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The Embryo Score - research project & workshops

Since a few years I am particularly interested in fascia as a structure in the body to initiate movement from. Fascia is fashionable these days and widely researched, as a place where chronic pain in the body can be treated and because of the resilience it provides to the body and movement.

A friend had told me that he was very impressed by the lecture Dutch fascia researcher Jaap van der Wal gave at the fascia congress in October 2015 in Washington. The same Jaap van der Wal taught a workshop on embryology in November 2015 in Zürich which I attended.

I had gotten in touch with elements of embryological development in the studies of Body-Mind-Centering and Body-Mind-Movement since 2000. After the workshop with Jaap van der Wal I was thrilled to know more about the development of the notion of space and movement directions in utero. I studied some books and videos and came up with the idea to develop a movement score based on stages of the embryological development.

I don’t have any medical training and I allowed myself to filter the information I found on embryology with my interest in movement, direction and space. What can I find out about how I move and how I am moved looking at embryological development? From there I started to developed the Embryo Score. In its descriptive-prescriptive nature the score suggests an analogy to the UnderScore and I chose to use graphics to represent each stage as well. Though the Embryo Score aims to offer a practice for anybody to re-enact their own body history.

For now the Embryo Score has 9 stages and it covers till day 21 of the embryological timeline. Starting the fourth week I found the embryological processes becoming too complexe and multilayered. But for a further version of the score, I imagine a method of breaking down the development of cartiledge, bone, muscles and ligaments into individual stages, where the underlying forces of traction, compression, condensation etc. that shaped our locomotion apparatus can be explored through movement.

Main research interest in the Embryo Score

  • The development of the notion of space

I was intrigued by the idea that everything grows from the zygote, meaning that not only the living embryo, but also the space around it - the entire placenta - are growing from there. Excluding here any discussion about when human life begins in general, I will just decide for myself and the Embryo Score to consider the zygote as the beginning. In consequence I consider that for 9 months me or the living organism that today says “I” was as much a living organism as it was space. I got very interested in analysing the different spaces and spatial relationships in early embryological development.

  • The cranio-caudal organization

The moment when the embryo transitions from a sperical existence to a longitudinal organization is fascinating to me. It allows me to take a fresh look at human verticality, that we actually never question.

  • Bilateral symmetry

A midline is the underlying idea of bilateral symmetry. As humans we are symmetrical in our skeletal structure, but asymmetrical in our organic structure, as for example the right lung is shorter and wider than the left, the liver is on the right side and the stomach on the left side of the abdomen etc.

Our brain has two hemispheres, that are symmetrical only at first sight. Taking a closer look, one can notice that even the curves at the surface of the brain (the sulci and gyri) are different from one side to another. As a mover, but also as a choreographer I am interested in how we can be symmetrical and asymmetrical at the same time.

The nine stages of the Embryo Score

  1. 1. Zygote | “the one that is two”

  2. 2. Morula | “manyness & oneness”

  3. 3. Blastocyst | “inside & outside”

  4. 4. “swimming free”

  5. 5. Implantation | “opening”

  6. 6. Gastrulation | “from spherical to disc”

  7. 7. Meso | “in-between”

  8. 8. Notochord | “the place that is space”

  9. 9. Blood islands | “before the heart folds”

The Embryo Score | workshops

As a starting point I offered workshops in three different cities for people to work and research with the “Embryo Score”. The idea was that people could use the experience of moving through the different stages into a research setting, with the question of how we gain insight and knowledge working with our anatomy from perception and sensation.

I was interested in sharing this material to see how people relate to their own embryo and body-history. I was curious to see how people from three very different cultural backgrounds such as Hongkong-Chinese, Brazilian and Swiss would relate to the proposal.

Workshop| outline

In 4 to 6 hours the participants learn about and explore the nine stages of the “Embryo Score”. Images, drawings and videos as well as verbal guidance are used to facilitate movement explorations that eventually should enable participants to practice the “Embryo Score” in the group following their individual curiosities, needs and creative desires. A 5-meter long paper roll with a simple graphic of each stage helps to orientate the movers during the practice.

Workshop Hong Kong

In April 2016 the first “Embryo Score” workshop happened at “Connecting Spaces” gallery in Hong Kong. Several students of the MA Transdisciplinary Studies came as participants of the seminar and project “Texturing space” with Christoph Brunner to Hong Kong. For one week the students worked at “Connecting Spaces” on different individual and collaborative projects. On one of the evenings the workshop happened together with a sound-installation by 3 students from the group.

There was a total of 12 participants, 6 persons from Hongkong and 6 persons from our group, ages between 23 and 45 years. Due to the fact, that the workshop happenend in a gallery space, people were expecting an art event more than a movement exploration and came dressed accordingly, meaning not dressed to roll on the floor. The space is not a dance studio and doen’t invite people to move and lie on the floor easily. None of the participants was a dancer and nobody had any previous experience working with anatomy and movement. I had personally invited some local dancers, but they couldn’t come and sent their friends.

In order to make people feel confortable and open for further explorations, I decided to guide a slow warm-up that wasn’t related yet to my Embryo Score but which would rather open the sensory awareness of the participants. Since people beforehand were very much interested in the information itself more than into movement, I used images and movement, which eventually would serve as a visualisation tool for movement explorations on the floor.

In another round the particpants were asked to work with a partner and facilitate the sensation of the uterus wall through touch. In the final talk the participants from Hongkong mentionned that they first felt incomfortable when asked to work with touch. They realized that the Asian culture doesn’t have a lot of touch in daily life, and even though they felt intimidated at first, they eventually enjoyed the exercise as a new experience of relating to other people and their own body.

In this workshop I covered 30% of the material constituted by the Embryo Score and its 9 different stages. According to the feedback, everybody found the approach of my research interesting. Thinking about themselves as an embryo was new and against the habitual concept of themselves.

For my own research, I didn’t get futher insights from the participants’ exploration.

I locate the reason for this in the fact that people didn’t have experience in the exploration through body, movement and sensation, so that the main focus of the workshop was providing a sense of safety in the space, in their body and in the group, which then could be a frame for their exploration of parts of the Embryo Score.

During this workshop the following questions seemed to arise invisibly:

Why are we using our body to ask a question?

How can I use my senses and body perceptions to explore a topic?

How much am I used to trust my senses and perception to give me reliable

information about what I’m experiencing?

What is a score?

Why would I need it?

What has the embryo to do with me?

Workshop São Paulo

This workshop happened end of June 2016 at the “Centro de Referência da Dança da Cidade de São Paulo”, an instituion for different dance activities in São Paulo with a large number of studies, organized by Núcleo Improvisação em Contato. All 16 participants between 25 to 56 years old were dancers and contact improvisation practitioners, used to explore with the body and through improvisational movement.

The participants were very open and curious to know more about embryological development. Working with scores is part of the daily routine of many of them and the concept of the “Embryo Score” was easily understood, which then allowed to focus on the content and structure of the score. This allowed to run the whole score during the last hour of the workshop. The participants had the option of moving at their own pace through the 9 stages of the score, with the option of going back and forth according to what comes up in their explorations.

After finishing the score I put out a large paper for everybody to write or draw any of the explored and found, which then we shared in a final gathering during 15 minutes.

The participants were sharing the experience of new body sensations and two of them had particular insights related to the moment of implantation and the relationship to their mother. In general I observed a great willingness to move and explore in this group, but less of a curiosity to express, fix or articulate the result of the exploration.

As for myself I evaluate this workshop as a possible starting point for a longer workshop. It made clear to me that a one day workshop is not enough time for a group of dancers to explore the Embryo Score with the ambition of a deeper research.

Workshop Zürich

In this workshop in November 2016 in a movement studio at ZHdK the invitation was sent through the university e-mail and Facebook. Four people between 26 and 59 participated, one student and one movement teacher from ZHdK. Two of the participants came from a background in Contemporary Dance, one from theatre direction and one from informatics.

For this small group I used a different approach. In order to access the material I proposed copying by drawing of some simple graphics of the embryological movement, which then were the base for their explorations through body and perception.

I assume that due to the small group, some people felt shy to move without a concrete instruction what to do. For these people, this kind of movement exploration where they would rely on their senses as an orientation of what is working and what not, was confusing and actually inhibiting their freedom of movement.

Therefore I decided to guide them through the score in small steps and with very concrete instructions that would still allow the unfolding of the individual experience. For this group I didn’t propose the practice of the full score at the end.

In the final sharing the participants expressed that they got engaged with the material at a very deep and personal level, even though they couldn’t express it into movement.

General conclusions

No matter if working with dancers or non-dancers, a 4 to 6 hours time-frame seems too short for people to emerge in the topic.

It seems difficult to give an evaluation of how the cultural differences of Hongkong, São Paulo and Zürich coloured the outcome of each workshop, since there have been so many other influencing factors: the space and its context, the texture of the floor and walls, to only name a few. The degree of experience participants had in working with their own body and trusting their perception as a tool for investigation seemed to make a big difference in their approach and assimilation of the material.

The Embryo Score – future

For further “Embryo Score” workshops a minimum of 8 participants would make the participation easier for people less used to explore from their body.

Future workshops could be divided in “Embryo-Score: re-enact your own body-history. Experiencing your embryological being” for non-dancers, with a duration of minimum 2 days, focusing on the experience of the embryological development for participants.

Yet my main interest is the second version: “Embryo-Score: re-enact your own body-history” as a workshop of 4 to 5 days for professional dancers, that concludes with a lecture-performance-showing on the last day. For this format I would integrate a part of my lecture-performance “70 trillion” in the showing, that would provide information about the score for the audience in a synthesized form. Additionally I would integrate the resaerch and insights of the dancers in the performance.

Fashionable embryology

Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen is the founder of Body-Mind-Centering. She is researching on embryology since several years. Currently she is writing on a book about embryology. Her interest in embryology has influenced many of her students, a population consisting to at least 50% of dancers. Swiss choreographer Helena Nicolao makes comparisons in her piece «be-coming» between embryological development processes and modern life.

I took my first workshop with Bonnie in October 2016.

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