choreography

Recently there was an online discussion 1 about how “real” an demonstration might have been 2, and/or how much might have been choreographed.  That discussion was so fundamentally interesting that I wanted to archive the main posts here…

It all started with this question:

I am interested in Aikido, have read a couple of books about its fundamentals but not yet visited a . Before I join a dojo, though,I would like to understand the practice.

I’ve seen some videos both bought (some featuring the founder) and in YouTube and I don’t quite understand what I am watching. It looks everything is a mere coordination of movements between the involved people, where the main person performs something to the attacker (excuse the lack of jargon) in some kind of orchestrated choreography followed by both. In the videos by sensei Morihei Ueshiba sometimes he does not ever touch the attacker, a simple arm gesture is enough to have him roll on the floor. I am sure I am watching the most high-level mastery there, but what I see is just too much cooperation from the attacker that follows some kind of conventional reaction.

I am sure I am not understanding what is happening in those videos, could you describe it somehow?

— fxn

To which, Aiki Apostate (aka Prometheus) responded:

It depends on what you’ve seen I suppose….but it’s safe to say a lot of what you saw probably WAS choreographed and orchestrated because what you likely saw were not Aikido competitions so much as Aikido “demonstrations”. You see, with rare exceptions, there simply is no competition or competitive resistance between partners in Aikido. The primary reason for this is that near the end of his life the founder of the art espoused an ethos of non-competition for Aikido practice.

As a result, Aikido has evolved to become largely based on harmony. It’s focus is on the de-escalation of conflict and encourages practitioners to re-evaluate their perceptions of “win / lose” scenarios to reduce or eliminate the competitive spirit that gives rise to conflict (and escalates a conflict in progress). Since Aikido is based on harmony, competition and resistance offered in a “competitive spirit” are viewed as the antithesis of the arts primary objectives.

What’s also true however is that Aikido’s sacrifice of competition allows it to include a number of potentially and otherwise dangerous techniques…..techniques that simply could not be applied in competition without serious risk of permanent injury.

This unique confluence of factors presents something of a conundrum. Aikidoka sense the lethality of some of the techniques they employ and rightly believe those techniques to be applicable to a genuine conflict. BUT…….their training methods (non-competitive and largely cooperative) mean that few if any Aikidoka have any real experience with what it would take to execute those techniques under genuinely competitive conditions…..and this gives rise to skepticism regarding Aikido’s efficacy or practicality for such scenarios. (If Aikido is not about fighting……then it’s simply not about [or appropriate for] fighting.)

In the end you have to decide where your focus rests. Are you looking to acquire tools the to conquer the competitor standing opposite you? Or are you interested in conquering the competitor standing within you? Answer that question and your choice of martial arts becomes much clearer.

Aiki Apostate

And, after a bit other discussion, added:

Your guess about improvisation in the last microsecond is correct. At advanced levels the attack is usually unscripted and as “un-telegraphed” as possible (the attacker, called “uke” in aikido, may be thinking, as I have on many occasions, “OK, this person I’m about to attack, called “nage” in aikido, is an expert and should be able to handle anything I can throw at them”). The response of nage is usually most successful when it’s mindless, relying instead on thousands of hours of physical practice (when you start analysing and planning you get behind). In other words, in good aikido the attack is usually fairly real, and the defense fairly spontaneous.

I say “fairly” because of the danger inherent in an all-out attack. Since you don’t know how nage will respond, it may be beyond your abilities to protect yourself from injury above a certain speed (this is also learned slowly, and painfully, over years).

What happens next is interesting: as uke’s momentum and commitment begin to be controlled by nage (this is the key, and much more difficult than it appears), their movements may resolve into a handful of recognizable options. At this point both “body-memory” and conscious intent begin to interact, and nage may decide to complete one of a dozen or so likely techniques or, depending on “how it feels,” transition to some variation or another. How quickly and smoothly this can be done is a reflection of skill and experience.

For uke, there’s a similar progression: what started as a committed attack now reveals nage’s response, and uke (also relying on a combination of automatic and intentional responses) begins to try and figure out what the technique is likely to be and how best to keep up (or get away) without sustaining damage. The idea of resisting or countering the technique is constantly being weighed against the possibility of success versus the likelihood of further loss of control and/or damage. There are places you learn to recognize where a counter can be effective; but with an expert nage those places simply never arise.

Someone once said that part of learning aikido is learning how to do dangerous things safely. I’ve been thrown by some very strong and high level people, such as Tissier Sensei for example, and I can tell you my thoughts were basically about staying focused and taking the ride. I knew I was helpless and also trusted that he would take care of me. If had thought otherwise it may have been disastrous.

  1. in alt.martial-arts.aikido usenet discussion group
  2. the reference was to a clip of Tissier Sensei seen on YouTube

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