A dimly lit room. A woman sits in bed looking at her laptop; behind her is a rail of clothes. To her right, three dancers in different positions. Photograph by Alex Brenner.

by Maddy Costa

What does it mean to be alive? A rail of clothes. An unmade bed. Letters, bills, in an unopened pile. Fry an egg. Change a tampon. (Not everyone.) Play with stupid toys, scroll through youtube, search for meaning, or distraction. Someone has died. You also will die. Where to put this pain?

The publicity for Civilisation says it takes place in a single day, but I also watch it as an expanse of time. A week, two weeks, bereavement leave, the long span of grief, of adulthood. The woman on stage dresses for a funeral, puts on her black coat, puts a tissue in each pocket, looks at the tissue box for a moment, takes out several more. She leaves, time passes, she returns, empties her pockets. No tissues to remove.

Tears aren’t shed in Civilisation, written and directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart and choreographed by Morgann Runacre-Temple. The emotions are sharper, more desolate, more spacious, for being so constrained. The zip on the woman’s dress sticks; she has to wrestle herself out of it. Inanimate objects are not our friends. But what does it mean to be a friend? Flowers jostle for space on a side table; there are more below the table; another bouquet arrives. Here, watch something else die slowly for a week: what an odd, inadequate response to a death. The woman takes a vase of not-wilted flowers, discards them, trims the ends from the new bunch stalk by stalk. Trim. Snip. Cut. She hacks through a stalk, again, again, until it’s just the flower head left and then she hacks through that too. Cuts every flower in the same way until there’s a mess on the floor and an empty vase. How to fill this emptiness?

Woodcock-Stewart and Runacre-Temple fill it with dance. Three figures in casual clothes whose movements are anything but casual: precise, rigorous, figurative yet abstract, full of quotation – ballet positions; the skippity feet of Gene Kelly – and at the same time what they quote are the mundane gestures of this space, this room, this now single life. The four corners of a duvet cover. The push and pull of work, the invisible flow of economic systems. Desire, its implacable energy, the embarrassment of living in a body full of longing. Its pleasures, its softness, its discipline and dedication. Another woman comes to see her – a friend? her deceased partner’s sister? – and the bereaved woman, so awkward, attempts to kiss her. Is death an end or a beginning? The dancers run in circles round the room.

There are almost no words spoken and then a torrent of them: a business call, full of jargon, markets, incomprehensible forecasts. The woman had been putting on her dead partner’s clothes; partner, a word associated with commercial relations since the 1520s, with marital relations since the 1750s. Is this what civilisation is, this harnessing of human life to the cold emotionless landscape of capital? The woman begins to talk, pauses, hurriedly throws off several layers of clothing, returns to the call. She speaks with force and animation and it’s as if she hasn’t been to a funeral today, as if no one has died. What dies inside a human as a result of civilisation into capitalism?

The dancers lie on the floor and rest. They support each other to leap, leap further. They emerge from circles to find new movements, new positions, new vantage points. These movements neither mirror the woman nor externalise her feelings, but they do inspire feeling in people watching. Joy, wonder, warmth: the feelings in counterpoint to the pain of life, its disappointments, betrayals, rejections, incomprehensible turns of event. I’ve watched this show twice now, once online and once in person at Cambridge Junction, and each time it’s made me unusually grateful to be a human body in this present, to be, in its presence.

[Further thoughts on Civilisation in this excellent review by Joshua Robey.]

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