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Real Openness

I knew EmJ from quite a long time back. I worked in the small-scale dance sector for the last 10 or 12 years. I tuned in to what was going on in Oxford, and I could see such a wide range of what Body Politic was doing. Their work with people, various courses and quality training opportunities. It’s not just dance classes, there were courses on writing about dance, and EmJ was doing a leadership programme that was accredited by a sports organisation for younger people.  

I was working at the Cornerstone Art Centre, and developing my dramaturgy practice, working as a dance dramaturg with different artists and looking out for opportunities. I had seen an extract of a piece – I think it was the first piece Body Politic had toured. I was really interested. And then EmJ contacted me and was like, “Can I ask you a question about dramaturgy?” We organised a couple of sessions to chat. It was nice because I already knew her background, even though I was essentially new to the company.  

I became a dramaturg for their most recent work – I came in around the second R&D (often the creation of a new piece starts with an R&D – it’s important to have time to develop a work where you don’t necessarily have a performance at the end of it). It’s quite often the case that I’m coming into the situation in the middle of it. Other people have spent a while creating a shared language, a shared set of reference points. And sometimes negotiating those relationships can take a while.  

So, I was definitely a new face, but I felt very familiar with EmJ herself, and I felt like there was an easiness, which was really nice. I felt very welcomed by both the actors and performers. After the rehearsals, I shared a train ride back with some of them, so we had that casual conversation opportunity, which was nice. I felt like I was accepted. I felt included in the team. There can be occasions where I sort of feel like I’m not sure if I can really provide anything, whereas with this one, I felt like I made up a little part of that jigsaw puzzle. 

The dance styles and genres that the performers work with were relatively new to me. I was interested in learning about them and the cultures that accompany them. Who am I looking at? Who am I engaging with, with this? And what does that say about me as well? For me, it’s important to widen my horizons, and learn how to listen as well. 

I think the reason EmJ wanted to bring me on board was, as a creator, you can kind of get a lot of questions swirling around in your head, and you don't really know how to address them. It's useful to have somebody who can tease out some of those things, and then getting down to the nitty gritty of like, “Okay, how do I make this particular thing work in the piece?” 

We ended up writing together and looking at the script a lot, rather than focusing on the movement. I really enjoyed working with narrative - very often I don’t, because most of the work I do is more abstract, symbolic. I felt like it meant that there was something really concrete I could immediately grasp onto.  

And the actors were absolutely, completely involved. Completely central to it. They went through huge processes of thinking through their characters, and I don’t think that was an easy thing to be part of. I was overwhelmed at how committed the actors were. Not just to acting and performing and dancing, but to engaging with difficult questions. And I think they found it rich as an artistic experience as well.  

One of the things that was really amazing about this was the discussion element. We had a post-show sort of discussion thing. Usually being in the audience, you expect to be fed something, and then you go “Oh yeah, that was nice,” or “No, that wasn’t nice,” - that is how a lot of theatres present. But here the audience was almost a partner in the process. It’s more than bringing something on stage; it’s about generating thinking. So, I had my role as a dramaturg, and my role facilitating this discussion. 

Quite a lot of people wanted to discuss the work afterwards – almost like the audience members taking it as their responsibility to react to it. I was surprised at how extensive and deep the discussion was. There was a conversation about caretaking, and about trigger warnings. And somebody who had personal experience saying that it was tough, but at the same time he was also very grateful to be part of it. There was another about the ways that women’s behaviour can be part of patriarchal, oppressive structures. We talked about the self-policing of appearance, saying “Oh, you should look sexier” or less sexy or whatever. Audience members were basically going, “Oh, yeah, I think I was part of that process; yes, I remember saying things like that.” There were men and women in the discussion group, and I think that presenting a story that wasn’t completely one-sided offered new perspectives, to men or to people of other genders. 

In my work it’s rare to find real openness towards discussing work, and not just the content of the work, but all aspects of it. And I love that about this process. I think the thing that really distinguishes Body Politic is this kind of activist mission. A good starting point for anybody who’s interested in the company is to think about, like, “What is it that we’re interested in?” If you have a central question that you want to explore, or some ideas you want to put out in the world, that can happen in many different ways.  

I have a feeling that that’s what drives me in artistic endeavours. There’s something that can be changed, it’s not just presenting an idea and going, “Oh, look, here’s my idea.” It’s more than that. The legacy of all of these ideas that were presented on stage is a huge part of the piece. The subject matter of the piece will definitely stay with me beyond my work; those ideas will continue with the way that I engage with the world. It’s one of the most positive experiences that I’ve had recently with dramaturgy. So that’s why I want to do more of the same. 

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