Interview with Frey Faust
Luc en Diois / Nomadic College ‘22
(Söyleşinin Türkçe versiyonuna buradan ulaşabilirsiniz.)
In August 2022, I traveled from Istanbul to Luc en Diois, a village in La Drome region of France, to attend the annual AS Nomadic College for the first time. That year, there were seven of us from the team who participated in the Axis Syllabus workshops led by Barış Mıhçı in Turkey. During the workshops in Luc en Diois, I interviewed with Frey Faust, Francesca Pedulla, Barış Mıhçı, Jerome D’Orso, Manuela Martella and Anne Cecile Chantune, who are part of the Axis Syllabus Research Meshwork (ASRM) and who gave workshops at Nomadic College. Together with my friends who participated in AS studies in Turkey, we prepared these interviews for publication. We share with you the interview with Frey Faust, the author of The Axis Syllabus© and the founder of this research study AS.
Banu Açıkdeniz: I would like to ask how The Axis Syllabus© started, what urged you to start research, on this topic? And how would you describe what The AS is? Can you tell us about the historical background and content of The AS in general?
Frey Faust: It started as a remedy, a list of reminders and pointers that I got from teachers, about “do’s and don’ts” in order to avoid injury, find an appropriate transition or to get the momentum/kinetic energy needed to be able to do something. I studied various movement forms, but thought of myself as an actor or a pantomime, initially performing on the street with my mother and sister, growing up in the counter-culture revolution in the US during the 60’s. There was often undefined space for gatherings. Some would play acoustic music, others were moving and there was none of the conventional criteria of a performance. They called that a “happening”. There was no plan, people just came and whatever happened happened. So it was in that atmosphere that I began to dance. I didn’t think of it as dancing per se. But the sensation of being close to everything that is, of being a part of it, a little bit of it… the cosmic wiggle… ongoing spirals, oscillations, frequencies… being part of the frequency. That’s what stayed with me; a sense of belonging, a sense of being a channel for the cosmic language of physics rather than trying to impress or win approval. For me, performing remains about making myself an open channel, to transmit that state of mind or emotion rather than about the selected shapes or preferred movements. Those choices are vehicles, not my expression. I went to study with Marcel Marceau, because I was fascinated with the mental and physical mastery and discipline involved in telling stories without words, in creating imaginary objects and characters. It was at Marceau’s school that I got inspired to dance. Pantomime was closed in a way, the intention to have people understand intellectually, where the abstraction of dancing felt open, familiar. In class, I found the same sort of care and precision, specificity, but with space there for the universe to enter and speak. Later, when attempting to make a living dancing in New York’s dance world, I felt that the interest in aesthetic specificity was overshadowed by a territorial battle for cultural dominance. Where being “original” became obsessive, which i think distracted people from being in touch with the cosmos, but also losing touch with what their bodies needed to stay healthy. Project leaders became more and more insistent because of this struggle I think. Originality ultimately meant branding, which worked out as selecting one style. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the discussion of aesthetics in the various forms of art is valid. I just think this predatory, extremely competitive dynamic was destructive. That time there wasn’t very much general knowledge about physics or anatomy. And the dancers were so preoccupied with winning prizes and getting into theatres and newspaper reviews, that they neglected to study. There was also a popular idea at the time about injuries, that the way you thought mattered more than what you did. Either that, or it was only because you didn’t pay attention or you weren’t disciplined enough… in other words, you got injured because you wanted to. It was your fault Meanwhile there were a lot of demands that were being made that ignored or were ignorant of the conditions under which those demands had to be executed.
From birth, I had several physical challenges that left me weakened. I was prone to injury. I had to be careful about my health as I was growing. Because of these challenges, I started collecting information about the body as a child, motivated by illness, pain and weakness to discover why, and what I could do about it. We were living in very rugged conditions at the time, a small wooden cabin in the mountains above Santa Cruz, California. There were trees to fell and logs to carry and cut. I wanted to do my part. Later in the NY dance scene, my outspoken defence of my health gave me a bad reputation. When a choreographer insisted I do something I knew would raise the risk of injury I would refuse or offer an alternative. I ended up leaving or being let go from several projects. But there is a long term advantage to making appropriate demands in the defence of one’s health, the most important one being enduring and therefore having the time to enjoy, to become more skilful and expressive, but also to contribute to a general cultural discussion about non-abusive leadership, appropriate limitations and reasonable working conditions. As I studied and practiced, I began to take notes. For example, classical ballet’s focus on jumping. I had to ask myself: if we are supposed to be learning how to move, if we are learning how to get into the air involves coordination, why are we studying static poses? Making still poses is irrelevant for moving because moving is basically all about transition. So why don’t we start by studying transitions, and then consider the shapes we would like to make, nourished by the knowledge of transition. This seemed to point to either an ignorance or rejection of explaining technical solutions for how we do things, like jumping. People have accused me of having a rebellious spirit… well… I was raised by revolutionaries. Being skeptical critical of conventions was normal for me. It is not just because we’re doing something that we should all do it. It’s not because we have always done something that we must continue to do it.
My list got longer and longer and longer… And I thought- other people make their own dance styles, why can’t I? I will do it supported by the technical knowledge I have collected, design the movement so that it respects the body but is virtuosic, athletic and expressive. I thought that I was making my own dance style. And I consolidated The Axis Syllabus© as an addendum to my style. But as I dug deeper I began to realise that what I was really working on was something that could support other things as well, not just dancing, but all other human activities. I could even provide solutions for people whose bodies are very different, who were missing an arm or a leg. The Axis Syllabus© revealed itself to be about finding solutions for a given context: how do you find or create support? Where do you get the energy to do something? What are the inherent design aspects of the skeleton? How do the muscles work? What’s the role of mental outlook. Most importantly what is fundamental, what are we drawing from? What is source? Is the “source” a selection of specific movements a few human beings prefer? Or is rather a matrix of movement we inherit. Observe other living things, the way plants grow in spirals, the veins in a leaf and the wings of insects, how shells form, the rhythm of ocean waves. We are part of all that, which has been here much longer than we have. It follows logically that we inherited the fundamentals of movement. All of that movement is inherent to our base state. The various so called forms of movement they are passing fads, the “mode du jour”. Even if a name for a physical discipline has been around for a few thousand years, it’s still nothing compared to the cosmos. No time at all. The source of movement is in the fabric of the universe of which we are a part. Gravity, a variable skeleton, soft tissue construction. We can become skilful at managing what we have and more effective at teaching those skills. A teacher can show you how to do something that you couldn’t do before and in a few minutes, hours or days you’ll be able to do it. So there is a value to study and practice. It is not just because we can perceive the nature of things that we can do things. Practice is important, discipline is important. And humans are learning animals, because we don’t have really much instinct. So we pass on a legacy of information this way, through doing things with each other but also through the written word. The Axis Syllabus© is an attempt to archive technical counsel, useful information for people I haven’t spoken to yet, for people who will be there after I die.
B. A.: humans moving..
Frey Faust: a lexicon for moving humans…
B. A.: Humanity has gone through many stages… creating a legacy is very important. Some people are jealous of their knowledge and methods. They do not pass them on. They do not show the tricks, the decryption keys that sponsor development, so it is very precious what you are doing and together with other people creating beside you. It is a resource for humanity.
Frey Faust: This is certainly my hope, that the AS can serve humanity. One of the things that frustrated me about the revolutionaries of my childhood was, that even though they claimed to be openminded, they didn’t question their own presumptions. They condemned prejudice, but were categorical about people they disagreed with. My intent with teaching the AS is to offer a space where people can find common ground. Of course we need to argue about social policies, i.e. politics and science and so on and so forth. However here, we are opening a space where each of us can benefit from the fact of being together, yet work for their own betterment, that is: how to move well. Basta. If my focus is on self-improvement, I don’t need to compare myself with others. I can be inspired by things you do, ask for your advice or go through the process of discovery with the guidance of the person whom I accepted as my mentor, but that’s between me and me. I don’t have to “win”, and no one has to lose, which is a finite game. Instead, self improvement is an infinite game. No winners or losers, an ongoing process of improvement to whatever you subjectively think might be your objective. Of course some rules are necessary for civility’s sake that reduce the risk of injury and emotional stress while providing the conditions for study and practice.
B. A.:You mean creating a balance between individual group needs? Because in order to be together you need to have some kind of…
Frey Faust: Rules and respect..
B. A.: Rules or maybe principles? The individual has to flourish and you should not suppress or oppress.
Frey Faust: Militarisation is also collectivist. In a soccer game there are two groups with one purpose; to beat the other group. The individual has a specific, obligatory role, like a soldier. In the model I am trying to create here at the Nomadic College, the individual is encouraged to continue their own process towards self betterment, which is whatever they they choose to work or focus on. I was very inspired by the anthroposophic method by Rudolf Steiner. He suggested, that we don’t have to instruct people. We can offer subject material or tools to work with within our own areas of expertise, and curiosity will lead them to choose something and seek our guidance. I resonate very much with this idea of situation adapted education. I think that institutional structures tend to become more important than their stated function. In the case of the universities, the curriculum gradually becomes obsolete while institutional roles, status, and financing becomes much more important than what is taught. When teaching materials are out of date, the university is in danger of being dismantled. But instead of allowing an evolutive process of review and revision, which would be logical, those who benefit from the institutions will try to stop outside critique or competition. Of course there is a lot of people there and it’s people that you want to share your information with. I am not advising that we get rid of them, but I’m concerned about the above dynamic; the concentration of social influence to shape the mentality of generations that they acquire, and how the universities absorb mountains of public funding… the government taking money from everyone by force, and putting it into the hands of a few people who then determine the course of society. That’s called democracy. The universities absorb billions in subsidies, yet students are graduating with so much debt they will never climb out from under it. That said, education is critical.
I don’t believe that our identity is synonymous with our bodies. Every seven years all of our somatic cells are replaced, so the information about who we are is being carried forward by something other than biological. Our bodies influence but do not determine who we are. How we think conditions how we behave and how we behave sculpts our character. How we think is powerfully influenced by information sources. Information is civilisation’s keystone, the social guideline. When it is concentrated in a few hands, in particular hands who are only interested in maintaining their status, I think society suffers. I think we are seeing the effect already. When people see through the illusion of authority it, they are naturally angry. So the Nomadic College is an attempt to provide a non-institutional framework for receiving up to date information. Information that is scientifically rigorous and constantly reviewed. Attendees to the workshops are are seen as participants in the process of review. Everyone learns, teachers included. The Axis Syllabus is the end-point archive. Every so often the document is undated to make sure it keeps pace with our research. I am currently compiling the 6th edition. People often make the mistake of thinking of the AS as a “practice” or “method”, but the AS is neither. It is the informational resource we share. The distinction is important, because it makes sure the AS is not I’m competition for the bodyworkers market, the dancers market, the acrobat’s market nor any other economic undertaking. We don’t need to struggle with other fields, nor do we need to struggle with each other. Each teacher develops their own practice, and we all contribute something unique to the effort to transmit the information in the AS. The economic warfare that was so poisonous in the dance world is also equally poisonous in the world of movement instruction. The branding wars, trademarks and intellectual property battles. That is why people don’t share. This is the reason people get attacked. People try to take your ideas and make money with them. The book is copyright protected. It’s an object so protecting author’s rights is no problem. But try to protect an exercise protocol. A dance class, even a dance peice. These things are all impossible to exclude from plagiary. Anyone can read the book and use the information in their lives, like a book on assembling motors. Like a dictionary, giving me access to more accurate words and their definitions. That helps me to think better, as reading about the hip join in the Axis Syllabus helps me sit stand, walk, climb and run better.
B. A.: So in order to go out of this power relations you need to build an infrastructure, find a sustainable economic source, find a place to work. Briefly you have to build something independent in order to get out of these power relations. Made me think of that what you say.
Frey Faust: There is always inter-dependence, because the sustainability of the activity you propose depends on the participation of the people who see it as valuable. But in that sense it is very direct. You are here because you think what we are doing is worthwhile, even with the cost, the inconvenience of the voyage and living conditions. So it depends on you and it depends on us continuing to stay rigorous and disciplined, on maintaining our good reputation. What I meant by “direct” is that I am trying not to depend on people who I don’t know. Because when I get a grant through the government, then the government is taking money from people who may have different objectives or needs. Maybe it is a single mother trying to take care of her children and their grandmother. Maybe it is somebody who has a disease who needs the money otherwise. Maybe they will never see and understand my work, or who never want to support it, maybe if they knew it they would think it is stupid. But this way, I know you care and the measure of my activity is based on who is actually interested. And in that sense it is not independent. It is just that it is not institutional.
B. A.: You said just now that the AS is not a discipline. So as far as I understand you mean that the real source of the information is human nature. I understand that you had a very inter-disciplinary background and approach. Were there people around you who were experts in other disciplines that supported your interdisciplinary interests?
Frey Faust: when I met scientists or experts, I sought their opinions. I was already gathering relevant information for the AS before coining the name in1997, but after I consolidated the first edition, that dynamic accelerated, as more and more experts joined the group of people studying with me; medical doctors, engineers, acrobats, people who are yoga teachers, people who are in healing arts, different kinds of dancers.
B. A.: But were you considering what they told you critically?
Frey Faust: Of course. They were happy to work with me because I was questioning and questing. I had a reputation as for being a virtuosic dancer. I danced with well known companies. People could see that I could move well. People who study movement would rather learn from someone with an international reputation, a gifted athlete. The experts I consulted were attracted by my skill and reputation but I think what convinced them was my effort to explain solutions in practical language to the difficulties they encountered as they practiced. The fact that I was studying and referring to anatomy. The fact that I was studying and referring to physics, an immediately helpful, practical approach. Human movement is very complex to describe. Amplitude, degree, shear, gravitational or mechanical force, fulcrum, different pendulums moving in multiple trajectories, etc. Then, knowing which trajectories respect joint typography to conserve alignment is even more challenging. These were all the topics I discussed with my students, in and out of class. Ultimately, I think we were all talking about a useful legacy, which is what I think makes the Axis syllabus attractive to so many people. As I work to organize the AS for accessibility I learn about the categories that exist and I discover missing categories. Naming missing categories and subcategories has produced specific terms, such as the Metacenter, the Anatomical Center, Landing and Launching Pads, Motion Centers, or Osculation, an important term we use to describe spinal mechanics. These are terms that are missing from the scientific literature.
B. A.: They did not exist in the scientific literature?
Frey Faust: No they don’t exist.. not yet anyway. I theorise that these terms are missing because most of the people doing the science don’t move themselves. They are describing the human movement potential but they are not actually movement experts. And they were working with the movement experts such as classical dancers, who are interested in arbitrary aesthetic formalities, rather than the anatomical and biomechanical aspects of what they are doing.
B. A.: So can we say that The AS is an effort to bring practice and theory together?
Frey Faust: Without a doubt. The AS should facilitate practice and theory to confront and influence each other. Ideas about moving remain theoretical unless tested by practice. Knowledge is know-how; knowing how to do something. Practice corrects presumptions. Ideas advance practice, but concepts are a menace to the evolution of practice. I think placing concept before practice is a general social habit. A prime example is the Standard Anatomical Position, which is how so many people think humans should stand. Like a dead body on a dissection table. A flattened cookie cut-out. Not a living human, not a member of the universal wiggle club, which is what we are. We are life-long members of the universal undulator’s club.
B. A.: Can I ask you to talk about your last book?
Frey Faust: In 100 useless and dangerous exercises, where I am usually more suggestive, I give my unmitigated personal opinion about formal and alternative training protocols. In this book I am saying “there are certain things that you really don’t need to do”. There are certain exercises which have no merit. They are not going to allow you to accomplish what you want, in fact, they are probably damaging. If they are not damaging your body immediately, they very likely will. Fractured movements that only train one muscle or encourage people to move on flat planes reject the body’s design. If you are rejecting the instrument that you are working with and making it do things that it is not designed for, ultimately it will break down. Even if there is little or no physical damage, these exercises might also be damaging your perception of what is possible. That’s what I am saying, loud and clear, in this book. And I am proposing alternatives. But also I am explaining why, “look at this exercise how flat it is, look at what it does to the body”. Think about the way things naturally are: always oblique, subtle, transitioning. That is the function of all these poly-form intersections that we have in our bodies. The way things come together, and they suggest angular ambiguity and course correction potential which allows us to flow, adapt and find options rather than trap ourselves into imaginary boxes. People press the bodies into flatness and everybody thinks, “wow that’s cool”. I don’t see how that is cool. In this book, I am saying I don’t think it’s cool, because people are getting seriously injured because of these ideas. Maybe we like the way it looks, but we will not like how being injured feels. If you overstretch ligaments and you can no longer feel anything, you have removed the body’s alert system. It is like taking drugs to suppress the symptoms of a disease. The symptoms are not the disease, they are telling you that something is wrong, which is one of the reasons why I am concerned about this whole crisis around the corona virus. Because I feel that people forgot this basic understanding, or maybe they never knew about one primary thing which is that, within reason, you need to be in touch with the world around you. You can’t go around spraying sterilising chemicals and covering your breathing holes with plastic and shutting yourself indoors and never meet with others and hope that you’ll stay healthy. We are built of organic cells. We are hosts to viruses and bacteria. We domesticate them. Without a domesticated internal and surrounding environment of viruses and bacteria we become vulnerable to viral and bacterial aggressors. One of the primary things that we need to do is move. Why? Not only does moving allow us to evacuate toxins and internal organic pollution, moving brings us into contact with the environment, with the people around us with bacteria, with viruses, with the living world. Sweat. Breathe in and out. Exchange. Update your understanding of the biome. We are part of the collective, planetary paradigm. Oscillating cells. Atoms. Movement.