There’s memory and then there’s muscle memory, the physical type of deeply learned remembering that means that you don’t have to think – thank God – when you walk, or go down stairs, get dressed or drive.
The main area of the brain that takes care of this motor learning without conscious effort is the cerebellum. In performers, it gets a remarkable work out as they absorb new repertoire and archive other works to be retrieved with ease, even if they need a bit of a polish up.
This week the NDMAH cast is busy relearning the sequences they shaped in earlier development phases.
Vince is stretching on the floor, feeling the pain. “Day Three burn,” he groans, of the build up lactic acid in his muscles. The curse of being a freelance dancer is that you don’t get to do a warm up class every day. It’s been over two months since Vince’s last show and he admits that, as he gets older, it gets harder to get optimum condition back. There’s something reassuring about hearing a professional say “A personal trainer is really helpful when it comes to motivation”.
Buds in their ears, everyone listens to the bits of script they move to and watches footage on laptops to remind themselves of what comes next. It’s a slow process of endless repetition and because the gestures so closely complement the feelings of the speakers, the moves have to be precise. There is no room for improvisation here, it’s all scripted and choreographed. On top of which, most sequences have been modified several times, so it’s a question of trying to remember the latest versions, not the previous ones. Because once you repeat a mistake, it’s much harder to remove. “I’m directionally challenged and once I’ve done something one way I can’t undo it” warns Sarah Jane when asked to reverse the direction of a turn. She is also five months pregnant which means there are some things she won’t be able to do as planned when she first signed up for the role. Including missing out on the Adelaide Festival season. It’s two years since Kate first ‘conceived’ this show. In that same time Sarah Jane has conceived two babies.
Watching Kate and Vince refining a sequence is like watching punctuation being added to text – a pause here, an emphasis there, underline this, edit that.
Suddenly Marta, who has tried to get up from the ground too fast, doubles up and falls to the floor in pain. No one knows exactly what she’s done – is it a strain, a sprain, a snap? No one knows how serious it might be or wants to contemplate the implications. She’s obviously in a lot of pain and afraid of what injury could mean – not only for this piece but for the drama she’s currently shooting in Melbourne. Distraught and in tears, she leaves the rehearsal room in a wheelchair with assistant stage manager Chantelle, heading for the STC doctor. A sobering moment. Dancers live with injury as a common occurrence, but I never expected it to happen to one of the actors.
Heather Mitchell starts learning some of Marta’s lines, just in case. This means that in one scene she is in the absurd position of playing two women with completely opposite points of view. Fortunately, the news is good: Marta has strained a muscle and will recover quickly. No harm done.
Text by Caroline Baum
Photos by Grant Sparks-Carroll
Never Did Me Any Harm plays in Wharf 1 from 6 January, 2012.