Nervous Systems: Incessant feeling states and dance as life 


Lizzy Le Quesne discusses the crucial relationship within somatic processes between interior and exterior life. After a period of burnout and breakdown that brought her dance practice into crisis she asserts the value that perceived frailty can bring to a connection with the body through movement.

close up image of the back of a woman's head

Incubation: performance installation. Hydra Museum, Greece
Performer: Lizzy Le Quesne

My creative practice has arisen as a committed life process; to attend to, distill and materialise the urgent feeling states and expressiveness of the body. I have danced passionately since childhood, dependent upon the graphic, non-verbal lyricism and aliveness of movement; and its ability to meet creatively the need to ache and stretch and tumble; to feel, to acknowledge, to satisfy and shift my body and somehow to surface – materially, energetically and spiritually – in this world. Sensitivity to inner and outer states of density, space and energy, define my practice as a dance artist.

I will carry forever in my system the dizzy emancipation of careering down precipitous, grassy hillsides as a child, my feet thumping and leaping beneath me on thick soft earth, causing the ground to thunder. I danced swirling leaves and crashing waves in early childhood, then the lines and lift of ballet. At art school I painted and photographed bodies and body fluids and performed semi-human creatures in contortions and disguises. I began my professional life creating and performing lavish theatrical productions of experimental opera and physical theatre, before paring everything down to working minimally with qualities of tension. Vigorous and driven, I ignored and over-rode my body’s warning signs, until I reached burnout and breakdown at the end of my twenties – the insurrection of an exhausted and overwhelmed nervous system.

Unable to continue functioning as I had been, and failing then to view my situation with appropriate recognition, compassion and care, I experienced a sudden and harrowing rupture from my known professional life and many of the relationships that framed it. I “retired” from performing.

I left the UK to teach at the conservatoire of modern dance in Prague and, although a challenging transition into full-time teaching, this turned out to be a period of crucial and life-giving shift in focus. Living and working in the conservatoire, the only foreigner on the staff and speaking no Czech in the days before phones and internet, I fell into a newly vivid and sustained awareness of my own physicality, and re-connected with the territory of the felt interior of the self.

I existed in a strange, womb-like bubble, shielded from the unintelligible hum around me at work, in the city, in the media. I made vivid acquaintance with deep somatic truths and specificities of my inner experience in ways that I had not previously known. Equally I was able to observe, sense and work with these in my students over time: reading and responding to qualities of energy, tension, alignment and cohesion and supporting them to root out and refine their own visceral realities. Pursuing felt investigations into alignment and flow, we opened up muscular and skeletal connections and facilitated fascial release. We were seeing, feeling and working with states that were innately pre-linguistic, and not having to reduce or reframe them in language was highly serviceable. It was thrilling and freeing to connect with movement and the body in this way.

Throughout the following year I developed this awareness choreographically – delving into resonant states of radical passivity and collapse. In that and the ensuing years in Prague I created several works entirely founded in feeling states of one kind and another, often exploring encounters between the discerning, fleshly human form and sites and materials of power and commerce. I experienced a self-propelling, organic unfurling and deepening of kinaesthetic awarenesses and an emergence as choreographic substance, as well as the beginnings of a profound love for teaching and mentoring within these frames. Through somatic process I found my way naturally back to dancing and performing.

It has taken almost two more decades and extensive training in various somatic practices since then for me to fully acknowledge the criticality of the nervous system, and the articulacy of feeling within human potentialities for freedom. As I become older, both the vulnerability and the cogency of this have been reaffirmed again and again. Somatic movement processes can soften and regulate the sympathetic nervous system, establish ground and agency. When I am able to release and sense tingling connectivity between my skull and my sacrum, throughout my pelvis, into and along my limbs and with the ground and space beyond me, I feel an injection of simplicity, liveliness, lucidity and strength. It is a daily process. This passionate engagement with a certain set of embodied awarenesses (energy, ground and space) underpins both my wellness and my artistic practice.

abstract projected image of bed of nails and projected text

A Year’s Rest: Mixed media performance and installation. What Now festival, Siobhan Davies Studios, London 2013 Performer: Lizzy Le Quesne

Somatic dance practice can frame subtle explorations of familiar embodied patterning, towards either poetic or therapeutic outcomes. My creative work emerges from these awarenesses in various forms.

Interdisciplinary solo performances combining written text, furniture, projected photo series and movement have been confessional, exploring the imagery and thought patterns of overwhelm, retreat and paralysis, shifting between real and virtual spaces; between memory, imagination and desire, in and out of literal darkness. A Year’s Rest was based around a giant bed of nails and floating text made of light.

Dislodgings (The Old Waterworks Gallery, Southend on Sea 2014; Gallery art Claims Impulse, Berlin 2013, Summer Dancing festival, Coventry 2013) is an evolving performance, constantly re-sited, that combines movement with images of domestic interiors, dusky urban gardens, underground passageways and tunnels, shifting between spaces, between monochrome and vivid colour. I write on walls, snippets of language, layering thought, place and feeling.

These performances are intense to make and present. They have to be made and re-made in a stream of consciousness in which I deliberately allow myself to go lo-tech, lo-craft, channeling the raw and truthful. Then it’s all in the selecting, the ordering and the pacing, which largely happens in the moment of performance.

I also make ritualised group works that address human tenderness in more abstracted, social terms, and begin to offer solutions through communality, modelling shared processes of softened energy and spillage across private and public space. Often these have confronted sites of commerce and commotion with the softness and dignity of enfleshed selves. I see these as enactions of shared responsibility, a radical openness and togetherness in being here in slowness, gentleness, community and courage, in public space.

A nexus of feeling states – physical, emotional and mental – is an assertion of shifting human subjectivity, rooted in sensation and affect, which can be so powerful as to be incapacitating, and also has the potential for potent insight and grace. Somatic process can be a way of unearthing and softening complex patterns of thinking and being – not painless, not linear, not visible or understandable to some, but brimming with truthfulness, perception and empathy for a complex world. There are immense values to frailty. It can generate sensitivity, subtlety and humility – and I would like to assert the truth and grace of vulnerability in a culture which tends to devalue and dismiss it. Increasingly I am interested in teaching, performing and working with human susceptibilities of one kind or another.

Affect – feeling – whether it emerges as sensation, emotion or thought; whether pain, fatigue, anxiety, experiences of lack or loss; can be bewildering and debilitating. It is profoundly relieving and generative to inhabit the time and space to sense and acknowledge the present nature of our embodied selves. Along with gentle encouragement towards other awarenesses – the release and vitality of softening, of movement, of rest, of sensing and fulfilling small desires. I open my practice – my own dancing and my teaching – towards the human capacity for overwhelm and dissociation, cradled within a process of grounding and arrival. I dedicate space and attention within creative and teaching practice for vulnerability, to treat it with the grace and gentleness that it demands. I aim to vent its share of truth, and to blend it, like a cocktail, with complimentary measures of lighter, sweeter stuff.

The body, left to its own devices, is a naturally purposeful, self regulating system, intending its own growth and optimum wellbeing. Sometimes it calls us to action; or to cease from certain actions, attitudes, patterns of thinking or being. Our culture tends to put limits around the amount of time and space and respect we may feel that we can pay to our body’s calls and needs. I would argue, always, for more.