a recent piece involved rocking chairs – she put the word out that could people bring rocking chairs…and of course, rocking chairs manifested. The piece was choreographed outside, overlooking a lake – dancing in Nature is really the best place to be, if possible. She tells us that of course, she rarely uses the word dance – dance still scares people, it’s still misunderstood – so she becomes a trickster (like Lola) and cajoles people into trying out some movement and then brings them into awareness of their dancing selves. It would be so easily to ask more and more, and harvest as much wisdom as possible, but Anna’s lunch date, an old friend, is hovering near by, so we finish. With one quick photo moment…
Wonderfully, I have been offered a lift right back into San Francisco, and after a morning of movement, and talking with Anna, feel so alive and happy on this beautiful day, that I am totally thrilled to be heading over the Golden Gate Bridge – like a proper over excited child tourist.
The next morning I met with Blue Walcer over brunch. It’s a hot day – and Yom Kippur – day of reflection, Blue tells me. After our brunch meeting she will be heading out to the beach to take time to reflect. Over our delicious brunch, we reflect together on the trials and difficulties of working in public health care. Blue tells me about the retreat session she did for the nurses, and the gap between the ward being seen publicly as high achieving, award wining service, and the reality of the individual nurses and staff feeling depleted and run down. Again and again, the wellbeing of staff seems to rely on the support of managers and head nurses, and the extend to which they know their staff, and care for them. Not an easy thing for anybody in these days of tightened budgets and shift times. We talk again about the cancer care group, and how difficult it is for older people to get the support they need from their community. Its very useful to hear again, how the wellness program developed, its strengths, and its weaknesses. As in New York, its a small team of people managing big situation. Although Blue and her team have a designated space to deliver activities, there are the usual difficulties in maintaining a high enough profile within the busyness of a general hospital.
After meeting with Blue I return to the de Young Museum. I needed more time to honour their galleries of Americas and African arts. I am just about besides myself by the exquisite Arctic statutory and images. There is so much wisdom in those pieces – such awareness of the power and poesis of body as metaphor and expression of experience. Many of the pieces gravitate around notions of shamanism and transfiguration – the latter being one of the more powerful and exciting aspects of dance that I enjoy. The ability to transform understanding of self and environment through movement experience. Floating shamans, morphing bodies, out of body psychedelic experiences and crucially, profound relationship with Natures’ fauna and flora.
On my last Saturday in San Francisco, I travel out of the city with an old friend who lives in LA. We drive out to Muir Woods, to the redwoods. No better way to cap my US journey. The weather is gorgeous – in fact, it is scorching, the hottest weekend in SF in ten years. An ominous situation, but one that can be enjoyed in the moment. We leave early so as to avoid the crowds, but even so, when we get there we have to park far along the road. Muir Woods is a mere 30 minute drive from the centre of SF, and is a national treasure, and a favourite destination.
The park is beautifully maintained and cared for. We walk along Catherdral Grove and the main walkway, then we take a trail up into the mountain. Within minutes we are alone, and quietly immersed in the woods. It is hard to describe the woods without hopeless gushing or overdosing on superlatives. Its a series of paradoxes – uplifting and humbling, majestic and simple, absolute and endless. It is deeply cool and quiet. We walk over tumbling roots that are polished by constant tread. Here are John Muir’s words:
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.”
I love the signs inviting visitors to be silent, and to listen well to nature. A refuge of peace and quiet. I read with delight that the UN had a meeting in Muir Woods in 1955 when the organisation was in its early days of creation and consolidation. The meeting was to honour the memory of President Roosevelt who believed in the value of national parks as sources of inspiration and human renewal. “Organisers of the event hoped that the profound beauty and serenity of Muir Woods would inspire the delegates to pursue the president’s program for world peace as they met to establish the United Nations.”
The rest of our day is spent driving along the monumental West coast – dropping into beautiful, sleepy Salinas for the best burger lunch ever. Its one of those days where all one has to do is be alive and alert, and soak in the surroundings. Conversation is easy, thinking is minimal. The eyes drink in the beauty and the body relaxes into being a small human, with simple pleasures and uncomplicated thoughts, agains the backdrop of spectacular beauty. A day of renewal and inspiration.
There is a particle intensity to walking about a new city, knowing you are leaving imminently, and these are the last scenes. Theres a need to slow down, after all practical packing an travel considerations are done, and really relish the last moments.
Theres an urge to get off the bus and follow something noticed, spend longer browsing, walk just a few more blocks.
Final images from San Francisco, city of murals,and delightful buildings.
I’m in that state of being impressed by everything i see – or rather, much of what I see impressed upon me.
I love that in my last walk back to the hotel to gather my various suitcases and bags I come across a public art installation that invites me to take a moment, and engage with the unknown. Its a snapshot of the entire journey I have made – in itself an invitation to step out of my usual life, follow impulses, get my body going…snd seeing what I make of the space.
In that specific moment, in San Francisco, on the 6th of October, 2014, I step into the curved concrete shell, and startle a homeless man, nestled in there. He springs up, laughing hard and loud, not unwelcoming or threatening but disturbed. I am startled, but also feel a laugh bubbling up – unsure what to do and realise that moment is finished.
Time to head home.