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Young Creatives Blog

A Crash Course into Empathy

Friday 4 March 2016

  • Review

Co3 (WA’s new contemporary dance company) have a two year partnership with the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where from Wednesday to Sunday, once a month they open up their choreographic practice by working in the art gallery instead of a closed off studio. The first instalment of this is Reason for Being, as part of the 2016 PIAF program.

The morning started with a yoga class, unfortunately for me I hate yoga. Every yoga class I have done I leave stressed, anxious and with a strong desire to punch someone in the face. Apparently I just need to find my zen and then I’ll love it. Unfortunately for me, a yoga class aimed at professional dancers, is extremely hard,  and I spent all my time worrying about what I was doing and how much pain I was in. Luckily, it did not end up as bad as I was expecting, however it was quite disheartening when the teacher instructed a headstand, and all the dancers were just balancing on their head, like it was no big deal, while I was just there trying to balance my pride.

The rest of the day was spent developing movement. Watching the dancers from the audience in a theatre is brilliant but nothing beats getting to watch them from a metre away. Getting to watch the dancers rehearse in the studio for re:loaded last year, and then watching them in the art gallery, is like nothing else. You can see the detail in the moment, you can see the power in the movement, you are able to see the beads of sweat fall off the dancers on to the floor, and you can appreciate everything that the dancers are giving to produce the end product you see on stage.

For the first week of development, Raewyn Hill (the company’s artistic director) invited vision impaired people, to discuss how we express various emotions and whether they are innate within us or they are learnt. The dancers were then tasked to create movement based on various emotions that came up during the conversations. The vision impaired people came back in, and the dancers showed them what they had come up with. Of course they could not see what the dancers were doing, and so I had to describe the movement to them. As it turns out, narrating theatre is not that uncommon, however narrating contemporary dance is a field that has not yet been navigated, and I think I have finally achieved my year four goal of being an early explorer. I learnt there is a reason why contemporary dance is not narrated. It is extraordinarily difficult. I tried my very best but it came out as ‘they are falling to the ground, they’re rolling on the floor, they’re standing up, and they’re making a shape’. Which to my defence they were doing, it’s just that I couldn’t quite figure out how to describe the intricacies, and the colours which is what makes it so beautiful, as opposed to just describing what they are physically doing. Unsurprisingly this early expedition was not particularly successful. The movement did not follow a narrative, it was purely abstract based on emotions, and I felt like explaining that even people who can see don’t understand contemporary dance, myself included at times.

Reason for Being has done an amazing job at opening up a genre that is misunderstood, that the public often struggle to connect with, and making it truly transparent. A showing was held on the Sunday, to an impressive crowd, and Hill did an amazing job at opening up the process and taking these abstract movements and explaining what they meant. I’m sure some people still probably didn’t get it; in fact I would be amazed if one week in an art gallery can change everyone’s perceptions of contemporary dance. However anything that’s worth doing is going to take time.

Sometimes when I go to the theatre, I have no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t understand Einstein’s theory of relativity, I don’t understand the human body’s metaphysical divide, I don’t understand why I am staring at nothing but a half full glass of water underneath a spotlight. However, with the exception of the last piece, despite not knowing what they’re dancing about I know that what they’re doing with their bodies is amazing and beautiful and I can appreciate all that the dancers are doing on stage. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes I am there 100% with what the dancers are trying to convey, I’m completely involved in the story and by the end of the work I’m crying my eyes out. Both trips to the theatre are completely enjoyable. But for vision impaired people the first option is not possible, and if it’s just abstract movement based on emotion the second option would be hard to achieve. I always assumed that I was a fairly empathetic person, but I had never considered the fact that vision impaired people can’t go to the theatre the same way I can. Despite my ignorance on the subject I’m really glad that there are narrated ways to go to the theatre, and I hope that someday they can find a way to describe contemporary dance in a way that describes the beauty in the movement and not just the physical movement. The theatre has changed my life, and no matter what your situation you should have the opportunity to have your life changed too.

If you missed the first instalment of Reason for Being, you’ve still got until the end of 2017 to check out the company’s amazing dancers and this inspired partnership between Co3 and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and I would highly recommend you do and support WA’s new contemporary dance company.

After the Sunday showing, I finally made my way to Perth Writers Festival, to watch the closing address by Lisa Genova. To be completely honest I had no idea who Genova was, it was just the only session I could make, and I have no idea how she compared to the rest of the Festival but all I know is that she was absolutely brilliant. Funnily enough after my experience earlier in the day, Genova was talking about empathy. And I don’t know if it was my experience earlier in the day, Genova’s wit and charm, my personal experiences of how empathy and a lack of empathy have affected my life, or just a mix of it all, but Genova caused my second emotional breakdown of my Festival. Luckily enough for me Katie (the Young Creative for Perth Writers Festival) comes far more prepared than I do and pulled out a packet of tissues to dry my tears. So thank you Katie!

If you don’t know who Genova is, then look her up, she is amazing, and her story is incredible. Genova did an amazing job of breaking down the difference between empathy and sympathy, and what I realised is that I tend to lean towards sympathy over empathy. I think a huge part of this is I’m white, I live in a nice neighbourhood, I have a roof over my head and food on my plate, and I could have had it a lot worse. Whenever I’m sad, or feeling down, I tend to say to myself, how dare you be sad when you have it so good? Whenever I hear a story of someone who has gone through adversity and a part of me begins to empathise with that person, because I’ve experienced some of those emotions and feelings just under difference circumstances, I switch it off and say how dare you try and relate your situation to a vision impaired person or a refugee or a rape victim they have it so much worse than you. The problem with that is when you turn to sympathy and not empathy, you lose the ability to understand the motivations and actions of those affected, and you have no way of connecting. I’m not a refugee, but I can relate to feeling scared, not having control over my fate, being on a boat on a stormy day and feeling it is the absolute worst, and the need to get off. My boat was going to Rottnest, so a far less treacherous journey that the average refugee, but I can empathise with that feeling, and then times it by about 1,000. Being able to feel, if only to a tiny degree, the same feeling as someone else, gives me the ability to empathise, and I don’t think you can ever underestimate the power of empathy. So thank you to Genova for helping me to get over the shame of living a privileged life, helping me get over myself and showing me that empathy is an incredibly powerful thing that can change lives, if we allow ourselves to emphasise and connect with the struggles of those around us.

Young Creative: Dance

Written By Ariane Beyer