‘I don’t see myself as a performer’, said Vikki at the premier of the Vincent Dance Theatre’s Art of Attachment. In this 50 minute piece, professional dancers Toni and Rob work alongside four women from the Brighton Oasis Project, to explore themes of addiction, loss, love and hope and recovery. The premier of the work at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts last night was greeted with a standing ovation and in a post-performance discussion audience members described their feelings of awe and empathy in response to a work in which women tell their stories of attachment to damaged and damaging parents, to drugs and alcohol, to lost children and ultimately to life, breath and the future. The Art of Attachment has been in gestation for nine months, during which Charlotte Vincent has led a programme of research, experiment and rehearsal with service users at the Brighton Oasis Project which provides holistic drug and alcohol treatment services for women and their families in the South East.
A monochrome and stripped down set focuses attention on a long table at which six performers are seated behind microphones, absorbed in synchronised paperwork and whispers – introducing motifs of outer bureaucracy and inner voices connecting a series of set pieces at the front of the stage. These begin dramatically with birth and the symbolic enactment of attachment and loss with the cutting of an umbilical cord. The struggle to tell one’s story and the question of whose story that is (mother, daughter, daughter-mother) is communicated in a looping and layered way, with fragments of recorded speech, gesture, testimony, nursery rhymes and lullabies working together to make the unspeakable heard and the unbearable contained.
There are moments of genuine peril in the performance as we share the hiding child’s terror of an approaching abuser to the refrain of the three little pigs (I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down) – and as we witness the explosion of violence on the stage when the struggle to communicate is just too much. But we are also moved to hope as a litany of damaging experience gives was to an alternative bucket list of things achieved by the age of thirty: the desire to be loved, the ability to adapt, a BA in Business Administration.
There is no sentimentality in this piece, it does not ask us to judge or to pity – but allows us to witness the exhausting labours involved in experiencing, acting out and recovering from trauma. There are no quick fixes nor inevitable outcomes. It is a slow process, involving repetition, honesty, the building of trust, noticing rather than reacting. One step forward and two steps back, like incy-wincy spider climbing up the spout .
Introducing the evening, Jo-Anne Walsh – the director of the Brighton Oasis Project – explained that while she had hoped that their clients might be involved in some way in the final performance she had not dared to imagine a work that so fully supported them to tell their own stories. This achievement has involved careful, detailed and committed work on their part. Charlotte Vincent explains:
‘After 9 months of working together Vikki, Leah and Louise and Annette are carrying themselves and their life stories differently. Well established defence mechanisms, well-worn scripts and distrust have been usurped by a shared sense of purpose, empathy and self-worth, alongside a visible lengthening of bodies and strengthening of resolve’.
That was very evident at the performance. The women owned the stage and the audience. Yet they were also clear that this was not a ‘performance’, it was their truth.
As a member of the project advisory team I have observed something of Charlotte Vincent’s method, and how the creative process mirrors the attachment processes involved in recovery. ‘Being there’ is the starting point, giving rise to consistency, repetition and development. Trust is crucial, and inevitably it is challenged. So the ability to survive disruption and to rebuild and to carry on is everything. Over the course of the project we have had many debates about attachment as a theory: questioning its’ role in social work and court decisions, engaging with feminist critiques of mother-blaming and cautiously interpreting the findings of neuroscience. Yet through the project we have also witnessed the power of attachment as a metaphor – communicating something we all understand, and operating at different levels in ways that both unite and divide us across boundaries of parent/ child, professional/client, victim/ perpetrator.
The Art of Attachment performance is part of a wider project funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Arts Council – involving a number of artistic commissions including poetry by Lemn Sissay, film by Becky Edmunds and paintings, drawings and illustrations by Jenny Arran, Laura Bissonet and Oscar Romp. It shows what is possible when artists are invited to lead processes of social research and innovation. The ACCA was sold out last night, but I hope that more people have a chance to witness this work and unpick the many insights that are contained within its rich tapestry. This extraordinary work that deserves a wide audience – but especially students of social work and other caring professions for whom ‘attachment’ is a working theory.
Professor of Childhood & Youth Studies
Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth
School of Education and Social Work
University of Sussex
Friday, 19 October 2018