Touch Without Touching
Their red clothes stand bright against the blue-gray of the sky and the murky tones of the city. Their rotating of limbs and raising of arms occurs as if indifferent to the passing cars below. Atop the buildings, they wave like flags. Watching the figures move and twist, their heads remain, by contrast, still and fixed. Faces focused towards their counterparts ahead on the horizon, they are silently attuned, following the gestures in steady rhythm.
In 1971 Trisha Brown created Roof Piece. A troupe of 15 dancers is dispersed along individual rooftops in SoHo. Each wearing red, they watch and mimic the movements of the dancer on the rooftop ahead of them. Together they form a chain of transmission that traverses the city’s skyline. Attuned to each other’s movements, the band of bodies synapses signals across the city. The work’s resonance with our current mass quarantine is visually apparent. Confined to our own homes, we reach out across to each other. Though apart, we move in parallel.
Our current crisis has demanded that we reconsider ways in which we enact togetherness. The situation highlights the ramifications of an increasingly interconnected modern world. The philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, writing about the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, outlines the perils of such a system. In our entirely interdependent world, any natural disaster ripples out globally with vast political, social, and technological ramifications.
We see this with numbing clarity today, as the pandemic’s damage spills and spreads into the realms of the political and social, into government funding, into transnational transport, into legislation regarding immigrant and undocumented workers—while highlighting our dependence on technology, and the solemn gravity of race and class divides. The breadth of the virus’s expansion consists of—and is furthered by—the system we inhabit. Today, Nancy’s words about life post-Fukushima are chilling in their resonance: “Communication becomes contamination; transmission becomes contagion.”1
However, in the face of such realities, it is worth reminding ourselves that transmission is not always contagion—or that communication, even with contamination, is often sought and nurtured. In Roof Piece, like in a game of Telephone, ‘errors’ and ‘mistakes’ in one dancer’s ability to mimic the figure ahead are carried on, taken up by each successive dancer, and absorbed into the sequence of gestures. As such, the idiosyncrasies that contaminate the transmission shape the score and movement of the work.
Roof Piece’s contemporary relevance is made evident in the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s decision to reenact this piece now online via webcams as Room/Roof Piece. This new reworking sees the dancers still wearing red (or whichever approximately red items they have at home) but now transposed from the rooftops to their living rooms. An online video conferencing format unites the dancers in a grid, as they each echo the figure in the frame ahead of them. Alone in our homes, unable to physically reach the touch of others, we seek out novel ways of being together.
Yet, considering Nancy’s apprehensions regarding our technological, social, and financial interdependence, I feel ambivalent about the digital redevelopment of Roof Piece. To embrace technology as the tool for transmission may be the easiest way to remain connected under such unprecedented circumstances. However, it is also worthwhile and necessary to appreciate and nurture other forms of togetherness that are less dependent on the consuming force of technology.
There are ways of enacting togetherness, of moving and being moved by each other, that vastly differ from the interconnected and interdependent capitalist empire Nancy describes. How can we envision these other ways of staying together? Roof Piece is one such instance of a kind of reciprocity unbound to our contemporary interdependence on technology and capital. As a form of communion it welcomes contamination – dismissing accuracy in favor of sensuousness and affectiveness.
For many, movement has always been a means to manifest and share what is often incommunicable. In his novel, The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), Earl Lovelace traces the lives of Trinidadians during the festivities of Carnival. Aldrick, who dances the dragon, weaves his and his family’s stories into the forms of his costume and his dancing:
He worked, as it were, in a flood of memories, not trying to assemble them, to link them to get a linear meaning, but letting them soak him through and through.2
For Lovelace and his characters, dance is both a stage and an invitation for togetherness—even with those no longer physically present. The touching of past and present recalls a previous reenactment of Roof Piece. In 2011, artist Anahita Razmi restaged the work in Tehran, working with local Iranian men and women. The Iranian government’s prohibition of dancing renders this reenactment highly political. The performers’ red costumes extended to their headscarves and in the work’s documentation their faces are blurred.3 For Razmi, this reenactment layers the original project, a celebration of a liberal 1970s New York, onto an oppressive contemporary Iran. In this way, the work’s political manoeuvre rests on dance’s ability to bring the past into the present, to let it soak “through and through.”
Like with Trisha Brown’s original, the red figures sit vibrantly within the landscape. Here, the pale, sun-bleached concrete of Tehran’s buildings fills the dance’s backdrop. There are satellite dishes (those that haven’t been torn down, as they’re technically prohibited) and abandoned piles of bricks. The sky is clear and vast. The performance was never advertised there, and without an audience, it is less clear for whom the dancers are performing. Gently, with great purpose, they twist and turn. Slow, focused gestures enable them to anticipate where the movement will take them next. With it less discernible who is leading whom, they move together. Delicately, they balance each on one foot.
The performance also directly responds to the rooftop protests in Tehran preceding the brutal riots in 2009. At that time, under such heavy state presence, Tehran took to the roofs, shouting into the sky. These dancing figures reignite the skyline’s beating memory. Despite being prohibited from dancing publicly, these bodies—scattered and hidden across the city, their identities blurred—are able to conjure a whole, a precarious but vital grouping. Their connectedness is necessarily antithetical to the interconnected systems of surveillance, governance, finance, and politics. Dance here becomes an unstable yet essential means for togetherness.
Movement always recalls past movement. In Razmi’s work, arms outstretched to the sky may grasp at agonized cries of protest from two years prior. We can’t always pick and choose what may be transmitted in every gesture. But, as with this work, dance’s ability to fold the past into the present and to offer a means for communication remains a tool to be harnessed.
In 2014, Fiona Buffini wanted to create a work about the city of Nottingham. As a theater director, she chose to restage the Boléro—the dance that took figure skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean to Olympic gold in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Torvill and Dean’s interpretation of Ravel’s “Boléro,” complete with voluminous purple chiffon sleeves, gave them the world record score for a single program and entered them into British legend. Torvill and Dean have thus become a kind of kitsch-yet-heartfelt icon for their hometown of Nottingham.
The opening movements of their Boléro are the most iconic. Kneeling facing each other as the drums start up, only an inch separates them, their arms outstretched softly as wings. As the flute glides in, they peel away from each other, leaning back over their feet, before swooping round and meeting again. Their chins and wrists meet just before the point of touching, before swinging back and repeating the movement twice more. A brief sequence of oscillation between coming-together and moving-apart—though dramatized to the point of camp—becomes a poignant vehicle for moving in sync.
Buffini’s restaging, 30 years later, involved asking different communities from across the city (including firefighters, schoolchildren, bus drivers, and nurses) to learn and perform part of the routine—whether that be in the local fire station, the schoolyard, or the hospital floor. The many participants do not perform side-by-side but in their own buildings, streets, and workplaces. These segments together compose a portrait of the city. The earnest choreography is echoed in the bodies of delivery men and army cadets. Pirouettes unfurl clumsily, fingers fumble to meet each other, and faces are held with solemnity as the romantic “Boléro” is transposed onto the Nottingham everyman.
Here, as with Trisha Brown’s work, the work embraces contaminated communication. The inaccuracy that renders the reproduction comically dissimilar is what gives space for humor, comradery, and pathos. That same overly sincere and bathetic appeal of the 1984 original is rekindled here in the dancing and weaving together of a kindred sentiment.
For theater critic Lyn Gardner, the “joy” in the work is the occurrence of “something beautiful and bigger” beyond the individual contributions.4 Two librarians, leaning to the left, now jump and turn to the right. Without the ice of the original, the poses are held static—a kind of clownish stillness where Torvill and Dean were originally gliding swiftly across the rink. The librarian’s arms are outstretched wide, parallel to the ground; her gaze is focused out over her left hand. Another librarian, the Dean to her Torvill, awkwardly grips her waist. They leap together into the next pose. Motionless in concentration, just her lanyard swings gently beneath her.
In the stillness and stiltedness of their movements, we see the grace and agility of 1984 Olympic gold. In the empty stadium that surrounds the two rugby players—preparing ,with their tacit eye-contact, to attempt the first lift—we see the attending crowds of British popular history. Not organized in any linear clarity nor assembled with coherence, the people and stories gathered here, to use Lovelace’s word, soak the movements.
Dance is often assumed to take place in a singular delineated space with specific bodies and specific movements. But these assumptions limit our understanding. Works such as these reveal that we can also dance with those not physically there beside us. In the face of separation and isolation, our present situation demands us to find alternate methods to stay in touch without touching. Yet, it quickly appears, dance has always provided ways of bringing those apart together—tender modes of transmission that surpass and undercut our technologically hyperconnected lives.
- Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, 2015, p.34.
Earl Lovelace, The Dragon Can’t Dance, 1979, p.36.
Liz Jobey, “Daring to Dance,” Financial Times, Oct 7 2011.
Lyn Gardner, Review: Mass Bolero, Stagedoor, 24 March 2020.