26-30 July 2021
Drama Department
Rhodes University
South Africa
Nobonke van Tonder

How does one learn about this world? The world's existence is undergoing rapid and devastating change. And the learning, (depending on the qualitative existence of the learner) maybe de-futured. Could we still talk of a pedagogy?

Performing/... the Anthropocene

During the week 26-30 July 2021 I was invited as guest teacher/learner to explore how performance may transform in the Anthropocene. I am indebted to Prof Anton Krueger for this invitation. I also wish to thank Dr Dylan McGarry from the ELRC at the Faculty of Education who has been instrumental in inspiring me to pursue this work within the context of an environmental enquiry. Here I could and can further my interest in the future of the human being on this planet and how learning may take place in our future.

From my interest and perspective this work stands on two legs:

  • As performing artist I ask: what kind of learning spaces do we create for students to explore art-making and specifically art-making with their bodies, often literally on the line of activism, pioneering, innovation and relevance.
  • As a mental health worker (psychologist and ontological coach), the other leg, I am always keen and deliberate in making sure that the work also creates psychological resilience, even if it is only a map whereby a student could begin to understand the realities – quite frankly the great unknowns – of the interior and exterior spaces we occupy.

It is ever more urgent and enlivening for me to be able to articulate in accessible terms the era of uncertainty we live in.

And therefore, I am most pleased and grateful for the keenness, ardent vigilance and curiosity, attentive note-taking, braveness (as in Warriorship) and compassion for their post-grad Drama student Selves (with a capital S) that this group of 18 students displayed during this week. Thank you to all of you.

The Program

The program covered three aspects: Alchemical processes; the human Psyche; and the Anthropocene. Our investigation covered these three realities: the elemental alchemy of Nature, the manner in which those principles play out in the psychological constellation of a human being, and how that manifests or transforms within and even as the times we live in, the Anthropocene.

Since the students each have their chosen interests within the context of the Drama Department at Rhodes University, an investigation through a movement research practice was tailored by themselves to fulfil their own interests of study.

Alchemical Processes and the Human Psyche

What are the stable factors to make use of in working with volatile, even combustible aspects of our times and of ourselves? In the alchemical processes of the ancient alchemists, popularised in psychology by Carl Jung, we dipped into how natural processes as they appear in the natural world, as well as in a scientist's laboratory, find their existence in the psychic phenomena of being human. Here are the various alchemical processes we investigated.

Calcination: Heating, burning.
Dissolution: as a substance dissolving in liquid.
Coagulation: the firming and forming forces of matter, or flesh.
Mortification or Putrefaction: Rotting, composting, decaying and death.
Sublimation: Evaporation, etherealization, gases, thought.
Conjunction: Unification of opposites, or containment of complexes.

We explored these alchemical processes in their real-life forms from hen heat to dragon fire, the vortex of water, the clay of matter, the rotting of matter, resurrection of life, the fleeting character of gas and the conjunction of complexes.

We also made quick freehand drawings of the intrinsic patterns of these alchemical processes to supplement intellectual understanding with visual imprints. Then a movement pattern was developed creatively to expand this body vocabulary and discover authentic embodiment of images, processes and human experiences.

Anthropocene and Performance

The Anthropocene is now an overused and popular term to place the human being at the centre of our time, albeit not for very long any more, perhaps. How does the artist, theatre maker, writer, puppeteer, dancer, actor, live artist embody the vocation of theatre? How do we perform, give form to ourselves as representatives of our society, embody a time where most definitions of identity has been flooded with emanations of the Anthropocene? Can we still call what we do performance? A question I asked on the first day was: 'If this was not performance, then what was it?' We gathered responses such as:

It is performance... what is not performance?
It is me
Training as performance, witnessed by others, no stage is required
An experience
Performance is Being
A state of mental freedom and security of self
Can performance ever be defined?
It's a way of existing, and that is the beauty of performance
If this is classified as something, how can it be anything but...
Making the internal palatable for the external world/other
An experience

I wish to point out how closely the human ontology lies to the Anthropocene from these responses. One could translate it as: If one performs, then performing in/as/for/through the Anthropocene is virtually a statement of one's being as such.

Perhaps we could coin Performing/... the Anthropocene as a week-long ritual where we had put our toe into the waters of

  1. he vastness of Nature, as we do not know how it will manifest itself at any time in the future,
  2. the mentality, psychological resilience, spirituality of the human race and its capacities to possibly embrace the unthinkable,
  3. an appraisal of ancient knowledge of alchemical processes as still relevant in shaping the drama of our lives, or, maybe not.


Another term was often present: witness. Keep in mind that here we are occupying the space traditionally embodied by a member of the audience. This requires a conversation by itself that may explore what it means to be a member of audience now that theatre has transformed to the degree that the presence of the spectators is at best a face on the screen, with video at least open. Increasingly prevalent is the witness themselves uncertain of their role, even their presence (with video switched off) and possibly uncertain of the true value of their witnessed reportage.

We regularly discussed the witnessing role of another once we take to the floor to move for another person. We have no illusions about this witness. We do not expect authentic empathy, nor understanding from our witnesses. In fact, we may not be interested in what the witness has experienced as observers of our movement work. We are not even sure if under the circumstances of our new social/health-related demarcations, we would ever have another person willing to, or able to witness our work in the future.

What is of value here though is for the witness to investigate how they witness. This seems to be an undervalued and under-explored role in the relationship of theatre making.

Since the witness is now in such a precarious position due to the latest manifestations of the Anthropocene, namely a pandemic, the focus on the presence of the witness has shifted nowhere else but to the Self of the performer themselves. After all, as performer you may find your screen the only one open to yourself.

So, I would like to take the liberty to claim that witnessing the Self in action by the Actor or Dancer became an important addition to working in the Anthropocene. By capitalising these roles I lean into the possibilities of a spiritual experience by the Performer under the conditions we live in currently. We pursued the possibilities of witnessing ourselves, through various physicalities or observing our own movement through sensing our subtle bodies during movement and during pauses, and we 'resurrected' the good, loving, compassionate eye of the Self at a short distance from the mover, a gaze, regard, benevolence which serves to bring about movement of a particular authenticity.

Differently from our past, traditional perceptions of theatre is that the enquiry is not into what the mover is doing, but what the witness is experiencing in their witnessing, as witness of a mover themselves. Dr McGarry has mentioned in his doctoral thesis a term, 'withness', meaning a particular proximity to the affects and mood shift and no doubt consciousness of the performer. However, this is different, in that the proximity is closer to home. Here the solidarity of the mover with (the) them-Self as mover would become one with the environment as much as with the subtle body. The witness's task is how this integrity of movement affects the (Self)witness(ing), and the nature of that witnessing. We hoped to have had an ongoing articulation from the students as to how this was experienced. It may have been the first time for theatre makers to have interrogated the role of the witness to the degree that they themselves would have become the most intimate witness of themselves, particularly within a context where the audience member, as we had called this role before, was no longer in existence. What kind of theatre is this?

Challenging movements worth celebrating

How does one witness the process of dying? This is a question on our lips more and more while embedded in the pandemic. We followed the theory of Mortificatio, dying and the necessity of death for new life to emerge. Here partners witnessed each other, one dancing death (technical guidance was given) the other witnessing them on the screen. Then they swopped roles. Here are some of the comments during the discussion afterwards:

It was hard to watch and witness your dance
I see the difference between life and death much clearer now
It was a privilege top see an authentic tragedy and victory of death
I thought death was melodramatic, but it is nice to see it in someone else
Uncomfortable to witness death of something. It is cyclical, never stays the same
I was hyper aware of the stillness of my body, disembodied and embodied
I sensed and saw the co-existence of death and life, multifaceted
It was real life, how easy it is to die to death, and fast
Witnessing was twofold. She did more than I could see. There was a softness in witnessing
I don't know how we are going to die. I was hard on myself as witness, with a compassionate eye, emotional
There was a vulnerability between us and the world, and I could feel it
Memories of jacaranda flowers living and dying never left me. Life is seasonal, continuous
There was a conversation between witnessing and dancing, I was exploring that body in mine
Your witnessing was a reflection of life and I enjoyed little things while my whole body expressed life. Dying was graceful, not contesting with life, at peace, relief, death becomes bearable
There is a tension between life and death. I learned so much your consciousness, as so different to mine. I enjoy watching people, witnessing.

For the reader I wish to reveal one challenging exploration which culminated in a movement exercise after much preparation and technical embodiment. One of the most daring existential challenges of our time lies in the most discussed item on our lips: Do, or do you not vaccinate? Since this phenomenon in itself has a power to divide families, communities, workforces, schools, corporations, practically everywhere you would find people, the phenomenon itself was worth embodiment and research with the methodology we had developed. In short, three ‘positions' were embodied through students' own experience of the binary (do/don't vaccinate). The first was their personal interpretation of "Do vaccinate." The second was "Don't vaccinate." The third was a position that refuses a binary that would divide humxnity. However, the "refusal" may well be a legitimate and authentic position that would exist somewhere in the psyche, albeit suppressed and frankly overwhelmed by the binary. This position was embodied through their own creative movement that elicited the following outcomes. These could be seen as the regular result of this methodology, namely that one gains illumination through the application of body movement. Here are some of the results:

Letting go of a thought at a low frequency kept it hovering. It crippled me. When I became deliberate and militant about letting it go then the room opened up for something new.
Endless possibilities.
Grey can be good. Most interesting for me was what happened when I dropped it Grounding and compassion is what I came to in the third dance The third dance is where I felt more comfortable whereas the second one felt tense and uncomfortable which really says something about the way I feel about that opinion. I feel slightly unbalanced A bit disoriented

These results from an exercise that explored the mind around the binary do/don't literally "dancing" through a third perspective may provide students with a relief from one of the burdens of our time, realising that there are more perspectives than only two and these may well become articulated not only as political or environmental possibilities but as avenues for pedagogy.

The value of preparation for pedagogy in the Anthropocene

By inviting lecturers and guests on the last day I wished to expose staff members to this work. One feedback I received that mostly slipped my own mind was her mentioning the value of my preparation for this week. I appreciate this observation. Since the lockdown 18 months ago the quality of my preparation for my work online has escalated. Primarily, I consider the facticity of death, my own, a major motivating force to deliver not only the sessions as agreed, but to provide students and staff with a theoretical exposé of each session, in addition to methodology as per instruction for every movement exercise that is to be done by student. This is accompanied by specifically selected music tracks which students could also access at their own Zoom rooms and time if they so wished. It is these documents, on average 2000 words each, which is provided a day before the session, and reviewed, and resent the day afterwards for students to have a clear view on what had underpinned their experiences. To prepare this work as such is a discipline that I had found necessary to ensure that the pedagogical aims of each session from now onwards will be attained as economically as possible for all participants.

Final comments

A brief round on students' conclusion of having done this week's work elicited the following:

I played safe, there was a spiritual element...
There was a power, and I was attached to something...
I felt alive, yet I noticed I was reserved and curious, there was a transition somewhere...
I was reserved, I know I did not fully throw myself into the work, it felt daunting
I was cautious and interested to see what `I would find
This: Don't think, feel, to not restrict myself
I allowed the music to take me over. I like the idea of the aftermath of a dance. It was therapeutic. I was never a mover. It broke down barriers in me
I am hungry for more, curious with each exploration
I love my own space, lost in freedom, Very new in places, loved the small details in my body
I felt vulnerable, something I need and enjoyed
I let go inch by inch and was aware of the mind-body split


In conclusion, an eventful week, dedicated minds and bodies, intelligence and courage, potential being articulated, the nature of healing being sensed, an expanded vocabulary of what it means to embody psychological Warriorship in the Anthropocene, and how to deal with that word that we wish to avoid, the unconscious.

Timothy Morton is a prolific writer on environmental matters. He mentions that every American car side-mirror is engraved with an ontological slogan: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Equally so, I assess that the Self is closer than we imagine and we benefit from being interested in ourselves at this time. He also mentioned that people scuttle away from the term 'environment,' claiming it being as illusive and terrorising as the 'unconscious.'

How do we approach these two siblings of the epoch – the environment and the unconscious – that we are privileged to be part of, not as a binary that stand facing each other (closer than we appear) but as a phenomenon offering succeeding perspectives in our world today, I wonder?

Nobonke van Tonder