Making Gestures: A Conversation about Dance, Bodies, Space, and Anti-Ableism


LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Farah, Adrienne, you are both choreographers; I thought that it could be interesting to initiate this epistolary dialogue around questions that intervenes through your work (with varying degrees of expliciteness); thank you for having accepted to participate to it. We may say that your working matter are the bodies in movement. This means that, whether you want it or not, your work is necessarily engulfed by the various political forces that, for most of them, essentialize bodies and, for a few of them, attempt to resist such an essentialization. Before we even talk in the specificity of each of your two performances, could you tell us how you address these forces more generally in your work?

FARAH SALEH: In the past few years I have been busy creating a Palestinian Archive of Gestures by unearthing hidden stories of the Palestinian narrative using the body as the main source and form. I deal with different political bodies in my work: the bodies of individuals in the stories I attempt to uncover, the bodies of the performers and the bodies of the audience. I explore the gestures in the original stories and try to reenact, transform and deform them with my body and the bodies of the other performers, but most importantly with the bodies of the audience as a way to disseminate the gestural archive and allow it to become exterior to more people.

The bodies of individuals in the alternative stories unearthed are bodies under Israeli military occupation or living in the Palestinian diaspora and in constant confrontation with their reality. The bodies of the performers act as a living archive, carrying all the political gestures uncovered as a form of self-historization, questioning who creates and owns an archive and ways of delinking from the colonial narrative. Through participatory performance, where the audience is asked to embody the gestures archived, the bodies of the audience become an extension of the living physical archive.

To relate my long-term research on the archive of gestures to “Brexit means Brexit!” I moved to Edinburgh two years ago, just a few weeks after the Brexit vote and I felt right away the physical, psychological, social and political tensions of it. As a Palestinian holding an E.U. nationality, I felt targeted by the vote, so as many other non-U.K. citizens. I felt it was a vote again “the other.” I started researching with Professor Victoria Tischler the mental health of U.K. residents and felt the urge to archive the Brexit gestures, unearthing alternative narratives than those repeatedly shown in the media and exclusively recounted by politicians.

ADRIENNE HART: I’ve found myself gravitate towards collaborators outside my own discipline that offer a disruption of some kind. A moving body dealing with the addition of, say, extended arms (fashion artist Ana Rajcevic for the production “Empathy”) or an uneven surface (architecture collective Numen / For Use in “Puzzle Creature”) must reconfigure itself. The “flow” of movement is broken and new possibilities emerge. I create obstacles in an attempt to free myself and the highly skilled dance artists I work with from habitual actions. I might enjoy indulging in and making reference to these in-built “desires,” however I also want to be aware of them as I make and work with bodies in movement.

Disruptions can jolt me out of any comforting cove I may have found and support my being more conscious of what is inscribed in me. I think there is a tendency to celebrate a “choreographic style” in the world of dance, which is often wrapped up in identity alongside the forming of some kind of codified and therefore also unified way of moving. I acknowledge this can be extremely seductive, however I try to resist inviting performers to mirror or embody my habits. Influenced by the work of Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, I’m increasingly interested in placing audiences in and part of my work, creating situations in which perception and action have the possibility to shift.

The role of alterity or otherness in my work extends beyond the body, I might ask of an audience to shift from watching to listening; engage with performers who might be dancers, musicians, light or even trapped pockets of air! I’m interested in what the commonality and key differences are between our senses and as I navigate a new work with Helen Keller in mind, I am reminded of how normalized touch is in the dance studio and how otherworldly it can appear when placed in different contexts. I feel well equipped to set up the conditions for bodies to shift in the mind of my audience, and take on many shapes and narratives through deliberate cognitive play.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: This issue is entitled “The Space of Ableism.” Although, to my knowledge, neither of you use explicitly this notion in the context of your work, I believe that you each have at least one performance that fundamentally challenges this normative violence. Adrienne, in “Puzzled Creatures” you pay homage to the lifework of Arakawa and Madeline Gins, evoked many times in The Funambulist. And Farah, in “Brexit Means Brexit,” you address mental health and worked with a dancer who performs with two crutches. Could you please both describe these performances and their potential effect on our understanding of “what a body is and can do?”

Hart Funambulist (3)
Dance artist Mariko Kida rehearsing “Puzzle Creature” by Neon Dance (Adrienne Hart). / Photograph by Miles Hart (2018).

ADRIENNE HART: “Puzzle Creature” is a multi-disciplinary dance work inspired by the death-eluding work of Arakawa and Gins. Arakawa formerly an abstract painter, and Gins a poet, formed a personal and artistic partnership that spanned over four decades. As artist/architects Arakawa and Gins spent their careers “nurturing the metaphysics of what it means to be a body in space”; declaring a war on mortality, they believed if we remake our physical environment we can remap our minds and discover that dying itself is defunct. I first discovered Arakawa and Gins via The Funambulist so my initial encounter offered up a spinozist reading that still resonates with me to this day. I fondly remember listening to Momoyo Homma (Director, Arakawa and Gins Tokyo Office) describing the architecture of the “Reversible Destiny Lofts in Mitaka – In Memory of Helen Keller,” then having the opportunity to visit both the lofts and “The Site of Reversible Destiny – Yoro Park.” What struck me when I first had the chance to stay in the Reversible Destiny Lofts is just how much joy a constructed space can ignite in the body when it has non-normative bodies in mind. I reflected back on my own practice and two things became apparent, I wanted to create a work where audiences were in and part of it and I also wanted to create an environment in which the figure of Helen Keller could thrive and creatively flourish.

Puzzle Creature has been informed by test audiences offering feedback at key stages in the creation process. Test members include visually impaired and blind organisation Brizzle Connect and the London based deaf artist adviser Deepa Shastri. I’m still very much in the making process however my aim is to respond to Arakawa and Gins’ body of work whilst reflecting on different lived realities. Archival audio of both Arakawa and Gins is featured in the score, which has been created for eight speakers by composer Sebastian Reynolds. British Sign Language / Japanese Sign Language and audio description have all been woven into the creation process. Conversations that have come out of our test events really have colored and shaped the work.

For instance, Jeff Daniels, a visually-impaired test audience member said, “With my back to the window sitting cross legged on the floor I was able to follow the dance movement and sound and vibration. The premordial sound and the slow metamorphic de-skinning of the artefacts gave a sense of letting go of the past, casting away old baggage, possibly death and re-incarnation, though it did feel more like going forward without restraint.” The work continues my interest and perhaps in a small way can contribute to the social discourse on architecture and its relationship to the bodies that occupy these spaces.

Saleh Funambulist (1)
“Brexit means Brexit!” by Farah Saleh. Premiere at Siobhan Davies Studios in London in March 2018. / Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

FARAH SALEH: “Brexit means Brexit!” is a piece commissioned by P/S Y for Hysteria Festival in London. In it, I am investigating the collective mental health of the residents in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote. I am exploring what led to that vote, but more importantly, what is happening right now: the fear, anger, polarization of the society, the explicit racism and even more in what will happen next. As a starting point I attempted to analyse the famous endlessly repeated phrase by Teresa May, “Brexit means Brexit!” What does that exactly mean? Where is the threshold between democracy, dictatorship and fear-led campaigns? What does Brexit entail on a personal level for the “remainers” and the “leavers”? How does that fear manifest itself, physically, emotionally and socially? More generally with the piece I am exploring nationalism and racism expanding all around the world and reflecting on ways of working together to build collective resilience.

During the research period with Professor Victoria Tischler, the head of Dementia Care Centre at the University of West London, we discussed how much the Brexit vote affected the U.K. population on psychological level, based on personal experience, testimonies, but also reports of high number of people asking for psychological support reporting being anxious and depressed and the counter discourse of politicians telling “remainers” that they are now in denial, but they will move to anger, and eventually they will accept the result, referring to Kubler Ross and Kessler’s theory on the five stages of grief. Therefore, we decided to work with these five stages, including the artists experience and experimenting on how would that translate physically.

The first research period of the performance was also in collaboration with Candoco Dance Company, which is a renowned company working with bodies that have different physical abilities. Tanja Erhart and Robert Hesp, the dancers, are part of Candoco and that’s how they joined the piece. Both Tanja and Robert brought their mental and physical response to Brexit, and the fact that Tanja uses crutches was not one of the topics of our research. This doesn’t mean that her body and its different abilities didn’t add an additional political meaning to the piece.

Also in “Brexit means Brexit!” the bodies of the audience are essential, as they are invited during the last part of the piece to the stage and are invited to do some actions that would open a dialogue within the group and would stimulate collective resilience through assembly.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: One of the main arguments of this issue is that we should refrain from the paradigm of “inclusiveness” and, rather, favor the dismantling of ableist logics. You both mentioned the relationship you are trying to develop with the audience composed, by definition, of a multitude of different bodies. One can see how thinking about this relationship through the prism of inclusiveness would quickly reach a limit: it’s not ‘simply’ about setting up some spaces accessible for people who use wheelchairs or having subtitles featured on a screen, it may be also about rethinking an entire normative framework we take for granted. Could you both tell us more precisely how you attempt to do so?

Hart Funambulist (1)
“Puzzle Creature” by Neon Dance (Adrienne Hart). / Photograph by Miles Hart (2018).

ADRIENNE HART: The one thing we all have in common is that we all have a body! From my point of view, inviting different bodies to engage with a making process allows for new perspectives and possibilities to emerge. It excites me to have inspiring people from hugely different backgrounds and disciplines working together. Part of the reason I choose to work with artists from different geographical locations and cultures (despite the visa headaches) is a genuine belief that by doing so, any idea offered up during a making process will be funnelled through this wonderfully rich and therefore rigorous collaborative process. My current project has lead to a heightened awareness of all that goes on in a body when you engage with a piece of art or architecture and how rewarding it can be when you’re offered a little nudge in a different sensorial direction. You have to reconfigure your thinking, which I think can be hugely beneficial to creativity. As Joseph Beuys said, “Let’s talk of a system that transforms all the social organisms into a work of art, in which the entire process of work is included […] something in which the principle of production and consumption takes on a form of quality.”

I don’t think a work has to become this untouchable perfect thing that exists in isolation, it’s in fact only made complete when encountered and experienced by other sensing bodies! The work exists live and in the moment; digested through each audience member to be made sense of and find meaning in. I can’t predict audience reactions, however I can work with key individuals that allow me to step inside their world, this informs my making process and produces a work, in my opinion, that is multi layered. It’s a bit like language really, we have a thought and in order to communicate that thought it’s colored and shaped by the fact that I’m writing and your reading this answer in English. If I were to communicate the word “hello” in Japanese Sign Language I would hold my two forefingers up, opposite one another, and bend each finger towards one another. This symbol offers a gateway into a way of live, a history with social context; it’s not simply a direct translation of a spoken word.

In Architectural Body (2002), Madeline Gins and Arakawa wrote “Who or what are we as this species? Puzzle creatures to ourselves, we are visitations of inexplicability.”

Saleh Funambulist (2)
Dancers Tanja Erhart and Robert Hesp in “Brexit means Brexit!” by Farah Saleh. / Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff (2018).

FARAH SALEH: Similar to other dance companies’ practice, I attend to work with dancers with different abilities, without having the disability as the main subject, and dealing with disabled dancers as any professional dancers, pushing their performative limits and talent to the max. I am personally troubled with “inclusive” performances, where disability is under-lined either by having it as the central topic of the performance or by confining dancers with different abilities in a very rigid form, asking the disable body to “adapt” the movement. I believe as artist Caroline Bowditch suggests, all bodies need to adapt to a certain choreography, as we all have different abilities, therefore disable dancers shouldn’t be the ones always adapting. It’s the choreography method that needs to adapt to the different physical and mental abilities of all dancers, which doesn’t mean using easy movements or concepts, on the contrary, it’s about giving space to the virtuosity of all, by working with images and intention, rather than form.

When the audience starts experiencing strong emotions from a different virtuosity than the one they are used to, they will start seeing disability with a different lens. For example, in the first part of “Brexit means Brexit!” the dancers are playing with what the five stages of grief look in their own bodies. The bargaining stage, entails lots of arms work and Tanja’s crutches suddenly become an extension of her body, adding another visual, physical and political layer to the scene.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: The last 50 years have provided many examples of how dance should not be refrained within the specific space of the theater but, on the contrary, should intervene in all spaces and mobilizes all kind of gestures and movements, in particular the most daily ones — daily realities being drastically different whether one lives in Edinburgh, Berlin or in Ramallah for instance. How does your experience both as dancers and choreographers influence the way you perceive and move (or see others moving) in these spaces and their political specificities?

Hart Funambulist (2)
Dance artist Luke Crook performing with artefact in “Puzzle Creature” by Adrienne Hart. / Photograph by Miles Hart.

ADRIENNE HART: I’m quite obsessed with city planning actually and how rogue humans never stick to paths! It fills me with optimism!! It’s like the abstract architectural plan created on a computer screen and plonked on top of a landscape can’t override the curves and undulating planes that came before it. We’re still hard-wired to respond to what’s buried under the surface! I believe our constructed environment can have a direct impact on wellbeing and influence bodily perception, which is probably why I’m so obsessed with Arakawa and Gins’ work. I no longer live “in the city,” but regularly spend time in large cities including London, Berlin, and Tokyo. It’s fascinating to observe a city in permanent motion, but then, when zooming in, I’m also influenced by the millions of daily human interactions. When I make work, I consider my audiences journey to arrive at a venue and attempt to create an environment in which that individual has the chance to slow down and listen into their body before taking in new information. Whilst my work is very much designed for theaters and gallery spaces, I do consider how it finds its way online. I’ve been working with the filmmaker Tom Schumann for the past few years and enjoy creating content designed for online consumption that again offers something in its pacing, use of sound and images to allow audiences a moment of self reflection.

My partner is obsessed with running and so I’ve found myself at running tracks all over the world! There’s something quite beautiful about the body pushed to its specific capacity and encountering a set of conditions never to be repeated that facilitate a “personal best.” Public spaces that encourage a playfulness and a challenge to all bodies is hard to come by, which is why I think every city should have a Site of Reversible Destiny! When I was growing up, and still to this day, the dance studio was/is a place to reorient perceptions and discover the seemingly unlimited possibilities of the body. I believe this ethos should spill out into more public spaces however so many public areas are conditioned with rules (written and unwritten) that uniform actions into a series of repeatable standard patterns. I went to the supermarket the other day and a little girl cartwheeled down the aisle. My body really wanted to give it a go too yet the politics of that given space placed a real constraint on my decision not to take part.

I’d like to finish with a quote by Madeline Gins and Arakawa again. It is from their beautiful book, Making Dying Illegal (2006): “Children, I can fairly well promise you that if you study hard and always strive to know the full range of the body’s capabilities, you will in all probability not have to die.”

Saleh Funambulist (1)
Dancers Tanja Erhart and Robert Hesp in “Brexit means Brexit!” by Farah Saleh. / Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff (2018).

FARAH SALEH: I believe that movement and gestures on stage and in public space feed into each other. Pedestrian movements are used extensively by choreographers to give the audience a key to read the performance and create a closer connection between the audience and what is lived on stage. While choreographic elements, such as finding a stage and repeating a set of gestures in relation to time are used in demonstrations all over the globe to create an impact on the public and the regime, for example the “Die-ins!” in the US, “the standing man” in Turkey and “Dabke stone throwers” in Palestine.

Also, creating performance in public space can be a very interesting way to confront the dancers and the public and keep the dialogue between art and society active. Although, sometimes I feel choreographers bring the material they have created for the theatre to a public space and then often that doesn’t work, simply because the distance of the stage is not there anymore and a real connection with the public and the space needs to be established, which is hard to build if it wasn’t integrated and thoroughly elaborated from the beginning of the creation process.

As a dancer and choreographer, I see social choreography around me in the streets all the time. Sometimes I even wonder why do we even need choreographed performances, while we live in a giant continuous choreography, where billions of bodies move in relation to space and time from the moment they wake up until they sleep.