Importantly, this research began prior to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic but was still in full swing when the outbreak hit its peak in Europe. This was a time during which people were encouraged to practice social distancing, keeping at least 2 meters distance to each other. Due to the unforeseen pandemic, I had to adapt and change my research process, output, and practical work. More than ever, I felt that the topic I had chosen was of importance, but was witnessing a fully altered relationship to touch and closer proximities. Moreover, most people were no longer able to experience much physical contact or had to stay away from their closest friends and family members.
On a more practical level, the pandemic also heavily impacted my research, as I could no longer meet my performers and even less touch each other during rehearsals or the performance. In retrospective, these challenging circumstances add a valuable perspective to the work, practically, however, I had to adapt and change my existing research quite suddenly. Therefore, on this website, I will distinguish between two phases of the project:
Phase 1 looks at my practical research and performance prior to the pandemic and determines the effects of touch and closer proximities in a performance on audience members and performers.
Below you can watch the trailer of "Memories of Skin", which was taken during the Sharing of my work in March 2020, one day before the lockdown. The dancers were still able to touch..
Performed at the Creekside Studio at Trinity Laban Conservatoire.
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 big influence for creating movement material was Egert’s (Brandstetter, e.al., 2013) analysis of movements of touch. He points out three gestures: “Drawing near, Tender Touch and Withdrawing” ( Brandstetter, et.al. 2013, p.64). Drawing near, as the moment that is leading up to touch, Tender touch as the moment of physical encounter between two bodies and Withdrawing as the moment straight after a touch has occurred. Both Egert and Rudolf Laban (1966) believed that touch does not only play a role during the moment of contact but already in the moment leading up to a physical encounter of skin to surface (See Chapter 2).
Egert (2013) believes that the movement of “drawing near” is an essential part of touch itself. In addition, Manning (2007), who wrote his own book about touch and the senses, adds about this moment: “ touch is not yet carried into execution, it is not (yet) present, and yet it is already prefigured.” During these moments of drawing near bodily contact remains partial and the potentiality of touch becomes visible. It is a suspension of touch, where the decision to touch has been made and is about to happen. Touch begins in the approach, the moment full of potentiality. Movements of the body that are reaching towards another are a fundamental part of touch.
This inspired me to not only focus on the moments my dancers are engaging with touch, but instead also on the moments they are drawing near or withdrawing from the touch. In rehearsals I set up tasks that encouraged the dancers to get close to one another but just before they would physically meet, they move apart again. It created often, very intimate images, as one could witness two bodies that are about to touch, but rejecting the touch in the last minute. Moments of suspension, postponement and hesitation towards the other became apparent and one could see frequent changes of directions. The many moments of “drawing near “ create the potentiality of touch but also the potentiality not to touch. The decision to touch is delayed and they are physically missing each other as they are passing by without touching. It creates a certain friction and suspension between the bodies of the performers. When the two bodies are finally meeting the decision to touch has been made. I advised my dancers to only touch when both felt ready to embrace the physical encounter fully. This sometimes took a while until both made the decision at the same time. I worked with imagery and told my dancers to imagine two forces that are pulling against each other. One is drawing them nearer to the other person and one is pulling them apart just before they are able to touch. During this exercise my dancers hold their arms stretched out in front of them as if they were about to enter into a hug. But every time they miss each other physically they arms stay stretched out forward. This was to visually strengthen the idea of “drawing near”.
Those moments of “approaching” are only made possible through a movement of separation or when “withdrawing” from another body. “ It is the touch that was just now still there, that is now vanishing- for, just as drawing near, withdrawing is not an add- on to touch, it belongs to touch itself.” (Brandstetter, et.al, 2013, p.70) Here touch has taken place in the past and “withdrawing” represents the moment of not touching anymore. Even so, the moment of bodily contact has passed the traces and imprints remain present in the bodies and the following movements of the performers. I asked my performers to keep facing each other while slowly moving away and to engage in the same task they did when being in contact. They imagined the other body being close to them and they still felt their movements and imprints of touch while moving apart. “The trace of touch shows that touch does not come to an end with the discontinuation of bodily contact.” (Brandstetter, et.al., 2013, p. 71) The movements of my performers slowly faded out the further they moved away from each other, only to start the process of “drawing near” again. The dancers find themselves in an interplay of closeness and distance, connection and separation. In order to touch again they have to go apart. “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 the touch are similarly important as the moments of physical encounters in my work.
From early on I started to work with my performers on our so called “Touch-memory task.” This was inspired by my previous research, where I found a study which suggested that a lot of our memories are stored as a natural product of haptic perception and can be remembered only through touch (Hutmacher and Kuhbander ( S.C.Pan, 2019 ))
In the studio one performer closed their eyes while the other touched any body part with their hands. The person with the eyes closed than had time to reflect and think of a memory this touch would evoke in them. All dancers engaged in the same task. Everyone had very different memories, often taking them back to their childhood or daily-life situations like “being on the underground during rush hour”, or “my little nephew pulling on my arm”. All the situations named were mostly connected to situations were other human beings were involved in the touch but some also mentioned other objects like “the weight of the backpack” or “the wall leaning against my body”. Sometimes their memories revealed quite personal moments: “This feels like someone kissing your ear during a very intimate moment with your partner.” “It reminds me of someone hitting you very hard.”
We started by only using hands to touch but soon shifted to using different body parts as well. The task became more complex when we also introduced different qualities of touch. By doing this, new memories came up, which sometimes had a more emotional content. I than asked my dancers to tell their memory directly to me, which created a very personal relationship and I felt responsible and honored to be able to hear their memories. Notably, it was very moving to see how touch could evoke so many memories for my dancers and it was a tool for them to take them to various scenarios of their lives. In addition, most of their memories were connected to positive experiences with touch even when the other performers used quite strong and hard qualities of touch. After many repetitions we found that the most effective way for the performers to talk about a memory was when they had to respond immediately after the touch. That way they didn’t have any time to reflect about various memories but instead they had to respond to the first memory that came up for them.
This task was repeated many times in our rehearsals and formed part of my final presentation as well. Because I felt such a strong bond to my dancers when they share their memories with me, we decided to tell the memories directly to an audience member at a time. I often found myself projecting my own memories onto various positions of my dancers and I was surprised when the memory they shared with me was something completely different. It showed me how different we can interpret touch on different body parts and that our memories in relation to touch are very subjective.
One book that deeply influenced our rehearsals as well as my own thinking process throughout was “Politics of Touch” by E.Manning (2007). He describes his understanding of the role of the senses and touch in particular. It is an attempt to explore of what might happen “if we are willing to direct our thinking toward movement, toward a relational stance that makes it impossible to pin down knowledge but asks us instead to invent.” (p.11) The most striking realization for us in rehearsals was that touch between two people can only happen in the singular-plural. As Manning (2007, p.8) describes: “I touch you twice, once in my gesture towards you and once in the experience of feeling your body, my skin against yours.” Moreover, does he believe that touch connects bodies intermittently: “touch is an utterance geared toward an-other to whom I have decided to expose myself to, skin to skin.”(p.9) When touching another body, a person receives a response, not necessarily felt or acknowledged through words, but through the return of the 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 and this gesture therefore renders the “subjectivities plural”.
During our so called “Placing and removing” exercise the dancers are asked to put one hand onto a body-part of their partner. The partner responses by taking the received touch to another body-part of their choice and after puts their hand onto the body of the other performer. This placing and removing of different body-parts can go on for a long time and can also shift from hands to other body-parts. While engaging in this task Flavien once noticed: “I am not just touching Hannah, but she is touching me at the same time!” This reminded me of Manning’s believe that one can only touch another body by allowing 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) Sometimes, my dancers got quite entangled while doing this task and they told me afterwards that they weren’t sure anymore if they were the one’s initiating the touch or their partner. It became a complex task that challenged my performer’s understanding of who is receiving or initiating the touch.
Furthermore, I often chose to read parts of the book to my dancers, while they engaged in improvisational tasks with one another. The words influenced their way of connecting to another and it also helped them to stay connected both to their surroundings and to other people in the space, as they mentioned afterwards.
During the sharing of my work, I decided to also include some of Manning’s quotes as recordings in the Soundscore, in order for the audience to hear them, just like my dancers used to in rehearsals. All my performers spoke different parts of the text, which enabled them to listen to their voices later on while performing. They were a constant reminder for them about our process, our influences and experiences in the studio. Some of the chosen 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 fee 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 evoke purposefully, 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”