Drifting through the supermarket over the weekend I was hit by the post apocalyptic feel left by the apparent stockpiling, however it was the physicality of the shoppers that surprised me the most; face masks, gloves and the clear ‘social distancing’ as customers aimed to try and leave a two metre gap between one another.
This behaviour isn’t new. I remember working at the Tate Modern with DV8’s Lloyd Newson whilst the SARS outbreak was on and anyone seen coughing in public caused an unofficial 10 metre restricted zone, and I’m sure it was the same during other plagues and pandemics through time, just without the social media memes and panic that we have today.
However, as I watched people move further and further away from each other I started to worry whether or not we may lose something so intrinsic to our humanity, so important to the very fabric of society; touch.
Ok, hands up, I do have a vested interest in physical contact, it’s how I create work and how I have, before a possible lockdown, made my living. But contact, for me, is far more important than just ‘making performance work’.
When Emily and I visited China 15 months ago to work with primary aged students, their understanding of contact/ touch with each other was purely negative. Boys would only work with boys, girls with girls an understandable and obvious stereotype of working with an group of 7 year olds. However it was the punching, kicking, hair pulling and even pinching of partners that surprised us. With our Chinese vocabulary limited to ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ we set about creating a physical language that we could teach through, a language that transcended words and one that could translate the trickiest of issues; partner work. By session three the care and respect each and every student was paying their partner was incredible, and more importantly, the frowns and aggressive faces that had accompanied any form of collaboration, were now smiling at each other as they revelled in their new found friendships.
The concept of generating respect for each other through contact work is not unique to that particular group. Over the past 20 years Sarah and I have constantly been surprised and proud of the way children, young people and community groups of all ages respond to our way of moving and more importantly our way of interacting with each other through touch.
I’ve seen the ‘hard to reach’ students form the strongest of bonds with their duet partner as well as with their fellow performers. It has left me often wondering, what it is that generates this bond? And, call me slow, but I think I’ve finally started to understand why.
In order for someone to make contact work, barriers that many of us have need to be broken or at least challenged; the personal space boundary needs to be infringed, the panic of being touched must be subdued and the insecurities, that we ALL have about our bodies, must be put to the back of our minds or work will never be created.
Touch, be it on the arm, shoulder, leg or side requires an element of trust. For that simple touch to turn into a lift requires an enormous amount of courage, faith and equally importantly, vulnerability. By putting yourself in someone else’s hands, sometimes literally, you are giving them your most precious commodity; your trust and when the trust is returned and the roles are switched, students often find themselves generating a bond that is very difficult to break. Just ask Rosie and Eve, the only two Sprungsters to have a move named after them. A pair so confident that when they met in a night club 10 years after learning the move decided to recreate it…. with perfect precision! On the surface, it seems that the bond that they created through the contact work at Sprungsters is deeper than just, ‘making moves’, and the trust needed for you to allow someone else to lift your weight, last done in their teenage years, still exists in their twenties.
Trusting a stranger in a workshop does, to some, sound like a terrifying concept and in fairness it is, but like my dad always used to say to me; “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy”. This statement is so very true, especially when looking at the benefits of contact work and the concept of touch in a world where it is being eliminated from our everyday lives.
Over the past 5 years Sarah and I have been working with The University Of Warwick’s Business School looking at styles of management. Our task during the workshop is to give them an example of how we work and how our relationships within our organisation are generated. The result, bodies fall, fly and fizz through the space. The largest of students is empowered because they can lift others but more importantly they realise the group are fully behind them when they, themselves, are lifted. The smallest of students are also empowered as they realise that they too are strong, powerful and can contribute. In being lifted, both understand the fear that it can generate and, more importantly, they both share a moment; the relief that they have both ‘survived’. The groups we work with all hail from different courses, Economics to Engineering, Cyber Security to Classical Greek History, they have all decided to take this module. As they gather in a room staring at their mobile phones, nobody makes eye contact, nobody speaks, flash forward 2 hours and the group leave the space talking to each other, hugging and thanking one another, some even drift off to the uni bar to cement their newly found friendship.
I could eulogise for hours about the transformative powers that physical theatre and ‘touch’ has on the lives of our young people but it can often only been seen or experienced. Each year our physical fellowship takes to the Belgrade Theatre’s B2 stage with 300+ teenagers demonstrating the power of storytelling through close contact work. Importantly, every body shape and style is seen moving as one. Each person demonstrating a new found body confidence within the group, no t-shirts are pulled down, no leggings pulled up. Why? Because they have worked physically, they’ve come into contact with others and realised that they are not alone and their is POWER in their unity. It is this ‘body confidence power’ that, sadly, is often missing in many of our young people and is why I will continue to advocate this positive form of touch.
Yes, we may be in the midst of a pandemic but let us not forget the positive energy of a hand on our elbow telling us we ‘CAN DO IT’ because, we are increasingly finding ourselves living in a world where, untouchable, electronic voices are telling our kids that they aren’t good enough. Let’s ignore them and, despite the pandemic, give our young people a (well washed) supportive hand on the shoulder, a hip lift through the space and let them know anything is possible when supported; physically and mentally.