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Our bodies have carried us through an awful lot of change this year. Whether feeling restful or restless, we’re all holding an abundance of strange new energies and relationships with ourselves and the world around us, on and under our skin.
As we turn to art to help make sense of this ever-changing reality, what better form than dance to process complex bodily experience? This was exactly the generous offering brought to the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine programme by Richard Chappell Dance’s timely new film, Still Touch.
The film arrives on our screens as an adaptation of the original live version of Still Touch, commissioned by The Royal Opera House in 2018, and kicks-off a brand new season of work for the Exeter-based company. True to their signature interdisciplinary style, Still Touch sees dancers, Sharol Mackenzie and Faye Stoeser, in choreographic conversation with lightweight sculptures of decayed human figures by renowned artist, Anna Gillespie.
Chappell’s choreography enlists the stiffness of Gillespie’s sculptures to create a deeply tender and introspective picture of grief (and anxiety) for human contact. Between Mackenzie’s emotional duets with both the sculpture and Stoeser, I find a gentle forgiveness as we enter a difficult time of collective transition out of lockdown.
As Mackenzie grapples with a lasting sense of isolation embodied in the stillness of the sculptures, her body is always either mirrored, guided or physically held by Stoesa’s movements; she is always there for her. Contemplating the spaces between hard and soft, stillness and motion, connection and isolation, Chappell’s choreography expertly locates the human body less as a site of binaries and opposites, and more as a vessel for holding and processing multiple conflicting experiences at once.
Samuel Hall’s musical composition also carries this train of thought. With tensely plucked strings raising the stakes under deeper, ever-soaring legatos, hard and soft aesthetics find yet another site in the performance to stand side-by-side, balancing and complementing one another throughout. Sounds of breath pouring over the top of the music provide an intriguing and organic sense of rhythm, too.
There’s a certain modest practicality to the dancers’ costumes, however, all in typical dramatic blacks from neck to toe, that steals from the humanity in their contact. Each time Mackenzie’s choreographic partnership moves from Gillespie’s sculpture to Stoeser’s body, she goes from touching cold plaster to cold fabric. There is nothing artificial about any of these connections, but I can’t help but mourn the electric potential of carefully considered skin-on-skin contact that might have further differentiated the power and heat of human connection.
A braver approach to costume may have also added to Daniel Martin’s intimate videography. Each shot is beautifully considered, playing with the possibilities of proxemics between the bodies as they seem further apart or closer together depending on the frame. Always in motion, there’s an attentively energetic liveness to the camera work, too. And in one close-up shot that sees Mackenzie looking directly into the camera, the presence and humanity of both the digital audience and the invisible body in the room through which we reach it are honoured with real potency and care.
Performed with powerful empathy, emotion and skill, Richard Chappell Dance’s material approach to choreography is a deeply grounding experience in anxious times. Although we might all feel a little stiff, heavy and inhuman as we emerge from isolated times, Still Touch reminds us that we are not set in stone.
‘Still Touch’ is available to watch on Richard Chappell Dance’s YouTube Channel. For more information, see the company’s website.