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A virus in the system

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Sanjoy Roy
Covid-19 is prising reality from normality. What thoughts and feelings arise from this fissure for our Springback network?

Preparing the second edition of the Springback Annual for print, I felt a rush of scrambled emotions: pride, fear, wonder, nostalgia, grief, hope.

Springback is a unique project, drawing upon a Europe-wide network of contributors to bear witness to the mixed and multiple currents of contemporary dance across the continent – particularly its independent sector. Many streams, not mainstream, I like to say. To leaf through the Annual is to form a composite, flickbook portrait of a year’s worth of performance – mostly live, but also on screen.

This year’s Annual, though, ends at a very particular moment: spring 2020. Suddenly, that portrait has acquired a bright patina of nostalgia, as if caught in a camera flash just before things went dark. It is a pre-coronavirus picture. How vivid it looks. And how startling that we had taken the camera’s flare for natural daylight, its lens for reality.

Habitually, we treat reality and normality as if they were much the same. This crisis has prised them apart. The unimagined has become real, normality delusional. What does that fissure reveal to us? As the flash fades, what do our eyes see as they adjust to the new ambience? What values do we find ourselves discovering – or doubting – or ditching? What aspects of normality might we not want to return to, of reality that we might want to keep?

In the midst of a crisis, it is hard to answer our own questions: we have to wait and see. Nevertheless, it remains valuable to register this moment – for now, and for posterity.

In that spirit, we have drawn upon our strongest asset – our international network – to build another composite portrait in the new light we are living in. Our guidelines: don’t scramble to report on online offerings and digital repurposing: there’s more than enough of that already. Rather than struggle for answers, let us focus on thoughts and feelings, and see what emerges. Choose something that matters, no matter if it seems small or insignificant.

Below, you can read the texts that have emerged. They range from personal accounts of embodiment to reflections on connection and disconnection, and wonderings about dreams that have become possible, maybe even necessary.

I will sign off on another note. A virus in the system can provoke markedly different outcomes. A recovery. A collapse. Or a change in the system itself. What will the future bring, both within the field of dance and in the wider world? We do not know. But I think we do know, collectively, that if it is just a return to normal, something is wrong. There is hope in that.

Sanjoy Roy
Editor, Springback Magazine

This editorial is followed up by the later text ‘Strange times


Fallow season

David Pallant Berlin, Germany

As the dance world grinds to a halt, with rehearsals and performances cancelled worldwide in a matter of days, dance artists have instantly moved online, posting videos of previous performances, and teaching repertoire or offering classes via Zoom. Old habits of producing, publicising and promoting work are carrying on automatically, because what else is there to do right now? We are manically trying to remain active, productive, relevant even, in a situation where our very identity, based on performance, contact, public communion, has become almost meaningless overnight.

But a period of stillness will inevitably come, where we will be forced to reassess, rediscover and eventually restart. We will have to submit ourselves to the nothing before we can start building something to take its place.

And maybe that season of lying fallow will give way to more fertile ground. For some time, we can’t measure our achievement by volume of output. We can no longer find meaning in the prestige of large-scale performances and international touring, and we will not be working with the immediate aim of being observed and applauded. Once all those trappings are gone, what kernels remain? When the time comes to regrow, those might be good seeds to start from.

I hate dance recordings

Lena Megyeri Budapest, Hungary

It’s funny how in pre-pandemic times so many of us complained about not having enough time for things we’d love to do – and now, when some of us have more time than we ever hoped for, we just want our ‘normal’ lives back. Half the world has moved online, so that we don’t have to miss our yoga class, our favourite takeout, and yes, our regular supply of dance shows.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the chance to see shows that I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Still, whenever I watch dance recordings, I spend half of the time cringing and cursing. During my first days of self-isolation I rewatched L-E-V’s Love Chapter 2, which I was lucky enough to have seen live. This is a piece with an incredible sense of space, meticulous structure, with the six dancers moving together like a living organism. Yet, there was hardly a moment where I was able to see all six of them, or at least one of them in full. Instead, I saw torsos, pretty hands or funny facial expressions filling the screen.

I want to choose my angle, my perspective. I can’t wait to be back in the theatre.

Zero contact everything

Irina Glinski Glasgow, Scotland

I’m trying to think of the last person I touched. It could have been my best friend Chris, after she took the decision to cancel a show that had been months in the making. I felt her disappointment and uncertainty, but had no clue what to say. I put my hand on her back and rested my chin on her shoulder, and that took the place of dialogue. Touch is our primary language of compassion; a pat on the back, a hand on the arm. What does compassion look like in a lockdown?

I’m trying to think of the last person that touched me. Everything is zero contact now. Contactless payment, contact-free supermarket delivery, two metres of personal space at all times. We’ve rapidly internalised how dangerous it is to touch one another. Our bodies, healthy though they might feel, are weaponised. Keep hands away from face; keep hands away from other hands.

I’m trying to watch dance but it’s too alien right now, too far from my solitary reality. I hope for a single moment, a night-to-day transition where to hold and be held is safe again. I wait for the end of zero contact everything.

Between a soft and a hard place

Claire Lefèvre Vienna, Austria

Radical softness, a concept first imagined by artist Lora Mathis, is a response to patriarchy’s discomfort with anything overly sensitive and vulnerable, anything emotional, anything associated with care, femininity and idleness.

In the last year, I’ve been researching how to translate radical softness into a performance practice and a form of resistance: welcoming poetry in my writing, collecting pastel and fluffy things, crying to Adele’s songs, but also inventing ‘tender somatics’, embracing the body as place to practice affect and penetrability. I’ve softened movement patterns stored in my body from years of rigorous dance training, learnt that staring at the ceiling is an integral part of the creative process, moved from a place of pleasure as opposed to duty, wondered what ‘clitoris driven’ choreography would look like.

And then the whole world entered a drastically ‘hard phase’, bringing up a swarm of questions. How to remain soft in catastrophic times? How to stay radical? How to lean into the discomfort (and elation) of witnessing seemingly rigid structures disintegrate before our eyes? How to protect the most vulnerable, those who are not seen as valuable, fit and healthy contributors to the economy? How to make space for all the feelings of grief, rage, impatience and hope which we normally ignore while we’re hard at work?

Negative freedoms, basic guarantees

Yasen Vasilev Sofia, Bulgaria

The current crisis makes visible that the ‘free’ in freelancing is a negative freedom, as in abandonment. Freelancing is detrimental to mental and physical health and leads to stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, sadness and a constant doubt in one’s own personal and professional choices and capacities.

The privatisation of the problem – trying to solve it on an individual level by becoming even more flexible and adaptive to a broken economic model – will not solve the structural and social aspects of it.

A Hong Kong graffiti that went viral says: ‘We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.’

A new economic model with guaranteed basic income and social security for all is not a utopia. Artists should be the first to ask for it, otherwise they’ll become even more impoverished, precarious and indebted.

Disconnect / reconnect

Suzanne Frost London, UK

Working in dance, in whatever capacity, very often makes you acutely aware that what we are doing is not exactly relevant for the functioning of society. Yes of course, we all believe the arts are important. ‘Vital’ even – a word that always looks so powerful on paper, when filling out funding applications or lobbying or fundraising. But when times get really tough, we cannot seriously argue that we are saving lives or feeding people or keeping the country ticking.

And yet. I haven’t danced, seriously, for five years. I did the odd class here and there until that, too, dwindled away to an hour at the gym. But when everyone frantically stormed the internet to stream entertainment to us locked-up loners, I got up from my improvised #workfromhome desk, put my tattered old shoes on and joined an online ballet class. And I came home.

Praising the power of dance can feel so clichéd, so overused when it’s your job to convince people of its value. But the personal physical experience that anytime, anywhere you can place your hand on a barre/windowsill/chair/kitchen counter and be completely at home, inside yourself yet connected to a certain tribe of people across the globe who are all in on the same secret – there really is a power to dance. It may have taken a pandemic to reconnect with it, but I never want to lose it again.

There is only one rock

Jordi Ribot Thunnissen Amsterdam, Netherlands

While on reading-break, scrolling through Facebook, this post stood out: ‘Corona-trend: the sudden, exaggerated urge to read Albert Camus.’ Ha! I went back to my book: The Myth of Sisyphus by the man himself .

Camus’ Sisyphus smiles. He has accepted ‘the heartbreaking sense of an elusive world and a useless fate’ and nonetheless keeps rolling the rock up the mountain. Not out of faith in a better tomorrow, but as a confirmation of life. In relation to dance, this angle on absurdity appeals to me, because – essentially absurd and purposeless as it is – dance entails an equally rebellious act of celebration.

Choreographer Miquel Barcelona recently wrote: ‘A vulnerable body shakes. I’ve always been fascinated by this repetitive, imperfect, fragile movement that somehow shows us the possibility to cross a boundary through a crack.’ In the appreciation of beauty within our (bodily) vulnerability, he says, lies a positive way out of this crisis. I agree. That’s why I find solace in Camus.

This is neither easy nor evident. As a physically disabled woman, choreographer Chiara Bersani hears daily how her possible death is broadcasted – ‘Coronavirus is mainly dangerous for the weak’ – as a hopeful thought for the many. Her words against this narrative are urgent: ‘We could have sailed together but remain anchored to our own rock instead. Immediate consolation is being preferred over collective reflection.’

There is only one rock.

Cereal Zoom

Beatrix Joyce Berlin, Germany

Face after face after face, stacked on top of each other. Like animated profile pictures pinned to a wall made of windows. Columns of noses and rows of eyes that focus on an unknown view. You don’t know who to concentrate on, so you just end up gazing at yourself. IRL you might form a circle with your conversation partners, or sit in an asymmetrical kind of clump. You might direct your attention towards someone’s ear or rest your gaze momentarily on someone’s knees.

But all the possible angles of the body are easily forgotten when you’re floating flatly in this shifting face-grid. You’re in a digital theatre now, with a front-facing, conveyor-belt audience. You set the stage for your performance, streamed live from your bedroom – you turn off the news, turn on your desk lamp, hide the cereal and, in your default pyjama bottoms, return to mute.

Shared physical space

Stella Mastorosteriou Thessaloniki, Greece

Being a dance teacher, I used to spend most of my time in a lively, large studio, meeting dozens of people every day. Used to undertaking multiple roles and juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, as most dancers do, time (or its lack) was a big issue. This was before. Now, in the quiet and confined space of my home, time is abundant, and day by day I come to acknowledge the value of shared physical space.

Social distancing shifts dancers from sharing spaces to solo training at home. The only space to be shared is online – a virtual space. Dancers are especially inclined to physical contact, as touching and being touched is part of our practice, an attribute that digital contact has yet to substitute.

Physical proximity is crucial for the art form, and I wonder how this shift will affect all our bodies, as dancers or non-dancers: not only the distancing from other bodies but also the distancing from large spaces to move in together, whether it is dance studios or the open air.

Balcony scene

Teresa Fazan Berlin, Germany

Today, confined to practising exercises on my balcony, I remembered how excited I was as a kid in the local ballet school by the belief that I could dance whatever, wherever and whenever. As long as I could reenact them well enough, I could steal the moves from the best, almost embodying their freedom and careless perfection. I was not alone in this. Dance desires alliance. Performance requires spectatorship.

Thinking about that now, I believe it to be more than a childhood dream of limitlessness. Dance is the art for a crisis. Potentially, it embodies solidarity and enables communication beyond language and cultural differences. Its economy is highly recyclable – hence endowed with a huge copyright problem – and its production allows thinking outside the input-profit-surplus logic. Repeat, reenact, remix. For free.

Today you can dance alone at home, on your balcony, in front of the camera; in some tomorrow, in a park again, or a club, in the crowd, in the sun. This week I was supposed to see De Keersmaeker’s Rain at the theatre. Instead, I will dance her Rosas danst Rosas in the asylum of my home, thanks to an online tutorial that – as it happens – she originally made in response to a copyright issue.

Someone else will dance it too, somewhere else, wherever, whenever. Is it enough? It is something.

Never-ending story

Róisín O’Brien Edinburgh, Scotland

Before the virus transformed life as we know it, I met a performance artist to talk about his upcoming show. I gave him some general advice about getting his work written about: press works through stories, I said, through events. Things that have a place and time that journalists and readers can tune into, attend, and feel part of. Stories are time bound: their trajectory is forward and we all rush to try to fit into them, throwing in our worth where we can, in anticipation of some future resolution.

What now? There are no stories, there is only one story. All actions are recast under this new light. We see how our identities were shaped by where we worked, the spaces we frequented, the relationships we valued – and we wonder if that is enough.

Is life still going forward? I suppose it is, I suppose we are all hoping it is. We wake up and check the news, we look forward to when this is ‘all over’. The press continue to publish daily, finding new ways to talk about culture, food, sport.

Amongst all of this, some are asking for stillness. It seems an impossible task.

Move, don’t move

­Riikka Laakso Barcelona, Spain

An unexpected change to the score of our daily choreography: stay inside, don’t move! The response from all communication channels: keep active, don’t stop!

So what am I supposed to do? Tried writing. Too challenging for concentration. Changed to reading. Good only for a short period. Not really into screens and windows bringing endless content into my home. The contradictory demands – move, don’t move – leave my body restless.

After a week, the inertia of daily mundanities begins to slow down, the abundantly flowing kinetic energy ceases. Maybe we are (re)active more by habit than by will. External demands start to vanish and the superfluous gives space to the centre. I focus on the inner small dance, a merely visible vibration that springs out. A meditative choreography replaces the automatic, productive routine.

Somehow the pan(dem)ic starts to make sense. Maybe a more moderate route – less achievement, more awareness – is what we need to embody.

The past haunts the future

Evgeny Borisenko Berlin, Germany

Performing arts are on standby. You know the drill. Here is your window, your Zoom, your mirror, take it. But online streaming becomes boring after a couple of hours, and I hate mirrors. With the present now absent, I choose to rely on my shaky memory. No longer a critic or writer, I become a spectator of remembrance.

First I recall that Ula Sickle show in Brussels, my birthday, high fever and headache. I now only remember red strobes kicking a huge flag through thick fog, the silky fabric shimmering brown and dark-red – like a hallucination of my blurred brain. And, oh, I once had that short theatre nap just to wake up to the stunning finale of Mathilde Monnier’s Twin Paradox. Many years ago, me in a taxi from Orly airport hoping to see De Keersmaeker’s Golden Hours, battling to get a spare ticket, front row. Summer sweat and two hours of sheer thrill, tears in the end. How can I forget it? I cannot.

The past is always here, and what haunts us now – memories of something beautiful, something grim or blue, enchanting or irritating – shapes our dreams for the future: restless, haunted and magnificent.

Necessary optimism

Oonagh Duckworth Brussels, Belgium

Thinking about the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic is compulsive; reading and watching stuff online, an anxiety-inducing addiction. Social media amplifies every horror-story and incident – ‘spitting is the new stabbing’, ‘grandmother left to die alone’ – while cute stories of clapping on balconies and dance companies à la maison become the light relief that keeps us scrolling. The relentless online prattle is a virus in its own right, to which I am slowly developing a resistance.

Yet behind the screens, is the crisis a cover for ‘shock doctrine’ tactics? During the lockdown here in Belgium, one internet provider launched a version of the controversial and much protested G5, while the Flemish Minister of Culture – who had already slashed 60% of project funding – published a new text which could spell disaster for dance.

A student dancer, my 21-year-old son unequivocally embodies the choice of necessary optimism. He broke his spine just before the coronavirus crisis, yet he and fellow students are already creating work online. His generation of dancemakers seems unstoppable, and clearly has the wherewithal to screenshare when studio sharing is impossible. Moreover, as any injured dancer will tell you: you recover, but you are never the same again – you are more intelligent. I choose to believe this for all of us.