Benjamin, A. J. (2016). Finding it when you get there in Whatley, Marsh, (Eds)Invisible Differences. Pub: Intellect
Finding it when you get there
(T)he research evidences the ways in which performative modes of assessing teaching excellence potentially preclude deeper consideration of pedagogical issues, while the absence of meaningful engagement with issues of pedagogy in institutional documentation sidelines core issues of teaching, and detaches pedagogy from issues of equity and inclusion
(Stephenson et al 2015:5)
Finding it when you get therewas the title of an integrated dance workshop I led in Berlin during the Tanzfabrik summer programme 2014. It was part of an initiative by directors Christa Flaig and Gabriele Reuter, who, despite the access difficulties associated with the school, were determined to open their programme to disabled students. The title was reference both to the uncertainties that awaited me in Germany but also to my own practice of improvisation; a commitment to un-scored work, and a willingness to leave space for the unknown and the unexpected. In 10 Rules for students and teachers(often mis-attributed to John Cage) Sister Mary Corita[i] refers to this as “leaving plenty of room for “x”. Her point being that there are always going to be elements in creative processes that come into play only if we allow time and space for them. The implication being that those of us in the arts should therefore avoid being overly prescriptive about what our outcomes might be or, in the case of dance, too ‘conscriptive’ about what kind of body might qualify for training.
In conversation with Steve Paxton in the mid 1990s I argued that integrated dance would only be assured a sustainable future when we were able to see courses in universities open to disabled students, and that those students would be given the access and opportunity to train alongside their non-disabled peers. Paxton, the founder of Contact Improvisation and one of the first postmodern dancers to explore integrated dance[ii]replied that he ‘100% agreed… and 100% disagreed’. In response to the 100% with which he agreed, I have, since entering the Academy in 2008, pushed ahead with the issue of access, and in November 2014 was able to celebrate with my colleagues at Plymouth University, the opening of a fully accessible theatre and performing arts programme that positively encourages disabled students to apply. What, though of the other 100%; that part of the argument with which Paxton disagreed? Perhaps it was because he was able to see that higher education is conservative by nature, and that radical movements (and I would include integrated dance in this category with its historical links to Contact Improvisation), are more likely to thrive outside of the academy, where exploration and ‘unforced’ research progress at their own pace. Paxton’s concerns might be summarized by educational reformer and Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Franscisco, Kevin Kumashiro.
(P)edagogy often does what is harmful to itself, such as by privileging rationalism and repressing other ways of knowing and relating, such as "touching" (which is what Britzman suggests can lead the ego to desire to know, change, and make reparation).
I hope to explore some of these themes in this chapter as I reflect on my Berlin workshop experience, and my position as a non-disabled, Jewish artist traversing the fields of dance and disability. I will make particular reference to the notion of reparation that Kumashiro, (citing Britzman) refers to in the above quote. By including the voices of some of the workshop participants I hope to reveal how an embodied approach to learning prepares us for our lives in the world and indeed has the capacity to repair and renew our connection to the world we live in. It is both educative and regenerative, a model of the arts that seems increasingly usurped by an economic paradigm in which entrepreneurship and industry driven curriculum design, threaten to outweigh and eclipse artistic exploration, and in which increasingly conservative models of dance education prohibit radical departures, leaving precious few openings for ‘x’.
Berlin – July 2014
I was, truth be told, feeling the strain of a very full summer schedule on the back of a hectic year’s teaching. Luckily I was staying in Kreuzberg, a stone’s throw from Viktoriapark and the light summer mornings allowed me solitary re-adjustment time amidst the capital’s early morning dog walkers; a welcome space to prepare for and contemplate each day ahead.
I was aware that there might be discussion and questions as to why we were placing the work in a building that was far from wheelchair friendly, and why I should have agreed to teach in an environment that clearly handicapped disabled participants. Such were my thoughts as I practiced Tai Chi in the park, unnoticed other than by the occasional Alsatian and his track-suited owner.
As it transpired, although there was conversation (and problem solving) around access, there was also a huge amount of goodwill from both the organizers and participants. I was accompanied to Germany by a graduating student from Plymouth University[iii], Zoë was allocated the role of ‘access aid’, ensuring wheelchair users were able to use the industrial lifts and make their way via the adjoining building to the Tanzfabrik studio.
First morning and dancers began to arrive, amongst them, lawyer (and dancer) Silke Schöenfleisch accompanied by her helper dog, Jack. Between snoozes, Jack watched our activities with mild curiosity, occasionally meandering amongst the moving bodies before flopping down in his favored spot by the piano.
I became increasingly fascinated by his unencumbered reliance on sensing and by the immediacy of his responses. As the workshop unfolded he began to serve as litmus test to my teaching and my sense of presence. It was under Jack’s gaze that I began to monitor and reflect on how forced or faithful my choices and responses felt. I wrote in my diary:
It is in relation to Jack’s responses that I measure my steps, my tone, my playfulness, my resting; not all the time, sometimes I am oblivious to him, but his presence in the space is part of my sensorial world, a part I find myself taking more and more notice of. His senses out reach mine, his ears prick to sounds beyond my range, his nose tastes the air, his body gives way to resting with ease, while mine, full of a teacher’s thoughts, resists the floor; Jack, an uncanny, canine referee, seems able to sniff out a lie at forty paces.
On the second day we play with a temporal-spatial score that involves dancers entering the performance space, improvising for an agreed period, and then seeking their most opportune / satisfying / meaningful moment to leave, departing the space across the same line by which they entered. Jack watched the proceedings. Toward the end of one improvisation a dancer becomes stranded alone in the space, temporarily unable to find the moment to leave. As we all watch, attending to her choices, gauging our need to offer assistance against her need to explore this moment of uncertainty, Jack emerges from behind the piano, wanders across to where she stands, gently takes her by the wrist and tenderly (her wrist in his mouth), guides her out across the (imaginary) line to join the rest of the group. It is such a remarkable moment that no one can think of anything very much to say. Silke, Jack’s owner, seemed fairly un-phased by it and explained that Jack saw what needed doing and was just trying to help; “He is a helper dog, Adam, a retriever, that’s his job”. And Jack just looked at me, with his doleful eyes as if to say, “That wasn't too difficult, was it … Adam?”
It is part and parcel of my teaching methodology to encourage students to be aware of everything that is in the space and be cognizant of how the space, and all that is in it, offers itself to the improvisation. Here is Gearóid McCann, one of the workshop participants describing the early work in the studio
For the first two days the ground work of the practice; an attention to breath and to the senses was gently introduced and bedded in. This awareness of what is seen, heard, felt, sensed, touched connects us not only to each other but to physical space we move within, our breath connects us to the air that breezes in from the open windows, to the sounds of the city, police sirens sounding, birds singing, a dog barking somewhere down on the street below, our practice brings us into ‘being’ rather than ‘acting’ or the dance equivalent; ‘throwing shapes’.
McCann’s reference to the ‘ground work’ brings to mind the work of social anthropologist Tim Ingold who talks of the ground comprising ‘a domain in which the lives and minds of its human and non-human inhabitants are comprehensively knotted with one another’ (Ingold, 2015:49). For many years the cognitive sciences labored under the misapprehension that studying isolated individuals in laboratory conditions, through psychological and neurological testing could give definitive answers about human behavior and the nature of consciousness. It is an approach that has been referred to as the ‘experimental quarantine’ approach (Richardson et al. 2008) one that aligns itself to a medical model of the human psyche and neurologically centered explanations of consciousness. The unexpected contribution of Jack, clearly no respecter of ‘quarantines’, raises myriad questions about social interaction and in particular about joint action; that field of enquiry that explores events where two or more individuals coordinate their actions in space and time to bring about a change in the environment (Sebanz et al. 2006). Whatever ‘motive’ we might apply to Jack’s action, his intervention in our score was a beautiful and unexpected example of Corita’s ‘x’, a moment when something ‘other’, something outside of our field or frame of enquiry, actively intervened in our research. It was a reminder that we are connected to the world and interact with it in multiple ways some of which transcend individuated action or language. It was also a reminder that the purpose of research and education is to open us to possibilities that we might not have previously considered and to raise questions that we might not previously have imagined.
(I)t can hardly be expected that students will emerge from their higher education imbued with personal flexibility, able to respond deftly to the unexpected, unless they have encountered something of the kind in their educational experience.
I was somehow very aware that each morning the workshop participants made their way across the city to the studio, and each evening carried something of the studio research with them back out through the Berlin streets: that each day the studio seemed to breath us in, and each evening breath us out again, the boundaries of our workshop experience, increasingly porous and difficult to define. Below, two of the participants record their experiences on different sets of wheels, the first provides an alternative perspective to the issue of ‘assistance’ raised by Jack’s actions, the second touches the idea of ‘grounds for play’.
In everyday life it's very seldom that, if I approach someone, he or she will respond to me, in the way they did in the workshop. Usually people are scared and back away from me or they worry that I will run them over and hurry their children out of my way.
If I look at someone in everyday life usually they ask "Do you need help?" So I avoid making eye contact. In the workshop this changed. When I travelled by train after the week and wanted to relocate from my wheelchair to a train seat, and to do so I need to sit on the floor, and this time when someone offered me help there was no accompanying feeling of stress or shame, just a simple understanding between us of what help was needed. I would say that I now move more and in different ways. I don't sit so long in the same position in my chair, I put my legs on a bench or my back on a wall. And I allow myself to move more slowly. I notice impulses more often, and follow them, I am less the object of others’ gaze, more the director of my own.
Today a hitherto unpleasant cycle along a route where cyclists, pedestrians and motorists share limited space became a chance to dance attentively through the crowd. The necessity I often feel to defend my space gave way to playfulness. Tempo, balance, all round vision and especially, consideration for the others sharing the space with me became the elements of an improvisation that I joined in.
Kastler reminds us that integrated work is educative in the most profound sense, that it leads the individual out into new understandings, it widens the field of knowledge that we all share, and along with McCann that this new shared knowledge shapes how we perceive and interact with the world around us. The world is no longer ‘other’ but a field of play that is mutual – a rather wonderful word ‘mutual’, which denotes not only ‘shared’, but has its roots in the Latin mutare– to change. Perhaps then, change need not always solely be presaged with disruption and dissatisfaction (Kumashiro 2013), perhaps change might arise also through play, which would therefore require the provision of ‘play ground’ and ‘play time’ within our pedagogic offer.
On the Wednesday afternoon of the workshop I was scheduled, as part of the summer programme, to perform with Gabi Reuter and another dancer who was teaching in the summer festival, Sharon Hilleli-Assa, a visiting artist from Israel. That day my workshop session overruns and I find myself hurrying along the corridor to the performance space. Gabi and Sharon greet me and recognize my flustered, less than prepared state of body/mind. They weight me down, with knowing hands that guide me into my muscles and bones. My breathing shifts, my eyes meet theirs, they seem to trust me - I don’t know why, as I have not an idea in my head, but I in return, empty, trust them. I am temporarily tethered and held, and for a brief moment I stand willing and expectant but also, a little vacant, waiting to be led. This very uncertain, nascent, one might say ‘dog-like’ interlude, served as a reminder that some of our most basic emotive states might well be shared by species other than Homo Sapiens. Perhaps it is the ‘sapient nature of our species, and the enforced sapience of higher education that at times leads us away from this place of waiting, where what is yet to be ‘x’-perienced can be given time to unfold, and perhaps it is the duty of teachers and artists precariously placed within education, to both make the case for, and safeguard this experience. Lacuna or lack as argued by Oronzco and Parker-Starbuck (2015) makes us no less human, and may indeed help us understand and respect different kinds of knowing.
I have performed twice before with Gabi Reuter but never with Sharon, who I had met only that morning. After the performance I discovered each of us had had a moment of crisis about the performance, and each of us had been brought back to this moment of readiness by one or other of our trio. It takes a certain courage to embrace the risk of failure publicly, and improvisation invites us repeatedly to stand by our conviction that ‘not knowing’ is a valid artistic and educational experience.
Capturing an improvisation in film is an impossible task, the perspectives and responses that inhabit the performance space are ephemeral and often felt rather than seen. Below is a response to the performance written toward the end of the workshop, accompanied by photos taken during the performance by Anna Stein.
Two pillars rise from circular troughs in the wooden floor. Around the base of the pillars are white stones, stranded like memories. In a corner of the studio hangs an anatomical skeleton. Benches are lain out along the right hand side of the studio behind the pillars, along with cushions for people to sit on.
We shift some benches that seem oddly positioned in the performance space, sweep the floor, and share our thoughts about what, or rather how we will approach the improvisation. It comes down to an this: that we will start as soon as the audience arrive and end around the forty-minute mark… or whenever it feels like we have found an ending.
The doors open. People begin to drift in and take their seats, the ‘them’ and the ‘us’. I decide not to be divided and begin to play with the broom, over and around the feet of the front row, causing a constant shuffling and reshuffling, laughter and tickles, toes in the water, sons and daughters at the beach - brushing not rushing.
After a while I notice, Gabi and Sharon patiently kneeling by the side of the studio, them and me, should be us. How to keep ‘us’? I go obediently and kneeling too, feel our threedom, tiny articulations and waves, emanating from breath and shared awareness that grow beyond fragility into motion… The space is soon open, swept clean, awaiting a journey, stories to unfold on the ground shared with those who watch now, resting from their own dancing, their own lives, to witness ours.
In the performance I find Sharon, back outstretched, and picking white pebbles from around the pillars, place them, a calcification of weighting, along her spine.
A feeling of deep sadness and grief settles temporarily, a ghost wave engulfing us to the throat, bedecked in small stones,
and then recedes
lifts and flies out through the open windows across the Berlin cityscape…
and we are left
empty and shining as the blue sky.
After the performance, Gabi asks how I knew about Sharon’s recent bereavement. I hadn’t. The dance had allowed a moment of sharing (a moment of healing perhaps). A reminder if one was needed, that the arts constantly offer up new possibilities and space for unexpected voices. ‘Every scene of improvisation is haunted by these multiple addressees – is composed of these hauntings’ (Fischlin 289:2015). Thus without pre-ordaining what will happen, and by respectful listening, what needs to arise is noticed, welcomed and dances with us for a while, like an old friend or trusting park bench, patiently waiting our arrival. The creative journey is essentially about other ways of seeing, about how otherssee, it is about framing the world differently and sharing that vision through whatever our medium happens to be.
Researchers have suggested that the "knowledge" many students have about the Other is either incomplete because of exclusion, invisibility, and silence, or distorted because of disparagement, denigration, and marginalization. What makes these partial knowledges so problematic is that they are often taught through the informal or "hidden" curriculum (Jackson, 1968), which means that, because they are taught indirectly, pervasively, and often unintentionally, they carry more educational significance than the official curriculum
(Jackson, Boostrom. & Hanson, 1993).
One might therefore argue that it is the absence of disabled bodies within higher education performing arts programmes that re-affirms, on a daily basis, that disabled people exist only outside of formal training cultures. That the disabled body is disruptive to ‘normal procedures’, and therefore (in the minds of students within the academy), that disabled people continue to be a ‘client group’ or ‘community activity’; someone to help, rather than someone with whom we might be in partnership in joint action[v]and joint learning. To quote Riyad A. Shahjahan (2015:492) ‘Time and the use of time mark unruly bodies as out of place in academic institutions, much as they marked colonial difference.’
As universities in the UK become increasingly wedded to governmental prerogatives of economic growth and graduate employability, and research within HE increasingly sees dance academics courting and courted by new technology, I am minded that the park bench may be more than a useful analogy for where and when inspiration and insight arises, and indeed might provide a useful metaphor for the student teacher relationship itself; a space that allows us to converse about more than just how to pass assessments; about the links between the imagination and life as it is lived. Tim Ingold makes the unexpected etymological connection between our word ‘school’, and the Greek skholēa word that incorporates the notion both of leisure and learning and I wonder where this kind of experience and exchange might take place in courses where number of students is increasingly seen as the most important index of success.
A seat of learning
Claudia Neumayer, another of the Berlin workshop participants, effortlessly and eloquently reminds us of what dance is and what it does.
After a while I felt less shy and more communicative. While dancing I felt connected somehow with everybody and everything. I experienced that my senses connect me to the environment and to myself at the same time. It was like coming home.
Neumayer also reminds us of another of the meanings of the word repair, which has its origins in the old French repatriare– to return to our own country. In our context the home referred to here is the body; coming back to our senses is what brings us home or at least sets us on a journey toward a way of knowing that is situated as Merleau-Ponty suggested, in the body, rather than remotely, through written word or diagram (Howes & Classen, 2014). Sensate, we inhabit a terrain that is both immediate and vulnerable. Our everyday filters removed, hidden voices are given parole. I am happy to have been part of a workshop, a festival, a performance, a reparation, a repatriation; and amongst the ‘othered’ bodies, unexpectedly at home in Berlin. “Je suis Juif”[vi]I say silently to myself on my last day, as the Alsatian and its owner watch my slow dance in the early morning sunshine.
Back in England, working on this this chapter; the leitmotif of the park bench seemed apposite, a counter intuitive symbol for learning in an age of digitally driven haste, and I regret not having taken a picture of Viktoriapark. I turn to the internet for images, entering into my search ‘park benches’ and then, for more local flavor ‘Kreuzberg’. Within seconds, I am furnished with a photo from 1933, in which two elderly Kreuzberg residents sit on a park bench inscribed with the words Nicht für juden. Sitting at my screen, I experience what disability dance artist and scholar Petra Kuppers refers to as ‘the collapsing of historical distances’ (Kuppers 2015) and am reminded of the impossibility of dividing who I am from what I teach (Ashwin 2015:20).
To paraphrase Paul Stoller (2014) - the personal and the professional are never separate because as teachers within the arts, we are always interacting with and learning from our “others.” The role of the teacher is not just to instil information or technique but to open up a place of exchange, of enquiry and possibly of wonder.
(P)edagogy traditionally attempts to control and to grasp the knowable, leaving no space open for what is really uncontrollable and unknowable in education; and it attempts to do so out of desire for self-affirmation, desire for sameness and repetition.
To Kumashiro’s list above we might today add the word ‘profit’, not in its original sense of advancement or progress, but in terms of monetary value as universities in the UK compete for the funds that increased numbers bring. I hope that the fledgling integrated dance initiatives within higher education can help resist that desire for ‘sameness and repetition’ and that in the face of endless improvement, efficiency and profitability metrics, universities might allow students, teachers and artists the freedom and importantly, the time to ‘find it when they get there.’
I would like to thank Gabriele Reuter and Christa Flaig for inviting me to teach at Tanzfabrik, all of the participants of the Berlin workshop and particularly those who contributed their voices to this chapter Claudia Neumayer, Gearóid McCann and Denise Kastler. Zoë Mote for her stalwart assistance during the project. Sharon Hilleli-Assa for ‘finding it in performance’, Silke Schöenfleisch for looking out for me in Berlin and last-but-not-least, Jack, for whom all of this was just a walk in the park.
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[ii]Paxton and Anne Kilcoyne founded Touchdown Dance in 1986, exploring partnership between sighted and blind / visually impaired dancers.
[iii]ZoëMote was recipient of a bursary from Plymouth University on completion of her degree.
[iv]There is an implied reference to the seminal dance company Joint Forceshere, and the pioneering work of Alitto Alessi, Karen Nelson and Emery Blackwell in the USA which led to the DanceAbility Movement.
[v]Joint action has been defined as any form of social interaction where two or more individuals coordinate their actions in space and time to bring about a change in the environment (Sebanz et al. 2006)
[vi]Referencing the "I am Charlie" slogan adopted by supporters of freedom of expression in the wake of the killing of workers at the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7thJanuary 2014.