Smack That: domestic violence survivors celebrate resilience in dance

Published in The Guardian on June 8, 2018

“I have been fighting for vaginas for a very long time now.” Rhiannon Faith is smiling, but she’s also completely serious. The choreographer’s work, too, exists on this tightrope: her latest show is an immersive dance party about domestic violence.

Smack That (a Conversation) starts with the audience being served popcorn and cider; Grimes and Santigold play on the stereo. But this is a party with a point: join in with pass-the-parcel and you might end up unwrapping statistics about violence against women. Like the fact that every three days, a woman dies because of domestic abuse.

Smack That goes on to mix spoken personal accounts of domestic violence with visceral dance sequences, and is performed by three professional dancers and four non-professionals. All seven women are survivors of abuse.

“The material is all autobiographical; it is all true,” says Faith when we meet during rehearsals; Smack That has played a few venues, but is being brushed up before heading on tour. “Honesty in performance is important to me. If you’re open and vulnerable and the audience trust that, then they feel like they can be open and vulnerable too, which we really do ask them in this show.”

Faith’s career has been leading to this point, she says. Inspired by directing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at university, she’s wanted to make awareness-raising work ever since.

“I have watched people go through physical abuse. I have experienced psychological abuse – controlling behaviour. But I knew that to make this show properly I’d need lots of money, a venue that was supportive, and to work with a charity. I had to build my career until I had the platform to do that.”

It took a decade, although her previous shows – including Scary Shit, about her mental health struggles – have also tackled heavy personal topics with a deceptively light tone.

For Smack That, it was important for Faith and her cast that the show be a celebration of resilience. Hence the party setting. “We don’t feel sorry for ourselves and we don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us either,” says professional dancer Valerie Ebuwa. “We’re survivors, and we’re normal people, and we go out and party, y’know?”

The show attempts to convey the grim reality of domestic violence. Dance proves a powerful medium for that, able to convey feelings that are really beyond words. “You move because you feel – that’s how I choreograph,” Faith explains. “A lot of dance is there to decorate the world, and I am more there to change the world. I only make shows if something makes me feel angry.”

For Smack That, Faith teamed up with the charity Safer Places, running fortnightly workshops at Harlow Playhouse with up to 25 domestic abuse survivors. “We spent months just talking,” Faith says. Their accounts became the spoken narrative of the piece.

Four women committed to performing a show. None had any dance training, and movement was developed through daily lessons and workshops with professional dancers. Faith was blown away by their courage. “We don’t call them non-professionals now; they’re all just performers,” says Faith. “They’re my heroes.”

It is not easy to talk – and dance – about such experiences in public. “The nerves will always be there because the piece is about being vulnerable,” says Rebekah Dunn, a non-professional performer. “There are still moments when it feels too much. We still have tears.”

Each woman has a box of tissues under their chair on stage; they’ve been reached for at every performance, by performers and audience alike. Faith was hugely aware of the duty of care she had as the creator of such a work. A psychologist was present throughout the development process, and will sit outside every show in case an audience member needs time out, or someone to speak to.

“One in four women experiences domestic violence, so there’s going to be people in the audience who might be triggered by the material,” acknowledges Faith. Audiences also take away party boxes with information about local services.

Perhaps most importantly, every venue Smack That plays will became a J9 “safe place” contact centre. An initiative set up by Safer Places, J9 trains staff in public buildings so that anyone experiencing domestic abuse can walk in and ask for help.

For many victims, under the close watch of a controlling partner, it can be almost impossible to take this first step. Being able to pop into an arts centre is less likely to arouse suspicion – and could, therefore, form an invaluable lifeline. Turning venues from Harlow Playhouse to the Barbican into J9 places will leave a tangible legacy.

“Hopefully that will make a difference,” says Faith. “I’m very proud of that, as an artist and activist.”

Smack That (a Conversation) is at DanceEast, Ipswich, on 8 June. Box office: 01473 295230. Then at Barbican, London, 12-16 June. Box office: 020 7638 8891. Then at Cast, Doncaster, 6 July. Box office: 01302 303959.

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