Contact with an audience – inclusive dance performance in public space
by Vera Varhegyi Élan Interculturel, France
What was the last dance performance you saw? Did you feel a connection with the performers? How did it leave you feeling?
Or – just in case – When was your last dance performance? As a performer, did you feel a connection with your audience? How did this leave you feeling?
In this third chapter of our project, we explored how an inclusive dance performance (preferably in a public space) can become a means to create a genuine, special contact between dancers and their audience, stimulating reciprocity, and possibly even a new way of considering our own relationship to body, and dance. Here you will find a short intro on why we think this is possible. If you’re keener on understanding how to make this happen, go straight to our video lessons.
Using dance in such a context may seem counterintuitive at first: shouldn’t we try to find a disembodied form of communication instead, which hides the bodies, and so hides physical disability, instead of putting the body very much at the centre of attention? For us, such an “avoidant” strategy would only make disability more of a taboo, and suggest that there is something wrong with disabled people, that they/we should act as if we did not perceive it. Instead, what we propose is to welcome differences for what they are and go beyond them to come into contact with each other. But is real contact even possible? Could communication really be the “answer to the painful divisions between self and other, private and public, and inner thought and outer world” (Durnham 1999:2)? How?
Before going any further let’s stop at the word ‘dance’. Dance can mean so many different practices, and especially in the modern, European context, it is all too often a reference to carefully crafted choreographies in which bodies are confined with precision and discipline. A practice relying on the “the body as a vehicle is trained and disciplined as if it were a well-organised machine” 1.
In the following, we won’t talk about this type of dance. Rather, we’ll talk about dance as a genuine form of expression. In this sense, Jarmo Skön, artistic director of Vimmart describes “Human beings are created to express themselves and dance is the most natural way for humans to express themselves. A small child automatically dances in an optimal position, free from the locks of body and mind. 2». Dance in this understanding is a space of getting in touch with one’s own authenticity, one’s embodied self. This dance is often anchored in some form of improvisation, even if by the time it becomes a performance it undergoes several rounds of collective sharing and elaboration. This improvisation is a precious starting point “when we throw ourselves into dance improvisation thereby realizing our bodies as places for discovery rather than bodies as instruments or management, we enter into the space of holistic understanding where body and mind are intertwined” 3. But dance is not only personal, it has an important social, even political dimension: for Vasileios Oikonomou, founder and artistic director of THEAMA, dance from its first appearance is a ritual practice that is definitely characterised as a political act in a society that is increasingly looking for the distinct limits of the personal space between the members and their interaction in a democratic context.
Whenever possible, we recommend involving live music to support, inspira and accompany the dance. Adding music to a group of dancers has the effect of connecting two complementary creative worlds. The beating of the rhythm refers to an inner connection. In addition to being experienced live, the rhythm allows a faster connection between all the actors (musicians, dancers, audience) present. Throughout a performance, one can feel the synergy between musicians and dancers, which allows everyone to feel supported, helped, accompanied. The music has an intangible effect that leads the dancers to move, to gather and to get in touch in view of a collective creation.
Why appear in front of an audience?
“Being in front of an audience for me feels like home. It’s the place where I can be myself. I love to be seen. I love to create feelings for others. I love to tell them my ideas, my story. It doesn’t matter whether the audience is big or small if it’s at a big theatre or at a small terrace. It feels like a huge warm hug (I was lucky not to have bad experiences) The thing I like most in the interaction is that I don’t know these people. I give myself, but it doesn’t matter what they think of me as a person. I do care if they enjoyed my performance of course but this is something out of my personal life. It’s this “bipolarity” of performance for me. They’re the most ‘’myself ‘’ moments because it’s not ‘’me’’. What I mean is that I’m behind a role or a condition and I serve this. In this, it feels great.” 4
“It’s a struggle. I’m deeply shy, I didn’t want to show myself” confesses one of our colleagues. A clown performer described appearing in front of the audience as “terrifying”. An audience possesses indeed the power to evaluate, judge and potentially reject. However, it is the same act of performing that makes the artists feel “alive” “to go beyond themselves, to sense emotions that make them exist”. This duplicity may sound familiar. In fact, it is a potential in each act of communication. In each interaction, beyond exchanging information we create a relationship, and we offer pieces of ourselves, parts of our identity for the other to recognise or reject. Sapiens are a deeply social species; we exist through our interactions and relations.
“We, as human beings, have the need to be seen, to be recognised. We all have our stories to tell and people have always had the need to share. For me, when I’m performing, I am strong. I feel capable. I am seen and people really hear what I have to say. It’s empowering and I truly believe that our participants experience that too when given a chance to show themselves in front of the audience.» 5
Psychologist Irving Yalom talks about an “ontological loneliness” which is much more than being alone. It is about the unicity of each person’s subjective perspective on the world, and the desire for sharing this perspective, for a witness who could understand and recognize this perspective.
“We want to be seen and heard; we want to express our emotions. Stories have been told through dance for thousands of years, it has been part of rituals and has bonded people into communities. It has been part of communal experience, joy, sadness, passion, fear and love. Performing in front of others is written in our DNA and creates a connection with others. Performing and dancing is key for mutual recognition.” 6
“Mutual recognition” as a rare experience of seeing, responding to and validating each other’s identity and authenticity is a key concept in the dance animateuring method developed by Raisa Foster that our Finnish partners shared with the project team. The performance is a privileged moment when such mutual recognition can emerge.
For members of the Contact team, making a dance workshop without a performance is like preparing to pronounce our favourite sentence without ever getting the chance of saying it. But the performance is not only a unique event for the performer, but also for the audience. Sophie B Bulbulyan, co-founder and artistic director of DK-BEL emphasizes the emotions that are created in the audience through the contact with performance. A performance changes something in their audience.
« it can be very empowering to the audience as well to witness that moment when the performer is present — not trying to perform, but just doing the task and focusing on the moment. That is the moment when we can feel the connection, the contact between audience and performer. » 7
Vasileios Oikonomou, founder, and artistic director of THEAMA likes to approach performance through the concept of ὄψις (opsis) – the sixth and most important component of tragedy, according to Aristotle, as presented in the Poetics treatise (Poetics 6.1450b16-17). The ὄψις of a performance is created by its «material» (actors, props, effects) configuration or modelling, according to the aesthetic perception of the director for the world. This also implies that we necessarily talk about uniqueness and not one ideal configuration. “The spectacle helps the play to impress and certainly creates the aesthetic of the play under the Director’s personal view. The aesthetic creation doesn’t require the ideal, but the unique arrangement of the performance, only thus can it sensitize, entertain and cause an appropriate reaction from the audience. Uniqueness constitutes perfection.” 8
This same interpretation of the term ὄψις, also has implications for the presence of disabled performers, as it “highlights the unique versus the ideal, and the emphasis of how moldability of the material’s scene, enables reconstruction of the theatrical teaching method in professional disabled actors.
Each disabled actor should be considered as a special «material» that contributes to the unique arrangement of a scene…” 9
Why make public performances with members of marginalised groups?
Art workshops are sometimes used as “occupational therapy” or events for the inclusion of members of different marginalised groups, putting all the focus on the process that participants experience. For artist Werner Moron, this implies that we reinforce a difference between art that results from such processes and art that is real and worthy that is only made by “proper” professional artists. For Werner Moron just as for the artistic directors of the Contact project, the public performance is a necessary step that is the culmination of the joint work, that gives it direction and validates it. Yet Eugene Van Erven warns (2014) warns us also of the risks and stakes implied: involving people in situations of vulnerability or exclusion implies the responsibility of protecting them and not putting them in difficult situations. Showing a performance that is not ready, that would not satisfy an audience can have detrimental affect both for the audience and the performers. The audience would have their preconceptions and stereotypes reinforced (e.g.: disabled people can’t and shouldn’t dance) and the performers would see all the trust and confidence that built up through the process just vanish. For Van Erven, enthusiastic or cynical community artists and “their institutional sponsors” all too often confuse participation with social inclusion. Too often, the underlying logic seems to be the following: “just provide an aesthetically framed platform for under-represented groups to express themselves and you will have made a substantial contribution to their social empowerment and integration ». Such logic, however, is based more on instrumentalization than real participation and may ultimately prove to be counter-productive for the cause of social cohesion and real encounter. 10
For Sophie Bulbulyan, co-founder and artistic director of DK-BEL, this is a crucial point: not to put disabled dancers in difficulty. Jarmo Skön also stresses the importance of making sure that the process of becoming a performer and meeting an audience is a safe one”. The performance should be a window on how relationships can be light and easy, not to provoke the audience and make the difference appear larger than life. That would trigger sensations of pity and neediness, making the gap bigger instead of reducing it. That’s just all wrong.
Why public space?
Show art to those who are not looking for it
For Sophie B, co-founder and artistic director of DK-BEL, the choice of the public space as the place of performance is connected to the essence of her mission. First, going to the theatre is only part of the habitus of a thin segment of society. Many others don’t share this practice and never attend performances. Making people discover what a performance is for the first time has a very special thrill.
Present inclusive dance outside of the social sector
What’s more, today, “inclusive dance” attracts only certain profiles of theatregoers. The mission is then also to surprise audiences who would not have chosen to see disabled people perform. As a passer-by expressed somewhere in Germany: “with your performance, you bring a change in perspective for every single person”. For Sophie and DK-BEL, real accessibility goes in both directions.
Remind people that dance is accessible for everyone
Archeological evidence tells us that dance was present at least 10.000 years ago in human societies, and we can find early historical records of its presence in ancient Greece, in the Bible, the Talmud, in early Chinese and Indian cultures, in fact wherever there are written or imaged historic accounts. But the story of dance may be much older than that of writing. In fact, dance may have been a way to transmit stories before the invention of writing. “Stories have been told through dance for thousands of years, it has been part of rituals and has bonded people into communities”. Moving together in the same rhythm is a powerful experience connecting individuals to the group, confirming a sense of belonging that contemporary Western people may know from discotheques and parties, but that underlies all ritual and collective dance practices. As such, dance was probably much more integrated into the daily lives of people, not restricted to a narrow circle of aficionados. Nor was it restricted to places specially dedicated to dancing, but rather present in public spaces. Our desire to bring the performance to public space wishes to honour this tradition and to remind everyone that dance is also accessible for them.
Some points of attention
Performing in a public space does carry more uncertainty than performing in regular places of performance, so it comes with extra precautions and points of attention. The concrete places and the right moments are selected carefully, thinking of the traffic, weather conditions, sounds, and of course accessibility. What concerns the relationship with the audience, Sophie’s position is not to offer any specific introduction or mediation beforehand. She prefers that the audience has the experience first, without bias or any specific preparation. After the performance however, there can be a space to exchange and chat, with members of the audience who are particularly touched, who are curious etc.
To sum up: the stakes of inclusive dance performances in public space
The dance performance of disabled dancers adds one more twist. Today, in Western societies there is a certain ambivalence concerning disability: social discourse confirms that disability does not reduce in any way our normality, or social membership, and does not impact our personal value or dignity. Yet there is still marginalization and a quite separate world is proposed for disabled people outside of work life, of collective or public space. For David Le Breton, a possible explanation of this phenomenon lies in an implicit rule of social interaction in our societies: bodies must be unnoticed in polite interaction. They should not make any noises (besides our speech), should not have a smell, should not remind us of our mammalian nature and should surrender to make the interaction fluid, with subtle mirroring of the other. It certainly should not show anything surprising, out of the ordinary. Whoever breaks this rule, by choice or constitution, disrupts the fluidity of the interaction, bringing embarrassment or anxiety. 11
A dance performance challenges this ambivalence and hiding from view, reclaiming embodiment, reclaiming the pleasure and beauty of movement whatever our physical constitution or sensorial disposition.
In this sense inclusive dance deserves maybe more than any other performance the comparison to a “rite of passage” which are rituals that mark some transformation that has social significance (such as a bar mitzvah, a graduation, or a wedding etc.). Performances can also be seen as a rite of passage, and “function as a transition between two states of more settled or conventional cultural activity”. 12
The “separation phase” is that of the preparation of the performance, the workshops building up to it, and the rehearsals. The performance itself is the threshold or liminal rite. And then there is the reincorporation to the community, in a different way. Inclusive dance performance however is as much a rite of passage for the audience as to the performers, establishing a new connection not so much to disability only, but to embodiment as such.
What can you learn in this chapter of video lessons and activity sheets?
In this segment we wish to share different ways of building a public performance based on simple dance or music activities. These activities are similar in style to the ones introduced in the first chapter, where we showed how contact between people can emerge through moving and making music together. Our second chapter showed different strategies and aspects of creating collective choreographies building on these simple accessible propositions. Here we show how the same pedagogical thread can lead us to create public performances: how you can take, for instance, an idea such as “getting out of your bubble” (see the video lessons of DK-BEL) or playing with our “everyday movements” (video lessons of VIMMART) as a creative constraint to stimulate getting into movement, into contact, creating solos sequences, combining them, and threading them into a full-fledged choreography to share with an audience. Don’t take these activities or ideas as rigid recipes, but rather as sources of inspiration that you can adapt to your style, your groups, and your art.
- Parviainen cited by Foster Raisa Foster 2012 “The Pedagogy of Recognition -Dancing Identity and Mutuality” doctoral dissertation, University of Tampere
- Jarmo Skön, personal communication 2023
- Foster 2012
- Dimitra Svigou, personal communication 2023
- Satu Järvinen, personal communication, 2023
- Jarmo Skön, personal communication, 2023
- Satu Järvinen, personal communication, 2023
- Oikonomou, V. (2013), «όψις (opsis) The interpretation of the term from antiquity to contemporary theatrical reality», II All-Russian Scientific-Practical Conference «Sociality-Creating Function of Art and Problems of Sociocultural Rehabilitation», Moscow.
- Oikonomou, V. (2013)
- Eugene Van Erven 2014 “COMMUNITY ART AND SOCIAL INCLUSION: FAR FROM A MATTER OF COURSE In proceedings of the ARTES conference ART as a vehicle for Education and Social inclusion https://artescommunity.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ARTES-2014-Florence-Conference-Proceedings.pdf
- Le Breton, D. (1991). Handicap d’apparence : le regard des autres. Ethnologie Française, 21(3), 323–330.
- Carlson Marvin, Performance: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2013. P16