While teaching in Europe and with little time at hand for writing, I’d like to share with you some fascinating interviews I conducted as part of my Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project. These interviews are an important source of information for my work on an extensive biography of Charlotte Selver, but beyond that they are a wonderful collection of voices in their own right of people whose lives have been touched by her. Enjoy!
“There is Always a Form – Charlotte Selver’s Form was Awareness”
A Conversation with Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen
Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen is a movement artist, researcher, teacher and therapist. For over fifty years, she has been exploring movement, touch and the body-mind relationship. An innovator and leader, her work has influenced the fields of bodywork, movement, dance, yoga, body psychotherapy, infant and childhood education and many other body-mind disciplines. In 1973, Bonnie founded The School for Body-Mind Centering®, dedicated to the development and transmission of somatic practices based on embodied anatomy and embodied developmental movement principles. In addition to programs at her school, Bonnie has taught workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. She is the author of the book Sensing, Feeling and Action and has several DVDs on Embodied Anatomy and Embryology, Dance & BMC, and working with children with special needs. She is currently producing other books and DVDs.
Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt: Tell me a bit about your work.
Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen: It’s hard to describe. The form is the embodiment process. With Charlotte, the form is the awareness. It’s not about any particular thing, and in that sense they’re similar. I always felt kindred spirit. I don’t know very much about Charlotte’s work. She didn’t know very much about mine, but there was that meeting.
I remember before our first meeting at Esalen*, I sent a video of four children that I was working with – maybe twenty-five years ago – and when she saw it, she said: “And she didn’t study with me either!” Our work was just similar. I remember once, when Charles was still living, we did something with sandbags. They gave me this sandbag, and I just felt the spirit was in the sandbag, but it wasn’t about sandbags.
Most of my memories of Charlotte are just playful and pure delight. One of them is my throwing Charlotte to the ground. I don’t know what we were disagreeing about – something. She wouldn’t listen to me. I would say, “Charlotte! Listen to me!” And she’d go, “Aahaahaahahhha.” I said, “Charlotte, you have to listen to me. If you don’t listen to me I’m going to throw you to the ground!” “Aahahahah.” So I took hold of her and I threw her to the ground very gently. We just had that kind of a playful connection.
We were always laughing. Once we went to this little bird house that she had in Big Sur on the cliff. I happen to not like heights and she just – was a bird. She loved that house. I didn’t even want to go inside. But going up to the house she was so happy, she was running. She was like a bird, flying up the path.
|Stefan: That’s interesting you say she was a bird. I don’t think I’ve heard anybody say that.|
Bonnie: Together we were birds – I wasn’t the bird; she was the bird.
Another time we met at a ZIST**-conference in Garmisch Partenkirchen in Germany. I walked – we didn’t know we were going to see each other – and she just ran, at this age, she just ran with her arms open. I think she left her cane behind. She had that light spirit. In that particular conference I brought out a hundred air balloons blown up and a hundred water balloons and spread them among 1,200 people. The person before me was Thich Nhat Hanh and everything was very quiet and peaceful. And then I brought all these toys and these balloons and the people went crazy. It was wonderful. And afterwards Charlotte asked if she could use the balloons for her workshop. So there was that playfulness that we shared.
Stefan: Can you say something about Charlotte’s place in the somatic movement, or the importance of her work.
Bonnie: I consider her one of the forerunners who prepared the way for me. I see her in the lineage even though I’m not in her exact lineage, I’m certainly in the lineage of the broader path. I also come out of the Laban work. I’m very influenced by that whole school which came out of Germany.
Stefan: She really respected what you were doing, though she no doubt had little idea of what you were actually doing. But one thing that I remember she said was something like: there’s too much form or dance or, you come from performance.
Bonnie: Yes, there’s a lot of form in our work. The form is very important, but it’s a changing form – it could be any form. There’s always a form, but her form was awareness. I mean, if you pick up something there’s a form if you are sensitive to what you’re holding. But I came from a dance background and working with children with special needs. I was certainly much more form oriented. But the essence wasn’t form, and that’s where we met.
Stefan: I don’t know your work either, but to me that question of form has always been intriguing, and it’s hard to talk about it. Charlotte certainly did not want a form in that sense, and she also certainly stayed away from expressive movements. That was her struggle because she came from that. With Gindler she said she had to unlearn so much. Before that she did Bode Gymnastik, which was very expressive and she had to shed that. Then, whenever she saw, or thought she saw, expression or form in somebody’s movement, she would want to work to shed that. But in my experience too, we cannot but express ourselves in some way. There’s always some kind of form and expression, and I’m really curious about that edge of being true, being connected.
Bonnie: In any form. Or all forms. That’s my exploration. But how one is the form, not how one makes a form.
Stefan: When you say form, what do you mean? Do you have particular movements that people do?
Bonnie: No. Charlotte gave up form where I went back to understand my form. Right now I have two yoga programs here in California. And one where we focus on embodying different tissues. In the yoga, we’re not creating a new form. It’s just whatever your form is, how do you embody it? What’s your style? It doesn’t matter. But are you just making a style? Or are you really a warrior? Is this a warrior pose or is this a loving pose? It’s very much about expression, but what is it when you are that?
Stefan: And how do we know?
Bonnie: If I say move your pinky finger, how do you know you’re moving your pinky finger when you don’t see it? You still know it. I’ve worked with a lot of dancers through the years. What is the principle for a dancer or athlete? That’s the same for a baby or a child who has severe cerebral palsy or someone with muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis or arthritis. What do we all have in common? This isn’t pathological.
These children that have severe challenges – people approach them from the place that there is something wrong with them. But they are what they are. That’s their form. Let’s honor them for what they are bringing into the world and what they have to teach us. Their form is perfect, not imperfect. I see them as my teachers. This is the place I meet them. And the same principles of movement and consciousness apply to them as to anybody.
How do we reach that level of being who we are, whatever that is? As soon as the egg and the sperm do their dance there’s a marker that goes to the membrane in which your immune system knows what is you, and there’s never been another marker like it, and there’ll never be another marker again. We’re that unique. So, how do we come to really know that marker, or that essential drone, if you think of music, that vibration that is our own?
Stefan: Would you want your clients to consciously remember? Or is it more about embodiment of that?
Bonnie: The grown-ups are different than children, because we do have a kind of conscious intelligence. We use that, but ultimately need to let go of it; otherwise you’re always witnessing, you’re not actually participating. There’s a level at which you feel the sandbag, you consciously feel it, and in a way you just forget about it. You know the sandbag. You don’t have to keep witnessing it. But in the beginning you would focus your attention because otherwise you’re just not remembering. It’s nothing to learn. And that I think Charlotte and I have in common – we never talked shop, by the way. We just played….
Maybe Charlotte thought of unlearning, when you said a form.
Stefan: Yes, the unlearning of what is extra, what is not needed, so that we then are free to connect with what is now rather than with what we have learned.
Bonnie: So it’s not a gaining from somebody else on the outside but from your own experience.
Stefan: Yes, I think that was really Elsa Gindler’s major turnaround, as I understand it. She came from teaching a form to say: if you really become sensitive to what wants to happen, what happens then? Rather than: Do this or do that. That exploration. It is really starting from not knowing every time. And I do hear that from you too.
Bonnie: Yes, it’s always the not. So students will say: “Well I don’t know.” I say: ”Great, just stay there.”
Stefan: When I first asked you to tell me about your work, your immediate response was what our response often is. It’s very hard to talk about it. It has a form, but it’s beyond that form.
Bonnie: Or the form is the process.
Stefan: So what is the goal of your work?
Bonnie: Just to enjoy the day.
Stefan: To enjoy the day.
Bonnie: Why not? Whatever you do. Because they can always get worse. Even when I was so very ill – not to say I didn’t suffer greatly – I still looked for what was in the day that was quite extraordinary. It doesn’t take away the suffering but it doesn’t waste it. (Bonnie was housebound for three years due to a collapse from post-polio.)
Stefan: In our work gravity is so important. I actually don’t call it gravity very much anymore. I call it the attraction of the earth, because gravity to me sounds like it’s a thing, but what it is is a relationship with the earth, the earth’s pulling on us constantly, and then our response. Gravity and then the support of the ground is so central, and was so central in Charlotte’s work. How does that play into your work?
Bonnie: It plays a lot. We are looking at gravity, and we are looking at space – which I know you’re doing too, but in a different way. We say, if you only feel the gravity, you can’t stop it. If you feel the gravity and the rebound, the anti-gravity, and the pull of heaven, then you have lightness.
Stefan: Charlotte never used the word space. Well, I shouldn’t say that. But that’s not something that comes to mind – space. She certainly worked with it, but not . . .
Bonnie: And she also had it. I think she was so spacious and light, and this bird quality, that gravity for her would be like the balance. But also the sun is drawing us.
Stefan: Tell me more about that. You also said the pull of heaven.
Bonnie: We’re in this position, we are the bridge between the earth and heaven. I mean, fortunately there’s attraction out there. Otherwise we would be chaos. We are rotating around the sun, and this is rotating around that. There are all these pulls. The moon is pulling on our fluids. We are under the forces of the universe. We’re spinning off the earth, but we’re also being pressed into the earth.
And we carry our ancestors. I don’t know about past lives. That’s not where my attention goes. But I know we carry all of the experiences of our ancestors. We have talked about genetics like gravity. It’s this thing that looks like this. But that thing was developed from experience with relationship to the world, and to the family, and to the emotion, and to the gravity. I always feel we heal our ancestors as well as ourselves. We’re a time machine or something. It all exists right now. I don’t know if that makes sense. So we also look at time. We are this collection and it makes a difference whether we feel it by remembering or by being. It’s not just: oh yeah, my grandfather was this and my grandmother was that, and we can trace back to seventeen hundred and something.
I’m interested because Hanna (Bonnie’s grandchild) comes from two languages that are getting lost – if you go to the generation before me and before Len and before Hanna’s other grandparents. The Okinawan speak Japanese now; they’re losing the roots of their culture, the Yiddish of our parents’ generation (except my father was English) – on my side three out of four – not the history but the successiveness is wiped out. How interesting, this little girl. If she goes back that far, the languages and the cultures are fading. And at the same time, all the possibilities that she has by this shadow of who she is.
Stefan: So in that sense, where we come from is really important because that’s – can we say, that’s who we are?
Bonnie: We carry all of those experiences. Whether or not we ever know our ancestors, our grandparents or parents or whatever. My parents met and were in the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, so I grew up in the circus. After my mother quit the show when I was eight and they separated, and then my father, when I was fifteen, they closed the big top, I never wanted to go to the circus again. And then, when my mother died, the circus was in town. We went and I had no connection, because it was indoors. It wasn’t the stench of the elephants and the animals. There was something on television – Cirque de Soleil. It’s so boring to me. I see them doing these things. It has no meaning. And television has no meaning, because after this, there’s nothing they could do on TV that would compare – I mean these people were risking their lives every moment in performance.
This is why I would not want to take this form out of my existence. Where if I had a form that felt artificial – certainly there’s nothing more artificial than this circus getup. They dressed and everything was superficial on the outside, but there’s something real about death-defying acts. Inside they were risking their lives.
Stefan: So it’s very real in that sense.
Bonnie: Yes. It’s a paradox. So that’s an insight for me, when you say that, talking about Charlotte. I would not want to take away form. When I think of the man who led the circus band. He never missed a show in over fifty years. He would say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, and children of all ages, welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth,” and the band would hit up. Over fifty years. How could you erase that? Who would want to?
Stefan: This is fascinating. I like exploring form.
Bonnie: Yes. I know Charlotte had form. It’s just that she wanted it to be real.
Stefan: Yes. And no doubt we do have form. Or we are this form. And it comes from – from our ancestors.
Bonnie: And from our daily life, our environment.
* As part of a two-year training on Somatics for professionals in the field – see photograph.
** Center for Individual and Social Therapy, Munich