For 2 weeks in August and September 2016 we are in residence with Pavilion Dance South West exploring initial movement ideas for our new work Beneath Our Feet, designed for promenade performance in caves and underground spaces.
During this time we will collaborate with dance artists Kirsty Arnold, Kate Cox, KJ Lawson-Mortimer and Lucy Starkey, along with writer Anna Selby, composer Max Perryment and theatre director Tom Cornford who will work with us as dramaturg for the project. We have also been joined in the studio by artists Harriet Muller and Jan Roe.
I wanted to give an overview of some of my main aims for the work, our key themes and some of the things I'm already finding out after the first week of the residency. This is all subject to change, but it's good to take stock at this point.
- that this work is about the experience of the underground more than conveying any kind of specific historical information about any particular underground site. I'm inspired by what explorer Bradley Garrett says about the journey underground being as much about that journey as it is about the site. He asks “What can we learn from taking the unguided tour, where the important historical attributes of a place are overwhelmed by the sensory, emotional, affective experience of simply being there?”. I'm also inspired here by what writer Robert MacFarlane and many others say about the relationship between matter, the earth, the stuff of the world and imagination, and the human tendency to give emotional, psychological, spiritual meaning to the features of the world around us.
- that we try something new in terms of how the audience encounters the work
- that audiences of all ages should be able to engage with the piece
- that by the end of the piece the audience have discovered something new
We’re focusing our research on four (or two pairs of) key themes, which tap into our physical experience of an underground space:
I’m just giving a very broad overview of the different ideas we’re exploring within each theme here:
- Tales of exploration and discovery e.g. the discovery of the Chauvet Cave, Ardeche, France: “Suddenly we felt like intruders. Deeply impressed, we were weighed down by the feeling that we were not alone; the artists’ souls and spirits surrounded us” (from The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams). This links for me with the 'timelessness' of disorientation e.g. time and again I’ve found accounts of archaeological finds underground that are so well preserved that it seems they could have been left in place only a moment ago (see Miles Russell’s blog for example). Robert Macfarlane calls this time collapse between then and now “dizzying and vertiginous”.
- Multiple accidental discoveries of caves by young people, e.g. most famously the Lascaux Caves, documented in a semi-fictionalised way by Guy Davenport in his short story Robot.
- Stories of many explorers/researchers/scientists such as Edouard-Alfred Martel, Michel Siffre, William Pengelly, Floyd Collins; also urban explorers such as Bradley Garratt, whose Foreword to Antony Clayton's Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact beautifully summarises his thinking around our compulsion to explore underground
- The act of exploration as an embodiment of our desire to find out more about, test the boundaries of, and therefore make sense of the world around us (and the 'breath-taking' exhilaration of discovery, evident in many of the caver accounts I've gathered for example). There are multiple ways in which this is embodied e.g. the movement and sensations of cavers; the movement of explorers/archaeologists such as Elliot Curwen: “Progress along the gallery is far from easy. One must crawl on elbows and stomach, trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk, one’s fingers spluttered with candle grease”; the extraordinary effort of mining/quarrying: I was reminded when visiting Beer Quarry Caves “think of the men who toiled so long ago to leave us this legacy of beauty”. This physical act of discovery, notably undertaken by very different kinds of people operating in different contexts, is also reflected in the 'story of the land' and the geological 'story of the cave' itself e.g. the act of water (or other fluid) 'discovering' a way through the weak spots in a structure - its cracks, fissures and flaws - to undermine it from within. Whereas the geological act of discovery can take place over thousands, millions of years, which gives the impression of a kind of constancy of the earth, it is still changing, ever-shifting.
- the stories of the first artists and their own acts of discovery as they created their marks in caves across the world; the impulse to say ‘I was here’ across history. It is astonishing that these marks are visible today and have survived across such an abyss of time e.g. “The finger strokes of the artist can be seen running down the length of the animals. The mane and beard are etched with a tool, but the marking along the jawbones are done by the artist’s fingernail” (John Robinson on the sculpture of bison at the Tuc D'Audoubert Cave, France). Similarly, other people have made their mark on underground spaces for a different purpose e.g. countless pick marks evidence the progress of of miners e.g. at Reigate or Beer Quarry caves
- Archaeologists today make observations about the special places the first artists chose for their mark-making e.g. acoustically unusual, away from the light (I’ve heard stories about handprints being left in the deepest darkest parts of caves as a kind of initiation ceremony - Chislehurst has, in the past, also had its own version of this initiation challenge in which a reward was promised to anyone who could stay in the caves from 8pm to 8am), close to unique and inspiring geological features such as wells, or, in the case of the Chauvet Caves for example, near the Pont D’Arc. A place where our ancestors might have felt especially close to another world, whatever that meant to them.
- As described above, this links with a kind of ‘time travel’, or feeling of being ‘out of time’ e.g. feeling as if no time has passed since our prehistoric ancestors left (as described here or here for example)
- losing sense of time and space underground: literally becoming lost or disoriented, and sometimes developing a different sense of time e.g. reading about Michel Siffre’s underground experiments; experiencing the effects of total blackness for myself on site visits to Kent’s Cavern, Chislehurst, Beer Quarry and Reigate Caves for example; the idea of initiation ceremonies taking place in total darkness as a challenge to people’s senses
- also having a sense of being ‘out of this world’, or close/at a gateway to a spiritual world (see the observations above about the special places chosen by the first artists for their artworks, including places that are acoustically remarkable, and David Lewis-Williams writes about Shamans and Southern African San Rock Art, who “painted images coming through into the world of the living and visions of the transformations they experienced in the spirit world”); I’ve also come across plenty of myths that have been developed more recently as a way of giving additional meaning to underground spaces or trying to make sense of them e.g. at Fort Amherst and Chislehurst Caves. Bradley Garrett writes that underground “the mind and body work through unfettered feelings of freedom” that “spark the imagination”, and I'm reminded here again about what Robert MacFarlane says about the connection between matter, the earth and imagination.
- disorientation can be a negative, but also a positive experience e.g. multiple cavers have described to me the thrill of fear (adrenaline, anxiety, terror, claustrophobia): “what scares you also excites you”, "the feeling of being pushed to your limits is compelling, addictive", “being scared is part of what you’ve got to do”, “about as far from safe as you could imagine and was all the more exciting for it!”
- I’m interested in exploring the sensation of being taken somewhere without knowing where, e.g. captured via an underground passageway as in the story of Mortimer’s Hole in Nottingham – this of course connects with the theme of disorientation
- Across time, people have been hidden underground, held against their will (in Greek mythology, Zeus was concealed underground). Wars continue to be fought underground because of the benefit of secrecy: “Tunnels have always provoked fear. The Romans were petrified of the tunnels constructed by the Jews in the great revolts in Judea and Samaria. The Crusaders and Saracens undermined each other’s castles by digging beneath the walls. In the Great War, as the world has been constantly reminded these past few weeks, the British and Germans tunnelled and counter-tunnelled each other beneath the battlefields of the Somme” (Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent)
- So caves are associated with secrecy, with something taboo, with evil and characters that embody the darkness and the instability of the underground world e.g. Cyclops, Python in Greek mythology
- more recently I’ve also heard about some people who choose to ‘disappear’ to escape from reality e.g. in Leanne Wijnsma’s work
- the scale of some underground spaces means that it is very possible to disappear underground, vanishing to a point beyond what we can know; threat of collapse or flooding also increases the potential for the earth to appear to swallow us up e.g. I have been told on several occasions about the flooding of Yorkshire caves, as well as about lost/abandoned miners
- Geologically, there’s a sense that caves are created through a constant disappearing as I described above: fluid continually, incessantly seeping through the rock over a vast amount of time
- There’s also a place inside ourselves where we hide things that we fear rising to the surface, our own cave.
Reappearing, or resurfacing
- For me this theme is connected with the threshold of an underground space: an uneasy place where what happens next could be either one thing or its total opposite, and/or a place of possibility: Bradley Garrett talks about “portals” – “the thresholds where tunnel systems connected to the surface and where one could, in theory, wriggle into the underground like Alice down the rabbit hole”. Once again, this also connects back to disorientation, and to what Garrett and MacFarlane say about the meeting point between the underground and the imagination (it is increasingly clear to me that the sensation of disorientation is fundamental to the work). These portals could also be considered to be ‘time portals’, as our body’s usual understanding of time can be distorted as they pass through them. They can become highly politically charged e.g. as we are more ‘observed’ on the surface, we seek to become unseen, anonymous by moving underground. The threshold can be the place where we conceal what is really going on, which links all the way back to Greek mythology and the measures that were put in place around the threshold of the cave where Zeus was being hidden.
- In an ideal world, by the end of Beneath Our Feet the audience will resurface with a sense that something has changed: their perspective on the cave space perhaps, and/or their experience of their own body as a result of the way in which they have been encouraged to journey through that particular environment. This would, I think, have been the case with the first painters in the caves where our ancestors lived; with young miners at Grime’s Graves emerging from the earth covered with white chalk dust, therefore appearing to be physically changed through their experience; a young member of a community who has just made a handprint at the deepest part of a revered cave for the first time; explorers emerging from an underground site. So my big question is how can we enable the audience to experience something like that? Resurfacing associated with renewal.
- I also imagine the stories of the cave, of the land itself, resurfacing during our performance, as if through an archaeologist’s process; digging down to the true and constant earth which is continuously fluctuating and changing, but which has witnessed an inconceivable passing of time: "Empires have risen and fallen since these antler picks last saw the light of day: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia have all have passed into history, but the tools left by the Neolithic miners still reside deep underground, patiently waiting for their owners to return." (Miles Russell). Or from Katherine Swift's The Morville Hours, “Only the land remains and the land remembers”. I’d like to somehow give voice to that story as well, allowing the land to speak.
Some key discoveries so far:
- Our dramaturg Tom Cornford began our discussion after his first day in the studio with these questions: "Why are we doing this (working in caves and underground spaces)?" and "Why are we dancing in these spaces?". We talked around a way of answering these questions: we are dancing in these spaces in order to enable the audience to experience the space [in a new way]. Through dancing, as the dancers are able to embody different characters, ideas, themes, feelings, atmospheres, we can explore what it might mean if the audience's concrete sense of who they are dissipates and vanishes, and then maybe at the end we can encourage them to reassess what it was that they first thought they knew about themselves.
- In order to facilitate this, we must constantly ask how we can dance to enable the audience to experience the unique underground environment for themselves, undertaking their own “unguided tour” (Bradley Garrett), to enable them to discover something in the real time of the piece. This might mean them interacting with the space and the dancers in a way that they do not expect, which means we also need to ask, as Tom articulated, "how do you make participation an invitation?".
- The whole thing is unsteady, moving all the time, which could be an expression of the uncertainty or disorientation we feel underground, the fact that the earth itself is always moving and changing, regardless of how stable it might appear to be, and the fact that similarly, within our own bodies, we are continually changing. In exploring the activity of caving for example, we show how the body can push past its limits (cavers have described to me a feeling of continually having to surpass their own expectations of themselves when they move through challenging spaces underground) – the body's structure, like the structure of the cave, appears fixed, but actually it’s a very shifting thing. Even after the first week of research, the piece feels like it’s always slipping, and that the audience are constantly getting moved along through it, and so I hope that at the end, when the dancers leave the audience and they return to the entrance of the cave (and maybe after this), they will experience themselves/their space differently.
- I think this follows on from the last point - I am always aware of the importance of variation in the work - variation in rhythm, tempo, spatial relationship with the space, with each other (audience and audience, audience and performer), kinds of contact, kinds of text, variation between handprints and pick marks, variation in the soundscape (live music/recorded sound), light and dark for example.
- At the same time I am searching, through gathering of content, play with the possible structure of the piece, and work with collaborators for the persistent idea/story that runs all the way through; something that we can keep returning to, like a chorus.
The R&D for the Dancing in Caves project is supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Pavilion Dance South West (Katie Green/Made By Katie Green are Discovery Artists at PDSW), and South East Dance in partnership with the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.