Rome fell. The Berlin Wall fell. Icarus fell from the sky and Madonna from the stage at the Brits. Night falls. We fall ill. We fall into traps, and in love; we fall out, and apart. Ruth Little writes: Our past and our present are beset with falling, and our lives end with what KT Tunstall calls the ‘unique fall’. The Second Law of Thermodynamics insists that everything in the universe is bound to move towards disorganisation, energetic spread, heat death and the dissipation of matter, energy, form, individuality and structure.



Everything falls: either quickly, by plunging, or slowly, through decline, and the negative implications of the verb dominate our metaphorical uses of it. Falling has long been synonymous with failing. The OE feallan meant to drop from a height, to fail, decay. Our aversion to our own mortality makes this identification inevitable. Look at the universe through the lens of the Second Law alone, and you could be forgiven for falling into despair.


But wait! We’re not dead yet. The Second Law may hold true in general, but on earth at least (and perhaps on Comet 67P), the downward trend has been delayed for billions of years by an opposing tendency. Physics is often considered the fundamental science – the bedrock of our understanding and prediction of how the world and everything it derives from works. But classical physics alone could not explain the phenomenon which made the classical physicist himself possible – life. Life is the universe’s wild card, the joker which seems to thumb its nose at the Second Law. Life (and perhaps some non-living systems too) grabs energy from its surroundings (ie, the sun) and uses it, for a time, to create form and complexity.[2] It thrashes upstream against the entropic current to produce all things that grow and reproduce, that unfold, mutate and change, that rise before they fall. Life refills the cup that despair and the Second Law have emptied, and its tendency is upward, towards the sun. We cheer up, we feel up, we get up and go. Life presses pause on the inevitability of death, and while it does, we should be upstanding.

Free fall


In 2013, during a Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey circus performance in Rhode Island, a technical error sent 8 female performers hanging by their hair plummeting 40 feet onto the performers beneath them. In an article in the Guardian about the incident, novelist Emma Donoghue describes overhead acrobatics as ‘dance freed from the earth’.[3] Well, not exactly, as it turned out. But Donoghue argued that circus acts like this restore the ‘dignity’ to danger, and it’s an important point. As we seek to manage risk out of our lives and spontaneity is overwhelmed by health and safety dictates, do we have a correspondingly growing desire to step off the edge? In an exploration of danger and performance in circus and sideshow at the ‘Fabulous Risk Conference’ (2006), Peta Tait argued that ‘more than ever, we need the bodily freedoms promised by circus artistry—to defy, to fly, to fall.’ She pointed out that the vitality of new circus is both a physical and a social reaction to the deadening impulse of pervasive risk management culture.[4] When Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974, he didn’t break his neck, but he knowingly broke the law.[5] Sergeant Charles Daniels of the Port Authority Police described him, however, not as a criminal, but as a tightrope ‘dancer’, ‘because you couldn’t call him a walker.’ Petit agreed: ‘During the walks I had a sense of dancing on top of the world…’

Philippe Petit, 1974.

Petit was dancing because he was both fully present in his unpredictable context, and fully aware of the capacities and vulnerabilities of his trained and expressive body. In the Twin Towers walk he harnessed craft and talent to the unrepeatable moment in which the risk of falling was the shadow that charged the choreographic act. Petit had a ‘sense’ of dancing which came from the felt understanding of his skill and capacity. On the wire, he belonged to his context – the gusting wind, the dynamic line beneath his feet, and the open sky above. He felt himself to be at home, not at risk. It was the watchers who feared his falling, who fell on his behalf. If life pushes uphill against death, then the controlled risk of free fall is a memento mori – a reminder that the difference between life and death is as vast as the distance between them is minute.

I’m interested in Petit’s gesture not so much for its unrepeatable virtuosity as for his relationship to falling. In Petit’s world, falling is not an option, though it always remains a possibility.  High wire walker Nik Wallenda prayed his way across the Grand Canyon in 2013; a strong line of faith presumably keeping him from free fall: ‘Lord, help this cable to calm down.’[6] Traditional circus arts, wherever they’re practised, create a loop of skill and thrill – they thrive on latency and the potential for falling/failing which should never be realised, as it was in the Ringling Brothers performance.

Yet what if falling is an option, or even a necessity? I’m not talking about plunging – the virtuosic falling of men like Felix Baumgartner and Alan Eustace, who felt compelled to break the sound barrier in stratospheric free fall. Surely there are other ways to think about falling than doing it in extremity, emblazoned with corporate logos. Most of us inhabit all our lives that narrow band which extends around 8 feet from the earth’s surface. In it we learn to crawl and stand, to walk, balance, leap, to make love, and, eventually, we lie down in it and don’t get up again. That last ‘fall’ seems to me not so much an alienation from the living earth, but a kind of homecoming, and it’s one we might both delay (as life itself delays thermodynamic equilibrium) and one we might prepare for more productively, with greater vitality, by learning to think of and encompass falling as dancers do – within a choreographic process of curiosity, control and embrace.

Rethinking falling: what new movement is possible in the body?


In the 21st century our own bodies have come to be seen as a place where social and political issues of control and agency are played out with growing intensity. Siobhan Davies has said, in response, that contemporary choreography may be seen as a resource for action, because it describes life lived in terms of non-virtuosic movement, in a state of awareness and attention, and that the ‘choreographic thought’ can be held in the body and transferred to other bodies. Could choreographic thought turned and tuned to the meaning and feeling of falling become a social ‘movement’ against the fear of failing/falling; an intergenerational and honest reskilling of the vulnerable but intelligent and resilient body?

‘Fail again’, wrote Samuel Beckett. ‘Fail better.’ Falling/failing as art involves the art of falling, and the art of falling is both an expansion of our relationship with gravity and a contraction of our relationship with time. It exists in the physical world of shock and consequence, but also challenges us – all of us – to think about the body as articulate. The only way to become intimate with a practice or idea is to embody it. Fall we must, so fall we should, only more thoughtfully, and better, whether mentally or physically. Circus arts, contemporary dance, tumbling and martial arts, along with parkour and free running, recognise and prepare for the fall, fail or bail choices in extreme movement, but in doing so they explore and express philosophies of movement that are based in ordinary human experience, and may have value for us all throughout our lives. The parkour mantra ‘être et durer‘ (to be and to last) gives an indication of how falling might be integrated with life over time. Parkour developed in suburban contexts as a means of encompassing and overcoming obstacles, both physical (walls, street furniture, the spaces between things) and social (class discrimination, economic exclusion). Parkour is a whole-body activity – a way of knowing and releasing natural capacities to develop a syntax of movement – new forms of articulation and therefore of freedom.

Jade Shaw’s Parkour Dance company in London combines parkour’s approach to overcoming physical, social and emotional obstacles with Davies’ notion of the ‘choreographic thought’ as a transferable embodied idea. Parkour Dance works across age groups to build skill and confidence in individual movement, allowing each practitioner to develop a personal and idiomatic ‘path’ not only around and over physical obstacles, but through mental ones too. In their work with older and vulnerable young people, the company aims to amplify body awareness and self-expression, qualities which support both navigation and negotiation of impediments throughout life. Shaw’s oldest parkour student is George Jackson, aged 85. Jackson says the classes have helped him to ‘walk straight…but I still don’t plan to jump off anything higher than a bench.’ Studies have shown that older people respond to the idea of healthy, independent living more than to messages about preventing falls. They gain more, in other words, from campaigns to encourage mobility and balance training in different contexts than from those that focus on the negative consequences of falling.

Those consequences are real, however. Performer Claire Cunningham, whose Give Me A Reason to Live forms part of Dance Umbrella’s 2015 festival, points to the conclusion of US academic Carrie Sandahl that the floor is for some disabled performers and audiences a ‘place of shame’, both as a legacy of the disparaging or pitying (downward) cultural representation of disability and, more literally and precisely, as a place of potential danger and difficulty. Blogger Eliza Chandler describes the shame of falling in public places as a result of ‘out of control’ body movements associated with cerebral palsy, and adds that the shame itself ‘may affect how I move, as I slowly lift myself from the sidewalk.’[8] Chandler argues that identity, and pride (which she sees as an actual, motive force), lie for her in ‘intimate knowledge of and familiarity with the complexities of our embodiment’. Pride is not a denial of the possibility of shame/falling, but an embrace of contradiction and a form of resistance to the deficit model of disability. Chandler tries to avoid the physical fall, but she invites the metaphorical fall – that vertical dimension between herself and the spectator in her performance work, in which the shame of falling and the risk falling (with its possibility of voyeuristic thrill) becomes the responsibility of the audience too.

In Give Me A Reason to Live, Cunningham responds to the work of painter Hieronymus Bosch with a series of personal physical ‘tests’ which activate emotional responses in the audience on the spectrum of ‘sympathy, empathy and apathy.’ This, in the artist’s words, is the ‘unstable ground’ on which disabled people have historically been placed at the whim of others. In Bosch’s work, beggars are commonly depicted as disabled. The image of the disabled beggar is emblematic of deficit: it reflects neither the embodied experience of poverty nor of disability, but projects an able-bodied notion of assistance (downward dispensation) into the social and moral realm. Like Claire’s own crutches, it suggests that the ‘debilitated’ need support because their agency in the world is compromised. But Give Me A Reason to Live, like the ironic plea of its title, doesn’t go cap in hand to its audience. It goes, instead, right into our often-averted faces, and at the same time to the edge of the artist’s own capacity, extending the body and creating new form and movement through her intimate relationship with her crutches: ‘By working in dance, my perspectives were shifted and altered so dramatically to find that there were possibilities actually because my body is the way that it is, and because it’s used crutches and it’s evolved in such an intricate way that it offers far more opportunity for me than if I wasn’t disabled.’[9] Just as disabled people have until recently been primarily represented by others, so Cunningham has described her relationship with dance as moving from the proposition/representation of ideas to their full and embodied exploration. Though she describes her ‘natural’ expressive form as the singing voice (she is a trained classical singer), dance has given her a new voice and at the same time she has offered contemporary dance a truly radical new vocabulary around the suspended fall, the union of body and object, and the honesty of non-virtuosic effort. Cunningham expresses what her body knows, without embellishment, producing new forms of subjectivity, agency and articulation.

In his recent work Douglas, choreographer Robbie Synge creates a shambolic, pedestrian form of falling circus out of his own body and a collection of domestic objects. These are used as weights to produce fragile forms of balance and suspension. But Synge then deliberately destroys what equilibrium exists, and is repeatedly toppled by the falling objects. He ropes himself to a chair and swings it in horizontal orbit around his body until the rope winds in and the chair collides violently with his legs. Propelled by a 6-foot tall roll of vinyl, he falls headlong into a stack of chairs. A tiny shift in conditions leads to a big and unpredictable difference in outcome – the piece widens and becomes more chaotic and exhausting as it goes. It’s messy and ungainly; there’s a constant risk of injury, discomfort and pain. Douglas is a heightened, exaggerated exploration of the body in contact with the material world, and it’s deeply moving.

Robbie Synge, Douglas. Photo: Sara Teresa


Synge falls unprotected, but not unprepared. The work is based on a process of experiment with objects as vessels of weight or volume, as agents in their own right and catalysts of ‘tactile pursuits.’ ‘How do they move me?’ he asks. How do they express their matter, their energy, their force? In his interactions with objects, Synge discovers a ‘narrative of learning’ in which his manipulation of an object (and its manipulation of him) produces new skill – he learns to run on the roll of vinyl, to balance a precarious pyramid of chairs on one leg using a parkan light attached to a rope. ‘I’ve learned to go with it and just accept the alchemy of what happens. I have to accept the agency of objects.’ This collaboration with the non-human world is akin to parkour’s approach to urban geographies. Both draw on the martial arts practice of umami – the art of falling: Synge too is a trained martial artist.

‘I try to create some sort of circumstance in the theatre where objects come to life…the way something falls over can vary enormously, and there’s only so much I can control. The objects take on some kind of responsibility or ownership of the environment. There’s an alchemy of environmental circumstances and placement. This is all about gravity, about the creation of potential energy. A fall can be amusing or not, depending on what happens before or after it.  There’s an ecology in the piece, and light, heat, materials and movement all affect one another. When something potential becomes kinetic the energy’s always going to dissipate. So there’s something slightly hopeless about it. The actions don’t achieve actual goals, but it nourishes me somehow.’

Falling better

Choreography, with its embrace of gravity and imbalance, is a plan for action in an asymmetrical and unpredictable world. Different bodies, capacities and contexts produce different mobilities. As Michael Klien points out, dance itself is ‘full of non-committed potential for change: a flexible and non-determined condition.’[10]

If gravity and entropy are the phenomena that will eventually bring us down to earth, then perhaps falling better can help us to see them, as parkour practitioners see obstacles, in a different light. Perhaps we can work with them, put our bodies in the way of them in order to learn new skills, new confidence, new adaptability. Age, physical capacity and the changing terrain of life may limit certain mobilities, but they also offer opportunities – and the motivation – to develop life craft and new ways of thinking, moving and communicating.

I Have a History of Falling
for beauty. Once, climbing stone steps out
of a cavern, I couldn’t help but gaze
at sun reflected off river, and down I went.

When cathedral bells lured me to count
spires, and I fell face forward in gravel,
my nose unspooled blood onto my coat.

Carrying one last river rock to complete my garden,
I glanced at purple sage lush with bees, and slid
on the wet slope—ankle, fibula and tibia broke.

But today, only stunned knees beneath snow-melt
on a bare branch. And who witnessed my blunder
on black ice? Only the naked elm.

(Karen George)[11]

© Ruth Little, 2015


[1] WH Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (NY: Knopf, 1991, 401)

[2] In order to live without actually violating the Second Law, a living system has to keep its entropy (the extent of its energy dispersal) low by taking in energy (to produce the complex forms of life) and releasing even greater entropy into its surroundings.

[5] In response to his crime of trespass, and to his instant folk hero status, Petit was sentenced to perform before a group of children in Central Park.

[7] ‘Older Persons’ Perception of Risk of Falling: Implications for Fall-Prevention Campaign’ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2376900/

[10] Michael Klien, Steve Falk, Jeffrey Gormly, book of recommendations: choreography as an aesthetics of change http://www.michaelklien.com/resource/download/book-of-recommendations.pdf, p. 28