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Hardy Animal review [a performance about chronic pain & human resilience] - Battersea Arts Centre

Photo: Paul Blakemore
When I mentioned to people I'd been to see a performance about chronic pain - I often got a bit of a grimaced reaction. I wondered about people being uncomfortable with illness, particularly when chronic, but landed on the conclusion that any discomfort was with the idea of illness in entertainment, particularly as a one-woman-show. I guess there's a presumption of a bleak, heavy experience. But Laura Dannequin's Hardy Animal really wasn't.

For me, a performance about chronic pain was always going to be of interest because, having a chronic illness, I relate. So when I saw Laura Dannequin was bringing her one-woman show about her experience to the Battersea Arts Centre I knew I had to go.

The performance begins with Laura standing, a fair distance from us. A voiceover begins. We focus on Laura's physical presence, and our imagination follows the directions of her voice. She tells us of how she's standing still, how parts of her body feel heavy, how she wonders if anyone's clocked how disproportionately large her hands are to her frame. She comments on our act of looking, and hers too - meeting us with her eyes, she talks of connecting with members of the audience.

She talks of all the dances she wanted to do for us - a big fuck off of a dance, or a dance so beautiful it moves you to tears but you won't know why.

All of these comments, thoughtful and funny, bring us back to her stillness and to an absence. It feels like too long without movement. I wonder if she's swaying or if it's my imagination, and I wonder if she feels it too. We know she's imagining dances for us because she can't do the dance she wishes for us, for herself, and there's a real sadness to this and a sense of  loss - a distance between what she wants to do, and what she can do.

This stillness, and the tender, funny voiceover, reminded me a lot of Ivana Muller's 60 Minutes of Opportunism which I saw and loved back in 2011. For different reasons both artists play with ideas of performance, and prove that power can come from holding back and going against expectation. I was also reminded of the work of Forced Entertainment, in their use of microphones and lists, and the humour in the knowing of the audience-performer relationship.

At one moment early on, Laura (again, via voiceover) comments that some in the audience aren't quite sure if it's for them yet, and to hang in there. Perhaps she knows that on paper, or even in person - in the beginning, this isn't going to be for everyone. Her commenting on this, in an endearing but matter-of-fact way, is both reassuring and funny.

Once we finish this lengthy introduction Laura moves further back in the space, the lights go down and she is lit by torch light alone. She removes her top and, facing away, speaks, live, into a microphone. We learn about her pain, how it started, how it continued, the things she tried, the other things she tried, the things she was told.

It feels repetitive but it doesn't feel dull, it feels painful and truthful, and almost funny if it didn't carry so much real frustration.

As she speaks, she moves her bare, lit back. And it makes me think about invisible illness, and how even with clothes removed we're no closer to seeing what she experiences, but it's all happening beneath the surface. And that's difficult, as is the telling, and the inevitable isolation of it all, and maybe that's why she faces away. It's powerful.

The funniest moment in the performance though comes from Laura recounting conversations she's had with people about her illness. Without anger or bitterness in her performance, just a slightly weary fatigue of repetition, we see the patience involved in knowing people really have no idea and the many difficult conversations. She also manages to be informative re the nature of her pain, scientifically, which is illuminating without feeling at all dry.

I've previously felt a frustration at never seeing my situation reflected in art but I've realised there's no big drama in chronic illness. There's emotion at times for sure, and it's bloody hard, but the chronic aspect is key - it's enduring and it's exhausting. Hardy Animal was a brilliant exploration of that experience and the resilience and strength involved, but it also showed something really important - that illness does not define someone. Even when she couldn't dance, Laura was a performer. She was, and is, funny and charming and interesting.

And in this performance Laura gets to take back some control, of how her story and her body is seen, and I loved that.

So, if you're someone that suffers with chronic pain or illness I urge you to see this - it will make you feel less alone, you'll laugh and potentially cry in recognition.  But also crucially if you have no experience with chronic pain, I still think you should see it. Because it's funny, interesting (and great to get an insight into a more-common-than-you-realise experience) and because it's a really playful, powerful contemporary performance.

Keep an eye on Laura Dannequin's website for future performances of Hardy Animal.

And, just because I love him (how can you not?), here's a quote from Daniel Kitson on the performance:
"Entirely blown away by it. Hardy Animal is a spoken word and dance piece about a woman dealing with and working through her chronic back pain. I know. I know how it sounds. But it is entirely excellent. It's defiant and angry and sad and funny and beautiful, really beautiful, and brave, and just so very very good indeed."
Daniel Kitson
If you have a chronic illness, or are just interested, here's what I've written about my experiences