The Dance and Normality symposium held at the Musee d’ethonographie, Geneva on 2nd June saw an international line-up of speakers and performers hosted by IntegrART. Trish Wheatley responds to the international picture for the theory and practice of dance and normality, presented on the day.
Aside from the overwhelming impression that this event has been organised from a very non-disabled perspective, without thoughtful wheelchair spaces and a very present absence of the deaf community, I was excited by the line-up of speakers. Not being a dance specialist, it was the theoretically focused lectures that grabbed my interest, not least Lennard J. Davis from the US on the ‘Beginning of Normal, and The End of Normal’.
He started the session by explaining that the word ‘normal’ didn’t come into the English language until 1830 and that it therefore did not exist for most of history. The word then started to be used by statistician and eugenicist Sir Francis Galton to describe the average human, but has over time come to be synonymous with the hyper-human normality we’re bombarded with in everyday culture. Davis argued that in the US normality is becoming replaced with a celebration of diversity. This diversity, particularly in the States, has a trend that omits disabled people.
Davis explained that “diversity doesn’t include a lot. It doesn’t include disabled people. It also doesn’t include obese people, anorexic people, people with depression, the homeless, the comatose, women who are beaten, addicts and so on and I think that’s an important point because diversity itself seems like an all inclusive category but in cultural imagination it’s a very limited one.” He argued that in a neo-liberal culture, in which choice is paramount, disability is not a choice and it therefore “remains as it always has been - in the medical paradigm.”
Davis proposed that rather than going for the “medical model or the social model, the arts model seems to be one that allows us to think of disability as something that is structural, that is part of dance, that adds to dance. The kinds of challenges and opportunities that disabled people can offer to dance are something that will actually make dance better and bigger and more interesting. If we understand we are moving from normality to diversity but that the arts allow us to open diversity up in a way that perhaps other kinds of social structures don’t, then I think that we can see that dance and normality actually go together, both as complements and antagonists, to create something new. It’s a kind of dynamic, a dialectic that will create a new synthesis of something.”
It is an interesting idea and definitely one that deserves further exploration and debate. Theoretically and conceptually for artists and programmers it seems to support a creative case approach and values the arts as a transformational tool for wider societal development.
So how does this impact on audiences for disability arts? Carrie Sandahl, also from the US, explained the development of disability arts in the States. “First we saw a rather didactic rebellion against mainstream culture that raised political consciousness. Then, we were deconstructing mainstream stereotypes and defined and rejected ableism and disability oppression. Now in the US we are seeing something new emerge. We are seeing something that is less didactic and instead forges a disability politics with disability phenomenology to create new generative aesthetic possibilities. But if you’re not inside this movement it would be very difficult to know that all of this transformative disability art is happening.”
She further explored the idea of the “problem of reception”, that being the way in which audiences receive the work, bringing along with them their preconceived notions of what disability is and what it means to be disabled. She said: “Many audiences often do not recognise or understand the complexity of disability art because the disability condition is widely presumed to be a state of incompetence. Incompetency and creativity are paradoxical. If disabled people are fundamentally incompetent then how can they be creative? Because both being incompetent and creative is paradoxical, many audiences encountering disability art become, for want of a better word, ‘stuck’ and as they are stuck puzzling through this paradox they regrettably miss a good deal of the work’s content.”
Sandahl gave examples of the ‘incompetency/ creativity’ paradox from a number of perspectives including students claiming that “this course made me realise that disabled people are people too”, a critic, who devotes 760 words of a review to “grappling with his own ableist notions of intellectually disabled people and how the performance raises questions for him about the nature of acting”, whilst only using 96 words to discuss the work itself and idea that disabled artists, because of their virtuosity, can’t be disabled at all. By addressing these areas Sandahl highlighted the hurdles we have to cross to establish that: “disabled artists are people, real artists, and are authentically impaired”. She went on to say that we need to take this on board to “better understand the context in which disabled artists ground their aesthetics.”
She said that in response to the incompetency/creativity paradox these artists claim: “We are not a metaphor. We are not a negation. We do not demarcate the outer boundaries of humanity. We are in our own right. We do not judge ourselves by the same criteria that have been used to exclude and deny us. We embrace the dignity in risk. We are talking amongst ourselves.” She goes on “So what are we saying? Disability aesthetics, for the most part, assumes its own existence. We are not going to debate any more whether or not it exists, we just take it for granted. It centres the disabled body, mind and senses.”
The specific implications are that an arts model, such as Davis described earlier in the day, is established and this impacts on dance by developing new ways of working. Sandahl explains: “What a lot of people are talking about now is instead of integrated dance, centering the disabled body. It reflects a disability experience, either in content or form, it’s created for us and by us, not merely about us, and its accessible. It often explores intersectionality, so a lot of the work is not only thinking about oneself in terms of ones impairment but as it intersects with race, gender, sexuality and class. These are particularly focussed on concerns because there’s so much difference in privilege depending on the intersectionality of identities that one possesses.”
Whilst not all the day was so heavily based in theory, it did give me food for thought in thinking about how we articulate contemporary disability arts and was a pertinent reminder to be aware that our wider audiences don’t necessarily come from a position through which they can understand the nuances of the work.
The performances varied in style and content immensely throughout the day and were maybe an appropriate reflection of the debate sparked. I couldn’t help but notice that some of the Brits amongst the audience felt much of the programming wasn’t helpful in moving the conversation forward. However, I’d welcome the day when we could invite our European colleagues here for another iteration of Dance and Normality from a British perspective.
IntegrART, is a biennial initiative, which has been linking up local festivals, presenting national and international productions, and organising symposiums in cooperation with key partners since 2007.
Editor’s note: The use of language around disability has been changed to reflect the UK social model language approach. So we have replaced ‘people with disabilities’ with ‘disabled people’.