A copy of a recent letter to my supervisors. I included a print of a photo – reproduced below – in each envelope, that was taken of me by the beautiful Hamish MacPherson. I’ve also added footnotes to this text to support a wider readership.
Dear Robyn, Efrosini, Nic,
I’ve been down in London. I took a holiday for two weeks and stayed at a friend’s place while she was away. I walked, read, slept about, and saw friends in the park. I was only back in Nottingham for about ten days before I came down again to work at Chisenhale1 for a week on a new solo.
It’s a text that I found myself writing. Rather than be read off a page, I thought it’d be more interesting to be spoken as a live performance. It’s a list of claims that shifts across the everyday, professional, pop-psychology, legal, medical, moral: jumping across all these different realms to form an exhaustive and self-contradictory image of a perfect ethical life: “I am uninhibited, and happy to relinquish control. I never drink to excess, but when I do, I maintain all proper social and sexual boundaries. I know how to express my desire. I always let people know how I really feel. I don’t bore others with endless detail…..”
I’ve been pretty interested this whole year in the kinds of ethical claims that get made about relational practices in academia. But more recently I’ve been looking at a lot of writing online about manipulation, abuse and grooming. I was really interested in descriptions of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’: I’d say most of the symptoms and behaviours are common to most people, except they’re described here as being to an ‘unusual’ or ‘inappropriate’ extent. For example: the narcissist craves the praise and validation of others to an excessive degree. But we all yearn for and rely on the affirmation of others. I don’t know how they define what is a reasonable or appropriate.
I suspect the performance text was also influenced by a memoir I was reading by Tom Rastrelli2, an American former Catholic priest. I find priests really interesting. I sometimes think of them as working with a ‘promiscuous intimacy’, that cuts across normal divisions between public, private, and professional realms. The book is about his experience of the training and structures of priesthood; the informal cultures of friendship, sex, mentorship, control and bullying that emerge to adhere to or bypass these rules; and how this messy intimacy is kept hidden. It feels like the writer is constantly trying to figure out what he deems appropriate or not, and what is merely idiosyncratic to the peculiarities of priesthood or abusive; both by his shifting values and those of the church. I was so struck by how often he uses the terms ‘boundaries’ or ‘boundary violation’.
I feel like all this unavoidably resonates with this current post-#MeToo and BLM moment, and the kinds of scrutiny and public challenges being made to individuals who hold public office. Language slips between the professional, political, ethical and medical. I feel there is a heightened sense of moralism. What does it mean to say that organisations, behaviours, or even individuals are ‘toxic’? Or the occasional refrain that individuals need to ‘get therapy’; and its inverse, in the public statements of disgraced celebrities in which they promise to ‘seek help’? There are different ways we name and account for ethical transgression. I’m always suspicious about demonisation: the confining of irredeemable wrongness to certain individuals, as and alongside an insistence on moral purity of ourselves. As Rachel Cleaves writes: “Since monsters by definition are not real, the narrative hampers our ability to recognize that any seemingly ordinary person could be committing acts we deem to be monstrous.”3
What kinds of moral behaviours do we expect from those who hold institutional office? What can be challenged, and warrants address? What deserves immediate expulsion? And what is simply deemed a conflict of values, or a character trait, and must be accepted as part of their term of office? What is available for scrutiny? Power dynamics are endlessly slippery and subtle – and there is also a very real limit to our ability to understand and account for ourselves. Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthouse writes of “being oneself” as “a wedge-shaped core of darkness”4. Judith Butler argues that this limit forms the irreducibly uncertain and indeterminate nature of ‘ethics’5. If there is a clear answer, a verifiable right and wrong, then it’s not an ethical question.
By entering into an institution and taking up office, we are agreeing to a certain set structures and boundaries. These might be formally articulated in things like contracts or codes of conduct; or invested in individuals with the authority to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’; or exist as more diffuse cultures of permission and expectation. I’m curious about what this means in terms of ‘flirtation’ and ‘intimacy’ – which I understand to be the playing at or moving beyond boundaries. I’m thinking about moments of encounter, and the thrill of moving into shared complicity or confidence with another person. These letters are a good example, I think: to be writing and posting them to each of your homes seems to go a little beyond the normal boundaries of supervisor-student relationship – and I think this forms some of the pleasure and playfulness of our relationships.
At the end of July, Rohanne and I did some guest-hosting at Independent Dance, for the launch of the special issue of the Theatre Dance and Performance Training journal they had co-edited.6 There were presentations by writers who had contributed to the issue, as well as statements from Nikki and Heni, and the regular editors of the journal itself. Rohanne and I decided to contribute a strange black-tie gala-style hosting to the evening, which ended up being mostly directed to the digital attendees on Zoom. And as we were stumbling across the room as a DIY mobile broadcasting studio, and improvising between these different presentations, I was so struck by (what we had decided to be) our responsibility that evening as artist-guest-hosts: not only to bring this unwarranted red carpet glamour to the occasion, but within that stupidity and ridiculousness to go beyond certain boundaries and say things that couldn’t be said by anyone holding a more formal role. I ended my final speech of the evening with an appeal to go around the publishers online paywall: promising to send a PDF of the issue to anyone who got in touch.
And while there’s definitely stuff there to do with the figure of the ‘artist’, I think it’s also tied up with the figure of the ‘host’. The host establishes some shared ground and language, but then tries to seed ways that different parties can go deeper together and share in an intimacy. It makes me think of The Graham Norton Show: its success is when it goes beyond the already established and tired conversation – and whatever contractual obligations of his guest celebrities to promote their latest film or book or album – and to get to a more candid, intimate, outrageous situation. And I‘m interested in the skill of that: how do you get a feel for different people’s boundaries? How do you know which can be crossed and which can’t? What does it mean to negotiate this intimacy before an audience? I so strikingly remember one interview in which Norton totally gets it wrong with Sinead O’Connor7. It’s agonising to watch both guest and host try to fumble their way past his clumsy opening question. What do we do as hosts when we’ve put our foot in it, or overstepped the mark?
Rather than at theatres, I imagine I’ll present this short solo at poetry readings, gallery openings, conferences. The frame and sense of separation of the theatre is too strong: these ethical claims want a finer balance of casualness, proximity, non-performance. However, I do start the work by putting in a pair of black contact lenses. They were something Hamish MacPherson gave me to wear for a photoshoot I did with him earlier this summer (I included a print!)8. I’m interested in juxtaposing these claims of ethical perfection – and a body language that oozes ease, openness, trust – with this image of evil; and giving that frame to the weird menace that people have told me the text evokes. There’s the sense that despite these exhaustive claims, this figure might still be doing something untoward – that any structure or rhetorics is susceptible to abuse or manipulation. Or that this excessive degree of self-scrutiny and self-control is inhuman. This uncanny self-possession must be a demonic possession.9
To get to this choreography of alert ease, I spent a lot of the week at Chisenhale practicing Steve Paxton’s small dance (or at least, the version of it introduced to me by Emilyn Claid)10. It’s a simple score: of standing upright in parallel, relaxing, letting the spine be tall and the arms and back be heavy, seeing what you can release (the gut, the knees, the feet, the face…..), seeing how you can remain upright with minimal effort. And then beginning to notice all the instinctive and minor efforts the body makes to keep itself standing. What can I let go? What happens if I let that go? What do I need to do to stop myself falling over? What are the things we do – instinctively, without intention, without being able to stop ourselves – to keep verticality, keep upright, to keep it together, to maintain composure?
While I was practicing the dance, I noticed myself connecting it to my experiences of hosting and facilitation. What is the very least I can do here, with this group of people? How much can I shut up and make space for people to speak together and get on with it – and when do I notice myself speaking up, explaining, offering, shaping, intervening? How do I hold space, hold it together – and how much of that is determined by my fear of it falling down, falling apart, falling into confusion? I remembered a time when I was working with a collective, and we were reflecting on how we were working together. One person, who had been gradually taken on an informal leadership role with the group, explained that their directives to others had simply come from wanting the group to work with a sense of professionalism. It instantly clarified the situation for me: this ‘professional conduct’ was the least organisation they could bear. Anything less gave rise to an intolerable sense of uncertainty; and prompted them – for better or worse – into this leadership role.
I’ve been joking recently that I’ve noticed a recurring style of my academic output of ‘having a breakdown’; which mostly seems to be written from an explicit position of exhaustion, conflict, grief, shame, desire or confusion.11 I sheepishly mentioned this to my friend one evening as we he was talking to me about these letters. He was a bit surprised, and said it was fine. I began to wonder where my embarrassment came from. He’s a performance artist and a musician. I suspect this is a more accepted strategy in the field of art, and particularly performance: of operating with or amplifying forms of instability, uncertainty, teetering, breakdown, heartbrokenness, hysteria. But it’s a bit more unusual in academia, I think, and maybe over the course of the year I’ve begun to feel the accumulated weight of raised eyebrows (imagined or real).
I’ve claimed on various forms that this PhD is addressing how a ‘choreographic’ perspective can shift our understandings of institutions and curation. And it’s a bit of a cliché, but maybe this is one of the ways it can do that: that dance and choreography can tell us something about how we are able to keep moving, keep sensitive, keep it together, even in a semi-continual process of falling over.
With love, but only to an appropriate degree,
Chisenhale Dance Space is a dance organisation in East London that supports freelance dance artists engaged in experimental practice. It’s great. It’s a total honour to work there.
Tom Rastrelli (2020) Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City
Rachel Hope Cleaves (2020) Unspeakable: A Life beyond Sexual Morality. The University of Chicago Press:London. p.10
Virginia Woolf (2019) To The Lighthouse. Penguin Classics: London. p.69.
Judith Butler (2005) Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press: New York.
Independent Dance is a small organisation that supports freelance dance artists, mostly through a regular programme of dance classes and research-y events (workshops, talks, etc.). It’s led by current co-directors Nikki Tomlinson and Henrietta Hale. Alongside the previous director Gitta Wigro, they guest edited the most recent issue of the academic journal Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. This is pretty unusual – editing is usually done by academics – but Independent Dance is often interested in straddling academic and professional realms. They held a public event to celebrate the launch of the journal on the 27th July, as part of their Festival of Learning. The whole thing was a bit odd – it’s not exactly clear what the launch of an academic journal should be – or what it means to have a public launch for a thing that is free to access for anyone with a position at a university, but extremely costly to the wider public. It was a pretty fun evening though.
Hamish MacPherson is an artist and choreographer based in London. Over the past couple of years he’s been developing an amazing portrait photography practice. You can look at his website here, but for he mostly posts his photos on his Instagram here. He’s always looking for more models to work with, particularly men. If you’re interested in doing a photoshoot with him (and I can recommend it!), do get in touch.
Steve Paxton is an American choreographer and dancer, most famous for his work in the 70’s New York scene, particularly in his involvement with the Judson Church scene and in developing Contact Improvisation. You can read a transcript of him leading the small dance here. Emilyn Claid is choreographer, dancer, researcher and all-round badass based in London. She was part of the X6 collective, who were very influential in the development of experimental dance in the UK, and which was the seed of what is now Chisenhale Dance Space. Emilyn has just published a new book Falling Through Dance and Life, which I can’t wait to read.