I found this powerful performance through a link from a disability website. The work was originally created in 2005 for the Venice Biennale’s International Festival of Contemporary Dance. It is a mixture of dance and performance art, exploring the physicality of disability. From the Compagnie Chouinard website:
“...the company’s ten dancers execute variations on the exercise of freedom. Often, the dancers appear on points: on one, two, and even four at a time. In a spectroscopy of the gesture, we also see them using different devices – crutches, rope, prostheses, horizontal bars, and harnesses – which at times liberate their movements, at others fetter it, and at still others create it.”
Some of the original publicity shots are interesting:
It is a dramatic and at times disturbing exploration of physicality, of the erotic, of metallic disability aids that are contrasted against the flesh of the dancers, giving them a cyborg-like quality. Not only is the human body deconstructed, re-imagined, but the norms of ballet are also called into question (some of the dancers have one foot in pointe shoes and the other foot bare, the second pointe shoe attached to their hands). According to a critic for the Guardian, the performance “…resembles a swingers’ party in a surgical appliance store, hosted by a DJ with late-stage Parkinson’s disease” and goes on to compare the work to fellow Canadian David Cronenburg’s Crash, which features a similar eroticising of the surgical.
Whatever the critics might say of the work, it is definitely a strong exploration of the body as site of fetishism and raises questions (deliberately?) about ownership and desexualising of the (disabled) body. Since the dancers are all able bodied performers, the piece could be seen as falling into the trap of ‘ghettoising’ disability. On the other hand, although the piece includes disability aids, it could be argued that it is not about disability per se. From an independent review: “Despite the image of the crippled dancer, the show itself is about enabling movement rather than limiting it. At no point in rehearsals were the dancers told to emulate the differently abled, but rather to find their best way of movement with the new tools given to them.” The aids could be seen as metaphors, as stand-ins for the supports people use in their everyday lives to enhance or restrict their flesh (thinking of high heels, push-up bras, even the pointe shoe itself is a support for the dancer). I would however argue that the most troubling aspect of the performance is the fact that it portrays the paraphernalia of disability as limiting, and there appears to be liberation only at the very end with ascension (symbolising death?). I wonder how it was accepted among disabled people. I almost wrote the disabled community. Is that wrong?
Perhaps more in tune with activism, disabled dancer Ann Cooper Allbright (1998) wrote the following:
“As a dancer, I am a body on display. As a body on display, I am expected to reside within a certain continuum of fitness and bodily control, not to mention sexuality and beauty. But as a woman in a wheelchair, I am neither expected to be a dancer nor to position myself in front of an audience’s gaze.”
The idea of dance as a means of exploring the possibilities of the body, rather than focusing on the disabilities, must be very liberating for the disabled person. Rather than forcing the body to conform to norms anticipated by the audience, the disabled body is used to challenge accepted ideas surrounding the aesthetics of choreographed dance, the dancer’s body and disability itself.
Allbright’s performance included spoken word texts about bodily experiences, personal and family accounts of disability and health problems, while the dancer performed a simultaneous dance: “These bodily histories interlaced with my dancing to provide a genealogy of gestures, emotional states, and physical experiences surrounding many of our personal and social reactions to disability.” Allbright says her goal was to challenge accepted conventions in dance – the “technical prowess and sexual desirability” (visual availability) of the dancer is replaced with the disabled body and its implicit connotations of uncontrollability and absence of desire (that which should be hidden from view) – while confusing the audience as to whether she was really disabled or the fact that she was in a wheelchair was merely part of the performance.
“This intersection of dance and disability is an extraordinarily rich site at which to explore the overlapping constructions of the body’s physical ability, subjectivity, and cultural visibility that are implicated within many of our dominant cultural paradigms of health and self-determination”
Disabled dancers are not overcoming their disabilities but rather refiguring the conventions of dance, by redefining the dancer’s body as one that is in flux – in the process of becoming. As Allbright stresses, there is always an inherent fear in dance performances that what she terms the “grotesque body” (the flesh) will emerge at any moment to break the illusion of the graceful classical body (the ideal) – “heavy breathing, sweat, technical mistakes, physical injury, even evidence of a dancer’s age or mortality.” Disabled dancers challenge binary notions that she insists are pervasive in contemporary US culture, and as such open up new possibilities for disabled bodies to be accepted on their own terms rather than adherence to stereotypical paradigms of both disability and dance.
Since at least one of my participants is involved in dance, this way of looking at dance and the body may be useful to keep in mind.