Extraordinary Bodies, a partnership between leading circus production company Cirque Bijou and award-winning arts and diversity practitioners Diverse City, champions equal representation of D/deaf*, disabled and non-disabled artists working together – on stage, off stage and in the audience. They capture real stories from real communities, especially those who might not usually be heard.
When the pandemic mothballed Extraordinary Bodies’ latest national tour, the professional circus company rapidly moved towards the production of a low-fi lockdown film.
What Do You See In Me? ,that premiers on September 30th, is a prequel to the stage show that was due to premier in a theatre setting at The Lowry in Salford last April, but never made it into rehearsal.
Filmed in the artists’ homes – on their mobile phones — it is written by Hattie Naylor (The Night Watch, Royal Exchange; Bluebeard, Bristol Old Vic; The Three Musketeers, The Dukes) with an original score by Ted Barnes (Beth Orton/ Clayhill).
This story of isolated, yet interconnected, marginalized lives is told through physicality, dance and music. The stuff of everyday life makes up the sets and impromptu props: one performer dances casually, alone with a Dyson; another, pregnant, twists, stretches and sways against the frame of her metal bed, with its sea of scattered paperwork; and a third performs a weightless, aerial display on a pull-up bar in her doorway.
The short (12 minute) film asks us to pay attention to our view of others, the judgements we make and the values we hold as a society. Our Covid-climate threatens to take us back to a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, where a pre-existing condition justifies a DNR, where forgotten shielders are left to go it alone and where poverty or ethnicity jeopardizes our place in the pecking order of society more than ever. What Do You See In Me? gives us a glimpse of the delicate, funny and spirited human lives behind the labels.
Produced in a gloriously low-tech fashion during the height of lockdown, in Bristol, Leeds, Brighton, London and Munich, performers largely filmed themselves on their smartphones, enabled by technology no more sophisticated than mini-tripods and reels of gaffer tape. Trial and error showed that the introduction of daylight bulbs improved lighting quality and provided more consistent levels throughout, so were duly posted out to the cast, some of whom were shielding.
What Do You See In Me? is a truly Covid-era prequel to the put-on-ice stage show What Am I Worth? It is a production that illustrates how we are all losers when an unjust system labels, tests, judges and ultimately dismisses anyone’s value.
The nine-strong integrated cast features disabled performers John Kelly, a musician and disability and human rights campaigner, drummer/sound designer Jonathan Leitch, plus British Sign Language user David Ellington, an aerial performer and actor.
Claire Hodgson, co-director, said: “When the pandemic arrived, the performers were about to go into rehearsal for a seven venue UK tour of What Am I Worth? The first few weeks of lockdown were just about survival, particularly for the shielders. But quite rapidly, we all developed the sense that as performers, we had to keep on performing and so we met up over Zoom and decided to make a film.
“Each of the artists gave me and co-director Billy Alwen a Zoom tour of their homes, so she could start to understand the spaces she had to play with. Some artists were self-isolating alone, some with parents and others with partners and children. All had to find work arounds for there being no one else there to support their performance, or too many other people always there, which could be equally challenging. In lieu of a camera person, smartphones were gaffer taped to the tops of wardrobes. Performers choreographed and rehearsed their own sections and we then stitched them together, with post-production by Stephen Lake.”
Co-director Billy Alwen said: “‘What do you see in me?’ is a question that we are constantly asking those around us. What is your instant impression? What do you see? Will you take time to truly understand who I am? This question was at the heart of the original research we did with Circus Oz into the show What Am I Worth? and we have come back to it in this prologue to the show as it’s a question that many in society are asking at the moment.”
*Deaf with a capital D means sign language users and deaf with a small d refers to people who are hard of hearing but who have English as their first language and may lipread and/or use hearing aids
Main image: What Do You See In Me Landscapes © Extraordinary Bodies Tilly