“Suzuki style is designed to fuck you up.” So said the Suzuki instructor Akiko Aizawa at the end of a training session. If I remember nothing else from training with SITI over a few weeks last September, I want to remember that. Of course, the ground was so fertile for laying ideas and observations, I hope I remember much more, but that comment beautifully sums up this technique I’ve only just learned.
I’ve been trying to articulate how the stances and movement of Suzuki force the actor’s body out into the open and demand such perfect focus that it leaves no where to hide. Our casual poses in everyday life let us hide behind our eyes, protect ourselves deep inside our hearts, to be at rest and think our way through every mundane situation. What I experienced in the training was being continually pushed out of my usual habits, especially dropping my head or my eyes, pulling up or rolling my shoulders forward and what I hope is just a Western habit of pushing out my butt when I move. When I let these habits slide I can nest in them and think about whatever I want in life: my bills, my chores, conversations I’ve had or want to have… When I have to correct them on the go and put myself through the Suzuki forms I don’t have time/energy – RAM – to think about anything but what I’m doing.
From a certain perspective Suzuki can be a series of tyrannical rules. Demi-plie, hands closed and the thighs, thumbs pointing straight down, butt tucked under so pelvis is perpendicular to the ground, back straight, eyes open, forward, focused on a specific place a mile in the distance. The rules just keep coming. Move without losing the perpendicular positioning. Keep eyes open and focused outward. Keep the shoulders down, arms at the sides unless told otherwise. Keep the head still and at a single height, never bouncing. The movement itself is brutal: stomping, sliding, gran plie with ankles off the ground; turning from a crouch to a ready, focused position, stomp-walking, falling, rising without help from the hands and deliberate walking. It’s not the basic dance steps, even if I borrow terms from ballet, because all the above rules must be followed. Tucking the butt under is a big one, so contrary to my habits that, combined with the plies, it serious messed with my thigh muscles. Half way through my first class I had to take a break due to cramps and it took me a good three days to recover from the soreness and pain. It takes around ten minutes into Suzuki training to become drenched in sweat.
Looked at another way, however, the isolated perspective forces me to be aware of my body, to be utterly present and devote the entirety of my being to the task at hand. In this commitment is the possibility of infinite power. That is, not that I could give a moment objective power, but that the moment would draw out the full extent of my power.
Given that, the pain is nothing, a nuisance that is irrelevant to what I’m doing. What I found was the point of view where I had to put my mind in my center of gravity and conceptualize moving it to the position I was going for, and then I would make the movement right. Maybe. Rather than taking a step and letting my feet carry me to a new spot, I had to think of moving from a center point below my belly button (called “danjeon” in Korean, I don’t know the name in Japanese) and trust that my feet, well, my body, would get me there without wavering or losing my balance.
I can’t overstate what a massive difference it is. In the first place, a stomp without the proper positioning would likely injure the foot or shin. But more importantly, dramatic lines and dramatic situations call for a dramatic delivery. We were asked to memorize a passage of six lines from Euripides’ Trojan Women (which the SITI members were in town to perform at the Getty Villa). We would recite them from the positions that caused some of the greatest conflict. Those positions that we really had to fight to hold onto lest we should fall over were the spots that kept us balanced on a brink. Hard to say the brink of what, but it almost doesn’t matter. Holding onto balance was the task itself, standing (or squatting or walking or sometimes sitting) in this position of crisis created a dramatic situation by itself. Add to that reciting a piece of text from a classic drama and the moment becomes as tense and theatrical as anyone could want.
Crisis may be what is behind Akiko-san’s delightfully quotable, vulgar comment. Even Tadeshi Suzuki called these “impossible forms.” They’re not natural, they aren’t for an actual theatrical performance, and of course it’s tough to get into them and hold them. But getting them done requires both singularity of focus and immense determination. Each move, even the slow ones, requires a burst of energy, controlled of course; each move, even the soft ones, enforces the fact of one’s existence.
Another of the Suzuki instructors from SITI, Leon Ingulsrud, encouraged us to find our way to being determined to make that move, be it stomping, sliding, making a statue in demi-pointe, whatever it was. Be free and determined to make that move. (Never mind that we had no choice about what was our next move.) It’s a construct essential to acting; a typical acting effort doesn’t let the actor have leeway in the lines he says, the blocking he moves through or his choreography. The actor’s part, though, isn’t one that can be performed by an automaton; effective acting is the method by which those lines and movement convince the audience that the character chose to do that on the spot. Leon’s own vulgarity ran something like “when you get the cue to stomp say ‘fuck you, I’m going to stomp now!’” I’m paraphrasing, but the point was to find the drive internally, rather than from the instructor smacking the stage floor with his or her shinai. It was another way of envisioning the form as pushed out from one’s danjeon instead of pulled by circumstance.
So this was six training sessions with SITI in one month. Not very much time to really cement anything other than the possibilities in my repertoire. And it is rife. Half the class was Suzuki and the other half was Viewpoints, which afford a whole other universe of insight. But I’ve rambled on long enough for now.