Dancing into writing

I recently started writing for the arts blog Bad at Sports that’s based in Chicago. My first article, “Watching Touch,” looks at the Atlanta-based Full Radius Dance, which is a physically-integrated dance company, meaning the dancers have a range of abilities. This article coincides with my more recent growing commitment to dance and movement-based performance work. These interests have created profound shifts in my dissertation work – it’s looking different every single week…

new performance piece!

This past weekend, I hosted and organized a new salon/critique series called SENSORIUM for the Visual Scholarship Initiative, of which I’m a member, here at Emory. It was really great both in terms of the projects presented and the discussion of the projects. There will definitely be many more of these to come.

Also, I performed a new piece of mine for the SENSORIUM  called ray’s welcome. Here’s a link to the video documentation of it, compliments of Alex Lukens:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ovk7lr1771c&feature=youtu.be

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Monkey Myths and Elephant Ears

I completed When Species Meet by Donna Haraway for this week. To say the least, there is a lot in the book to find problem with in terms of its side-treatment of disability related issues – consider the chapter “Able Bodies and Companion Species” and not to mention the off non sequitur, “Not simple, these aged and needy parents!” (203) Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe it was just not what I expected. HOWEVER, this post will focus on another artist working with animals as material and subject matter.

Deke Weaver, a performance artist who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has a life-long project devoted to animals, The Unreliable Bestiary.

The Unreliable Bestiary is a series of performances, a website, and a set of books about our precarious moment in natural history – an ark of stories about animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit. The project will present a performance for each letter of the alphabet – the letter representing a particular endangered animal or habitat.

The Unreliable Bestiary also seeks  to unveil the “connections between science, behavioral observations, economics, politics, spirituality, myth, and imagination.”

(Image found at http://interactivefutures2011.wordpress.com)

I have seen two of Weaver’s performances: Monkey and Elephant. I did a brief write-up on Monkey for The Green Lantern’s blog, and when I look back on it now, I did not give enough credit to the animals, the monkeys, apes, and the others.  I was shortchanging the animals as allegories for humans, and I believe I didn’t pay enough attention to the animals themselves, their lives, their histories, their stories. Partially through reading When Species Meet and also through my own work on Franz Kafka’s animal stories and reading of Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari has made me more aware of this mistake of mine. I can’t believe I didn’t realize this sooner! The stories narrated in Monkey were not just about human genocide as I was thinking before, they are stories of the experience of monkeys themselves and should not be read solely through anthropomorphic lenses. Elephant should be read similarly; we are to mourn the elephant dying in the midwestern snow by itself, far away from home, for itself and not necessarily as a metaphor for our own struggles with loneliness and isolation; we should pay attention to the elephant’s own existential crisis, not just our own. We are to “regard” these animals in Haraway’s sense of it:

I see the regard I am trying to think and feel as part of something not proper to either humanism or post humanism. “Companion species” – coshapings all the way down, in all sorts of temporalities and corporealities – is my awkward term for a not-humanism in which species of all sorts are in question. For me, even when we speak only of people, the animal/human/living/nonliving category separations fray inside the kind of encountering worthy of regard. The ethical regard that I am trying to speak and write can be experienced across many sorts of species differences. The lovely part is that we can know only by looking and by looking back. “Respecere” (164).

I think maybe Weaver is engaging in these narratives to pose questions similar to the ones Haraway asks “Who are you?”, “Who are we?” and what it means to be “partners-in-the-making” (208). Unlike Haraway’s text-based project and her narration of her relationship to her dog, Weaver embodies the animals in his performances through costuming, movement with choreographer and dancer Jennifer Allen, sound with musician Chris Peck, and video. It is not a simple thing of “becoming the other,” and I don’t think that Weaver would claim that that is the case. It seems to be more of a rethinking of human exceptionalism and a paying attention to the “unruly edges” between species (Haraway 218); Weaver is putting himself in the “contact zone” and bringing us with him, for “most of the transformative things in life happen in contact zones” (219). (However, for some other time perhaps, an examination of the “contact zone” is required along with its seeming reliance on Levinasian ethics and the face-to-face encounter – the issue of what is a face and who has a face was not fully addressed, I don’t think in When Species Meet).

Weaver’s animal embodiment is not a simple engagement with the “contact zone” and the “encounter of the other,” rather, it looks toward “becoming-animal;” “to participate in movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all the significations, signifiers, and signifieds, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifying signs” (Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 13). Like with Kafka, Weaver’s animals don’t simply “refer to a mythology or to archetypes,” but show us more of the animal in its intensities (13).

GIMP

I just saw the dance performance GIMP this evening – one of the events of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, theme = The Body.

GIMP is one of Heidi Latsky’s projects.  She is a dancer, choreographer, and founded a dance company – Heidi Latsky Dance – based in New York.  This project, one that apparently grew out of another of her projects exploring her own bodily limbs, consists of abled and disabled dancers.  I was really looking forward to this performance.  I wanted to see what the performance could offer in terms of exploring the continuum of ability, but I was more or less disappointed.

The beginning of the performance was a line up of the dancers with some of them wearing pithy t-shirts like “Let’s get ready to stumble” and “Keep staring and I might do a trick.”  I liked these t-shirts a lot.  The 6 dancers all in a line were easily comparable; I was searching their bodies for difference.  How did their movements reflect or depart from each others?  It seemed at this point that the majority of the dancers were abled.  However, during one of the dancer’s solo performance on stage, i noticed that one of her hands was deformed.  This woman who I originally counted in the abled camp had a difference I had not noticed.  She danced by herself on the stage, emphasizing her hand and its way of moving.

A majority of the dancers were abled including the choreographer.  She claimed in the talk back that she worked with the disabled dancers to discover movements of theirs that were challenging to her, but it did not seem that this was actually in the performance.  The dancers were dancing like dancers – it did not seem that their bodies were challenged to do something different than they were used to.  It made me question the way the performance was put together and what the use of disabled people was really for.

I am not saying that it is a problem for abled people to participate in a disabled performance, but the movements of the “dancer” dancers and the “disabled” dancers were emphatically different.  The disbled dancers seemed to serve a different function than the “dancer” dancers.  This made me uncomfortable to an extent.  Were these dancers with unusual bodies and movements being put on display?  Or, were they simply choosing to share their vulnerable bodies to a public?  What is and should be the role of the choreographer in this sort of situation?  Must physical difference always be emphasized?

I wonder how self-conscious the performance and performers were?  As one of the dancers told us as he broke through the 4th wall: “We thought you were all going to be weird but you’re beautiful.”  Was that a way to convince us and them that we are all beautiful humans?

To learn more about the GIMP project, click here.  And for Heidi Latsky Dance, click here.

disability dance

I found an interesting post on Feministe this morning talking about dance and disability – the disabled dancer.  The post is one dancer’s response to comments in a talk-back after a performance – one comment being that the performance elicited a “cringe” response.   The author of the post raises questions of what a cringe-worthy performance is and what this can mean in respect to a company that has both disabled and abled dancers – what exactly is the audience cringing because of?:  a “bad” performance or a “bad” (disabled) body?

To read the post, click here.