Performance artist Bobby Baker says “There is a general assumption that being in the ‘dis’ group means we are weak and in need of help from the non-‘dis’ team. Whoever they are …”. (Baker, 2011) It seems to me that the term ‘Disabled’ really means ‘the not-normal body’, implying the existence of ‘the normal body’ that disabled bodies fall short of. For this reason, disability scholar Lennard J. Davis has chosen “to focus not so much on the construction of disability as on the construction of normality” (Davis, 2012, Pg 1) within his research. Even the term ‘DISability’ feeds a disabilist view. Baker explains that “the very ‘disability’, ‘disadvantage’, ‘disorder’ [my italics] that society deems so problematic can actually lead to sophisticated resilience and flexibility. Such people can acquire skills, insights, and humour – indeed wisdom about humanity – that others struggle with” (Baker, 2011) . Starting with the prefix ‘dis-‘, ‘disabled’ creates an instant, negative picture of what it is to be disabled.
Society perceives disability as a permanent, fixed identity. To accept that disabled identity is less than fixed entertains the idea that someone could transgress the able bodied / disabled divide. This would shake the security of disabled as Other. Some disability theorists describe people without disabilities as TABs, or the temporarily able-bodied. This is because many disabilities occur not at birth but during someone’s lifetime. As Paddy Masefield says,
“none of you will go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow a different colour; very few of you will go to hospital tonight and wake up having changed your gender; but any of you could go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow a disabled person. Indeed, if only due to the ageing process, it is highly probable that all of you may at some point experience disability” (Masefield. 2006. Pg1.)
I disagree with Masefield here, as receiving surgery changes you sex, not your gender. However, I have chosen to retain the whole quote in my writing as it illustrates my point regarding disability.Disability can occur in later life due to accidents, late onsets of genetic conditions or illness, so for many people disability was not something that always was, or always will be.
For all of these reasons many find social conceptions of disability misleading and non-representative of disabled peoples’ experience. I would now like to explore how being invisibly disabled can allow dancers to deconstruct and destabilize social concepts of disability. The case studies I have chosen to use are both pieces of work that I have performed in. I have chosen to use these examples as they were performances I used for my research. As mentioned earlier, the two performances I will be analysing are Janice Parker’s Glory and my solo within Francesca Lacey’s Let’s Not Talk About The Weather.
The first point of comparison I wish to draw is how explicitly the two pieces explored the topic of disability. LNTW was explicitly about depression, and the copy and programme notes told the audience that all of the performers currently experienced depression. Each performer had a solo section, some of which spoke about depression explicitly and others, like mine, did not. I used movement and one repeated line of disjointed text to communicate my experience of depression. Glory was not explicitly about disability, despite having many disabled dancers taking part. Some of these dancers were visibly disabled, but the majority of disabled dancers had an invisible disability. An audience member entering the performance space of LNTW would have had disability, particularly depression, at the forefront of their mind, whereas an audience of Glory may never have considered disability in relation to the performance. One of Lacey’s main aims for the piece was to destabilize issues surrounding depression, whereas Parker’s politic within Glory was not centred on disabilitybut on inclusive participation. I would argue that all of the above choices are valid, and it is the way they combine with the content of the pieces that tell us if social concepts of disability were destabilized.
Although Glory was not about specifically about disability, visibly disabled dancers performed in the piece. Sadly this is still a relatively rare occurrence, and those who had assumed that disability prevented a person from being active or from performing for an audience will have been encouraged to question these views. When an audience viewed me as a performer, they will not have been able to see my disabled identity, and therefore may not have been lead to question their beliefs in quite the same way. However, as part of my practice as research, I had written on my website about my experience of working on Glory as an invisibly disabled dancer. Unexpectedly, the marketing team asked if they could use my writing as part of the shows advertising, to which I agreed. When I stepped on stage to perform in Glory many people in the audience knew my identity as invisibly disabled.
In LNTW everyone knew my disabled identity, in Glory some did through knowing me, some did through reading my website, and some had no idea. This leads me to the question; when aiming to destabilize social conceptions of disability, is it helpful for an audience to be informed about a dancers disabled identity? The audience of LNTW was very aware of my disabled identity, allowing me to create a movement sequence that reflected my experience of depression without explicitly disclosing my disability. However, there is a risk of inviting a diagnostic gaze when an audience are aware of an invisible disability. Kuppers explains “it is too easy to allow the spectator to see the performers as ‘mad’ and to see the traces of that ‘madness’ evidenced on their bodies’ (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 130). Audience members reading my body within LNTW may have lost their ability to see me as an individual, and just been looking for clues of my ‘madness’, objectifying my body into a specimen of ‘depressed person’, reducing “bodies to texts that need to be read and categorised” (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 130). It is possible that the same happened within Glory, although because Glory’s framing was not around issues of disability the diagnostic gaze will have been less intense. For those audience members who were not aware of my disabled identity, there will have been no diagnostic gaze and the possibility for me to pass as able-bodied. This could be positive, but questioning social concepts of disability is more difficult if no one is aware you are disabled or that disability is an issue being explored.
Parker’s approach towards Glory was that the individual movement of each body should be celebrated, and the mix of trained and untrained dancers within the group aided the aimed for diversity of movement styles. I entered the project without disclosing my disability to anyone, and it wasnot until just before the final performances that I began writing about my disability. The majority of the process saw me passing as able-bodied and I feel this approach towards my body continued into the performance. Within the synchronized choreographed sections I tried to push my body to the energy and accuracy of others in the room. Where there were individual, improvised sections I did not pace my energy, but pushed myself to energetic active movements that left me exhausted. I struggled to let my body move slowly, even when the whole group were given that option.
This denial of my body’s limitations may not have been noticed to an audience unaware of my disabled status, and it may not have been that obvious to those who were. Had I allowed myself to work in harmony with my disability, possibly in a visual way by using props or doing different movements, I could have created more of a conversation around invisible disability. However, many of the Glory dancers I spoke to didnot wish to be viewed as disabled dancers, just as dancers. This was because they didnot want their disability to become an excuse for poor work, or to illicit more praise for work than would otherwise have been received. This fear was the motivation for my ‘passing’ during Glory; I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘bad’ dancer because I required support or had to do sections differently.After GloryI attended aworkshop on Diverse and Inclusive Practice in Dancelead by Candoco Dance Company and Trinity Laban. Miriam, a Candoco dancer, explained that any dancer should be challenged to achieve their potential, and to over-praise someone because they are disabled is patronizing to the dancer and results in sloppy work. This feels like an important aspect of integrated dance practice. If invisibly disabled dancers such as those in Glory can be confident that their director or choreographer is going to push them to their potential the same as any other dancer, they may be less hesitant to identify as a disabled dancer.
One performer from Glory used a chair in the piece, and although no mention of her disability was made and no explanation of the chair given, I wonder if the visual presence of a body being supported brought questions to the audiences mind of what reality lay within this apparently able-body. Yet again, there is a possibility of igniting the diagnostic gaze as an audience tries to work out what is ‘wrong’ with this body, and why it needs to use a chair. An explanation of the chair may have prevented this speculation, but I feel to have included an explanation in the work or the programme would undermine both the ethos of individual movement valued by Parker and the performance given by the disabled dancer in question. To explain a disability or bodily difference can become to apologise for it. If the aim is to re-construct disability not as a negative, abject Other but a neutral fact of existence for many, to apologise sends the wrong message. Adam Benjamin questions why dance companies advertise their performances as physically integrated dance, as opposed to just dance. By telling the audience the work will contain disabled performers, are companies creating “a road sign warning the unsuspecting of the presence of wheelchairs”? (Benjamin, 1995)I agree with Benjamin when he says “The need for the label ‘integrated company’ will, I hope’ pass” (Benjamin 1995) Integrated dance practice can be seen as a movement for social equality, but it is also a movement for artistic excellence. To restrict the type of body allowed to dance professional restricts the choreographic potential and therefore the potential of contemporary dance as an art form. In an ideal world, there would be no need for the term integrated, as the dance world will haveaccepted the possibility of embracing all body types.
In Glory I attempted to pass, but my performance within LNTW could be described as a performance of an invisible disability. My solo consisted of me lying, dressed in grey, on a mattress with a duvet suspended around two feet above me. I started at one end of the mattress, and attempted to move to the other end whilst remaining under the duvet. This restricted my movement making it slow, cramped and exhausting, as I had to contort and hold my body in uncomfortable positions. I then spoke a disjointed piece of text
“Can you see?
You can see?
You can’t see. . . ”
Although this was an honest attempt to create a visual image of depression, it became in some ways an exaggerated stereotype of a ‘mad’ person in an unkempt bed, muttering to themselves. Some people with depression do find them in this position; Tracey Emin placed the bed she had been in for days, due to of a period of depression, in an art gallery, complete with urine stains, soiled underwear, condoms, empty bottles and cigarette butts to create the work My Bed. As a depressed person I have never lain in unkempt beds muttering to myself, but I have told doctors that I do in a desperate attempt to fight for medical support. This is the performance required to survive the mental health system. In the pursuit of a clear image for LNTW, the honesty of my true experience got lost. Performing disability can become obstructive when making performance work. In Kupper’s experience “performance work with people diagnosed with mental health problems has to deal with a history of bodily stagings, of recognised and (potentially rehearsed) performances” (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 124). The attempt to visualise an invisible disability was in itself playing to a social requirement for visual proof of bodily difference. It may have sent a stronger message to resist this pressure and offer an account of depression that offers no visual proof at all.