Residence in the Body: Physical Strength in Pursuit of Artistry
By Anise Fetterly
Artists are often thought of as soft, as intellectuals first and physical beings second. Athletes are thought of as brutes, bros with nothing on their mind but their own biceps brachii. This dichotomy, as most tend to do, falls short of reality. Athletes and performing artists use their bodies for different purposes and in different ways but both require a deep and constant connection between the body and mind, as well as between the body and its surroundings. For athletes, it is a little more straightforward- their body is their tool to achieve the feat of strength, agility, speed or endurance put to it. For performing artists, the body is both brush and canvas, and is the starting point for the creation of the work.
As someone who is both athlete and artist, I draw increasingly more connections between the worlds of strength sports and performing arts with every pound I add to the bar.
I classify myself as a physical artist.
I have a background in musical theatre and an upbringing in choirs, vocal training, and acting technique class. I take ballet-based dance classes at a studio and also have experience in yoga, performance art, and experimental dance. Currently I am an artistic associate at Sacred Circle Theatre Company, a physical theatre company that approaches work from contact improvisation and movement. "Physical artist" seems a simple way to place all of that under the umbrella of a performance-based art form that begins and ends with the most elementary plane of existence-the body itself. Lifting began as a way to get stronger and find a fitness groove that worked for me, and in doing both of those things, it also completely changed the way I approach my work.
What I now understand is this: all performance begins and ends with the body.
As a fat person of questionable gender, always attempting to fit "casting types" and "role breakdowns” played into body issues I have had since childhood. In the year before I started strength training, I had started to explore this disconnect, and address the ways pursuing an acting/musical theatre career was exacerbating these problems. I also had begun to approach performance from a physical standpoint with Sacred Circle and in other performances.
When I started strength training, my relationship to my body seemed to snap into focus-it is about power, who has power over me and who I have power over. Understanding this and exploring it was a turning point in my relationship to my work.
Only in discovering my body's strength, and in deciding to make myself stronger, not smaller, was I able to begin to develop the work that I care about doing.
From a physiological standpoint, strength training has changed my body and made it more capable of performing physical art. Most dancers and performers that I know, especially women, focus on endurance sports and/or mobility- jogging, yoga, pilates, barre classes, etc. Though those things have some merit for some people, strength training is wildly under-utilized in preparing the body for performance. Nothing has done more for my core strength and stability, which is the basis of control over movement. Very recently, I was in the gym having a conversation with some fellow athletes about accessory work for core stabilization. Some people certainly offered sage advice but my coach couldn't help but add, "I've never seen anyone with a 500-lb. deadlift who has a weak core." Point taken. Like most people, I used to try and fail to overload myself with cardio and other bodyweight exercises. The fact is that most people who are serious about performing are doing this as well as moving their bodies on a regular basis in rehearsals, performances, and technique classes. I found that my time in the gym was better spent building strength that could then be utilized in those other areas. After about 15 months of strength training, I find that I can move my body through space more quickly and fluidly than ever before. I find that in partnering I can move and lift others' bodies safely and with relative ease. I feel safer taking calculated risks in my improvisation, not only because I have more ability, but because I am more aware of and connected to my body's level of ability.
As a slightly tangential point, my experience as a dancer and mover has helped immensely in my growth as a strength athlete. My knowledge of anatomy and alignment helped me learn these movements quickly and perform them safely and with correct technique. I also find that being in dance and rehearsals on my rest days serves as active recovery providing structure for stretching and mobility work that I think many lifters neglect. My point being, these two fields of interest have been mutually beneficial. And in both arenas, I feel more able to utilize the body I have.
It is this experience of changing my relationship to my body that affected the foundation of my work.
The nature of physical art is filling the void where language fails. It is making something in space where nothing existed a moment before. To be able to do this work, we learn emotional, mental and physical techniques to take on and experience truthfully for an audience the shapes, the movement patterns, and the words that make up the performance. From Stanislavski's method acting technique to the ballet barre, we cultivate a unison between the mind and the body. I would argue that we are attempting to eradicate a false delineation between the two. I don't believe in a "self" that is separate from the body. I don't believe in a soul or an afterlife.
So the body it is, and the body is it. We are our bodies, and our bodies are who we are. For better or worse.
To strengthen that body is to strengthen that self. To strengthen the body is to clarify and refine identity, personal goals, chosen purpose, beliefs, unique perspective, inner voice, true desires-- all that makes up the individual and therefore the artistic life.
If this is the case, I find that in the pursuit of physical strength and physical artistry, there is no substitute for the barbell.