Only connect: on Robert Clark’s Mass

Mass in rehearsal, photo by Camilla Greenwell

 

by Maddy Costa

 

Through the shadows, through the gauze, pinprick lights shimmer, each an invitation: come here, take my hand, let me touch you. Through the darkness, slowly wander, drawn to bodies, disconnected; drawn to bodies finding solace, a tentative embrace. What’s in this spark of connection, what promise, what taste of kindness? And without it, what is left? Something of war in the bleak metallic clamour, a state of crisis, or emergency. Bodies distant and divided, minds further still.

Rob Clark’s Mass begins with a separation: the audience split into random groups, led in turn to a rail of gauzy costumes, long floating shirts with a capacious hood attached, that you pull over your face before entering the performance space, rendering each of you strangers, isolated in a crowd. The room through the gossamer fabric blurs; indistinct bodies loom and fade, and there is no way of knowing who is officially performing here and who is audience (or, as someone pointed out in the post-show discussion, who is being paid and has paid), until one of the bodies holds out a light, illuminating their own palm, or the air just before them. Even then, there is no knowing who this person is: their gender, age, skin. Just a body, inviting your body, to step closer, and see what happens.

What happens depends so much on the people chance has brought to the room: when I saw – or took part in – Mass, on 23 March 2018, I had the impression that many of those people were professional dancers, or performers, themselves; there was an alacrity and boldness to their movements that meant I sometimes felt outside the action, if not too timid then too slow to participate. It was different the following night, Clark told me later, when more people held back. Where you position, or how you respond to the invitation, can depend on so many things: courage, yes, and a sense of responsibility to keep the work moving perhaps; but also a preference for observing, a degree of cynicism, a refusal to be acted upon. With only so many performers to audience members, perhaps there aren’t enough offers to go around. At various points I watched gaps between bodies open into emptiness and it occurred to me: I could dance by myself, here, right now, bend my body or begin to spin, and no one would know it wasn’t part of the show. In a sense, it absolutely would be: not choreographed by Clark, perhaps, but part of the space and the spectacle that everyone present makes together. And of course all of these things build towards a single metaphor for how people make society: who leads and who follows, who obeys and disobeys, who has access and who experiences barriers, who belongs and who feels excluded, who listens and who speaks, who stands wih the majority and who bristles in the minority, what is accepted as rule and what dismissed as disruption.

Mass invites consideration of all these ideas related to community and, as Clark phrases it, the difficulty, irony even, he is working with is that “as soon as you create an us, you create a them”. The ensemble choreographic work has been taking shape through the ongoing abominations of drone strikes, civil war and mass displacement that have resulted in so many documented and undocumented deaths of refugees, the rise and fall of the Calais refugee camp, and a clenching to nationalism that in places expresses as Nazism. For me – although this is my interpretation, and may not be what Clark intended – an acknowledgement of that horror is embedded in the heart of Mass: a central sequence, tense and aggressive, volume rising on the industrial soundtrack, in which bodies are cramped together and torn apart. At the risk of sounding facetious, a local association this brought up for me was of being trapped on the London underground at commuter hour: the normal daily assault on the body inflicted by capitalism. But human behaviour in that ordinary setting, the tendency people have to lose themselves in their mobile phones, is part of Clark’s interest too. Is our ability to connect with others, to empathise, to care, eroded by our absorption into these tiny screens? For some – people socially disabled because their body or brain doesn’t conform to narrow and prescriptive ideas of “normal” – finding a community online is a route out of isolation. There are no simple answers here.

Before this terse, unsettling sequence, Clark scatters his dancers like pollen; as audience it is up to you to navigate the space, follow whatever movement catches your eye. The room is full of walls, gun-grey sheets of voile that rise from the floor like stunted skyscrapers, sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent; it’s possible to be on the wrong side of one when a dancer shines their light, and so be blocked from taking their hand. Those couplings, or small groupings, are brief, tender, almost reverential; some of the movement within them is repeated in the final sequence, the mass gathering that brings the room together. That sequence is a kaleidoscopic whirl of activity, the performers creating a circle from a small number of participants and binding one to each with invisible threads. But again, that inner circle becomes privileged within the architecture of the work, and it’s questions of privilege to which Mass keeps returning. Who gets to be invisible and what does that afford them? What kinds of preconceptions do people hold about each other and what damage do they do before they can even be challenged? Who chooses silence and who has silence thrust upon them?

Between the point of crisis and the moment of gathering, a lifting of the veils: following the performers’ lead, everyone in the room pulls back their hood and it becomes possible to look into each other’s eyes, each other’s faces. If, that is, you choose to do so: one woman refused, and her desire to remain anonymous was fascinating. I know she was a woman only because she joined the post-show discussion – a critically useful space for unpacking how the work had felt – and revealed herself there instead. (But also, I’m making an assumption, having not asked what pronouns she might use, for instance.) The movement of the work towards space for conversation illuminates another crucial social difference, that between mass communication – a facility so often abused online – and the dialogue that can happen close up, face to face.

That moment of the masks being lifted was also a troubling reminder of homogeneity. The professional dance world, like the theatre industry as a whole, is predominantly white and has been painfully, dismally slow in working to change that. But whiteness is also invisible, especially in an industry that uses words like “diversity” as a bland, evasive synonym for “people who aren’t white”. And so the lifting of the masks is an unrevelatory revelation: a reminder of what has already been seen when congregating in the foyer, that very few people of colour are present. This is another paradox with which Clark must contend: that multiculturalism isn’t a good in itself if what it’s promoting is assimilation rather than abundance; his aim – as in society at large – shouldn’t be to remove difference but embrace and celebrate it. And while all of these thoughts relate to race, with time Clark has been more and more drawn to thinking in terms of the able and disabled body: as Mass continues to evolve, he says, he will be working with Candoco Dance Company and other disabled dancers to learn how he might reveal physical difference in the room.

To see difference, to see bodies, to see the real. In his book The Shape of a Pocket, John Berger wrote:

“Today images abound everywhere. Never has so much been depicted and watched. We have glimpses at any moment of what things look like on the other side of the planet, or the other side of the moon. Appearances registered, and transmitted with lightning speed.

“Yet with this, something has innocently changed. They used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies. Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. …

“No bodies and no Necessity – for Necessity is the condition of the existent. It is what makes reality real. And the system’s mythology requires only the not-yet-real, the virtual, the next purchase. This produces in the spectator, not, as claimed, a sense of freedom (the so-called freedom of choice) but a profound isolation.”

This was published in 2001: with technological advancement, the condition Berger identifies has only become more pronounced, more aggressive, and more devastating to human relationships and mental health. By putting his audience in hooded garments in Mass, Clark exacerbates the isolation Berger describes, the more effectively to challenge and undermine it. He begins to build a new mythology, alluding to religious and pagan rituals and festivities to suggest a possible collectivity. As a suggestion it is subject to change – and Clark did change the work the night after I saw it, removing a layer of his own authorship in response to reactions from that audience. It will change again with every audience interaction: as a live event concerned with bodies, community, freedom, and how individuals connect, always should.

 

Mass in rehearsal, photo by Camilla Greenwell

 

This writing was commissioned by Robert Clark and producer Iris Chan, who also asked that the following credits be included:

MASS was premiered at Building 17, Woolwich Royal Arsenal on 23 and 24 March 2018.

Concept and Direction: Robert Clark
Created and Performed by: Iris Chan, Kip Johnson, Samuel Kennedy, Janina Rajakangas, Petra Söör

Local cast: Frances Gibbons, Joanna Mitchell, Milda Rakauskaite, Akshay Sharma, Ruth Valensi
Set and Costume Design: KASPERSOPHIE
Lighting Design: Guy Hoare
Music: Jules Maxwell
Dramaturg: Lou Cope
Production Manager: Rob Pell-Walpole
Producer: Iris Chan
Assistant Producer: Olive Kane
Participation Mentor: Rosemary Lee
Costume Makers: Sophie Donaldson, Frances Morris, Sara Rowlands, Olivia Weltz, Melanie Woolven

Producer, Compass Commissions: Lydia Wharf
Technical Management: Patrick Brett, Paul Gavin

MASS is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. A Compass Commission from the Greenwich Dance & Trinity Laban Partnership, co-produced by Greenwich Dance; commissioned by The Place, and supported by Dance4, DanceEast, Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, Trestle Arts Base, and via the South East Dance and Jerwood Charitable Foundation Dramaturg in Residence programme.

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