Can I Show You Something?
Written Response by Róisín O'Brien
I talk to fellow dance artist and friend Christina Liddell about her work Glimpsing Air Pockets. Inspired by the show’s invitation to its audience to wander around the set, I show Christina what I saw, and she, in turn, tells me more about the creative process…
I saw a young child laughing as a creature invited her into the woods. I saw another child sit upon a toadstool.
I heard clicks, coming from a bird that seemed to twitch, flick and flit through the trees.
Christina: The idea for Glimpsing Air Pockets sprang from my work as a dance artist with the Edinburgh Children's Hospital Charity. Since 2016, I have been offering dance sessions to children and young people within the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, assisting in the recuperation of the children's physical and emotional wellbeing. I had no idea what a profound impact these children and young people would have on my own perspective on life. Glimpsing Air Pockets was created as a poetic response from these many beautiful encounters: I wanted to show both the influence these inspirational children had on me, alongside showcasing their creative work that I had worked on with them.
There have been a number of times when I have walked out of the hospital after the dance sessions, thinking that people have no idea about the lives of these children and how inspirational they are.
The production is based on the following saying: ‘You can’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can definitely prevent them from building a nest in your hair.’
I’ve heard many interpretations from people when I’ve shared this with them: what does it make you think of?
Róisín: I guess there’s that first reading that bad things will always happen, but you can choose how to react to them. But there’s also something about staying still, because for the bird to return to a nest, the nest needs to be static: so there’s something about the danger of not adapting, and of how we need to keep moving.
How does the quote relate to your work with the children?
C: I think at a point in my personal life (when I started working at the RHSC), there was a nest which had been forming and settling on my head. Thoughts began to pile up and fester, to the point where they became all-consuming and I struggled to see beyond what was right in front of me.
When I began working with these children and young people, this changed. Despite what they were experiencing, I was struck by the number of times they expressed so much joy. It was as if they were able to look beyond their situation. This really opened up my eyes: I saw that what I was experiencing was just a small part of a much greater picture. They had quite miraculously put everything back into perspective.
R: There’s almost four ‘turns’ in the work: it starts very much as a narrative, watched piece with you at the centre. You then invite the audience in and switch to quite directly talking about your experience with the children. After we’ve moved around the space, you show us a beautiful film made by Tao-Anas Le Thanh documenting your work at the hospital, and then conclude by dancing with one of the children from the hospital. Glimpsing Air Pockets moves between an almost fantasy, dream world to very real responses and lived experiences – but they’re inevitably tied together.
How did you work creatively with the children and young people?
C: During workshops, a creative team of artists and I would bring in stimuli or examples of what we had envisioned for the production. These included pictures, a poem, an example of a ‘wish’ made by Ecoscenographer Mona Kastell and footage of choreography I’d been working on. I didn’t want to give them too much, as that could have impacted what was then given back – we were going into workshops not fully knowing what the outcome was going to be.
With regard to the movement in the piece, I went around the wards within the hospital saying, ‘we’re making this show and would love you to be part of it – what dance movement would you like to include within the performance?’ Many of the movements of the piece directly came from the children, or from beautiful encounters I had shared with individuals during their long-term recovery in hospital.
A wonderful example of this was when I was working with one boy who would always tell me I was being silly by signing this with his hand: he also loved gesturing that we were both playing the guitar to funky music. Each movement that was contributed held so much beauty and significance – I love that it came directly from them!
R: Were there any surprises?
I was certain I was going to get the floss…
I found myself struggling to choreograph the section of the piece where I try to express the undercurrent of thoughts that are starting to take root and take over my perspective: this builds up to an expression of movement which is quite distressing. So, I stripped back everything I was doing, and focused on one of the scores from the children: and that’s where the whole section creatively flowed from.
R: This creature at the beginning of the performance: is it you?
C: I’m never another creature or character. The movement is very stylised, but it is me.
My mentor, Christine Devaney, asked me what I was trying to say at the beginning of the piece: is it meant to be childlike? How I move in that beginning – [R: open, darting, quick, and joyously!] – that very much represented for me, in a completely ideal world, how we are meant to be: uplifted, soaring and free. But there is an underlying naivety in that movement, in me not realizing this nest exists and is building up.
R: Isn’t there always going something there, restricting or blocking us?
C: There’s no doubt that life will always have its hardships, its trials, its challenges… I don’t believe we will ever be able to live a life that is completely free, the way life was intended. Yet, I do believe we gain empowerment in how we view situations – we can recognise there is a greater purpose within what we are experiencing. It might not change the present circumstances, but if we are able to look beyond the immediate, as these children and young people have helped me to do…I really do trust that goodness can come out of any situation.
I walked over a bridge, I felt a lot of natural fibres: wood, twigs, plants, flowers.
I saw leaves and vines wind their way and grow across the ground and over a pond. Seeds were scattered, gathered, and passed around.
C: The inspiration from the set came from a personal journey I had with a girl within the hospital. I found out she had a love for fairies and made her this little fairy garden.
I gave this image to Mona and she brought the whole vision to life! The set has been donated back to the hospital now as a quiet space for families to escape into.
It’s wonderful you mention the tactile elements of the performance as it was always within the work’s vision to make it a fully encompassing, multi-sensory experience. What did it feel like to interact with all the different elements: were there any moments that stuck with you?
R: I remember approaching the bridge with care and delicacy, which felt reflective of your work with the young people. It’s unusual, walking through a space as an audience member, for the height of the floor to change!
C: I knew very early on that I wanted to invite the audience in. I wanted to ensure they felt comfortable and that anything that was suggested was only ever an invitation, an offering for individuals to choose for themselves how much they wanted to be immersed in the world that had been created. Audio recordings of children’s voices are played over the sound system to create an informal atmosphere that encourages curiosity.
R: It’s always interesting, that moment, when you ask audiences to come into a world – it can be quite violent, or people can feel tricked – but that wasn’t the case at all in this performance. I think that’s because, as well as the atmosphere you created, you enter the performance by walking through the set right at the beginning: so, we’re already comfortable with getting up and moving around.
C: I’m so pleased to hear the immersive aspect came across as a welcoming invitation for you as an audience member Róisín!
There is another element of the work that I would love to share with you which is the use of seeds. The seeds have a very intricate meaning within the performance for me. In the first half, they hold negative connotations: they are seeds of doubt, subtly getting planted in my head. In the middle, I use them to form the circle the audiences gather in, symbolising my nest. When I then dance with the young performer at the end, they’re teaching me to sow these seeds and that they can grow into something new in a beautiful garden.
I was given a hand-made structure, woven with colourful threads that I hung on a tree trunk.
I saw adults protectively watching the children run around the garden. I saw a young girl tentatively perform in a duet with the creature from the garden.
C: The handmade structures were ‘wishes’ made by the children and young people from the hospital. We asked them during the workshops to not only made a physical wish out of willow and wool, but to also weave in a wish from their heart, so they were incredibly special.
At the beginning of the performance, the audience is invited to choose a ‘wish’. During the immersive section, the audience is told that ‘a wish comes true when it is placed in a tree.’ Gradually the audience take the wish they have chosen and attach it to the wishing tree. There is a beautiful crescendo moment within the performance, where nothing is happening in the space, but the entire focus is on the wishing tree. We all take a moment in the stillness to reflect on the visual beauty of seeing all of these wishes and hearts’ desires displayed in front of us.
How did it feel as an audience member choosing a wish? Was there a particular one you were drawn to?
R: There is something undeniably present about each wish. You’re given something that has been made by one child in particular: you‘ll never know what the wish is, but you know it exists, and that you hold something uniquely special.
C: I wanted to capture and express the incredible journey I have been on with these children and young people, and the change they birthed in me. For the audience to go on this journey with me, it felt key for them to see the children themselves through the short film made by Tao-Anas Le Thanh. The film so beautifully draws you in and almost makes you feel like you’re there in the hospital ward.
Directly after the film, the audience then see one of the children physically dancing in the space with me, which is something quite special. It’s their story and a real testimony of what they’ve gone through. With one of the young performers involved the production, her mother mentioned how thrilled she was that her daughter was able to be part of this experience. She said, ‘it was so beautiful to watch the delight she showed participating in both performances.’
R: In having a young person or child perform, you are honoring that initial spark – you’re keeping true why you wanted to make this performance in the first place.
R: Will you show the work again?
C: People have asked me if the show would go on to tour and be taken to other hospitals. I delved into this project whole heartedly, with an open mind and a hope of it having a touring life. As the production began to unfold, however, I became aware of how personal this work was to the individuals involved and how they impacted me. This is their creation: to take it to other hospitals, it would almost need to be an entirely new production.
I always said to myself that I would only ever make a work if I was compelled to do so. When the vision for Glimpsing Air Pockets came to me, I knew I had to pursue it. The work was an invitation for those taking part to play a significant role in a creation that would to be seen by an audience. I hoped that the performance would then impact the audience, too. One of the most touching things said to me after one performance was when a gentleman took my hands in his saying, ‘Bless your work – the tears were just rolling, right down into my beard!’
I loved the fact that even when we were far into the development of the production, there was still this element within me that didn’t know what the end piece would look like! To then see, piece by piece each incredibly special contribution come alive…I’m completely lost for words, it was simply magical!
I hope as you watch this video that you may catch even the smallest glimpse of how amazing these children and young people are!