Day 6: Creating in Confinement (Part 1) Isolation and Shared Experience: An article by Michael Seaver


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Day 6: Creating in Confinement (Part 1)

Wed 03 Jun 2020

An exploration of how dance artists are creating and experiencing dance in restrictive and challenging circumstances.

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Lockdown: incarceration, an enforced lack of freedom. Within this lonelier world, the “new normal” sees many people coping with financial, occupational, emotional and tactile poverty. Isolated. Unhugged.

For dancers, bodies that were active are now still, their sensations dulled and physicality lost. In response, dancer Lucia Kickham created The Curve, an elegant piece of text, shaped in the form of a curve, the prevailing metaphor in the early days of the pandemic.

“I just began listing the things I was missing,” she told Theatremaker.ie. “Like touch, weight, connection, dialogue, sharing of ideas, physical sharing and just being in the same space.” The Curve is part of the STILL/MOVING Blog by the Liz Roche Dance Company (DDF Company-in-Residence 2017-2019), where five dancers working on different productions with the company share thoughts, ideas and reflections for six weeks.

The curve Lucia Kickham Still Moving Blog S
The Curve © Lucia Kickham

In Observing Time dancer Ryan O’Neill uses time-lapse photography to capture the slow oppressive passing of time. There is no body present in the film. Rather the viewer is simply experiencing the deadening experience of the dancer in isolation as the sunlight slowly passes over a wall or shadows creep along a floor.

Dancers face an additional barrier to work: their space is confined. Without studios, movement is restricted within rooms and halls crowded with furniture. Access to outdoors is limited, sometimes outright banned.

Time lapse is also used by Kévin Coquelard in This Lap. Here the dancer isn’t physically alone, but is nevertheless isolated. Filmed over 8 hours in an apartment, Coquelard is at times almost catatonically still as fellow dancers Marion Cronin and Sarah Ryan go about their daily life.

As space becomes limited, so do our dances. Yvonne Rainer (DDF 2018) created Passing and Jostling While Being Confined to a Small Apartment in March for dance history students at Yale, and it was disseminated more widely through the New York Times. A diversion in the early days of lockdown.

Luke Murphy, who was to present a work-in-development at this year’s Dublin Dance Festival, finds physical space overpowering his body. His film Beach was presented at the Modes of Capture Symposium: “Following eight weeks of isolation and stasis, I feel my power to affect the space around me is minimal. Rather, on a daily basis, I find myself at the mercy of what the space around me, now all too familiar, dictates and commands. My mood, my outlook, my physical motivation all varying wildly while the space remains constant, confident and dominant.”

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Floating on a Dead Sea by Catherine Young Dance © Luca Truffarelli

For some choreographers it has been possible to reimagine cancelled performances. Catherine Young’s Floating on a Dead Sea was created in response to visits to Palestine and was due to be premiered at this year’s Dublin Dance Festival. After the festival was cancelled, she began transforming visual footage from Palestine - which was part of the live performance - into a dance film, now part of the Digital Capsule.

“In a way, we were just lucky that there was a film component,” she says. “So being on lockdown without access to dancers or a rehearsal room, gave me some freedom to give uninterrupted attention to the film. It has meant that I can go deeper with layers of research and questions, which will also inform the eventual live show.” Are there parallels between restrictions under lockdown and those in Palestine? And will the experience of lockdown change the way audiences will look at that film?

“Choreographer and dancer Amir Sabra joined us in preparation for our DDF panel discussion and he talked about how Covid-19 restrictions are nothing compared to the political and physical restrictions Palestinians face,” says Young.

“Yes, the world now understands a little about being on lockdown, not being able to travel, not being able to see your family and being under threat of something bigger than you. But for Palestinians, they live this day in and out. And no vaccine is going to change their situation. If people in Ireland break their 2km restriction, they won’t face an 18 year-old soldier carrying a machine gun.”

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Phoenix by Eric Minh Cuong Castaing / Shonen © Sebastien Lefèvre

French choreographer Eric Minh Cuong Castaing presented Phoenix at Dublin Dance Festival in 2019. He brought dancers from Gaza to Dublin audiences virtually - through video link where they danced and spoke to the audience. Using drone technology he finds connections between living under constant surveillance by governments and what he calls the “aesthetic of surveillance” in the theatre.

“The military drone is called the Eye of God,” he says. “It can watch you, judge you and kill you.” Since the public space in Palestine is political, the dancers create a dance of resistance. He spent lockdown reading and researching: from polemics like Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory and Andrew Culps’ Dark Deleuze, to philosopher François Jullien’s There's No Such Thing as Cultural Identity. But when venturing outside he was reminded of Phoenix. Drones were used during the lockdown in France (“although they would just tell you to go home rather than try to shoot you.”) and phone apps that trace movement were further evidence of increased surveillance.

Other dancers have articulated the changed relationship between their bodies and space due to lockdown surveillance. On the STILL/MOVING blog dancer Glòria Ros Abellana notes:

On the street.
“I am” used to be enough

You might be asked to justify your steps, which are not enough in themselves either. Now they need decoding. They’ve got to be translated into regulations’ language. The kind of language that describes the reasons that legitimize your presence in public spaces. Goodbye fortuity.

Arms opened to the sides, the maximum expansion of me. Go home, I tell myself. Go back to your confined, protected space. That’s for now the only place where I can actually be my body.

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ANΩNYMO by Tzeni Argyriou © Lila Sotiriou

Sometimes the change of space can have a positive effect. Greek choreographer Tzeni Argyriou was to present AΝΩΝΥΜΟ at this year’s festival, and was in the middle of making a new work, Phrasis, when the lockdown occurred. Rehearsals have restarted, but can’t take place in the studio.

“Phrasis consists of a series of fragments, some of them happening outdoors, in public spaces,” she says. “Right now, we rehearse in a small beautiful forest in the outdoors of Athens. Being and working in nature is a new experience that brings unexpected elements into the process. I have to admit that I am excited about this dialogue.”

AΝΩΝΥΜΟ explores how technology has not only entered our lives, but is shaping and defining our bodies and relationships. “I believe that there is a direct relation between the increase of our online digital presence and the decrease of social and physical interactions.”

“Lately, I have been thinking about this problem of self-connection, the relationship between the inside with the outside,” says Argyriou. “How we look with how we feel, how we feel with what we say, what we say with what we do, what we do alone and how we act when we are with others. It seems like contemporary life does not help us to bridge all of these parts, but with the use of technology it is much easier to split between multitasking, playing different roles at the same time.”

This has been exacerbated in the past few months as more interaction is online. And a certain amount of performativity has set in. Social media feeds are dense with sourdough, home haircuts and new pets, while Zoom meetings take place in front of carefully curated bookshelves.

“During this pandemic, it looks like we are building a new reality, where we are forced to use technological tools to reorganise most aspects of our daily life and to function within an online frame. This seems and feels very inhuman to me,” says Argyriou.

“Now my intention is to find bridges that connect 'real' bodies in a period radically dominated by physical detachment and to reflect upon the possibilities that collective cultural values can offer in an era marked by digital individualism.”

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ANΩNYMO by Tzeni Argyriou © Lila Sotiriou

There is also a pressure for artists to provide content online. Thoughtfully curated content like STILL/MOVING is at odds with a rush to simply create new dances online. New York Times critic Brian Seibert summed up the disappointing reality of some of today’s opening nights. “Oh, the thrill of a world premiere by a major choreographer. You take your seat at the appointed time and wait in anticipation for the big new vision. And then it comes: a 4-minute video of people dancing in their homes.”

Production values of dances created by isolated dancers online can’t mirror standards set in the theatre. Mark Morris (DDF 2006) created an evening of dance featuring four dances that were choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom. “This is what we’re doing now,” he told the New York Times. “This is how we’re living, and there’s no real reason to fight it.” But some choreographers are in a position to resist.

“I don’t criticise this kind of work or artistic strategies,” says Argyriou. “But in this specific time frame, I think there is a danger in making online representation the main, perhaps the only, way of expression. As a cultural form, dance connects us through a physical experience. Live presence stimulates and expands senses that can not be replaced by the slick surface of one screen.”

Catherine Young feels the same: “At the moment, I’m resisting. Live performance, the live energy and experience is why I do what I do, even down to why I always try to have live music also. The more of it that is live, the better."

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Floating on a Dead Sea by Catherine Young Dance © Luca Truffarelli

So what of the future? Bustling foyers, hugs with friends, handshakes for new acquaintances in crowded post-performance bars seem unimaginable now.

Our theatres will offer a different experience for socially distanced audiences, but how quickly will people return to the theatre?

An online message from the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Joseph Haj, drew praise in recent weeks. He highlighted the long tradition of theatre that is not about to change. “The very premise of theatre is gathering people together in a shared space to enjoy a shared experience,” he says, quoting a 2017 study that found that patrons’ hearts beat at the same time during a live theatre performance. “Live theatre offers trust, empathy, friendship, removal of social barriers and a camaraderie that doesn’t happen when we watch a performance virtually.” After Covid-19, more than ever “we need a space that honours diversity even as it celebrates the homogeneity of the human spirit.” This community will surely re-emerge and replace what President Michael D. Higgins calls (in his poem Take Care) the “misery of the I”.

“I hope with people being on lockdown and utterly maxed out on Netflix and screens, that they will crave this live engagement and physically and viscerally be reminded of what going to the theatre can offer us,” says Catherine Young.

“Our bodies are archives that carry the social body: humans always lived together. I believe that if you are an empathic and understanding fellow human before COVID-19, these qualities should continue after, as this can not be erased so easily,” says Argyriou.

Maybe some types of performances will be slower to re-emerge. What if the nature of a dance depends on proximity with its audience, like John Scott’s Close Ups (DDF 2006), David Zambrano’s Soul Project (DDF 2009) or parts of Junk Ensemble’s Dolores (DDF 2018)?

There is much that is uncertain. But maybe that’s okay. We can improvise. Nancy Stark Smith, for decades a driving force for contact improvisation, died on May 1. In 2017, she wrote in Contact Quarterly: “Where you are when you don’t know where you are is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is a place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else.”

Michael Seaver is a musician and writer. He is the dance critic with The Irish Times and writes for publications, such as Tanz, Dance Theatre Journal, Dance Magazine and Dance Europe, as well as contributing to books and journals. As a composer he wrote over twenty scores for dance companies in Ireland and Mexico, and has received a New York Times/National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship for his dance criticism.

DDF has donated to the Artist Emergency Relief Fund (Civic Theatre) in lieu of a fee for this commissioned article at the request of the writer.