May 09, 2016

Many years ago my T’ai Chi Chuan teacher Jean Kwok made a trip to Hong Kong. On her first morning in the city she walked into a nearby park to practice her form. The large park was filled with many separate groupings of people and individuals moving fluidly through a wide variety of styles of T’ai Chi Chuan. Developed by different families in China over the course of the centuries, there are literally hundreds of distinctly different forms of T’ai Chi. Jean walked around the park observing the variations in form with great interest. After a while she found an area that felt right for her own practice and she began to move through her form. During the course of her practice she became aware of a man standing nearby watching her. When she finished, the man approached her and said, “You are doing my form.” Jean was surprised because even within her Yang family of T’ai Chi Chuan there are countless styles that vary in length, number of moves, breadth of limb extension and attack. The chance of meeting someone who practiced her own style was slim. Then the man told her that he had been waiting for her to finish because she had chosen his very own practice spot.

The ancient Greeks coined the word temenos to indicate a piece of land, sometimes a grove or a spring, usually near a temple or sacred enclosure, set aside to create a sanctuary. The word temenos in Greek literally means, “cut off” and signifies an area marked off from common usage or daily activity, a safe or protected space, isolated from everyday living spaces. Temenos was a receptacle or field of deity or divinity. It was also a place where drama was performed for the purpose of spiritual, emotional and psychological transformation. For the ancient Greeks, it was important not to pollute temenos with daily concerns and habits and for that reason the area was sectioned off from the rest of the world. The boundaries not only served to contain energy, they also insured human access to the spirit of the place. 

It can be useful to think of temenos as an emotional or psychological space as well as a physical one. Temenos was one of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s favorite expressions, which he employed to refer to the spellbinding or magic circle that acts as a “square space” or “safe spot” between analyst and patient where mental work can take place. Jung described temenos as, “a means of protecting the center of the personality from being drawn out and from being influenced from outside.” He believed that the human need to establish and preserve temenos is indicated by dream images, drawings and mandalas. For him a mandala is also temenos, serving as a holy place for the observer. The center is protected by the design of the mandala. The symbol of the mandala has exactly the meaning of a holy place, temenos: to protect the center of the observer. But Jung imagined temenos not only as an object or place but also as an experience, a virtual, meditative space that can be inhabited by the mind, signifying the inner space deep within us where soul-making takes place. The center of a person’s personality requires periodic protection from being drawn out and influenced by the outside. Jung imagined the “circled square,” in which an encounter with the unconscious can be had, which he described as a symmetrical rose garden with a fountain in the middle. In this space, dangerous unconscious contents can safely be brought into the light of consciousness. In this way, in the shelter of temenos, his patients could meet their own shadow. 

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes about the necessity for women writers to find and occupy their own space; a room where they might enjoy agency. In addition to the need for an actual room, the title also refers to an author’s need for poetic license and the liberty to create literature of substance. Completing the book in 1929, Woolf’s advocacy for the kind of spaciousness that is at once physical, financial, mental, emotional and cultural has been a battle cry for women artists ever since. Her plea for breathing space, or legroom, feels much like temenos to me.  

In 1979, the artist Niki de Saint Phalle created an elaborate a sculpture park atop an Etruscan ruin in Tuscany, Italy, which she called Il Giardino dei Tarocchi, or, The Tarot Garden. Inspired by Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona, de Sant Phalle designed her garden with monumental figures made of ceramic mosaic and mirrors. With will and vision she forged her own alternate reality within the confines of the garden. Countless travelers interested in experiencing its exoticism continue today to visit the garden. During the construction de Sainte Phalle lived inside a sphinxlike creature she called Empress. She described the feeling of returning regularly to inhabit her garden: “I lost all notion of time and the limitations of normal life were abolished. I felt comforted and transported. Here everything was possible.”  

I search for temenos in my own life. I am drawn to boundaries for the soul, where time and space can be set aside to create islands of consciousness and safe zones for renewal. I consciously seek places away from the busyness of the world where a certain spirit can breathe life back into my activities. For me, temenos is the refuge that allows for the practical regeneration of the soul, allowing me to return to the world of constant connection with greater vitality. For me, temenos is both physical and psychological. For ten years, essentially during the 1980s, I lived in a tiny fifth story walk-up apartment over a paint store in the East Village of Manhattan. In the midst of forging a career in the downtown theater world, I needed a place where I could escape, a secure and sheltered space where I could replenish. The apartment was sacred to me and I cherished every moment that I spent there.   

At the turn of the millennium I bought an 1850 farmhouse in the northern Catskill Mountains. This space, over time, has become sacred to me as a place of regeneration and restoration, providing temenos for my family and for me. The existence of this space allows us to move fluidly and consciously from one sphere of life to another. But while it was possible for me to buy a house, temenos exists outside the sphere of attainment and spending. It cannot be bought; rather, it must be cultivated. When places are acquired only for function and practicality, temenos suffers. In the tiny town in the Catskill Mountains, little by little, over the years and with vigilance and care, the house has become spaciousness itself.  

Thanks to Jean Kwok’s many years of careful and thorough instruction in T’ai Chi Chuan, I have learned to construct temenos within small pockets of time and space each and every day when I begin my practice. Whether upon a small spit of land, a corner of a room or in a rehearsal studio, I mark out a space and find the priceless spaciousness that is available to each one of us. 

On Wednesday, May 18th at 7 p.m. in the SITI Company studio, I am thrilled to host the second Cage Conversation with luminary dancer/actor Valda Setterfield. Cage Conversations is part of the creation of a new SITI piece entitled Theater Piece #1 based upon the lasting influence of composer/philosopher John Cage. Long a soloist with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Valda’s career casts a wide net that includes numerous creations with her husband David Gordon and her son Ain Gordon and theater pieces with JoAnne Akalaitis, Robert Wilson and Richard Forman. She toured widely with the White Oak Dance Project and the Pick-Up Performance Company (co-founded with her husband) and during the infamous Judson Church era she performed with the Grand Union and in the works of Katherine Litz and Yvonne Rainer. Most recently she appeared in the role of Lear at New York Live Arts. I studied dance with Valda at Bard College in the early 1970s and I am thrilled to speak with her on this occasion about her memories and insights into John Cage’s work with Merce Cunningham. Please join us!