Since I took part in Springback Academy in Sofia in 2018, I have felt like a bit of an outsider in the dance criticism bubble. I’m so new to the contemporary dance world that I feel like I’m still scrawling chunky letters with a crayon, whereas my fellow Springback writer colleagues weave beautiful and delicate narrative responses, full of insightful articulation and great emotional depths of understanding. Whining about imposter-syndrome is pretty unoriginal for any writer, but this is the first thing I have written in over a year of hazy mental illness, so forgive me a little self-indulgence.
Springback Exploratorium was an experimental initiative hosted by B.Motion festival from 18-25 August 2019 in Bassano del Grappa, northern Italy. Ten young writers from all across Europe were invited to host post-show happenings to invite alternative responses from the audience, moving beyond the hierarchical structure of ‘artist explaining their art’. We were given carte-blanche and provided with innumerable post-it notes, and sent out in to the festival to gently induce creative responses from audiences.
I was asked to respond to ‘My Heart Goes Boom’ (chor. Daniele Ninarello), staged in the beautiful surroundings of Chiesa San Giovanni. The piece was performed by Dance Well, a company of dancers from Bassano who are living with Parkinson’s Disease.
I am something of an anti-dancer. My movements are at best imprecise, and you don’t have to walk far alongside me to realise how poor my coordination is, as I bouncily ricochet between your shoulder and the nearest wall. Despite falling over in quite dramatic fashion several times during the week-long festival (something my ego is still slowly recovering from), this runs deeper than mere clumsiness. It’s an ever-growing agitating numbness, a cloudy barrier preventing me feeling anything corporeally at all. I’ve had this brain/body disconnect for many years, and sometimes it feels like this body is just a vessel for an unwell, sad brain. I notice the strangeness of feeling ‘well’ in my body like some people might notice the symptoms of flu. Absorbing some early afternoon sunlight in Bassano with a friend, dangling our feet in the icy cold river, I could only think to say ‘this feels good’. I have a thousand adjectives for sadness, but could only think of one for joy.
Embodiment is such a tricky concept to wrangle with if you feel so unembodied. There is little room for a mimetic response, or of sharing in the joy of what creating these movements must feel like. Of course, anxiety and sadness have bodily impacts, and some impacts leave more permanent traces than others. It simply takes a little more labour to understand what emotion certain movements might be embodying if you feel like you are watching a show from behind a fingerprint-grubby window. Sometimes, as happened to me while watching the Dance Well performance, the connection is immediate and visceral and almost painfully emotional. I felt like I understood the work in and through my body, in a way I am demonstrably struggling to describe using words alone.
In planning my post-show session, I realised that clay is the perfect medium for giving space to imprecision. It moves with and against the body, and it does not demand anything exacting from the artist. Working it between your hands is therapeutic and forgiving.
To this end, I decided to create a collective museum of sculpture responses to ‘My Heart Goes Boom’. It was important to me to create a non-linguistic space, enabling responses that didn’t rely on any kind of nuanced vocabulary. Participants were given a piece of clay the size their fist (or their heart, perhaps), and invited to set up studio somewhere in the church.
After a while, I invited the artists to name their sculptures, and opened up our collective museum. Walking around the church and taking in the sculptures felt like an act of quiet reverence to a profound performance.
After my workshop, I sat for some time in the town square nurturing a negroni and processing how I felt. Because I did feel. I felt deeply moved by the works that the participants created, and by the beautiful space, and by the gentle presence of several friends who helped me carry several kilos of clay, and who helped me carry myself a little bit too. I felt the slow release of the crushing pressure of inadequacy: lungs opening up once again, shoulders lifting, face turning towards the sun.
Over the next few days at the festival, I crossed paths with a few people who had taken part in my workshop. One woman simply held my hand in hers, and I felt a slight tremor, as she maybe felt a slight pang of anxiety. But that is perhaps what keeps me coming back to dance as an art-form; these moments, and shows, remind me that I too have a body. As silly as it sounds, that can be enough to keep me going a little longer.