Back in 2021, in the grip of the Corona lockdown, we spoke with Cai Tomos – a Welsh choreographer, dance artist and dance therapist.
TaikaBox cofounders artists Tanja Råman and John Collingswood have collaborated with Cai on many projects, and have great respect for his expertise and contributions to the European community dance sector. Cai has been working for many years in hospices and hospitals, and has brought movement to those who seemed to have forgotten it. His ethos of welcoming everyone to dance and encouraging everyone to dance everywhere has been life-changing for many.
In your book “Some things from somewhere” – dedicated to your experience of dancing with people with mental health challenges – you write: “I see with eyes of movement and have a deep respect for the wordless. Words can hold the world in place. Dancing and art making does the opposite. It releases the perception of the world from where it has been tied down and places mystery back in the centre”.
How have you come to the mystery of dance and its healing power?
I was raised in rural North Wales. Dance wasn’t something that was known to me at all until I was maybe twelve. Then someone came from Norway – a dancer and a teacher, and started living in rural Wales. I see her as a portal – she was a person who opened the door for me to dance. And she did it through improvisation, which has never left me: it’s still the core of my philosophy of moving. Her name was Siri Wigdel, and she was the catalyst.
The healing power of dance is something I want to address and speak of in our conversation…
Let’s start. In ”Describing Piece” – a performance where you deconstruct the very deconstruction of contemporary dance – there is a conversation between you and your mother, who ”doesn’t understand dance”. This piece is full of irony towards the attempts of labelling and literally explaining contemporary dance and art in general. With refined humour it shows that no matter how hard one tries to dissect the performance into literal meanings of each phase, the emotional and energetic core still won’t be there in the description. Was it a challenge for you when you were choosing dance as a profession, to explain this to your mother?
I guess in the community where I grew up – it was a great place to grow up though, in nature – there was a particular culture, particular rules of how we live or rather how we’re supposed to live within the guidelines ”that are acceptable to the community”. For me dancing was out of the context somehow – it wasn’t supposed to be ”right” for a young man… I guess it was a struggle… There was a pressure to always find an answer to a question ”What does dance mean?”
That question did indeed turn up in response to my mother, who was part of the performance in ”Describing Piece”. There has always been that ”Why?”, and again ”Why?” And then again… I guess I became exasperated or tired of this ”Why?”. It also felt quite an existential question – as dance means everything and in some sense it is nothing… That movement between the all and nothing has always been something that drives the work. The feeling in dancing is (on a good day, when you come to moving) the feeling of blessing…
In a lifetime I’ve been having ideas, and each idea would be another version of the original one, which is the question ”How do I find myself?” Dance for me has been a compass… It’s not only an art form, it’s a form that allows me to appear to myself.
The work also shows that you can’t be literal about contemporary dance and you can’t be strict about contemporary art as well. Do you feel that contemporary artists are still struggling – whether with their families, or communities, – to protect the right not to explain (because, among other things, no matter how hard you try, you never find the suitable right words for energies and emotions, etc)?
I felt it was a homage to my mother. I took it as a responsibility – to explain and actually to literalise. In the literalisation of it something else came out in dance… I said: ”That is this and that is this” and realised that dance was freedom. I think the artist has to find the language even if the language is very difficult…
You are quite a revolution to the traditional approach to dance, especially to classical ballet and the official dance establishments. You work with “non-professionals”, with people of all ages, body types and health conditions, bringing them to dance from hospitals, rehab centres, mental health institutions, homes for the elderly, etc. How did you choose this approach and what was the most challenging in protecting and implementing your philosophy of acceptance?
I guess you wouldn’t be involved in participatory work if you weren’t hugely interested in people, and bodies, and stories. For me it was something about working with people who hadn’t had access to contemporary dance or improvisation, I felt I could relearn my craft with them all over again…
Discovering the bodies and their movement – for the first time through improvisation – and being surprised by their own capacity to move – allowed me to reawaken that in myself each time. It’s almost like trying to keep the beginner’s mind, like in pieces by John Cage. It is about trying to be unfamiliar with what you’re doing. I constantly try to ‘unskill’ myself from being too good at anything, to try and trick myself up, or be lost, or disorient my practice…
Every time I met someone, in a hospital context, for example, the first thing would be a relationship. Through the relationship the art is the medium in which we meet each other. But how do we start a relationship if we don’t have words? When actually we’re from different cultures, different ages and different everything?
I have always been captivated by this idea of how we meet each other through this thing called a body. How do I tell you who I am through my body? How do you say who you are? Dance allows us this somehow (and I use ”dance” as a word in a broad capacity: dancing might be moving your eyes, or a finger, dance can be a breath)
I felt like I was enjoying seeing movement in its ordinary everyday context. That was theatrical and moving for me when I needed to be on a stage…
You delivered dance to people, among other things, by taking it off the stage, by bringing it to parks and beaches, etc… Has the stage called you back? And how big was the expansion of dance you had triggered?
Dance is a state of being. It’s more about perception. I recognised it quite strongly when there was someone in a group where I facilitated work in, who was in pain with cancer diagnosis, and this person came and sat in a chair. She wasn’t able to move at the time as freely as she had used to, so we moved around her. It was cute in the end when she told us that she was dancing. But what was the thing that was dancing in her if she wasn’t moving? It was clear though that she was dancing indeed. So the question then was ”What is the thing that is dancing in us?” I think that’s perception, and something I can’t put into language.
The places where I’ve danced, places like hospitals and care homes: there’s a big thing that dance is able to do – and bodies moving in a way that it’s not in the context of a place – everyone is vertical, mostly in a care home. Or sitting. Or have particular functional movement, like lifting, for example. So when you bring in a different quality of movement into that space, something changes… Then it’s like a magician: you can ”catch” someone’s eye, – it has happened many times in my practice – the experience of somebody being within a ‘sphere’ and then here comes a hand, just gesturing… and then the body meets that gesture and something happens!
I’ve been lucky that the places I’ve worked with have been really welcoming to something odd. Sometimes. Of course, you meet resistance, challenge and difficulty… But it’s like being a clown. You just have to have a spirit of a clown, even sometimes having to be on the edge. And fail. And be ready to fail (both laugh).
How has the ”traditional” dance community been reacting to your work and have you noticed any evolution in their conservative ways?
Mostly I’ve hung around in places that have some openness towards something different. I have also taught in some ballet places, and I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do my thing (I am not reducing ballet, it’s a beautiful form!). My practice, however, is not necessarily about imposing anything on a body if possible, – an idea, an ideology or a demand. When the body opens the door, it can come out to play. So my practice is as much as possible about this: ”Can we see what the body naturally does? When we unhook it from the stylisations”.
We’re all choreographed, we’re all co-defined by our nature… My body moves because of culture… I guess I’m interested as much as possible how I release myself from impositions I place on my body.
It’s hard. The culture tells us, among other things, to deny the body – we’ve got to sit in front of computers for hours, for example. We deny the bodies naturally sometimes…
You have been discovering – in places like hospices, for instance, – the inner choreography. What has been most exciting in that research? You’ve seen so much how a body tells a story…
It’s most likely to be ”What isn’t exciting” when someone finds their dance! We all have some kind of a signature: a certain way of moving as we do in speaking. We have our own tone in moving as well. It’s beautiful when something happens which is a kind of a small ordinary liberation of something within a body that allows people to move…
Often a question I ask is, ‘what inhibits culture and physical limitation?’ The most surprising and beautiful thing in working in care homes with the elderly are times when, from a distance, you might see unresponsive eyes, but then you come closer, stay for a while – and there’s so much movement happening – in a hand, through subtle gesture, or the eyes, or the breath… That is the invitation for an artist in that context to draw that out, amplify and to see it as a dance. To see everything as a dance…
Improvisation in dance is the basis of your art and therapy. There seems to be a deep, inner choreography in the body’s memory of the traumas and impressions, and the improvisation brings them out. What is the most common trauma you see in moving bodies?
(Sighs). From the traumas’ perspective something happens in which we can’t metabolise the experience. Because we can’t metabolise it, we hold it somehow in our tissues and in our bodies. We close in. Thankfully, to keep us safe, a body does a fantastic thing: when the conditions are right, our body finds something that wants to move again.
I don’t know if it’s a common thing, but in our bodies we carry so many memories, so many sense impressions, it’s like an onion with many different layers and their complexity (laughs). I guess my work has always been in a way about shedding. It might take me my whole life, I imagine, like most people and each artist. How do I shed the habitual things that impede creativity, whatever they are, artistically, emotionally, cognitively, psychologically, spiritually, and then get something out of the essence? But I might just be approaching it all my life, that’s good enough for me (laughs).
Your work with communities seems to incorporate very subtle and delicate connections, shifts of energy and emotion, finding access to the almost intangible forces within us. Since the pandemic lockdown you have shifted your community work online. Has it challenged your connection with the participants?
There were challenges, for a little while. It was somehow about understanding the virtual form. I imagine it as another artistic medium that we’re working with. We had to learn it. With one group we have ten years of experience of being together as a collective – so we’re in each others’ bodies. Whenever we would call in to an image of holding someone’s hand or leaning in, I had the memory of my body having done that. I know how it feels. What’s been very helpful is imagination. The boost of imagination is the positive legacy of Corona. We can go anywhere with imagination.
The other positive legacy is intimacy. Previously it had often come to numbers, profits and ”we have to have one hundred people to pay the rent”. I think performing for two people is just beautiful. That could be my favourite audience.
You collaborated with Itziar Martin, an artist in Spain challenged with disabilities, who became one of the heroes of your book ”Some things from somewhere” and you had a piece in progress called ”The Story of Hair”. Itziar didn’t have her real hair long, so she had imaginary hair. It is funny how hair is the only part of the human body that can fly and can be truly free improvising with the wind (no wonder ballet dancers are usually forced to hide the hair in a tight bun). In the ”Moving Barents” project (Taikabox was part of in 2020) for example, the dancers’ hair played a very big role: it was the wings and feathers, the water, the food… What was the most exciting for you in hair within your research of bodies encouraged to move freely?
Itziar didn’t have much language at the time, and she was finding ways of communicating. She has had her own language, and things were communicated about the hair. We worked with images, postcards in particular. I bought the same postcards every month within our six month project, and she kept drawing the same ones out of the hundreds all the time – she picked pictures of women with long hair. It was clear in that process that the voice of the inner choreography was speaking to what was wanting to be expressed. How do we make that a possible reality?
So we worked with making imaginary hair, with something that was long and could be tied, and eventually we got a costume designed so she could come and make the hair that she wanted. That informed the dance that she was performing, which was bargaining on the ideas of femininity, sexuality, expression, fire…
You have been working with people who have been suffering from lockdowns long before the Corona era: people with disabilities, or those who have to live in mental institutions, or stay in rehab centres. Then, when everybody was locked down, some hoped for the rise of solidarity. Were you among the ones who hoped?
Absolutely. It felt like the old frames and structures fell, just like buildings. They need just to keep falling, I think, for a while. Only then can we rebuild, yet we’re still in the process of them falling. Until they keep falling down we won’t see what needs to grow, what needs to happen next.
Corona has been a sad thing for many families and young people, the trauma is huge and it’s going to take a long time to recover.
The forced interiority made us come closer to ourselves. For me this was an experience of less distraction, less moving and traveling. There’s something about that that has somehow brought me closer to myself. Something that I’m not willing to let go of again. It feels very important, whatever that is. A different sense of time and purpose and a different sense of service?..
How do you feel about the balance between the ”official”, ”big”, ”traditional” culture institutions and the independent art sector? How has it been influenced recently?
I recognise that… Within an institution, to a certain degree, the complexities come, but you have something to lean against, some structures which can hold you. Simple examples – care, getting support when you’re injured, and / or payment. There’s no structure for the independent artists – apart from the one you make yourself to hold you.
At the same time I’ve noticed more dialogue between independent artists, sharing the idea of support and care. I’ve never worked necessarily in a massive institution (some of them were huge though). I’ve rather worked just on the edge. I’m always someone who is just on the edges, because that’s where we can work freely.
I also witness redistribution of power. About time! It’s also going to take time to understand what that is and where the power goes and if it’s the right place and whether we’re excited about that…
How do you feel about the content of the art? Has it changed as many, like you, might have become ”closer to themselves” and a borderline between the social and the personal has blurred? Less borders – less limits…
The borders were not necessarily working (laughs). There is a blurring, and I think the blurring was always there. Yet we indeed tried to sort the personal and the political and social. Everything is political, however. Everything is social. It is of course messy, which feels more real to me than ever before. Because it is messy! (laughs) And we often have to deal on our own with this personal, political and social mess…
What helps you recharge? You deal (dance) with people who overcame tragedies, often in a painful process of passing away. You receive all these energies into you. And then you get back to those people – to dance more. What’s the main source of power for you?
I could stand in the wind, like this (Cai stands up and spreads his hands in different directions and laughs). I could stand in the wind every day – allowing the elements to blow through. This is something any artist, I think, or any maker does – you have to keep your inner eye in your heart. You have to make sure that there’s space…
I don’t always succeed, I get it very wrong often. However, Something about the nature here where I am in Wales is a great resource – it brings such perspective! Nature always gives a good perspective…
What is your dream project?
There’s many things. As usual (smiles). I have a whole list of projects I’ve never done. I am looking at working with a project about grief. Obviously, there’s been a massive collective grief. People have been dying… How do we speak about it? How do we move? How do we dance grief and through grief? Working in hospitals made me less interested in ”big” work, but rather one-to-one performance. We need intimacy and opportunity to be as real as possible with another person.
I would also like to do something that invites people to rest. Together. That maybe anti-progress, and nothing ”happens” – except for the sense of resting. It is a privilege to have rest and it would be curious is we all rest together.
Cai Tomos was talking online with Lölä Vlasenko. The video loop at the top of the page is an excerpt from ‘All I can manage, more than I could’ – a research project by Jim Ennis and Cai Tomos