21 June 2015

SWAGGA: after the run

Before the show
This run is over and I realised on Saturday that I must have performed SWAGGA in its various incarnations to several hundred people by now. I'm in a state of overwhelm about this. I know that I have been part of something big but it will be a while until I have time to reflect on it properly and to understand what it is that happened. For now, these are my thoughts:

Doing a run of dance shows is exhausting. Every night I would go to bed feeling happy and satisfied, I'd wake in the small hours with some kind of mental niggle about something and then in the morning I'd feel the dread again which built until the second I got onstage. God knows how performers in long-term shows manage, the performance is omnipresent, I was unable to shut it out of my mind as I went about my business in the daytime. I spent most of the week feeling sick with nerves.

My body held up ok. We did long warm-ups each day, I worked on loosening my stiff knees, talking through the fear of performing, settling my mind, singing along to silly music. The show starts with a lot of noise and bad attitude and it wasn't hard to get into that state of mind! By the end of the run I had aches and was covered in bruises, my voice became hoarse. Even though we were dancing for shorter periods that we dance in rehearsals, the adrenaline and pressure of performing was knackering. I felt as though I'd been through a storm.

Each performance had a different feel to it depending on the audience, how I felt about the technical aspects of what I was doing, the presence or not of Trash Kit, whether or not I recognised people in the crowd. We sold out a couple of the shows and the others were almost full. There was so much sweat and intensity as I found my way through the score each time. But what they all had in common was that the response was extremely positive. It will take a long time to forget the applause. Here are some of the things that people said online:
  • the best thing I've seen in a long, long time.
  • SWAGGA is staggering stuff.
  • still replaying it
  • astonishing
  • music just so perfect.
  • a beautiful dancing reassessment. Something got done. Thank you
  • very moving, u crafted a mesmerising thing together
  • It's not like anything I've seen on stage before; funny, moving, sexy, scary and really, really watchable. I mean you can't take your eyes off them.
  • SWAGGA is just the most angry, beautiful, smart, funny, scary, joyful, thing I have seen in a long long time. If I was some kind of theatre producer I would give Kay, Charlotte & Project O my annual budget and cancel everything else.
  • I've just been to see the most inspiring show of recent times.
  • fierce and powerful and sexy and entertaining
  • It was so, so wonderful
  • Wow, once again moved, tearful, grinning.
  • What a storm of emotions and raw power.
  • detailed, exciting, uncompromising work woooo. Feeling love for SWAGGA
  • I can't remember the last time I loved a piece of theatre as much as I loved SWAGGA tonight. Perfection
  • absolutely fantastic!
  • Anyone and everyone who's wanted to dance should catch SWAGGA. Empowering and invigorating and I could just go on and on.
  • a must-see show. Congrats to all concerned, enduring images that stay with me & a band to break your heart.
  • Oh no. #SWAGGA is sold out tonight. Should have booked quicker :(
Many people said that the show moved them to tears. On the last night a woman stood crying by me, all she could say was "thank you!" Others stood to applaud us. It is almost too much for me to take in. It's fabulous to think that this means something to people.

Thinking about what audiences see when they see people like me or Kay, Alex or Jamila dancing on a stage is something that we talked about quite a bit in the rehearsal period. Would we be seen, really seen? That was part of the intention for doing SWAGGA, to be seen for who we are. Would people be able to see us? I feel culturally hyper-visible as an agent of deathfat and also queer and invisible. There is so much bullshit in the way of people being able to see people like me. It is very risky to put yourself in someone's line of fire.

After the show
The answer is that some people were able to see us and some people were not. It was a relief not to have to deal with the usual crap in instances where I was visible to people. I feel like a valuable person and now I know what it is like to be treated as one. I want more of it and I think that everybody should be treated in this way. But others were not able to see us. In one case a man did not have the language to talk about us, so it was all a bit clumsy; in another, a critic's view was ruined by his homophobia.

Being misrecognised, especially by someone who has access to a large readership, is a violent experience and one that can make a person feel painfully vulnerable. But these are not the people I dance for. There's a line in a song we sing: It's not for you. It's complicated because the dance has different functions at different times for the people making SWAGGA. I'm responsible to other people who are building their careers and repertoires on my movement, I love them and want to do a really good job of it. But in my heart I am not dancing for the papers or emissaries from the land of respectability. I'm still not sure why I perform, perhaps I will never know, but this week I was able to connect with people watching me and recognise acknowledgment and excitement in their eyes. I felt that we were able to encourage each other to imagine something different for ourselves, to be less alone in these stinking times.

None of us know where this will go.

Thanks to everyone who came and supported SWAGGA. Giant love to Project O aka Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, Trash Kit, Verity Susman, Katarzyna Perlak, Jo Palmer, Maeve Bolger and Lorna Campbell.

SWAGGA is supported by Arts Council Grants for The Arts, The Junction, The Yard Theatre, Siobhan Davies Dance, State of Emergency, Artsadmin and Dance Research Studio.

15 June 2015

SWAGGA: our residency begins

I have butterflies in my belly today and it's been hard to get off to sleep recently because my mind is full of dancing and things I need to remember. Tonight I will go over to The Yard Theatre for the technical rehearsal and tomorrow we'll have a dress rehearsal and opening night for our week's residency. This is what the work we've done so far has been building up to.

The show has changed since the previews and sharing sessions. We've been doing some publicity for it and the question always comes up: what is it about? This is an impossible question to answer. I used to think I knew, but it's different for everyone involved and its meanings shift in each performance. There isn't a meaning, it's loaded with meaning. I'm coming to understand how dance is something that people interpret, it creates a feeling, it's co-created with whoever's watching. The short answer is that SWAGGA is about us and about what it's like to claim space on a stage and be looked at. Sort of. But there are layers of emotion and experience in there that can't really be said, hence we dance it and invite people to have a look and see what they make of it. Perhaps it's a provocation, as my love described it last night.

Here are some of places where we've talked about SWAGGA:

Out in South London

Hackney Gazette Yard Theatre’s SWAGGA hopes to prove any age, shape or size can pull off a dance show

The Most Cake TMC interview the team behind SWAGGA, a dance piece for anyone who’s been "pushed aside, spoken over, ignored, mis-recognised and snubbed"

London Dance SWAGGA - disrupting conventions in dance aesthetics


Dotun Adebayo at 1:45-ish.

Friend of Marilyn Episode 140, available via iTunes

The Voice Project O: The dance industry is racist too

Exeunt SWAGGA: Dance, Dissent, Diversity

I feel embarrassed to admit that the reason I have butterflies is because I've pushed aside the idea that we have been working towards performances. I've been all about the work and the process as being SWAGGA, and it is, but – guess what? – there's also showtime. It's a bit strange thinking of myself as a performer. I think of them as people who are always On, who are gagging to get on a stage at any time, who live to perform, who need the validation of an audience. That is not me, though I'm a bit of a show-off sometimes. So I've been thinking about why I perform and what I hope this run will bring. Mostly I want to have fun, but it's also about sharing things with people, letting them into our SWAGGA world, hoping that this is something people can build on.

This week I was reading a 20 year old interview with Mick Jagger. The man is repulsive, let me get that clear from the start. But he said something that resonated about performance and humiliation. This has been my experience of performing on many occasions. It risks humiliation and it is humiliating. If you are fat, your life is full of humiliations too, it's part of the everyday. Dancing on a stage in a body like mine, and maybe in other bodies too, usually has some layer of shame and humiliation about it and moving in spite of all that, or with it, is part of the work of dance. Anyway, Mick Jagger said that it feels great to make a fool of yourself in front of people, even if it's a small group. As long as no one's throwing rotten tomatoes at you, you're onto something. You have to keep going, learn to ride the humiliation and enjoy the surprise in people's faces. It feels great! Fancy that!

Ok, so now it begins again.

02 June 2015

Fat and the massage table

I'm lying on a table on my front with my face poking through a hole. There's some plingy-plongy music that I drift in and out of. I feel warm and secure. Sabrina is pressing an area in my upper back that makes me feel a) like a moth being pinned to a board and b) as though she is releasing every ounce of tension in my body through that one point. She does the same with a point on my arse. In a moment she will appear to put her fingers inside the bottom of my skull and I will think "Ah, being decapitated is not so bad after all, it's a bit weird but it actually feels really nice." She will rest her hand on my breastbone and somehow I will have remembered my sense of courage and strength. When I feel unsure I will come back to the memory of that touch.

At times I flash on my mum and dad and wonder if they ever had a massage. I think about people who haven't experienced touch, maybe for a long time, and what it might be like for them to be lying where I am. I think about the layers of embarrassment, fear, shame, class identity and lack of entitlement, lack of access that stops people from getting mostly naked and allowing a stranger to touch them. I reflect on how getting massages has been one of the ways in which I have been able to make sense of and make room for my own body. I think of my friend Deb.

I can't remember the number of times I've climbed on the table. It's different every time. I used to get scrubbed down by a burly woman at Ironmonger Row. I've been scoured with chocolate-smelling goo at the spa at Hershey, and prodded around in the kinds of places where ladies lunch and hairy legs like mine are a rarity indeed. A man in Budapest blasted me underwater with a high-pressure hose. I don't discriminate, I like the variety.

I remember having a massage at Therme Vals, the most beautiful bathhouse I've ever visited. It was over ten years ago. A muscular guy in shorts and vest gave me a going over with hard bristly brushes. It was all I could afford! He had no truck with clothing of any kind and he insisted in a brusque way of doing my front and back. I got the giggles as he brushed my belly and wobbled me around the table. I was so naked and the scene so strange.

For a while I worked at the kind of places that offered workplace massage. A woman would come round with a chair and do you by your desk for ten minutes. It didn't make up for capitalism and the exploitation of labour and it was hard to relax with my boss nearby. At another office a woman set up in the sub-basement. I'd go and see her every few weeks. The ambiance down there was like Eraserhead. I often think about the working conditions of people who do body-work, how they put their bodies on the line too. It's hard work and there's often a big gap between the worker and the punter. I suspect it is hard to unionise. It's work that takes place in these edge spaces and, surprise surprise, it is a kind of work dominated by women.

These most recent series of massages have been part of the dancing I've been doing lately and they also feel connected to therapy. I feel more conscious that they are a means of putting me in touch with my body, noticing things. I've been explicit about this with Sabrina, the practitioner, and she has responded with a wide repertoire of touch, working with my body in a really great and respectful manner.

I go though different states when I'm being worked on. I'm aware of fat, muscle, bone, tightness, warmth, my body becoming extremely relaxed. Sometimes I feel as though I am meat or a corpse, but not in an alarming way, more like an acceptance of my physical self. I often want to say: "Wow! That feels fantastic! Thank you!" but I'm deep in the moment, allowing myself to experience it. Sometimes the touch feels as though it is pushing my limits of tolerance but this is always immediately soothed. It makes me feel brave. I lie there appreciating what I have, enjoying my embodiment, feeling resilient. When I'm on the table I feel as though I am bringing the history of my body with me. I'm glad I can be there at all.