It is important to note that this research was initiated prior to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, but it was significantly affected when the outbreak reached its peak in Europe. During this time, social distancing measures were implemented, requiring individuals to maintain a distance of at least 2 meters from one another. The sudden and unforeseen circumstances forced me to adapt and modify my research process, outputs, and practical work.
The pandemic brought about an altered relationship to touch and closer proximities, with people no longer able to experience much physical contact and being separated from their loved ones. Despite these challenges, the importance of the topic I had chosen became even more evident.
On a practical level, the pandemic heavily impacted my research as I could no longer meet with my performers or engage in physical touch during rehearsals or performances. While these circumstances posed significant difficulties, they also provided a valuable perspective on the work.
As a result, I will distinguish between two phases of the project on this website:
Phase 1 focuses on the practical research and performances conducted prior to the pandemic, examining the effects of touch and closer proximities on both audience members and performers.
Below, you can watch the trailer for "Memories of Skin," captured during the sharing of my work in March 2020, just one day before the lockdown measures were implemented. The dancers in the video were still able to physically touch during the performance.
Performed at the Creekside Studio at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, the credits for this work are as follows:
Choreography: Greta Gauhe in collaboration with the dancers
Dancers on the day: Hannah Adams, Flavien Cornilleau, Greta Gauhe Dancers in rehearsals: Hannah Adams, Flavien Cornilleau, Marta Stepien
Composer: Andy Trewren
Tutors: Eva Recacha, Florence Peake, Tony Thatcher
Camera: Svenja Bühl
In the following part I will describe some of the tasks we worked with during phase 1 and look at sources of inspiration for this work:
Drawing Near- Withdrawing
There is no touch in the singular
One significant influence in creating movement material for this research was Erin Manning's analysis of movements of touch, as discussed by Brandstetter et al. (2013). Manning identifies three gestures: "Drawing near," "Tender touch," and "Withdrawing" (Brandstetter et al., 2013, p. 64). "Drawing near" refers to the moment leading up to touch, "Tender touch" represents the physical encounter between bodies, and "Withdrawing" occurs immediately after a touch has taken place. Both Manning and Rudolf Laban (1966) emphasize that touch is not limited to the moment of physical contact but is also present in the moments leading up to the actual touch.
Manning (2013) suggests that the movement of "drawing near" is an essential aspect of touch itself. Additionally, Laban discusses the significance of the approach, stating that touch is prefigured even before it is executed. These moments of "drawing near" showcase the potentiality of touch, where bodily contact remains partial and the decision to touch is about to happen. Movements of the body reaching toward another person are fundamental to the experience of touch.
This insight inspired me to focus not only on the moments of physical touch between my dancers but also on the moments of drawing near and withdrawing. During rehearsals, I designed tasks that encouraged the dancers to approach each other closely, only to move apart just before physical contact. This created intimate images where two bodies appeared on the brink of touching but ultimately avoided it at the last minute. Moments of suspension, postponement, and hesitation toward the other became evident, with frequent changes in directions. These moments of "drawing near" evoke the potentiality of touch, as well as the potentiality not to touch. The decision to touch is delayed, resulting in the performers physically missing each other as they pass by without making contact. This creates friction and suspension between their bodies.
When the two bodies finally do meet, the decision to touch has been made. I advised my dancers to only engage in physical contact when both felt ready to fully embrace the encounter. This sometimes required time until both performers made the decision simultaneously. I employed imagery and instructed the dancers to imagine two opposing forces pulling them closer and pulling them apart just before the touch. During this exercise, the dancers held their arms stretched out in front of them as if preparing to embrace, and each time they missed physical contact, their arms remained extended forward to visually reinforce the concept of "drawing near."
The moments of approaching are made possible through a movement of separation or "withdrawing" from the other body. "Withdrawing" represents the moment when touch ceases, but the traces and imprints of touch remain present in the bodies and subsequent movements of the performers. I asked my dancers to maintain visual contact while slowly moving away from each other and engaging in the same tasks they performed when in physical contact. They imagined the presence of the other body and still felt the movements and imprints of touch as they moved apart. As Brandstetter et al. (2013) state, "The trace of touch shows that touch does not come to an end with the discontinuation of bodily contact" (p. 71). The dancers' movements gradually diminished as they moved further apart, only to begin the process of "drawing near" once again. The dancers found themselves in an interplay of closeness and distance, connection and separation. In order to touch again, they had to create distance. "At the same time, non-touch as drawing near is what enables touch in the first place" (Brandstetter et al., 2013, p. 72). Therefore, the moments of approaching and withdrawing from touch are equally significant to the moments of physical encounters in my work.
Early on in my research, I introduced the "Touch-memory task" to work with my performers. This task was inspired by a study suggesting that memories can be accessed and remembered through touch (Hutmacher and Kuhbander, S.C.Pan, 2019). In the studio, one performer closed their eyes while the other touched different parts of their body with their hands. The person with their eyes closed then had time to reflect and recall a memory evoked by the touch. All dancers engaged in this task, and each had unique memories that were often connected to childhood experiences or daily-life situations. These memories ranged from being in crowded subway trains during rush hour to moments with loved ones or interactions with objects such as a heavy backpack or leaning against a wall. Some memories revealed personal and intimate moments, while others recalled more intense sensations.
Initially, we used only hands for the touches, but soon expanded to incorporate different body parts. We also introduced different qualities of touch, which added complexity to the task. This elicited new memories, some with more emotional content. I asked the dancers to share their memories directly with me, which fostered a personal connection and created a sense of responsibility and honor. It was deeply moving to witness how touch could evoke such rich and diverse memories for the dancers, taking them back to various scenarios in their lives. Remarkably, most of the memories shared were connected to positive experiences with touch, even when the touch itself was strong or forceful. Through numerous repetitions, we discovered that the most effective way for the performers to share a memory was to respond immediately after the touch, without reflecting on multiple memories. This spontaneous response allowed the first memory that arose to be expressed.
We repeated this task multiple times during rehearsals and incorporated it into my final presentation. As the dancers shared their memories with me, we decided to directly convey these memories to individual audience members. I often found myself projecting my own memories onto the different positions of the dancers, only to be surprised when the memories they shared were entirely different. This highlighted the subjective nature of interpreting touch on different body parts and revealed the diversity of our memories related to touch.
Overall, the "Touch-memory task" became an integral part of our research and performance, fostering a deep bond between the performers and generating a profound understanding of the subjective nature of touch and its connection to personal memories.
One book that greatly influenced our rehearsals and my own thought process throughout was "Politics of Touch" by E. Manning (2007). Manning explores the role of the senses, particularly touch, and invites us to direct our thinking towards movement and a relational stance that fosters inventiveness rather than fixed knowledge (p.11). A significant realization for us during rehearsals was that touch between two people can only occur in the singular-plural. As Manning describes, "I touch you twice, once in my gesture towards you and once in the experience of feeling your body, my skin against yours" (p.8). Furthermore, Manning believes that touch connects bodies intermittently, stating that "touch is an utterance geared toward an-other to whom I have decided to expose myself to, skin to skin" (p.9). When one touches another's body, they receive a response not necessarily conveyed through words, but through the return of touch initiated by the other person. Manning adds, "with touch I enter (in communication with) you, with you I create the interval between me and you, I am moved by you and I move (with) you, but I do not become you" (p.11). Through touch, one becomes accountable to another, resulting in the pluralization of subjectivities.
During our "Placing and removing" exercise, dancers are asked to place one hand on a body part of their partner, who then responds by taking the received touch to another body part of their choice before placing their hand on the other performer's body. This sequence of placing and removing body parts can continue for an extended period, including shifts from hands to other body parts. While engaging in this task, Flavien once remarked, "I am not just touching Hannah, but she is touching me at the same time!" This reminded me of Manning's belief that one can only touch another body by allowing themselves to be touched in return. "I am responsible for doing the touching and yet I can't touch without being responsive to it" (p.8). At times, my dancers became entangled in the task, unsure whether they were initiating the touch or if their partner was. It became a complex exercise that challenged their understanding of who was receiving or initiating the touch.
Furthermore, I often chose to read excerpts from the book to my dancers while they engaged in improvisational tasks with each other. These words influenced their way of connecting with one another and helped them remain connected to their surroundings and other people in the space, as they mentioned afterwards.
During the sharing of my work, I decided to incorporate some of Manning's quotes as recordings in the Soundscore, allowing the audience to hear them, much like my dancers did during rehearsals. Each performer spoke different parts of the text, enabling them to listen to their voices while performing. These quotes served as constant reminders of our process, influences, and experiences in the studio. Some of the selected quotes from the text can be found below:
"Touching our bodies, gesture toward each other and themselves each time challenging and perhaps deforming the body-politic, questioning the boundaries of what it means to touch and be touched, to live together, to live apart, to belong, to communicate, to exclude.
There is no touch in the singular. To touch is always to touch something, someone's. I touch not by accident, but with a determination to feel you, to reach you, to be affected by you. Touch implies a transitive verb, it implies that I can, that I will reach toward you and allow the texture of your body to make an imprint on mine. Touch produces an event.
Touching you, I propose to you to receive, to touch. To touch is not to manipulate. I cannot force you to touch. I can coerce you, I can take your body against your will, but I cannot purposefully evoke in you the response to my reaching towards you. To touch is to tender, to be tender, to reach out tenderly.
Perhaps, this tendering is always, in some sense, a violence: it does violence to my subjectivity, to the idea that I am One. I cannot affect you violently: I affect us.
To touch is to gently encounter a surface.
To touch is to feel the limits of my contours.
To touch is to expand these contours.
To touch is to share."