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The joy and sadness of watching bodies moving together

I have been finding a real joy, or rather a bittersweetness, in watching bodies moving together and engage with one another via video recordings of dance pieces. 

In the last few weeks, I have been watching a lot of the theatre content made available online as a way to continue learning about and stay engaged with the theatre industry. Learning somehow sticks out to me as I am writing this. Rather than watching these pieces for pure entertainment, I have been watching these recordings more to learn, to widen my perspective of international theatre practices. It’s a way to feel like I am not being lazy or unproductive; when I can’t physically be working, at least I am learning. I do believe that the digital sharing of theatre and dance shows has been hugely helpful in keeping audiences (and all of us working in theatre) reminded of and feeling connected to theatres during the lockdown. Having said that, it is definitely not the same experience as seeing performances in person. Sometimes watching these recordings makes me long even more for everything that can’t be captured through them.  However good a recording of a show is, it still loses the essence of these live art forms. There is a palpable absence in the experience which can’t be replaced with camera angles. 

It has been a strange discovery that this joy, accompanied by this feeling of absence, of live performances, somehow comes across the most when I am watching recordings of dance pieces. Dance is my happy place; I come to dance as a naive amateur not expecting anything or wanting to analyse it intellectually. I simply arrive as someone who is ready to be surprised by whatever might happen on stage. This “non-intellectual” approach has shaped my experiences of watching online dance shows, making viewing them, generally, a more emotional process for me than watching recordings of theatre productions. 

I found myself taken aback by how moved I felt watching recordings of the production Rain, choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keerssmakaer, or Feya Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming: Attendance. The sense of togetherness and playfulness in both of these pieces has allowed me to let go of control and just immerse myself in the patterns created by the dancers, in their games and repetition, whether in the simplicity of the music in ‘Rain’ or in the silliness and generosity of the performances in ‘Thank You For Coming: Attendance’. On both of these occasions, watching these performances, I have found myself sitting in my living room quietly crying, while my flatmates were on work calls in the kitchen or in their rooms. I hoped no one would find me out, almost feeling embarrassed for crying purely because of experiencing the joy and the playfulness within these pieces.

I have been attempting to control and forget about a lot of the underlying anxiety beneath the surface of my new daily routine; anxiety about when this might end, my grandma feeling lonely, unemployment, or that I am not using my time well. And also, an anxiety about how this situation has highlighted for me that having two homes more often than not makes me feel like I am constantly falling between two chairs. There is something about watching dance pieces – be it an experimental live art piece, like House Music or something more grandiose, like Requiem directed by Roman Castellucci, or films like And Then We Danced that, somehow, enabled me to forget about the rationalising and stop attempting to solve these anxieties, even if just for a short while. Dance invites me to give my full attention to it and let it wash through me, resulting in feelings of joy quickly followed by sadness and longing. 

It’s a strange, bittersweet sensation to see bodies engage and move with one another. There is a sense of motion and conversation, which can only really happen through body language and responding to one another in a shared space (something that I am yet to find how to recreate through Zoom and Skype calls). Watching the silliness of the performers of Feya Driscoll’s piece made me put some music on, awkwardly move about my flat and text my friend that we will need to go to a gig, have a pint and just dance when it’s possible again. I can’t exactly tell whether watching these recordings have made me happier, or rather, by highlighting all that is missing from our current isolated daily routines, sadder.  Either way, it definitely reminded me about the instinctual ways our bodies react to music, dancing and engaging with others. 

I think a lot about this absence of others, be it while watching the aforementioned dance pieces, or while reading, or while just simply when going about my day. There is a lack of something. I think about how over the last few weeks I have received and sent a few handwritten letters, I think about the vividness of the experience of holding something that was written by someone else – perhaps, this is the closest sensation I have had to engaging with someone physically in the past two months or so. It’s strangely intimate to receive and read someone’s handwriting, seeing the writer’s quirks and lines reminds me of the patterns the dancers created in ‘Rain’, or the intimacy of learning a new dance routine together displayed in ‘And Then We Danced’. Watching dance shows has made me recognise how joyous and intimate it is to see others’ create patterns and connections – to see their bodies and thoughts in motion. Watching dance shows and sending handwritten letters might just be a way of survival until we are able to move and dance and awkwardly stand around in a room together with music playing in the background, able to experience this sort of joy and intimacy again in person. 

Written by Julia Lévai.
Julia is a theatre director from Budapest currently based in London. She was recently the Jerwood Assistant Director on ‘Nora: A Doll’s House’ at the Young Vic and is currently script reading for Paines Plough’s Women’s Prize for Playwriting. She also has a 
website with more information about her work.