Michelle Ryan danced professionally in Australia and overseas. Ten years ago, she was at the peak of her career and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She used to dance and had issues with intimacy. She still dances and has issues with intimacy.
Intimacy is dance theatre by Torque Show – a company including artists that Ryan used to dance with – and opens the 2014 Malthouse Helium season with a touching and honest exploration of how illness can change the meanings of intimacy.
With fellow dancer Vincent Crowley, singer Emma Bathgate and director Ingrid Weisfelt, Ryan shares intimate moments of personal, sexual and romantic awkwardnesses, and those times when you have to ask strangers to give you their seat or help you get dressed.
Members of the audience are made to join in and there are the familiar looks of wanting to help but not knowing how and being terrified of offending in case help isn’t wanted. This forced awkward intimacy is darkly funny and carries through to the more personal moments on stage, but it feels like it only scratches the surface. Dating is uncomfortable because dating makes us emotionally vulnerable, with or without illness.
A very good friend of mine had MS; I know that walk and the reach for balance. When she was diagnosed, about ten years ago, she said it was like her limbs (and at times her brain) were wrapped in wool, like an ugg boot but tighter. The closest moments for me were Ryan in a sleeping bag trying to get dressed and get around. Its fuzzy soft constriction seems comfortable but makes it so hard to move, physically feel and even hear, speak or see. It may not seem much, but it offers a relatable idea of what those symptoms can feel like. It’s easy to relate to the emotional intimacy, but this helped to find how the restriction and frustration of the physical are part of the emotional.
And the strongest and most moving elements piece are the physical and the dance. From Ryan sitting and hiding the impact of MS on her body to her dancing with little balance and skinny limbs that don’t want to listen to her thoughts, there’s no denial that MS can suck. But her dance – and especially that with tall and muscualr Crowley – is about the irrelevance of the bits that suck and finding the parts of her that still fly.