To enter into Merle’s world is to enter a world where creativity, spontaneity and authentic expression come alive, allowing you to relive those fun, uninhibited moments of natural creativity we enjoyed as a child. For most of us caught up in the constant rush of our daily lives, busy chasing dreams of success, often decided for us by others, the idea of becoming a poet, the dancer, the creator of our lives, is often just an impossible dream. But in Merle’s world all dreams are possible and through exploring our inner realms of creative expression and allowing our bodies and our psyches to take us where we need to go, we can discover and proudly reclaim those parts of ourselves that truly make us whole.
I am in pursuit of a dream to live my life as an artist and it is for this reason that I found myself with eleven strangers sitting scattered around a hall in the heart of Holborn. We have each claimed our space and marked out our psychic boundaries. Our shifting eyes avoid contact, reserve and uncertainty revealed in hesitant smiles that seem to be asking ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ As I will later discover we have come as public relations executives, therapists, care workers, financial brokers and blocked writers.
I’m expecting we’ll all be invited into a circle to introduce ourselves and talk about why we have come. Instead there is a raising beat of music and the lifting tones of a voice gently urging us to dance. One by one we raise; a step here, a sway there, bodies rigid and uptight. Then gradually the miraculous happens, strangers are laughing together, jumping in the air; feet are stomping to the beat as the music moves us and we are drawn into its energy.
In the midst of all this, weaving in and out, a knowing smile on a face, is Merle Van den Bosch, a small, charismatic Caribbean woman exuding warmth and energy; her lithe, toned body combining the elegance of a dancer with the stride of a gazelle. Merle smiles because in over 17 years as a teacher and performance artist, founder and artistic director of the Centre for Expressive Arts, she has seen it happen many times before. Working regularly on three continents she has been witness to the power of her work to effect positive change in people irrespective of race, class, sex or cultural boundaries.
From Merle’s perspective life is to be lived and enjoyed and each one of us carries within ourselves our unique voice, the personal blueprint of our artistry. Yet too often, having weathered societies dictates as to who we should be, we emerge successful in name but somewhere out of touch with who we really are; our true selves often obscured behind the mask which may have supported us in achieving ‘success’ but may now prevent us from living a more expansive life. As Merle says, “My impression is that the individual is too often restricted, so that what could be a whole and rounded person, continuously tapping into their full potential, expressing the many aspects of themselves, instead, experiences life becoming less spontaneous and creatively less expressive. One then ends up living life, in the words of Joni Mitchell ‘on a thin white line’. By cautiously walking that narrow white line one may arrive at the other end with the certificate or diploma that proudly proclaims ones professional status but in the process may have lost touch with the real person behind the mask.
“That” says Merle “is the bottom line of my work. “What I feel it contributes”, she says “is to offer a space to explore and experience our many talents; to allow us to reclaim our spontaneity and authenticity; to show us how we can continue to live our everyday lives yet still tap into the dancer, the writer, the musician or whatever other potential we carry within ourselves.”
The music fades and one by one we become still, our bodies stronger and firmer, charged with new energy; faces softer, more open, and more serene. Merle directs us to paint, Somewhat hesitantly we move towards the paints and lengthy pieces of paper that have been laid out on the floor. I’m wondering if I should tear a piece off for myself – what painting I have done has been done in isolation. But no, it’s a group thing, now that’s new, and there are no objects to draw, no light to catch or angles to aim at and this first week we’re still finding ourselves, so the picture that emerges is streaked with stilted brush strokes and solitary splashes of colour.
“It would seem” says Merle “as if each individual has to do a certain amount of work in order to arrive at the point of reclaiming. My work is about the process of facilitating change and transformation by offering participants the space to explore and reclaim those aspects of themselves which may have lain dormant for a while. I’m not promising that at the end of three months you would have rediscovered every part of yourself, but I hope to have provided each person with some tools to access their inner resources, to enrich their experience and appreciate their ability to create in their own lives; I call it walking backwards to walk forward. Each individual will then do what they need to do in their own time, in their own unique way depending on what road they have travelled to arrive where they are.”
Merle speaks from experience, having walked the road as a cardiac intensive care nurse in Harley Street to become the photographer and artist today. Of her time in nursing she says “My inner creativity was screaming for room to breathe” Leaving nursing, art college followed and a new life emerged as Merle met with a group of Avant garde international artists in London. “It was an exciting time” and along the way Merle travelled to California, discovering the human potential movement and training with some of the most prominent in their field. In San Francisco she trained with the renowned expressionist performer, Anna Halprin, pioneer of new theatre and dance and mentor to the likes of Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Kei Takei and others on the cutting edge of dance, voice, theatre and music. “We trained on the muddy banks of a river, on the mountain, amongst the trees, in the sea…taking our bodies out of the confines of the studio to the markets and busy streets of San Francisco….back to the nature. It was a time to let go restraints and re-experience our bodies in a natural way.” Later training with the Grotowski Theatre Laboratory, using tiredness and exhaustion as a creative resource, gave Merle the experience of letting go “the controller” which restricts us and allowed her to move forward in a new creative directions.
It is this that informed Merle’s work. Using mask, movement, voice, theatre and visual arts as a vehicle in personal and artistic development, participants are guided to explore the natural language of the body and the inner realms of the psyche; to identify and remove those obstacles that limit us so liberating us to our fullest potential.
For myself and others on the course it was a revelation. Each week, for three hours, we were invited to explore our creativity, to gently peel off more layers of limitation, to reveal at a pace that felt comfortable and satisfying. Our paintings evolved from static splodges into a riotous fusion of colour and movement, our stories blending and merging into a masterpiece of life.
There was a moment when we all became ‘the artist’ that moment when at the end of three months we threw off our masks of oppression and reclaimed our creative selves. That moment was celebrated with our final presentation, our chance to present ourselves to the outside world as the artist we had become. Merle believes that it is the untrained performer who will often give the most truthful presentation, being unencumbered by expectations and technique. Rehearsal therefore became a group collaboration and was kept to a minimum to avoid losing spontaneity.
All too soon our last evening together had arrived. With nerves affray and frantic preparation we took up our poses moving into unity and silence to welcome our guests onto what we knew had become liberated territory. As a group they arrived, bursting with curiosity, cautiously entering the room not knowing what to expect, as we broke free and performed our dance of the self. “There are ninety-nine thousand dances within each of us that have yet to be danced” says Merle and that night I felt them moving in me. We laughed, we danced, we revealed the truth of ourselves till the audience, enthused by their experience, were drawn into the story. We were no longer strangers and had become participants in a journey of life.
We went back to our lives in the outside world as changed people, returning to the roles we had performed before as public relations executives, therapists and financial brokers. Our lives enriched and transformed, we had moved outside the confines of these roles to express ourselves as artists in an authentic and empowering way. I am no longer the blocked writer. Words have become one of a number of tools I use to explore the depths of my life and to perform my work in the business world. Those strangers I met at the beginning of the course are now my friends and while we may not meet often we hold a warmth and understanding from the experience we have shared.
And Merle? she’s still smiling her knowing smile and urging some other group of strangers to dance.