by Stephen K. Levine
The theme of this year’s International Expressive Arts Therapy Conference, befitting its location, was “The Flowing Tao of Expressive Arts.” Ellen Levine and I participated, along with other faculty from EGS (including Paolo Knill, Margo Fuchs-Knill and Sally Atkins (with her stellar team from Appalachian State University). Daria Halprin, Director of Tamalpa in Kentfield, California, and an erstwhile EGS teacher, gave the keynote address, focusing directly on the theme. She began by affirming the importance of flow in the creative process, but then questioned whether “flow” was an adequate term to describe that process. After all, what about breaks, stoppages, obstacles? Are they not as significant as flow? And isn’t much of contemporary art representative of such breaks, as our culture is far from a state of flow? Daria then proceeded to give a dynamic demonstration of the relation between flow and non-flow in movement, reflecting afterwards that while flow may perhaps be the goal of Expressive Arts, it can be reached only by going through the painful and discordant moments that arise in the therapeutic and artistic processes. It was an intense and moving (literally) presentation that, to my mind, set the tone for the Conference as a whole. The following is a personal report that sets my own experience in the light of the Conference theme.
In a way, it was a minor miracle that ultimately the Conference went well, with many fine presentations and satisfied participants, considering that there were over 400 participants, from 24 nations, with a diversity of languages and backgrounds. This was in no small part due to the hard work of the organizers and the IEATA Board. I was particularly struck by the enormous hospitality that all the organizers and volunteers showed to us. Expressive Arts is alive in Hong Kong, and the enthusiasm of the teachers and students who were there whenever we needed them demonstrated that.
My own participation began with Ellen Levine and I leading a pre-Conference workshop on “Aesthetic Responsibility: Expressive Arts and Social Change” The workshop challenged participants to find their own aesthetic response to the social situations in which they found themselves in their own countries. We worked mostly through movement, since all the participants were from Asian countries and many of them had little or no English. We used a movement structure that Ellen had developed in which, through a series of “takes,” each dancer found their own movement and then encountered the movement of the other, ending not in “mirroring” but in a mutual affirmation and acceptance of difference. The contrast is what makes the dance powerful.
Ellen and I also offered a “Pioneer” presentation on arts-based research in the Expressive Arts during which, after briefly lecturing on the topic, we gave an improvised demonstration, using the model of the “architecture of the session” outlined by Paolo Knill in Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy. In accordance with this “architecture,” I began by filling-in with a research question that was on my mind: What is the connection between the theme of relationship in therapy and other helping professions, and the arts-based character of the approach to Expressive Arts at the European Graduate School? This question has occupied me for some time, given the growing focus on the concept of relationship in contemporary psychotherapy on the one hand, and the development of an arts-based framework for Expressive Arts at EGS on the other.
Ellen acted as the guide or “companion” for me in this process, leading me through an intense movement exploration in front of the sixty-odd participants in the workshop. She noticed me “reaching” for an answer to my question, and therefore asked me to explore reaching through movement. She herself entered into the “decentering” (stepping into the alternative world of the imagination) by moving rapidly and forcefully across the space, colliding with me as I slowly reached up and out using t’ai chi-like movements. Our process became a struggle, perhaps even a conflict, as we held on to our different movement styles. We then paused to reflect on the process, asking ourselves what we liked about it and what we wished for in the next take. Like the members of our pre-Conference workshop, we each wanted to stay true to our own styles yet find a way to connect across our differences. The second take was as intense as the first, but somehow ended with a connection at the end, as her forcefulness and my gentle movements met and found a tender place of connection, each of us letting go of trying to “win,” and each accepting the other while meeting in a genuine encounter. In my reflections afterwards (in what we call the “aesthetic analysis” and “harvesting” parts of the session), what came to me was the thought that “art is the connection,” i.e., that in Expressive Arts work, the participants form a relationship through the art-making itself, thereby overcoming the polarity between a relational and an aesthetic approach to the work.
I believe the demonstration was effective, since afterwards we asked the workshop members to do their own explorations, and a veritable explosion of creativity took place all over the room. I was particularly pleased to see Paolo Knill down on all fours in his small group, moving around vigorously and obviously enjoying himself immensely. Perhaps the effectiveness of the demonstration was due in no small part to the “break” in the flow between Ellen and myself, a break that probably made the ultimate connection all the more significant. Art cannot just flow. Like a river, its force increases when it meets obstacles and finds a new way to surmount them. This may perhaps be true for life itself.
At the end of the Conference I led a closing ceremony for all 400 of the participants. I was rather apprehensive beforehand: how to find a good ending for such a large and diverse group? After a brief poetic introduction by Margo, I began with a brief reflection on the theme of diversity, which Maria Gonzalez-Blue had raised in her acceptance speech upon receiving the Shining Star award from IEATA. In my talk, I stressed the importance of diversity while at the same time emphasizing the need to reach across our differences and connect, thereby finding a new way of being together. In the end, I let go of all attempts at having people reflect on the Conference individually, as I had planned. Instead I took advantage of the wonderful musicians at the Conference (including EGS doctoral student Carrie Herbert on saxophone, Harold McKinney from Appalachian State playing the trombone, and Ashok from India providing a strong drum beat). Starting with slow and melodious music, during which time the different participants silently moved around the room making eye contact while being aware of their impending separation, we then moving into an upbeat and rapid rhythm, while the sax and trombone wailed and everyone began to boogey. Again, I saw Paolo fully engaged and dancing madly in the group. If the arts don’t bring life to us all, then what good are they really?
Although I myself aim for flow in my life and long for an end to conflict, the Conference made me realize once again that authentic flow contains breaks as part of its process, that connection does not mean the absence of conflict and that, as the Buddhists are said to do, we should say, “Welcome,” to the obstacles we meet. They are our material to work with, the gifts that life brings. Perhaps we can only genuinely celebrate when we accept these gifts. The Tao contains both male and female, hard and soft, forceful and yielding. It flows only when all opposites and oppositions and met and responded to. Only in this way can we live fully and bring the gift of increased vitality through the arts to those we try to help.