Extracts from a conversation with Joanna Gilmour

Symmetries of movement, symmetries of making: extract from a conversation with Joanna Gilmour, 10thDecember 2019l

Joanna Gilmour makes exquisite baskets using mainly the plaiting technique. Their fineness perhaps resonates with her past experience in ballet. Dance was Joanna’s first career. She danced once or twice a week from the age of four to five, and worked professionallyfor two to three years in Germany with an opera and ballet company. She considers that her thoughts and views are very strongly associated with the traditions and practice of classical ballet…… traditions and practices which are now often subject to exciting rule breaking and fusions….. maybe not dissimilar to some current basketry (and maths?) practices.


Hollow forms, willow bark

In discussion, Joanna mentions that she feels there is a similarity with dance in her passion for basketry. One illustration, Joanna suggests, is the embodied rhythm and combinations of different moves, in dance known as enchainements. In dance you would do 5-6 moves on one side of the body, then the same on the other, as an exercise. There is a similarity here with basketry.

Both dance and basketry also have ‘mantras’ (small sequences of words which sum up the process one is doing, like guides to help one knows where one is), plus movement, plus music and rhythm. With dance, the music is master; with plaiting (such as in plaited basketry), there is a symmetry that Joanna finds similar to dance – a symmetry of movement. For example, one would work at the barreon one side of the body, then one would turn around and do the same thing with the other side.

The body in ballet also has a symmetry which is quite similar to laying out the base for a plaited basket, for example, laying out in quadrants; or when practicing dance you always do things on one side, then on the other. Plaited baskets have a similar symmetry.

You always start with a symmetrical feeling, that what is right on one side has to be right on the other, in Joanna’s memory of ballet. There is repetition in ballet and repetition in craft. The hands come into ballet, however, but not quite as much as in basketry. You also rarely use your feet in basketry (although there is a film of Colin Manthorpe making a quarter cran using his feet in a very balletic way). “Something I’ve thought about since we met” says Joanna:  “is that maybe legs and feet in dance could be compared to arms and hands in basketry….”

If making a big piece of basketry work, the whole body is used too, but generally, only the fingers and hands are involved in very complex moves in a similar way.

Perfection and movement

Star Basket, paper cord and Phormium tennax

A dancer has to be a ‘perfect body’ which is a curse. Your feet get damaged, things get twisted. Joanna had scoliosis, which made her very frustrated, because she likes symmetry.

After Joanna had her children, she discovered basketry. It was a marriage, a coming back together with dance, in another way. She has had a longish period away from it. How quickly, she wonders, would it come back?

What brings dance back is music, which brings you back to movement. She does not know if basketry has ever been done to music. Joanna says that she has had a deep-seated sense of movement from early days. This is not to do with words so much – she is not too good with words. Ballet and basketry don’t depend on you having to explain yourself. They are not wordy things. Rather, ballet brings an audience into play, and in a performance you have to push yourself outwards, but not with words. In basketry, regarding words, you use ‘mantras’, but the practice is Don’t tell me, show me. Words make things more complicated than needed.

If you want to see which is the way to do basketry, you go to a workshop. It’s the same with ballet, it’s international, with one language (French, in the case of ballet). It’s the same with basketry, there is the sense of an international family. Basketry is, however, less competitive. The perfection in ballet is what makes it competitive. Joanna has to fight against watching a performance where dancers don’t have some form of perfection. She loves the skill of watching the perfect, trained human body dancing. Joanna is not so concerned with the non-perfect in basketry.


Protozoan poke bonnet, Japanese quality paper cords

Joanna says she is hopeless with maths, but loved geometry – notalgebra. She could not see the purpose of maths until her City and Guilds Basketry, when she did the cane module. You needed maths for the span of uprights, to know the circumference working with an odd number of stakes, and how this linked with the weave. She did not mind sums then.

There is a big geometry in dance, wonderful lines and poses. For example, arabesques – combinations of line of the body – and the line of the corps de ballet. There were amazing patterns of weaving in-and-out of dances in choreographic patterns. For example, in a figure of 8, interlacing of two lines of dancers. “A group of dancers can make a whole, in a similar way that making a basket can bring many elements together.” – “Maybe one piece of willow is like a member of the corps de ballet – you need a whole lot to make a wonderful pattern.”

Saying the movement

While learning a new piece in ballet, you would say the movement while you are doing it, – always speaking in French. Learning the movement for a sequence in Giselle, you might say, “Developpé, ronds de jambe, to arabesque,  …” for sequencing in time with the music. Or “tour en l’air; chassé(push); glissée(slide)”. The name of a movement sequence is enchaînement. In contemporary choreography you may (or may not) follow the movement so strictly to the beat and may use different terminology. For example “Run, run”, or “Step-for-change”. There can be a clash between a loose, open rhythm and a ‘mantra’. You find your place in formal choreography with a ‘mantra’, it is not a complex sentence, but small pieces, little reminders. Words are helpful, but not necessary. It is also the case that people who do not have words can produce beautiful things.

At this point, Joanna refers to the importance of movement for people with Parkinsons in the UK, and a group started by Mark Morris in the USA, who worked with movement with people with Parkinsons. In UK this has been taken up by the English National Ballet. She also mentions a talk at Oxford Brookes, The Biology of Dance,on how movement can benefit memory and cognitive skills. The speaker was dyslexic and dance had helped him memorise things and to learn to read. She referenced also Darcy Bussell’s “Dancing makes us happy”.

Why Plaiting?

Festival cell, paper posters

Joanna liked the palm leaf, perhaps because she grew up in Barbados. During her City and Guilds, she went back to Barbados and saw people weaving palm fronds into very interesting baskets. She liked what she calls ‘swirl’ baskets. So, she did plaiting as a part of her City and Guilds. Later Mary Butcher invited her to apply to teach on the plaiting module at London Guildhall University (now at the City Lit). Joanna taught this for 7 years. Teaching a module made her get several steps ahead. That clinched it.

Plaiting has order, symmetry.  You know when you are going wrong because it doesn’t look right immediately. Plaiting materials [being strips, flat with a surface] are very equal in their width. For example, you cannot get 3 elements into a gap for 2. Whereas with willow [which is more purely linear, like a filament, and yet tapering] you can fudge it. Plaiting is much more mathematical in its appearance, Joanna thinks, which she likes. There is also random plaiting which subverts this. Joanna prefers things to have order, even though she can be messy. Also in classical ballet, things are ordered, you cannot extemporise too much. That is, you cannot go in and do something different, or fudge it. Therefore, you are following a pattern all the time.


There are ways of writing down ballet, “choreology” or dance notation, working on a musical stave, (see the Benesh system of notation), and also videoing it. Benesh notation  follows a musical score, so a dancer,if trained, will follow a notation. And, you can hand down a notation. Great ballets choreographed today can carry on, be repeated in the future, accurately through notation. It is harder to do this with works from the 19thC. Then, dance was communicated word of mouth by dancers, and by copying and showing what to do, by visual demonstration. Any dancer worth their salt will know by watching the prima ballerina and corps de ballet because they are wanting to do it themselves. There are Rep classes in (a)ballet schoolswhere they teach a lot of familiar dances.

Basketry has been passed on through the ages and by generations of makers by watching and learning visually with skilled practitioners. But now it’s possible to find books, pamphlets, google and youtube to learn/refresh. However, nothing quite beats a live tutorial with a skilled and experienced teacher/maker.  And in ballet, notation/video is fine, but having the steps and style taught in the flesh, by someone who has danced that part is invaluable. This ties in with some of the comments in above para. ‘Saying the movement’

Basketry and mathematicians

Joanna had two mathematicians who attended some of her courses who were very ‘cack-handed’. Some people are more naturally inclined to use maths and their hands at the same time. Joanna is not sure about an affinity between making baskets and mathematicians….

Maths and music – yes.

Maths and craft – no?

Mathematicians she has met found working on tetrahedra on a computer easy, but found it more difficult to make them. In making, you ‘know’ how to turn the angles.

However, there are exceptions. The late John Sharp, a good friend of Felicity Wood’s, worked on maths and basketry. He was involved with the Bridges project, and the work Felicity did on skewed cubes. And Ann Porter wrote a paper on basketry and topology at an Oxford conference organised by him*. She spoke about basketry and specifically tetrahedra and the mobius band.*

The conversation with Joanna ended with a quotation from Charles Darwin, applicable, we felt, to both living forms and to baskets. ‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms so beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’. Charles Darwin, The Origins of Species.From The Origins of Species.  

Darwin’s basket, paper cords and glass vitrine

* Some detail from Anne Porter’s paper …….

“Topology is the study of mathematical surface.Anne looked at five distinct problems.

The first was the four colour problem – whether every map drawn on the
plane can be coloured with four or fewer colours – which she illustrated with
a coiled basket in raffia.

The second was the plastic woven tetrahedron (a bubble) suspended within
a wire frame to show the structures of soap bubbles and soap films.

The third looked at Euler and the Koenigsberg Bridges as a starting
point and she illustrated it with a sphere of centre cane woven in a 3 rod
wale over a flexible mould. This was then held within a ‘network’ of dowel
rods that formed an icosahedron.

The fourth was an illustration of the Mobius band – a surface having
only one side – made in plaited card.

The fifth was an example of another surface having only one side – the
Klein bottle. This branch of mathematics is sometimes known as rubber sheet
geometry because of the way surfaces can be stretched, twisted, shrunk or
crumpled. It was twined in dyed sisal.”

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