When I was Paris last year, Nora HickeyM’Sichili, the director at CCI invited me to be one of the forty artists she was commissioning to be part of Addressing the Nations in short videos for the start of 2021. Her premise was that
Worldwide, 2020 was the year of the televised address of the nation, with diligent speech-writers working in over-drive, constructing emotive speeches which have both reinforced our awareness of the fragility of human existence and inspired altruistic acts of humanity. New language has been developed to describe new circumstances. Unfamiliar words have become common currency.
She wanted to balance those political addresses with artistic ones. The resulting videos and downloadable texts are available here on the CCI website.
It was a interesting challenge take on but also an important opportunity to channel a creative practice based on movement into this format of videoed headshot (some of the artists managed to stretch the rules in ways that added helpful diversity to the assembled programme). I’m not sure how, but I started to write about grief. Before Christmas and before the recognition of the new Covid variants, the mood seemed to be lifting around the pandemic and I sensed that we were all in a hurry for it to be over and while I desperately shared that need for joy and release, I could also feel a tug against the rush, a tug I recognised as grief.
I’m not the only artist to have mentioned grief in their address: Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi feels grief in the pandemic and in the context of racial injustice as a ‘ravenous animal, rabid and roaming around a parched wasteland’. While I’m not sure how I started writing about grief for this address, in truth grief has been intertwined with my dancing from early on. My father died when I was twenty and my mother when I was twenty four. These were also the years in which I met and fell in love with dancing and in which I met and fell in love with my now husband. My first works at London Contemporary Dance School were Caoineadh (the Irish word for lament) and Slán (‘Safe’ but also ‘Good bye’ as in ‘go safely’). These weren’t necessarily sad works, even if they have a nostalgia. But I recall in them a determined liveliness (me dancing around to John Sheehan’s fiddle playing on Kate Bush’s Jig Life) and a request to be seen living even while grieving. “Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement, as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony was now the way to speak” – Brian Friel, Dancing at Lughnasa.
Dancing is an art form of liveness and aliveness. I can’t help but look at my personal history now and see that dancing has been a way for me to respond to grief, to be alive and dancing while that is possible, knowing that it will not be possible indefinitely. When my father suddenly fell ill, I flew back urgently from Pearson College in Canada. I returned to Canada from my father’s sick bed a month later and remember that one of the first things I did there was perform in the Ukrainian folk dance group I loved for the College’s annual gala show. I left rehearsals of Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker when my mother fell ill unexpectedly a couple of years later. And after her death, I returned to London Contemporary Dance School to finish my training. My body has been saturated with grief in its formative moments as a dancer.
And as a young gay man, I’ve survived, experienced and anticipated the threat of death as we navigated the AIDS/HIV crisis in the West (The crisis remains acute in other parts of the world, even as treatment and prevention options have reduced its danger for richer people in richer countries – death is common to all but the particulars of our vulnerability to it are not equal distributed). Acknowledging grief as an important part of life, learning from it and from which it can teach us about living, and about our relationships to each other and to our environment – all of this feels particularly necessary now as more people are faced with the loss of loved ones and the loss of certainties and futures they depended on.