dance Performance

“There Is No Need to Hide”: The Visible Act of Dance, the Visible Act of Writing

Dr Ilaria Grando returns to Artsolation with a lyrical piece on the choreographic quality of art writing and its implications in this time of lockdown. Can online platforms become modes of embodied connection?

This article is the first part of a series on dance.

“What the dancer does is the most realistic of all possible things, and to pretend that a man standing on a hill could be doing everything except just standing is simply divorce […]. Dance is a visible action of life”.[1]

Merce Cunningham

Write, delete, re-write, delete again.

In the last month, I found myself shaping a choreography of the unspoken and the unspeakable. I wanted to write an article or rather a series of articles about dance, but I could not find the right frame, phrase, or lens. Which choreography would serve me best at this moment? Which piece would speak of endless time, a limited space, and a universe of stories that are at the same time personal and widely shared? Dance, the art of corporeality and present interaction, at the time of COVID-19 involves risks that are too high to take. What was there to write about then? On the white page, I danced a pas de deux with my words and my insecurities, using the backspace as the main musical score, and the delete button as a recurring movement. Just as a dance piece, my actions on the Word document were ephemeral and physical: confined to the now; destined to vanish; reproducible and yet never the same. To write about dance during a pandemic that forced the world in a long lockdown seemed impossible. 

Re-think, refocus, re-start.

I started by giving myself some boundaries. I decided that I was not going to be writing about a past performance, that would have meant hiding from my experience and losing my purpose. I established that I was not even going to share that piece I wrote mentally after seeing a ballet in a buzzing Sadler’s Wells last October when the situation was different, that would have felt anachronistic, unconsciously nostalgic, and emotionally forced. Images, momentum, and storylines clashed with my present activating an impending sense of fear. What kind of analysis was appropriate in the Now? The advent of COVID-19, I believe, imposes academics to reconsider more closely their approach to research and writing. At the beginning of a pivotal text, Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims: “[o]ur vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are”.[2] In the present, my vision cannot exist outside of the lockdown I am experiencing: it can expand, shrink, and work things around, but it will always actively bring me back to the persona I am now and to the unique set of emotions that are generated by and because of lockdown itself. I cannot and do not want to hide this in my writing. Thus, I have decided to become more selective of my words, my thoughts, and my academic actions. I stopped and I waited, passively observing a world that kept moving throughout my immobility, as if in a choreography of the whole, I was taking a stand, by staying still.

Sometimes “tout commence par une interruption”, everything starts with an interruption.[3]

Ballet connects dancers in lockdown – Dutch National Ballet.

In the introduction to the collection Dance. Documents on Contemporary Art published in 2012, André Lepecki writes about “dance’s main constitutive qualities,” reflecting on “ephemerality, corporeality, precariousness, scoring and performativity”.[4] One passage in his consideration captures my attention, resonating deeply with my vision on the difficulties the dance and writing worlds are encountering now. “Dance’s inescapable corporeality” to Lepecki “constantly demonstrates to dancers and audiences alike concrete possibilities for embodying-otherwise – since a dancer’s labour is nothing else than to embody, disembody and re-embody, thus refiguring corporeality and proposing improbable subjectivities”. How to re-inhabit that inescapable corporeality in a moment that prevents the happening of corporeality itself? How to narrate different subjectivities without an evident re/dis-embodiment exercise? Of course, the pandemic has not stopped the corporeal realm to exist, but it has limited it to one’s self. For dance then, it is no longer mine and your bodies interacting on a musical score, but it is my body, and my body only, moving in a constricted and constricting space, for no immediate audience. The one space where such newly inhabited form of corporeality can happen in a way that resembles the traditional form is now virtual. The precariousness of dance, compared by Lepecki, to the “precarization of life” translates therefore in an exploration of space, time and movement that not only favoured a refigured corporeality, but also enable a reconfiguration of individual and collective interactions in domestic spaces estranged from the performative side of dance, and yet profoundly embedded in its realm made of bodies, feelings, and stories.[5]

Hold on” debuted online on April 21, 2020.[6] The short choreography by Milena Sidorova is the touching response of the Dutch National Ballet to the present state of emergency. Like many artists around the world, due to the pandemic, the dancers of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet are no longer able to perform on stage, but this did not prevent them from performing on a different kind of stage, the online platform YouTube. A dance made of pieces of dances occurring on different real and virtual stages, Sidorova’s choreography is the emblem of a world that has changed, and is changing; of a precariousness that is re-inventing itself; and of a corporeality that is not staging, but it is living. The choreography dialogues with the song “Hold on” by DI-RECT, composing a subtext of movements, hands gestures, and bodily silences that even though immediately ascribable in the song’s lyrics, succeeds in visualising the unspoken, and narrating a story that is personal to each dancer and yet widely sharable without falling into a cliché. Embedded within a second choreography of well-thought video edits, Sidorova’s score connects, touches, and embodies the present without lying.

What goes on stage, is the “visible action of life” in its purest form. No costumes, no makeup, no filter: even the videos’ quality is left untouched. The ballet dancers move in their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, turning the domestic environment into an opportunity to let life enter the choreography with even more force. Domesticity becomes a tool of creation: the walls are partners to dance with, the ceiling a way of virtually reaching the person living in the apartment above. Expanding the space, reducing the distance, Sidorova’s work makes the best of the virtual realm to which the choreography is dependent, creating a space that just as much as dance is ephemeral, precarious and yet extremely tangible. The dance might not have happened all at the same time, the performers might not have felt their colleagues doing the same set of movements right next to them, but what the viewer sees is the work of a company: it is a togetherness that unites corporeality, time, and space in the precariousness of a four minutes long video, in the present “precariousness of life”.

The song chosen by Sidorova to build this extremely honest piece of work asks to avoid hiding, hiding from feelings, hiding from the present, hiding from oneself, and I believe that in the historic moment we are living now, such invitation needs further consideration. Just as a ballet dancer does not need to mask the domesticity of a precarious stage, and hide the concrete reality of what being a dancer during a lockdown means, so a writer cannot hide the radical shift in the words that frame the everyday life experience. Dancing, like writing, is “a visible action of life” and for that it requires courage.[7]  

[1] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 2008, first published in 1972), 9.

[3] Paul Valéry quoted in Alessandro Barricco, Mr Gwyn (Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012).

[4] André Lepecki ed., “Introduction// Dance as a Practice of Contemporaneity,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] National Opera & Ballet, “Ballet connects dancers in lockdown– Dutch National Ballet,” YouTube video, Apr 21, 2020, accessed Apr 26, 2020,

[7] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

Further Readings:

  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 2008, first edition 1972.
  • Lepecki André ed. DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012.
  • Barricco, Alessandro. Mr Gwyn. Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history. 

Painting Politics

Going to Work (1943) (At Home): A Reflection on Isolation through the Work of L. S. Lowry

Ella Nixon brings our attention to Lawrence Stephen Lowry, the celebrated British painter of the working class, positing that the subjects of his paintings were his feelings of loneliness rather than the everyday struggles of the poor. What can his paintings tell us now, in this moment of social isolation?

A crowd of workers clad in clothing of dark blues, ochres, red, and black, walks away from the viewer without a backward glance. Some hold lunch boxes prepared for the long day ahead; some scurry forwards as if they are going to be late; some trudge towards the factory in an automatic movement. The mills rise as meccas of the industrial landscape. The anonymous people, like a whisper of moths to the light, cluster together in a journey towards the iron gates to begin their shifts at the mills. Going to Work (1943) illustrates how social distancing in twentieth-century industrial Manchester was an alien concept.

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), in a repetitive fashion, produced a copious portfolio of paintings which depicted urban crowds. His job as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company brought him into close contact with the working-class inhabitants of Salford and he came to know the streets intimately. The 2013 Tate Britain exhibition, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, curated by T. J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner, gave expression to these works. In the exhibition catalogue, they designated Lowry ‘as essentially a painter of the industrial city and its working class’.[1] In a rather Baudelairian fashion, therefore, Lowry was declared to be the painter of modern life. This article, however, will discuss Going to Work from a different angle to the modernity explored by the Tate exhibition: it will consider the nature of isolation in the twenty-first century.

In the winter of 1907-1908, Lowry attended an Impressionist exhibition. Here, Lowry could peruse the paintings of Impressionist masters, including Degas, Pissarro, and Manet. Despite expressing some admiration, he criticised the paintings because he ‘didn’t see the battle of life in them’.[2] Yet, he does not specify what ‘battle of life’ he was seeking in the Impressionist works. His admiration for Honoré Daumier’s paintings of dismal working-class subjects suggests that one of these battles was intended as the poverty and politics of the poor. A consideration of his later seascapes, however, suggests the ‘battle of life’ for him were his personal feelings of isolation.

The industrial scenes produced by Lowry are painted from an elevated perspective. The artist, invisible for the viewer, regards the bustling crowd from a distance. Despite entering the homes and drinking tea with his subjects as part of his job as a rent collector, Lowry admitted that he ‘did not care for them [his subjects] the way a social reformer does.’[3] Therefore, isolation from the bustling crowds was inherent in both the process and explicit in the perspective. It begs the question, in a time of social isolation, what is isolation and does it necessarily stem from the reduction of social contact?

The government imposed lockdown revolves around the phenomenon of social distancing. However, the isolation experienced by Lowry did not emanate from lack of human contact. Although the press presented Lowry as a recluse, the variety and number of friends he saw daily attest otherwise. Instead, his isolation was a psychological state rather than something we can use as a tape measure to numerically grasp.

Despite being surrounded constantly by people in busy Salford, it was the death of his mother which triggered his feelings of deep isolation. One of his closest friends described how ‘[e]ven if you had been quite intimate with him, you couldn’t ask him personal questions.’[4] In the 1940s, Lowry began to produce desolate seascapes after the death of his mother. Lowry’s Self Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea (1966) (Figure 2) conveys a deep sense of loneliness despite his constant contact with friends. He portrays himself as a lone pillar surrounded by the endless waves of the sea.

L. S. Lowry, Self-Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea (1966). Oil on panel, 38.8 x 15.3 cm. The Lowry Collection Salford, Private Collection. © The Estate of L.S. Lowry.

At a time when daily briefings report deaths in the hundreds and when people scroll anxiously through the news, it is easy for anxiety to disguise itself as isolation. In industrial Manchester, death was also visible daily on the streets. The omniscient presence of the fever van in many of Lowry’s paintings, such as Street Scene in the Snow (1941) (Figure 3) attest to this. However, the case of Lowry highlights the nature of isolation: he felt detached from a class of people he did not associate with and the death of a close one caused his loneliness.

L. S. Lowry, Street Scene in the Snow (1941). Oil on panel, 36.8 x 61 cm. Private Collection.

Lowry felt closest to his mother and, as he reported, sometimes these feelings of grief were overwhelming. After her death, he initially found it difficult to paint. He reported thirty years after the death that ‘I had no interest in life after my mother died’.[5] However, with time he came to cope with his feelings of isolation through painting. Michael Howard describes how, in his old age, the ‘relationship with his paintings developed into something rather like that of a father with his children’.[6] It was through his paintings that Lowry found his purpose and contact with life.

In these times, the message seems clear: keep contact with those who are closest to you and, alongside or at least, find purpose. In times of isolation – whether imposed by the lockdown or otherwise – contact with those who mean the most to us is paramount. It does not matter that the streets are not bustling, bars are closed, and parties are cancelled. In these environments, we can sometimes feel like the detached observer who surveys the crowd, or in Lowry’s case the crowds of workers on their way to the mills.

Lowry also shows us how, when contact is completely cut off, we must find purpose. The figures of Going to Work, like automata, were drawn to the mills. However, lest we confuse human company with lack thereof and dangers arise of losing a sense of purpose in life. Cultivate your interests and create that connection with yourself to share with others. Self-isolation need not be isolation.

[1] T. J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life (London: Tate Publishing, 2013), 18.

[2] Michael Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist (Salford Quays: Lowry Press, 2000), 19.

[3] Ibid., 123.

[4] Shelley Rohde, A Private View of L. S. Lowry (London: Book Club Associates, 1979), 116.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist, 21.

Further Readings:

  • Clark, T. J. and Anne M. Wagner. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life. London: Tate Publishing, 2013.
  • Howard, Michael. Lowry: A Visionary Artist. Salford Quays: Lowry Press, 2000.
  • Rohde, Shelley. A Private View of L. S. Lowry. London: Book Club Associates, 1979.

Ella Nixon is a History of Art MA student at The Courtauld Institute of Art specialising in twentieth century European art. Ella’s research interests lie in the curation of gender and postcolonialism, post-modern art, and the artworks of L. S. Lowry.