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Flash Review, 8-30: Unpacking the Taboos of Touch
Touchdown Dance's 'Tact'ful Approach

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2002 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- The British are maybe the least 'touchy feely' people in Europe, but, like the Americans, they are very tuned into what is inappropriate or appropriate touch. For example, in schools there is a 'no touch' policy and teachers have to understand what that means, while in offices accidentally brushing against someone can end up in a lawsuit. Even in partnered dance forms which are all about touching, one has to tread very carefully and negotiate with one's partner. But while touch has gained negative associations through hysteria about sexual abuse, it is also one of the most important senses, particularly for movement in which space and corporeality are recognized through touch. For visually impaired people it is also a life-line.

Touchdown Dance, seen earlier this month at the Royal Festival Hall, is an integrated company of sighted and visually impaired dancers, taking touch as a starting point for all its work. The company was started by Steve Paxton and Anne Kilcoyne in the 1980s, using the genre of contact improvisation to explore touch and movement for performers of mixed abilities. For blind or visually impaired people 'touch' carries different implications than the obvious ones, as it is associated with 'safety,' and one is taught to use touch in order to 'be careful' and not hurt oneself. Current artistic director Katy Dymoke, a contact improv and body mind centering performer and teacher, tries to use contact improv to go beyond 'touch as caution' -- to release inhibitions and fear to uncover creativity and confidence. In contact, touch is where the movement starts from and many exercises are performed with eyes shut, in order to listen to the inner body and respond to sensations felt on the skin rather than on what you can see. The other senses are also sharpened up when sight is removed.

Dymoke has worked hard to make the company more accessible through its practical and creative work to a wider range of both integrated groups and individuals. The company consists of three sighted dancers, one blind and two partially sighted. What is strong about this type of integrated company is that the dancers work as a team and guide, support and inspire each other as well as exchange skills. The safe environment which they create means that the visually impaired dancers will be more likely to take risks and explore their kinesthetic potential.

In recognition of the pioneering kind of work it is doing, the company was invited to be in residence at the Royal Festival Hall during Free Summer on the South Bank, a festival of dance which includes a wide range of performances, residencies, workshops, exhibitions and discussions of dance styles which all too often remain on the fringes of the dance world. Throughout the week the dancers were working on their current piece, "Tact," which they performed at the end of their residency, in conjunction with workshops and discussions to illustrate how they work and use touch.

The company invited European choreographer and contact-improv guru Julyen Hamilton to help reshape "Tact" for the large space of the RFH. The piece is a series of impressions, filmed images, stories, memories and textures conveyed through spoken monologues, movement, light and sound. At the beginning the dancers, sighted and non-sighted alike, sit and watch a film of one of the dancers in a snowy landscape. Bright colors and lighting are essential for this company, as well as music that is varied in dynamics; three live musicians provide a vibrant and impressive score of music and percussion which guides much of the movement. The bright filmic images together with the music and dancers' monologues, in which they describe colors, sunlight, smells and sound create a rich palette of shades and textures -- one that doesn't need to be appreciated by sight alone. For the first time I understand how this kind of work can be rewarding for a visually impaired audience.

At first the dancers occupy their own individual spaces and move slowly with eyes closed, emitting a Zen-like calmness, before breaking off into solos, trios and duets. As they move closer together and gain confidence through touch, the movement becomes more dynamic and risk taking. In one section, a dancer who is unable to see at all is left center stage to perform his own solo, which he does with humor and enthusiasm, confidently using touch to take him into some challenging movement. "Being looked at" when you are uncertain about what you look like yourself must be terrifying and a reality that most mirror-dependent dancers don't have to deal with. But this dancer in all his exposure is self-assured.

The theme of 'touch' was also explored in the form of a 'tactile exhibition' built around the open dance space at the RFH. This was a series of wooden sculptures made by a South African sculptor that could be picked up, played with and examined. As members of the public we are very nervous about 'touching' art exhibits or sculpture (even though some of them cry out to be touched), for fear of being told off or even arrested, as has been known to happen in some of the snootier London art galleries. However, here at the RFH both a dance performance and an interactive sculpture exhibition helped to dispel the taboos of touch by reclaiming it as a 'higher sense,' and a deeply liberating one.

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