Disorientated and blind-folded, a group of 15 people were individually led into an unknown room. With no visual understanding of where they were in relation to whom and what, they only had their bodily experience of moving through and into a space. This was the beginning of Amy Toner’s distinction-awarded performance c. 2018, in which the artist explored a non-occularcentric spectatorship of dance. By immersing her audience into darkness through blackout eye-masks, Amy prioritised and enhanced the non-visual senses: touch, smell and sound.
One of the spectators potently described his experience: “the rustling sound of slowly scrunching and manipulating a metallic foil sheet made the hairs on my neck stand on end”. In line with the growing intensity of sound, performers began to run around the space, circling in-between, through and behind the audience. In doing so, they created an intense circulation of wind that was physically felt by the audience. Simultaneously, the warm aroma of lemongrass was distilled in the space, adding to the layers of sensory stimulants
During the exploration of touch, the audience was invited to perform a tactile version of Michelangelo’s painting The Creation of Adam (c. 1508-1512). The blind-folded spectators were guided through a narrated journey (see text at the end of the blog), leading them to the moment of touch within the painting. The spoken word invited audience members to perform the movement physically with their arms, with some spectators raising their arm and index finger. They were each greeted by their ‘creator’ – a performer – who reached out their own index finger to meet the audience member’s. Amy gave her audience the opportunity not to see, but to feel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
“When considering how we understand performance, there is a large emphasis on the mind.” – Amy Toner
The choreography of Amy Toner is a quest to understand how people perceive the world. “When considering how we understand performance, there is a large emphasis on the mind. For many, it is through the eyes that the mind makes sense of things, takes in and processes information and therefore eyes have domain over other human senses. But the whole of us lives and exists in the world. The body communicates, listens and understands as a whole entity. I was interested, therefore, in exploring and unpicking other bodily modes of dance spectatorship, modes of spectatorship that move beyond the visual. Some questions I am still researching: Where does the performance exist? In your mind or in your body as a whole?”
In her exploration of movement and spectatorship, Amy Toner joins the league of contemporary dance innovators such as Jerome Bel, Boris Charmatz, Xavier Le Roy and Meg Stuart who critiqued and questioned the conventions of dance practice. “Practitioners in the field of contemporary dance have climbed down buildings, stood on stage in stillness, eaten fruit. They have presented this as dance. Although this is not where my own work lies, I have always been inspired by this questioning, especially in terms of the aesthetic of dance and how and where it is presented.”
“During the rehearsal process of [Title], I was interested to see if I could choreograph the show while I was blindfolded: I wanted to create the work through bodily sensation and physical experience alone. For example, a large part of the process was concerned with researching how to translate movement into something that might be physically experienced by the audience members. This was explored by focusing on generating wind through bodily movement – such as turning, jumping, swooping – which could be physically ‘felt.’ Although this was a challenging process, it opened up completely new ways of making work and a new ‘aesthetic’ for my own choreographic practice.”
Already, as a young scholar of dance, Amy’s initiatives have received wide recognition. Since graduating with a first-class degree in Dance from The University of Chichester and gaining a distinction-awarded Masters in Dance from London Contemporary Dance School, she has been invited to share her innovative approach to performance-making by some of the world’s leading cultural institutions. These include the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
“An integral part of my practice is concerned with making work based on my perspective on current social issues” – Amy Toner.
At its core, Amy’s practice is deeply concerned with ethics. “An integral part of my practice is concerned with making work based on my perspective on current social issues. Recently my study of choreography has explored our image-saturated society and how it forms our ideas about beauty. I have also explored the issue of loneliness and the current crisis of touch which was inspired by Paula Cocozza’s article in The Guardian, “No hugging: Are we living though a crisis of touch?”. This explores how touch is being “edged out of our lives” and how that has severe effects on our mental health.”
“Currently I am making a performance about mental health. The project is centred on the phenomenology of tears and explores the stigma of crying, and in particular, the social mechanism related to the public display of emotional tears. I believe that art should be responding to current social issues and, as a result, spark important conversations.”
Amy’s rejection of the idea that dance is solely a visual medium is much more than an original approach. Amy creates a powerfully inclusive performance, which gives visually impaired audience members the opportunity to engage with the medium of dance. Since [Title], Amy has been developing an inclusive practice in all areas of her work, including teaching, facilitation and choreography. “I am passionate about bringing dance and performance to contexts where people might not have the opportunity to attend a theatre or a show. For instance, I have brought dance work to care homes, nurseries, schools and community centres.”
“I have also continued to research embedding access tools, such as audio description, within the work itself. Typically, audio description is transmitted via a headset, which is experienced by audience members individually. However, I am interested in integrating the method of audio description within the performance itself. This mode of integration does not require headsets. Instead it is embedded through a character on stage or through a venue’s PA system.”
“There are a lot of preconceptions about what it means to be a dancer, for instance, you have to be a certain type of person with a certain type of body. In my facilitation and teaching practice, I show people that this is not the case. I believe that anyone and any body can move, dance, shake, turn, twist and explore. I believe that creativity results in new ways of thinking and being in the world. It brings people together, offers a sense of freedom and is a mode of self-expression and self-awareness. When we create, we access our own thoughts, feelings and imagination.”
“Creativity, and in my experience particularly dance, also has extremely positive effects on both people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Dance is an active and social art form. Dance happens with people together; it is a collective experience. This is why I love working for Create, as it offers diverse and accessible ways for participants to explore their own creativity, express their ideas and, very importantly, have fun! At a time when the arts are being forced out of the educational system in the UK, alongside constant funding cuts, organisation like Create, which are keeping creativity alive, are incredibly important.”
We are extremely proud to have Amy Toner on this year’s Nurturing Talent programme, which was designed to give emerging artists the opportunity to work as supporting artists on Create’s workshops.
Amy has worked particularly closely with young carers, giving them time away from their caring responsibilities, allowing them to have fun, build new skills and friendships, and develop confidence and self-esteem through her specialisation in dance. We look forward to witnessing how Amy’s inclusive dance practice will help to reshape our society’s approach to choreographed performance.
We are very grateful to The Arts Society through the Patricia Fay Memorial Fund and Charles Lloyd-Jones for supporting the Nurturing Talent programme – this funding is enabling dedicated, talented, emerging artists such as Amy to embed within their artistic practice the skills and experience needed to work within challenging community settings.
The text for the tactile version of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.
As your body rests in your chair, bring your attention to your skin, feel its boundaries and the air gently resting on it. Begin to move past your skin, your awareness moving inside, to the surface underneath your skin, to the surface underneath that, to the surface underneath that until we finally we reach … bones. Locate the sculpted wings of your pelvis bones falling towards earth, suspended by your seat. Notice your skeleton, the scaffold of your structure, shifting, resting, moving – like the plates of the earth.
Now imagine, as if experiencing a momentarily change of gravity, your resting skeleton begins to stir. The pelvis bones begin to move up and the body follows. You become weightless, unbound by gravity you begin to float upwards – up, up, up beyond the sky, the atmosphere and the universe. Your body settles. On a cloud. Your face gently turns towards a source of light, like a flower turning towards the sun. A tingling sensation begins in your left shoulder, it awakens the layers upon layers of your body. It quickly grows and begins to flood your arms like a waterfall, continuing to elbow, wrist, hand, settling in your left index finger, which slowly elongates.
As if undergoing another momentary change of gravity, the mass of your left index finger becomes weightless. The finger slowly begins to float up up up, pulling and extending your arm outwards. Your left index finger, now floating through space, continues to search through nothingness until it finds the creator.
Amy Toner is a teacher at London’s established Rambert School school of dance. Learn more about her practice on the Rambert School’s website.