The past year has, in many ways, turned a sharper lens towards our bodies, particularly our physical relationship to the world around us. The pandemic-fueled absence of bodily connection, and its impact on our public and private lives, has become a presence unto itself, highlighting that which we crave, fear, or cannot access. Additionally, the heightened impact of trauma, illness, or violence on our daily existence has brought us closer to our mortality, even as it has fueled a new awareness of the intricacies we contain. Now, as public life and regularized human contact slowly resume, the current moment is ripe for reflection on our somatic experiences, especially the charged landscape of human touch. No strangers to bodily inquiry (their 2016 piece Body: Anatomies of Being centered on this theme) NYC-based theater group Blessed Unrest mines these subjects in Touch, a COVID-friendly exploration of the power and implications of physical touch.
Part of the Open Culture Program, a city-wide initiative allowing cultural groups to produce ticketed shows in designated outdoor areas, Touch is staged on a blocked-off street and sidewalk bordering NYC’s Madison Square Park. Audience members stand or sit streetside as the piece’s four-person ensemble (Michael Gene Jacobs, Tatyana Kot, Ariel Polanco, and Anna Wulfekuhle) dances on the sidewalk and interacts with a “set” of park benches, bike racks, lamp posts, and trees. Given the piece’s focus on a quotidian-yet-charged topic, this repurposed public space forms an apt literal and thematic home for its subjects, and even whizzing delivery bikes or errant onlookers add to the ambiance.
The performance begins with, and frequently revisits, sequences of touchless partner dance and replicated gestures amongst the ensemble. As the performers mirror each other’s movements, or sustain duets that stop just short of direct contact, we notice the richness of the space between them and its potential as a bridge toward connection or a source of further alienation. Likewise, the group’s shared physical vocabulary speaks to our efforts to maintain solidarity and cohesiveness in times of disconnect.
Toeing the line between personal and universal experience, individual stories from the cast and writers Keith Hamilton Cobb and Teddy Jefferson emerge from within Touch’s group sequences. A portable speaker, passed back and forth amongst the performers, narrates these vignettes, all the while nodding to the presence of technology as a channel for non-physical expression and interaction. Each account depicts the complex and often contradictory nature of touch: one man describes his escalating involvement with a next-door neighbor, recalling how casual eavesdropping led to intimacy and an inconclusively violent ending. A woman’s inexplicable, involuntary laughter, and her self-identification with its physical resonance, is revealed to be a trauma response to brutal childhood bullying. As a young man prepares for college, he and his mother reflect on the experience of sharing a bed in their small apartment; Oedipal enmeshment crashes against familiar leaving-the-nest fears as the two navigate the dance of love and separation. Finally, a young woman gleans solace and unspoken wisdom from the stable horses she visits during quarantine. Repeated gestural references to the pulse, particularly at one’s throat, and sequences of back-and-forth flight down the hemmed-in sidewalk, become similarly personal and political, evoking the horrors of police violence and the collective fight for bodily survival.
Touch’s physical parameters strengthen its emotional impact; within its mandated and chosen limits, the ensemble radiates intimacy into the space we share. In doing so, the piece makes powerful statements about our interconnectedness, the richness of our bodies’ lived experiences, and the enduring strength of both even when our options are curtailed. Although longtime Blessed Unrest fans will see parallels between Touch and Body: Anatomies of Being, this shorter piece extends, rather than replicates, the conversation Body began, infusing the subject with a post-2020 awareness of our newfound relationship to ourselves and each other. As our circumstances shift, our somatic awareness of the worlds we inhabit must evolve accordingly, and Blessed Unrest rides these currents with trademark grace and nuance.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.