Contemporary Dance in a post-COVID World. ZOOM Studio Visit with Movement Artist Mathew Prichard.
As the vaccinated population grows, so too does our hope that this strange period of our lives is nearing its end. With this in mind we felt compelled to seek a voice from one of the worst affected industries in the pandemic — the performing arts — and so we called on dancer, photographer, and childhood friend of mine, Mathew Prichard. A classically trained contemporary dancer, Mathew has toured globally with National Dance Company Wales and since last year has been living in Luzern, Switzerland dancing with Luzerner Theater.
With views of Mount Pilatus through the window, Mathew took a break from an improvisation session to have a few words with me over Zoom about his story as a movement artist and how it’s been to live and work as a performer during lockdown.
For an artform so fundamentally intertwined with music, one might be surprised to learn that Mathew was born deaf and lived with this disability for the first few years of his life. Ironically, it was this deafness that guided Mathew towards dance.
“My parents first got me into dancing because they thought it would be good for me. They saw how even as a deaf child I was still able to move and connect to music because I could feel the vibrations… I was able to connect to sound this way and that was really important for my development.”
But by the time the deafness was cured through surgery several years later, Mathew had developed a lasting connection with dance which has endured the decades since.
As much as dance can be an intimate, expressive artform, it’s also an intensely demanding practice both physically and mentally. I wondered how Mathew felt this had shaped him.
“Dance is something which requires a lot of discipline, hard work and dedication, and you have to make a lot of sacrifices. But it does give you an understanding of what it means to strive for something. Especially in ballet, where you’re always striving for this kind of perfect model which in many ways isn’t even achievable — but you’re still there every day.”
“As dancers we’re very, very physically close to each other. And so you have to learn to understand another human very well, both emotionally and physically. I think this is why we can be very affectionate and empathetic with people, which I think helps with forming relationships… You can learn a lot about a person from the way they move. Movement says something about someone’s personality and character.”
Dance can mean vastly different things to different people and cultures. I wondered what it meant to Mathew as an artform.
“What differentiates dance from the other artforms is that it’s movement based to begin with — and the body is incredibly expressive… Through the medium of dance we’re able to use our bodies as tools to portray feelings and emotions. Different moods or the presentation of ideas even as an abstraction — which you often see in contemporary dance.”
“It’s an artform, but it’s also an impulse. It’s something that we just do as a reaction to music. But I guess, who can put a label on what’s art and what’s not? Dance is something we all innately connect to in comparison to many other art forms which are less accessible. We don’t all paint or make sculptures, but if you hear music in a club or a party or whatever, the impulse is to dance. Even if it’s just a little two step. And there’s beauty in the way you may move even without ‘experience’.”
I was curious how Mathew defined his own style of movement.
“I’m always trying to challenge what I can do with the physicality of my movement. What I like most is to move with fluidity. I always strive for this fluid nature in the way I move, and that when I’m transitioning from one movement to the other it’s as seamless as possible.”
“But on the flip side I do also really enjoy finding strange or difficult positions within the body to almost get yourself twisted and knotted just to find new routes or pathways. To find your habitual patterns of movement and sort of disrupt them. That’s also really fun. But I think for pure joy, it’s this softness and fluidity.”
Mathew went on to explain what it felt like to move in this ‘fluid’ way.
“It’s a soft, continuous, kind of undulating feeling… A constant feeling of motion within the body and never pure stillness. Always something stirring.”
Most of us will never understand what it feels like to perform. To spend months pouring your soul into something for it to be unveiled in a matter of fleeting moments before an audience.
I was interested then to discuss the experience of performance, and the nature of thought patterns whilst under the spotlight.
“When you’re performing you can be very hyperactive. You’re onstage, you have lights and you have the presence of the audience so you’re naturally going to be hyper aware and your mind can be overloaded with so many layers of thoughts. It’s strange. Even though you’re counting music and moving and you’re so deeply in the moment, suddenly you’re deciding what to cook for dinner. You almost get to a point of laughter sometimes and you have to self-talk yourself back into the moment on stage.”
Do you miss performing? I asked.
“Yeah… Only today we found out that a piece we’ve been preparing for a few months we won’t be able to perform at all… It’s crazy when you put so much work into something and that happens. Luckily we filmed it and it will be shown in the theater as a film… It’s because four of the dancers have had COVID and are still not back in the studio because they’re recovering. The performances can be physically taxing so it would’ve taken them a while to get back to the condition where they could perform the piece.”
“I’m looking forward to being back on stage. It’s just such a unique experience and it doesn’t get old - that feeling of adrenaline… I’m always trying to connect to the audience and hoping that people are responding in some kind of emotional way to what we’re doing on stage. That they take something out of the performance.”
I wondered how the economic side of the pandemic had impacted the dance industry.
“In the broader sense it’s caused a huge amount of financial strain for theaters and dance companies all over the world. And also freelance dancers in particular. I have so many friends whose work has just disappeared. They may have a whole year’s work planned out wonderfully and the next thing they know they’ve lost four projects and they have no income.”
“Mentally it’s taken its toll on so many people to go through the lockdowns, and it’s been a huge burden of suffering. Losses in families and friends, etc. And it’s been a difficult time for a lot of people’s mental health because we’ve had a lot of time confined to our homes… There’s been a lot of time to think deeply and reflect on things which I think will only inform the artistic work that people go on to create post COVID.”
As with many artforms, dance was forced to move online somewhat during the lockdowns. I was curious how Mathew felt this online version of dance might exist in a post-Covid world.
“I think the beauty of live performance will never disappear. It’s never going to be overruled by the digital world… Seeing the imperfections on stage with a live piece, seeing people sweat, hearing them breathing. It’s a visceral experience where you can connect with the dancers and we can connect with the audience in a much more personal manner than through a screen. You’re living in the moment together, experiencing something that will never be experienced again. And that’s really beautiful.”
Thank you to Mathew. You can find his links below.
Words by Ewan Waddell.