Towards and Understanding: Radical Inclusion

By Eric Kupers

November 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I have begun to call my work Radically Inclusive Performance. While I usually distrust labels due to their tendency to solidify that which is ultimately fluid, I find that I have to use them to interface with the world around me, and that radically inclusive is as close as I can get to describing the kind of performance I’m most interested in. Intuitively this description fits comfortably. However, on closer examination these words are each vague and easily generalizing. When put together the possibilities for confusion multiply. So I am on a quest to better understand what the label Radical Inclusion can point towards. As I search I find multiple meanings and further questions.

I was raised in a family steeped in social change movements. As far back as I can remember we were marching in demonstrations against wars, racism, sexism and injustices of all kinds, on a regular basis. I never questioned the idea that all people are equal and deserve equal respect and care. That was just the way of things.

When I was twelve I discovered dance and it felt like coming home. I suddenly had something that I loved more than anything else, that made others happy and that (with a steady and vigorous effort) I could do well. Dance became the primary focus of my life until a series of experiences in high school left me feeling alienated, unsatisfied and seeking a deeper meaning and connection to something universal. I left dance for months at a time in order to study visual arts, engage in civil disobedience and community organizing, experiment with psychedelic drugs, lock myself in my room to wallow in confusion, and to learn meditation and other spiritual practices. But I kept finding myself back in the dance studio, remembering once again that this was the place I felt most alive.

By the time I graduated from college I had a strong sense of three major currents running through my life: dance, working for social change, and spiritual practice–but each felt like a separate commitment. I would exhaust myself running from dance classes and performances to meditation workshops to demonstrations on the street. I developed a deep longing to unite these three pursuits into one path, and have spent the last 20 years wrestling with this notion, which has transformed into what I am calling Radical Inclusion.

I believe that this integration is just the beginning of many years of exploration. Radical Inclusion implies that everything is always in process–there’s no way to reach the “promised land.” In an infinite universe, there is always more to include and “radical” is more of a call to action and inquiry, a reminder to reach beyond our edges, than it is a description of any fixed state. Rather than containing the work I want to do, this label is a constant prodding to expand and deepen.

On November 18th I will have a conversation onstage with Joe Goode about this notion of Radical Inclusion, followed by interdisciplinary performance and then a dance party with Dandelion Dancetheater and guests. This will be the first in a series of events in which I bring my questions and theories to important artists, activists and spiritual teachers who place inclusion at the center of their work. It seems fitting to me to interview Joe first, as he blew the field of performance wide open for me and showed me the possibility of integrating my seemingly conflicting passions.

I first saw Joe’s work in the early 1990s, when I ventured up to San Francisco from UC Santa Cruz with Dandelion co-founder Kimiko Guthrie. It was a sold out show of Joe’s Disaster Series at Theater Artaud. Up until that point I had experienced modern dance as a highly abstract, intellectual form that helped us experience aspects of life through a transcendence of them. Joe’s work turned my understanding upside down. It was gritty and raw. It was up-close and profoundly human. He brought vigorous dance together with speaking, breath, emotional disclosure, identity questions, sexuality, humor, and extreme vulnerability.

I remember feeling so excited throughout the show, and as soon as it ended walking straight backstage and thanking Joe profusely as he stood half-naked in his dressing room. I felt validated. I felt charged with a sacred mission.

Thus began my immersion in the Bay Area’s fertile dance environments. I studied with Joe and his company intensively for a number of years, and then danced in the companies of two very different artists, who both became important mentors for me: Margaret Jenkins and Della Davidson. With Margy I went further into the nature of abstraction–seeing all movement as embodiments of un-nameable human energies that must be danced to be understood. With Della I explored the shadow sides of myself and the world around me, and I came to appreciate the power of my rounded, fleshy body as an instrument of grounded sensuality. With both of these artists I learned about the possibilities and challenges of highly collaborative work. Meanwhile Joe’s work remained a beacon for me as an artist–a call to find my own, original voice.

Throughout my adult life I have also been engaged in Buddhist mindfulness meditation. I have an eclectic meditation practice that brings together many Buddhist traditions, and that has been a rock for me throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of an artistic life. Mindfulness meditation can be a practical application of Radical Inclusion. A basic meditation tenet is to welcome everything that arises in the mind and heart without aversion or clinging. This is another way of looking at what I learned from Joe’s composition workshops: to take whatever feels charged or important and to bring it into the work at hand, even if it is uncomfortable and even if I don’t understand how it all fits together. There is a sense in both meditation and performance creation that everything that emerges is part of the journey, from the most profound revelations to the most petty neuroses. And what if this idea is carried directly into a vision for social change? How can the ways we honor our inner selves mirror how we treat others? How can we celebrate the diverse layers of identity in the unique ways that art does as we work towards a just world? The spiritual, political and creative landscapes all intersect in these questions.

I have actively applied this principle of inclusion to my work. Throughout my relationship with dance I have been told I am too fat and that my body isn’t right for this field. This seems in direct contradiction to what I see as a foundation of modern dance, namely an embracing of all aspects of the human experience. So I sought out bodies of many shapes for my projects, which led me to working with people with disabilities and learning about physically integrated dance, which led me to curiosity about how diverse artistic forms could complement and expand each other, which led me to the ensemble theater movement, which has led me to develop the wildly diverse, collaborative, boundary-pushing ensemble I now do most of my work with.

Last year Joe and I happened to be at the same mindfulness meditation retreat and had the opportunity to see each other in new ways. This felt like the completion of one cycle of our relationship and the beginning of the next. I’m taking his serendipitous re-emergence in my life as a sign that I again have something new to learn with him. I’m looking forward to speaking with Joe about what led him to his initial groundbreaking experiments in merging dance, theater and personal narratives. I’m curious about how his creative approaches have evolved through the various stages of his career and how his Buddhist practice interacts with his art making. And I carry with me things that Joe said in his workshops 15-plus years ago, that are crucial aspects of my evolving work. I want to re-visit these ideas with him to see how they might have shifted and deepened. Joe first came into my life like a giant wave that washed away ideas about what performance was supposed to be.

I was left with nothing but my hunger for an artistic path that could have the same electricity as I witnessed in his. Now that I have traveled a good distance into my own artistic electricity it is a blessing to meet with Joe anew this fall, and for a few brief moments explore what surprises there might be for us to encounter and include in what is to come.

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

Eric Kupers is the co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater and an Associate Professor of Dance at Cal State University East Bay. He directs and performs with Bandelion and the CSUEB Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble, both of which experiment vigorously year-round with dance, music, theater, spiritual practice, and social activism for people with and without disabilities and of diverse body identities and artistic backgrounds. More info at: and