Credit: Tiu Makkonen

Experimental dance and chronic pain: In conversation with Sarah Hopfinger

By Jeevan Farthing

Living with invisible pain can be debilitating, but Glasgow-based artist and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland researcher, Sarah Hopfinger, endeavours to turn her pain into art through her immersive autobiographical show, Pain and I, that will be performed at Tramway on November 8 and November 9 2023.

Sarah Hopfinger has lived with chronic back pain since she was 14 years old. Previously, she was “embarrassed” by it. In the script for Pain and I, she recounts wishing it would “disappear for good”. Because she “can’t always sit for very long”, she tells me that, for a while, she simply “stopped going to the theatre”. She seemed trapped in a vicious cycle, forcing herself to “disappear” when she had a pain flare up, trying to recover, before “coming back out into the world and hoping it wouldn’t return”.

The anguish and distress Sarah’s pain has caused her does not show itself as she appears in the waiting room early for our zoom interview, which takes place a few days in advance of Pain and I‘s Scottish tour. I let her in and her backdrop is cosy, with a smattering of houseplants and multi-coloured books. Her demeanour is smiley, relaxed; she is soft spoken and extremely enthusiastic. 

Because her pain is, in her own words, “invisible”, “unpredictable” and “rich”, both the work itself and her discussion of it reveals neither a sympathy-inducing sob story, nor a revisionist characterisation of her experience as purely positive. It attests to the complexity of the subject matter that Pain and I exists in three formats: an audio piece, a graphic score, and a live performance, where sometimes Sarah finds herself, also in her own words, “walking, jumping…leaping, stamping”, while at other points she is being still, or dancing naked, by herself, on stage.

Many of Sarah’s projects have involved collaboration, either with small children, or sometimes even with her mother, such as in Small is Beautiful, which The Herald described as a “whimsical” exploration of her rural upbringing and childhood fascination with The Lord of The Rings. Pain and I is an entirely solo performance, making it inherently vulnerable, and even more intimately and explicitly connected to her personal experiences than her previous work. Does she have boundaries on how much she is willing to share? She says it’s been important in her creative process to establish that “anything is up for grabs”. She adds, “because part of the motivation for Pain and I was not previously having a place to explore my pain deeply or creatively, it was important for all things to be possible for the final version.” While she emphasises that much of the text, choreography and movements are very directly about herself, “there is also poetic ambiguity”. For example, near the opening, Sarah repeats an address – “the air calls you in” – which she says could refer to “my pain, myself, or the audience, or something wider.” Nonetheless, the emphasis remains on her personal familiarity with chronic pain, reminding me: “it’s my body here that is the body in pain.” What Sarah’s script does so well, then, is balance highly personal admissions – “I cancelled so many plans, I started not to make them” – with ominous statements that leave you completely in the dark (“I wasn’t sure whether we would survive” is especially striking).

Sarah’s body is clearly an integral part of her performance. She says that she “doesn’t have a conventional dancer body”, and while performing naked was never something she thought she would do, it just “made sense to let the materiality of my body perform”. I start to wonder whether Sarah describes her work as body positive (referring to the social movement whose proponents encourage us to actively like our bodies). She claims Pain and I is “definitely about embracing my body as it is”. The text, she asserts, is “a love letter to my chronic pain body. Sometimes as a performance note for myself, I remind myself that while I may be saying something awful about how much pain my body has caused me, I’m saying it with love”. In the performance she does also, eventually, bestow direct praise upon her body, saying: “you are so committed to me”; “you are present and ungraspable”; “you are too real and not always believed”.

I suppose Sarah is astute to remind me repeatedly of the richness of her work, because it seems largely body positive, though not wholly. “It’s not as simple as saying: yeah my body is great(!). Rather, it’s about embracing the complexity of it”. She smiles as I ask about the press release, which refers to the performance as a “celebration”. Clarifying, she says that she doesn’t want to put “a positive spin on something really difficult”. She intends, instead, to “celebrate the spectrum of experiences of living with pain”. “I’ve found that if the hardship, horror and catastrophe of pain can be acknowledged…there’s so much possible richness and [so many] possible lessons”. 

Sarah talks about the process of “giving myself permission to know how I’m going to be”, and perhaps, then, Pain and I is more akin to a practical actualisation of radical acceptance, the skill which utilises Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) to prevent pain from becoming suffering. She describes her work as a whole as “making a space for expressing hardship in a way I don’t feel like I have in wider society, unless it’s a medical thing”. I ask Sarah to elaborate on whether creative spaces have, in the past, presented barriers for herself and her pain, and she responds: “At first I never said I was in pain, which was itself a physical barrier.” She likens it to the “social model of disability becoming personal”, and emphasises that “it isn’t just about physical barriers”. “I didn’t feel at home in the spaces I was supposedly a part of as an artist”, Sarah says, adding that she can sometimes experience “amazing performances, but there’s something in me that isn’t at ease”. According to her, rectifying this involves consciously thinking about “the kind of atmosphere that’s needed for different bodies and minds to want to be there”. (In light of this, Sarah’s welcome address for Pain and I tells audience members that they “do not need to be a polite viewer”, and may “stim, snack, drink, make noise, look away, or close their eyes”. This space, she says, “shakes its head at pressure and judgement”.) 

In some ways it is both impressive and damning that Sarah has navigated her exclusion from creative spaces by simply making her own. But this is no new phenomenon for marginalised groups, including many disabled people, who have never been able to attend certain in-person performances, whether that be because of social stigma, or physical constraints, such as a lack of wheelchair access or a British Sign Language interpreter. Sarah and I discuss at length whether Covid-19 has resulted in practical and attitudinal changes with regard to accessibility. She first emphasises that she is “relieved” when people still talk about the pandemic, because “it’s something we are still processing”. I add that for some people, like those with long Covid, the pandemic still exudes tangible effects on a daily basis, and Sarah notes that “the phenomenon of what it’s like to live with personal and collective pain means Pain and I still feels literally and directly relevant in terms of Covid”.

She hopes that the pandemic has, at least, “raised awareness of people who were already living in crisis, pain, or isolation”. When it comes to learning lessons from Covid, it is, after all, people like Sarah whose experiences need to be taken on board. When I ask her what she’s learned the most from the process of living with pain, she says she’s learnt “how to care”, and refers to her chronic pain as a “site of knowledge”. 

“It’s definitely an ongoing thing,” she tells me. “Each time I get a pain flare up, I go on another process of remaking friends with my body, breaking up and falling out with myself, before finding a way back. That seems to just recurrently happen.” While the processes Sarah has undergone to deal with her chronic pain are specific, she asserts that the difficulty of embracing our bodies links to a much wider societal issue. “What really feels like fundamental learning is what it means to care for my body,” she says. “It’s not just care, though, it’s kindness and tenderness. These are qualities of being which so many of us are looking for because we live under capitalism, where it is not encouraged. I think [living in pain] has shifted how I relate to others. It asks the question of what it means to care for not just ourselves, but for each other when we are in pain.”

That word, care. If any singular concept could underpin the methodology and ethos of Pain and I, as well as the broader framework of Sarah’s art, it would probably be care. Her dancing in Pain and I is intimate and intricate, it is an act of care in itself, so much so that performing twenty times at the Edinburgh Fringe was actually good for her, she claims, because “I was caring for my body by doing the show”. The gentleness, the slowness of the performance not only reflects the “different experience of time people have when they are in pain”, but perhaps also alludes to time moving more slowly when care is undertaken, because of its detachment from capitalistic end goals.

Our interview time nearly runs out before I can ask Sarah anything about her academic research into the relationship between chronic pain and ecological pain. She is good at summarising, and says that “it’s not about whether chronic pain is an analogy for environmental destruction, but how the knowledge and insight of those of us living with chronic pain – regarding the processes and practises we undertake – may help us relate to responding to ecological pain”. The methods undertaken to care for ourselves and for our planet are mutually applicable, Sarah argues. On a larger scale, allowing marginalised persons to shape environmental policies could also alleviate the scourge of eco-ableism, where proactive measures to curb global warming – such as car-free zones – further harm disabled people because they are exacted with a lack of care.

Sarah says that in addition to care, “the other quality which has emerged from all of this is pleasure”. (At one point, near the end of Sarah’s script, she says “she cannot remember what pleasure feels like”). She elaborates, “It seems quite radical – what is it like for a body with pain to experience pleasure? I’ve thought about care and pleasure choreographically, but also how care and pleasure exist in our relationship to the earth”. This taps into both the challenges of caring for the climate necessarily involving personal sacrifice, but also the messiness and complexities of personal care, which is often dirty, grim, and involves interacting with human beings at their most degenerate.

It sounds almost sadistic to derive pleasure from pain – are they not two diametrically opposed things? I guess, though, that you can and should find pleasure in being resilient, daring, and making art despite the odds being stacked against you. It’s a pleasure to watch Sarah speak about doing those things, how excited she gets – starting one sentence and then abandoning it, because she has an even better one. Her work ethic requires a level of determination, self-assuredness and diligence, but thoughtfulness and kindness must underpin it, otherwise it would be impossible to construct such a delicate and conceptual performance. 

Sarah Hopfinger cares deeply about her pain, and I suppose that also means she cares deeply about, and for, herself. But through performing her pain, she can teach us new things, and make us feel less alone. That, surely, makes the legacy of Pain and I all the more laudable, if it can alleviate the pain of others.

Pain and I debuts at Tramway on Wednesday 8 and Thursday 9 November. Tickets here.


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