Artificial Things: The Film

A review by Anne McCarthy


Anne during a dance workshop

Anne, currently a sixth form student in a local school, has been working closely with Nicky Norton, a freelance IRIS teacher for Stopgap and Arts Award advisor, on the Respond level of IRIS.

She has also been working hard on her Bronze Arts award. As part of this qualification she has had to participate as an audience member and write a review of what she saw.

Settle down for a brilliant discourse!

A Stunning Performance With a Message Of Hope

Have you been stuck with what to watch during lockdown? If you have, then I think the film of ‘Artificial Things’ could be the answer.

‘Artificial Things’ was filmed in winter, in an abandoned shopping centre in Reading. It originated as a stage production, but then it was made into a film.  This is what I watched with my family, on the 15th of January 2021, as part of the Southbank Unlimited Festival, which was on Zoom during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The dancers performing in ‘Artificial Things’ are Amy Butler, Laura Jones, Chris Pavia, David Toole and David Willdridge.  It was choreographed by Lucy Bennett, and it was directed and edited by Sophie Fiennes.  I have been involved with Stopgap for seven years, so I have been lucky enough to have met and been taught by many of the dancers who were involved with the production of ‘Artificial Things’.

At the beginning of the film, the audience sees darkness, which gradually moves into light. Dave enters the abandoned shopping centre calmly on his hands. This is a few minutes before we see Chris start his solo. When the camera looks in Chris’s direction, he is already behind the counter ready to begin.

When we watched ‘Artificial Things’ via a Zoom call that the Southbank organised, there was a question-and-answer session, with Laura and Chris. At this event, Chris was asked about what inspired his solo; he talked about the fact that he decided to create a dance around his dislikes. Chris also said that 1930’s dictators had inspired him. I looked up the word dictator afterwards and thought he portrayed a powerful dictator well. He used some very simple but effective movements, for example head rolls; shaking; pointing; shuffling; strong gestures; straight, stiff legs and jagged movements. Overall, I think Chris portrayed a controlling dictator very well, which shocked and amazed me, because he is a very gentle, supportive and calm person in day-to-day life.

There is a moment where Dave controls Chris, by looking at him, making eye contact with him and doing a specific move, which Chris then copies exactly. This is called a call and response.  I was very impressed by this because, with the experience I have had with the Stopgap Farnham Youth Group, which I go to, I know this is not as easy as they make it look!

I liked how Chris transitioned from the counter to the mirror and back to the counter again. In my opinion, the mirror symbolised that a dictator is always being watched. Chris rolled his head, put his hand on his head and used facial expressions, which seemed to me to show how disappointed he was with himself. This could also show frustration and a damaging loss of power for a dictator.

As this section comes to an end, Chris builds up energy and a feeling of frustration with his quick sharp movements, which builds to a ferocious and menacing crescendo.  The abrupt, sharp end to Chris’s solo, is when he falls on to the counter with a bang.

After Chris’s solo fades away, we see Laura lying on her wheelchair, ready to start her duet, and we hear the wind whistling around her.

As Dave arrives for their duet, Laura rises and leans on her wheelchair, which looks like an everyday item; for example, it could have been Laura’s handbag. Whereas Chris’s solo changes levels, this duet stays at a low level throughout the piece.

In the duet, I thought Laura and Dave could have been very good friends, because they had to have close contact and a lot of trust between them.  I think they touch each other in a very tender, caring and thoughtful way. Laura shows affection for Dave when her head turns to make eye contact with him. As a contrast to Chris’s powerful solo, Laura and Dave’s duet shows a quiet strength.

I didn’t realise this at first, but the wheels of Laura’s wheelchair are scattered on the floor of the abandoned shopping centre.  I liked how they use the wheelchair to climb on. I think Laura and Dave must have very strong cores; as Laura holds on to the wheelchair, Dave climbs confidently over the top. I think the chair portrays a bridge for Dave to climb over. It looks like it is something they have to overcome and don’t want to be judged by.

We leave Laura and Dave’s duet in a moment of quiet and stillness, as Dave is sitting on the incomplete wheelchair and Laura is lying on the floor next to Dave.  In another part of the abandoned shopping centre, two more dancers are about to appear.

In Amy and David’s duet, Amy appears first, walking tentatively into the space. David appears behind her.  Gradually, they go down to a low level.  At the beginning, they both have a lovely floating quality in their arms. It felt to me like they were walking on fluffy clouds.

I liked the fact that throughout the first section of their duet, they are in continual contact with each other.  I also liked how they go to a low level and then their arms reach up and make them grow back to standing.

There are a lot of repeated sequences in their duet, which seems simple, but requires a vast amount of concentration; this is all beautifully executed.  I liked their interlocking shapes; I liked how Amy and David weave in and out of each other. Some people could be reminded of a jigsaw puzzle, by the shapes that Amy and David make with each other.

In my opinion, they could have been as close as brother and sister, because of how they do not want to let go of each other; I think this is very powerful.  I admired how well they are dancing when there isn’t much space between them at all! I particularly liked Amy and David’s long limbs.

When they move to a different place in the shopping centre, we can see that this is a clear second half for their duet.  When they come in, David is carrying Amy. I admired how strong both the dancers are to be able to execute this lift.

In the second half, they are both drifting apart from each other, which differs from the first half, as that focuses on connections. An example of this is when they were leaning away from each other. In my opinion, this shows a sense of independence from each other.

In the first half, they work alongside the music beautifully, but in the second half, I really liked how they work against the music.  When David lifts Amy up, the music is calm but the way they respond is the exact opposite. I imagine that this could be quite a challenge, but it works beautifully.

In Amy and David’s duet, they do a counterbalance. You need a lot of trust in a partnership to be able to execute this move; I wouldn’t want to do this!  A highlight for me was when Amy lifts David at one point. I thought this shows that they have an equal amount of trust in each other. I thought the staggered drops, throughout the second half, have to be perfectly in time and are very brave.

In the final scene of Amy and David’s Duet, they appear apprehensive. I could see this because of how they use their facial expressions and the way they look into the distance.  I thought they could be worried about something in the near future.

Amy and David appear in the next scene, dancing at a low level, alongside Laura and Dave. I loved how Amy and David find different ways to roll over each other. I thought all the dancers show subtle strength. This is a contrast to Chris’s powerful solo. I saw the subtle strength particularly in Dave, when he is controlling the wheelchair; he has to make sure he has enough resistance, so that it doesn’t make him topple over, as he brings it back towards him.

I also saw subtle strength in Laura, when she and Amy are in close proximity to each other. I thought it might be hard for Laura to stay balanced in an upright position for a long period of time, but she makes it look effortless and easy. Some people will see that Laura supports Amy when she goes over David; I think this is another example of how strong Laura is.

A highlight for me is when Dave is being lifted on David’s feet. I thought that this looks likes Dave is flying, because of how spread out his arms are.  In my opinion, I thought this showed that you can achieve things with support that other people would think is impossible. I thought that this was a very powerful message, which they portray beautifully. Some people might interpret Dave’s flying as a message of freedom and hope for the future. I wouldn’t want to be in Dave’s place, as I would be very anxious about being that high up and, personally, I do not like the idea of flying.

Whilst Dave is flying, Amy and Laura lean slightly backwards; I thought that this showed that they seem to be content and relaxed. I interpreted this as them thinking that this is how society should be, that people can achieve anything, and that this should be accepted as a norm.

Overall, I think this quartet portray a powerful and uplifting message beautifully.

The Family Portrait is the first time we see all five dancers together; we also see Laura in her complete wheelchair for the first time.  The Family Portrait is a different scene, that has a different feel, as the dancers pause for four different portraits; I liked the stillness. I found it interesting that none of the dancers were smiling. This reminded me of the Victorian times, when it was seen as normal not to smile for photographs. I particularly noticed Laura, who portrayed this really well, as she looks into the distance.

In the music, I heard voices starting to appear: I thought the voices were an indication of what is to come. I thought it leads into the next scene beautifully.

In the final scene, there is a spike of energy and excitement, which is a contrast to the rest of ‘Artificial Things’. They are dancing in a different part of the shopping centre, which is more spacious. I think the space made it a lot easier for dancers to move in a more energetic way and not bump into each other.

Amy and Laura’s facial expression made me think that they were at a party and having a lot of fun.  I was very impressed that they manage to keep this up throughout the whole scene. Another thing that gives an impression of a party is the music, as it has an uplifting party vibe.

In the final section, I thought they are incredibly synchronised. I saw this particularly in the section where they all have to translate Laura’s moves.

Laura, who is in a wheelchair, was asked to create a phrase to suit her body. Then the other dancers had to adapt this for their bodies. This is unusual to see, as wheelchair dancers are often the ones who have to translate the movements of able-bodied dancers but, in this section, the roles were reversed.

When I read the blog (, I learnt that this section was given the name chicken phrase. Why it got that name is because Laura’s neck pulls her forwards as she speeds across the floor. The first time the other dancers did this, they all looked like chickens. Another thing that made this phrase a bit more complicated, is that Laura takes advantage of the momentum the chair gives her, so she covers more of the space than the other dancers. I was impressed with their stamina; I know the standing dancers found this hard at first, because the movements weren’t natural for them.  I wonder if you will be able to spot the chicken phrase section.

This final, party scene was my favourite out of all the ‘Artificial Things’ scenes. I think that this is because I like doing fast dances. I found it inspired me and engaged me the most, as I love seeing how other dancer’s dance in a controlled and fast way. It made me want to get up and dance with them!

I liked how Chris and David both lift Amy in a similar way. I admired how strong Amy is in her core, to be able to have looked relaxed when she is being lifted. Chris and David must be very strong in their arms to be able to lift Amy, which I also admired. I wouldn’t want to be in Amy’s position, as I do not like the idea of being turned upside down and not being in control of what my body is doing!

In this final scene, we see a calm and relaxed Chris, which is a contrast to his powerful solo at the beginning. I thought he is a lot freer and isn’t at all controlling. I liked how he uses the pillar at one point. I thought this shows that he looks unsure of himself, but this doesn’t last long. He only appears controlling at the end, when he shoos the other dancers out of the shopping centre.

The film ends with an empty space, just like it was at the beginning, but the jazzy, party music continues. I felt sad that the dance had come to an end, but I felt the music showed a hope for the future. The stillness and emptiness is a contrast to the energy of the final scene, that works well. I thought that this is a beautiful end to such an inspiring piece.

When Stopgap Artistic Director and choreographer Lucy was asked why she called it ‘Artificial Things’, she said that the title came first and that she thought “about putting real people in an artificial world”. Lucy also said she believed that “we could fake our authenticity as we are performers”; I thought Chris’s solo is a brilliant example of how he could ‘fake his authenticity’ as a dancer and a performer, as he isn’t a dictator in real life, but was able to portray a dictator accurately.

It was a different piece for me to watch as it didn’t have a narrative, but I really enjoyed watching it. I liked the contrast of all the different scenes. I think all the dancers collaborated well, which meant that it was enjoyable to watch.

If you like contemporary dance or are just discovering what contemporary dance is about, then I would recommend ‘Artificial Things’ to you.

If you like seeing how dancing can include a variety of performers, then I would definitely recommend ‘Artificial Things’ to you.

If you would like to be inspired to create a disabled and able-bodied collaborative dance performance or production, just like Stopgap did, then I would certainly recommend ‘Artificial Things’ to you.

If you are disappointed that you can’t attend dance performances in person at the moment and are looking for a form of escapism, then I would definitely recommend ‘Artificial Things’ to you.