Image

Francesca d’Ath, Isabelle Schad: Knotting (at Wiesenburg)

Me back performing again.

I pretty much had made peace with moving on from dance and all in the last couple of years, enjoying training for myself and finding myself at a distance to those worlds. Then, late-last year, Isabelle said, “You’re doing a solo!”

We’ve been rehearsing irregular weeks since late-January, slowly building a work that finally got a formal-ish public outing on the weekend in Isabelle’s studio at Wiesenburg (masks and physical distancing and pandemic attentiveness obviously). First time performing in more than two years, and, after a decade living in Berlin, first time I’ve performed here — in a formal, dance scene context at least, not counting small, more private art-ing.

It’s been huge, a lot of work physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and a lot of responsibility in being seen. Being seen by both the audience, some of whom recognised parts of themselves in me, and understand what that means, and being seen by those who came before, aunties, mothers, old ones who visited, who I called on ’cos I needed their strength and support and approval, and I needed them to see me, us like this. And my babaanne, wandering around after just out of sight. I am grateful for them all, and for those who came up to me after, who were the ones I needed to fully see me, and who I needed to see also.

Another pause now, then — as always, pandemic allowing — at Sophiensaele in early-November.

Michel Serres

More than Deleuze (with or without Guattari), more than Foucault, somewhat more than Derrida, so different to Butler, but like her someone I returned to again and again, for the quiet care and poetry, for the love of movement, one of that first group of philosophers I got introduced to by the same person at a moment in my life where they resonated, and — like only Butler from those names — continue to, 25 years on. I knew it was coming, likely sooner, but still, I lost my breath for an instant, I stopped.

The more I dance, the more I am naked, absent, a calculation and a number. Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I. The more I dance, the less I am me. If I dance something, I am that something or I signify it. When I dance, I am only the blank body of the sign.

and

To dance is only to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make room, give up one’s place.
To leave at last the page blank.

and

Laughter is that little noise, uttered in blank ecstasy.

Cold Weather Training

A year ago, during one of the very short periods of proper cold weather in Berlin, I was out doing my laps in it and thinking. I do a lot of thinking when I’m riding. Quite a bit is of looping through a rhythm as I breathe in and out to the circling of my legs, feet locked into pedals. It’s usually a 4/4, but cuts to a 2/4 when things get dire. Sometimes I go for a 5/4 so I don’t get too obsessive about it all. Another part is saying, “Please stop. Please stop. This feels awful.” That’s one of the voices in my head, probably mine, yapping. In turn, my thighs go through waves of wanting to vomit, like peristalsis moving from gut to legs; my lower back finds various positions to complain in, as do arms, shoulders, toes, hands. My saddle is up in my business, stabbing me in my junk. All skin on the windward side is inexorably being chilled to numbness, along with much of the leeward side of my arse.

My nose is keeping up a consistent drip, a rivulet of watery snot coating my upper lip. Eyes get in on the game too, and my mouth is pulled into what would be described as a “horrible rictus”. I try and remember to make it a smiley one. Apparently that makes suffering easier. “Oh God, I’m going to die. I can’t bear anymore.” goes me, as I keep going, round and round, soaking up aches and enduring the road hammering up into me, heaving cold air in and out of lungs.

So I was riding like that, pretty typical, and it was one of the truly cold days of January, there’s been a light dusting of fine, very dry snow, which ran along the ground beside me in the tailwind. The sun was low and doing that sublime winter thing where the air is iridescent, like it could almost be the arctic. This was around Tempelhofer Feld, the old airport in central Berlin, now a vast parkland. It was empty. I’d seen a couple of runners, and that was it. A 6.6km loop in almost 3 square kilometres in the middle of a city, empty. And I thought, “I should write about cold weather training and suffering and endurance.” Then it warmed up and we didn’t have much of a winter until this last week.

Winter in Berlin is broken compared to when I first arrived, almost a decade ago.

Below -5° extra layers offer diminishing comfort, especially if there’s wind raking the numbers even lower. Air feels like cold liquid. Effort doesn’t generate heat that makes it to the surface or extremities. During 90 minutes of riding, once the initial warm-up buffers against the cold, it’s a slow leeching of heat, sense, motors skills, thinking. My legs feel naked, my cheeks raw. The airport field empties somewhere around -5° also. A handful of runners, some uncomfortable commuters grinding towards heat death, if it’s sunny, one or two huddled out of the wind, sucking in what little warmth can be felt. The sun hangs low and weak above the horizon, far away. The air soaks up all its heat, passes none on.

I can feel my body locking into position, I try and shift more, get on the drops, get a little more aerodynamic, more forward and back on the saddle, occasionally stand up to shake some fatigue from my legs. All the while, nose goes drip, drip, drip. It’s a race between hypothermia and getting the laps in. Pretty bloody stupid.

Today, -6° and 25km/h wind flowing Finland and the Baltic, I tried to think into words the experience of getting through a session of this. Already I forget what it’s like. I remember arriving home, fingers and thoughts slushy and slow, getting into the shower to recover, after-care, kind of like a BDSM session, the very not pleasant ache of blood returning to the surface, and how cold, like cuts of meat from a butcher’s coldstore, my thighs and arse were.

There’s a training measurement called Functional Threshold Power, which you find by hammering as utterly hard as you can for a full hour. There’s a shorter, 20 minute version which gives a more-or-less similar number, but somehow doesn’t conjure the grotesque horror of laying yourself out for 60 minutes. Even backing off for 10 seconds is enough for some recovery, and it becomes not so much a physical limit, as a mental one of meeting “Please stop!” with “Just one more.” for each pedal stroke and each breath, each inhale and exhale, and doing that for each minute and all those seconds. And that’s not to diminish the physical wretchedness, gasping like a walrus, feeling blood draining through legs, everything going jelly. I’ve never done the FTP test, mainly because it terrifies me, mentally I’m not sure I could remain so utterly consistent for a full hour. I might like suffering, but I only play in the shallows.

Back to the cold, then. Probably also playing. Like the heat, you can’t really train for cold. You can understand how one’s body and person responds to and behaves in decreasing temperature, build a familiarity, but actually train for it like training for hill climbing or cobblestone riding or riding muddy off-cambers? It’s like the death zone in mountaineering, over around 8000 metres where there’s insufficient oxygen to keep you alive. Once you’re in there, you’re dying, it’s just physiology and the day that determines how quick. Too hot or too cold, same thing, your body is shutting down.

I want to veer off into pleasure here. Thinking about where I scrape out grains of pleasure and ecstasy in my life. This suffering is pleasure. During and after. Each pedal stroke, one after the other, I find a way with enduring, persevering with discomfort. It becomes only me, my breathing, the cold and wet. I become untouchable. When I was a dance student, and in the years immediately after, I was trained in the ceaseless analysis of self dancing, like picking a scab. Climbing was an escape from this. I never asked questions too close to the ones dance worries incessantly: Why do I do this? How do I do this? Perhaps now I’m stronger in myself resisting questions like these. Not all acts must be subject to dissection and justification — but having maybe a certitude or confidence in doing these things without converting to language why or how — or even considering these questions relevant, I can think about what happens when I subject myself to discomfort.

Finding language then, for things I don’t contemplate or consider in words. Finding a language of pleasure, of which ecstasy is part of the terrain, when as a life lived, there is little in the way of conventional pleasure.

[edit] I started thinking about writing cold weather training a year ago, February 2nd, 2017. A year later, February 25th and 26th, just before I went to Australia, when winter turned on some proper brutal weeks, I wrote most of this. I’d planned to write more, edit it a bit, something, things which didn’t happen. Now it’s July 21st, the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers in Europe on record, Berlin has been having weeks on and off of 30°+ days, I find it strange to think of and remember that particular day in February in this heat. I’ve been training a lot since the start of May, it’s become, or becoming something of an artwork (like my blog is a life project), one of the solo endurance performances I’ve been thinking around. I wanted to write about those, so it makes sense to start with this, if for no other reason than keeping my notes in order.

Image

Scienceworks Bluestone Wall Panorama

This is my commitment to perseverance, endurance, and suffering. In panorama. 120 metres of finger-ripping bluestone, of which I’ve worked out maybe 10 metres. I had a quick climb yesterday before going to Williamstown Beach, and again today before seeing beautiful Paea, and later most excellent Emile. Some moves became a small sequence. It’s a delight. Thin edges, feet smearing on nubs, a right-hand pincher that swaps to a gaston via a vertical crack between two blocks where the mortar fell out, just enough to get the edge of middle and tip of index finger of my other hand into, then another tiny edge to get my left hand to a side pull on the same pincher after I’ve reached wide right with my foot to a rather good edge and going for an invisible single-fingertip pocket where a sea shell fell out, all stretched out and pulling myself into the rock. When it came together, along with the moves leading into that … this is where I belong.

Gallery

Balaclava: The Bluestone Railway Bridges

Those two railway bridges: Grosvenor St and Nightingale St. I would start on the south bluestone wall of Grosvenor, do six laps, right-to-left and left-to-right, then move onto the north side, slightly harder in the last half. Then if my fingers had any skin left, I’d go up to Nightingale St and work on the north side from the left — the south side had all this hardware clogging it, street signs and other rubbish. That north side was always the hardest thing I’d climbed, not sure if even out on real rock, in the Grampians or Guangdong, I climbed anything harder. The repetition appealed to me, same thing over and over, having a relationship with the rock. I’d tape my fingertips to get through the last laps, but in the end it was attrition, my skin would give out first. In winter, the first lap or two would be agony as the cold rock cut in, harder to climb but something proper in enduring it. There’s more graffiti now, about the same amount of dirt and clag, a few marks of chalk, unlikely to be my leftovers, even though they mark my route. Emile walked with me as I traced my moves, memory in physicality, movement, emotion.

Image

Balaclava: Edge of Doom Revisited

April 12, 2004. I took a photo of my fingers crimping a small, diagonal edge in the sunlight. I blogged it as Edge of Doom. It was the start of the last tough string of moves before finishing the right-to-left traverse, a deeply satisfying hold and one reliably likely to spit me off the wall. March 27, 2018, I’m standing there with Emile, walking alongside the wall remembering all the holds and moves. I haven’t seen or touched these trio of walls in more than ten years, but the memory — physical, mental, emotional — feels like those ten years were snipped out and time on either side stitched together. With a pair of climbing shoes it would have been an immediate return to that familiar rock. It’s also easier than the Scienceworks wall. The hardest parts of Nightingale St, the horrible slopers and awkward combination of edges, gastons, and that very weird thumb-push from underneath keeping me attached just long enough to slap through — a wall I never completed even though I strung together individual sections — are around the average of Scienceworks wall. I’d love to come back and spend some weeks just doing laps on all these.

Image

Westgate Bridge from Stony Creek Park

The bridge is an endless, low serpent stepping across the marshland. I took Onyx’ bike and rode back to Scienceworks, to the long bluestone wall on the side of the Yarra. I haven’t climbed bluestone in ten years. Fingers and body remember but cannot. I walk from one end to the other and back, more than 100 metres of hard climbing in both directions, feeling the rock with fingertips and toes. I remember when I first started climbing the railway bridges in Balaclava, East St. Kilda, it took me months to be able to string together one traverse, months more to reverse it, months again to do the other side of the road. This is the same, but harder.

Climbing walls to get at science. Climbing walls around the back when there’s a locked gate up the front side. Climbing walls “like, it’s literally a metaphor, lol.” In the end, I find the first several moves. Still more than 100 metres to go.

A Year Of My Heart

A year ago, I decided to get all analytic on my training. Mainly I just like tech and pretty representations of data. So I bought a heart rate sensor. And now it’s been a year of me using it almost every time I train. Which means I can look at a year in the life of Frances training, with all the … whatever that reveals.

What does it reveal, Frances?

Well, other Frances. I trained 156 times — that I recorded, let’s say 170 because I pretty much did not train without it unless I forgot either sensor or phone. For a total of 190 hours — there’d be a few more in that for the times my phone battery died. For a measly distance of 1481 kilometres — of actual training rides, not including cross-town, Kreuzberg-Wedding type stuff, so maybe double that at least, no wonder I spend so much on my bike and it feels like it’s constantly in need of repair. Hey, just like me! (Wow, there’s a realisation, right there.) About 1/3 of that was ballet, another third cycling (mostly road at the moment, but some cyclocross), 1/6 bouldering, and the remaining 1/6th a mix of yoga and core training.

Oh, and supposedly I burned around 121,000 calories, which is about 60 days of eating 2000 calories a day. I’m not really convinced about this. I think it’s more of an imaginary number, and not the mathematical kind.

What else? Speed, both average and top are derived from iPhone GPS. I’m not sure how much dispersion there is in this, but I suspect it can easily be 5km/h or more in either direction. My next gear purchase (after … umm … new brakes and probably new rear derailleur pulley wheels) is a speed/cadence sensor — which probably means also a proper cycling head unit instead of phone …

I seem to unintentionally train in 9-10 week blocks, then give up in despair for a couple of weeks, then, like a goldfish circling its bowl, forget all that and get right back into it. Knowing that this might be my natural rhythm though, it could make sense to train in 9 week blocks with a week off, if for nothing else than keeping my enthusiasm. Also I doubt I’ve been training like that this year, my rhythm’s all over the place.

My maximum heart rate seems to be constant around 190 (excluding the huge jumps into the 200s that were either the battery going flat, the sensor getting jostled, or actual random heart weirdness from having stupid fun training in -10º weather). I dunno, I have no context or expertise for reading anything into these figures, other than I seem to like training if it involves a degree of discomfort and some suffering — which I didn’t need a heart rate sensor to tell me.

So, a year of data. What to do with it? No idea! Will I keep using it? For now, yes. It’s become automatic to put it on. I don’t really use it during training, though I’d use it for cycling if I could find an iPhone mount that could hold my ancient 4S. But mostly I do it on feel, and that corresponds pretty closely to the various heart rate zones. I do do regular post-training gawks, to compare how I felt with actual data — and knowing that data across sessions gives me a bit of a feeling for where I’m at on a particular day or week. And one other thing: I train a lot less than I think.

Worth it for seeing a year of training all pretty like that? Yup!