I’m Here – Postdamer tanztag Festival, Germany

David Pallant

Forward steps – Springback Magazine

Rather than longing for the past, some dance artists are using the pandemic crisis to imagine futures for performance

Earlier this year, Angela Alves, a performer, artist and activist based in Berlin, was due to start the creation of her newest work when lockdown descended. Perhaps surprisingly, she was relieved. ‘For me, i was a gift,’ she recalls. ‘I was having an MS relapse, I didn’t know how I would even be able to walk to the studio. So to have the opportunity to make a remote performance from home was perfect.’

As soon as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the optimists among us began to imagine the positive change it might bring – a reshaping of the global political order perhaps, or an environmental revolution. Most agreed, however, that it was an unmitigated crisis for the performing arts, decimated overnight by the banning of public gatherings. Yet five months on, and some dance artists are already sifting through the wreckage to find new questions to put to their audiences, and new ways of asking them.

The piece Alves ended up creating from home, No Limit, had its June premiere via Zoom, and proposed a world in which disabled people are the majority and the norm. For most of us, being consigned to our homes with no choice but to participate online was a strange, novel experience, yet for others it was nothing new.

‘For decades the crip community [those identifying as belonging to or allied with the disability community] has been fighting for remote access,’ says Alves, ‘because, for various reasons, some people cannot come to the theatre.’ Lockdown meant that, for the first time, those disparate experiences were brought together on a large scale, something which Alves sees as essential. ‘It is really dangerous to separate remote accessibility from what is viewed as the “real thing”, because that way the people benefiting from it remain out of sight; we make them a conveniently invisible part of our society. Yet if I had proposed a remote performance pre-Covid19, it would never have been funded – online accessibility is still so undervalued, it is seen as a poor substitute.’

Perhaps that will change. Recently, time has seemed to give up all pretence at solidity, bending and warping differently around each of us, and those who have felt as though life was on pause might be eager for a return to ‘normality’. Yet for some who are fighting for progress, the remote is set to fast forward. ‘This is our time,’ beams Alves. ‘We need to shout it from the rooftops that remote performance is great for people with disabilities. It’s a different experience, of course, but that is how diversity works!’

 Bringing work into the audience’s home does break down theatrical hierarchies between performer and spectator – doubly so, if the audience are also the performers

Online performance is not the only pandemic-proof way dance artists have found to reach their audience. In I’m Here, Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder posted fabric, paint and an instructional video to participants, and invited them to make a body print in the privacy of their own home. ‘It was an exhibition of Ana Mendieta’s work which served as my first inspiration,’ explains Godder. ‘Seeing videos of Mendieta’s actions, so intimate yet so loaded, I was drawn to the idea of creating a personal ritual, emphasising the experience over the product or the object created.’

The recent rise of the home environment as a performance venue has led to concerns that contemporary dance will become yet another thing to be offered up for convenient consumption, or reduced to background noise. Yet bringing work into the audience’s home does break down theatrical hierarchies between performer and spectator – doubly so, if the audience are also the performers. This democratisation of dance through engaging the ‘untrained’ bodies of an audience is an interest which has run through many of Godder’s recent creations. ‘My previous work with people dealing with Parkinson’s disease opened up a whole other world for me,’ says Godder. ‘I realised I could learn a huge amount about movement from different bodies which are experts in their own human experience. By connecting I’m Here to individual sensation, I wanted to welcome the subjective experience of each person’s body into the work.’

Godder, like everyone, is also having to rethink what it means to congregate. In I’m Here, she hung the body prints in a public garden in Tel Aviv, and participants soon began communicating amongst themselves on social media, as well as openly sharing their experiences online. ‘The ritual was made to be performed in private, but shared and celebrated publicly,’ says Godder, ‘and it ended up being a great way of making intimate connections between strangers right after a period of isolation.’ Few dance artists would argue that real life, physical contact between people can or should be replaced. However, by acknowledging the diversity of her audience’s bodies, Godder wants to continue exploring even more diverse ways of engaging them: ‘I believe that the knowledge we have in the dance world can still have new, unexpected outcomes. So when it comes to connecting people through creative practices, I want to think more freely, and more wildly!’

In some countries, the doors of conventional performance spaces are already tentatively reopening, offering what is perhaps an early glimpse into the future of live performance. And the future is exactly where Transhuman Hai, one of the first dance pieces to be performed live in post-lockdown Berlin, set its sights. Created by Porson’s Khashoggi, a duo consisting of Xeni Alexandrou and Andrea Rama, the work deals with transhumanism, a belief that the human body and mind will evolve through the use of technology. In the midst of a pandemic defined by the fragility of the human body, with many hopes pinned on technological solutions, it seems a timely subject.

Unlike much science fiction, Transhuman Hai offers an abstract vision of the future which is rooted in the past, with human hybrids represented by a mermaid and ‘futuristic’ music from the 80s. As Rama slithered in his fishtail, somehow painfully human, Alexandrou walked among rows of human-shaped cut outs, reciting Latin. ‘No matter how far technology progresses, the human mind will always operate in an analogue way’ explains Alexandrou. ‘That’s why we tried to keep everything analogue in this work.’

Watching these documentation recordings of previous performances is a bit like eating canned food in an emergency

During lockdown, as we watched dancing bodies flattened and minimised onto our laptop screens, technology did not always feel like a panacea. ‘Watching these documentation recordings of previous performances is a bit like eating canned food in an emergency,’ says Rama. ‘We used to say that art was ahead of society,’ adds Alexandrou, ‘now technology is. But so far, the digitalisation of many performances has not been a progression, it has been a limitation.’

While the integration of dance into the digital sphere will presumably advance beyond those quick-fix uploads, it seems as though, in its gradual return, live dance performance will itself be unavoidably marked by its recent absence. ‘Real life involvement has become an obsession recently,’ says Alexandrou, ‘and we feel audiences wanting a different way to connect. Patience seems more limited. If we make a performance where somebody only moves every ten minutes, for example, we have to do it with an awareness that we’ve just lived through a time of huge restriction.’

It is little wonder that audiences are re-entering theatres transformed; the impact of the pandemic on the public body is already tangible. As we sit on a train for the first time in months, or decide whether to hug a friend, bodies are taking on a radical new significance. Are they a risk? Are they at risk? Do we miss their touch, their nearness? A single cough is now enough to make an entire train carriage stiffen or recoil – if that bodily hypersensitivity can exist within our daily lives, what effect might the performative body, in full-transmission mode and intentionally tuned to spark a reaction, now be able to have? While venues grapple with the practical aspects of a return to live performance, dance artists may have to redefine what it means to create with and for bodies in the times of Covid. ‘Things have changed’ says Alexandrou. ‘We cannot trace yet in exactly which way, but we must engage with it.’