The Fifth Element

At the recent performance festival in London (well, I guess it’s not so recent, it was a month ago now) I was having lunch with a very talented couple of performers, and I was asking them how they managed to be so expressive in their movements and interactions. They are well known in certain circles for an improvisational style, and while their choreography and movements don’t fit into any one particular style they are at the same time impeccable in their technique.

He looked at me with a sort of You’re kidding me, right? You know this… expression and said “Well, our technique, it’s like they say: technique is the servant of expression. We have a lot to express, but it has to come from the techniques we’ve practiced. If we didn’t have technique, we wouldn’t have the ability to express ourselves, but the technique itself is worthless without something to express.”

He went on to talk a lot more about how they in particular have a winning combination of physical knowledge of their art and of each other as partners. They both come from a variety of disciplines, ranging from martial arts to opera, and have been working together enough that they have complete trust in each other.

I’m not sure I can explain just how important that is in any performing art, but especially improvisational movement. In good practice, you know where your partner is going to go, and therefore you can be there responding with the appropriate movement at the right time.

But if you consistently work on the technique with one partner, or one group of performers (such as some improv troupes do) you don’t know where your partner is going to go – you just trust that wherever it is will be a worthwhile place, and that whatever they’re doing is something that needs to be expressed.

The Fifth Element

Amateurs practice until they do it rightProfessionals practice until they can’tpossibly do it wrong.”

That’s a fun saying, and often quoted to motivate people towards excellence. I think it’s ok for what it’s worth…but the professionals I really admire are not the ones who “can’t possibly do it wrong” but rather the ones who have spent enough time practicing that they know which things are important to control, and which things to let go.

The nice thing about being able to let things go, to let things be “imperfect” (though perhaps “fuzzy” is a better word) is that you leave room for the things you do to become greater than you could have planned. There is an ineffable nature to performance that can grow from a technique that is more concerned with the essence of practice rather than the precision of it.

My friend and inspiration Erik spoke of this phenomenon while walking through Amsterdam with me. We were discussing how much we prefer analog to digital. He talked about how he and some friends listened to the “re-mastered” Abbey Road by the Beatles.

All the tracks had been “cleaned up”, and then put back together by engineers…and he said that somehow they had managed to remove the magic. It was now just four guys playing, as opposed to being “the Beatles.” Somehow, as he put it, they had removed that “fifth element.”

I don’t think he was making any reference to the movie. But I had to agree. I’ve seen the same thing when I’ve worked on projection design. There is a different feeling to the color of a real film slide projected from an incandescent bulb as opposed to a digital image projected from an LED projector. I’m not sure exactly what it is – a warmth, a deeper saturation of color – because I’m not an engineer.

But I know it’s there.

Practice Room

When I do my own work, whether it’s a performance or an essay or facilitating a conference, I always try to make sure that my technique doesn’t get in the way of that fifth element. There needs to be room for the magic to happen, for the imprecision to make things even more beautiful than they would be if they were razor-sharp accurate.

This is not an excuse for sloppy practice, of course. Technique is the servant of expression,  after all, not the other way around. Practice should be striving to be as precise and good as you can be. Once you get to the point where it’s hard to do it wrong, then you are ready to start making that room for the ineffable fifth element to happen. That fifth element is what you are going to express with your practice.

I’ve been talking about this from a performing arts point of view, but I don’t think it’s limited to that. I think a carpenter can practice leaving room for the wood and tools to respond to her technique with more beauty in the wood, and a rock climber can find those moments when the rock seems to be working with him as they dance to gravity’s music.

I can’t say how long you’d have to do your practice. I can’t even tell you what that fifth element will look or sound or feel like. But I’m pretty sure it’s kind of like that old judge’s definition of obscenity: you’ll know it when it happens.

For example, find yourself some good headphones, or a great sound system, and listen to this piece by violinist Gwendolyn Masin.

“…her strong technique was the servant of expression; and expression seemed to spring from herself,
with an instinctual ease which made this recital a truly enjoyable experience…”
 The Irish Times on violinist Gwendolyn Masin

Expression. She haz it.



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