“SKIN”, Renae Shadler & Roland Walter ©beat.pix.with.heart

An Oscillator Exchange

Performer, photographer, model, author and speaker Roland Walter was born with a lack of oxygen, causing spastic paralysis. In 2018 he proposed to choreographer Renae Shadler to develop a work together, which led to a research on the creation of a shared movement language. The duet “SKIN” premiered last Saturday 1 August 2020 at Uferstudios. 

After watching “SKIN” I googled science-fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Her musings on amoebas, and the way in which they send bits of themselves back and forth to each other when they mate, were a source of inspiration for the work. I stumbled across her article ‘Communication as a Mutual Entrainment[1]’ which gave me the words to write this piece. In it, Le Guin describes all living beings as ‘oscillators’. We vibrate and we pulse, and, according to Le Guin, building human relationships involves moving rhythmically together, entrainment and getting in sync. We share bits and pieces of ourselves, imprint them onto others as others do onto us. It is not an alternating process, but rather goes both ways, all the time, constantly. 

The first image in “SKIN” is a clear reference to Le Guin’s amoebas. Two creatures wrapped in blue sleeping bags sit facing each other. Even though they are curled up inside themselves, they constantly try to make a connection with one and other. Their knees touch. Then from each sleeping bag a hand escapes. Crooked and with stiff fingers, they move, staccato. The bodies wriggle out of the bags, and only when they reveal themselves do we notice the differences between them. Both are dressed in wetsuits. Renae’s body is big, but Roland’s is small and visibly affected by his disability. She takes him into her arms, carries him, and moves him through the space. Her eyes are wide open like those of an alien exploring a brand-new world. 

With the support of an atmospheric soundtrack by Samuel Hertz and Judith Förster’s set design, different scenes arise in which little parts of each performer appear to float from one and to the other, and then into the audience. The two dancers share movements, rolling back and forth on their sides until they physically connect with one another and glide along the floor. The image of his hand resting on her arm is one of great intimacy. 

With Roland on her back, Renae stamps her feet in a little plastic container filled with water. It overflows, making the floor wet. They pour water over each other. It’s a comforting and playful gesture and makes their bodies move more smoothly. With him on a bench-cum-wheelchair and her on a rolling board, they roll across the stage. Each holds on to the other’s sleeping bag, both of which, in turn, are also connected to one and other. They form a single line swinging through the space. They pull and push, exchanging, becoming oscillators. They come closer and closer until they finally come together and then slowly come to a halt. 

As someone who is usually surrounded only by non-disabled people, I found myself questioning my emotional responses to the work. Were they sincere, or even valid? Had I missed all manner of political references in the work? Or were these doubts just the signs of my own vague attempt to come across as politically correct? There was a great generosity in the act of inviting me to look at a body unfamiliar to me. And since this invitation to look was on Roland’s terms and he had ownership over it, I felt welcomed and could become part of the swing. For me, “SKIN” was not only a well constructed piece, but also one in which the amalgamation of movement, bodies, scenography and sound gave a poetic insight into the way we connect. To be offered a glimpse of this part of our humanity touched me deeply. 


[1] ‘The process of making something part of a liquid or flow of something and carrying it along.’ Cambridge Dictionary (online)