When I was younger and going through a phase of having panic attacks, I read somewhere that part of the panic of the panic attack is the fear you will die – specifically that you will stop breathing. Put another way, the panic attack begins, for whatever reason, and as you start to experience the physical symptoms of shortness of breath, heart palpitations etc., the thought enters your mind that you’ll never again be able to breathe normally; that this will get worse and worse until you stop altogether. The insidious and awful part is the way the additional panic – fear of suffocation – adds itself to the original panic, making you even more panicked, whereupon the physical symptoms worsen, and the panic of dying becomes yet more pronounced, and so on and so forth. Basically you get trapped in a cycle of panic begetting panic.
The most constructive thing I then learnt about panic attacks was that studiously telling myself that this – the shortness of breath, the heartbeats, the sweating, the thumping head – is not going to kill me, actually helps to stop them. By disassociating slightly from what’s happening, almost looking down on a panicking body and understanding it as just a body undergoing certain biological processes commonly characteristic of ‘a panic attack’ and not on the verge of death, is extremely calming. Don’t panic about panicking!
But that’s easier said than done – and sometimes I’m better at it than at others. The way your body chooses to react to stress, the way it works independently of your conscious mind so that you don’t realise you’ve chewed half your own nail off whilst staring out the window, is downright scary. Air Hunger, the first part of the Free Falling double bill by choreographer Hagit Yakira, captures and magnifies the embodied experience of a panic attack, specifically the fear that shortness of breath will lead to asphyxiation. In doing so, it has the same paradoxical effect that talking yourself through a panic attack has: for a work about panic, it’s incredibly calming.
Two dancers, Sophie Arstall and Verena Schneider, don’t so much perform the short, 14-minute work as become it. Together they sink, rise, collapse, and straighten as a pair of bodies inextricably linked. And as they do so, they breathe. Great gasping breaths that become the soundtrack of the piece, the thing you hear more and more instead of the sound of feet-on-mat.
Focusing on the breath with such intensity is a strange thing. There’s something scary about having your attention drawn to it, perhaps because we only really think about breath when in danger of not having it – the moment when a foot kicks water in your face as you come up to breathe in the swimming pool and, all of a sudden, the panic lights flip on in your brain. The function you took so completely for granted is no longer a given. It’s something you’re fighting for. Spluttering water. Trying to stay afloat.
But there’s also an erotic element being played with here; the ‘heavy breathing’ sounds of sex and, in turn, how the quick breaths of someone working out can sound quite sexy. If they ever performed it in the dark, I imagine this would be intensified – although the visual choreography of two bodies continually doing things one alone could not, reiterates this sensuous dimension.
But if heavy breathing isn’t your thing, you could equally interpret the crucial partnership as representing how the panic manifested in one body – and the dissipation of it – are affected by those around it. How the slow boiling tensions of society can wheedle their way into the individual’s head or, equally, how through being with other people we can start to feel calm, recharged and OK again.
This motif of an individual within a group also underpins the second work in the double bill, the 45-minute long Free Falling. As with Air Hunger, it is choreographed as a response to a real condition that people experience, namely a fear of falling over, that is so debilitating it can keep people from attempting any activity that involves being upright. I imagine that having that condition must – like all severe medical conditions – be extremely lonely. It must be hard even to communicate that anxiety. But Yakira’s piece is an ensemble work in the truest sense, a work in which four dancers (Arstall and Schneider again, plus Joel Benjamin O’Donoghue and Stephen Moynihan) continuously fall and rebound as one.
Like Air Hunger, it then becomes about the way one person’s fall or recovery is dependent upon those around them. There’s a lot to be taken from watching the piece about the support others can offer, the very literal arms there to catch us. Moving away from the fear of physically falling, the visual metaphors would work just as well to represent being scared of failing or, figuratively falling. By which I mean, the terror of failing that prevents a person from ever being able to attempt a task, be that writing a book, getting a better partner or running a half marathon. The inhibiting fear of failure that circulates around the anxiety that the falls – which, if you do take risks, inevitably occur at some point – will be so painful you’ll never get up again (a bit, funnily enough, like the fear a temporary lack of breath will become so severe you’ll suffocate). It’s a cliché, but a true one, that it’s the people around you that often give you the courage to keep trying – the ones who buy you wine and let you whine at each failure or rejection.
Contemporary dance, like its visual art equivalent, can have a bad reputation. To the uninitiated it can appear a closed world, one with its own language that, if you don’t already know it, you will never learn. And the reason you’ll never learn – or fear trying to – is because it doesn’t really seem like the people speaking the language want you to know it. Hagit Yakira’s work stands out because it radiates generosity. It feels like it wants you to understand, to share with you its ideas. There’s no hiding behind a deliberately cultivated mystique; the choreography comes across as a very honest and open attempt at communication – just using movement instead of words.
I last watched a piece by the company (…in the middle with you) back in 2015, a date that surprises me having just looked it up, because despite seeing god-only-knows how many things on a stage since, that dance work about walking has come back to me many times. I think this because watching it made me genuinely happy. Or, if not ‘happy’, then certainly calm.
Free Falling was performed at JW3 in London. For more details, including future performance dates, click here.