Maya Lila – Movement and Art Perspective

by Joan Davis


In August 2002 I led a five-week research project in Gorse Hill, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. It is a progression of many years work exploring dance, movement, body, nature, art, therapy, community and spirituality. This work is tentatively called Maya Lila, from the Sanskrit words Maya, meaning Illusion and Lila meaning Play. This article specifically examines the movement aspect of the project. A separate article provides a background to and general description of the work.

The Longing and the Spirit

Since the time I was about three years old I have wanted to dance. I can remember dancing for my grandpa, curtseying, twirling, rolling and running and feeling utterly loved by him as he hummed accompanying tunes. Looking back now I see I was doing Authentic Movement and that he was an active Witness. My body even now remembers utter freedom from his loving presence to my random movements; my little dramas and his encouragements to smile. Now when I see my own three and four year old grandsons dance I recognize the beauty of child embodiment and the unobstructed flow of energy. This to me is the essence of the dancer. The mature body of course requires mastery of itself. To have that mastery, plus the ability to deeply listen in a way that allows ones organic nature to manifest, is for me not only the essence, but also the spirit of the dancer. This is my own body’s longing to reconnect to that simple unobstructed body flow in an unselfconscious way.

My life as a dancer has been a journey inward. I began as a contemporary dancer and founded the first Contemporary Dance Theatre Company in Ireland. We received funding from the Arts Council and for many years performed all over the country. Over time I became more interested in new approaches to movement such as Authentic Movement, which I studied with Janet Adler in Europe from 1992 to 2001, and Body Mind Centering®, which I studied with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in the U.S. from 1991 to 1994. In recent times I studied Process Work, created by Arnold Mindell, arising from my interest in Group Process and the creation of community, and also the Naked Voice, with Chloe Goodchild, arising from my curiosity and love of sound and the voice.

By the time the Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre closed due to lack of funding, I had become more interested in exploring the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water and how we could be in relationship with them in physical ways; how they were inside of us as well as being outside. The study of Body Mind Centering served to show me a clearer connection to Nature. My body had the same elements inside it. It was a direct reflection. But what was the dialogue between the inner and the outer?

I began to offer classes to explore this relationship. During one of these classes we went out to Howth demesne, an estate in the north of Dublin. I will always remember the scene as we walked through the gardens, past the wild garlic and the rhododendrons that were beginning to come out. Our senses were filled with the beauty of the colours and the scents and with nature surrounding us. I asked the group just to move with the trees. It was inspiring to see them moving. There was no separation and yet there was. An essence of separation/non-separation. Somebody was just sitting in the fork of a tree: oneness but not merged.

Out of these outdoor explorations developed what were called ‘tribals’. These were spiritual retreats I led annually for 10-14 days in the hills of Wicklow. During tribals we lived simply in nature. We created art from natural sources in nature such as wood, stone, bone, earth and leaves. We practised Authentic Movement and witnessing skills in the wild, untamed environment. It was there that I first glimpsed the beginnings of what I have begun to very tentatively call Sacred Theatre: authentic movement in an authentic environment with authentic objects. I found it incredibly beautiful: the movement of people in nature and the movement of nature itself. I called this work Theatre of the Unconscious. I got a glimpse of expression that I had long longed for: where all life is present; a some long lost approach to offering art, to the act of creating that comes from some thing or place way beyond the physical or personal self. Linda Hartley writes; “Great art holds the potential to unite people together in a common feeling of appreciation and awe at the beauty, power, and mystery of the hidden forces of life.”

The longing to share this with the greater community is what urged me towards ‘performance’. But how to do this?

In the summer of 1999, I led Through Fluid Eyes, a five-week group process that arose from Theatre of the Unconscious explorations in nature, and Body-Mind Centering explorations of the fluid systems of the body. This culminated in two public performances on a beach in Wicklow. Bringing the movement work from a therapeutic context to a public performance setting brought many questions and criticisms:

–  Was it healing or art, or both?

–  What is the bridge between therapy and art?

–  How can we offer a performance that is a continual process in the present rather than a   product?

–  What is the movers’ responsibility to the witness audience?

–  What is the most appropriate container in which to offer this work?

–  How does authenticity and immediacy get honed and crafted in the moment to become art?

–  What is the interface between the personal and the collective?

–  How can we invite the witness audience to participate in a co-creative process yet maintain the separation needed  for this to work as art?

There are no definitive answers to any of these questions. The whole process of this work is deeply organic and non-linear. It appears to have its own unique logic that is always surprising and unpredictable and not necessarily nameable.

The research in August 2002 served to explore the problem of how to present the work. It is more clearly explained in the basic document. Here follows a paper on my personal explorations and thoughts about the movement aspect of the project.


The discipline of Authentic Movement facilitates the emergence of pure gesture, movement that stems directly from contact with the inner core of being.  In these moments, the movement takes on a quality of transparency, profound presence, immediacy and truth for both the mover and witness.  The powerful integrative and healing nature of pure gesture reconnects us to our essential self and our shared humanity.  The community of movers and witnesses is a model for life lived in authentic relationship to self, other and community. (Avstreih, 2002)

Experiencing non-existence, or emptiness, necessitates also affirming existence by creating form, or the artist intuitively knows she will face annihilation. (Hartley, 2001)

Movement and dance for me has signified many things: grace, beauty, control, expression and skill. I think most especially of the beauty and capabilities of the human form, the sculpting of muscle wrapped around bone, the use of relationship to space and other dancers and the infinite possibilities for rhythm, texture and quality of movement. ‘To dance is to live’, says Snoopy. It was for this aliveness I sought and I still seek. Something in me knows that that is where I will find wholeness; where all of me can be expressed into the world. When I first discovered Katzu Genundo, a Japanese form of Authentic Movement that works through the autonomic nervous system, in 1991 with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, it was a shocking experience. I found myself in a place of extreme separation – spatially, physically and emotionally. But even in its extremity I knew there was great healing there and that my body holds the key for remembering, expressing, completing and fulfilling itself. When I started to work with Janet Adler in 1992 I knew I had at last found the right environment to reconnect with that part of myself, my dancer’s spirit. Learning to witness and being witnessed, and the development of my own internal witness, was and is the greatest gift that Janet Adler gave me.

It showed me there are possible routes to engaging in conscious relationship with another in a loving way that allows both mover and witness to have the fullness of their own experience in the presence of each other. As I explored this dynamic my questions turned to ‘How can I make art out of that which is immediate in this moment and as it arises from the body?’ I realise now that I am looking for a purity of form, a paring away of complexity, an expression of the essential truth of the embodied moment, whatever that might be.

I want to be able to bear the tension of what is unfolding in this timeless NOW; to not run from it but to enter more deeply into it; to truly descend. What a terror and a longing! For me more and more art is the process of being fully present to that moment – to this entire body vessel. It is this inner containment in the movement, this waiting in unknown spaces that I find most challenging. My inner collective (that is all the cells, tissues and systems of which this body is composed) has strong habits and unconscious conditionings. Every cell must come alive and hold its own integrity to be in full and conscious relationship with every other cell, tissue and system. A dream? Maybe! I have the rest of my life to explore!

Authentic Movement for me now has become a daily prayer. I step into the space and inwardly say ‘Thy Will’. In so doing inevitably my will rises strongly and I witness my ego deciding what characters should play out, exactly what movements will happen (often for me through my images) and frequently find myself in repetitive recycling habits or conditionings. It still feels superficial and controlled.

Crafting the Movement

One way I experimented with my movement process was through writing. I would move for ten minutes and then write the physical happenings of the movement in as much detail as possible. If there were any particular emotions or images I would note those as well. But I tried as best I could to hold it in the physical level, to truly ground it in my body. Then I would read it back to myself and resume where the movement felt most alive, just as an entry point, re-entering deeply into that movement.

For example, I am standing with both hands raised, my head turned to the left. I feel my body inhabiting that position more fully. As I deepen into the movement, my knees bending, I notice the difference between the desire to collapse into gravity and the desire to deepen into other potential movement. Different impulses arise in the form of thoughts. ‘How long must I wait? Can I bear this? Why don’t I just run around and make lots of sound? Why is nothing happening?’ There is a fuzzy melting sensation around my pelvis and some contraction and heightened activity around my heart. I wait and wait until suddenly the body moves, finding its own pathways. I am always surprised at how my body travels. It is almost never how I imagined it would be.

For me the crafting is actually the distilling of movement to its essence, to its perfect clarity in that moment. Sometimes that clarity might mean a lot of unclear movement, but I am clear that it is unclear. This distillation frequently has the effect of much slower movement manifesting. I think that’s where I am with it at the moment. I also know somewhere that it need not always be like that. There will be times when the movement could be very fast, it could be anywhere on that continuum of rhythm and speed. When I reenter a movement, I feel as if I am in some way entering into emptiness within a form. It is not yet clear to me what this is, but it feels a bit like entering a dark and completely unknown empty space within my body. There is much physical sensation and often a heightened sense of awareness in all my senses. Hardly ‘empty’ in the true sense of the word, perhaps ‘unknowing’ describes it better. As I deepen into unknowingness, somehow this allows a form to be more fully what it is until it totally fulfils itself and the outer husk of it – (that is my body’s edges) – also dissolve and the form falls away. I am then left in a more neutral physical position waiting as it were for the next impulse to arise. Learning how to hold loving aliveness and an attitude of light, unattached awareness – as the unknown, the mystery, tries to find its way into form again, is for me the real crafting in Authentic Movement. I am excited to find and explore ways to develop this skill and capacity for containment and expression. What I have explored through the writing process only really touches the tip of the iceberg. As Keith Thompson writes:

On the other side of the frustrations of life in the margins lies a perception available to those willing to enter it: not being able to classify oneself is also freedom from having to cling to a single identity.  Living betwixt and between, in the realm of uncertainty and not knowing, can make possible new insights, new ways of ‘constructing reality’.  In this sense the…..experience serves as an agent of cultural deconstruction, prodding us to take apart easy ideas about the supposedly interminable gulf between mind and matter, spirit and body, masculine and feminine, nature and culture, and other familiar dichotomies. (Hartley, 2001)

Opening the Eyes

This body is not just undifferentiated flesh. It is made up of muscle and bones, organs, ligaments, fluids, connective and nervous tissue and much more. Each system has a mind of its own. How does this inner community or collective interact and communicate? Where are the cells vibrant or numbed or compliant?

I often use Body-Mind Centering as a springboard into Authentic Movement. It helps me to truly enter into my own body. Through Fluid Eyes was based on the fluid systems of the body. From the exploration of the neuro-endocrine system and the organs came the development of opening the eyes.  This was, and continues to be a huge leap from the therapeutic form of Authentic Movement to the beginning of crafting the art of Authentic Movement and bringing it more out into the world. I discovered that when I invited the neuro-endocrine system to be more consciously present in the movement that my eyes automatically opened. Now the question arose, ‘how was I using my eyes and how were they being used?’ The struggle was between being pulled into my external environment and staying connected to myself.

So I worked with playing around with soft focus. I did a lot of specific eye exercises, of tracking patterns on paper of twelve pointed stars and circles, both with numbers. You track them and invite the eye to move in all different directions. This exercises the eye muscles in every possible way. I did this tracking exercise as a practice. I found that in the movement I could track when my eyes were open without necessarily attaching to anything. I was still seeing what I was seeing, but was not attaching to it. And there was something about that not attaching to what I was seeing that also allowed me to hold internal attention to movement and forms that were arising. At first this was completely exhausting and so different to how I would normally relate, but it showed me how much I am constantly pulled out by my eyes and that by coming back in to myself my eyes simply became another limb. They became just another part of the movement. So the exercise was scanning, seeing without reaching into the seeing, or if the reaching was there, allowing it to be more fully there.

Another way I experimented with my eyes was that when I look at something, not to focus too intently on one aspect only, but to see the whole object. This means for me to see three dimensionally. I look at a leaf, not just the outer shape of the leaf; I see the lines, the whole design of the leaf and all the detail. Another eye exercise is slowing down the scanning or tracking of what I am looking at. My eyes dart and move very quickly and I am not always conscious of that. And the last thing is really allowing the eyeballs to rest in the eye socket, so that the images come to me. It seemed important to take a long time over these exercises.

Practicing having simple attention on my breathing with my eyes open and noticing what happened to my seeing in that helped me here. I did this in meditation before it started to happen in the movement – just meditating with my eyes open and simply noticing what happened to my seeing. The seeing sometimes became blurred. I drift off into other areas of consciousness; I gently bring my attention back to my breathing and simply see without attachment to the seeing and without attachment to the response to the seeing.

Form and Formlessness

I am moved towards something that is as yet undefined. It is not usually found in gross movements. It seems to be subtler than that. It is neither in the highly emotive moments nor in evoked remembrances or strong images, and yet it can also be all of those. I come to something revealed, like a sculptor who brings the forms out from his material. When the forms emerge from an ever-deepening place, from the inside to the outside and when these forms fully complete themselves in their totality, then for me that is a satisfying piece of art. Henry Moore and Vincent Van Gogh come to mind – where somehow layers are peeled away and in that peeling away the layers are also revealed and therefore a fullness or totality is experienced. To me manifestation simply is form arising out of emptiness or formlessness. Staying present within the unknowingness is the art. I experience these moments as very liberating. This is an essential understanding in terms of teaching the difference between authentic movement and improvisation for example.

For me improvisation is more about the playing with the forms as they come up or deciding on a form and then playing with it.  It is more at the ego level, which is fine, entertaining, exciting, and stimulating. For me authentic movement is really movement that arises out of emptiness, it is form coming from formlessness. This has a different quality of movement and it creates a different form of movement.  It will be a very unique form for each person. When a form arises and I can’t sustain it or I get scared of it I will suddenly become exhausted and feel I can’t stay there. It is important for me to almost go back to the ground of being or emptiness and wait there.  There is another crafting here: of the relationship between my will and Thy Will or surrender. It is a negotiation I long to learn and one for which there seems no set formula. If the form is really authentic to me, it will arise again.  This is really where the divine will and the human will meet.

It is related to attention. When there is surrender and an authentic response to exhaustion, or to tiredness, or to boredom, or to whatever is arising, if I surrender to it and can stay alive and attentive in that surrender this brings the form back into play.  So the experience is of attention seeping away and bringing the attention back. For example when I am inert on the ground, I can stay inert and have my attention seep away, but as soon as I bring my attention back to me lying inert on the ground, form arises again.  Manifestation inevitably begins again.

Relationship and Authentic Movement

As with the shaman, what distinguishes the visionary experience of a gifted artist is the ability to bring back to the world something of beauty, of usefulness, or meaning – something that awakens our awareness and communicates to us in a way that is comprehensible within our own realm of experience and perception of reality.  In this, the artist contributes to the culture of her community.  But she does much more than this. (Hartley, 2001)

This section looks at this most ancient paradox of separation and unity. I have a deep longing for oneness and an assumption that reality is fundamentally non-dualistic. While undertaking the project I encountered all the various separations: for example between Mover and Witness, between Movers, between Mover and Objects. For many, many years I have pondered the question of relationship. What is it? Are we ever out of relationship? How does relationship work? Self and other – an ancient conundrum, that most therapies and spiritual teachings strive to help us clarify. Authentic Movement offers another approach to this question through the mover and witness relationship. The teaching and study of this relationship with Janet Adler has served as a model that I have attempted to follow not only in my work with others, but in my daily relationships and interactions. The mover witness relationship strives to create a dialogue and context where both people can fully be themselves in the presence of each other, through learning to take ownership of projections, interpretations and judgments. The roles in the therapeutic setting are clear. I am either a mover with eyes closed or a witness with eyes open and there are general guidelines which both people follow to facilitate the process of unfolding consciousness. The roles were not so clear when I began to open my eyes as a mover and to intend towards a performance offering. The roles of witness and mover are not yet clearly defined for me in this new context of performance offering.

Seeing the witness (who is in stillness) see the mover (who is either in stillness or moving) see the witness, see the mover, evoked deep terrors and longings. It is a deeply intimate interaction. Even more difficult for me is the relationship with another mover or movers. The inanimate, such as the sculptures or a still witness is fractionally easier. Where there is animation and unpredictability I get very lost. Some witnesses to performance offerings also had questions in relation to this – could authentic personal movement really become authentic dual movement, in a performance setting, with the intimacy involved? How can two or three movers relate without losing their personal authentic movement?

The complexities of this process require even more inner focus while still being present to what I am seeing and interacting with. Initially I found that the pull to the outer was stronger. When another mover entered the space with me, it brought up every relationship problem that I ever had when we both had our eyes open: all the game playing, all the habits, all the desires to withdraw, to enter, to change them and to change myself. I engaged with that for a while and became very bored with it, so then I made up a little song and it went like this:

I am in you
You are in me
I am, I am, I am
I am not you
You are not me
I am, I am, I am
You are in me
I am in you
I am, I am, I am
You are not me
I am not you
I am, I am, I am
I am in you
You are not me
I am, I am, I am
You are in me
I am not you
I am, I am, I am

By the end of repeating this song I was so confused that I did not know who was who or what was what. That seemed to break any kind of fixing or limiting or holding in my responses. It freed me up to just be, in the presence of the other, to engage or not to engage as the divine guided me. I think it served to confuse my mind sufficiently that I could let go of trying to control the relationship in any way. I then practiced this approach with all the other relationships, such as the sculptures, the AUM and the music. I would go out into nature and try to move in relation to nature.

Feeling an overwhelm of sensation and input coming from the outside, I would say this song to myself and get so confused that everything just would fall away. And suddenly there was me, there was the other, and there we were. And whatever would arise would be perfect. It is now very clear to me that the more ‘relationships’ that are introduced into the process, the less any one part has to actively do. I have no real understanding of this yet except that it seems that the more of the collective consciousness that can be present the more synchronicities can occur completely beyond individual effort. Up to now I have been mainly speaking from a mover’s perspective. From a witness perspective, when I witnessed a more full and conscious relationship between movers or even within an individual mover, I frequently experienced a strong knowing that there truly was no separation between the mover and the witness. They were one and the same even though they inhabited different bodies and different areas of the performance space. Watching the videos, I realise that we are still lacking real precision in our movement, but it is clear that it improved over the course of the project. Also the container through which the offering was presented got much clearer. However I do not yet understand the transition from the personal to the collective body.

The composition of the witness audience is a key factor contributing to the depth to which the offering can reach. One morning during the research project we were practicing with the resident group. These were mainly very experienced people who could hold a deep space. We were able to enter into the movement with great depth. Soon after, we had a performance offering. When I stepped into the circle to move I realised that the movement was nowhere near as deep as before. Initially I was disappointed and blamed myself. But over the five weeks of the project I realised that the depth to which the movement could go was related to the witness audience. It was impossible to be independent of the audience and the total field present.

Linda Hartley asserts that art can bring us to places beyond therapy and towards wholeness – Art, both the creating and witnessing of it, takes us out of ourselves, carries us beyond our normal awareness, and thus enables us to experience for a moment the wholeness which lies beyond duality and the states of fragmentation we find ourselves in.

During the research I often found that there seemed to be no distinction between the witness and the mover. I experienced this as both a mover and a witness. The more clearly the parts of the project were broken down and clarified the more clearly I could witness and the more this unity was apparent. The more the separate parts of the project were integrated into a whole the less necessary was it to include every step for each performance offering. Janet Adler used to talk about conscious or correct relationship. I never understood what that was. Now I get a little glimpse on a personal level and in the movement. It seems to be a quality of presence that is open and aware, alive to all possibilities of what can happen right now. There is often a huge amount of waiting until there are no choices to be made. What must happen happens.

So the addition of another mover, or sculpture, or music, or sounding of the AUM, becomes another relationship with which to work. I know that as I get clearer in my conscious relationship to myself it clarifies external relationships whether they are animate or inanimate. This is work I want to progress and research next year: to deeply hone and craft the movement (the personal) and to hone and craft the movement in relation to the “other” and to the whole (the collective).

Authentic Movement as Art

It is always my fear to do something radically different. And sometimes the responses to the work seem to justify this fear. One witness provided the following feedback- previously I was highly critical. I now feel that that was a natural reaction to original work. Originality – something completely new – inevitably tends to repel since it is too different to be judged by any previous experience or absorbed in any known context. This wholly new always threw me off balance, can be off-putting, even terrifying.

I have long recognized there is nothing truly unique or original, rather that we can take the ordinary or usual and handle them in our own unique way. A body is a body with a set number of limbs and possibilities for movement, yet it is our own individual essence and uniqueness that makes our communication into an art worth watching. It is with great nervousness that I open my eyes in Authentic Movement. It is in trepidation I try to bring this into a public setting. It is with an arrogance filled with humility that I declare this to be art. It can only be all of these things, and more, when built on the ground form that Janet Adler has painstakingly developed. For me, taken out of this ‘ground form’ it lacks substance and volume and the essential grounding to hold it.

The following experience served to convince me of this – at one stage I began to feel very unsafe in my movement, especially with the sculptures. I also noticed that during the movement certain occurrences were triggering deep emotions inside me. It became apparent that I was tapping into very wild and potentially destructive energies. The movement, although very creative, also has the shadow potential to become very destructive. With the help of my supervisor Linda Hartley, I was reminded to go back to the basic therapeutic ground form of Authentic Movement where the Witness holds the space for the Mover. This Witness is in service to the Mover in staying “at home” and focusing exclusively on holding the space. An overseer, or Meta Witness was necessary because the witness audience, in the context of performance offerings, is not in service to the movers and people have so many choices as to where to focus their attention. The presence of a Meta Witness had the effect of removing any need or dependency the movers might have on the witness audience.

Questions and Musings

The next stage that I am exploring is working primarily from sensation. I am a very visual and auditory person, both of which channels can take me out of my body. Attending to body sensation keeps me very much in my body. The development of this connects me into the body systems and to a deeper cellular listening. It slows me right down and allows time to check and re-check the authenticity of impulses. I find myself exploring fight, flight or freeze responses in myself as impulses arise. The Body-Mind Centering developmental work is useful to me here. All reflexes, righting reactions and equilibrium responses have the choice to move me into or away from what is happening in the moment.

Choice is the main consideration here.

A reflex is not fully developed unless it can operate all its options. If it is stuck in one way of responding then freedom is not open to us. The movement image in my imagination takes me away from the physical reality of the movement. Or does it deepen me into it? What must happen is that which transcends conscious decision and happens because it is the total right thing to happen in this precise moment. The relief of those moments of surrender – and they are just moments!

Can one make art out of this? Is it appropriate? Movement, unlike other art forms, is gone in the moment. There are no records. For me sound can more truly emerge from this place. It is different to the more cathartic and less consciously embodied emotive, imagistic expression of sound. There are many questions for me concerning the use of voice and sound in Authentic Movement. What is the authentic marriage of the slower, denser, deeper vibration of the body to the higher, lighter vibration of the voice? Is this the marrying of soul and spirit?

What is Authentic Movement? How can it be in relationship with other? Can it in itself be art? Is it possible to be totally surrendered in one’s movement or is it always a dance between my will and thy will? How do these wills work together to create art in this moment NOW?

I write this piece as a question, a series of questions. I welcome all interactions and feedback on them.

Joan Davis runs a small Holistic Retreat Centre near Greystones, Co. Wicklow. She also has a small practice working with a combination of Hakomi Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Authentic Movement – in addition to her on-going research of Maya Lila. Joan is a member of NACPC and can be contacted at: Gorse Hill, Cliff Road, Windgates, Bray, Co. Wicklow. Telephone: 01-2876986


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