Not being able to touch other people (for the Obvious Reason) has had a particularly significant impact on dance artists and movement practitioners. This becomes clear in Future Listening, an audio piece created as part of The Place’s current weekend festival How Can We Care For Each Other? (Most of the pieces in the festival are available until 12th February.) Almost all of the 10 dancers interviewed by Tora Hed and Kirsty Arnold raise the issue: “being able to touch other people outside your immediate household is prohibited by the state [and] I feel that very keenly in my body… being inside just constrains your body… to do dance work at home feels very not right… I’m not inspired to make art with my body right now… it’s been a real challenge for dancers, not being able to touch people… I feel amputated… touch has been the big loss…” In the aural edit, the participants’ voices blend and overlap. They’re talking about isolation but it sounds like a collective conversation.
A lot of people are hyper-aware of our constrained and untouched bodies at the moment. The proof is in Yoga with Adriene’s meteoric rise to power; in the popularity of the meme format // Me: Why does my back hurt? / Also me: [picture of a shrimp in an office chair] //; in the deterioration of elderly people in care homes who haven’t been hugged by a family member in nearly a year. But the dance artists in Future Listening have a trained knowledge of their bodies’ usual (and now curtailed) responses to touch and movement. They’re able to talk about the strangeness of this collective feeling particularly acutely.
Pre-pandemic, dancers could express care in their performances through hold, touch, presence: lifting a partner up in the air, or stroking a hand along their arm, or paying silent but visible attention to another dancer in order to sync breath and movement. As a writer, I’m often kind of jealous of this mode of expression – I feel like words are a bit fixed and final, like they’re not always the best way of conveying ongoing, adaptive attention. The mixed bill of short films in the festival offer some nice, thoughtful examples of non-verbal care in performance.
In Seedlings of Time, dancer Emily Robinson and her dad Glyn, a joiner, perform a series of slow, careful movements in their family garden in Port Talbot. They lie on their stomachs on a soil-covered groundsheet, mirror each others’ steps on either side of a row of bamboo sticks. Glyn follows his daughter’s movements with a look of mildly-panicked-but-willing concentration. At one point, Emily crawls forward while he’s balanced, eyes closed, on her back. It’s gentle, and Alex Paton’s score tends towards melancholy, but sometimes the camera catches a moment of them both grinning at a private joke. You get a proper sense of their relationship, watching it.
Strings by Natasha Gilmore and Barrowland Ballet is a moving record of a creative partnership between members of Barrowland Ballet and a group of children with complex needs, mostly non-verbal autistic children. Their interactions and dances take place in a large square structure made of taut white string, designed by Fred Pommerehn. At the start of the video, Gilmore defines care as “to feel concern for or interest in someone; to attach importance to them.” I like the definition: it acknowledges that care can cut both ways, and that caring for someone doesn’t have to imply that they’re weak. The adult dancers clearly took care to make sure that the children felt safe; there are shots of the kids smiling, and riding on the adults’ backs. But conversely, too, the film eventually focuses on the ways in which the children demonstrated their care for the professional dancers: cupping their chins to turn their faces towards their own, or looking round in the middle of a dance to check that they were keeping up. It’s a really lovely short piece.
There’s no way that Strings could have been made during the past year, though. In a panel discussion on the festival’s theme, the dance dramaturg Luke Pell suggested that one of the central questions for movement practitioners during the lockdowns has been, “How do we touch people when we can’t?” It’s a question that a lot of artists have tried to answer using digital communication technologies like Zoom and Instagram Live, with varying degrees of success.
In r00ms, Joy Alpuerto Ritter and Lukas Steltner present a commentary on this new form of work and living. The format is a live Zoom webinar – although it’s not a webinar, it’s a performance. The audience’s view switches between four cameras in various rooms of a flat. At various points during the show, we’re asked to answer poll questions: “Where should Lukas go next?” or “Do you miss travelling?”
I feel pretty disengaged throughout the 30 minutes. It’s the Zoom interface, with its bland black square round the edges of the camera windows. Or it’s the fact that the video quality on Zoom is grainy and speckled, so that when Joy throws her clothes up in the air in the living room, they fall down around her jerkily, digitally, your-internet-connection-is-
Maybe I’m meant to feel a bit alienated and bored. Maybe it’s not really supposed to work. Why have we decided it’s normal to use Zoom webinar to host a live dance performance? It’s not normal – it’s weird and disturbing that our creative practices and social lives have become entwined with a video conferencing software designed to “help businesses and organizations bring their teams together in a frictionless environment to get more done.” I hate it. It’s boring. Who cares whether Lukas goes to the kitchen or the bathroom next? They’re both just small rooms in the same flat. It’s shit, not being able to touch other people. Talk about “frictionless environments.” I’m feeling quite exhausted.
There are some cool bits. Both performers are slick and engaging dancers. At one point, while Joy is dancing with a scarf in the living room and Lukas is folding paper towels in the kitchen, their movements align – they both simultaneously whip the scarf and the kitchen roll around themselves, moving together apart. While Joy holds up a painting of a wind-stripped tree to Camera 3, Lukas dances in front of a silhouette of the same tree in Camera 4, a neat trick. During the crisps and red wine dinner, they do a jokey little dance to some 1920s-ish Parisian jazz that descends into a farting wail as Joy slides under the table. At the end, they both stand swaying at the window, staring out at the night, as the camera watches them from a corner of the living room ceiling.
The pieces in the festival offer various answers to its question, How Can We Care For Each Other? They feel most hopeful and truthful when they look beyond the pandemic, out at the night, towards a time when people will be able to move and hold each other again.
How can we care for each other? was on at The Place from 27th to 30th January 2021. You can watch the filmed works until 12th February here.
Credits for works mentioned above:
Created by: Tora Hed and Kirsty Arnold
Sound Design: Ozzy Moysey
Seedlings of Time
Artist: Emily Robinson Dance
Composition and music: Alex Paton
Director and Choreographer: Natasha Gilmore
Cast: Jade Adamson, Aya Kobayashi, Joanne Pirrie, Vince Virr and pupils from Isobel Mair School
Set Design: Fred Pommerehn
Composition and Sound Design: Kim Moore
Costume: Catherine Barthram
Editor: Blair Young
Choreography/Dance: Joy Alpuerto Ritter / Lukas Steltner
Sound: Vincenzo Lamagna
Technical Support: Enya Belak & Petra Hanzlíková