A few years ago, I was speaking to my friend and colleague Keith Hennessy after he had attended a dance concert at the University where we were both teaching. I asked him how the work had been and he replied, “It was like they were all choreographing for a fictional body that none of them had.” This phrase struck me as a thoughtful analysis of a problem that runs throughout many aspects of society, and one that can be particularly strong in the practice of dance. Many of us are making choices about our bodies on the basis of an imagination of a body that we want to have or think we should have and not in relation to the bodies that we actually do have. At the same time many of us feel alienated from the bodies that we do have (the bodies that we are) because they do not meet certain societal ideals of what a body should be or do.
When I was a younger dancer I quickly learned that I shouldn’t get my heart set on any kind of career in ballet. For the standards of traditional classical dance, only certain body types need apply. I was pleased to find a world in modern dance where the boundaries were less narrow, where my bodily proportions and qualities did not preclude my participation. I joined the ranks of a post-Judson Church, post punk rock interdisciplinary dance company named Contraband where we all identified as misfits or refugees from straight white American normativity. The aesthetics of this world were more open. We didn’t need to point our toes and we could have dyed hair and tattoos. Somehow though the dancers in this milieu would still stop performing at 35.
In 1998 I was invited to France to help create a small nouveau cirque company, Cie Cahin-Caha, Cirque Batard. The French circus world opened a whole new set of possibilities. The levels of virtuosic physical talent were astounding. I met people that could do things I had never even thought of doing; beautiful young boys and girls in the prime of their physical prowess with the full support of the French government, literally flying through the air with the greatest of ease. In the midst of these perfect toned and talented bodies though, I noticed many not-so-normal bodies; bodies that could do spectacular things precisely because they were too bendy, or had a big belly, or an extra thick neck or very short legs. These performers often reveled in their physical differences because the range of sizes and shapes that they embodied created the variety (varieté) in the shows that they made. This diversity of physicalities in the circus also creates a space for performers to remain active longer and later in their lives, evolving new performance possibilities as they age and their bodies change. The danger of not meeting expectations was still there though. More than one tiny voltigeuse acrobat I know has been abusively terrorized by her porteur partner for gaining 2 kilos over Christmas.
Toward the end of my French circus adventure I was invited to give a workshop in aerial dance for a physically inclusive dance company. Rachel Freeman, the director, had seen some of the aerial work that I had been part of in Cie Cahin-Caha’s production, raWdoG, and wondered if our work with ropes and harnesses could be taught to people with mobility impairments. This led to my facilitating a number of events In Europe and America involving the use of Contact Improvisation, Performance and Aerial Dance as teaching tools for persons with physical disabilities and mobility impairments. I found that working with bodies that are visibly other than ‘normal’ started to reframe my entire sense of what is beautiful. Peeling back my expectations of normalcy I was able to appreciate a broader diversity of possible expression of the human body. These teaching experiences created extremely interesting elements for the making of theatrical work. For my next project I invited Claire Cunningham and Kaz Langley, two amazing performers with disabilities, to work with other artists who had more traditionally recognized abilities and examined the relation between virtuosity, ability and dis-ability. Out of these questions came Gravity’s award-winning work, Under the Radar, and an ensemble of talented performer-collaborators who make up the core of the work you are here to see tonight, Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies.
At a certain point in this process I had to ask myself what I had at stake in all this. My own issues around physical diversity may not be so apparent. I still fall pretty squarely within the ranks of what some disability activists call the ‘Temporarily-Able-Bodied,’ or TABs, but as this slightly discomforting label points out, time eventually takes its toll on all of us. Our abilities, inabilities, and dis-abilities are constantly changing. My body does not do what it once did. When the youthful vigor of the body is waning, is it possible that my body has something else to offer in this performative exchange we are in?
Theories of the body and the body as the site of our consciousness abound. Our embodiment, our in-the-world-ness is the very stuff from which we make meaning on a daily basis. The importance of our bodies as experience and how bodies are used to give or deny us access to the world cannot be over stated, whether it is a matter of what color my skin is, what kind of genitalia I have, or whether I move through space with the assistance of wheels or by my feet alone. How we imagine our own, or other’s bodies to be, and how we experience the potential of what they could be, shapes nearly all of our relations. I hope that whichever part of this project you are seeing, the installation, the show, or the panel discussion, there is something transmitted from the diversity of our bodies (both the fictional and non-fictional ones) that moves, speaks to, or inspires your body to imagine itself more richly.