To Earth invited a small audience to share an intimate journey with artists Julie Cleves and Robbie Synge as they collaborated to weave together physical actions, film and wooden objects, revealing a moving personal story.
The artists’ developing a friendship, our barriers to connecting (with our own bodies and those of others) and our relationship with the earth, were way markers on the path we travelled together. The pace was slow: time to reflect, time to appreciate the human body, time to connect. One young audience member, who had previously been unaware of the artists’ work, described the experience as ‘serene’.
Over the course of ninety minutes the narrative of their journey was interspersed with film, dance performance and discussion with the audience, Cleves and Synge being open to any questions and comments during the reflective breaks they had built between the film and dance elements. Through their narrative, verbal and physical, they raised issues about our connection to the ground, the barriers faced by disabled people and the very nature of dance. Dance is about connection, whether connection to music, cultural tradition or people. Here, the connection was extremely personal. The performance was as much about the relationship and trust between two people as it was about movement.
Dance is experiencing a phase of re-evaluation. Being disabled, being large, being small, should not be barriers to becoming a professional dancer. The truth is that all bodies can dance. Inclusive dance companies, such as Candoco, have extended the form by making wheelchairs, crutches and prosthetics integral to performances. Ellie Simmonds, and others on Strictly Come Dancing, have shown that even traditional genres, performed on this most public of pop-cultural stages, can be adapted to enable those who do not meet the profile of the ‘classical dancer’ to thrive.
Cleves was part of Candoco Dance Company’s Dance Foundation course and has since worked with several dance and theatre companies, nationally and internationally, including Graeae, Mark Brew, Scottish Dance Theatre and SPINN (Sweden). She utilises her wheelchair for most of her practice. When working with Synge she discards it: returning to earth.
Synge is interested in the potential of bodies and their interaction with the environment. His science background has given him an understanding of biomechanics, while viewing the world through a prism of choreography.
Cleves and Synge met at a two-day audition over a decade ago. Neither made the final selection but during the process they established a bond and Cleves suggested working together. Their journey from this point was presented in To Earth through film and physical performance.
At the point when they met, it had been many years since Cleves had been on the floor – she had never had the opportunity to use the space in her art. Initially, they felt they would need mechanical assistance and hired a hoist for their studio sessions. The hoist proved to be expensive, time consuming and unreliable. A film from that time, projected on a screen behind the performance space, demonstrated how it became a barrier rather an aid to their connection.
Watching Cleves exit her wheelchair by utilising Synge’s body demonstrated both the trust and the precise nature of the choreographed movements they have developed. This technique clearly liberated potential, enhancing their ability to interact with each other and the earth. As an audience, witnessing such an intimate action, we were asked to consider our own interaction with the ground beneath us.
Physical challenges had prevented Cleves from connecting, yet many of us who can connect, unhindered by such restrictions, rarely do. Small children naturally explore the floor; at one point they were joined by Molly, Synge’s infant daughter, who clambered across the performance space and onto her father’s lap. Some of the audience spoke of lying on the floor when stressed, or to relax, while others seldom connect with the ground at all, except through the soles of their feet. I reflected on my experience of working with schools where Nursery classrooms are spaces to freely explore at all levels, to Primary regimentation of sitting cross-legged on the floor and Secondary students firmly fixed in seats. Cleves and Synge make contact with the floor with every part of their body during their performances.
Much of the session was conducted with Cleves and Synge on the floor, the audience perched on wooden benches or slouched on bean bags around them. Having started sat on a bench, I was seduced towards lying semi-prone on a bean bag during the performance. The artists’ approach is playful, investigating the world around them with a sense of glee, despite the danger it sometimes poses for Cleves. I felt encouraged to join their exploration. They went on to document how they had moved their practice from the studio, out into nature.
Having rejected the mechanisation of the hoist, they selected a simpler, more natural tool to aid their explorations: a stack of wood. The wood became another character in their story. We smiled when we saw a video of Synge cutting the wood while Cleves oversaw the process and blew away the sawdust. Its uses were many: to form a stage area, to enable access to hard-to-reach places (including part of the Millennium Bridge outside Baltic) and to construct a seat for Cleves.
We watched a film of Cleves and Synge accessing various natural environments: access enabled by Synge’s companionship, the wood and the ability of their bodies to move in harmony. Cleves explained that, until their exploration, she had not touched grass for around thirty years. Forests, beaches and streams were all visited. The sense of joy emanating from Cleves when filmed sitting in a stream, letting the water run through her fingers, was overwhelming.
When simply sitting upon or moving across the floor they work in close cooperation. Their backs against each other. Supporting, pushing or pulling. Any movement the pair undertake requires an element of choreography. On two occasions we saw a dynamic performance when their bodies intertwined or moved in unison, exploring the potential of their shape, form and movement. Once shown on the forest floor and once live in the Baltic performance space, they performed a routine that demanded timing and trust. Led by Cleves, who always initiates action, their bodies moved in unison or intertwined. Cleves determines what is possible and Synge often mirrors her movements. At other times his body acts as a prop or lever to enable her to move. There are times that he manipulates his body in ways that would be impossible for her but by wrapping himself around her, Cleves still remains central to the performance.
The juxtaposition of two very different bodies challenged conventional notions of beauty. A unique symmetry, flowing movements and personal interactions drew the audience closer, into their collaboration. I asked Cleves if she ever performed on the floor with other dancers. She answered that she had once been tempted in Sweden, but did not have the confidence to even exit her wheelchair with other dancers.
Cleves and Synge live at opposite ends of the country, London and the Scottish Highlands, so opportunities to meet and explore are limited. The strength of physical and emotional trust between the two dancers is evident in the way their performances unfold naturally, despite their irregular contact. During To Earth they seldom communicate verbally with each other, and are comfortable with silent pauses. In other hands the silences might be uncomfortable in such an intimate staging. Here, they encourage the audience to reflect.
There was much to reflect upon. I was prompted to think about the importance of trust and what real support looks like for a disabled person. Friendship was at the heart of their performance. Audience members who I spoke to found themselves examining their own personal relationships. Our relationship to the earth is always at the fore in a time of climate crisis, but here we were asked to consider that relationship in a very individual way. To examine our ability to connect with and savour the earth, the grass, the water below us. We left with a wish to connect, to each other and to the ground beneath us.
Julie Cleves & Robbie Synge: To Earth took place at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead) on 19 November 2022.
Debbie Rolls is an educator and writer based in Leeds and the Cleveland Coast.
To Earth and this review are supported by CONTINUOUS, a partnership project between Baltic and Siobhan Davies Studios (London). The project seeks to advance the creation, presentation and development of audiences for experimental independent contemporary dance within visual arts contexts.