Practicing Empathy – for Susch Museum by Monica Gillette

Monica Gillette

Practicing Empathy
How does your body feel?
Where is your breath located?
How are you sitting?
How are we here with each other?

Yasmeen Godder asks these questions during the performance of her solo, Practicing Empathy #3. Her questions engage our body as a resource to process complexities and they live inside the larger Practicing Empathy project, begun in 2019. Currently three performances have been created from the project, but the origins reach back much further. For several years Godder has been experimenting with various ways to build a more direct connection with the audience as a performance unfolds. Sometimes a show would blend together performers and spectators in a collective circle (Climax (2014)) or invite the audience to cross the stage to join performers for small embodied workshops behind a curtain as the show continued (Common Emotions (2016)). Or they were invited to give their full weight to a performer, who then gently lowered the audience member to the ground (Simple Action (2016)). After each of these performances audience members would often use the word empathy to describe the transformation they experienced over the course of the show. 

Alongside the creation of these works, in 2015 Godder and I collaborated on a German-Israeli research project, titled Störung/Hafra’ah, which brought together people living with Parkinson’s Disease, professional dancers and scientists to collaboratively research movement. A large part of the year-long project involved opening the studio doors to the public and developing various dance approaches that could benefit people dealing with the challenges that Parkinson’s causes to the body and sense of identity. An important aspect of the project was letting the encounters impact our working methods, our view of dance and its role in society. In both German and Hebrew the title of the project means disturbance or interference. It can be used to describe a disturbance in the body, such as Parkinson’s disease, or a disruption in daily life, meaning a breakdown in technology or a political protest in the streets. For us it was an intentional interference to our ways of thinking – a disruption of thoughts and beliefs and a way to develop new skills to deal with the unfamiliar, triggered by intergenerational and transdisciplinary collaboration. 

Each of those experiences accumulated and affirmed a personal need Godder had to more directly respond to the conflictual atmosphere in Israel. The ongoing oppositional views, inequities and violence that are present in her region also exist on a global level. Polarities of opinions continue to be deeply entrenched and people’s capacity to feel for someone else’s experience seems next to impossible if that person appears to hold worldviews deemed intolerable. The Practicing Empathy project is a way to try to respond to this discord and through dance and performative encounters, try to spark alternative ways of being together. We entered the project with many questions – empathy, though often named and called upon as a solution to conflict, is not easily grasped or straightforward. Is empathy a skill or an emotion? Is it emotional or cognitive? Is it a trait or trainable? Are we living in a time of an empathy deficit? How much empathy can we feel with strangers? What triggers our empathy? Can it turn toxic? Would compassion be a more appropriate word? How much of other people’s emotions can we hold? Although the project began before the Covid pandemic, we also found a sense of purpose in adapting it to respond to the challenges that came with living through shutdowns and the fear of catching a deadly disease. This meant searching for ways to respond to isolation and despondency in a world where touch and proximity were no longer allowed. 

The interest was not to make work about empathy, but rather to constantly question how one might practice it and what role it could play in our collective existence. From the start of the project, multiple outcomes were intended, or rather needed. We understood that such a complex topic would need a polyphonic response, with a very strong emphasis on the practicing part of the title. This allowed us to challenge presumptions, to stay curious and to let beliefs mingle with doubts and questions – for example, to acknowledge that empathy does not always live up to its warm and positive reputation, but that it is also messy, confusing and challenging to be exposed and to expose oneself to raw emotions – both to your own and those of others. 

The pathway to create each of the works was of equal importance as the works themselves. The research for Practicing Empathy #1 began in Berlin, Germany when Godder was invited for the Valeska-Gert Guest Professorship at Frei Universität. As she worked with the students there, she was interested in shared practice and the act of giving and receiving. Godder asked the participants to bring a practice of something they knew how to do, something they could teach. She was especially interested in what people practiced when they faced a challenge or when they needed to comfort themselves or find relief. What followed was a collective process of learning from each other’s contributions. It was a moment of learning to learn and how to attend to the practice received. It was a conscious act of absorption. It was also the origins of a mantra – I want, I need, I fear – which became a musical backbone to play with and central to the work to come. The interest laid in how chants and rhythm could be utilized to open people to an experience. What eventually became Practicing Empathy #1, the first of multiple outcomes from the project, built on those original tenets. 

Practicing Empathy #1 – witnessing others practice 

A woman walks into the space, turning in place and taking the time to look at us. Before she finishes the rotation, she closes her eyes, comes to stillness and waits. After a pause, four others walk into the space and stand near her. They take a moment to sense each other’s readiness and then, in a coordinated move, reposition their feet so they can lean forward and place their hands on the woman’s rib cage with enough oppositional force to lift her up above their heads, like a volcano opening at the top. Tamar Kisch, the woman being lifted, takes the impulse to listen deeply within, for a sound, a source. Eventually a vocalization comes that is neither a word or a cry, but a first sounding before she falls back to earth, the others falling to the ground with her. 

This lift is repeated several times with each of the performers signaling the desire to be raised up. There are multiple ways the group responds to the expression of the person being lifted. There is tenderness, pauses taken to recover, small physical gestures of presence to be with the person just lifted, without overloading them. Eventually the vocalizations spread from the individual being raised to the group being taken and pulled into the cosmos of the liftee’s expression. The building rhythms serve to support the next person’s action. Togetherness is built through an increased layering in musical landscape, being developed in real time. From the raw vocal expression and eventually the mantra, “I want, I need, I fear”, comes collective harmonies and a driving pulse to rally courage to expose one’s emotions. We are witnessing a group at work, busy supporting and untangling the messiness of emotions, learning to manage sensations that consume, overtake, shout and cry. We are watching virtuosic vulnerability. 

The group chants and lifts each other up, not to push each other to an edge, but rather to arrive at someplace held deeply within that wouldn’t come out if one were alone. The sound and rhythm become so contagious that I often have to hold back the desire to join. I become emotionally involved in their effort and statements made at the peaks of the lifts. Sometimes it also becomes too much – a familiar feeling from the more intense moments experienced in our community engaged work. This is an aspect that Godder and I often discussed through the process – how do we manage moments that feel larger than we can handle? How much of another’s person’s load can we carry and absorb? And for what purpose?

Through the making of Practicing Empathy #1 and witnessing several of the subsequent performances, I was reminded of moments where I felt the limits to my own porousness. In those moments I turned my focus to the practicing part of the title. What strategies can be discovered when the need for emotional protection builds walls? Once one is opened to the emotions of another, how can it inform future actions? How does absorbing the rhythm and expression of another affect our togetherness? It is in these moments that I see the material being performed in Practicing Empathy #1 not as choreographed material in a dance work, but rather as an entire attitude or posture to move with in society – to support, to ask to be raised up, to shout, celebrate, lean and ride on the rhythm and emotions of another, so one can also delve deeper into their own. The practice becomes about replenishing one’s internal resources through togetherness and developing the stamina to take on the loads of others as a catalyst for a change of course.

Around mid-way through the piece, Or Ashkenazi breaks out from the cycle of lifts and rolls with speed on her hands and knees along all four sides of the stage area, releasing a raw, screaming cry. The sound translates directly into my own body, taking me to the only time I heard my own voice sound that way. This was the guttural release of the pain, and question, inside of the sounds that came from me when I gave birth. Inside that sound was a plea to make it stop and doubts about whether I could make it. Can I survive this? In the silence and calm that follows Or’s cry, there is an affirmation of ability. The stillness reminds us of our body as a resource – of all its depth and capacity. It is a turning point in the piece where the lifts come to an end and what follows is a soft, sequential catching of each other’s heads on their way to falling towards the floor. The catching of one head after another becomes a cascade of care and soothing, with an urgency to arrive in time for the next head falling, as well as trusting that hands will be there. Everyone in the falling cascade is dependent on the other and plays a role in the quality and shape of the falling itself. 

Practicing Empathy #2×2 – joining the practice 

There is a pink square taped on the ground, two meters by two meters. At the far corners are two dancers facing each other, slowly moving in synchronous symmetry. There is a comfort and beauty in the positions they travel through as they mirror each other’s movements and expressions. Two audience members are seated at the opposite corners of the square, witness to the performers in conversational unison. The two performers are in a heightened sense of awareness to stay together, and to challenge the timing of that togetherness. Eventually the performers turn to the two audience members. The dancer Tamar Kisch describes her experience from within: 

“At the beginning of the piece, the audience is watching a duet, in which we try to establish an attentive communication or agreement through mirroring. In the first moment of meeting the audience, I try to expand this attention to them – as if we are colleagues or at a family dinner. In that sense I’m trying to give them space, to see them, without deciding what they are in that moment.” 1 

This intimate performance is called Practicing Empathy 2×2 and was created within the specific restrictions that the Covid pandemic required, in which a two meter distance from one another is always maintained. Following Practicing Empathy #1, it was important that the next incarnation of the project would take an interactive and participatory step with the audience. An entirely different Practicing Empathy #2 was very near to premiering when the pandemic hit. Since that version involved touch and very close proximity with the audience, Godder had to shift her approach in thinking how to facilitate an experience that supports people to tap into their own empathic sensations. The interest remained to understand what could be achieved between strangers when verbal language is removed and communication through the body is centered, but the cues to trigger connection had to exist in a new Covid world where people could not touch. 

For this new version Godder engaged in a practice often used in the dance classes for people with Parkinson’s, which was a mirror dance. The mirror dance serves to open people up, to bring them into movement, to cultivate a deep listening of the other and to move towards co-creation of movement where there is no leader and no follower. At its best, there is serious joy that bubbles up from the silent creations a duo can make, as if being pulled along by an unspoken, communal force. In the performative setting of Practicing Empathy 2×2, the dancers continually develop strategies for how to invite people into the mirror dance, purely through their gestures and physical guidance, without using language to explain what the proposal is. What has developed over the course of several performances of this piece is what the dancers of the company describe as generous leadership. The performers have developed very fine skills of listening, inviting and guiding audience members to join in the mirroring and movement around 1 the square, while having to simultaneously accept when an audience member chooses not to partake or perhaps misunderstands a cue or gesture. Tamar continues to describe her approach: 

“2×2 asks for a suspended presence. It requires a different rhythm as we ask to land together in a state where uncertainty is very present but on the other hand, there’s also clarity. In this meeting, I try to establish a communication that is full of attention. This demands patience and letting go of quick judgments and expectations…I take the responsibility to hold the space and lead to a specific situation, while I’m also constantly in a questioning state of mind. When both occur simultaneously, the space is filled with potential and the encounter expands from what we are doing to how we are doing it together.” 

 In June 2021 Practicing Empathy 2×2 was invited to Mousonturm in Frankfurt, Germany. Part of the invitation involved setting the work on local dancers, which offered the opportunity to further understand and refine the mechanics at work in the various versions of the duets. I accompanied the process of transference and the concepts “generous leadership” and “radical acceptance” became crucial to my constantly evolving interpretation of what it means to practice empathy. The generous leadership that I witnessed was a clarity of guidance from the performers that was paced and considered for a diversity of bodies that may land opposite them in the show. There were endless “what if ” scenarios for imagined moods, personalities, bodies, backgrounds and abilities, continuously revised after each show. 

As in Practicing Empathy #1, there is also a coordination of sound and vocalizations between the multiple quartets in the space, which sync and cue to bring awareness to a larger interweaving of dependence going on. For that to work, there is a rather strict timing in place that the performers must hold and follow, which sometimes works in contrast with what unfolds in reality with the audience members in front of them. That is where the generous leadership meets radical acceptance. I witnessed several moments where the performers were frustrated or challenged when the duets did not unfold “as planned”, but the ability to transcend those moments and work with radical acceptance of the stranger across from them, meaning to work in real time with accepting and guiding that person’s response, is where a window opened for how to practice empathy. The performing practice requires an ability to suspend judgment and to utilize a calm presence in one’s own body to call upon the presence of another. There is a necessity to maintain an attitude of discovery and curiosity in what can be created together, while still staying connected to a larger whole, bigger than each individual. 

Practicing Empathy #3 – practicing with yourself 

We are seated in a rounded square. A woman enters and walks to the center of the space, warmly taking us in with her gaze. “Hello. I’m Yasmeen Godder. Welcome to Practicing Empathy #3. This work was intended to be created and performed by my company, together with various communities as we traveled and toured, but due to Covid-19, it became a solo. So here I am, alone, with you.” As Godder’s opening monologue continues, she describes her interests in using dance and the body as a way to approach empathy from a place of experience and doing. Once she realized she would need to work alone due to the Covid induced shutdowns, she decided to bring the questions that had arisen in the project into her own body and to let it affect how she enters the studio and deals with performance making. She also questions out loud if practicing empathy towards oneself makes one more able to practice empathy with others. Towards the end of the opening monologue she shifts the attention to us: 

How does your body feel?
Where is your breath located?
How are you sitting?
How are we here with each other? 

What follows is Godder’s very personal and physical approach to practicing generous leadership, guiding us through the show together to reflect on what empathy means to us individually and the relationship to our own bodies. When the first shutdown began in March 2020, she describes how she discovered a need to run for the first time in her life. She needed to find movement to connect to her emotions, nature, people and her endorphins, stuck in a sleeping state as we waited for the world to reopen. She captures a narration of her own circumstances and needs, which simultaneously voices our own, as we globally went through that period together. The highly physical opening dance builds on repetition with a driving pulse that hooks us in. It echoes the prior Practicing Empathy works by creating a type of contagious energy where a pulse catches us seemingly below our conscious processing. When I watch rehearsals via zoom from my home in Germany, I often need to stand up and move and pulse with her as she goes. It’s an opening dance that kick-starts our sensations, tapping into our own needs to feel a drive in movement, a joyous energy and being alive in the present moment. 

Her effort to practice empathy with herself and towards herself, places the need to process challenges through the moving body at the center. Eventually she introduces several objects in the space, created by visual artist Gili Avisar. With them she provides another view of our isolation during the shutdowns as a time when we lived in our own private cocoons. Her dance with the knitted yet rugged, rough yet malleable object cocoons feels like swimming in the soup of oneself, sometimes drowning, sometimes transforming, naked, restless, and playful, eventually arriving at a comfort with oneself – even more than comfort, a celebration of one’s condition. 

After traveling through her own vulnerability in front of us, she asks us to shift our focus more deeply towards ourselves. What follows is a guided meditation where we are led into a deep listening of our own bodies, while sitting in a public space. Privately, yet in the context of togetherness, we imagine building small internal cocoons around a place in our body that is asking for attention. We are lulled into self-care and given space within the performance to process our own reality. As we gradually ease our way out of the sensorial experience, Godder brings more objects onto the stage, taking time to build up a structure of puppets that she eventually climbs into. The structure holds a small doll in front of her and a larger one behind her – another type of cocoon, which helps us imagine her next request. She wonders aloud about all the private cocoons we built up through the various shutdowns and she asks us, gently challenges us, as we re-enter the theater, public and professional spaces, to bring those cocoons with us. As the music “You Spin me Round” by Dead or Alive fills the space and Godder dances with her cocoon of puppet people, I can see her dancing in her kitchen with her family, filling the lockdown time with the dance floor of her home space. She animates for me a radical proposal of letting what undid us, perhaps softened us while confined to our home spaces, to come with us as we restart living in this new pandemic landscape. For me it is asking what values or principles became more apparent to us when our daily lives ruptured as we knew them – we were forced to more actively understand what it means to be healthy and to care for people’s well being. And if we do this, how might this support us in letting empathy in – for ourselves and others. How can empathy be a texture or sensorial awareness to live inside of, a place that allows us to meet when we face conflict? Or transitional places we can visit when we are stuck? 

Over the last few years the three pieces have toured throughout Israel and Europe. Sometimes the works are performed individually, but often they are invited to be performed together. With each invitation comes a dialog with the programmer to process the best order, location and format of each piece, ranging from lobbies, stages, various outdoor locations and workshop formats. The design process becomes an act of empathy in itself, as the team imagines what could be most supportive for the audience. Godder also often performs the works in her studio in Jaffa, stripped of most stage theatrics. For Godder this is a conscious act to place the work back in the community center where her studio is located, which also hosts workshops for Arab and Jewish women to regularly dance together, begun during the research phase for Practicing Empathy #2

Throughout the project we held a personal agenda to question the meaning and purpose of empathy as a way to process what challenges us. There was a hope that through the act of practicing in a performative context, which exists outside our daily habits, we might discover new ways to better open and connect with those around us. One morning while writing this essay, I was thinking about the topic of responsibility as I rode my bike alongside my son to school. At that moment I saw my son’s bike tire about to roll over 7 Stolpersteine – the markers placed in front of houses in Germany where people last lived before being taken to concentration camps. As a foreigner I lived in Germany for a few years, before I eventually learned what the stones were markers for. Once I learned their significance, I had to make daily choices about how to respond each time I crossed one. Do I avoid stepping on them out of respect? Do I take a moment to slow down to mentally honor their lives? Do I stop and read their names on each stone to see if they were large families or maybe a couple or parent and child? How far do I go to consider their lives and how much do I let their reality interrupt mine? The Stolpersteine have become catalysts for daily negotiations of loss and the chance to let that affect what I give focus to in the present. Through this moment I discovered an outcome of the project beyond the making of performances – it was about strengthening one’s capacity to not turn away from discomfort, but rather to suspend a response long enough to alter behavior and action with a deeper awareness of other’s existence sewn into it.

  1. quotation comes from private correspondence between the author and dancer, Tamar Kisch, September 2022
  2. quotation comes from private correspondence between the author and dancer, Tamar Kisch, September 2022