Words by Róisín O’Brien.
At least half an hour before each rehearsal, Clara and Rachel of Sliding Doors Collective have to meet and catch up. A necessity, perhaps, when you’re close friends and studio time is precious and not to be ‘wasted’. But these catch-ups also inform their work, Penthouse Hickies.
Sliding Doors Collective came about on a hungover New Year’s Day after a night out, Rachel explains (‘it genuinely did!’). Newly graduated and facing a new year, they both asked: ‘what else can we do but make our own stuff?’
Their performing lives have been intertwined since they first met at auditions for the London Contemporary Dance School BA (Hons) in Contemporary Dance programme, after a mutual friend told them to look out for each other. Zoning in on the other Scot in the room, with Rachel wearing her National Youth Dance Company of Scotland t-shirt, they boarded the Megabus back to Scotland together after the audition and were forced with each other’s company for seven hours. They met again at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance auditions, were accepted, and ended up living together while studying. They were both in NYDCS for another year, an opportunity for young dancers in Scotland to create work under professional choreographers and tour internationally. “Whenever we made a duet with different choreographers, we would think ‘this works’,” says Rachel.
Rachel has since completed a Masters, while Clara has moved into arts administration. Their experiences bring different skills to their partnership: Clara is the spreadsheet ‘Queen’, and comes more from the ‘behind the scenes, technology, social media side of things.’ Rachel is out absorbing from the performance world. “I’m one of those people who loves auditioning, a lot don’t,” she enthuses. “Nobody does, it’s just you!” Clara replies.
Penthouse Hickies – it’s quite a title. “You know when you start telling a story to someone and they think they’ve already heard it? So Rachel was telling a story that used the word penthouse and this guy was like “Oh, it’s the penthouse in Shoreditch story?” and Rachel said, no, it’s another time, and he listed about three other options trying to jump in on this story,” explains Clara. It was a completely new story Rachel was trying to tell, which made them reflect on the amount and embellishment of the experiences they shared with each other. “It was that concept of having these ridiculous anecdotes that you share between friends that are a bit lavish…”, she laughs. “More lavish than necessary,” Rachel expands. The hickey is self-explanatory. “You had one at the time”, Clara says to Rachel.
Both wanted to make a piece about dating as young women today, particularly with regard to dating apps. What do they think is different about dating today? There seems to be something about expectation and choice. Rachel talks of her mum and dad, who first met in a bank and two weeks later were married (they are still very much in love). “As if I would meet someone today and two weeks later….” she exclaims, even though, she says, she very easily falls in love.
Dating today seems ‘not throwaway as such, but it’s constant’. Clara agrees: there’s almost a sense of “FOMO: you have Tinder in your hand with 600 men – there are so many options.” Rachel thinks this has maybe changed now, but there was also a certain stigma around dating apps a few years ago. People would comment: “every time I talk to you it’s a different person!” she explains. “Because they’re bad!” interjects Clara.
Clara’s parents were very different, and she was raised on the moral of independence, of having fun before settling down. But both recognise something odd in this narrative too, as important as it is. If you’re young and in your twenties, and as a woman especially, you’re made to feel as though you have to achieve something before a certain age, almost as though you are “less valid [when] you’re older,” says Rachel.
The main thing always with Penthouse Hickies was their own relationship through these different dating experiences. They’ve seen each other through so many stages, from serious relationships to break-ups, that they wanted to create something that had their friendship at the heart of it. “Obviously we don’t go on dates together, but they can still bring you closer [as friends]”. Furthermore, neither want to glorify or denigrate any part of that roller-coaster journey that is dating. “People in relationships sometimes have a warped view of being single, as though it’s before being ‘upgraded’ to a relationship, which is just ridiculous,” says Clara. “It’s about celebrating wherever you are, because you’re twenty something, it’s all a bit of a mess, and it doesn’t matter where you are within that, you should enjoy it.”
A key part of their creative process was automatic writing. They would begin with a discussion and zone in on a topic. They’d then put a timer on for three minutes and each just write about the topic: no judgement, just whatever came to mind first. They’d then read out their responses to each other and look for commonalities. If the same word or topic came up, that’d form the basis of a creative task. “All of this has come from being friends. We’re big talkers,” says Clara.
Penthouse Hickies has both text and dance (they are clear they see both as equal parts of the performance, rather than prioritising one over the other). While forming the text might seem logical based on the above task, how did they get to movement? Clara explains one automatic writing task where they talked through memories of dates, and then picked out five emotions – these could be easily translated into movement representing excitement or nerves, or how it felt to be wearing certain clothes. They would then perform their two resulting solos side by side and try find moments where they could connect, pause, or perform the same movement. The specific details of the dates recede, but Rachel and Clara’s interactions are foregrounded.
Another ‘audience favourite’ is their idea of deadpan text, Rachel explains. “I had this image of sending these big sappy messages, but not feeling like that when I wrote it. So you type hahahaha but your face doesn’t reflect it.” Clara elaborates: “It’s a simple idea, we’re not under any impression it’s not been done before. That [texting] situation is enhanced by the deadpan element.”
With a piece so inextricably tied to its performers’ personal lives, can the piece ever stop evolving? A short excerpt was initially performed at Heads Up at Dance Base in 2019, before becoming a longer piece for Resolution earlier this year. As I speak to them during their residency at Citymoves Dance Agency in Aberdeen, they’re aiming to make it into a 35/40 minute piece but that’s the cut-off point. A ‘fractured narrative’, the piece moves between snapshots of single life, while incorporating newer developments: both are now in serious relationships.
“I’ve always said we will be finished with this piece when everyone can feel like they can relate, or that their experience is validated,” says Clara. “It’s probably too big a task, but we’ve had a bash at representing all the different stages people are at.”
Penthouse Hickies will be performed next at The Putney Arches, Sunday 9thMay 5.30pm and Sunday 10thMay 5.30pm. Part of Wandsworth Arts Fringe.
Videos from Sliding Doors Collectives. Header image: Lilith Isa. As an FYI, Clara has long blonde hair with a white shirt on and Rachel is the one with short blonde hair and a pink dress!