© 2016 by No Mean Feat

What's the Problem?

by Adam Benjamin

 

First presented as key note speech at Enabling Dance - DiGM Conference Manchester.

Printed in abridged form Dance Theatre Journal Vol 15 no. 1 1999

 

 

 

Towards the end of last year the Foundation for Community Dance were in the process of establishing two advisory panels, one on youth dance and one on disability dance and I was invited to sit on the disability panel. My response was that I would be happy to sit on one of the panels but not that on disability; arguing that if disabled youngsters are to be given equal opportunities then this has to take place in the youth dance context and not on a separate agenda under ‘disability’.

 

At around the same time in Leeds, the Greenhouse Effect conference dedicated itself to ‘the art and science of nurturing dance makers’.  To my knowledge no one active in disability or integrated practice was invited to talk or make a presentation at the conference......our experience was simply not seen as relevant.

 

Despite the breakthroughs of companies like Amici, CandoCo and Tardis integrated dance remains a field in which professionals are seen to promote activity with those who would otherwise not gain access to dance. It is something we do with and for them. For the professional world of dance, it remains about them, not about us.

 

What is currently referred to as ‘integrated dance’  exists due to the innovative work, the creativity and determination of a handful of people. It is unpredictable, often misunderstood (as much by those who practice it as by those who resist it) and exists largely outside of the formal dance education establishments: the same establishments which struggle to produce new and exciting dance artists and which express the desire to train community practitioners.  In the UK we have an enviable community dance programme and a huge range of grass roots activity where the most astonishing and ground breaking work takes place. Yet it seems that the real lessons being learned at the community level are failing to penetrate wider dance practice.

 

Integrated groups bring together people whom society treats, or has treated, with inequality and whose physicalities render them unequal in opportunity though not in desire or intent. Integration in any field is full of difficulties - in dance it’s overflowing.  Integrated practice has forced me to address problems and to clarify my teaching in a way that may never have arisen in non-integrated settings. Blind students, students with learning difficulties and physically disabled students will not thrive on woolly, esoteric or simply inexact explanations. Time and again I have been forced to ask “Why is this not working...what am I not seeing?”

If we make the mistake of importing charitable motives into this work, the opportunity to learn from these problems go begging.

 

There has been a trend within creative dance teaching and particularly in groups involving the disabled to look positively on everything that happens within the dance space as long as it does not endanger or hinder other dancers. This has its roots in a very positive teaching ideology and in many situations continues to hold true. Creativity cannot flourish in the face of constant criticism and wrongly delivered criticism can be damning to young and even experienced dancers. But should this ‘positive regard’ necessarily condemn us to accept so much that is mediocre and lacking in insight when we have tools that are capable of making us much more discerning?  Tools which if fully understood, can be transferred to other areas of dance.

 

At the close of a wonderful integrated improvisation,  I asked one of the disabled dancers what she felt was ‘wrong’ with the final tableau. At first she tried to identify problems with the positions of the remaining dancers. On pushing her further she suggested that what was wrong was that there were no disabled dancers ‘in the final frame’, they had all left, and despite the earlier interactions of the improvisation, she felt that the non-disabled dancers now seemed to own the space.  This was hard for her to say as up until that point everyone in the group had

been working  together very beautifully.    

An uneasy silence followed her observations as the non-disabled dancers sought to understand whether they were being ‘blamed’  or criticised. After a brief discussion a few others admitted to the same feeling but had been uncertain what to do about it. When I asked the first dancer when she had originally felt this unease she said that it had been earlier, but that she had ‘buried’ it.

 

This burying of reservations or feelings is part of the ‘anything goes’ school of improvisation which says....”if the impro ends that way...that's how it ends and that's fine and anyway we don't distinguish between disabled and non-disabled dancers”.   Of course the ending can’t be changed. The real point is less evident and more personal....it is to unearth the buried question and identify a moment when a choice could have been made that might have led to another conclusion. Asking the dancer what she felt was wrong was not so that she could blame others (or herself) but to help her realise she has the insight and the capacity to change things she doesn't feel are right.   Instead of responding after the event  from the position of (silent) critic, someone dissatisfied with outcomes but unable to influence them, the question helps her realise that she has the possibility of changing an improvisation herself, that if she is capable of identifying a problem she is half way to solving it.

 

A great deal of integrated work currently practised is like a field scattered with gold that nobody notices, simply because we have bought into a ‘theory of creativity’ that allows us to dance round problems rather than value them.

The great intellectual danger of supporting and accepting everything that takes place within an improvisation is that the art form begins to attract and become breeding ground for those who wish to avoid dealing with problems and who can co-exist happily with others of the same persuasion. Accepting difference and uncertainty does not mean surrendering the ability to be focused or incisive. Release technique should leave us poised and focused, not phased and pointless.

 

In working creatively the capacity to feel that 'something is wrong' or ‘out of joint’ is one of our greatest assets.  If this sensibility is not accepted and acknowledged then the work students and teachers produce will most likely fail to address the central issues that an integrated group inevitably generates. This is not integrated dance it is ‘avoi-dance’ .

 

Accepting the problematic nature of integrated work does not change the need of a positive and supportive environment, quite the contrary, but it requires a far more rigorous and thoughtful approach on the part of those teaching.

 

The failure to develop this sensibility is, I believe, the ill that most commonly assails this work and is visible in the poverty of so much that is produced. Dance that places its trust in the sympathy and understanding of the audience rather than in its own ability to challenge preconceptions.  At the root of this kind of work there lies a failure of ethics, a failure that is made visible through a faltering aesthetic.

 

It is perhaps in response to this failure that our opinions are not sought when the state of choreography is being reviewed.

 

When I was a student any mention of  the aesthetics usually led me to a state of gibbering helplessness and I would hate to see anyone reduced to such a condition at so early a stage in the conference. Basically what I'm saying is that integrated groups involve bringing together people who have been separated on the grounds of untruths ie on the basis of superstition, ignorance and economics. So in an integrated dance group you have to be able to develop an antennae capable of spotting reoccurrences or outbreaks of charity or superstition when more apt or enlightened means of communicating or behaving can be found. 

To quote Nicholas Malebranche, we should seek justice before dispensing charity.

 

This may not always be easy, it may mean questioning a value judgment that you have grown up with, and that everyone around you regards as normality.  But you have to be able to spot it (that's the ethics part) and if you are to succeed, to make it visible, by humour, by exaggeration.... by devising alternative strategies, by any means possible through your art.  (that's the aesthetics part). This is a step that inevitably take courage and an effort of will. It may feel akin to standing up and shouting “The king has got no clothes!”.

 

Working on a large performance project in Liverpool a few years ago, we struggled for several days to accommodate three highly disturbed young people within the group. Eventually it became clear that they were neither interested nor aware of the objectives of the project and I decided to take them out of the production.  At this point two young students with Downs Syndrome who had until then, remained in the background suddenly started to produce the most astonishing work. One went on to become a central performer in the piece.  The additional time and attention enabled us to begin working with the Simpson Board  and a stunning section was choreographed by a profoundly physically disabled woman. The university dance students who had struggled valiantly up until that point were  released from a task that they should not have been given and responded with renewed energy and creativity. Had we continued to try to engage the three youngsters with behavioural  problems, out of a misguided sense of duty or charity, the resources of the group would have been expended fulfilling a therapeutic/caring role that was not an objective of the project.

 

The space created by clearing away misconceptions generates opportunities in which  relationships can be reviewed and reinvented and in which new patterns of movement can be discerned.   Different artists have responded to this process in different ways. Some focusing on dismantling the restrictive edifice of beliefs, others giving birth to new visions, they might be referred to as iconoclastic and visionary.  Both need to be understood if we are to see work of any meaning being produced anywhere in dance.

                                   

All this leads me to believe that the lessons learned in integrated settings need no  longer be thought of in some ‘vague sense’ as aiding creativity, but rather as leading directly to a way of engaging with problems that has immediate relevance to some of the most pressing issues of the day. These include but go far beyond how we produce better choreographers.

 

The questions raised by an integrated approach are not just, “How can dance enable disabled people to become more involved in the arts?” but are also of the order  “How can dance and the arts interact with other disciplines to promote new ways of perceiving?  If  as Chris de Marigny said in 1993

 

The real excitement and energy is coming from the very edges of dance while the mainstream is struggling to reinvent itself in Great Britain.

 

then dance has to look  to these far flung corners to see what it is we are doing and how we are achieving it.

 

In 1992 , I led a residency with Celeste Dandeker and Lea Parkinson at  the Yorkshire Dance Centre in Leeds.  The participants included disabled students who had never danced before, some with cerebral palsy others using wheelchairs for a variety of different reasons, there were students with visual impairments and learning difficulties as well as non-disabled undergraduates from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. The group constituted humanity in all its glorious shapes and sizes.  By one of those delightful quirks of fate the studio below ours was  being used to house the regional junior ballet 'trials'.  So there was this extraordinary juxtaposition of different approaches to dance going on in the same building at the same time. On the third floor, our students, some of whom couldn't  see, some of whom couldn't walk, (and one of whom had no legs ) were all being told "yes you can do it" and each was increasingly believing in their ability to express themselves through movement.   Beneath us on the second floor, young children whose every dream was to become a dancer were having their bones measured to  qualify for the second round of ballet auditions,  their futures depended not on talent or creativity but on how they measured up to an idealised ‘standard’. That of the diminutive, lithe, ballerina capable of being effortlessly lifted by her male partner.

 

Plato said that a bad politician confuses measurement with proportion and I think the same could be said of a bad dance culture.  The relationship between what is taught and understood in dance can, if we free ourselves from the rule of measurement  teach us important lessons about the world beyond the studio. A world of which too few dance students show any understanding.

 

Recently during the rehearsals for a production in Belgium, on of the dancers  came across an interesting problem. Standing only 3 foot 8 inches high, with a metal rod in her back that prevented any flexion in her spine, she was virtually unable to jump and  when anyone lifted her she felt awkward, anxious and ‘out of her element’....yet like everyone else in the company she wanted to enjoy that delightful feeling of a lift;  that suspension or  momentary freedom from gravity. The

question was how to find a way of doing this that didn't deprive her of her sense of dignity......in other words, a lift that would allow her to feel fully human and not like an object being picked up and moved about in space.

 

We went back to basics. Even though she was unable to jump more than an inch, I asked her to imagine; (not jumping) but taking an elongated stride, a leap. With my hands around her waist I then followed her ‘intended pathway’ allowing her to move as she might for example if she were submerged in water. ie if she was not quite so bound by gravity. The lift exactly fulfilled her intention, by this I mean it accomplished the act that was being prepared for in her mind and in her muscles...but which was being thwarted by the rod in her back.  It was felt by her and all watching as being proportionally ‘right’ and we knew were back on track.

 

What became clear was that the earlier lifts had been imposed from the point of view of the ‘lifter’ and had not arisen from dialogue or from an understanding of her unique body and scale. Her feelings of unease came from her sense that the lifts weren't appropriate, that they were somehow out of proportion.

 

Wittgenstein  said philosophy is an activity not a theory   In integrated dance we deal with real embodied human questions and must unravel and solve them on a daily basis....The reason that mainstream dance is at times so out of touch and unable to produce work that has anything to say is that it has long since forgotten what a meaningful question looks like.  Mainstream students are not being taught to identify real problems, perhaps it is because the issues that face us today are less visible than in the 60’s and 70’s  - whatever the reasons.... the political environment  and the school environment in which contemporary dance is now taught both err on the side of conservatism. Yet there are issues here and they relate strikingly to difference and to conformity, to the acceptance of other and to the idealisation of the self. Perhaps the most important statement to arise form the Greenhouse Conference was from The Dance Makers Portfolio in which  Lloyd Newson says “ Beauty is the breath of human experience - the struggle can also be beautiful. And so much of dance is to deny the struggle.”

 

It is clear that we need to encourage students to think more deeply about the world they inhabit,   to be more concerned with understanding differences than eradicating them....to celebrate their (bio) diversity and their uniqueness in short we need to be educating people whose concerns are both aesthetic and ethical - and dare I say it, we need such people far more than we need ballet dancers.

 

We are poised on the brink of massive technological changes and are woefully bereft of ethical or aesthetic perspectives with which to evaluate them. 

 

An integrated approach to dance  may yet help students make sense of their actions and the consequences of their actions in a way that our education system and formal dance training has so far failed to achieve.   Our first lessons in integration teach us that we are connected to each other and to the world. That what we touch touches us back, that  we are an integral part of our environment and that our unique and collective acts can make a difference.

 

In concluding I would like to refer to another lift  that has recently been imposed without consideration of scale, without dialogue and without regard for actual human need, but because someone thought it was a good idea.

In addition to the Dome in Greenwich you may have heard that the government has decided to spend more money, not on the infra structure, training and resources so badly needed to implement its own white paper on integration in schools, not on a new transport system, not on health but...yes,  on  the worlds largest ferris wheel -  in other words an enormous, inappropriate and completely useless lift.

Sure we can all be swept off our feet by its size and power but where lies our dignity if we offered fairground rides instead of choices?

 

“a bad politician confuses measurement with proportionality”.

 

I hope that this conference will enable dance to reach those who have hitherto been excluded but I hope too that the insights gained by those of us on the peripheries are not lost on the dance world. And that if these insights are seen and understood we might even be on our way to creating a physical education worthy of its name.....an education which is capable of embodying human values, and communicating human concerns on a human scale... and maybe just maybe that will enable dance to make a difference in the 21st century.