In favour of touching

Image: Sara Popowa. Land into Light, 2012. Dancers Jennifer-Lynn Crawford and Charlotte Spencer. 

As I approach the birth of my first child I find myself in a time of radical change. My body changes noticeably from one day to the next, my sense of myself is in flux and I am all too aware of the precious time I have all to myself to sit and think in a way that will be abruptly forgotten once the wee one has arrived.

All the books I’ve been reading about preparing for child birth and the early days of parenting re-iterate one common necessity – touch. During labour, being touched by your partner, Doula, friend, mid-wife is invaluable for managing the physical and emotional intensity of contractions. Massage, hair brushing, hugging, stroking, reflexology, acupressure…whatever helps you relax, it’s all good. As soon as the baby is born, skin to skin contact is essential. It will make the baby feel calmer, safer. It will aid with bonding. It is instinctive from both mother and baby. And babies need to be held and touched a lot. If they aren’t then they simply don’t develop properly physically or emotionally. Indeed if babies and young children don’t receive regular loving touch in their first two years of life, then the damage that that causes is irreversible. They suffer from attachment disorders, cognitive delay, their growth is stunted, their digestive and immune systems don’t develop properly.

I am looking forward to giving birth. That might sound slightly strange, but I am. I am curious about the demand that it will place on me physically, mentally and emotionally. I am so curious about this other life that has been growing inside me these past almost 9 months. Who are you? I keep saying.

I am so relieved to be in the midst of a process that is so directly entangled with what it is to be alive, to be human, to be in and with my physical body. So much of life today seems to be removed from that – it is virtual, on-screen, brainy, insubstantial. I don’t think you can get much more real time, real life, real sensation than giving birth. It is full of all of the senses.

Until the past couple of weeks I didn’t engage much with buying stuff in preparation for this baby, but I have been quite busy being in touch, getting in touch, being touched. It doesn’t feel like new work but it does sometimes feel luxurious. I find myself repeatedly grateful for the dance training that I had, for all the years that I’ve spent working with my body. I feel better equipped somehow.

When I think back to it, those years of full time training were so particular – long days that were so physically and emotionally demanding. Endless sweating. Sitting in a heap at the end of the day on the benches in the changing room, gathering energy to shower and change. Falling asleep in the body conditioning studio. Crying, a lot. Friendships were intense, supportive, fierce. There were plenty of hugs and massages and arguments. We touched each other a lot. Formally and informally we learnt many ways of touching, of being in touch with ourselves and each other. Of giving and receiving. Of knowing where our edges were. Sometimes we were clumsy, unclear, unsure. Sometimes we got the touch wrong. But we practiced a lot.

It is now almost 15 years since I graduated and in those intervening years sometimes I’ve danced a lot. Sometimes very little. I definitely touch other people less than I did then. Somehow there is less opportunity. Do I miss it? Yes probably.

Over the past year I’ve worked intermittently on a farm that specialises in growing Japanese vegetables. I have appreciated having a job of little responsibility that is 10 mins cycle ride from where I live, is outdoors and is physical.

We’re a friendly bunch and our working environment is pretty informal. And still we don’t touch each other at all regularly. We don’t hug or shake hands at the beginning or the end of the day. I worked with the same colleagues from June til December last year and it wasn’t until we said goodnight after our Christmas get-together that I actually hugged any of my co-workers. I noticed the absence of any physical contact during those months of working together and I missed it, but somehow I also didn’t instigate any sort of change or shift. Like in dance projects, we also worked intimately. We started work anywhere between 2 and 4am, we worked hard physically and supported each other when we were beyond tired. We shared jokes and as we worked we shared little snippets of our lives. In many ways it’s a wonderful environment for work. Meditative, outdoors, working with the land, hands in the soil – the work itself is a deeply tactile experience. And the conversations, relationships that develop through that working environment have the potential to be deeper, more intimate, more open precisely because of the context and the nature of the work. And yet we never actually touched each other. No pats on the back, no light brush of the hand. Nothing. It’s normal. And something always felt at odds with that.

I read that we are in the midst of a crisis of touch. Adults don’t touch each other much. Increasingly adults aren’t allowed to touch children who aren’t their own. There have been too many stories of abuse, too many scandals and we’ve become a scared nation. In the attempt to empower young people in being able to assert their touch boundaries, I find myself wondering what has been lost and what is the cost of that loss? Have we forgotten what non-sexual loving touch can be? Have we lost the ability to be able to give and receive nuanced touch? If so, we are indeed in crisis. Touch is life-giving after all. It is essential.

There has been (and probably continues to be) so much abuse of touch – the proliferation of the #metoo campaign reveals this all too clearly. And that’s only just the start. It’s certainly thorny territory. I’m curious to see how we can develop healthy, honest touch experiences. Ones which make us feel safer, more confident, more connected to ourselves and to others, less fearful, more optimistic about the riches that touch can offer. And I wonder what the experience of dancing, dance training, dance performance has to offer here. I have a feeling it is quite a lot.

Image: Kimbal Bumstead. Embodied Drawing, 2012. Dancers Thomas Goodwin and Charlotte Spencer

Corby in April, Glasgow in May and now London in October

It has now been many months since the flurry of activity that surrounded the creation of Is this a Waste Land? in March, April and May of this year. This project has been epic in every dimension – it took three years to bring to fruition, countless conversations, sites, interruptions and unexpected complications, but Is this a Waste Land? now exists.

We rehearsed for 5 weeks on a site in the heart of Corby in March and April. As expected we gradually fell in love with it. We had almost no rain until the final week of rehearsals and so the land completely transformed from muddy boggy to hard, cracked, almost desert like. The grasses grew and flowers bloomed as the days got longer. Slowly the town became more curious about us and what we were doing. We had the JobCentre befriend us on twitter, and the teenagers who work in the cinema came along, and brought their friends with them. Quite a few audience members from the first night came back the next night and brought their friends and their families with them – it was quite extraordinary.

image by Kate Dyer

As we sat around the fire after the show drinking tea and eating biscuits, we heard so many amazing stories about people’s memories and experiences of the land when it used to be a college. It was incredibly moving.

And then we moved on to Glasgow where the site was vast and covered in broken glass and large holes and steel rebar sticking out of the ground from all sorts of angles…and the headphones absolutely didn’t work which was hilarious (not). Keren (wonderful producer) and Sam (wonderful production manager) spent hour after hour trying out different possibilities. Transmitters on roof of van, transmitters on roof of cabin, transmitters in middle of site, transmitters on borrowed scaff pole from Tramway theatre (bingo!)….after 20 hours – phew and big relief all round.

images by Emily Jenkins

The site manager, Peter was an absolute saint, as was Daisy Douglas the producer from Dance International Glasgow, who just quietly got on with making it all possible. So when Friday came and the first audience arrived we were somehow ready and so was the enormous Glasgow sky.

images by Beth Chalmers

We worked too many hours, and too many nights, and by the end of it all I think I was too tired to know much about what we had made or achieved! But I think it was quite wild and quite beautiful.

I am looking forward to Dance Umbrella – to re-visit the show after some months away from it. We are on another remarkable site nestled between London City Airport and an historic Flour Mill – Millenium Mills that seems to be of huge interest to Urban Explorers and such like. There are all kinds of curiosities dotted around close by – Charing Cross Pier, various boats, and an old silo. It is also the site of the ill-fated London Pleasure Gardens which were set up in 2012 as part of the Olympic activity: this initiative was designed to see the transformation of the derelict, ex-industrial Pontoon Dock into a pleasure garden featuring round-the-clock music, arts, cafés and bars. Events scheduled over the 2012 summer included firework displays, music festivals and promenade performances. Unfortunately the venue was closed in its opening weekend amidst organisational chaos and never re-opened. It has remained empty ever since.

So, we are working amongst a rich and vibrant history and we very much hope that you will join us there. The site is literally opposite Pontoon Dock DLR station and the show runs for six nights across two weekends:

13th – 15th October 5pm
20th – 22nd October 5pm

For tickets and further information:

images by Charlotte Spencer


by Petra Söör

One morning on the way into rehearsals on site, I sit in the back of the car with Mary Oliver’s “Dream Work” in my hand and randomly open a page. My eyes fall on the following lines midway through a poem –

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice, now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever,


which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.

(Extract from the poem One or two things by Mary Oliver)

It’s Monday and we’re just about to begin our last creation week of Is this a Waste Land? on site in Corby.

After more than a month spent on site I feel like writing some kind of postcard with a few words related to parts of my experience of this place.

This last creation phase of ITAWL after two years of R&D has in my freelancer’s life been a quite substantial amount of time of being in one place. I have gradually experienced this place moving up into my body through my feet and under my skin and it’s beginning to feel strange that I’m about to come to the cut off point where our access to this site and this place will return to no longer be legitimate as we’re not on common land.

As I navigate the topography of this place, every day, my feet are in conversation with this ground – negotiating hard and softer areas of the site, stones and rubble – and feeding information up through the ankles and the whole of my body – changing it and living inside of it. Through my soft and connective tissues, my joints and nervous system I feel like I’ve come to know this place, intimately and differently than through my cognitive and rational brain. But what has become a way of being here, a corporeal relationship of intimacy will soon be a law breaking thing so I have a sense of privilege in sharing some time with this “boarded off place”, tucked away in between the recognised and the wanted. Through this spring time and period of change I’ve been surprised, as in many of these places, witnessing a surging vitality expressed in the unexpected amounts of flowers and green growth coming through the rubble. What and who finds a space and a way to be here?

It is Tuesday and it is snowing. For the first time in these five weeks we make use of the offer to spend time in the cinema next door to our site. I realise that all the way through we’ve been outside and in the middle of it all, of this place, morning to evening, our bodies and faces changing as we’ve been here, in this meeting – growing the work and working things out, orientating ourselves weathered by wind, light, place.

People watch us as we rehearse, from the bus stop, from windows in the buildings next to the site, passing by, whilst entering and exiting the Euro Market off license shop across the road. On the other side, towards the woods where there is no opening in the fence we must also be heard even though we can’t be seen. What surrounds the edges of these kinds of spaces? What are the conditions and who knows the edges of this site as part of their daily life and on what terms? The threshold of the border is so clear and yet so thin. A few centimetres can make such distinct difference in the embodied sense of place. Where and in what kind of spaces do we feel safe and can act with a sense of agency? Thrive in basic relationships of giving and taking, just being? Where can we have the relationship to place that enables a sense of rest when we’re exhausted? I’m thinking about what permits or enables us to experientially inhabit this space differently, about different forms of cultures of behaviour and about the permitted. (I’m often lying down on the ground here, a place where we’ve been exploring, playing, imagining, attending and interacting, together and alone, expanding what is ordinary behaviour and permissible on these sites under normal circumstances. At some point I find myself lying down on the ground with my arm reaching out through a gap in the fence resting on the pavement by the bus stop, the threshold of this edge is so palpable and I feel aware of what we include as acceptable ways of being here and how outside of it – lying down on the ground is being vulnerable as well as potentially questioned. Along the way during the research and making of this work we’re coming across the presence and traces of people with a very different relationship to the conditions of these liminal spaces, visible and invisible.)

Later in the day, steel grey clouds pass over and around us, the winds are high and we’re back outside working with the sail deliberately to learn more about how we find ourselves in it in these conditions when the winds are strong and changing direction. Someone says they feel such an enhanced sensation of being so immediately there, more responsive and connected in their body when the winds pick up and we’re working with this material, moving and anchoring. I feel similarly. It’s often a challenging effort involved but it’s also kind of thrilling with immediate feedback in this constant physical negotiation and conversation – within and as extension of the group, with ground, wind and a wider sense place.

These days there is work happening late into the night and the early hours of the morning, gigabytes and gigabytes of sound files being minutely arranged, people have been repairing the sail and its meters of fabric have been spreading across the kitchen table and floor in the shared space where we’re staying. Sticks, pieces of wood and unwanted stuff sourced out of skips is collected and carried – collectively and by individual muscle fibres and the rumour that something is happening seem to have reached the local recycling center.

It’s Wednesday and it’s hailing. In my body I have a sense of how we’re weathered and tethered in different ways by (this) place and one another, on goingly and always, with greater or less distance whether aware or unaware. I have a feeling I’ll miss this time in Corby and our site here but I’m looking forward to meeting and spending time with people and new places through the rehearsal periods on other sites and through time in performances.

Last week we gathered to do a test run with an invited audience and whilst they waited at the entrance of the site people started talking to one another I overheard a conversation where a Corby resident was telling a non Corby resident about people walking from Scotland to Corby in the 1930’s to find work here in the steelworks, sleeping in the hedges along the way. We’re about to start and I have a list of things in my head having to do with the real time practicalities of the “here and now” of this piece with the intricacies of the choreographic matrix of the work, but I’m also standing there with a whisper of how the work as it begins to tour might come to encounter more and more stories of people and communities.

As we end the work on site for the day and do the usual bringing in of materials back into our container, this reoccurring collecting, gathering, carrying, wheeling in of stuff feels familiar. A tired but vivid and dynamic sense of gratitude is humming in me and my end-of-the-day-body for being part of this with an inspiring team of hard working people making this happen in their different ways and contributions. Kite and crow circling each other seems to be a daily reoccurrence. The EuroMarket across the road seem to have a lot of customers. The rowan at the Job Centre Plus side of the fence in bloom.

Friday. We stay on site until the time the performances will take place in the evening and we’re able to listen to the amazing sound world that Tom and James have been working on creating. Tomorrow is time to welcome the first public audience into Is this a Waste Land? which feels exciting. I enjoy being outdoors as the light shifts into dusk and twilight in general but this place is particularly beautiful to experience in this transition hour. Hope to see you and spend time together in a waste land somewhere sometime soon. Bring an object.


























Tales from the making of ‘Is this a Waste Land?’

by Keren Kossow 

So, this week has been, shall we say, frustrating, to say the very least in Waste Land world. For a little window, here are all the things that have gone wrong (that we can actually admit to!):

On Saturday I went to London for the weekend with the only key for the padlock that gives us access to the site. This left Charlotte and Tom scrambling over the fence like teenagers on Sunday afternoon. Not the best way to look like you have permission to be somewhere.

We have had four different sets of wireless headphones and transmitters sent to us that have just not turned up – two different addresses, two different companies sending the headphones, two different courier companies. no headphones appearing. let’s not talk about the ones that did arrive!

We’ve been using some lovely work gloves whilst making the piece and wanted to order 100 pairs of them. But they are out of stock.

We tried to order 20 beautiful long bamboo poles from our bamboo pole supplier, but they have run out of bamboo poles.

Charlotte, Petra and Louise all tried to wash some clothes in the washing machine, but it broke halfway through the cycle with all the water and the clothes and the soap inside. Charlotte now smells particularly soapy. 

We are all staying at a delightful place called Broccoli Bottom (much to the amusement of all the delivery companies and suppliers we are working with!) which is in the very beautiful county of Rutland and is a half hour drive from the site. There is a very handy bus that goes straight from here to our site which Louise tried to catch yesterday morning as there wasn’t quite enough space in the car. But the bus didn’t turn up.

On Monday we spent a day with the lovely Mark Brennan in his sound recording studio in Corby recording all the text for the performance (a very exciting day!) I had agreed to pay Mark in cash at the end of the day, but I failed to tell anyone about it so there was no cash and poor Mark was left wondering if we were going to do a runner! [This has been sorted, sorry Mark, thank you for your understanding of my mental state!]

And it is only Wednesday. 

And, remember, these are only the things that are appropriate to share! 

But we had a full moon last night, surely the energy will now shift? If you are reading this and have an inclination, do feel free to send us some positive energy (and maybe some headphones in the post?)


Is this a Waste Land? is our new performance through headphones for a disused urban space.

First performances will be in April and May 2017. Read all about it on the Is this a Waste Land? pages

Discovering place

Discovering Place

I am in London searching for the ‘right’ site. I have found ‘right’ places several times before, but for one reason or another we are not allowed there. I find myself in the backwaters of industrial estates. Lorries rattle past in almost continuous flows. I feel small and out of place on my steely blue bike. Like I don’t belong there. Day after day I set out. With satellite images in my head from scouring googlemaps and my AZ Map. I take rough notes and scrappy photos of dismal looking places. The lorry drivers stare and assume I must be lost. This is just the start of the process of finding a site. This is what I mean by a site-hunt. It can only happen slowly, at cycling pace. I often get lost.

Looking for the anti-glamorous
Vacant of people
Brimming with the wild
I wobble around on my bike
Eyes scanning the side streets
Take the strange route
What life is happening here?

What am I looking for?
But bounded

Greenwich Penninsula – Morden Wharf Road. I’ve been there before. I still like it. There are new mounds of materials – mostly organic matter. Not much glass. It’s like a dumping ground for wood chip. I’ve just come off the busy approach road to the Black Wall Tunnel, but here feels forgotten about and left behind. I can see the distinctive buildings of Canary Wharf and the HSBC Tower hazily on the horizon. I move on. Across the Peninsula, past the rows and rows of car parking to the strange place that is the O2.morden-wharf-1

On the Air Emirates pods across the river to Silvertown I spot a large un-expected plot next to the Tate&Lyle Factory. Once on ground level, I get lost trying to find it amongst all the busy dual carriageway roads and the lorries. Eventually I do. It’s huge. It backs onto the river and is boundaried by the DLR, Tate&Lyle, and derelict warehouses. The skyline includes Canary Wharf. It’s grassy and overgrown. It’s perfect. Is it too far out? Too remote? I make an unexpected mark on my map. And cycle on.

Trinity Buoy Wharf, a gardening project in Canning Town. Up to West Ham, I’m searching for a place I’d spotted on googlemaps, at the north end of an industrial estate. Close to the train tracks. I can’t find it. Eventually I give up, and make my way onto the Greenway. I love this walking cycling route, that I didn’t know existed until I started searching for sites for this project. This section was closed last time I was here, with Keren on the hottest day of the year in 2015.

I cross the train tracks, and then my eyes get drawn to a vacant plot off to the left. Bordered by train tracks, a line of trees in the distance, gas rings on the horizion and the canal to the West. I’m curious and take the driveway down. There is a gateway and a cabin with a few guys inside just at the entrance. I am looking at them and they are looking back at me.

I take a few pictures and then notice a sign asking me to kindly not take pictures. There’s a couple of ramshackle buildings at the bottom of the driveway. And then surrounding that is this huge expanse of nothingness. A good definition of ‘brownfield’. It’s absolutely vast. I wonder if it is contaminated or something. It’s so unusual to see so much vacant land in London – that isn’t becoming a building, that isn’t a park, or a football pitch. That isn’t doing something ‘useful’. It makes me more interested. What are those buildings? Who are these men in the cabin? A few cars come and go. Only men. Eventually I go down to the cabin and ask. They’re a mosque. They own the land. They don’t know what the plans are. They give me a mobile number of someone to call. I feebly explain that I’m looking for a place to run an art performance. I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to them. But I smile and they smile and I’m glad I got to talk to someone.

I continue up to the Olympic Park. Past the site by Pudding Mill Lane station that we got excited about last year. It’s being used as a work site now. Past the sweetwater site that we used in April. It’s sitting there, looking pretty much the same.  The light is fading. Willesden and White City and the recommendation for East Dulwich will have to wait for another day. I drop into a cafe in Hackney Wick to warm up and get a drink.

I go back through my notes. The wider research begins.
Who owns it?
Would they be likely to agree?
How long has it been empty?
What used to be there? What’s coming next? How soon?
How easy is it to get to?
Where’s the nearest tube station and bus stop?

I mark my map. And make my shortlist.

This kind of searching in London has happened in bursts periodically for over two years. In that time we have blundered across so many curious hinterlands. I have travelled the greenways, the waterways, the capital ring path. Searching. It’s a bit like rummaging in dustbins. I have developed a very particular eye for unearthing unlikely spots and recognising potential goldmines. London is changing so swiftly, that googlemaps is often out of date. It is a useful tool, but not to be trusted. I have practiced this art of searching.    We are still not finished.

In Corby we found a site. It was confirmed. It was easy to get permission – what a delight! We worked there for two weeks in October 2016 and we all fell in love with it a bit. And then in January, just as we were finalising the details of working there for 5 weeks this spring and holding the first performances there at the end of April…suddenly it was gone. The site has been sold, it will be turned into a food factory, and will be operating by April. Such is the way with these in-between spaces. We dashed to a few new possible places, we’ve jumped through almost all the hoops for the next place, this time in the centre of Corby town. I’m hopeful.

The following day we travelled to Glasgow to meet with Tramway who will be presenting Is this a Waste Land? as part of Dance International Glasgow in May. I was there last July and had identified two good sites. Behind Scotland Street Children’s Museum rapidly became my favourite. I started to imagine the piece in my head happening there and I was excited to see it again. It’s opposite Shields Road subway station, but hidden behind a large building. On my way to my meeting at Tramway, I got off the subway at Shields Road to have a look. I stepped out of the station, onto the road and realised something was different. The gate was open. The site had turned into a storage space covered in shipping containers and a car park. I realised how much I had been banking on being there.

Our meeting was great. They had found us another site – the place where a bus depot used to be. In fact it was still standing last July. It has fantastic views across the city. The site can’t be re-developed for several months because the ground has to settle or something. We have permission. We will slot in, in the interim time. Timing is of essence. This is perfect timing.

This project is forcing me to practice being flexible, agile, adaptable, transient, moveable. It’s like improvising in performance. It is a dance on a grand scale. In London we are still waiting and moving.


Natures and Natures

by Petra Söör

It is a morning in October 2016 and I’m in Corby working with Charlotte Spencer and a great team of people on the project Is this a Waste Land?  For two weeks we have been working on a site of some demolished buildings, flattened many years ago to what is now a bare piece of land with debris and green growth coexisting and creating new forms of ecosystems. This morning as many before we start the day, I’m sitting on the ground between young birch saplings looking at different materials sticking up through the surface layers of moss and grass; metal, concrete rubble, bits of what might have been old plastic flooring and carpeting. These days we’ve spoken of wilderness as a process inherent everywhere and anywhere, and here it is.

In this piece of plastic, with its atoms bound in a form slowly eroding and transforming, biochemical processes slow yet fast, I feel inherent wilderness exposed and alive. Yet the bound is actually not really bound. It’s full of space and hovering.

The I, me that is holding and perceiving it, also eroding, transforming and becoming, suddenly experience a strange and warm feeling of curiosity and love like sense of infinity with this unknown material of a different nature. I’m becoming aware of my own previous judgement about what is or isn’t ‘natural’.

Natures and Natures (on falling in love with a piece of plastic) is a work reflecting on poetics of time and materiality, wilderness and love – dedicated to a site in Corby, UK. It is currently evolving both independently of and also within the context of Is this a Waste Land? 


eroding transforming bodies
of matter differently bound in time
I salute you
for teaching me about love
and natures and natures