Body Politic’s latest production, THEM, brilliantly foregrounds the stories of three sufferers of misogyny and sexual violence, and pushes us to confront our own cultural indifference towards such abuse.
Content Warning: this review contains references to misogyny, consent and sexual violence.
I remember feeling like I had swallowed a lump of coal. Every day it would fall deeper inside of me, dirtying all it touched, the soot and dust and dark debris irremovable from the start. I remember walking into school, wondering if people could see it, beneath my clean tights and smart skirt and ironed shirt. Had the shame leaked out? Had the revulsion I felt towards myself spread onto my skin, into my hair, under my nails? I couldn’t heave it out of myself; I couldn’t draw the sickness out. Making my body smaller, pushing the humiliation down, burying the turmoil and theft and hurt, I went about my day, talking to no one about what had happened. Barely fourteen, I had no idea that so little coal was enough to start a fire.
Decades later and I’m sitting in the Omnibus theatre, waiting uneasily for a show about misogyny, consent and sexual violence to begin. I have attended and reviewed productions about such issues before, and read a plethora of feminist books and articles alongside them. I have moved exhaustedly and painfully through the #MeToo movement, not joining those brave enough to speak out online, but still showing solidarity by sharing and talking candidly behind closed doors with those closest to me. And like many, I have watched and heard, in a state of all too familiar horror, about the staggering rate of femicides here in the UK – not least in the last few years with the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Ashling Murphy and the 125 women who lost their lives to gendered and sexualised violence in 2021. But the show I watch tonight pulls on me. It touches a part of myself I rarely see, share or uncover. Though a mere 50-minutes, it speaks right into that psychic space where the remnants of dust and soot and fear can still be evinced; it sheds light on a fourteen-year-old girl, a shame no bigger than a piece of a coal, a body no higher than the tallest scuttle itself.
Though not word-for-word my story, Body Politic’s THEM explores those of three young women who have experienced verbal, sexual and physical violence by men. Aimed at fourteen to eighteen-year-olds – though anyone and everyone from all age groups, genders and backgrounds should watch it – and co-existing with an excellent digital resource, THEM comes at you gradually, viscerally, sonically, layer by layer, in its vitally innovative retelling of experiences known by young women the world over. Looking not so much at the events themselves, but their psychological and physical effects – the trauma, loss, grief, rage and recovery – THEM exposes the cultural attitudes behind gendered violence while uplifting the voices of those who endure both.
There is the story of Grace, a teen grappling with the misogynistic slurs and catcalling of men on her way to school; the tale of Habiba, whose new boss continues to harass and assault her at work, supposedly unbeknown to those around her; and finally, that of Nina, a young woman in the honeymoon phase of a relationship, yet raped by said new boyfriend. Fictionalised through the choreographic skill and vision of Jackie Kibuka, but based on conversations with actual young women who have suffered acts of misogyny and sexual assault, THEM foregrounds the thoughts, feelings and ideas of those who are usually ignored and silenced by society, who are all too often denied and disbelieved by us all. From the fourteen-year-old grappling with the coal-dark shame of violation to the twenty-something expecting to be respected by a partner; from the tender and trepidatious teen years to the early, though no less anxiety-provoking era of adulthood, THEM shows how women are forced to negotiate and navigate endless hostilities and humiliations, irrespective of their stage in life.
Though structured through these three stories, THEM doesn’t favour one over the other. There is no hierarchy of pain or scale of abuse. Rather, it carefully unravels the interrelationship between multiple acts of misogynistic violence. It traces how one type of behaviour and attitude is a seed for future damage and harm. Far from being a linear narrative, THEM highlights how language incubates, furthers and fosters aggression; how denigrating ideas and remarks eventually manifest in physical violations. From Grace to Habiba to Nina, we witness the result of a culture unwilling to evaluate its own contribution towards and collusion with misogyny in its manifold forms.
And collusion through the normalisation of seemingly small and innocuous acts of misogyny is where we begin. This is the rites-of-passage young Grace (danced compellingly by Christina Dionysopoulou) encounters; a cruel awakening to the brutal objectification, sexualisation and slut-shaming young women are subject to from a very early age. Of course, this verbal stone-throwing has physical repercussions; though an onslaught of words, the emotional effect is not unlike that of being pushed, poked, punched or grabbed. Unable to speak back to her aggressors or deflect their hurtful jibes, Grace, once a composed and confident young woman, now locks into an obsessive pattern of motion, a compulsive mechanism designed to cope with the destabilising effects of the attack and recuperate a sense of self. Dionysopoulou maps this erratic emotion across the floor with the most intricate movement, where arms thread up and down, her head hypnotically synchronised with her hands, the rigorous ritual of gestures speeding up into a mesmerizingly frenzied and dizzying knot of spins. Unable to reclaim her former equilibrium, Grace busies and distracts herself in unrelenting action, tying herself to its relentless rhythm in order to avoid what confronts her in stillness: loss of agency, loss of privacy, loss of respect and dignity; the painful awareness of no longer being her own. Freedom exists just beyond the circumference of her every twist and turn, but the tug of hurt pulls her in again, denying the longed-for release each move should provide. It is only in stasis that she’s able to breathe out, but the contorting weight of her past experience (figured through precariously balancing on a chair) holds her in a position that’s neither standing nor falling, a sickening suspension, perhaps worse than the frenetic rotations around the space.
We return to this sense of feeling stuck, of feeling abandoned or held hostage to such trauma again and again in THEM. Chairs are stacked over bodies, hung around heads and arms, the commonplace fabric of one’s everyday life suddenly closing in, an encumbrance to each woman’s existence, the invisible bindings and blocks that inhibit psychological growth and liberation. After being assaulted by her manager, Habiba is buried under a maze of wooden frames, the furniture and architecture of another’s shame displaced onto her. Nina, too, is forced to push herself out from under the spindly legs of a seat in what is yet another re-enactment of the assault and entrapment she endured. Though the set is minimal, the psychic terrain of each woman’s mind is not, caught between the violations of past words, spaces, times and actions, and the present silence and social suppression that exists around them. As a symbol of status, the chair, in each woman’s predicament, turns on her; no longer an object to hold, support and present, it becomes an obstacle, a burden, a visual synecdoche of struggle, blame and oppression. The painful absurdity of wrestling with what was made to serve and comfort and aid points us back to the horrible inversion that is abuse, its contortion of the everyday; of turning what bears us into the unbearable.
That is not to say there aren’t bearable, breathable, electrically alive and freeing moments in THEM. Quite the opposite. One of Kibuka’s many choreographic strengths is knowing when to change the tone and energy of the piece; intuiting when to take it up a gear or slow it down. We see this after Dionysopoulou’s solo, at the opening of Habiba’s story, beautifully danced by Elsabet Yonas. Lying on several chairs, playing with her phone and taking selfies, smiling at her own reflection and the world reflected back at her, we see a young woman entirely at ease with herself, unaware of any threats and dangers waiting behind the screen. Friends join her and this “chillaxing” vibe remains until the assault cuts in, its theft of joy and carefreeness apparent in the shift and tilt of Habiba’s body, the light, music and assembled formation. Gone is the lackadaisical, light-hearted, openness displayed by Habiba; in its place is defensiveness and distrust born of having that joy, that levity, that light illicitly touched and stolen by someone who should know better. Attempting to shake off his uninvited touch, an imperceptible stain known only to the victim, Habiba shrugs, thumps and energetically jolts, and a stiff, harsher, syncopated Krump-like movement takes over. Battling with herself, her own skin, striving to drive out the imprint of the attack, she, like Grace before her, eventually collapses under a collection of chairs – another moment also indicative of the collective institutional silence towards this unfortunately common occurrence.
Joy – how it is claimed, taken, snuffed out, and regained again – is at the centre of Nina’s story too. She begins, not unlike Habiba, in higher spirits, dancing and posing in videos with her friends to Afrobeat music, joking, laughing, entirely immersed in the incandescent joy of herself. The three women groove with such infectious energy, such effortless synchronicity and flow – as if the soul of the score resounded through the soles of their feet perfectly, freely, naturally – that it floods the auditorium in warmth and cheer, leaving the audience bouncing in their seats. And it has to be said that here, not only joy, but Black joy specifically, is celebrated by Kibuka, as evinced in the music and steps, but also in foregrounding Black women dancers in this section. A quiet but salient theme throughout the work – and in the Digital package (see this essay by our very own Emma Hanson) – is acknowledging the contribution made, as well as the setbacks suffered, by women of colour in the field of Hip Hop dance. Nina’s authentic, joyous routine with her girls renders this celebratory section all the more poignant when interrupted by the audio narration of her rape and the subsequent disbelief her friends express when she confides in them. Performed by the captivating Duja Sinada, Nina’s assault represents the crescendo of all stories, the final crisis confronting us, driving all to ask when will the violence end? Like Grace and Habiba, Nina’s trauma roots and knits itself into her body, whirling her around the floor in a wind-mill-like, propulsive motion. It is exhausting to watch, as the body tries to work its way out of its imposed cage, out of the clutches of an event that continues to reverberate through skin, nerve and bone.
And yet the audio leads Nina – and us – out of this tightly wound coil of pain. Words spoken out, shared and heard by all, is the first step to healing. Like so many victims, she is unable to say ‘no’, shutting down – the body’s natural fight, fright or flight response to a threatening situation – when threatened by such force. But hearing Nina’s testimonial, though a painful revival of trauma, also provides an opening for individual and communal change. A repeated phrase from her story – ‘He didn’t mean it’ – often used to excuse the perpetrator by the victim, but also to justify his actions by all around her, reminds us again how sufferers of sexual assault wrongfully carry the responsibility, the onus, the indignity, the fault and blame of what happens to them. Internalising the perpetrator’s wrong doubles the assault, renders the victim powerless to retrieve her sense of self or innocence from his hands, and often triggers a spiral of self-punishing and harmful habits and behaviours in later life. Speaking this phrase out, hearing it echo around the dancers and viewers, paradoxically provides comfort and release, not simply because thoughts of this kind are familiar to us, but this is the internal monologue which often goes unuttered, unheard, unquestioned. In speaking out, in sharing, phrase by phrase, her story – our stories – Nina is able to come to terms with what happened to her and embark on the path to recovery.
That communication – both through words and the body – is key to healthy transformation in THEM, is no surprise when considering Body Politic’s ethos and practice. Gathered together in the centre of the stage, conversing with and supporting one another, Nina, Habiba and Grace find comfort and affirmation. Amongst other women sufferers they are heard and seen; their truths are acknowledged. Offstage, this is an admirable and frequent aspect of the wider project of THEM (as seen in the after-show Q&A and audience discussion, and the podcasts, essays and poetry that make up the digital platform). Through THEM, Kibuka and Artistic Director of Body Politic, Emma-Jane Grieg, stress that we need to keep talking, we need to listen to our young, we need to find ways of hearing the unhearable, believing the unbelievable, of bearing the unbearable lest more young Ninas, Habibas and Graces suffer again.
At fourteen, I was a Grace, a Habiba, a Nina. If only then I had seen what I witnessed at the Omnibus theatre a few weeks ago, I would have felt a little less alone, a little less painful, a little less to blame for what had happened. I would have questioned the clump of coal-like shame that sat in the pit of my stomach. I would have known it wasn’t mine to carry; it wasn’t mine with which to start a fire. SeeingTHEM has, nonetheless, given that inner fourteen-year-old some comfort; it has given her some freedom and peace, it has reminded her of the dancing joy that is still possible; it has permitted her to come out from under such chairs and obstacles and blocks in life, and speak aloud for all to hear.
Body Politic’s THEM will be shown at Swindon Dance on Friday 18 March. Click here for more information or to book tickets. Visit Body Politic’s digital THEM project here, and follow Body Politic on Twitter @bodypoliticuk and Instagram @BodyPoliticUK
This review was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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Feature Image: Body Politic’s THEM. Photograph by Camilla Greenwell.