Villette Floor (Villette, 2005)

The Idea

This was an exercise developed during rehearsals for Villette in 2005 with director Laurie Sansom. The Brontë novel posed various challenges for us as movement directors. One was the accurate portrayal of the protagonist’s complex internal life, often unreliable and quixotic. Another was the demand of events that take place in the novel, such as a storm in a dormitory, an extended nightmare sequence, and a fire in a theatre. It was this last challenge that informed the following exercise. For us, the end result was to portray the public panic of bodies in space. As an exercise, Villette Floor is a layered, sequential progression that might be adapted to suit a number of theatrical requirements or scenes. It encourages participants to orchestrate spatial dynamics, creating fast patterns of energy and physical movement that switch between control and abandonment. Although the exercise promotes unison work, this notion of unison is more about a unified sense of energy and effect than detailed, physical precision. Every stage is incremental and requires each new detail to be fulfilled before moving on to the next. The ultimate effect is reached only when the group are extremely confident of the space in which they are moving. The room itself should be fairly large for this to work effectively.

The Process

Split the performers into four groups of equal size and place one in each corner of the room. They should establish this point as being ‘home’. From here, each group creates a pedestrian floor pattern. From ‘home’, they set off together, walking into the space at a pace slightly slower than pedestrian speed. After a certain amount of time the group should come to a standstill. This location is their point A. From here they set off walking in the space, coming to settle at another point – B. They repeat this twice more, establishing points C and D before returning ‘home’. The route of this should not be something known, but discovered by the group with no one particular person leading. The shape of the group should not be regimented like a line, but an easy, shifting ‘blob’, with all members of the group staying in close proximity to each other. Once at home, each group should repeat their floor pattern a couple of times but now at a slightly-faster-than-pedestrian speed. (If the room is small you might ask the groups to work two at a time in order to allow them to make good use of the space).

Watching the groups executing this very simple task you will probably note that most members of the group are looking at the floor in order to establish their route around the room. Point this out and then ask the groups to walk their route using only the perimeters of the room and its details as their markers for when to come to a stop at each point. For each person these markers should be different. For example, one might use the light switch to their left and its proximity as their reference for when to stop at point A, a fire alarm switch on the wall straight ahead as their reference to point B, and so on. Ask each person to become aware of how the walls of the space are moving both away and towards them as they move around the room. They should very soon be comfortable using a relaxed combination of both prime focus and periphery vision in order to map out their location within the room at any one time. This part of the exercise is a basic step in spatial awareness, but should not be passed over. It is surprising how this exercise can fall apart without this. Not least of all, it promotes a confidence in the space where faces are outwardly scanning the room’s walls, rather than a group of people all moving with their heads down (though this might eventually be a desired aesthetic of course!).

For the next stage, the group should consider the locations at which they turn from point A and head towards point B. At the moment this change in direction is totally without cause. From point A, ask the group to choose a specific part of the body e.g. the front of the left shoulder. This is their ‘impact point’. Imagining taking an impact in this specific spot, each person plays with the capacity to isolate that body part, twisting it in the direction away from the point of impact, and only moving the rest of the body in accordance with this event when they absolutely have to. In the instance of an impact to the front of the shoulder, this would mean twisting the shoulder to its full extent before bringing in any subsequent movement in the arm, ribs, hip, head, and finally feet. For this reason, this part of the exercise should be undertaken slowly in order to discover the logic and precision of the impact and its effect on the rest of the body. The impact should also be such that its direction will send the group to their point B in the room. Once at point B the group chooses a second impact point and does likewise. This is repeated at points C and D before the group return ‘home’.

This is the most detailed part of the exercise and time should be given over to it in order to fully discover the logical physical progression involved in such an event. In choosing body parts such as the centre of the chest, as points of impact, it is important to discover just how much mobility exists in the upper middle section of the vertebrae in order to truly communicate this information to us as observers. Any movement in the shoulders should be as full as possible before any engagement with the arms and the finally the hands. It is important to figure out in this instance whether the hips might start to move forward with the shoulders or whether there may be some delay between the two events. Impact points like the fronts of the knees and the backs of the elbows are impossible to use (unless you are teaching a class of chickens), but any folds in the body (elbows, hips, knees, necks) are useful places to start. There should be encouragement for more ambitious choices, as long as they follow the logic of receiving a physical impact at that point.

With all four impact points established, ask the groups to run them in combination with the floor pattern. From the outside you will now notice how the pedestrian speed is at odds with the impact points, which will look like sudden moments of slow motion.

The next stage of the exercise is for each group to increase the speed of these impact points to match the walking speed. There is also the possibility that groups are coming to a standstill and pausing before the impact. This should now be removed so that the moment of impact is something that happens within the groups’ stride pattern.


An advanced layer which might be added is to introduce a moment of propulsion. It is likely that all the impact points operate on a horizontal level. That is, the incoming object is travelling in a straight line, horizontal to the floor, and at a constant level from it. Each group now chooses one of their four impact points and imagines that the object is travelling up out of the ground towards the point on the body. With this change in direction, the group still reacts in the same way, except that they now play with the idea that the impact lifts them momentarily off their feet. Within any string of material there will be body points that are more useful to use in this way. (In being knocked off their feet in this way, it is useful not to involve both feet landing at the same time, but landing one at a time in order to allow easy movement towards the next point in the room).

From here, in each journey round, the groups should increase the speed with which they move in the space. In keeping with the last stage of the exercise, this also means that the speed of the impact points should increase. In becoming more and more violent, these sudden physical explosions should be moments of controlled abandonment, with the limbs full of weight, and the propulsion moment (if used) meaning that the group leap higher and higher into the air. At faster speeds we finally see the impact points as being the only reason why the bodies change direction in the space as they are now finally and truly being knocked off course. Even at increased speed, the group should be encouraged to remain together and unify the moment at which they are all simultaneously impacted upon.

So far, it is safer to have each group demonstrating their sequence in the space one at a time. An advancement of this exercise is to see what happens when individuals from each group are selected and run their own sequences in the space at the same time as one another. This makes tough demands on spatial awareness if using full speed, and especially if using the propulsion version of the exercise.