SPEAK: Differences

By Claire Cunningham, Jess Curtis, and Luke Pell

October 1, 2016, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
woman with crutches climbs from crouched man
Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis. Photo by hagolani.com

The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight is an international co-production by SF choreographer Jess Curtis and Scottish choreographer Claire Cunningham in collaboration with UC Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë, dramaturge Luke Pell (UK), video artists Yoann Trellu (FR) and composer Matthias Herrmann (GER), that will enjoy a ‘rolling’ world premiere that began in September and will continue through November in London, Glasgow, San Francisco and Berlin. These factual performance details normally follow an article like this one as a nice little plug for our upcoming performances, presented by YBCA at CounterPulse, but we are leading with it not as a plug for our show, but because it’s an opportunity to consider a wide range of differences in cultural practices involving dance, body-based performance, modes of perceptual experience, and embodied diversity in the world. In particular in this conversation we’d like to articulate some of those differences and the ways we’ve encountered them in the dance/performance communities in the Bay Area, Berlin, and the United Kingdom.

Jess Curtis: It has been quite amazing over the last several years, having been brought over to make works for Blue-Eyed Soul Dance Company and Croi Glan Integrated Dance and collaborating with Claire on her piece Mobile, to experience the incredible infrastructure that surrounds the work of self-identified disabled artists in the UK. Multiple festivals, like Unlimited in London and now Glasgow and DaDa Fest in Liverpool, highlight a wide range of artists from what really feels like a burgeoning scene of contemporary art-making. In addition to a whole range of individual artists making dance, performance and live art of all kinds, there are many professional, touring companies like Candoco, Graeae Theater Company, Extant Theater, Marc Brew Company, Birds of Paradise Theatre and StopGap. In a country that has only about half again the population of the state of California, there is an extremely rich diversity of work by artists who identify as disabled. Having enjoyed the physically diverse work of Bay Area dance and performance pioneers Neil Marcus, Frank Moore, AXIS Dance Company and Dandelion Dance Theater for many years, as well as the work of Bill Shannon, Emery Blackwell, Alice Sheppard and the late Lisa Bufano, this sense of a much larger scene and a much more developed cultural landscape for physically diverse artists in the UK really excited me.

Luke Pell: It’s probably important for us to note that the strength of this work in the UK rests—in part—upon the radical disability rights movement of the past thirty years. The introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 employed the Social Model of Disability in order to address reasonable adjustments that ensure disabled people could fully participate in society. The social model—unlike the medical model of disability—doesn’t locate disability in the individual, but in the physical and attitudinal barriers found in the world. Claire Cunningham: While I understand that the strength of the UK scene is due to many of the reasons outlined above I also know that one of the defining differences in the UK is …..money. Money has been invested in disability arts/art-by-disabled-artists, pure and simple. I would be both an ignorant, and privileged, fool to pretend that my position, or my career were not the result of genuine investment, financially as well as creatively, in an artist.

My specific degree of “success” as an independent artist and disabled artist(1) is directly related not just to being in the UK but to being in Scotland, as in recent years the Scottish Government chose to invest in culture as something nationally important, and—significantly—as an “export.” Our national arts body/funder, Creative Scotland, chose to go beyond legislation—e.g. basic equality and diversity requirements with regard to disability. It chose to invest in disabled artists as an area of specific artistic focus and development. It supported the development of artists like myself to research and make work, to pursue bespoke training (because institutional training was and is still not particularly suited to supporting disabled dance artists), and to platform that work at home and abroad. No matter where I perform in my career nothing will be as vital as my performance in 2008 at DaDaFest in Liverpool—the UK’s longest running disability arts festival. For the first time I knew I was playing to a room of my peers—to other disabled people, many of whom were quite politically active, indeed militant regarding disability. I knew I would genuinely be told the truth about my work, and I would be told if it reflected badly on disabled people generally. There is a weight to the sense of responsibility that comes with being identified with any minority group. You are seen as representing everyone. Every work I make, every public image, every tweet, document, etc., I have to check, to vet that it is not reinforcing any negative stereotypes of disability, not taking backwards steps, and that can be exhausting, and then of course I am also a female choreographer on top of that…but that is a whole other article!

LP: Alongside the aforementioned touring repertory companies, a number of independents: Mat Fraser, Liz Carr, Caroline Parker, Janice Parker, Tony Heaton and The Disabled Avant Garde—amongst many others—have led the way as artist and activist. They all create highly politicized work across differing artistic disciplines— dance, theatre, cabaret, comedy, visual and live art—challenging norms in terms of form, aesthetics, access and equality.

In 2011 the Live Art Development Agency hosted “Restock, Reflect, Rethink 2: Live Art and Disability.” This was the first time that I had been part of what seemed to be a genuine convergence between peers and colleagues practicing in live/performance art, disability arts, contemporary dance and choreography in a proactive and provocative way. The symposium spoke not only to physical diversity, but to a spectrum of diverse aesthetics, ideologies and embodied experiences.

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis. Photo by hagolani.com

CC: For me it is vital that my work exists in two “worlds.” In the disability arts realm—in festivals created specifically by and for disabled people—and for want of a better term, in “mainstream” contexts. Because until “mainstream” festivals become accessible to diverse groups of people—e. g. from my distinct perspective: to visually impaired, D/deaf or hard of hearing individuals, those with physical or learning impairments or neurodiverse individuals—then disability arts festivals provide a vital and safe environment. A space of shared experience, of welcome and an understanding of people’s needs and that those needs are valid and not a hassle, not additional, not a burden, but just different… at present not many venues or festivals make disabled or D/deaf people feel welcome.

LP: We have begun to see a proliferation of permutations rather than assimilation into what has gone before. Artists such as Rita Marcalo, Catherine Long, Caroline Bowditch, Dan Daw and Jo Bannon have drawn upon their unique lived experiences, the particularity of their non-normative movement patterns, morphologies and sensorial differences to further expand understandings of who can dance, what dance and the choreographic can be, what it might, look, feel, sound like and what other kinds of spaces and structures this work might manifest in, as well as main stage repertory companies.

JC: In Germany on the other hand, the state of physically diverse work, and the awareness of it, is much younger. When my company Gravity made our first piece that included professional disabled performers and addressed issues of physical diversity, Under the Radar in 2007, we had a hard time finding any work or awareness of these issues in Berlin at all. There were a couple of theater companies—Theater Thikwa and Ramba Zamba—that, for me, fall much more into the realm of Community Theater, work that is intended to provide inclusive creative options for people with disabilities. Often well-funded and clearly doing important work, these companies feel to me a bit like social projects—providing therapeutically productive, “inspiring,” participatory experiences for disabled people, while still mostly led and organized by non-disabled people. One exception in Germany was the work of DIN A13 in Cologne. Led by disabled choreographer Gerda Konig, this company has tackled a variety of issues, travels internationally and firmly aligns itself in the category of professional artmakers. I use the term “Community Theater” or “Community Art” differently than the term “Community-based,” which might refer to work generated from the cultural experience of specific communities of identity that we use often in the US. This is one more example of how regional differences, language and terminologies affect even the categories we imagine in different places. The distinction of “professional” versus “community” raises complex intersections of training, economics, self-determination, and social justice and is a larger topic than we have room for here(2).

CC: What has been interesting is how the work I make is programmed for different reasons in different contexts. Sometimes of course my work is programmed because I am a disabled artist and programmers are trying to instigate social change and encourage the development of art for/by disabled people in their own countries, and I feel it is my responsibility at times to try to support this. However I know that often my work is programmed because it presents something new to programmers, (and this is when we get closer to this question of being “main- streamed”). For those festivals/venues my work is presenting questions around aesthetics, bodies, what is dance and who should dance…and for many European programmers that is the way in—the art, not the “social cause.” And in this regard, the long-term development of art by disabled artists in the UK has finally taken work to the level that the artistic value and the quality is not only possible but recognized, and indeed can’t be questioned. I think it has been useful to reorient the gaze of the programmers to see that dance, of all the art forms, has the most to gain from engaging with (as opposed to appropriating from) disabled people. The lived experience of disability is a state of perpetual re/negotiation with the world around us —how our bodies move in space and time, and acquiring different relationships to these things—which is surely also a possible definition of choreography. The nature of this idea—how the lived experience of disability shapes my perception, indeed navigation, of the world—has been a foundation of my work for many years, and it has been fascinating in this current project to discover the resonances it has with our philosophical collaborator Alva Noë’s theories of “enactive perception.”

LP: Jess and Claire’s project exists in that liminal territory between dance and live art, between philosophy and choreography, between access and assimilation, equality and difference, mainstream and margins—a queer, open space of possibility, interrupting and disrupting the mainstream—offering different volumes of information for different embodied experiences, making space for more imagination.

JC: Since Under the Radar in 2007, discourses around disability have continued to evolve in the US. Recent advancements include Dance/ NYC’s recently inaugurated task force, which published a report/study entitled Disability. Dance. Artistry. that our colleague Alice Sheppard was a part of shaping. AXIS Dance Company hosted the first ever ‘National Convening on the Future of Physically Integrated Dance‘ earlier this year in Washington D.C. One of the things that has excited us most about working on this project as a team of international collaborators is the coming together of differing cultures, contexts, and sensibilities. Not just in terms of a disability politics and the very particular lineage of those movements and artists in each country, but the lineages of differing cultural politics, people politics, aesthetic sensibilities, ethical practices, economies and ecologies. These very different lived experiences and realities intersect, come from different margins, collaborate, wrestle, listen, touch, and dance together to make something greater than the sum of their parts. This is only possible by being open to difference, to really being open to difference, to not disappear difference.

1. Living in Scotland, I [Claire] work under the concept of the Social Model of Disability as defined in the UK, therefore in this article I am using the term “disabled artist/people,” as opposed to “people with disabilities” as is more often practiced in the US. I personally refer to myself as a “self-identifying disabled artist.”

2. I’ve written previously on this topic for the magazine Tanz-raum Berlin (in German): tanzraumberlin.de/Community-Arts- Inklusion–435-1.html?id=356

Claire Cunningham is a performer and creator of multidisciplinary performance based in Glasgow, Scotland. One of the UK’s most acclaimed and internationally renowned self-identifying disabled artists, her work ranges from intimate solo pieces to large ensemble works such as 12 for Candoco Dance Company, and Menage a Trois created in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland. clairecunningham.co.uk. Jess Curtis makes, watches, teaches and writes about body-based performance in San Francisco, Berlin and internationally. He is the artistic director of Jess Curtis/Gravity and holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies with a focus in experimental, body-based performance from UC Davis. Fascinated by detail, nuances of time, texture, memory and landscape, Luke Pell is a maker and curator based in Scotland. Noticing threads that weave between people and place his work takes form as intimate encounters, poetic objects, installations and designed environments for physical and virtual spaces. He also works as a dramaturge with other artists imagining alternative contexts for performance, participation and discourse that might reveal wisdoms for living.