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Spirited Sound at Bargehouse

29 November 2015

Spirited Bodies creates model-centred life drawing sessions with groups of people, many of whom have never previously modelled, helping them to connect with their bodies in a new way that improves body image and boosts confidence. Twenty-five months had passed since I last posed at a Spirited Bodies event. I had worked with Artistic Director, Esther, several times before but on this occasion I was a little more involved…

Part 1 – the fortnight before

Standing in an alcove on the upper floor of Bargehouse, I gently caressed a piece of wood around the rim of a small golden singing bowl. The soothing resonance of its song carried to all corners of the floor, finding the ears of Esther, Sarah Kent and Sarah’s partner, Mal. It was Sunday 25 October, two weeks before Esther and Sarah would be collaborating on Spirited Sound, and together we were checking out the space. First impressions were favourable.

Sarah is a sound bath practitioner, using gongs, bowls, sticks, chimes and other acoustic instruments to create healing vibrations for a positive therapeutic effect on those she immerses. After meeting in the summer, Sarah and Esther had agreed to work together – Sarah providing sound, Esther providing spirited bodies – hence, ‘Spirited Sound’. Bargehouse approached Esther about facilitating an event, and a date was agreed: Sunday 8 November.

The event would form part of the Southbank Festival of Creativity – Bargehouse being part of the Oxo Tower complex on the south bank of the River Thames. The festival would occupy much of Esther’s week as separately she was to host a women’s session there on Wednesday 4 November. Naturally there would be no place for me at that one, but an extract from the event programme nicely captures the ethic and empathy of Spirited Bodies:

A chance to free yourself and experience the liberation of shared nudity. We will let go of judging ourselves and each other, and honour ourselves with a compassionate gaze. Each person’s journey is unique, and participants have a chance to share their experience through talking afterwards which helps to debrief before going back into the world. Modelling is optional; you may come just to draw, and full nudity is not required for the modelling, it is up to individuals.

This is a women only event and all are welcome who define themselves as women. We want to create a space which welcomes all women’s body types, including those of trans women. It is not always possible to be so open, as different groups have different needs. It is however important that women who were not born in a female body have spaces to be together with other women, so we collectively embrace the complete variety that women are.

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Part 2 – the day before

Some stress. It transpired that Spirited Sound was not intended to take place on the upper floor where we’d sound-checked, nor even in the small warm room used for the women’s session, but up in the building’s attic space. Esther visited again on the day before the event to check her materials and work out how much extra lighting and what cables for heaters she would need to buy. When she messaged me that afternoon she’d just finished sweeping the entire space and was feeling drained.

I headed on over. Hugs were appreciated; we shared them at length on a park bench overlooking the river. Having known and worked with Esther for more than three years, I had indeed become significantly more involved over the previous five weeks. We had become partners, but were still erring heavily on the side of self-restraint in public; we were not yet ‘out’ with all our mutual friends. We remained sensitive to the feelings of others and preferred to be discreet.

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Part 3 – on the buses

Come the morning of the event, all Esther’s Spirited Bodies equipment was stowed in the Bargehouse attic awaiting set-up. Our remaining tasks were to buy food for the participants, get the electrics working for heat and light, and to help Sarah shift her multitude of instruments – some of them quite bulky – up four or five flights of stairs. We boarded a bus in Lewisham Way and jumped off again at Tesco on the Old Kent Road for a spot of shopping.

Our timing was near perfect. Their shutters were in the process of being raised slightly earlier than the usual 11am opening as a 2-minute silence for Remembrance Day was to be observed on the hour. We selected foodstuffs, patiently checked-out, stuffed our backpacks to near-bursting, and completed our journey to Bargehouse. Esther was welcomed on entering and assured that heaters in the attic had been switched on for us already. Things appeared to be going well.

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Part 4 – in the attic

The optimism felt at ground level quickly crumbled at altitude. The shadowy eroded brickwork of the roof space might have made a superbly atmospheric setting for a photo shoot but, to me, seemed rather challenging for life art. Puddles of rainwater had leaked to the floor, limited natural light entered from just one narrow end of the long space, while its lone power socket was set far away at the other. Our heaters and lighting required end-to-end extension leads trailing from this single source.

On arrival we found the heaters alone had tripped out the switch in the fuse box. We managed to get them working again, but then adding the lights blew a fuse in the plug of our primary extension cable. Everything pointed to the certainty that this was never going to work. To their credit, the Bargehouse people also saw we either had to find a new space or Spirited Sound would have to be abandoned. After rapid negotiations, we were transferred to the room previously used for the women’s event. Perfect.

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Part 5 – preparing the space

I set about laboriously shifting our gear down two flights of stairs its new home, whilst Esther greeted the first models who’d arrived early to help carry Sarah’s instruments upwards. Steadily our room filled with paraphernalia and people. Chairs lined the walls, up to a table beside the entrance. Sarah arranged her bowls and gongs in the small space that remained behind this table. Artists began drifting in and, despite a handful of very late cancellations, Esther had a good core of models.

Whilst Spirited Bodies has a focus on working with those new to modelling, there were also lots of familiar faces present. I would be one of six male models, and at various times had worked with all the others: Boyko, Clifford, Cy, Ian and Matt. We would have six women modelling too, but started with just three: Alessandra, Eileen and Lovise. Our friends Frances and Judit were among the artists, and it was great to have Tatiana Moressoni – of Camberwell Life Drawing – as official photographer.

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© Tatiana Moressoni for Spirited Bodies

Part 6 – fire and air

At 1:30pm we were ready to start. Esther set the scene, explaining that over the next two hours we would present group poses representative of the elements fire, air, water and earth, all to the sounds of Sarah’s inspired accompaniment. We started with fire: 1-minute and 2-minutes of dynamic poses; a 3-minute movement pose in which we gradually opened up; a 4-minute pose having opened; 5-minutes moving again as gently flickering flames; and finally 10-minutes creating a scene from Hell.

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© Tatiana Moressoni for Spirited Bodies

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Next came air. Alessandra stepped out to draw, whilst in came Frances and Judit to pose. First, Esther had us all face in the same direction for 5-minutes and pose as if being blown by a strong gust of wind. Next we were light and floaty for 5-minutes, and felt inspired to make connections. The closing 15-minutes of air were intended to be a dance but, as we’d pre-empted that somewhat in the previous pose, we used this one to rest upon clouds and occupy Heaven.

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© Tatiana Moressoni for Spirited Bodies

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© Tatiana Moressoni for Spirited Bodies

Part 7 – water and earth

Our water and earth interpretations were each to be single 25-minute poses, albeit earth was cut slightly short as were running out of time. Up to this point, Esther and I reckoned we’d done a fairly respectful job of concealing our relationship – only Sarah ‘officially’ knew, and for various reasons we weren’t rushing to tell the world. For the water pose, however, Esther said we were all to lay or sit as if part of a flowing river, and that she would be joining the group…

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© Tatiana Moressoni for Spirited Bodies

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© Tatiana Moressoni for Spirited Bodies

I manoeuvred myself to one end of our river and lay down with open arms. After about a minute, Esther undressed and eased herself down gently into the curve of my body to complete a spooning embrace. It was a tender moment and seemed like a suitably subtle way to show the observant among our friends that there might be more to us. Afterwards, Esther, Frances and Judit stepped from the pose space and left the rest of us to be grounded as earth, closing what had been a wonderful session.

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© Tatiana Moressoni for Spirited Bodies

Part 8 – at the end

While models morphed into elements and artists interpreted forms, Sarah had been creating magnificent soundscapes that complimented our moods and inventiveness. These varied from delicate soft washes to powerful reverberating thunder. My personal favourites were water sounds, for which she made use of the real thing within one of her bowls. A combination of beautiful rippling tones and the warming sensations of closeness while posing made this very special for me.

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© Matt

Artists spread their artworks on the floor for us all to appreciate. Many had used their imaginations to great effect in capturing the energy of our spirited bodies in tune with spirited sound. By general consensus, this had been an excellent afternoon all round. After the earlier stresses of the weekend I was especially happy for Esther, and for Sarah too. Not everyone is privileged to see the numerous difficulties that must be overcome when staging events like this. Their success was richly deserved.

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© Matt

Part 9 – into the night

We packed away the Spirited Bodies sheets, cushions, lights, heaters, cables and art materials into numerous bags and cases, then carried them down to the ground floor. Artists and models had slowly filtered away. Last to leave us were Alessandra and Cy, who’d both been exceptionally generous with their time and support throughout. We needed to order a cab to get everything back to Esther’s flat but first we strolled along the Thames to enjoy the evening air, and to wind-down after our busy day.

At a table outside the National Theatre, sheltered from lightly spitting rain, we relaxed with a little red wine while we awaited the arrival of Kam, the friendly cab driver who’d brought the stuff here originally. It’s gratifying to be able to offer practical support for group life art events like this, and sometimes participate too. Spirited Bodies is, and will always remain, wholly Esther’s project but it is very special to share in spreading its happiness.

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