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Bounded in a nutshell
Date posted: 07 December 2020
Freelance Dance Artist Adam Benjamin reflects upon his practice being hoovered up by a pandemic, saving the planet sliding off his agenda and the vitality of touch. He also offers a view into a wilderness, funded by dancers, that reflects a commitment to diversity - a dancers forest.
Photo: treesisters.org

The article I set out to write for Animated magzine at the start of the year was titled Dirty Dancing; a piece spurred by my own embarrassing reliance on air travel, the wider ecological impact of the dance industry and how and why we should all be thinking about offsetting our carbon footprint. I dreamed of a ‘dancer’s forest’, a wilderness funded by dancers that reflects our commitment to diversity (in all things) that would, after a lifetime of making art that disappears in the moment, leave a lasting, physical legacy that future generations could enjoy.

As I worked on the first draft in January, I watched nervously as my 2020 projects began slipping one by one into the void. Projects in Taiwan and South Korea were first to go, rapidly followed by those in Italy, the UK, Holland, Switzerland, France and Spain as the pandemic hoovered up long-planned, precious projects from my calendar. Like many freelancers, I was left wondering exactly how I was going to survive and feed my children. Saving the planet somehow slid off my agenda.

Sustained by an ACE grant and universal credit, the period of lockdown gave me privileged time with family and an opportunity to train (not retrain) but deepen my practice for myself, rather than for the usual purpose and pressures of teaching and making.

The first online proposals that came my way were declined, I was focusing on tai chi and was in no hurry to return to the screen – a rectangular prison I had escaped only a couple of years earlier when I’d relinquished my position as a university lecturer, and in truth I couldn’t see how my improvisational practice would translate without the present-time feedback that is such a crucial component of successful inclusive teaching…. make that ‘all teaching’.

When Silva Laukkenen contacted me by email enquiring about an online class for her Texas based group BodyShift her opening line was as follows:

It seems like the whole world is in pain. Here with the unreliable, racist, narcissist, incompetent and crazy leadership it seems like it will be impossible to come through this unscathed.

Silva’s email prompted me to action, and I agreed to teach for her, if she and her group would be willing to act as guinea pigs and trial my ideas. The workshop title was Bounded in a Nutshell. My starting place was the screen, or to be more exact, the frame that surrounds the screen. I began with a visual exploration, in much the same way that we might explore the dance studio at the beginning of a live session; noticing details, textures, colours, exploring the dimensions of the frame, paths around and across it until our eyes were alive and active, dancing around the contours and angles until the frame became a ‘known’ space.

Next was a step into the unknown as I risked a further distancing by inviting the dancers to work eyes closed. Guided only by my voice and their own imaginations we visualized a frame, and once again explored it, noticing its detail, its textures, its orientation and dimensions. I turned to the technique of ‘Focusing’ that I had learned in the 1990’s from Franklyn Sills, to name and re-name the frame as it transformed through play. We tried placing the frame in different parts of the body, of tilting, pivoting and lengthening, using single and multiple frames, opening the frames into tracks along which we could roll or flow weight while allowing the dancers to embody these sensations and move as much or as little as they chose.

Working in this way, felt initially like a huge leap of faith. With my eyes closed I couldn’t monitor what was happening in the multiple virtual spaces on my screen. The reality is that it isn’t possible to do this anyway – I am simply not able to judge how multiple individuals in different environments are responding to my instructions, particularly when there is no uniformity of response, and no uniformity of body, no collective ‘energy’ in the room.

Feedback from the BodyShift workshop helped me develop what I was doing and led to further workshops with PropellerDance in Canada where I continued to make discoveries (and mistakes) and refine what works in this virtual dance world. Dance as we all know, is intimately related to touch and the pandemic has brutally impacted on this most vital of human senses. (My guess is that more long-term damage might actually be wrought by the absence of touch than by the virus itself.)

In the last workshop I had begun to explore how dancers in different spaces might begin to engage sensorially with each other and how voice and imagination might play a part in that… I’m reminded of some of my earliest dance improv experiences as a student ‘guided’ by tutor Judy Sharpe on a journey, through and beyond my body, that convinced me of the power of words and breath and imagination, and that dancers versed in these skill are ideally placed to skilfully navigate these spaces between us and within us (again no need for retraining).

The workshop is a work in progress (as are all improvised workshops), some aspects didn’t work for everyone, while others experienced profound physical shifts, noticeable (and in some instances remarkable) improvements in the sense of mental and physical well-being and a strong sense of connection, freedom, space.

On a personal note, I am far less daunted by the prospect of online teaching and more likely to say yes to an online engagement than I was, even before the pandemic.

When I finished my last class ‘in’ Canada I shut my laptop and travelled to our neighbouring village of Calstock, where I taught tai chi to students, socially spaced across the village hall. My mileage from home and back was in total 8, as opposed to 6664 miles were I to have taught a live class in Ottowa. This latter sum is still a fraction of what my mileage for 2020 would have been had the pandemic not rooted me to my own locality.

For the time being at least, we have cleaner skies and seas, walking the empty streets during Lockdown is a precious memory, yet with far less income for the arts, the possibility of a dancer’s forest still seems a far off dream… unless of course we can continue to be creative in our choices and think outside of the frame/box.

Planting a tree, costs pennies, and the festive season is soon upon us. Suppose that the 7000 members of People Dancing bought trees for each other (or their friends); if we all sent a card to someone that would be 70,000 trees planted (based on £5.00 equating to approx. 10 trees planted). TreeSisters is one of the organisations that I have engaged with in the past to balance out my own carbon footprint and their cards offer a very simple way of communicating our intention for positive change.

Silva’s email prompted me to act. She was right, none of us will come through this unscathed, but in the quiet space created by the pandemic we are able, if we chose, to plant the seeds for our futures.

When times improve, I hope to return to the theme of the dancer’s ‘footprint’ and raise the ideas of the original article in more sustainable terms, for now, as you read this, take a moment away from the screen

to breathe

plant a seed

grow a forest

and let me know if you buy some trees – I’d like to keep count.