Paul Michael Henry's “Shrimp Dance.” Photograph by Jamie Wardrop

Paul Michael Henry talks Shrimp Dance

To watch Paul Michael Henry dance is to experience something that exists in a liminal space. He creates primordial work which is nonetheless rooted in the issues of our time. So it is with “Shrimp Dance,” a unique, mesmerising piece which interrogates the depletion of the shrimp population and the wider implications for our ecosystem, using Butoh performance, live music and multimedia.

Lorna Irvine interviewed Michael about the project, asking how dance can explore such themes and create a discourse, and where it’s headed next.

What was the original jumping-off point for “Shrimp Dance”?

Around 2013, I came across an article with this research by Dr. Alex Ford, looking at the effects of anti-depressants upon a particular species of shrimp. He’s down at Portsmouth Uni, so somewhere down in the coastal waters he was experimenting with a phenomenon that already exists, which is certain levels of anti-depressants arriving in the coastal waters through human sewage, so he obviously did that in laboratory conditions just to see what might be happening in the ocean. The bare outline of the results was that the shrimp should stay in the shadows for safety. It was fluoxytin he was experimenting with, which is the active ingredient in Prozac, but I think that he could have used any. As the levels increased, the more the shrimp swam upwards into the light, which sounds poetic, but then they are likely to be eaten by seagulls or other birds. As far as science says, the volume of humans taking anti-depressants—it’s a scale thing—millions of people taking it, makes the concentration in the water large enough to have an effect on the shrimp. 

I don’t know what Alex’s motivation for doing this was, but I couldn’t let go of it. It just seemed to unspool layers of meaning, the more I thought about it, particularly with regard to the atomisation of everything, of consumer culture and mental health in particular—the idea that if one person is depressed, the personal model would be to look into their thinking style, maybe their upbringing, parenting and caregiving and all that stuff, and look for the reason for the depression there. Obviously, these are big factors, but at the point when you’ve got tens of millions of people, how many would it take to say, there is a structural problem and look at society.There’s something that’s not enabling happy healthy lives.

He’s done an experiment using test tubes, half dark, half clear and with bright lights. 

This tiny little critter is an example of the exploding that idea of split between mind and matter, and arguably it’s reminiscent of Christianity, and the whole history of Western civilisation that we’ve divorced what happens inside us from what happens outside of us, based on nothing other than a philosophical mistake. If the truth of existence is it’s more about entanglement and inter-dependence, a lot of our sovereign self-sufficiency on which our culture rests, then it’s just it’s untenable, just not true, nobody has ever existed in a vacuum. I just loved that an experiment could explain, or expose, much larger things in our capitalist society with a mental health epidemic, multiple cascading ecological crises. These are some themes I dig away at in my work. It involves everything—it’s scientific, psychological, spiritual, it’s too much—it’s the ‘too much-ness’ of it—you need to take examples. Start small, with something concrete. It’s scientific materialism, it’s proven, Alex’s work proves it.

Paul Michael Henry’s “Shrimp Dance.” Photograph by Jamie Wardrop

Empirical evidence, yes.

Exactly. It’s not just hippy mysticism, it doesn’t fly in the face of scientific empirical facts, it goes in tandem with something verifiable.I like the idea of taking that and adding layers of poetry and imagery. I contacted Alex and he liked that an artist had gone with his work, and we collaborated. He’s done more experiments lately with caffeine, and in other waters recently. The reason for making dance about this, is that it’s embodied. It’s not just happening elsewhere, it’s happening in the body, we’re all involved in this.

How has the piece developed? Because it’s changed a lot since the original iteration, hasn’t it?

I did it in 2013 in Exeter, it was a solo piece at that point. I had composed music, but I wanted back up, musician Jer Reid does a lot of live stuff and triggers a lot of sounds. It remains semi-improvisational in structure. There are moments that are quite violent and sudden, and we don’t know who’ll collapse first, and we feed off each other. That’s been lovely to have a live musician. Also, we have Jamie Wardrop who’s a great friend, amazing visual artist and VJ, don’t know if that’s the right term anymore, he’s got banks of pre-created visuals, film shoots that we did before, outdoors, swimming pools, and leaves, twigs and branches, materials on the tables in front of him. There’s a lot about scale, both micro and macro. We’d love to tour it, as we feel we haven’t quite nailed it, yet. We’re also filming it at Dance Base [Edinburgh].

Paul Michael Henry’s “Shrimp Dance” at Platform, Glasgow October 2017. Photograph courtesy of the artist

Obviously, Butoh is also a vital component. How does that feed into it?

Butoh for me is to actually become something else, as fully as you possibly can, to launch yourself into something impossible, become the ocean, become the earth, or whatever it might be. And there’s a logical impossibility there, in terms of the set structures of the human form, but by assuming that you can do that and just going, “I’m going to become the tides now,” something magical happens for me and the body transforms through the imagination, the two transform together, and that for me, the dance of darkness thing might indicate the unconscious, it might indicate repressed material, it can do—but for me, it’s also about the evolutionary inheritance of the human body, and the fact that it is connected to everything else—other beings are not as foreign to us as we think. 

That, to even sit with a tree, or a stream, your body knows what that is, and if you short circuit the rationalising, and just launch into it with your imagination, and distribute your imagination throughout your whole form and beyond, then dance starts happening, or is already happening, but you tune into how it’s happening, and you start being able to shift it. And that, for me, is what Butoh is, that ability to transform into yourself, to become other, and come back again, richer than you were before.

Plus, it’s about the effect on the audience as well. Your heartbeat can synch/ become attuned to the performer . . .

Yeah, I’ve found that, what’s the phrase, kinaesthetic empathy, and the mirror neurons in the brain, when the audience is witnessing something, even without externally moving very much, they somehow do it themselves, internally. The reason anyone would go and see a dance piece, or get into dance, is it’s embodied experientially. You know that if you get quiet enough with an audience member and hopefully open yourself to what’s happening on the stage, and if the performance gets it right, echoes start happening in your own body, and it’s not linguistic or particularly rational—but you transform an audience member yourself, hopefully. The dancer’s job is to try to reach across that gap and enable that for as many audience members as possible.

Paul Michael Henry’s “Shrimp Dance” will be presented at Dance Base, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 4-15, 2022. Tickets available here.

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