On March 8th Tangled Feet Co-Directors Kat and Nathan flew to Iceland to take up a two week residency at the University of the Arts Reykjavik. At that stage, 1 month a go, there were 100 cases of Coronavirus in the UK, a rumour spreading that Italy would lock the northern region and a real sense of not knowing what we would return to.
There was a heightened tension at the airport – our first experience of gloved and distanced customer service teams, quiet security screening and much hand washing.
We flew on a beautifully clear day, and as the icy vistas came into view from the aeroplane window for the first time we felt a huge sense of awe. The idea of polar icecaps (and their melting) is often very abstract, but this whole landscape of ice stretching in every direction suddenly made the world feel both smaller and more epic
On arrival in Iceland it seemed they were one step ahead of the curve with extensive signage and alcohol wash across the airport and city and on our first day at the University an introduction to a new no handshaking policy and the first experience of the elbow shake.
We walked to the campus along the coast of Reykjavik in the snow and reflected on how much it felt like an outpost; a vibrant hub of civilisation clinging to the edge of a huge wilderness.
We were working with 29 students from three courses – Dance, Theatre Making and Acting. We planned to spend the first four days introducing and work-shopping the methodology by which Tangled Feet create work. We aimed to cover one major area each day over Week 1:
1) Ensemble physicality and group identity
2) Object manipulation and design-led improvisation
3) Autobiographical storytelling
4) Space and audience dynamics
On the Friday of Week 1 we would reflect on what parts of the workshop had inspired the students and their practice and spend Week 2 making, shaping and creating a performance to be shared on the final day.
Quite early in the first week we had to agree a Coronavirus sensitive method of working. The University had (quite rightly) given all students permission to stay home if they felt the slightest bit unwell, as well as leave early if necessary. We agreed with the group to have no physical contact unless everyone agreed (which they didn’t) and we also decided to let the growing pandemic also inspire our creativity.
Over the first few days we made some really interesting work that demonstrated the students strong physical, improvisational and storytelling skills. We were massively inspired by the boldness, humour and commitment of the students (and the wonderful facilities we had to work in together).
There was some fascinating material in the creation of physical work without connecting physically. Pushing the boundaries of how close people could work without touching (there was no social distancing then) as well as experimenting with people connecting from distance that gave us a glimpse of a physically divided world to come.
We started a visual diary on the wall mapping the ideas and questions we thought would help create a piece:
1) Exercises, games and tasks to try
2) Things to investigate further
3) Questions of the work or ourselves
4) Themes we’d like to investigate
5) Things we are inspired by
Themes and ideas began to emerge each day that started to connect with us all – borders/barriers/isolation, physical lockdown, contagion, a post-pandemic world, love in a world of Corona, the things that make us unique, touching and no touching, the collective mindset…
As well as questions:
-How can a creative process work for different types of learning styles and people?
-How can these games become more performative?
-Why can’t we let everybody speak?
-Can I just dance?
-Will there be this much physical work each day?
-Will Coronavirus effect this Residency?
The final question was most telling. As we reached Wednesday the whispers began that the University would close and distance learning take over. The effect on the energy of the work was intriguing as what was once something powering towards a performance felt like the air slowly disappearing from a room.
On the Friday morning it was confirmed that that day would be the last day and the residency would find some other way to continue digitally the next week. We hastily created a final physical sharing asking the students to choose the last four days of work-shopping as a starting point and muse on the fact that this could be the last ever piece of theatre before the world changed forever.
The sharing was a collection of scenes thread together: a strange museum of silver emergency blankets, personal storytelling surrounding moments when people had felt most alive, movement that brought to mind contagion and pandemic, a duet of hazard suited dancers lying on the stairs and a space-woman puppet discovering a new landscape
At the start of Week 2 – after our early flights home had been hastily arranged - we sent this provocation:
“To complete our residency together we offer you the provocation: How can we collaborate creatively whilst isolated from one another? This is an urgent question, which the creative industries across the world are trying to answer, so it seems right that we focus our attention here. We can be international pioneers...
We could test the idea that our work can still ‘speak’ to each other even though we making individually, as we have connected creatively as a group through our preparatory work last week, through the listening, sharing, improvising and making that we did together. To this end, our proposal is that, inspired by the work we made together last week, we each individually create a 1 minute video/performance which we share by Friday.”
By Friday we had received 20 videos and they were an intriguing mix of solitary moments of reflection, creation and chaos.
The work included:
#1 - Immediate responses to Coronavirus life and the new focus on our hands and isolated thoughts
#2 - The snowy landscapes common in Iceland (but other worldly to us in the UK) mixed with acts of creativity and reflection
#3 - Very personal reflections on life inspired by the autobiographical workshop the previous week:
#4 - Acts of neighbourhood solidarity and entertainment (from a co-habiting isolators)
#5 - And perhaps post Pandemic strangeness…
What is the next creative phase for this little archive of material from a strange time? Each of our Icelandic collaborators will have their own answer, and perhaps from these experiments, some threads will grow into future ideas...
Since the point when our residency should have concluded (the 20th March, which was the day the schools in England closed) it feels like the world has undergone another monumental shift. From the first frantic negotiation of what separating ourselves and going into social isolation would feel like, we are now having to come to terms with it as a long-term reality. A few weeks later, we've settled into a new routine, the reality of this is beginning to bed in, and we are faced with a challenge of how to sustain ourselves in our own lonely little outposts? How do we sustain our relationships, our creativity, our industry, our connections to each other?
Tangled Feet's creative process is founded on physical connection. We are experts in bringing people together in the same room and forging a group identity, in quickly creating a sense of trust which enables discovery to happen. We did these things in our first few days in Iceland and created the beginnings of a beautiful and fruitful creative laboratory.
But we are unequipped travellers in this new world where so many of our skills are stripped away from us. How do you unfold that relationship of creative trust with a new collaborator when all you have is a Zoom meeting screen and a dodgy wifi connection? So much of what we 'bring to a room' is lost once we are just a face in the video-call sea of faces. How can we vulnerable enough to create together when we are reduced to a (brave) face on a screen? How do you take care of others when you can't give them a hug, read their body language or place a reassuring hand on their knee?
The world of gigs and festivals and clubs and shows is shut, and the elation of a physical experience shared and the connection that it brings has suddenly disappeared. And as the casualties of COVID-19 mount up around us in our spheres, the savageness at this isolation becomes ever more profound. Us humans need to be close to each other. Touch, closeness, physical connection and togetherness is a fundamental part of how we come to terms with things, at the best of times and the worst of times.
Some Creatives right now will be driven to create. And others will be feeling completely stymied and unable to produce anything. Either is natural and right. Whatever our response, we should at least all feel alleviated of the pressure to make great art, right now.
It feels like we are sending smoke signals to each other, to let each other know that we are still here, for a time when we can come back together.
Kat and Nathan