Foreign Body is a powerful dance theatre show depicting one woman’s experience of several sexual assaults.
Imogen Butler-Cole is a London based dance practitioner and female bodied person who, like 1 in 3 women in the UK, has survived sexual violence. The performance outlines 3 separate sexual assaults that Imogen has experienced in her lifetime, the impact they have had on her and the steps she has taken in her healing process.
The piece begins with a view of the stage: a duvet, table and ceramic pots. Imogen enters happy and excited, arranging the space as if preparing her room for a visitor. There is an air of youthful sensuality as she moves, writhing and wrapping herself in the duvet, until one of the ceramic bowls breaks, presenting an ominous sign as to what is to come.
We see her at a nightclub dancing, happy, interacting with other people. We see her heading off advances, being groped. A voice-over plays, her voice, telling us of the separate sexual assaults. We hear her process of understanding, her questioning: ‘did it really happen?’ Her way of pushing out the reality of what happened to her saying “it’s not like it was rape”. Her internal dialogue might be familiar to many others who have survived sexual assault. Moving through self-hate, self-blame, the incarceration of body and mind, the staying in bed. Imogen gently leaves space for stillness and reflection so as not to bombard us, providing an opportunity for breath and connection.
Throughout the performance, Imogen uses physical and dance theatre to communicate, and all spoken text is played through audio recording. She includes stories of other survivors and her own testimonies. All of the voices that we hear in the show are the real voices of the people in the story, including the voice of the only male in the piece – the man who digitally raped her 21 years ago.
At one point, we see a depiction of Imogen’s meeting with one of the perpetrators. She sits in the audience facing an empty chair and his voiceover begins. We hear her perpetrator describe what he did, how he felt about it at the time, and how he has felt about it since. We hear how he has never forgiven himself. In an act of shocking empathy, we see Imogen move to the stage to mouth the words as he speaks them.
A large focus of the show was on Imogen’s work with the forgiveness project through her healing and performance process. The essence of her message and that of the Forgiveness Project* is that everyone has their own healing journey.
At the end of the performace, after a moving dance of rage, we see Imogen peacefully begin to repair the ceramic bowl that broke at the beginning using Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi, a Japanese art of fixing using seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware. It is said to make the object more beautiful than before. This was a poignant motif that paralleled her costume; streams of gold wrapped around her upper body.
Foreign Body is an act of courage; a vulnerable revealing; an offering of connection to all those silenced. It is an opportunity to move towards more compassionate, boundaried interactions as we learn through another’s experience. Imogen Butler de-stigmatises the conversation and her courage in sharing her story is a gift to all of us.
THE FORGIVENESS PROJECT
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the piece was the discussion it generated afterwards in the post show discussion, with a representative from The Forgiveness Project and SARSAS*.
The show resonated for many but also raised several points of contention for people in the audience. To use only one man’s voice, it was suggested, in the light of a person who could hold himself accountable and feel remorse, was not indicative of every male perpetrator. Another voice over used in the show was that of a woman who works with TFP who said, “for them to live with the guilt of doing it is worse than what they inflicted on me”. A perspective reinforced in the post show discussion by a comment from the representative of the forgiveness project who said she believed that all perpetrators feel guilt and that in her mind, we should not use the word “perpetrator” as she believes they are human beings. This sparked some outrage. Of course, if someone has perpetrated a crime, they can therefore be described as a perpetrator. In a society that largely holds the victim to blame, and a justice system that finds only 5.7% of those that get to court, (not including those reported), guilty, taking away yet more accountability by removing the very word that describes a person who commits an act of violence against another felt like an insult to many and left a distasteful feeling in the room.
Imogen was clear to distance herself from this opinion, clear to say that this was her unique journey and that she purposefully contacted only 1 of the 3 perpetrators as she knew he was likely to cooperate.
It is a comforting thought to entertain that every perpetrator would feel guilt, however many of us know this is not always the reality. Acts of sexual violence are often normalised, there are people who lack the ability to feel empathy, ‘sociopaths’, ‘narcissists’ and ‘psychopaths’. It may be a reality for some, but not for all.
Some people choose forgiveness as a means to take back control, or as an alternative to living with bitterness and anger, for one’s own piece of mind. What is important is that everyone has their own way of healing and in Foreign Body, Imogen presents hers.
I hope she will secure funding to enable the work to move in to its next phase and raise more of this much-needed dialogue.
*The forgiveness project is a “non-partisan, non religious organisation” that “uses real stories of survivors and perpetrators to explore concepts of forgiveness and alternatives to revenge”. They work in schools, prisons, corporates, community groups and with individuals, often using conflict resolution and restorative justice as a means to educate, resolve and heal.
For more information on the forgiveness project go to; www.theforgivenessproject.com
*SARSAS, Somerset & Avon rape and sexual abuse support are a “specialist support service for people in Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset, Somerset, or South Gloucestershire, who have experienced any form of sexual violence, at any point in their lives.”
For more information go to www.sarsas.org.uk
Review by BWV Reporter China Fish