Emergency Chorus premiere Ways of Knowing, a new show about predicting the future and knowing the unknowable at Camden People’s Theatre, 30 November - 02 December. The show takes significant inspiration from cave exploration. In this conversation, Clara Potter-Sweet and Ben Kulvichit discuss their interest in journeying underground and their research-led making process.
CLARA: So Ben, why on earth were you interested in caves? Or why under earth?
BEN: It came from watching a documentary by Edurne Rubio called Ojo Guareña, as part of BE Festival 2020 online. The film was about a group of speleologists, or cave researchers, who were exploring this Spanish cave during the early years of Franco’s regime. These speleologists talked about how spending time in the cave and singing revolutionary songs there had actually awoken them to their anti-fascist politics. So I took away this idea that going underground, or elsewhere, might help you to discover things you actually already know, but don’t yet know that you know
CLARA: I guess it’s similar to when you go on holiday and you come home and home looks different. Gives you space.
BEN: Gives you perspective.
CLARA: And then when we started work on Ways of Knowing and researching methods for predicting the future, we came back to caves as an abstract or metaphorical way of thinking about prediction. Being in the cave as a way of putting yourself in a different place or altered state, in order to access knowledge you don’t have, or don’t know that you have, or couldn’t see before.
BEN: It was the same reason we got interested in hermits and anchorites, who removed themselves from society and lived in isolation. Historically, that’s been a religious or mystic thing - to be closer to God or a higher power. I guess that’s also about knowing something unknowable, like knowing God.
CLARA: Or knowing the future! So we tried to make a dance that felt like being in a cave. We always work from research and we’d been reading books and watching films - like Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and a short cave story from Hannah Sullivan’s collection Pit Murk. So we were reading, and trying to understand and replicate - in a weirdly somatic turn for us! - the feeling of being in a cave. And then we thought: well, we should probably just go to a cave.
BEN: We went down a cave called Goatchurch Cavern with our designers Blythe Brett (set & costume) and Nat Norland (sound). It’s in the Mendip Hills, just south of Bristol (where we both live). And it was a genuinely fascinating experience.
One thing is that you adopt an entirely different physicality, to negotiate the architecture. It’s slippery so you walk with more care, you’re much lower in your centre of gravity. There are parts where the limestone wall is on a 45 degree tilt. And when you’re going through a tight passage at that angle, your sense of gravity and where ‘up’ is really shifts. It’s disorientating. There was also a set ‘choreography’ to some sections of the cave. A set way people have discovered of getting their bodies through this tight squeeze.
CLARA: Here are the dance moves.
BEN: Yeah. You put your foot in this position, and then you swing your leg round, and you need to have your head turned this way, etc. And you can’t always see where your feet are going, you just have to trust they’re going to land in the right place — trust the people who’ve come before you.
CLARA: So obviously we’d found some element of our cave dance — the dance you do to make your way through an actual cave! But also we realised that the cave we create in Ways of Knowing had to be one that we didn’t know how to get through. To bring this encounter with not-knowing into the show. Because for me, someone who’s terrified of being underground and in claustrophobic spaces, it was actually okay going with a guide. Having someone saying to us: ‘I know if you put your foot here and turn your head there, you might not feel like it’s going to work but it is going to work’ is one thing. There’s certainty. And then it’s completely different to go into a hole in the ground and not know what’s ahead. It’s terra incognita.
BEN: Getting to the bottom of this particular cave was interesting because you get into this final room or chamber - but it isn’t really the end of the cave. There’s another, deeper hole in the ground. You could probably fit your body in there but we were advised not to. But somehow just seeing the hole wasn’t enough, I really wanted to put myself in it. There’s something about not just seeing something in order to know it, you have to actually go there. And that’s become quite key to the show
CLARA: Coming back from that trip, we actually threw out all the cave dance material we’d made and started again. We drew a map of Goatchurch Cavern and noted down things we’d noticed or felt, and then walked our way through that map. Charlie Ashwell, who was our dance collaborator/mentor, sat and watched as we just pretended to be in the cave for about 40 minutes. What a job!
From that walkthrough, we remembered what spaces felt calm, or unsafe, or like being in a room in a house - and made scores for ourselves which would imbue each movement section with those qualities, Like, where you were explaining before about the tilted passageways, where ‘up’ feels different, we have a section called Gravity, where the prompt is ‘Gravity is changing’. So what you’ll see in the show is a version of the journey that we took in Goatchurch Cavern.
We’re hoping to bring the cave to the audience, so they can see why we’re so obsessed with it.
BEN: Ah! But as we’ve discovered, you can’t bring the cave to someone else, or bring the knowledge, the visions, the fortune-telling out of the cave. You have to go TO the cave.
CLARA: So we may be staging a sort of failure. Come along!
Thurs 30 Nov - Sat 02 Dec at 9pm
Tickets £8 - £12