Joan’s Diary

Read more about Joan at http://www.joanclevilledance.com/about/#bio

PRELUDE, MEETING THE BEAVITTS AND ARRIVING TO SCORAIG

 The week before travelling to Scoraig goes as wrong as it could go, it’s heavy and draining, not a good place to be before embarking on such a journey. Nothing new or particularly dramatic happens: just the same old crap that comes to visit every now and then, like annoying relatives or heavy luggage that you can’t get rid of… I’m feeling overwhelmed, crushed by the amount of things to do, to solve, to deliver… It all feels like a waste of time. I also have the feeling of being inadequate, not capable of doing all these things that are expected from me… I often have the feeling of being an impostor, someone pretending to know what he is doing, but that in reality doesn’t have a clue of what’s going on…

So lots of insecurities and destructive feelings to start with. Great. On top of that, Matthias is at home, and I am not in a good place, which makes me sad and serious. And that makes it even worse: HE IS HERE, after months, finally! And instead of being perfect, I am annoyed. And then I become more annoyed because I am annoyed, and I don’t want to be annoyed, but I am annoyed, I AM BLOODY ANNOYED BECAUSE… because… …

And then I become even more annoyed because I don’t even have a reason to be annoyed, oh dear God Joan! Thankfully, Matthias just stays calm by my side, as he always does, understanding, waiting for the storm to be over…Not sure what I have done to deserve him…

So that’s the jolly state of things when I get on the train in Dundee.

I stop for an hour in Perth, which is, as usual, empty of people and full of ghosts. And while I wait in the hall, something interesting happens, a subtle shift in my mind (or is it in my heart?) that changes everything: I am still full of anxiety and annoyed at myself and the universe, but somehow I decide to embrace it… to make it part of the experience… Suddenly I become aware that the journey, the creative journey, has already started. Something has switched on. My mind, my soul, my senses and my body will not leave this state for the next three weeks. Everything, the WHOLE experience becomes the making of an art work, or an art work in itself, I don’t know, I’m not clever enough to tell… But there is definitely an awareness that is always awake, a splitting of the self that suddenly becomes the observer and the thing observed. It is incredibly liberating…

In Inverness I finally meet Jill, and then Tommy at the Dingwall Tesco. So this is it. Here they are. Here I am. Here we go.

From the beginning, everything is very polite, strangely English in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. We tiptoe around each other, take on our roles and set the boundaries: this is where the line is, do not step over. When we finally get to Scoraig, things don’t get any better: Bev is silent and moody, busying himself on making a curry for dinner. I feel as if I had done something bad and now they had to put up with me… Thank God there are also some other guests for dinner and we can chat about things: the Scottish referendum, Scoraig, Barcelona, Matilda, ‘Is she also your partner? No, no, I have a boyfriend’, the project, dancing non-stop for three weeks, a niece that dances in Edinburgh…

After chatting for a while, I notice another guest sitting in a corner of the room, looking at me with a smile in the lips and a pint of homemade beer in the hands… It’s a pink elephant! How the hell did it get here? It must have crossed the loch with us! But, how? The boat was too small, even for three of us and the food shopping. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it is here now… The pink elephant stares at me for the whole night, and when I finally leave the room to go to bed, I hear it asking the others: ‘so what then, is he going to dance in our show or not?’

 

FIRST DAY IN THE STUDIO

Being finally in the studio is both exciting and daunting. This is where I will spend most of my hours for the next three weeks… This will be my world, my landscape. The room is long but big enough, it has a wooden floor, heating, and a lot of light, it is perfect. I feel relieved…

Once I am left alone, I try to set up some routines, to take ownership of the space and make myself comfortable. I tidy up the room, I sweep the floor, set up the sound system, unroll my yoga mat… From now on the possibilities are endless, I can do anything I want with my time, take any direction. I wonder if you have a similar feeling when you walk in the wild, without a path to guide your steps…

After warming up, it’s time to confront myself with a blank sheet of paper. Where should I start? I turn towards the wise in search of guidance. Jonathan Burrows seems to understand me, he’s been through this many time before: ‘begin with something simple, find a principle that guides your journey, let it take care of the anxiety of not knowing what you’re going to do’. So I find my principle (or should I say, a principle finds me):

WHATEVER FEELS RIGHT IS RIGHT

I look at it and tell myself that it sounds like the title of a chapter from a cheap self-help book! But I stick with it, because I know this is a big deal for me. I am used to hardcore discipline, to sacrifice and struggle in order to get what I want, to suppress in order to be effective. This time not. This time I will try to listen to what my body has to say, to my intuition, to my feelings. I will let myself meander, I will not search, I will let myself find. No plans, no schedules, just a compass pointing the North…

 

A LONG WAY TO GO

Every night, before I go to bed, I look at the schedule you gave me and trace your route in the map. You are down here. You need to go all the way up there… It looks like such a long way! How the hell are you gonna make it?

During the first week, the days pass really slowly. I wonder if I will be able to endure this. But the thought of you being out there walking on your own keeps me going. There’s no way I would let you down.

I work diligently in the studio and start to build different chunks of material. Sometimes I struggle and I get stuck, but I don’t give myself a hard time (which, for me, is a big step, hooray!). I listen. I try to listen to myself, whatever feels right, is right. Usually the answer is just there.

Sometimes it’s hard to know if what I’m doing is good or bad. I am so immersed in it that it’s difficult to take distance and have a perspective. ‘It’s like smelling your own fart’, as Tommy poetically put it. I try suspend my critical judgement and give things time. Usually the day after things are much clearer.

I’ve been pushing my body gradually. I am not used to this anymore. I am 34. I was never physically gifted anyway, it’s such a strange thing that I’ve become a dancer! But my body IS coping. It is slow and stiff in the morning. Climbing the chicken field gets harder and harder. But then, through the day, the body softens and releases. I reach, I fall, I dance. I’m 34, and I dance. I am here in Scoraig, and I am dancing. THIS IS AMAZING.

At home, the ice is melting little by little. Slowly (while you walk up the map inch by inch and I make a dance step by step) we get to know each other at the house, and trust and affection are slowly building: Jill’s care for the community, Bev’s never ending drive, Tommy’s passion and quirkiness… We lower the fences and let each other in.

Why did we not start here before?

The pink elephant shrank on its corner, and when I woke up one morning it was gone.

 

SPACE-TIME WARPS & THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

By the end of the first week, I decide to take my first serious walk around the peninsula. I ask Bev and Tommy for advice and I look at the map. The task is simple: up to the ridge, turn west towards the water, keep going until I meet the ocean and come back by the riverside…

Estimated duration of the walk: 2’5 hours. Difficulty: easy to medium.

Great, I can do that!

I start the walk by the old lighthouse, which is now a little museum with pictures and artefacts related to Scoraig. I see pictures from 50 years ago, when there was literally NOTHING in this land.

No houses,

no trees,

no paths,

no fields,

no school,

no birds.

Although Jill, Bev and Tommy had told me about their story, these images help me grasp the titanic scale of their enterprise to make this a hospitable place… Their deep love and respect for the land and the landscape, for creating and nurturing life at all levels strikes me as quintessentially human, and quite the opposite of the destructive, death-laden determination of the RAF blokes you meet on your way…

I follow the path up the ridge, the words of Rebecca Solnitt resonating in my head: ‘a path allows you to re-trace the history of people who walked here before you…’ This is the path to Achmore, on the North side of the peninsula. What stories has this path seen before me? What terrible messages have been carried from one side to the other? News of deaths, diseases, wars… What young men and women have followed it, their hearts pounding with impatience and desire, to meet their beloved at the other end? Or in the middle of it? What secret encounters have happened here? My own story just seems so small compared to theirs…

When I reach the ridge I leave the path and turn west, heading towards the sea. I walk through a barren landscape of heather, bogs, and wind. The colours of the lichens on the stones are incredibly vivid, almost psychedelic; sometimes I wonder if Jackson Pollock had a wee cottage somewhere around here… My eyes concentrate on the impossible routes through the desert, my feet smell the ground and I hear the heather crushing under them, my body ripples with every step on the uneven terrain. The wind blows away all my thoughts. It’s a full on physical experience, like dancing, like making love.

I am so overwhelmed by it that after half an hour (or was it just ten minutes?), I stop and look around. I can’t believe my eyes: I am lost. I THOUGHT I WAS HERE BUT I AM NOT. I should be seeing Ullapool by now, but all I can see is endless ripples of rock and bushes. If I get to the top of that little hill I’ll be able to see… but I’m not. Only more barren wilderness. I can’t believe it. I am just half an hour away from home, I could go back there now if I really wanted, but space and time seem to play tricks on me up here. I think you’d be having a good laugh if you could see me now: lost in a couple of square miles of gentle hills while you cross glens that are days away from any point of civilisation!

I decide to keep walking west, and I embrace the feeling of being disoriented. After spending the week locked in one room, this is exhilarating. It’s fun because it’s unfamiliar but also safe. I feel completely alone but strangely connected to everything. I keep walking, sinking in the mud, bouncing from one rock to another… I look front and back to my reference points, but I don’t seem to go anywhere… Space keeps playing tricks with my mind… At some point, I find it so exhilarating that I start singing. I am terrible at remembering lyrics, so the only thing that comes to my mind are songs from musicals: close your eeeeeeeeyes and surrender to your daaaarkest dreams…

Finally, I reach a high point where I can see the sea. Space quickly organises in the grid of my mind and I can’t believe I was lost just a minute ago. I am here now and I was there before, of course! I feel like I just came out of an enchanted forest without trees.

I keep going until the cliffs, the view is breath-taking and I feel grateful for experiencing all this. I walk back home following the waterside and when I first meet a dry-stone wall, I am almost shocked by its sophistication. Just a couple of hours away from civilisation make you see things so differently! The straight geometry of the wall cutting through the landscape, the stones carefully piled in an impossible jigsaw… Everything about it is so recognisably, almost tenderly, human… Jill and Bev told me about this wall. It was built by poor crofters at the beginning of the 20th century, who couldn’t afford to pay their grocery bill. Again, what stories are hidden in each one of these stones? I feel if I stay quiet, I’ll be able to see them… No matter how empty or remote this place seems, it is full of ghosts accompanying our journey…

 

WEEK 2

After one week in Scoraig, everything starts to gain momentum. The marks on the map hanging on the wall bring you everyday closer to me, and the work in the studio is not hesitant anymore but I have found a creative rhythm.

During these three weeks I learn about myself and my own way of creating. Working with memories as a point of departure proves challenging: it is easy to conjure up pictures and feelings from the past, but it’s difficult for me to translate them into movement and stay true to the original source. For me, it is easier to let things float in the room and work intuitively, things keep on emerging anyway, you just need to listen carefully…

Of course, some days are hard and it is difficult to keep going, specially when it is colder and dancing is the last thing my body wants to do… Again, the thought of you being out there, enduring a much harder experience than mine keeps me going, and I also learn to make something useful out of a sore-body day. Whatever feels right is right, I have to keep reminding it to myself…

As I get more and more involved with the people here, it is interesting to realise how strong these bonds become. Because there is only a few of us, everything is really intense, there is no place to hide, not even in the studio. If you want to be alone, go to a city, but not to a remote community like Scoraig. The phrase ‘community engagement’ is not a box to tick anymore, but concrete, real and complex relationships with my host family, with Bill the postman, with Joannie the shaman and yoga teacher, with the three little boys from the primary school and Susan, their teacher, with Chisha the dancer and W her Polish husband… One morning, I find myself wearing a long dark skirt and flying around with my umbrella, a sort of bearded Mary Poppins, who cares for all these people but doesn’t want to get too attached, because I (and they) know that I will have to leave soon…

The connection between the two of us grows also stronger and stronger. A day without news from you is dull and worrying. A text message or a picture can make me fly and stops everything happening in the studio… I feel that the music, the pieces of text, your walking and my dancing become a sort of amazing engine that fuels itself. Everything seems to be so intimately connected and everything seems to make so much sense, the rest of the world has vanished! As I said before, something has ‘switched on’ in me and I live in a special mode of being 24/7, I have never been so inspired before. I sometimes I feel there is no need to say much, or rather that words are not enough to describe the experience… What I know for sure is that IT IS HAPPENING, and we are sharing it with each other…

Sometimes, when things get harder I wish I could do something. It is strange to be away from you and not be able to do anything. I wish I could carry your rucksack or find an easier route. When you approach the peninsula, I wish I could walk towards you, but even in Scoraig politeness says I should take care of our guests… Finally, we meet each other, and although this diversion from the route has proved tough, I think it will keep us going for the last part of our journey.

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