Looking Out To Sea

Grammar of movement

I wrote recently about Phil’s performance at the Conflux PITCH event and how I had a hard time writing a meaningful critical appraisal. One of the issues was seeing the capoeira inside his performance and not being able to see past that.

One of the other performers that day was Scott Houston. Superficially he appears to share a lot of the same movements but it appears from his biography online that he has no capoeira training. He’s probably come across capoeira but it’s not a meaningful part of his background. Can we tell this by watching the way he moves? I think we can and it’s most obvious in this video, Alive.

Like learning a language you pick up a great deal of capoeira through imitation rather than explicit instruction. The challenge of anyone learning capoeira or anything else by imitation is learning to identify what are the real rules and what are just things which your role models don’t do — things which you can’t learn by imitation because you don’t have anyone to imitate1. Like a language, capoeira has a “grammar” and much of it is learned implicitly. After a while we all begin to speak (or move) in ways which are in tune with what we’re doing — the grammar becomes internalised and we no longer think “does this sound/feel right?”.

I think one of the main differences between Phil and Scott’s performances was that Phil has the capoeira grammar deep in his movement and has to struggle more to overcome that. (I predict that if I had any knowledge of gymnastics or Shotokan Karate then I might see their influence on Scott Houston’s movement. Any takers?) The director/ choreographer who spoke at the Conflux event mentioned specifically that he likes using artists outside their comfort zone to avoid the ingrained behaviours from taking over. Dancers always end up standing in the classic ballet postures — toes pointed, arms slight bent. Gymnasts have their own favoured postures and so on with all the other physical performance artists. Using people who haven’t been trained specifically produces a looseness of interpretation — at least according to this director’s opinion.

From the perspective of someone trying to learn capoeira this is also important. The movement culture in Scotland and Brazil is different — Scottish dance and Brazilian dance emphasise very different things in posture, for example. Unlearning the way in which we move and hold our bodies is almost even harder — I’ve been standing and walking this way in this mould my entire life, since I was old enough to imitate the movement of my parents. Seeing total capoeira beginners with experience of other movement forms brings other fascinating layers to the mix — whether they’ve done Taekwondo or belly dancing the outcome is something bold and original. And bringing something new to it is what we should all strive for!

  1. This is why I think it’s really important to have many role models in a class. Different people of different shapes and sizes who have different preferences for the ways in which they move — not only do you see a wider range of possibilities from which to synthesise your own style but you can also see how people play to their strengths and overcome their weaknesses — be it fitness, height, strength, or something else.