The Normal WORLD
Dance theatre performance
The Normal World is a dance-theatre piece where scenography and costume are inflatable, designed by Ting Huang and Pip Terry. The piece takes place at a colourful and well-kept outdoor pool, the first day after lockdown, where a site manager and cleaner work. Three women visit to enjoy their first day outdoors but discover that what they have longed for may not be as spotless as they imagined.
Ting Huang and Gabriella Engdahl
Pip Terry and Gabriella Engdahl
The Normal World started off as an Independent project and further moved over to a CSM Alive project because of COVID-19 circumstances. For the project, I wanted to challenge myself by making a full-length dance theatre performance working with a bigger cast, as I earlier have solely made duets and solos, and to dare to collaborate with a range of people from different fields. In the end, I collaborated with five dancers, a costume designer, a set designer, four seamstresses and a musician. My role varied a lot as I have been, alongside the choreographer, the producer, the co-designer, the set-maker and the scriptwriter. It has been a very fruitful, but challenging project, often because of challenges in terms of the current situation, that has developed my creative practice, critical thinking and organising skills.
I began working on this project in April 2020 and handed it in as a speculative project for unit 7. During the summer I began thinking, researching and planning it. Below is the first time plan made in May 2020, it changed many times during the process and I learned a lot about managing time when producing a full piece.
1. Research and analysis
In March 2020 I started researching for the project and handed it in as a speculative project for unit 7. Undoubtedly, I knew all along the way that I wanted to make a dance theatre piece with strong characters and a shifting mix of words and movement, although at this point my initial idea was to make a piece with a theme reflecting on sexual violence against women. Several of my close friends are survivors and seeing the effect it has had on them have influenced me hugely. Quite literally, it has made me furious and outraged. I began researching this and wanted to make a piece with a theme that could lift the survivors' stories, help to share the problem, raise the structures related to it and talk about it.
Although, I was aware of the complexity of the topic and the importance of representing it fairly, telling it in a safe way and not offend any survivor. Below is an overview of my journey through this topic which led me on a different path, but informed me what I finally chose to create.
Art work addressing sexual violence
Initially, I began the process by exploring several artworks that somehow addresses sexual violence, as well as reading a lot of feminist literature. I read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (Butler, 1990), Bad feminist by Roxanne Gay (2014), Men explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit (2014) and Gerd Brantenberg's Egalias daughters (1977). I wanted to read a broad width of feminist literature from different decades to learn more about underlying structures related to the issue. For pieces of art, I looked at Nijenhuis' and Msimanga's installation SA's Dirty Laundry where 3600 pairs of pants were hung up over the streets of Johannesburg to lift the awareness around the rape record in the country. My interest in underwear and their symbolism draw me to their work. I further looked at Suzanne Lucy's, Judy Chicago's, Sandra Orgel's and Aviva Rahmani's installation Ablutions (1972) which talked about rape experiences through recordings and visual performance in a way not part of the culture of the time. Continuing on, I studied Yoko Ono's Cut Piece and Benjamin Patterson's Licking piece.
Alongside I watched documentaries, read articles and listened to a couple of ted talks about the topic. Among them a very interesting documentary made by SVT, Sweden's public service channel, made in 1957 about why husbands hit their wives which clearly showed the structural issues related to violence against women. Apart from the problematic title and structure of the documentary, the majority of the "reasons" this documentary stated why husbands hit was tracked back to the woman. For example, they brought up that "women believe they can save the man" and therefore it is her fault that she is staying. They also mentioned the fact that she did not accuse him or stop him which due to them meant that she was part of the issue. Not many discussions were brought up about toxic masculinity or the structural issues.
Through this initial research, what became most clear for me was the importance of representation and fair portrayal. By looking at the artworks I felt that when the creators had experienced sexual harassment themselves and owned their story it felt more right. This was the case for the two first mentioned pieces.
The next step came naturally for me since my concerns around the topic had grown and I decided to contact a few organisations working with sexual violence against women. I got in touch with Amy Harrison, working with VAWG (Violence against women and girls) who accepted to talk to me about my piece and the questions I had. Further on, we had a fruitful zoom-conversation about the representation of women in media and performance, about triggers, systematic structures, violence etc. She advised me to, among various other things, not ask survivors to share their stories with me since there is already a lot of stories available everywhere, and all stories are very different. Adding on, her strongest encouragement was to get in touch with an organisation to have onboard with me on the project to make sure it would be represented fairly. This was also one of Pete Brooks biggest suggestions for me at this point.
Continuing on, Pete Brooks also directed me to Layla Bradbeer, who had written her Unit 7 essay about staging violence. In conversation, we discussed what it means to put or talk about violence on stage. Is violence (sexual violence) personal or political? Can art do anything? Should the audience have power over their experience? Who is the piece for? The conversation widened my understanding of my position in relation to the topic. I realised, even more through the conversation than before, that the absolute main reason to do a piece about sexual violence should be for the survivors.
In the end, I decided not to make a piece about sexual abuse and violence as I felt like I needed an organization working with sexual abuse with me on the journey to portrait it fairly. Also, my previous work is often rather abstract and dance in itself often is, therefore I started questioning whether or not it could be beautifying it when I have not experienced it myself. However, I believed and still believe there is a problem related to not daring to talk about it, although, the possibility of talking about it in the wrong way weighted heavier and this was not the time to do this for me. The research and conversations were extremely conducive though and led me closer to the piece I decided to make further.
Conversations with outside people
2. Research and analysis
Meanwhile coming to the conclusion of not working with sexual violence I became interested in looking at COVID-19 from an equality perspective. During my conversation with Amy Harris, she brought up the increase in domestic violence during COVID-19 (which I was also aware of) and planted a seed in me. Furthermore, I began delving into the ocean of injustices between the genders which the pandemic has shed a light on by looking at statistics, lectures and reading articles on the subject and found myself captivated and fascinated by the fact that a crisis is needed for inequality, which is always there, to be clearly exposed. I felt fooled by society for not stating this as more of a crisis, in public spaces, news and media. Further on, I felt like I wanted to create something with a group of female dancers with this as a starting point. Down below are notes from my research around this.
Research - equality during Covid-19
Continuing on with the idea of working with covid-19 from an equality perspective, I began thinking about the location for the piece and a starting point for the narrative. Having done my unit 7 essay on dance theatre companies, I became interested in the method of Joan Cleville Dance who often works with a clear overall theme, a sort of umbrella idea, under which he then explores and plays with the narrative together with his dancers, this method led me to first wanting to have a location as a starting point.
I stumbled over the article Beneath the surface: The ‘hidden depths’ of swimming pools written by the BBC and became interested in swimming pools and their symbolism. Scholes writes about the dualism of swimming pools, which directly serves a clear opposition in terms of the under and over water. She continues to bring up ideas around luxury, the American dream, pools as a symbol to control the uncontrollable, dreams in relation to water, water in relation to our subconscious. I felt immediately captivated by the concept of under and over water, and of water as our subconscious. I decided to set the piece at a swimming pool the first day after lockdown.
From the idea of the pool, I started thinking about similarities to under/over water in the context of the concept of gender equality during COVID-19. The subconscious of ourselves or what the society chooses not to highlight to us made me interested in:
The subconscious versus the outside surface which is a representation of how we want to be perceived
What we hide versus what we expose
What society hide and expose from us
The home/a place we feel safe versus the society/the official space
Freedom versus being stuck
Freedom versus lockdown
From here on, I began researching different artists who have worked with swimming pools and became interested in David Hockney's work simply because the pool in many of his paintings seems to tell a story of its own. Hockney escaped the UK for his LA dream and the paradise-like atmosphere and colours in his work inspired my piece, especially the first part of it. I became interested in the colour scale, the clear structure and the glittering water. This got me thinking about expectations and what we perceive as a "paradise" (a word which we then worked a lot with during rehearsals). The splash in the painting indicates that something or someone is under the water, a knowledge that leaves us reflecting on the secret "under" and potentially on the fact that what is there could be less paradise-like as what is exposed above the surface.
The portrait of an artist
This painting really expanded my idea of our subconscious versus the outside facade. Having read Gender Trouble earlier I began thinking about the performativity of gender. Butler means that gender is socially constructed and serves to produce certain identities. This then become norms for everyone to live after. Further on, our actions, for example in terms of speech and gestures, is performed for us to live up to certain constructed ideas which then society benefits from. I began asking myself the question of what is displayed in front of my eyes? I did a small scan of the media that was presented for me, but also for my partner and another friend (I did this because algorithms now make news personally composed and not universally the same even if you are using the same channels). It became clear that the gender-related issues were not present on my partners or friends news feeds if not manually searched for. In my feed, a few news pooped up, probably because I have been researching it a lot. This created a thought around the fact that gender equality during COVID has been revealed for the ones that look it up, although if not manually searched for it is a hidden crises.
The Swimming Pool
Through this installation, Leandro Erlich wanted to question reality as we know it. In an interview (XXX) he says that what we take for granted and what we believe is unchangeable results in the entire idea of reality. In fact, reality is built by us and keeps being reproduced by us. This added to my thoughts on Judith Butler's gender theory, but opened up for new thought, to challenge the idea of "the normal"/reality. Incalculable many times during the pandemic I have heard something along the line of "I just want everything to go back to normal". Having researched gender equality and knowing about structural issues that have been revealed during the crises, I started thinking, do we really want to go back to the "normal" that was? And what is even "the normal"?
The Swimming Pool - reflection
Erlich continues explaining that he wanted the visitors to have a completely different experience being over versus being under the surface. This planted an idea of having two clear different sections in my piece that reflect on each other. I wanted the first section to symbolize being over the water and signify the euphoria of being out in the "normal" world. Surrounded by the paradise-like atmosphere of the pool, it would look at the joy of being free, but also the external expectations, the ideals and norms of the "perfect" normality. PARADISE. Further on, the second section would explore the women's internal experiences of lockdown and covid, their subconscious, and symbolise being underwater. To summarise, the first section would explore being over water, freedome and what is being exposed/expectations while the second section would look at being underwater, lockdown/being restricted and internal/hidden emotions.
Alexander Ekman's Swan lake inspired me further in terms of having two very separate parts (acts, if you may like) of the performance. In Swan Lake Ekman works with a light, fun and quirky first half where theatrical elements and characters are a big part, in the second half he puts the focus fully on the dance and the atmosphere (lights, music, movements) goes from light to dark and heavy. I found this interesting to challenge the audience idea of what the piece is by making them clearly contrasted. In terms of my performance, I start thinking more of the "underwater" aspect of the second half and began researching that idea in my body through the question "how does it feel being underwater?". I also started playing with holding my breath and how that affected my movements.
Swan lake - reflections
From here a sensation popped into my mind of running down a pier on a sunny day with the sounds of laughing and kids around you, to then throw yourself into the unknown big ocean and the moment you hit the surface all the sounds and warmth suddenly disappears. The silence almost slaps you in the face and at this point, you are completely alone. I thought I wanted to capture those two sides of this action within my piece and we worked with this to find specific movement languages in rehearsals.
What does "normal" mean?
In the next step, I became more interested in "normality" and what this means and decided to look up the term "normal" on Creudo general reference. The Macquarie dictionary explains it like this:
1. conforming to the standard or the common type; regular, usual, natural, or not abnormal
the normal procedure.
2. serving to fix a standard.
Continuing on from here, I thought that for the first section I wanted a layer of "fakeness". The perfect that we believe is normal is not in reality as perfect and I wanted to capture this. I watched Mon Oncle which turned out to be a strong reference for my piece in many ways. The film by Jacques Tati explores the modern world and centres around a family in an extremely modern home. There is an idea of feeling alien with all this new technology and the uncle of the wife in the modern home adds a very comical layer to the film when he tries to become familiar with the very contemporary house. This film did not only become a reference for the aesthetics of the set design, but also a big inspiration in terms of characterisation. Mon Oncle uses very few lines, and the film is in fact a very physical comedy. The character of the wife became in the end a big inspiration for the "presenter"/visitor 3 of my piece. The wife wants everything in the house to look impeccable, not for herself, but for others. There is a hilarious repetitive action where she turns on the shark fountain every time someone rings the gate bell. There is a layer of perfection and expectation which is very interesting and that I explored through movement as well (see further down).
The uncle of the wife was a big inspiration for the cleaner in my piece. I wanted her to have the comical aspect of the uncle by being the person who took care of the whole space and its interior under huge control from the manager. She would be the kind, caring, lovable person who just wanted to do everything right but that sometimes messed up because of clumsiness.
As I began reflecting on this piece I was certain I wanted to work with the movements alongside the design and the aesthetics as a part of the dramaturgy and story. I was very inspired by Peeping Tom dance, who works set design and costumes which often informs and challenges the narrative. At this time (somewhere in the spring of 2020), my idea was that I would design the costume and set and I began researching for it. My main inspirations here was:
Maria Svarbova is a photographer mostly famous for her swimming pool photographs. I was immediately drawn to them because of the choices of clear contrasting colours and the very choreographed style in which they were shot. There is something very seductive about the symmetry adding a layer of perfection to the "normality" which I wanted to unpick within this piece. Therefore I felt that I wanted to capture this in my design.
The photographer Julie Blackmon captures domestic spaces, regularly with a focus on children, and plays with the everyday chaos. I believe her photography has an interesting depth to them since they at first feel quite realistic, but that the more I look there is often something hiding behind the every day-atmosphere that first strikes me. As I continue to study her photos I found new bizarre objects or concepts beneath them and further on found a connection to Leandro Erlish's idea of challenging reality. Julie Blackmon's photography does in a more subtle way, although she twists everyday situations into scenes that feel less realistic than when first seen. Her choise of placement of objects, colours, details inspired me.
Ting Huang and the inflatable costumes
At the beginning of November, I decided to call out for a collaboration with a costume designer and got in contact with PDP MA student Ting Huang. We began having a couple of meetings where I explained the concept and we discussed it forward and back. A few meetings in she came with the idea of working with inflatable costumes inspired by swimming pool toys which I straight away became fascinated and captured by. The idea of inflation was to capture the "fakeness" of the normal world, at the same time to use colours inspired by David Hockney's paintings to portrait a paradise-like fantasy. We wanted them to both be able to inflate and deflate on stage and that as they were inflated they would portrait perfection, but as they deflated they would symbolise the subconscious of the women and then also add to the dramaturgy of the two parts of the piece. We here got the idea cleaner was supposed to keep the perfection alive and be in charge of inflating the characters with a pump on stage.
In the middle of the autumn, I decided to put up an ad for a collaboration with a costume designer and got in contact with PDP MA student Ting Huang. We began having a couple of meetings where I explained the concept and we discussed it forward and back. A few meetings in she came with the idea of working with inflatable costumes inspired by swimming pool toys which I straight away became fascinated and captured by. The idea of inflation was to capture the "fakeness" of the normal world, at the same time to use colours inspired by David hockney's paintings to portrait a paradise-like fantasy. We wanted them to both be able to inflate and deflate on stage and that as they were inflated they would portrait perfection, but as they deflated they would symbolise the subconscious of the women. We here got the idea cleaner was supposed to keep the perfection alive and be in charge of inflating the characters with a pump on stage.
Notes and meetings
Down below are a few of the tons of notes from the meetings we have had once a week since October.
Once we decided to try to make inflatable costumes we started to research together, Ting did not have the time to develop them solely on her own so it was very much a collaboration. I was in the end in charge of all the collection of materials, sending them to the costume makers and all communication between. We understood quite early on that the vision we had in our minds would not be very easy to execute since the costumes would be used for a dance performance and for me, it was always important that the movements would not be too limited. We had to think about fabric choice and the risk of inflating a fabric, how to inflate and if it was even possible, the fact that we could not meet and try the costumes, the sound the costumes would make, how they would limit the dancers, how the costumes would feel to move in and the list goes on. Down below is a list in bullet points of how the costumes went from idea to realization:
In November we found out that Latex would be the best fabric option and I started contacting different suppliers to learn about the thickness, production, and technique
Ting then started to research how to create clothes using latex fabric because it is a totally different technique than making regular costumes
We found out that to attach latex one needs to use a specific cleaner and glue
At the end of November started to contact different kite surfing shops (which after research seemed to be the best place to buy air valves) and we found out the different options
We decided to start the experiments and in December I ordered materials for Ting to experiment with
At the beginning of January Ting's experiments were done and they went great!!!! Both the gluing, valve, and inflation worked, although the technique was tricky to get a hold of according to Ting
I then put up an ad on the UAL Facebook group to find people who could make the costumes since Ting did not have time
At the end of January, we got in contact with 4 people studying Tailoring and costume design at UAL, three in the UK and one in the Netherlands
Via zoom meetings, we managed to communicate our plan to them, and at the beginning of February, they started to make test versions in Calico fabric
Further on they sent these sample costumes via post to the dancers who then sent them back
At the end of March, they started making the latex costumes which are now almost done
Images from the process
A mix of meetings with the costume makers and Ting on Zoom, sending images, videos and costume all over London.
Reflections on the collaboration
I decided to write in such detail about the process of the costumes because this collaboration has taught me the most is time management, communication, and producing a piece. The beginning of the collaboration was very fruitful since Ting definitely challenged my thoughts about the project and brought new layers to it. Although I learned that I should have been clearer at the beginning of the amount of time available for the making of the costumes because in the end the amount of time I put into making them (without actually making them) was a bit much overall. Looking back at it I feel like with a pandemic and not being able to meet I could have planned it in a different way because it became a bit hectic to have to work with such fragile and expensive materials when having to send them around. For the future, I would rather try to find one person for the making as well as starting the making process earlier. Although since this was a University project and I did not have a big budget I am extremely happy with all the help I got and proud of what we created and how it helps to tell the story.
Set design - Pip Terry
With the set design, I got in contact with Pip Terry and we worked in collaboration to find the set design.........
Music - Ines Murer
Initial experiments and tasks
My movement research is an ongoing practice that I work on most days. Although I started to explore movements for this piece last summer and the beginning of fall. Here are a few of the first explorations where I was inspired by the pandemic in different ways.
Task: Taking care of someone
Task: Escapism of the lower body while locking the upper body
Task: Escapism of body parts
Task: Escapism of body parts
Task: Breating in a cyklop, feeling the breathe travelling in the body
Reflections on initial experiments and tasks
For this inital movement research which happened quite long before the actual rehearsals started I worked mostly from the research I had done about covid-19 and equality as well as my own experience of the lockdown and at this time I felt very stuck. Stuck in the house, in my artistic practice, in life in general. So I started exploring the idea of body parts wanting to escape my body, as that was how I felt most days. This exploration led me further and in the task in the down left corner I decided to lock one part of the body to even more enhance the sense of being restricted while another part of the body would try to escape.
I also here began exploring an idea of breathing in a cyklop under water and how that heavy kind of breathe would affect the body. In this task I would let the breathing lead my body. For this improvisation task I also worked with the idea of the waves on David Hockney's paintings.
This way of working with movement research through improvisation tasks was/is a good way for me to collect movements for further choreographies and tasks that I can give the dancers. Filming myself is the only way I have managed to figure out which works in terms of remembering and analysing the movements afterwards, although the camera can at times feel like an enemy and affect my movements as I feel like I "perform" when this is not really the idea at this stage.
Continuing experiments and tasks
Task: Continuation of lower body part escaping
Task: Inflation through the body. Manipulation
Starting to build material
Rehearsal structures and methods
1. Research and analysis
Art work addressing sexually voilence
Conversations with outside people
2. Research and analysis
Research equality during covid
Collaboration Ting Huang
Influence on the piece
Collaboration Pip Terry
Collaboration Inés Murer
4. Movement research
Initial explorations and tasks
Reflections on initial explorations and tasks
Starting to build material
5. Rehearsals and performance
Rehearsal structures and methods
Zoom and real life
Reflections on rehearsals
6. Finalising performance
Filming at the Parliament hill lido