Effortless Reality

More and more often I see people making the connections between expressive arts (like theater and dance) and martial arts.  That's great!  But I still hear the argument that stage combat is not real because it makes no effort to be real.

There are two mistakes here.  The first is that violence takes a lot of effort.  By far the most difficult thing is willing oneself to do violence.  We are socialized against it.  Most people need to go through a justification process.  Which is why scenarios in which we practice pushing the "go" button are so important.  But people who do violence as part of their jobs as good-guys can often do amazing things with very little effort. 

I recently got to learn from, and play with, Ed Calderon, who works with kidnapping interdiction in Mexico.  We worked on breaking legs using techniques I was already familiar with.  But I've never actually broken someones legs. His demonstrations were all effortless, simple, clear, plain.  He does this for a living.  We also did gnarly head and neck manipulations.  When his hands touched me they were as light as fluttering butterflies.  In fact, in practice, the more effort students put into the techniques, the more poorly they work.  

One of my first glimpses of this effortlessness happened when I was teaching in a detention high-school.  The students were locked-in during the day and were all in trouble with the law.  There was an officer in the room at all times.  I brought a guest martial artists that day, my friend Greg Mooney who was once a clown with Barnum and Bailey Circus.  The students were behaving badly at the beginning. I told them if they behaved perfectly for the rest of class, Greg and I would fight at the end.  Naturally they were perfect for the rest of class.  So Greg and I did an improvised stage-combat routine.  Greg and I have worked together a lot and both love doing this kind of thing.  It was going well, and then I did a simple baguazhang single-palm-change and he turned at the same time I did so that my elbow effortlessly hit his temple.  Blood sprayed everywhere, and he went down.  The students went bananas.  They talked about it everyday for the rest of the semester in all of their classes.  I helped Greg to his feet and we giggled about it, shared a manly hug, and took our bows.  I had no intent, and my movement was effortless, yet it worked so well.  That really made me think, and it changed the way I practice.

Above I said there are two mistakes people make when they say that stage-combat isn't real because it doesn't make an effort to be real.  The second mistake is thinking that stage-combat body-structure isn't functional.  In fact, professional performers work on structure all the time.  Even something with a lot of small jumps and torso isolations like Ghanan dance gives a great deal of attention to structure.  Without good structure it doesn't work.  You'll get worn out and injured if the structure isn't right.  And worst of all, you'll look wrong.  

In Chinese martial arts we call theatrical body-structure perfect jing!  Jing is the term for the material essence of the body. It is perfect because it has no intent in it.  When there is no intent in the body it is effortless, and we say the qi floats off on the surface and creates a kind of charismatic stage presence.  Stillness in motion.  

How can theatrical martial artists be effective when they aren't even trying to be powerful?  Because effortlessness is powerful.