There’s probably an app out there that would suggest Laura Dannequin and I go on a date. After all, what little algorithm could miss the fact that we have so much in common? Both the suffers of years of chronic back pain; both veritable experts in the endless array of treatments and non-treatments available for such a condition; both disappointingly familiar with acronym after acronym of medical terminology relating to spinal cords and neural pathways and all the rest; both based in Bristol and both, I guess it’s fair to say, pretty interested in this whole theatre/performance/dance thing. We could share a coffee and whisper secrets of sacroiliac joints, lumbar supports and warming-cooling-penetrating massage gels.
I have a confession. Friday night of the Feel It festival at Circomedia is the second time I have been scheduled to see Dannequin perform Hardy Animal, and the first time I have actually seen it. Because Hardy Animal is about chronic back pain and I, like the performer, had chronic back pain for about eight years pre- and post- major spinal surgery (interestingly, another thing we have in common is that we have both, after years of bleakness, started to recover). And so people would say to me (for the reasons stated above) “Oh my god! Have you seen Laura Dannequin’s work? You HAVE to see Laura Dannequin’s work!” But because chronic pain makes you really quite low sometimes, and because it was a grey Sunday and I was aching and sad and not wanting to think about this crappy adjunct to my life story, I didn’t go and see it. I freaked out and made an excuse to the box office a few hours before.
I didn’t want to see it because, firstly, I knew I was meant to ‘relate to it’, and I bristled at the assumption that similar medical conditions would mean a piece of art made by one necessarily spoke to the other and, secondly, because I was afraid that I would ‘relate to it’ and that would be the worst thing of all. That I’d be sitting in the dark watching this performance that would force me to focus on the thing I have become meticulously good at not focusing on.
One of the worst attributes of chronic pain, as Hardy Animal makes clear, is the degree to which it defines you. You stop being an individual-with-pain and start to become simply The Pain. Or rather, the pain seeps into and shapes the individual to an extent that you can no longer distinguish between the two. You may intellectually attempt to hold on to arguments about a mind, or even a soul, separate from what the physical body is experiencing, but as its oily fingers grasp your moods and thoughts and interactions with others, you realise you can no longer be sure of any such line.
Dannequin is a dancer. Yet, the notable thing about Hardy Animal is how little dance it contains. The first moment when the audience believes the talking is going to stop and the dancing is going to start becomes something quite different. Half unclothed like in, presumably, countless medical appointments, she stands with her back toward the audience. Spot-lit by interrogatory torches held by audience members, her muscles slowly heave and flex. In between her developed dancer’s muscles, the steady snake of the spine can be detected starting to rotate and bend. She has become simply this: a naked human back. You can’t see her face, tell who she is, or know anything about her, and her ability to communicate through movement has been decreased and decreased until it is only this, a few flexing back muscles and the suggestion of something unknown malfunctioning beneath the skin.
Repeated readings of hospital notes reinforce this idea of Dannequin as patient and specimen. Her body is a problem to be solved, a puzzle science hasn’t yet got an answer for. We know nothing of her from these notes, no inclination of what was going through her head as she sat waiting for the specialist to come back into the room. We can imagine hospital gowns, but we cannot decide whether her toenails were painted, and if so what colour and why. Any sign of individualism is eliminated.
What the algorithms of the app might miss is that Dannequin and I may well have nothing in common. The conversation over coffee might be awkward – our sense of humours could clash – and one of us might have chosen a place to meet in that the other instinctively hates. We are, after all, far more than the sum of these embodied experiences. We are not Chronic Back Pain; I am Rosemary and She is Laura. I am a writer and she is a dancer. We could be friends or, indeed, we could not.
And yet, despite all my insistences on the individual as being more than blood, cells, tissues and muscles, the incessant loneliness that comes with chronic pain means that seeing someone else stand on stage and implicitly assert that there is a truth to this experience, after years of also battling being told things like, “maybe it is actually depression,” or “maybe you don’t want to get better,” is something to be thankful for. It’s that weird faint suggestion that makes you feel less alone and to want to say: Laura, you don’t know me but I’m really fucking with you on this one.