Tuesday 27 March 2018

Is The Artist In Residence? The 6th of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

"Is the artist in residence?
Who Do You Think You Are?"

"I am that soundless, boundless, bitter sea,
Out of whose depths life wells eternally…"

"Is the artist in residence?
Who Do You Think You Are?"

"I am the veiled Isis of the shadows of the Sanctuary
I am she that moveth as a shadow behind the tides of
Death and Birth"

"Is the artist in residence?
Who Do You Think You Are?"

"I am older than time and forgotten of the gods.
No man may look upon my face and live,
For in the hour he parteth my veil, he dieth…"

Dion Fortune’s Sacred Drama, ‘The Rite of Isis,’ was performed this Sunday 25th March 2018 to a small invited audience at Glastonbury Constitutional Club. It represented the 6th of my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ everyday-art events and ended with the following words:  

"Depart ye in silence to meditate upon the Mysteries, 
and let who will send in a record to the Temple."

Let it be noted, this is my record… 

Once upon a time, as one of the founder members of Volcano Theatre, I made and toured theatre professionally for almost three decades. But not until now, at the age of 53 and reclaiming the status of amateur again, have I had the chance to perform ‘The Rite of Isis’, and play ‘The Eternal Woman.’ It is said, you live life forwards but it can only be understood backwards. I’m now coming to understand what this means…

In 1986, ‘Street Captives’ saw me play a psychopathic, peroxide skin-head, terrorising an innocent-but-proven-guilty nouveau-riche-YUPPY-wine-bar owner – people didn’t know if I was a boy or girl. I didn’t tell them…

In 1988, ‘V’ - a red-mohicaned hermaphroditic, muscle-bound member of a Jesus-cult-class-war-poetry-gang. Two girls, two boys, we all wore big monkey-boots, skirts and make-up. Gender didn’t enter into it. We were all both sexes and neither…

In V with Eddie Ladd, Steve Fisher and Paul Davies. Photo by Andrew Jones
In 1992, ‘Medea’ - a lycra-clad wide-eyed, false-eyelashed, Euripidean innocent-turned-vigilante. I played the archetypal anti-heroine getting dumped by the archetypal hero. 

In Medea Sexwar. Photo by Andrew Jones

In 1994, ‘L.O.V.E’ - the sabatier-wielding, Dark Lady Diva of Shakespeare’s sonnets, fantasy woman wreaking nightmare revenge. Woman on the wild side. I imagined myself a transvestite.

In L.O.V.E. Photo by Andrew Jones

In 1996, ‘How to Live’ – a buttoned-up, Ibsenite baby-killing hysteric. The feminine under pressure culminating in an explosion of vamping, tango and crime passionnel. 

In How To Live. Photo by Andrew Jones

And these were just the early years… 

I fell in love with theatre as it offered a medium to awaken the imagination, channel powerful energies and to offer a genuine transformative experience - hopefully for the audience as well as the performers. Our theatre at Volcano was intended to rail against ‘the sloth and stale achievement’ of something or other. I can’t now remember what it was, though there was some kind of exorcism going on for sure. I liked my theatre extreme – Dionysian rather than Apollonian - or not at all. I wanted theatre to awaken, to charge the audience with life and to offer a space for transformation and a channel for the creative force to come through into the world. 

Paul Davies as Jason in Medea Sexwar. Photo by Andrew Jones

These characters I played and our extreme style enabled me and us to play with ideas of rigid power hierarchies - of class, culture and gender - in a non-naturalistic way. Volcano enabled me to play with expectations of what a woman looked like and what a woman did. Inspired by the wave of Feminism of the 70’s and 80’s, I wanted to explore and explode rigid gender archetypes which imprisoned the male as well as the female. I also loved to explore the male and female continuum within myself and others. This was perhaps where my urge to perform 'The Rite of Isis' as part of my current '7 Sundays in Spring' project began. But this time, I didn't want to present it as ‘just theatre’ but to earnestly attempt to invoke her and bring Isis into the room ‘as if’ it were really happening. For this, I need to make the transition from theatre in a black-box or proscenium arch to Sacred Theatre or Ritual. More on this later…

In my 20's, and 30's, I made myself a willing sacrifice to Dionysus, the hungry God of the grape, harvest, ritual madness and theatre. The style with which Volcano was branded by critics was ‘Physical Theatre’. For me, this was a shallow, unhelpful description of what was at stake when we donned our gear and went into the arena. I felt we were channelling something powerful, calling on or summoning up the gods. Those who liked our work, liked the unpredictability, the chthonic, chaotic energy we drew on and created. Those who didn’t like our work saw us as crass trouble-makers creating exhibitionist, violent theatre for its own sake. We didn’t have theatre training so especially in the beginning, we celebrated the cult of the amateur (from amare – to love/ amator – lover). I believe we were tapping into the ‘the spirit of the times’ of the 80’s – post Punk, post Miner’s Strike and the early attempts by a Thatcherite Conservative Government to dismantle the Welfare State and privatise the commons. An upwelling of generational frustration and creative energy found expression through us and came onto the stage. This was alchemy. I’d just finished a Degree in Psychology, Paul was working on a PHD in Utopian Socialism. These ideas spawned our cri de coer - our unspoken Manifesto which came to be written through the numerous pieces we created. It was serious business, though there was ecstatic joy also. We were young, we were tapping in to the energy of the young gods. Either that or we were trying to topple the old ones.

Simon Thorpe in Medea Sexwar. Photo by Andrew Jones

All ideas, forms and entities in order to evolve, need to destroy themselves and start afresh.  We consciously attempted to create each new show, with a different style and fresh perspective. Each represented a response to and an attempt to break away from the last – especially if it was a success. It was hard for bookers to know what we’d do next. They always wanted the ‘old’ tried and tested show. We wanted to make new things. But there was always a risk with the new – sometimes our shows just didn’t work. Some would say, “Medea Sexwar was my favourite show” or,  “why don’t you do another show like L.O.V.E?” or “V was the best thing you ever did”. Sometimes it felt that everyone wanted the old shows and the times when we were young - the times when they were young. Nostaligia is a powerful feeling, yearning for the time that ‘always is and never was’. I have a soft spot for old Punk rockers but couldn’t see myself becoming one.

Russell Gomer in The Town That Went Mad. Photo by Andrew Jones

The question ‘How To Live’ is one which we spent a lot of time considering during rehearsals of our 1996 Henrik Ibsen mash-up show. It is a different form of the phrase, ‘The Art of Living’, which I first came across in the psychologist Erich Fromm’s ground-breaking books a few years earlier. I carry this question with me and am attempting to ‘live into it,’ at least until I die. In order to keep living into this question in a way which felt authentic, I needed to leave my beloved theatre company and the community of international touring theatre which had given meaning to so many years of my life. This was a neccessary but painful severance to be sure. 

In order to keep answering this question, I dedicated myself to a new form and formed a new company, Emergence, dedicated to practising 'the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet'.

Volcano is still going on, magnificently lead by Paul Davies, the archetype of shape-shifter, magician, hermit and fool (I mean this in the nicest possible sense). I am pleased and proud it is still in existence and still making waves in the world. Perhaps its most exciting work, being with young people supporting them to find their own voices and space to flex their own muscles of passion, creativity and identity. The legacy of the work has to be inherited by a new generation and the early work perhaps has to be forgotten or at least re-made anew.

And so, after many years of self-imposed exile and dedicating myself to a life of theatrical sobriety I returned to performance - or a form of it - for my 6th of 7 Sundays in Spring. Our enactment of ‘The Rite of Isis’ as well as invoking the feminine principle was perhaps my love letter to theatre, to the creative act, to the irrepressible Awen, the generative energy which arises from the eternal cauldron of inspiration.

The performance of the Rite of Isis was the 6th of my 7 Sundays in Spring everyday durational art pieces. 7 Days of significant activities spread throughout a 7-week period during Lent (Lenten:old English for Spring time). These 7 Sundays signify a statement of intent, a marking, a celebration, a time-based creative ceremony and the culmination of a year-long process which began in Spring 2017 and the start of my ‘Creative Wales’ journey.

Before we return to Isis, the archetypal feminine and her rites, I need to fill in a bit of detail. As those who have received one before know, a ‘Creative Wales’ award is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s intended to support an artist to research, develop and take risks with no exact foreknowledge of what the outcome might be. I wanted to honour the radical spirit of enquiry behind this unique award and take it seriously. To this end, I have devoted a year of my life (and more by the time I finish) tracking the deeply unpredictable, often destructive process which is creativity. I've also needed to rethink my work, my purpose and the name by which I call myself.

I’d like to share with you, the challenge I set myself in the original application which was called, ‘Who Do You think You Are’?

I used to be 'Fern from Volcano' - co-founder, theatre maker and performer for over 25 years -  the epitome of a fearless, powerful physical theatre performer. I used to be an artist.

As I aged I could no longer do the kind of extreme performance with which I was identified. The Volcano literally burnt out of me. This led to me questioning my effectiveness as a performer and theatre maker. Simultaneously, I started to look for different avenues for creative expression. Rather than shouting "WAKE UP!" from centre stage, I felt an urge to leave the stage entirely, cross the divide between myself and the audience and ask those anonymous people sitting in the dark: "What is happening to our world, and what do we want to do about it?"

After the most transformative year of my life as Arts Council of Wales Clore Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme in 2009/10, I felt a responsibility to put the ideas I'd been exposed to into practice. I was inspired to put my efforts into helping create a sustainable future whilst also living in accord with the natural world.To this end, I created Emergence to share as widely as possible artists' power to imagine and create new alternatives and stories. Emergence has been successfully serving the 'bigger picture,' catalyzing conversations and action around sustainability since 2010.

In order to create Emergence, I stepped back from my own creative work, focussing on learning the skills to host transformational spaces for connection, dialogue and change. As well as being a performer, workshop leader  and theatre director, I became a fund-raiser, project manager, producer, researcher, writer, facilitator, curator and most recently, documentary filmmaker. I am also now a coach, celebrant and cranio-sacral therapist.

I live creatively, continually learning new skills and facing new challenges. It's this spirit of enquiry that is the signature of Emergence. The biggest challenge for me now would be to STOP the onward momentum of Emergence in order to re-imagine, re-frame and re-establish my own practice and be able to call myself an artist again. But, what might a practice look like which draws on and integrates all of these skills? What form would MY ART take? What role would MY ART play in creating a 'life-sustaining planet' for future generations?' I want to serve these transitional times in the most effective way I can as a change-maker - as an ARTIST.

A Major Creative Wales Award could give me time to find what this new art practice might be. I am passionate about participatory art, combining celebration with activism and finding ways to reconnect with one another, the land and our deep creativity. I want to try out and test different ideas in front of, and alongside people in a variety of urban/rural settings and indoor/outdoor locations, offering myself as 'artist in residence' in each of these places These 'residencies,' titled: 'Is the Artist in Residence?' will serve as 'creative laboratories' providing the inspiration that comes from working with different people in different places. I aim to conduct a number of creative experiments asking, “Is the Artist in Residence?” At the end of my Creative Wales, I hope to know whether or not “The Artist Is Resident Within”.

My original plan was to begin my Creative Wales enquiry on 1st February 2017 and continue for a full year. I’ve now extended this in order to continue until September 2018 and the plan is to write, publish and deliver a book documenting this entire transformative process. The gestation period of an elephant is 18 – 22 months. After I’ve finished, I’ll have been going for about the same amount of time. It’s easy to get lost in a lengthy change process which invites deep and significant enquiry. I’ve returned to my application many times over this past year, for clarity, re-orientation and to remind myself of the original reasons for embarking on this Creative Wales journey. “Who do you think you are”? This question has been my touchstone and compass at each and every stage.

Creative Wales has taken me to many places and I have travelled many miles on the terrain of the inner and outer realms! I’ve studied ritual at Schumacher College; Way of Council in Nature with Ancient Healing Ways; participated in World Work Deep Democracy in Greece; consulted The Oracle in Delphi; trained as a Wilderness Guide in California at The School of Lost Borders and paid homage to writer of 'The Re-enchantment of Art', Suzi Gablik in Virginia. For me, creativity is about constantly being at the edge of the known and constantly listening to what wants to emerge through me. I have learned to trust during this process and know that I am not working in isolation from the generative capacity of the universe. In these times of beauty and sorrow, what art, action, activity, ritual wants to create itself through me? 

With Suzi Gablik. Photo by Tacie

“Who do you think you are?"
“I am an experiential ritual artist."
“Is the artist in residence?"
“I believe she is."
“I believe the artist is present inside all of us if we invite her in."

Creative Wales has enabled me to dialogue with this voice and over a six-month period as ‘artist in residence’ at a number of Welsh venues I've created opportunities for others to do this too. 

For my first residency in September 2017 at Ammanford Miners Theatre by invitation from Carmarthenshire Theatres, I stowed myself alone, sleeping, eating, planning and making ritual for 7 days. 

The second, 7-day residency at Small World Theatre in Cardigan in October, enabled me to work alongside 7 local artists re-constructing conversations published 25 years ago by the artist and writer Suzi Gablik. With Sean Vicary, Ann Shrosbree, Ruth Jones, Avi Allen, Jess Allen, Simon Whitehead and Debbie Rees, I performed ‘7 Conversations Before the End of Time’. Together we explored Gablik’s manifesto for a ‘Re-enchantment of Art’ and shared dialogues on art, life and spiritual renewal with public audiences. 

Residency number three in November, saw me move North, to Aberystwyth Arts Centre to guide a 7-day ‘Rite of Passage’ for 7 women artists from Wales, UK and overseas, marking, honouring and celebrating their creativity in service of life on earth.

Conversations Before The End Of Time on Sea Jade Beach. Photo by Fern Smith

The fourth residency didn’t happen in the way I’d originally anticipated. It became a whole project in itself…

‘7 Sundays in Spring’ evolved out of a deep place of darkness, dreaming and mystery in the early days of 2018. I was speaking to Suzi Gablik. After my visit to her last Summer, we’ve been having regular catch-ups on the phone. We were wondering how might we live with an open heart through the darkest of times? What might be an appropriate creative response to these times of beauty and sorrow? ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ evolved from those conversations as if to give a space to enquire into these questions. As Rilke says, don’t look for answers but instead, live into the questions. Instead of a 7-day residency at one arts venue, it evolved into 7 days, one Sunday each week spread over 7 weeks starting on 18th February and ending on the 1st April. It morphed into “a residency in my own life” with “all the women I’ve ever met”. It has taken me to Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Powys, and Gwynedd and involved women from all over the country.

And now for my 6th of the 7 Sundays it has taken me outside Wales to Glastonbury, a place associated not just with mud and music but pilgrimage, myth, healing, scholarship, spiritual practise and the traditions of the Mystery Schools.

There are times in history where the balance needs to shift. I believe we are in one of them now. These times are cyclical, though I don’t quite know of a time in history where the balance has been in the other direction. We live in times which appear to celebrate ultra-masculinity, ultra-mechanisation, ultra-consumerism, ultra-individualism, ultra-extremism and the dominant paradigm is ultra-suspicious of difference. Thankfully this is not the whole story. In the cracks in between, we glimpse the possibility of more balance, we see new stories, the emergence of ancient wisdom, dispersed leadership, difference celebrated, DIY creativity, compassionate action and many people, young and old seeking a deeper relationship with life, other beings and the planet. This new-old story, represents a shift towards the feminine principle, a move towards balance, integration and wholeness. This is not about the reassertion of the female over the male but a recognition that life cannot function or sustain itself when the feminine is suppressed or denegrated.

For my 6th of 7 Sundays in Spring in a small hall in Glastonbury a grand experiment took place - one designed to redress the balance by invoking the feminine principle. The Rite of Isis is a ritual designed to appeal to the very foundations of our being in order to bring the cosmic forces of the masculine and the feminine into alignment. Dion Fortune’s life's work was to bring the masculine and feminine polarities into creative balance, not in order to neutralise or cancel out the opposites but to bring them into creative and dynamic equilibrium which has the potential to manifest wholeness and health in both the individual and in the world. Dion Fortune was an artist and writer and perhaps one of the most over-looked spiritual teachers and activists of the 20th century. 

Dion Fortune. Unknown source.

The birth of theatre was of course connected to celebrations of significant rites and festivals. It celebrated and marked what a society needed to reflect upon and learn in order to sustain itself and to contribute towards the future health of the community. When I was performing the early work of Volcano, I felt instinctively and perhaps unconsciously that I was enacting some kind of rite which might also contribute towards human and planetary health and evolution. Life is lived forwards but can only be understood backwards…

For the 6th Sunday, a small band of friends and myself – not a theatre company, not actors or professional artists - enacted an ancient drama with the express intention of bringing through ‘The Feminine Principle’. Dion Fortune’s sacred drama 'The Rite of Isis' was re-enacted last Sunday to a small assembled gathering. It was everything, it was nothing. It was the beat of a butterfly’s wing and as powerful as a tsunami. It mixed the sacred and the profane. Isis, the Goddess who is all women, all Goddesses, along with her Priest and High Priest, representing the divine masculine came into communion to re-make the worlds. Meanwhile the hubbub of Bingo was being called over the P.A. in the bar downstairs. Two worlds collided. The first number called was 13. Unlucky for some. 

“All the Gods are one God. All the Goddesses are one Goddess.”

“Number 3, on it’s own.”

“Let us consecrate the Priestess of Isis as our pythoness.”

“Legs 11.”

“The lonely earth is hungering after thee. Come in the night, give light that we may see, O Isis of men’s hearts, come unto me.”

"Clickety click, 66… Doctors orders, Number 9…Knock at the door, Number 4."

And so the dialogue continued. The sacred and the profane. Which was which? Bingo, ritual, ritual, bingo. It didn’t matter. All life was there in the Avalon Constitutional Club last Sunday night. That is the magic of Glastonbury. That is the magic of the ‘7 Sundays in Spring’.

Avalon Constitutional Club. Photo by Fern Smith

"Consummatum est. Those who have received the Touch of Isis have received the opening of the gates of the Inner Life. For them the tides of the Moon shall flow and ebb and flow in their cosmic rhythm. To them that adore Isis, she brings tranquillity, and to the favoured few she comes as in a dream. Depart ye in silence to meditate upon the Mysteries, and let who will send in a record to the Temple."

With these final words, The Rite of Isis ends and our small invited audience files quietly out into the night.

Later that same evening, one of the witnesses posted their record to the Temple of Facebook. I include it here with gratitude and with permission.

Tonight, in Glastonbury, I attended a ritual of the Rite of Isis. It was presented in a simply furnished room, the lighting focused on the four participants to create an ambiance of mystery and potency. Those in the audience waited in silence for the performance to begin.

I found the atmosphere generated an intensity of feeling as one was drawn into an evocation of ancient deities. My own sense was of witnessing an initiation during which one surrendered life to be rebirthed into a sanctified mode of being.

The experience felt much more like a drama of mythic proportions as human sought to encounter divinity in a sacrifice which demanded a shedding of cold reason and an embracing of the power of imagination. A magical working of self discovery.

Thus an alchemical transformation was achieved in which access to earth's energies empowered the soul and restored a sanctity to one's life. The sacred became present and one was drawn into the ritual as a co-creator of the sublime ecstasy of union with the divine feminine.

Many thanks to Fern Smith and her company of magicians for organising and presenting this event. As an enactment of magical ritual it delivered a high emotional impact, served as a deep meditation and left me feeling privileged to have been there.

johnegan. 25/3/18

Boundless respect, love and gratitude to my partner Philip Ralph, my teacher Ian Rees, Director of the Annwn Founation and my dear friend Aly Rees for trusting the process and making this happen.

And finally as I write this, my mind casts forward to this coming Sunday, and the 7th and final of my '7 Sundays in Spring.' It is an all-night vigil to remember the lost, forgotten and the dying. The women who come will hold a candle in the darkness instead of railing against the night. We will gather at Capel y Griag in Furnace, Mid Wales on Saturday 31st March in the evening and hold vigil through the night until dawn on Easter Day, Sunday 1st April. All women and those identifying as women are invited to join us. Contact me through the email listed below.

Fern Smith is an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Recipient and has just discovered with the help of a close friend, that she is an 'Experiential Ritual Artist'

If you are interested in joining one of the 7 Sundays in Spring gatherings contact me at fern@emergence-uk.org.

Future work includes:

Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)

Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)

Monday 19 March 2018

Horses in the Castle: Women Dancing on the 5th of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

Instructions for A Dawn Art Ritual to Welcome the Spring Equinox

·      Be a woman. Or identify as one for a while.

·      Download Patti Smith’s album ‘Horses’ onto your phone or recording device. Get yourself a pair of headphones.

·      Put the date in your diary on or within a few days of the Spring Equinox.

·      Arrange to meet with others, or decide to do this as a solo art ritual.

·      Get up in the early hours in time to be somewhere special where you can see the sun rise.

·      Put on a black dress (and lots of layers depending on the outside temperature!).

·      Make a dedication aloud or silently to someone or something.

·      Put on your headphones and prepare for your silent disco. Press ‘Play’ at dawn.

·      Dance. Laugh. Cry. Sing along. Go wild!

·      Leave an offering and/or give gratitude to the place.

·      Return home moved, enlivened, re-vivified and knowing you have connected to the rhythms of the universe as well as your inner artist and ritualista.

Woman Dancing. Photo by Phil Ralph

It is dawn on Sunday 18th March 2018 - the Sunday closest to the Spring Equinox. The location is Dinefwr Castle, ancient seat of power of the Great Welsh line of the Princes of Deheubarth. Rhys ap Tewdwr (d.1093), Gruffudd ap Rhys (d.1137), Rhys ap Gruffudd (d.1197), Rhys Gryg (d.1233), Rhys Mechyll (d.1244), Rhys Fychan (d.1271) and so it continues. Looking at the lineage, it is of course an all-male line-up. And now….

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine...”

These first words of Patti Smith’s iconic album ‘Horses’ see thirteen women scattering through virgin snow to the various parts of the castle. There are women on the ramparts, women stationed at the four directions around the tower, women surveying the Tywi Valley from the high lookout and women down below in the keep. The women have taken over the castle. Thirteen women are gathered here - thirteen Dancing Women who are participating in a 7-week time-based project I’m organising called: ‘7 Sundays in Spring.’ This is art. This is ritual. This is prayer. This is hard to articulate….
Dinefwr Castle icicles. Photo by Eleanor Brown
It is blizzard conditions. The MET Office have issued travel warnings. The snow is falling. There are ten-inch icicles hanging from the stone arches, it is slippery underfoot. There is common-sense but there has been no risk-assessment. And still the women dance.

Women Dancing at Dinefwr Castle. Photo by Eleanor Brown
This is a gift given and a gift received. This is an everyday art event. An event which honours ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ in my lifetime. It is conceived by me, an artist, who holds a deep-seated conviction that we are all artists or have the capacity to be so if we are able to create the spaces in our lives to do or be it. It is my wish to make art experiences where there is as little separation as possible between artist and audience. These are transitional times we have never seen the like of which before. We are all in this together. I also believe that ritual can help us create community and connection. It is in the space between us that the alchemy happens. Yes, this is immersive. Yes, this is experiential. Yes, this is site-specific and site-responsive. This is where art and ritual blur, merge, and marry. Whilst respecting traditions, I am not wedded to one particular path or ‘right way’ of doing things. As the ‘School of LostBorders’ - where I trained last year - puts it so beautifully, this is about re-finding and trusting our deep connection to ‘self-generated ceremony.’ As long as we have the right intention, it is  creative, democratic, and needs no specialised knowledge or skills to participate in or practise this work.

In my invitation to participate I emphasise that ‘Women Dancing’ is not about being ‘A Dancer:’

We welcome you if you are in your first decade or your last. We welcome you whether you love dancing but never do, or love dancing and do so at every possible opportunity. We welcome you if you love dancing and know you can, or love dancing but think you can’t. This is about dancing for the joy of it, dancing because your soul needs to or dancing because that’s the only thing you can do in this time of global confusion and uncertainty.

You can dance for the sun, the earth, the sky, someone you love or someone you’ve lost. The ritual will be the ancient rite of moving our bodies in celebration in the open air. It’s about the feel not the look of what we do. There may be two of us there may be two thousand. Those of us that turn up will be the right ones.
Dancing Woman. Photo by Eleanor Brown
Women Dancing is in honour of the Spring Equinox, and also this year, as I’ve been re-iterating in these blogs, it is dedicated to ‘all the women I’ve ever met’. It is also an honouring of one of the most significant living artists of our times – Patti Smith. Me also being a Smith, I trust I’m somehow related to her - or at least I’m a part of a very large and extended family!

We thirteen women are aged from 20 to 70 and are from all over the country. We have each put on a black dress and walked in silence through the dim light of the early hours and the falling snow to get here. We are wearing ball-gowns, skinny black dresses, big flouncy skirts, shiny-sheeny numbers and layers and layers of clothes to protect us against the sub-zero temperatures and arctic winds. The invitation states emphatically that the event will go ahead regardless of the weather but none of us were expecting this….
The walk to the castle. Photo by Eleanor Brown

2018 has been one of the coldest and most snowy years on record… These are the erratic, climatically chaotic conditions we find ourselves dancing in for this the 5th year of ‘Women Dancing’ in a row. We are longing for the Spring, ready for the sun. We need to do this.

For the first four years, ‘Women Dancing’ has been held at Caswell Beach on Gower. At the time, I’d lived in Swansea on and off for over 30 years. At dawn, Caswell is one of the most beautiful beaches on Gower, the first recorded ‘Area of Natural Beauty’ in the UK. Last year I moved to Dinefwr Park outside Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire and have spent five Autumnal and Wintry months getting to know this extraordinary place. It is a place of stories with a most colourful and unlikely past. This year’s ‘Women Dancing’ is in some way a celebration of this land and the many birds, beasts and beings that currently live or have ever lived here.  Dinefwr also has one of the most beautiful and dramatically located castles in Wales and its doors are open all hours. It felt like an opportunity too good to miss. And so, ‘Women Dancing’ in 2018 came to be part of the ‘7 Sundays’ project as: ‘Horses in the Castle’.

‘Horses’ is the name of Patti Smith’s first and most enduring album. Patti Smith is 71 this year and is still touring and performing songs from the album. For over forty years ‘Horses’ has represented one of the most powerful musical statements ever made. My friends at Wikipedia tell me:

Horses has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest and most influential albums in the history of the American punk rock movement, as well as one of the greatest albums of all time. Horses has also been cited as a key influence on a number of succeeding punk, post-punk, and alternative rock acts, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, R.E.M. and PJ Harvey.

According to Smith, Horses was a conscious attempt "to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different ... I wasn't targeting the whole world. I wasn't trying to make a hit record.

The album lasts for 47 minutes – or it does if you happen to have the bonus track live cover of ‘My Generation’ which was recorded for the 30th anniversary edition. ‘Horses’ is not just a collection of some of the most sublime and rocking songs ever recorded, it also represents a meditation on life, death and memory. It’s both an incantation and prayer and sounds as fresh and iconic today as when it was recorded in 1975.

Following the success and the response to the first ‘Women Dancing’ in 2012, I wondered whether, if I ever did it again, that the music should change? There are of course plenty of significant and incredible albums made by female recording artists. Perhaps ‘Women Dancing’ could dance to a different album every year? I fast decided that it should be ‘Horses’ or nothing. For me, there is no other album like it. I believe it’s akin to one of the great enduring mythic sagas such as ‘The Mabinogion’ or Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ or poetic meditations such as Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. Every time I hear ‘Horses’, I feel something different and I hear different words.

When dancing on the Beach at Caswell I noted the plethora of sea and tidal references in the songs….

There is no land but the land
(up there is just a sea of possibilities)
There is no sea but the sea
(up there is a wall of possibilities)
There is no keeper but the key
(up there there are several walls of possibilities)
Except for one who seizes possibilities, one who seizes possibilities.
(up there)
I seize the first possibility,

I hold the key to the sea of possibilities
There's no land but the land.


Women Dancing at Caswell Beach. Photo by Phil Ralph
And here in this ancient walled castle whilst dancing in a snow storm, I hear:

Snow started falling,
I could hear the angel calling.
We rolled on the ground, he stretched out his wings.
The boy flew away and he started to sing.

Ice, it was shining.
I could feel my heart, it was melting.
I tore off my clothes, I danced on my shoes.
I ripped my skin open and then I broke through.

Break It Up

It is music which can stir up deep memories and connect us powerfully to mood. It also connects to story and place as well as having the ability to somehow commune with the beings that inhabit or are associated with those places.

The Raven is a regular visitor to Dinefwr and is represented on its Heraldic Standard. As we huddle together in a circle in the castle keep at exactly 6.25am in readiness for the dance, Raven flies over croaking a morning greeting. According to Jo, Raven does another fly-by, during the extended track, ‘Birdland’, close to where she is dancing in the upper reaches of the tower:

And where there were eyes were just two white opals, two white opals,
Where there were eyes there were just two white opals
And he looked up and the rays shot
And he saw raven comin' in

And in the same song

It's me, it's me,
I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh now please take me up,
I'm helium raven waitin' for you, please take me up,
Don't let me here…

And he crawled on his back and he went up
Up up up up up up


This morning, as I begin to sit down to write, Raven loudly announces itself sitting atop the tall pine outside the window where I’m working in our little rented cottage in Dinefwr Courtyard. In recent years, I have learnt that if I speak to the universe, the universe often speaks back, whether I can hear it or not.

Thirteen women dancing. Much has been written in many different traditions about the significance of this number. Whatever the truth or otherwise of this, I like it’s ring. It feels mysterious and magical. Anarchic. Mysterious. We are thirteen women artists, activists, writers, poets, seekers, pilgrims, warriors, mothers and daughters. Most of the women have only just met, but on arrival in circle are sharing intimate reflections from the heart. It is powerful hearing our reasons for wanting to dance. It’s a good way to meet your future room-mates too - since I offered as part of the experience an, it-must-be-said, crowded sleepover at Grooms Cottage. Women crammed in, head to toe, sleeping on mats and mattresses in all corners.

The snow added another dimension to Women Dancing. It added challenge. It meant that many other women who had planned to meet us in the morning couldn’t get to us (though some of them danced in their own back-yards instead). I was surprised that none of our number changed their mind at 5am on looking out the window at the blizzard conditions. The snow also added beauty and reminded us of the fragile balance in which our world climatically - and in so many other ways - currently dwells. It also added massive amounts of fun, seeing us slipping, sliding and rolling around in it.  A snowball fight for an encore. A crunchy trudge over the fields on our return, stopping every now and again to make snow angels…
Snow Angel. Photo by Fern Smith
We joke over a big shared breakfast - all giddy on carbs and caffeine after our early rise and crazy dancing - that we like to think we might be ‘woke’ women. It’s hard to ‘wake-up’ and it’s hard to ‘stay woke’ on your own. Things like this help. We have another talking and sharing circle on returning from the castle. It’s touching and powerful hearing how each of us were impacted by the dance.

Many of us remarked on how magical the whole experience had felt and how much fun it had been. We’d enjoyed moving our bodies, dancing alone as well as the many encounters we’d had with others during the dance. One of our number shared that she anticipated a future time – hopefully a while away yet - as she lay dying and was going over the ‘Peak Moments’ of her life, Women Dancing 5 would, she said, definitely be among them (in addition to the Women Dancing that she’d done previously on Caswell Beach!). Another woman and mother of two young ones, shared that she had little opportunity for fun in her own life, since as a single parent she is so strongly aware of her responsibilities. Another, connected by blood to the great Rhys lineage of Dinefwr, spoke powerfully that there was something significant about returning the feminine to Dinefwr – redressing the balance of history by adding her stories, her songs and her dances. Perhaps this is the most significant aspect of these ‘7 Sundays in Spring’. It is not about excluding the male, but honouring the female - since these are Women Only events for the most part.
At Cadair Idris. Photo by Phil Ralph
 In the invitation I sent to ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ I said:

I want to honour the significance of the passing of time between women friends and to honour the nourishment emergent meetings bring. I desire to celebrate and weave the incredible women I know together in a way which feels playful and significant. It will involve gathering 7 different circles of women to celebrate the feminine, creativity, wildness as well as the gifts and mystery inherent in all life.

Yes, this is about sisterhood. Yes, this is about “hashtag me too.” Yes, this is about identifying as women witnessing the beauty and the sorrow of this time. It’s also about honouring the fragile nature of life at a time where things and people appear to be falling apart on a daily basis.

Today as I write this, the snow has disappeared and is but a memory. I am getting messages from the Dancing Women saying that they are ‘still smiling.’ The temperature outside is now a balmy 4 degrees. The sun is shining. Perhaps the long-heralded Spring is come at last. Time passes and Tempus Fugit, as the final track on ‘Horses’, Elegie, reminds me. Life is beautiful, painful, transient. Change is the only constant. The cycles of nature keep turning from Equinox to Solstice and onward to Equinox again. Next week for my 6th of the 7 Sundays in Spring, the clocks will move forward one hour to official British Summer Time. You are invited to join me in Glastonbury for The Rite of Isis. This time men as well as women are equally welcome. Contact me if you’d like to hear more.
Equinox Sunrise. Photo by Eleanor Brown
Fern Smith is an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Recipient and has just discovered with the help of a close friend, that she is an 'Experiential Ritual Artist'

If you are interested in joining one of the 7 Sundays in Spring gatherings contact me at fern@emergence-uk.org.

Future work includes:

Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)

Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)