Axons and Dendrites

Axons and Dendrites performance piece

Post-performance update…we had a great evening on 21 Jan. Many thanks to the performers. There were a few shifts in personnel, with a final cast of: Jo Strong, Martin Hulse, Becky Bridge, Ailsa Mair Hughes, and myself. We had between 40 and 50 in the audience (still waiting on the final number) and response was great.

I was really happy with what we produced as a final product, especially the last section, which was ethereal.  We were able to get the staging and projection as we wanted, which was a bit of a relief.  It looked sleek and elegant.  The improvisation worked. Were there things I would do differently next time or hope to develop further if we had more practices? Of course! But then…already thinking of what could be the next project.

posters by Becky Bridge

We made the papers! See the blurb about Axons and Dendrites in the Cambrian News this week

If you are interested in mind, body, and spirit, listen to Amanda Painting on Radio Ceredigion at 9pm. This Sunday she is featuring a 15-minute interview about our performance. Radio Ceredigion is the local radio station for the West Coast of Wales on 96.6-97.4 and 103.3 FM.

Well, everyone is back and we are in the final stages of getting ready for the performance next week. The pieces are fitting together very nicely. This evening was our best practice so far. We came out of it energised and happy with what happened within the group.

To give you a glimpse into our working method, we began with a warmup based on walking, designed to increase our awareness of the others in the group. We walk around in the space, aware of the others. There is no leader, but we try to stop walking and start again in unison. We always have a reflection afterward to share what we notice about the process.

Then we went into a half-hour open-structured improvisational jam. We weren’t worried about fitting into any of the three specific sections of the performance itself. The purpose was to work the group together and play, experiment as much as possible within this particular grouping of people. Although we have been working since August, this was only the second time the group has been together since the long holiday break. The jam was very good and there were some ideas that we played with and developed further in the next part of the practice.

We started the next section by thinking about the times in our lives when we have been energised by recieving and then giving a ’spark’ to other people, and then we played the piece as if it were part of the real performance. ‘Pass the spark’ is the central activity for part 2 of the piece, which will last half an hour. In this activity, one person has ‘the spark’. The spark is the focus of everyone’s attention. That person can play in any way he/she likes, then pass the spark (focus) on to another person. Sometimes we get rapid dialogues between two people, sometimes a more extended development. It is like ‘trading riffs’ in jazz improvisation, except that the riffs can be music, or words, or movement or any combination. There was an intense awareness of the focus and some very inventive playing. I sat out and played the ‘audience’ in this part.

So what do we do, exactly, when we have the spark? Make music, make sound effects, play with objects, dance, walk, tell stories silently or with words, express our solitude or respond to other performers. It is improvisational within the central structure and concept, so it is different each time. Inventive movement — even the cello making dancelike gestures as the boundary between musicians and dancers becomes fluid. Entrancing.

After another reflection on that exercise, we briefly explored ‘oceanic feeling’, the central concept of part three. We reflected back on the times we have had this kind of meditational experience and brainstormed some ideas to explore more fully in the next session.

If you are in the Aberystwyth area on 21 January (Thursday next week), I hope you can come to the Arts Centre to see us.

internet map

internet map

Axons and Dendrites Performance piece – modified as of 24 October 2009

We got into the Open Platform programme at the Arts Centre, with a provisional date of 21 January 2010.  What a nice way to start the year!

We have set up some additional dates for practices, so that we meet about once a week up to Christmas. The group has expanded, with a stable core of four musicians plus myself possibly adding voice here and there, and two core dancers, with another one or two people potentially adding in.  I would very much like to have three so that any one person can receive a spark from one dancer and transmit it to another.

We had a great session last time, the cross-modal improvisation style is developing nicely.  Of course we are used to seeing dancers respond to music, but we also had the music respond to the dancers.  The dialogic voice between each pair of performers is developing nicely.

Please see my Axons bookmarks on Delicious for useful resources.

Plan of working

Here is what we are doing currently.  We opened with Theta State, which set the tone nicely – relaxation, receptivity, connection with the creative core. Then we spent about an hour doing various games and exercises to develop a group dynamic and start working on the common improvisational language. Some of these are based on classic games and improv exercises, moving towards the specific cross-modal vocabulary-building activity envisioned for the group.

Too abstract a definition? The activity consisted of all of us sitting in a circle with or without musical instruments. One person started with a phrase (movement or sound) and selected another person anywhere in the circle to dialogue with. That person responded to the phrase in their own way. The two alternated phrases until the second person decided to change conversational partners and selected someone else from the group. The current plan is to work variations of this exercise until every possible pair is comfortable ‘talking’ in this way. One idea for next time is to take specific emotions, sensations, maybe concepts and throw them around the circle to see how each person expresses them singly and in dialogue.

The core principle is to start with the vocabulary that each performer brings based on their own experience and training, and build up the common vocabulary from it.  We made a good start.

After the exercises, we spent some time working through the three movements in sequence without stopping between them. The musicians sat in corners of the room while the dancers moved through the entire space. We liked this.  In my role as ‘artistic director’, I moved through the space, providing words to guide the performers through the movements. I presented the words not as stage or musical directions but as verbal contributions to the improv.  I think this worked. I also often use movement to respond to and guide the music but I do not plan to dance in the actual performance.

Our next step is to meet as a group to talk prior to the next practice on Tuesday. Our 2 1/2 hour practice sessions are mostly taken up with doing rather than talking, so it seems a good idea.

Of course we have quite a way to go before we are ready for the actual performance, but I am delighted with what we have already. Sounds good, looks good, feels good….fun and invigorating. If we have fun, then I believe the audience will have fun and hopefully we can get some ‘spect-actors’.

Revised text of poem

Extract from the journals of Rrose Sélavy.

28th August 2007. Aber seafront, sunset. There is intense colour here today.

It seems strange that he was pretending for so long, hard to imagine what he was thinking.

I look out to sea. Thin strands of desire reach out from me in all directions, wafting, attach to nothing, then trail off into wispy clouds.

The landscape overlaid with the inner world.

I’ve been in a box with no walls. I feel like a neuron in isolation, no one to exchange signals with.

Synapses, axons and dendrites, thin tendrils reach toward other brain cells, send a spray across the gap. Neural net buzzes as nodes light up.

The gap and the bridging of it.

The inner world overlaid with the landscape.

I want to extend my self, make contact somehow, merge into the landscape.

The sea’s surface lit up like blazing mercury, wavelets seethe in patterns so complex they look random. Filigree surface, power beneath.

Bridge the gap. Connect connect connect.

Notes for next session

Differentiate the three sections in terms of music and dance:

  • part 1 – isolation (yearning)
  • part 2 – connections (energy, interaction) possibly with subsections
  • part 3 – oceanic feeling (resolution)

Focus on ‘passing the baton’ from musician to musician, from dancer to dancer, in order to develop the central metaphor.  See this video on Youtube Skip to the bit that shows neurons themselves. The animation communicates some of what I want to express to the audience about transferring energy from one person to another.

Possible final positions for the dancers at the end – slowly descend to floor level, in rounded shapes with all dancers touching or nearly touching each other. The shape is to suggest waves on the surface of the sea as well as a highly integrated network of nerve cells.

Possibly identify a lead musician for each section or subsection, who will control tempo and signal the end of that section.

The signal can then trigger the transition to the next set of slides, next set of movements, next musical theme.

This piece has finally come to the top of the stack of items to bring to completion.  The new vision is a performance piece with live improvisational music and dance, against a background of projected images of neurons.

The prose piece expresses the three movements. It will be read in full at the beginning, with the last half recited again at the end.

Notes from last session

We had an exploratory jam on 18 August 2009, which was smashing. We have a core group of four musicians and two dancers who came on 18 August plus another one or two who are interested. We played music straight for nearly two hours and the synergies worked very well. The mixture of hang, table drone, sax, percussion, cello, and guitar was ethereal and effective. It was meditational in tone. It was a great first go at responding to the images and the central concept.

The next steps are to break down the piece into three or four sections.  I’ve already re-grouped and selected the images. At our next jam, we will work in shorter periods )10 or 15 minute jams) on individual sections, focusing on identifying the musical themes and structures appropriate to each section. We will also try identifying a lead musician for each section, and begin to work toward the common vocabulary that will signal the start, development, and end of each section.

For the first jam, it was mostly all the musicians playing most of the time, and we had the drone machine going throughout. This tended to bring us back to similar voicings.  So next time we’ll try using the drone selectively, and letting the music surge and subside in waves with some musicians sitting out for short periods, then coming back in. I would like to hear more individual dialogues among pairs of musicians. I ended up ‘conducting’ through dance, and will develop that further in a more conscious fashion next time.

The dancers sat out in the first hour, then stepped onto the floor and interacted in a primarily contact improvisation manner, which is not surprising since one of them has been doing contact for years.  I really liked the way they suggested making and breaking human contact. Next steps include solidifying the group of dancers, modeling some gestures to use as a starting point for suggesting the transference of an electrical signal from one neuron to another, at the same time as representing the human-to-human contact, thus developing both sides of the metaphor.


Isolation and social connection, using neurons as a metaphor for human relations.


There will be a large projection of a slideshow of images of neurons, musicians on either side, dancers in street clothes in the centre. We may begin with only one dancer on stage, the others sitting among the audience in the front row. I’ve tagged some Creative Commons licenced images on Flickr from which we might choose.

We got permission from Mark Miller (Neurollero on Flickr) to use his neuron photo stream. These are stunning images, as you can see here:

neuron image from Mark N Miller, Nelson Labs, Brandeis University
neuron image from Mark N Miller, Nelson Labs, Brandeis University


The performance will start with the reading of a short prose piece, still in draft. As this is part of the series ‘Extracts from the Journals of Rrose Selavy’, there are a couple of linking points to the journal and to the other pieces, but the performance will stand on its own. At the moment, I am envisioning about a half-hour piece but that may change as things develop.

The dancers will enact the neurons, and the human connections.

Musicians and dancers will respond to each other and both will respond to the images.

While the piece will be improvised, a basic structure will be built up over the practice sessions.

2008 IDEA

modified 15 July 2008

This piece links to ‘Glass Bubble’ and should be presented after it.

A video sequence that alternates between two levels: photographic stills of brain cells  and video clips of dancers moving.

  • Level 1 Brain – still photos of axons and dendrites of brain cells, showing synapses and connections. I’m not sure if these should all be taken in the same series, or from different series to get a different look for each one. Each image has anywhere from 2-4 brain cells, ideally.
  • Level 2 People – video clips of dancers. At the start of each sequence, the composition of the dancers’ bodies would match the composition of the brain cells image, with contact points being in the same place in the picture plane. The dance includes isolation movements that are transmitted from one dancer to the other through touch like signals going through a brain cell and being transmitted to another cell across the synapse. Think ‘Sistine Chapel’ with the hand of God giving life to Adam. At the end of each dance sequence, the dancers bodies are in the same composition as the brain cells in the next photo.

The piece starts and ends with the video clips of dancers, alternating with still photos of neurons, so if there are 5 video sequences, then there would be three stills. Possible music could be from Rosa Zaragoza‘s ‘Erotica Mistica’ and perhaps the filming could take place at the base of the cliffs between Clarach and Aberystwyth.

ORIGINAL IDEA – A 3-way fade from one image to the next, in a total of three images. Two ways to do it: digitally with three photos or drawings (not hard to work out a way to accomplish this), or as a 3-dimensional sculpture made with very low tech. The sculpture would be something like wooden venetian blinds but with triangular slats that rotate three ways, each rotation showing another image.  This gets the blending effect. Some very old-fashioned billboards used this kind of method. The important part is what the three images are and that they overlay each other compositionally as they fade into each other.

  • image 1 Brain – axons and dendrites of brain cells, showing synapses and connections. Obviously I’m not going to photograph this but could find some image elsewhere or create a drawing. It should not be a technical illustration but a drawing or photograph of actual neurons in order to get a naturalistic arrangement. To get an idea of the difference, Neuroscience for Kids has some rather cartoony technical illustration, while this image from APHNT lab at Bloomsburg University of PA is a real image. (Wondering if there is a copyright officer who might look at this, yes, I’ll make sure it is okay to use whatever I use if the project goes from conceptual to manifest, right now the artwork is the idea/description itself).
  • image 2 People – photo of people in contact, communicating (talking, touching, dancing). The composition of the photo would match the composition of the brain cells image, with contact points being in the same place in the picture plane.
  • image 3 ??? – this one is still under consideration, but the project needs three and they should all match in composition especially the contact points.  One approach could be digital networks, internet connections, information pathways. Another approach could be mankind and nature interacting in some way. This was my first idea, recorded in the journal. But I’m not sure how to arrange the man/nature one.  It may not be parallel enough, although if one does think of it as parallel that could be a rather provocative idea.  A third approach would be an image depicting interaction among larger groups of people, political/social divisions where the ‘unit’ represented an entire group, and different units touch in contact zones. I’m thinking something map-like.

Lateral drift – looking for axon-dendrite images, I found an interesting article “Consciousness, neurobiology, and quantum mechanics” that makes a very strange case, it seems to me, which is either brilliant or absurd. I will defer to a neurobiologist or a physicist to tell me which is more likely – any ideas?

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