‘Covid Choreographed’ – Movement & Creative Conversations
We don’t always arrive at the destination we set out to – or as my teachers used to say, “The Road is not ‘The’ road”. Life is a dangerous business. Ask Red Riding Hood or any fairy tale character who lost its way picking flowers in the forest. This is how you find yourself approaching sustainability with… dance (only I haven’t been eaten up by wolves or witches- yet).
Sustainable Design is not just about materials- or recycling – although that is (in Tom’s words) annoyingly, what most people think of when you talk about it. Unless we define ‘materials’ in a broader spectrum, the material collaboration exploring sustainability notions in this project is with dancers, with bodies in movement. As a collaborative piece, it also engaged with their respective ideas and expressions, thoughts and emotions while exploring their experience of Covid-19. It is human material. Additional materials included music, space, distorting mirrors which added a plurality of perspectives with reflections, while also allowing for the viewer’s perspective to be incorporated – my own.
But what does dance have to do with sustainability?
My work to date focusses on division, borders and movement. What drives division and polarisation – identitarianism, individualism? Our recent ‘Futures’ module asked us to imagine a model of sustainability: one of precarious balance emerged, a Calderesque suspended mobile of sorts which represented all the different parts which make an individual, but also all the sections that orchestrate an organised society.
‘Inequality is a social, economic and political challenge and has profound impact on sustainable development. It features prominently in the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, resulting in the creation of a stand-alone goal (SDG-10: Reduce inequality within and among countries) and a commitment to leave no one behind by sustainable development progress. ECOSOC Special Meeting on Inequality 2016’ (1)
Earlier research addressed movement in the more apparent consequence of climate change, with loss of land, human displacement and migration.
Sustainability requires not only ‘fair’ materials, but also inclusion, plurality, and equality. There is awareness of a need for diversity in materials and species, yet, we often fail to recognise the interconnectedness between the infinite parts that create the complex interdependent systems in which we function. Every thing, every one, every body, affects everybody, everyone and everything. Any single action or non-action has a consequence. The nature of perpetual movement and interdependent relations between the subject of the study came to focus. So as to achieve control of this flux and affectation, we attempt to design with tolerance – a measure of mobility. However, to do so requires identifying the limits that if trespassed will put into action ‘A series of Unfortunate Events’. Boundaries and limitations are distinct. While there is a clear need for limits and a framework to define the space the work lives and breathes in, it does not forcibly mean that it should exclude our ability to alter these, communicate or work collaboratively across fields of study
Back to dance… can we use dance as a language to explore creative collaboration and dialogue while not excluding individual expressions of identity?
Moving into last year’s liminal space, we were encouraged to experiment with our current questions using different applications on a virtual ‘Tangential Tuesday’ Studio Module session. My family is full of performers pulling their hair out for being unable to work, so it is to them that I turned to for ‘material’.
Distance Dance Study – filmed in one take - cohesiveness sought by synchrony of movement. Each dancer was invited to create a piece expressing their experience of Covid-19. Both responded to each other in a second section. Detailed timings and choreography was determined prior to filming on Zoom. Movement responded to music in sentences clearly divided and timed.
We are all familiar with movement, we all learn to walk as children, after all. Not so with dance. Learning to dance (well) requires practice, discipline, and an ability to improvise and trust when doing it with others (trust that your fellow dancer will not step on your toes). Covid-19 has changed the way we move. When we confront each other in the street, in order to limit virus transmission, we do what I call a ‘Covid dance’. You trust that they will move, they trust that you will, we all move apart – we are not very good at it.
The initial studies were drawings, images of streets full of waltzers at the beginning of the last century, and fish shawls’ movement at sea. Yet animals have evolved to move in such a way to maximise energy and avoid predators – to survive. Can we?
The Anthropology of Dance is a young field. The research took me from dance as tribal means of communication – not exclusive to humans – to expressions of spiritual connection, to ballet, contemporary dance, popular dance in the streets, and into clubs even. What soon became apparent was how dance evolved bound to social, economic and political changes. Likewise, it pursued freedom, individualism and liberalism since WWI.
When did we stop coming together to practice popular dance? People dance alone mostly these days; eyes closed even – unless you are a professional dancer or a tango aficionado.
Furthermore, how do we, as a society, decide who moves and who doesn’t, how strong or supple is the structure holding us together, and how do we measure how far apart we can move before there is isolation, marginalisation, and irreparable fracture of the social fabric?
How do we maintain the connections, integrate seemingly disjointed principles, practices, people? The first dance study began during the first lockdown in March last year. It questioned whether it was indeed possible to have a creative conversation in this form with the technological possibilities and limitations and attempted to create synchrony – challenging via Zoom. Dance speaks in impulses, tempo, flux, sweat, and often in non-verbal language where performers read and feel each other. While this can be a positive aspect in its universality, contemporary dance can be abstract and exclusive.
Whose responsibility is it to make dance and physical language part of our education? The political choices behind school curricula reflect a trend that tends to neglect art subjects in general. How will we read each other in a space that requires collective movement if only a select few have had the education or experience of moving together cohesively? On stage – when one spends too long discussing thoughts, you stand up and try it- ‘move’ the idea. It is not enough to think it; it is your body that must know it.
I love dance, but I don’t speak dance. I work in fine art mostly – so I was the ignorant ‘other’—however, years of experience in physical theatre saved me. Even though all performers had command of movement and space allowing them to converse, respond, and connect through the piece, the three dancers come from entirely different dance training. We had to find a common language to have a collective understanding of what we were saying – or the rules that we were going to follow or break.
Starting with the ‘Viewpoints’ technique, we used three sets of relative random combinations to explore movement (Viewpoint space, words and music). We set out to find the piece through action and improvisation, reflect, select, and recombine what worked- and try again. The experience was akin to your brushes or pens telling you what it sees, and what all the other brushes and I should be doing with the painting, and how, and when. Wow – so much for letting your dancers collaborate, I missed my obedient, quiet pencil. The concept, structure and narrative of the choreography I developed and polished alone after each rehearsal.
In contrast with the first study, the second piece’s time scale meant that we did have on occasion (including the Christmas family amnesty) the luxury of working in the same room. We could feel an impulse, disagree perhaps in what ‘anxiety’ might move like, yet the performers (my son, my sister and my best friend – it’s a family affair) could feel each other. They could hear and speak to one another without online echo – and I don’t mean in words like the ones I’m typing – but in movement. The arm of one dancer’s impulse makes the fold and roll and pull onwards of the leg of the next. There was potential continuity, even if the distance in the boxes was palpable too. The dancers were trapped in a bubble, moving and following orders that somebody else is shouting at them from the outside – a reminder of government rules, not that I enjoy playing that role. But the joy of being able to converse creatively in real space gave us immeasurable pleasure.
The recordings that make the first half of the film were meant as a tool to work from only. As we adjusted to new restrictions, so did the piece. There were to be no more rehearsals – akin to having to cook dinner with whatever one finds in the fridge, there were no more ingredients to be found, all shops closed. Re-think. The film re-focussed towards practice, devising, creativity and ontological complexities, and sharing Covid 19 experiences with an audience, create empathy, connection. It will remain finished in this unfinished form.
Collaborations fail, ensembles disbar. Projects and dreams fall apart. Due to the impossible pressures we are under, this was sadly the case with this project. Systems break. People break. Our tolerance is being unusually tested at present in the context of a pandemic with no end in sight. We seem to have gone far beyond the limits of our tolerance, as has the environment.
Societies asunder and economic inequality is rising with the present crisis. Without the ability to embrace perpetual change and adaptation, our concrete structures – bodily, social, economic and environmental can shatter too. Creating a sustainable dance for all might require redefining more flexible structures, discipline, improvisation, collaboration and trust. To identify clear yet continually moving borders that do not imprison us. For that, we have Covid.
On a positive note, even for those who do not care for dance, while scaffolding the second piece’s choreography, I discovered a group of Swiss dancers working on a remarkably similar proposal. Although initially irritating – one always wants complete originality – it made me reflect that not only the virus is contagious. Yawns, positive ideas, artistic and social movements, ideologies, creativity and gestures are too. The incision point is an impulse- somehow, seemingly unspoken yet globally communicated. Zeitgeist!
“Finally, in your life’s blueprint must be a commitment to the eternal principals of beauty, love, and justice. Well life for none of us has been a crystal stair, but we must keep moving, we must keep going. If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving.” (2)
(1) https://www.un.org/ecosoc/en/events/2016/ecosoc-special-meeting-inequality , accessed on February 1st 2021.
(2) Jocham, David. “Bestimmung der lokalen Einschnürung nach linearer und nichtlinearer Umformhistorie sowie Ermittlung dehnungs-und geschwindigkeitsabhängiger Materialkennwerte.” PhD diss., Technische Universität München, 2018.