Rhythm is found everywhere in life, from our heartbeats, breath and footsteps, to the flight of a bird, to the winds flow, to the dripping of a tap...
Rhythm in life is different from rhythm in music in that it is doesn't necessarily recur at common intervals - this kind of rhythm is useful in theatre. In physical theatre internal rhythms are a useful guide when devising work. Finding your own internal rhythms, or your partners, an animals/objects enables you to identify much more with rhythmic energies which are the foundation to everything.
Meyerhold believes in 'movement phrases', each 'phrase' consisting of the initial movement, the actual movement, and the end of the movement. To Meyerhold, these do not have a set musical beat-pattern that we are used to hearing in music, because movement is not mechanical. Rhythm has to be felt not thought. In physical theatre the rhythm is constantly changing- speeding up, slowing down, reversing, long pauses, etc - it is realistic, our internal rhythms are expressed.
Rhythm in music works in cycles (as it does in life - but with more set-patterns). I wanted our exploration of rhythms to be fun and to give the students a strong grounding in these musical rhythmic patterns and the development of their ability to feel and consequently play with rhythms.
We did the following exercises and they worked so well I actually became inspired by what I saw the students doing and we were even able to create some small choreographed pieces using 'rhythm' as the foundation for telling stories.
1. In a circle we go around person by person clapping to an even, steady rhythm. 1, 2, 3, 4. Once they can do that we can change it a bit, to 1, 2, 3/4/5, and soon.
2. I create rhythms with claps, which they then immediately copy, all together. When someone gets a rhythm wrong they sit down. Rhythms get increasingly complex / longer, and I start to incorporate foot stamps and thigh slaps and even vocal noises.
3. In a circle one student begins by going in the middle and creating a 'strange' movement accompanied by a sound. The weirder/ sillier the better. This encourages students to use their bodies and voice boxes in ways they are not used to. They repeat this rhythmically, whilst everyone in the circle does the same. After a while, the student in the centre will make eye contact with another student, and they immediately swap places, with a new rhythmical movement and sound. The idea is that there is NO PAUSE and it flows continuously, requiring high levels of concentration and awareness.
4. In a circle we all pat our legs twice, clap our hands and then click our fingers - slap slap clap click, creating a nice, steady rhythm in unison. There are two variations of this game, either we use names or numbers. Names - everybody partakes in the slap slap clap click then one students begins by shouting their own name on the 'clap click' and then the second time they will shout someone elses name on the 'clap click'. The person who's name has been shouted is then required to immediately say their own name on the next 'clap click' of the rhythm and then next time say someone else's name, passing it around the circle.
This can also be done by assigning everyone a number from 1 - whichever. This is more tricky as if someone breaks the rhythm they are 'out', and then depending on where they were stood, people will then have new numbers so will have to think quickly. Repeat until just a couple of people left and speed increases.
5. Students are divided into two groups. They take it in turns making rhythmic sounds, for which the other group will, in unison and as instantaneously as possible, create a movement to. It's easier to start with more concrete, familiar sounds, for example a cat meowing, a car engine, the wind blowing, a yawn, a 'yippee'. The sounds - and movements - can become more abstract with time.
What I noticed was that exercise number 2 worked so while, and even looked so good, that it inspired me to get them to create their own rhythms. Actually with them stamping their feet in unison it got me thinking of the choreography in Michael Jackson's music video 'They don't really care about us', in the prison canteen where the inmates are creating a very powerful rhythm by bashing their hands on the table, standing up and stamping, etc. All together the students were encouraged to create a rhythm, using their hands, feet, voices, body parts - whatever they wanted.
The students created a nice rhythm consisting of clapping, thigh slapping and stamping. I then got them to make it into a dance, however they wanted, by adding movement. So for example, instead of just clapping in front of their chests, they could clap above their heads, they could do the first clap to the left and the second to the right, they could clap their partners hand rather than their own hand. How do they get into the thigh slap? What emotions do they convey when they are doing it? Maybe they could go down on one knee as they do it? Or lift their leg country and western style? Or do it aggressively? And with the foot stamp, this could be a jump, or with one foot, to the left, to the right, moving forwards/backwards/sideways. How are they all positioned generally? In a line/ a circle/ a zig zag?
This is a tremendously creative exercise and I love how something is created from nothing, very quickly. What the students made was reminiscent of children in a playground, clapping each others hands, spinning around, and 'hopscotching' forward. I'm sure they didn't do this intentionally but it is great how ideas and images arise through devising. What they created was their own little 'rhythm choreograph', but to me it could have been a piece to be included in a show about 'schools' or showing children's playful lives.
I then divided them into two groups and got them to do the same thing but with a new rhythm and this time with an emotion. One group got 'angry' and the other 'happy'. This worked nicely and really shows the importance of rhythm in emotions.
One student was playing around on the floor, between activities, and her actions inspired my next activity. She was in her own world, oblivious to the fact I was even paying attention to her, on all fours and moving in a sluggish, slow, sloppy way, but with heavy emphasis on her hands hitting the ground as she moved. I got the other students to watch her and asked what her movements made them think of. None of them really said anything because they don't speak much English, but I showed them how it made me think of someone tired, just crawling out of bed, and I did my own interpretation of her movement but adding a yawn too.
I then asked them to create a story through rhythms starting with waking up in the morning.
This was GREAT! They were SO creative! It is important to note that these students are all 9 / 10 years old and really run away with their imaginations. Sometimes they don't do what I actually ask them to do, but what they do do is so creative that all I can do is get them to continue as I watch with amazement.
They didn't even talk too much but just started to 'play', with one student sleeping and the others around her acting as an alarm clock. They then did bits where they divided into two groups and did different rhythms simultaneously. It was brilliant! It made me so happy and inspired seeing how playing with claps and body parts can create whole stories, full of emotion and creative expression. :)