Dancing a Story of Love and Grief

In the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, the filmmaker William Armstrong was struggling with the question of how to respond, as an artist, to the fear and uncertainty of the moment. He’d lost a few commercial-directing jobs to lockdowns and border closures, and he saw no new projects on the horizon. He was supporting a loved one through a major health crisis, and he was feeling emotionally raw. He wanted to tell an authentic story—something that spoke to a shared human experience.

Armstrong had the idea to film a dancer using the empty streets of Copenhagen, where he lives, as a stage. But, interviewing potential collaborators, he had trouble finding the sense of conflict and urgency that he was looking for. He told me it was a “moonshot” when, late one night, he sent a message, through social media, to Paul Lightfoot, an internationally renowned choreographer, asking to talk. He’d proposed setting up a conversation during business hours, but Lightfoot replied immediately, and they got on the phone. Lightfoot was receptive to Armstrong’s vision, and ready to build on it, posing questions and offering suggestions; Armstrong was struck by his openness, his eagerness to work with a complete stranger. Only after hanging up did Armstrong see Lightfoot’s latest post: a tribute to the choreographer’s father, who had died three days earlier. Lightfoot had made it to the hospital, but, owing to pandemic safety regulations, had not been allowed inside. He never got to say goodbye.

Here was the spark Armstrong had been seeking. Here was an artist, in the throes of a grief both universal and particular to this point in history, carrying inside him an important message—one that words could not deliver. What if Lightfoot could say his unsaid goodbye in a dance?

Over the next few weeks, Armstrong and Lightfoot—with the dancer Sebastian Haynes and the composer Alexander McKenzie, both hand-chosen for the project by Lightfoot—created an atmosphere of intense intimacy and trust, entirely via Zoom. When McKenzie first played the others a sketch of his music—facing the piano, away from his laptop—there wasn’t a dry eye on the screen. Lightfoot choreographed remotely from the Netherlands, while Haynes, in Copenhagen, rehearsed in his bedroom, a photo studio, and, eventually, Tivoli Gardens—anywhere willing to offer space for free. Armstrong compiled more than thirty hours of footage from virtual interviews and rehearsals that was edited down to around three minutes. Director, choreographer, and dancer only met all together in the same room on the day of filming Haynes’s final performance, in the bright, soaring nave of Grundtvig’s Church.

This unusual artistic process is documented in Armstrong’s concise, powerful film “Unspoken.” We see Lightfoot, confined to the now familiar frame of the Zoom square, grapple with his loss and contemplate the meaning of this transitional juncture, in his own life and in the world; his emotion and his creative energy are palpable, transmitting with the immediate force of electricity across countries, through computers, and—miraculously—into Haynes’s body. The resulting dance is an expression of love and sorrow, a testament to the ephemeral nature of living, and to the possibility—despite or because of that ephemerality—of true connection. It is an act of mourning, but also a celebration: of inspiration’s endurance in the wake of pain, of whatever small allotment of time and space on this plane we are gifted to shape, together. We cannot bring back what, or who, is gone forever, but, “Unspoken” insists, we can honor the memory—and can make, from the absence we are left with, a way forward.

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