Embodiment and Liberation: It’s not a sin to tell your story

By Katie Gaydos


Sins Invalid–a multi-media performance project that explores sexuality, embodiment and the disabled body–is dedicated to telling the kind of stories that empower, liberate and transform both our individual bodies and larger body politic.

Artist-political activists, Patty Berne and Leroy Moore co-founded Sins Invalid in 2005 in hopes of creating a cultural outlet and political framework where people involved in multiple communities with complex identities could come together. Their vision: “that we will be liberated as whole beings–as disabled/as queer/as brown/as black/as genderqueer/as female-or male-bodied–as we are far greater whole than partitioned” boldly goes where few (if any) performance groups have gone before. “Being Black and disabled as an activist and artist, I never had a platform where I could mix the two with all of my identities” explains co-founder Moore. “Before Sins Invalid I helped run Disabled Advocates of Minorities Organization where we tried for four years to mix art and activism as people of color with disabilities. However Sins Invalid deals with an issue that as an adult I came back to often but in isolation–and that was sexuality, embodiment and the intersecting of identities that goes far beyond race and disability.”

By bringing sexuality and disability onto the stage and into public awareness Sins Invalid hopes to initiate a movement around body liberation. Berne suggests that while bodies are often seen as private and personal, the experience of living in a body is something we all collectively share and can relate to. “Disability is often seen as an individual or personal issue as opposed to a collective political and social oppression. In shifting people’s consciousness around the way we all understand our own bodies and embodiment we’re hoping to build a movement around disability justice.”

Incorporating dance, theater, film, poetry and everything in between, Sins Invalid dares to challenge the pervasive perceptions and misperceptions surrounding sin, validity, and invalids. Their upcoming 5th anniversary show at Z Space entitled Knotting Stories Over Time and Geography will investigate the ways in which stories shape, embody and manifest within our physical bodies. “Our stories are in our bodies as much as they are in our language,” says Berne when asked about the inspiration for this year’s performance theme.

Stories offer insight and call our attention to histories that are often overlooked. Berne suggests, “People often don’t acknowledge that people with disabilities have existed throughout history.” Sins Invalid is particularly interested in the kind of stories that exist (and have existed throughout history) in embodied forms.

“The idea for Knotting Stories came about in part after thinking about the ways in which resistance stories have often existed as embodied stories” says Berne. “For example, during the Underground Railroad there wasn’t and couldn’t be an overt communication surrounding [taking] the route to freedom. People couldn’t leave maps or they risked being discovered or killed….People would lay out maps by way of quilts; the knotting on the fabric of the quilts would stand in for and embody maps. We see this kind of covert resistance embodied in cultural work throughout history whether in the art of Capoeira or the singing of Freedom Songs.”

It’s the facility of performance and artistic practice–engaging stories and histories, conveying messages and provoking unprecedented resonance–that inspired Moore and Berne to make Sins Invalid a performance group instead of simply a political organization. “We could put out the same messages in language-based education workshops, but we chose performance because we know what a powerful medium it is not just for the audience as listeners of the story but for the storytellers as well.” Berne further explains that the beauty of performance and art lies in its ability to present complex messages. “We can communicate what might take eight hours in a workshop format, in a two-hour performance. Moreover, with performance we can layer multiple complex meanings and subtly nuanced concepts in a way that’s essentially unparalleled.”

If you’ve ever seen a Sins Invalid production then you’ll know that the nuance in which complex concepts of race, disability, gender and sexuality are directly confronted is what makes this company so spectacular. With a wide array of artists all tackling the often confusing and conflicting concept of identity, a Sins performance elicits a wide range of emotions; experiencing everything from joy, surprise and awe to sadness, sympathy and laughter, you’re likely to leave the theater transformed. I can attest to the fact that when I got up to leave after the recent Sins Invalid Resident Alien performance I felt more centered in my body than when I walked in.

Sins Invalid artist Nomy Lamm attributes this transformative experience to the power of performance. “I think of performance as a kind of ritual in the sense that artists bring together all of these different energies–that are usually stored in our own heads and bodies–and put them into a shape that can be transmitted to a room full of people” says Lamm. “As a performer you do all this work and experience all this build up for a five minute performance which can often lead to a kind of crash or uncertainty of the lasting effect of your work. But the articulation of experience is transmitted into the audiences’ bodies and hearts so that when they leave the theater they can take that experience and idea with them out into their lives.”

While Lamm suggests that such a radical transformative experience is ultimately about truly being in the body and being in our experiences she also suggests that the fast-paced, media-driven culture we live in makes it difficult to be centered in our bodies. Perhaps before we can truly be centered in our bodies we have to decide for ourselves what it means to have a body and what makes our bodies beautiful. Berne suggests that we ought to re-think the conventional and confining framework for beauty. “When we think of beauty or sexuality what’s typically evoked is a very hetero-normative framework, a very racialized image and a very gendered image. But that’s not the reality of what beauty is, or the reality of what it means to be human. Every body has its beauty and its strength.”

Likewise, when asked about her own relationship to her body, Sins Invalid performer Maria Palacios questions the narrow ways society generally thinks about beauty. “Society’s obsession with unattainable physical perfection has caused people with and without disabilities to have very distorted and unhealthy body images. Sins Invalid brings to the surface the volcanic passion of our hunger and desire which for too long had been held captive by chains of ignorance that condemn the disabled body to shame and segregation” says Palacios. “My body has known such shame and has lived the nightmares of being labeled and judged, rejected and denied the right to feel beautiful. It is my hope that my personal journey to self-love be the message I share through my participation in this year’s show.”

When the majority of stories we encounter in our everyday lives seem to continually re-enforce the idea that our bodies don’t meet the narrow standards of an essentially arbitrary idea of normalcy and beauty, it’s empowering to know that artists–like those involved with Sins Invalid–are dedicated to telling and performing stories that re-write and re-inscribe the body as intrinsically beautiful. When the lines that define and shape us refuse to be neat or clean-cut, coming to terms and mapping our bodies can be both scary and complicated. “What Sins Invalid is essentially doing is demonstrating the possibilities of the human body and demonstrating the power and strength of disability.” says Berne. “Art and performance speak to our imagination. If we can see something as possible then we’re more likely to make that possible.”

Sins Invalid 5th Anniversary Performance
Fri-Sat, Apr 8-9, 8pm; Sun, Apr 10, 7pm
Z Space, 450 Florida St., SF
Saturday’s performance is audio described and ASL interpreted by Stage Hands.
Wheelchair accessible.

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of In Dance.

Katie Gaydos is a freelance dance writer and has contributed to The Daily Californian, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance, and Emmaly Wiederholt’s blog Stance On Dance. Katie has been dancing with KUNST-STOFF Dance Company since Fall 2011.