ON STAGE | with Irene Cioni
DANCE THEATRE - During a busy year full of work commitments, and in the middle of a theatre project I had passionately worked on for two years – performing, creating and producing with a long-term colleague and friend – I fall pregnant. My show is offered a great opportunity in Rome during the season when I will be a new mum. I am 33 years old.
Tell us about you. where were you born? what you do? where do you work and live?
I was born in Florence and I moved to London in 2008, where I currently live and work. I work as a performer and choreographer, I freelance for other companies in London and abroad, and I make my own work as well.
When did you start thinking ‘I am ready to be a mum’?
I had been in a relationship for many years, yet I put off being a mother for several years because I believed it didn’t suit my situation as a dancer: I travel a lot and I use my body as work. When I am out of work I either look for work (auditions/applications/ training) or make my own work. It is never a good moment to even think of having a baby.
My partner made me realise that it would always be the 'wrong' time and, to really answer the question, age was the strongest motivation to open myself to the idea of building a family.
There are no role models or public discussion about how possible it is to be a mother and a dancer, no information on the Internet. The whole thing is very silent. On my path I had met two important dance teachers who were mothers: Angela Bandinelli, a doctor of the history of science and a choreographer, and Laura Simi, a dancer and choreographer and artistic director of Silenda company. So I knew it was possible. However, I was clueless about how they did it. But I was going to find out for myself.
When I got pregnant I felt a responsibility towards the work I had committed to and didn’t want to let it go. I also thought it was important for the future of my career. But I was having the most important and amazing experience of my life with my husband: we were getting ready for welcoming a child in our lives, which is a wonderful commitment in itself. I was happy and felt a bit lost at the same time.
How long did you work for during your pregnancy and after how long did you start to work again?
I decided to work until I could. I performed until I was 3 months pregnant and I would have extended that until 5 months but a tour was cancelled so I didn’t have that experience. I carried on working as a model for maternity clothes designers until I was about 8 months. I taught until about 6 months.
'Witch Dance' - I was about 4 month pregnant
Clothes Fittings for Maternity Wear - I was about 8 months pregnant
And how much control did you have over when you stopped working and started again? Did you get maternity pay?
In the UK you can claim maternity allowance if you work freelance on the condition you work 26 weeks in a row prior to your claim. You get £500 a month for 9 months. You also get child benefit, £20 a week, if you apply for it. Everyone gets it for the first two children until they are 16 years old. It wasn’t great but it was something.
In most industries, this financial arrangement helps make the decision about how long to be off work. In show business you just work when there is work or when you can schedule your work… As a freelance artist, I didn’t have much control over when and how to take a break..
did you have plans in place for your return to work?
I decided to confirm a week of shows and workshops in Rome 3 months after my first child was due. That meant starting to gently train 5 weeks after giving birth, to prepare for a very physical performance – a duo with live music. No text, no projections, no special effects, just two bodies in the space. It was scary.
With Insomnia on Tour in Rome after 12 week I gave birth
My husband had always been supportive and now he was going to take a few weeks off work to come with me on tour and be available for everything. It was his support in preparing for the birth and in the postnatal period that made me think I could do the work.
I had a good feeling about my working partner. She was positive I could do it and welcomed changes to the piece – fewer lifts or transitions that would be too hard for my new body. That made me feel more confident, accepted and strong. It was very important.
I researched Pilates teachers available for personal training at home: too expensive. So I decided to arrange for my mum to come for a few weeks and help with my baby whilst I retrained my body. It worked out.
Pregnancy, birth and postnatal experience: training, shows and feelings.
My pregnancy was complicated. I had a few issues: strong nausea for 3 months, then I suffered from pelvic girdle pain pre- and post-birth: not pleasant. Also my hips kept on shifting slightly so I had to see a physio regularly, which wasn’t cheap.
However, I got to the birth alright and managed it well. The physio gave me exercises to do and she treated my back when it was painful. I actually had a wonderful experience giving birth at home.
Postnatal work was hard. Swimming and Pilates were the main activities, besides breastfeeding every 2 hours. It gave me just enough time to go to the pool and come back for the next feed. It was quite tiring.
I continued seeing the physio, who gave me exercises to do every day at home, and after almost 2 years I still do them. It was a bit costly but manageable.
The physio taught me how to strap myself with physio tape to keep my abs together because they were still separated at that early stage.
My feelings towards coming back to work were still the same. I was a bit scared of it all but I was very proud of myself. I had great support from my family, which made me feel invincible. My daughter was adorable and all was fine with her and me. Also, I knew there would be a long break after this challenge, so that until she was 8 or 9 months old I could just enjoy being a mum.
The rehearsals and shows had to be well planned and scheduled so that I could breastfeed every 2 hours. (I expressed milk at times for emergencies, but as breastfed babies often do not take to the bottle unless they are used to it, it wasn’t a good solution for us.) I found that once I made clear these priorities with colleagues, the experience was pleasant for everyone. Otherwise the atmosphere tends to become intolerable and feelings of guilt come to the surface.
It was different when I was on a longer tour and the baby was 8 months old. I found that time the most challenging because everyone expected me to be on top form, when in fact caring for an older child is more tiring.
I think that the postnatal period is very hard because everything is new: your body, your baby, your hormonal self. However, if all is well and the mum and baby are healthy, it is manageable – even with lack of sleep.
How much support did you have for combining motherhood with work? (From partners, parents, friends, collegues, society, government institutions etc.)
This is a big conversation. But what I can say is that I had great support from my family and friends. The government supports you only until your child is 6–9 months old, which isn’t long because children are still very small at that stage and need a one-to-one carer. If you look into coming back to work, there aren’t many solutions and the ones that are available can be very expensive.
In my experience, it was more complicated to work after 9 months than after 3. Children have started eating solid food, and it takes time to prepare food and feed them.Plus they still drink a lot of milk, so there was still breastfeeding to do. I still hadn’t slept a full night in months and tiredness added up.
I arranged for my cousin from Italy to come to live with us and come on tour with me, to help out. It was a great choice. My mother also came for the rest of the tour, she travelled with us to Manchester and London. It was all well organised and scheduled. It takes a lot of organisation and planning. Thinking and imagining how will it be according to your child’s routine, for example.
MY MUM ON TOUR WITH US
I felt under pressure because I couldn’t express to my colleagues how incredibly demanding it was to switch my brain between caring for my baby and being on stage, or how amazing it was that I was managing to keep doing good work on stage. At this stage, when the post natal hormones are still high, these were the main emotions I had to deal with.
Although the first 2 shows got off to a slow start, and I had very little sleep and a lot to do when I wasn’t working, the rest of the 3-week tour went really well.
Lately I had the pleasure to work with three theatre companies I didn't work with before: Made In China Theatre, Look Left Look Right and The Young Vic.
They were incredibly supportive and actually proposed to bring my daugther to rehearsal if needed to be. I was amazed about the openmindness.
If you feel you could have used more support/ less interfering, what would you have wanted?
Combining motherhood with work is a wild beast. At times it can be easy and at times a colossal challenge.
I think it would have helped me if more mothers working in the performing arts were well known. This might make mums who perform feel like less of a minority.
I would also like the industry to support mothers so that they could feel proud to be part of it.
Performer, Choreographer and Movement Director