Arts-Based Methods in and out of the Archive
“Bodymindspirits.” I am sitting in the New York Public Library Dance Division archives. There’s florescent lighting above, and a grey box emits flickering lines at me. And then I hear a voice say this word over my earphones, a word I use all the time in my own movement work, and it shivers through me. This word was spoken in 1978, in a dance movement therapy session, in a grainy black and white video.
I hadn’t even searched for this video, a fifteen-minute program called “This is dance therapy.” It just happens to be on the same tape as a program I had requested, on Project Happy, a 1980s sports and dance program for (their usage then: handicapped, current usage: disabled) adults and children sponsored by Hunter College.
I am in the library to look for my ancestors. I look for disabled and mad people in the archive, for the ways that labels like “handicapped,” “disabled,” “crip,” “psych,” “mad,” and more travel and intertwine, shift spaces and multiply in library cataloguing systems, in the words of people describing one another, describing themselves. I am using diving and divining methods to get to my subjects: my search is not methodical, and more like an underwater drift, lulled by all the light flickers.
I know many of the tapes and sources already. During this visit in New York City, I enjoyed rewatching jewels that I remember from my very first adventures in disability and dance. One of these is Dancing from the Inside Out, a 1994 dance documentary with interviews with the first dancers in the Bay Area’s axis Dance Company. I hear Judith Smith, Bonnie Lewkowicz, Uli Schmitz and others talk about what it means to them to come to dance as disabled people. The archival video brings back to life their long glides across the dance floor, their delicious wheelchair curves. I remember this! In particular, I remember feelings of delight and vibration when I first saw those glides, this video, in the 90s, sitting in a dark viewing room in Vienna, at the Screendance Archives, long before I came to the us and met Judith Smith and axis Dance Company in person, and danced with them.
But my search now, in 2021, is for hidden things, for adventures, for ancestors that send me messages from the past: resilience, survivance, little moments of crip nods, flutters across time and space. Hearing “bodymindspirits,” and watching a circle dance by people with beehive hairdos, I have found one of these jewels: something that grabs me across time.
In my Vienna archival adventure, I had been in a dark space by myself, and I stretched and moved while watching. Now, I am in a modern library, but even more alone: I can’t even pace, or move in swing with the material. Sitting for so long, so still, I feel an urgent need to move. But I know my methods, my way of acquiring and shaping knowledge, and so I have structured my New York Public Library Dance Research Fellowship in ways that align with my nervous system and my way of thinking/moving dance in communal patterns. Tonight, once the library closes, I have called together fellow disabled dancers, friends and allies for a dance ritual outdoors at the Lincoln Center. Together we will move through a score influenced by my finds. We will complete the circle of transmission: dancers from the past moving on video, then my archival search for these choreographic jewel moments, and finally dancers translating echoes, feeling vibrations together in the present.
The people in front of me, in the grainy video from 1978, try to follow that impulse to dance and connect, to reignite that urge in themselves. I get to witness a dance movement therapy session in a psychiatric ward in a large urban hospital, the Bronx Psychiatric Center. That’s really special: permissions and irbs and ethic boards would forbid me from glimpsing or filming institutionalized people dancing now. But it’s 1978, and the world is different. The narrator, Anne Wilson Wangh, tells me that “The dance therapist uses a unity of bodymindspirit to help people relate to their most profound experiences, both painful and joyous, for their sake and so that they can share with others.” Wangh was a dance therapist and a ballerina - a pupil of Michel Fokine, her 1997 obituary in the New York Times tells me. On the screen, I can see a circle dance, and then one-on-one work: hands mirroring other hands, for a long duration, until there is some echo, some call-and-response, some tentative being-with. At one point, a hand is holding another one. It looks so peaceful, so gentle to me, here, in my chair in the archive.
Wangh’s voice speaks to me about kinesthetic awareness, and warmth and trusting touch, and names these as “safe pathways back to the real world.” The narrator’s trajectory makes clear that she does not think of these people, mad by many standards, as monstrous others – the dance work is supposed to be a support, something to help them to reintegrate. Wangh tells me that we are not watching a cure — not all that much can happen in thirty minutes. But, she says, “some will be closer to health because of the experience they just went through. There might be different ways of moving, and perhaps, of living.”
Even though I do not hear the voices of mad people themselves, I can see their movements. The narration explains that people are not forced to participate, but are able to leave the circle and come back, to express themselves in ways that do not follow a particular choreography, to stim and vibrate in place, gently looked at by a camera that has been formally introduced into the circle, acknowledged as a presence. I can see a diverse set of people moving together, taking a sip of enjoyment in the activity, and in each other. It’s not liberation: they are all likely behind a locked door there. But for me, in 2021, looking back into the past, I can see their breathing beauty, respectfully captured by a camera, and narrated with gentleness and hope.
In the 90s, when I started my research into disability performance, I was so focused on disabled self-expression, anti-therapy, all about aesthetic control by disabled people themselves. At that time, I was one of the first researchers writing on disability and dance outside concepts of therapy, and it was so hard to find anything that spoke about disability, dance, and aesthetics together. Dance wasn’t easily aligned with disabled people, and neither was dance research. The logistics of how to get myself into the few archives that had anything for me were so complex: most were totally inaccessible to a wheelchair user. Given the physical struggles to get into an archive, I vividly remember the joy of finding exactly what I was searching for. There was the first time I saw Raimund Hoghe dance, in a video at the Live Art Archive in London, uk. I had spent hours getting there, aligning helpers to get me inside, and organizing around the opening hours. But it paid off. I got to see Hoghe on stage, lighting small candles in the inverted triangle that Nazis used to mark queer love, the light flickering toward me as a video remnant. I’ve never written about the emotional impact of reaching the crip/mad archive: I sat there crying, so moved by finding something so beautiful and sad after the exhaustion of arriving.
I also remember my disappointment every time a promised disability dance video would turn out to be a therapy session led by non-disabled people for disabled folx. I would have been bemused by my future self’s joyful embrace, by being moved, by a dance in a clinical setting, initiated by therapists. But that’s part of my own growth, of seeing value in many different dances, seeing expressions of life and vitality in more ways, enlarging my own capacity for finding joy.
Some of my disabled dance brethren have now made it into mainstream archives, but we are still few and far between. Many of my crip/mad comrades are not catalogued in the archive, and some still choose, due to stigma, not to list disability, psych, or hiv/aids status in their biographies. Even in 2021, a straight-forward archival search on dance and disability does not get you very far: you will need trickster methods to find what you are looking for. This is true even when disabled people are out about their status. The world is ableist, and many people, from funders to producers to archivists, try to avoid words like “disabled,” “psych survivor,” or “mad,” and use euphemisms or silence to just make us “regular” dancers, i.e. unfindable.
Beyond that, I have learned to be more suspicious of giving too much value to archival ways of enumerating ownership and choreographic agency. As a disabled community dance artist and critic, I know that there is a flow of creative energy around disabled people’s lives. I can long and look for crip/mad resiliencies. I can find them in these filmed and now digitized psychiatrized dancing hands that keep to themselves or reach out toward one another. Much is unmarked by the categories under which something enters a library, and my divination methods, looking unsystematically, can yield beautiful new connections.
In the evening, I get to go outside the archive itself, and my spine unrolls, my arms reach to the summer sky. I am on The Green at the Lincoln Center. My wheels rumble over the green (astro-turf-like but actually soy-based) community playground on Josie Robertson Plaza, designed by Mimi Lien. The air is humid and warm. My tissues fill with moisture after the archive’s temperature-controlled coolness. Tonight, dancers are joining me as we engage in a community Crip/Mad Archive Dance, a score based on three crip/mad ancestors that I have worked on in the past: Raimund Hoghe, Homer Avila, and Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Garden of the Asylum (December 1889). I add in a new crip ancestor moment from the dance archive every time I run this ritual score, often some of these minor-key moments, like the ‘bodymindspirit’ word that I weave freely through the presentation.
The archival treasure I bring in tonight is a small note from a participant in a Touchdown Dance workshop. Touchdown Dance is a uk-based company that began its work in 1986 at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and that includes visually impaired and blind dancers. I found the note in a write-up of the company’s work in Contact Quarterly, from 1992. The writer’s name is Megan Hughes, and she wrote this note on July 31, 1991. She describes the experience of participating in the workshop in this way.
I was aware that I was lying inert in the dark. I began to feel as though my head was gently drawn away from my body; as though some kind of magnetic force was attracting me, and the pull came first from one direction and then the other. The sensation was similar to that which we did during the head massage exercise, and I felt very elated, but was aware that the force controlling this sensation was not human.
I was drawn to this quote immediately when it flowed across my micro-fiche reader. I loved it because of its status as a remnant of a blind dance, but also as a description of a different way of being in movement.
Here I was, sitting in the archive, my hand on the controls that guide the visualization window, following the affordances of a machine. And here is a dancer, writing about a force that was not human, moving her head gently away from her body. Writing this down here is surprisingly hard: I am not quite capturing what it is that delights me so.
But come with me, reader. Move your head a bit. Give your head to an alternative gravity, maybe—you can even drop your upper body downward, if that’s a motion available to you, and roll your head that way, and see what that does to your senses. What “not-human” force is there, a force that switches direction, different from earth gravity? What can you sense toward, with your eyes closed, antennae out?
Every time I am reading and now typing that quote, my bodymindspirit feels a delicious fragmenting, a thickening and pulling, a sense of expansion.
I bring my material to the group that has assembled that evening at Lincoln Center. covid-19 continues its grip on us all, and the nypl is not yet supporting in-person events, so all my dance fellowship Crip/Mad Archive Dances in 2021 are invitational rather than fully public. Here is the note I sent out on social media and listservs, inviting people to the ritual: “The movement scores can be executed and adapted by anyone, and they wish to offer a moment of breath, a minute of getting in touch with all our ancestors’ blessings, in joy and in pain; to allow us to discharge the grief of what we are living through with a bodily expansion; to caress and honor our bodymindspirits.”
Among the people who are here are disabled choreographers Elisabeth Motley and April Biggs; Indigenous disability culture activist moira williams; Swiss ecoperformance artist andrea haenggi; poet elder Jacqueline Johnson who is part of my Black Earth Institute’s ecopoetry crowd; Cassie Mey, the Oral History Producer of the Dance Archive; Ruth Wallen, a fellow faculty member at Goddard College; interdisciplinary artist Lori Landau; dance teacher Christina Sears-Etter from Michigan who found me in the archives that day by chance; and more. I am so glad to see the circles knitting, new people getting in contact, as well as old friends embracing.
We start by using the people’s mic: the low-tech access technology I often use in outdoor sites, a way to link us to the revolutionary energies of Occupy politics. It is also a way to foreground disabled sensory worlds and access provision. Using the people’s mic means that I speak my introduction in short phrases, with breaks, in the condensed form of action poetry. And everybody takes all the names and all the phrases into their own mouth, and hands it on, making sure that everybody is in the circle. The people’s mic: an action of care.
I call our first score moment: honoring the land and its Indigenous people, and giving thanks. Then we go around and all give thanks to someone who helped us here today–-beginning to weave our interdependent web. I thank the person in the coffee shop who held the door open for me so I could maneuver out with my wheelchair: a little moment of impersonal urban care. People thank life partners, roommates, their grandmother, plants that grew along their way here. We all get used to using the people’s mic, repeating phrases, getting lost in listening or in the act of taking someone’s else’s words into our mouth: a delicious co-mingling of meaning and breath.
I introduce the choreography snippets for the score we’ll enact, this ritual for crip/mad ancestors, for all our ancestors, for the fact that we have, or at least long for, ancestors who lift us up, and wish us well. I use the word “bodymindspirit,” and hear it repeated. I see the nods, the understanding that we are inviting more than just historical knowledge or bodily sensation into our round.
One of these snippets is a choreographic moment from Raimund Hoghe’s repertoire. Hoghe, who passed in 2020, was a German man who worked not far from where I was born. He came to prominence as Pina Bausch’s dramaturg, and went on to become an eminent choreographer in his own right, probably one of the most awarded disabled dance artists I know.
Hoghe was also a queer man who lived through the beginnings of the ongoing aids pandemic, and he had a hunchback. All of these stories—to be German and part of a perpetrator nation, to be queer, and to be disabled—merged in his dances that shaped work out of personal and cultural history. In one moment in his dance-theater practice, in Meinwärts (1994), Hoghe reaches up to a gym bar. He suspends his body. He’s going into a long stretch: a practice that echoes the use of gymnastics to correct a sinuous spine, a racking, an elongation that highlights the snake of his back. When I witnessed the performance, the moment held both release and pressure: there is Germany’s bodyculture, appropriated by the Nazis, and the “healing”/oppression/extermination complex that killed bodymindspirits.
In our round on The Green at Lincoln Center, we all suspend ourselves, reaching upward, letting our shoulders fall down. We feel the push-pull, and experience the different layers of the movement in our emotional households, parse embodied tension fields around Nazi histories, therapy experiences, the history of somatics, queer lives, and many more associations, some private, some shared.
In my work, I use the phrase eco soma for this felt/conceptual push-pull between inner sensation and the layers of cultural accretion of meaning, this pearl of hole/wholeness: eco soma, the openings and gaps between self and world. Here, in this push-pull, the sensation feels somatically in a particular way, and is overlaid with cultural associations that feel in other ways, in a world that values different bodies differently, and condemns some to death.
These ritual moments of enacting the dance archive are riven with doubt and distance as much as with joy and community. We are alone, we are in the round, we are enacting ancestry, we are reaching, using our embodied energies to try, to try, to try.
In our score, we try out movement moments of two other ancestors: Homer Avila, and Van Gogh. Homer Avila was a first-generation us dance artist of Central American heritage who performed with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, Ralph Lemon, and many more before he was diagnosed with cancer and lost his right leg and hip to the disease in 2001. He continued to dance until his death in 2004, and embraced the disability dance community. He worked with Alonzo King and Victoria Marks and created powerful solo dances and dance videos. In one of his dances, there’s an electric moment caught on camera: Avila is on his one foot, and his arms are in front of him, as if holding an energy ball, his whole being zipped up and straight, reaching up and reaching down, creating the strong vertical grounding necessary to stand in relevé on one leg.
In our movement ritual at Lincoln Center, we use this force, drawing tightly in and spinning up and down at the same time, energies in balance, to honor Avila. We all enact this movement as best as we can: none of us are one-legged, but we all can draw upon our individual experiences of balance, breath, and concentration. We feel our way into the sensation, and create kinetic energies to invite Avila’s dancerly being toward us, to ask gently if we may call him into our lineage.
Contrary to his popular image of the out-of-control artist, the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was aware of his mental health difference. It seems that he knew strategies to keep himself well. From what I found out, he checked himself voluntarily into the Asylum at Saint-Rémy, and painted the gardens there in 1889.
In my score work, I show participants one of his paintings, with its long swirls of color, thickly entangled, coming to rest on a wall of a single color. In the movement ritual, we use long curving pathways that take in our environment in all its richness. We allow it to overwhelm our senses, before we each settle on one color as a place of sensory rest and re-assembly.
This dance is not a simulation of what it means to be mad – it is instead an honoring of one of the mechanisms mad people use to keep themselves well: sanctuary. But in this ritual action, another eco soma movement stretches between thick pastes of toxic paint, toxic popular narratives of asylums, and a lived experience of refuge, an assembly point, the quiet room.
As the choreography of the ritual develops, I usually assemble four of these movement glimpses, embodied moments of the crip/mad dance archive, so that we can enact them in the flesh. This is a call toward an ancestral lineage, as disabled people. In our individual execution of each movement, we add our own embodied journeys, the interdependent webs that brought us to this ritual action.
Participants also bring their own choreographic moments. The second time we enact the movement score at Lincoln Center, one of the participants, choreographer Elisabeth Motley, who identifies as neurodiverse herself, shares with the circle an ancestral movement memory: she enacts for us a choreography by Louise Augustine Gleizes, one of the inmates of the famous Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris until she escaped in men’s clothing in 1880. Augustine’s neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, made it his mission to create an archive of hysteria, and he exhibited and photographed the women in his asylum in specific attitudes he asked them to adopt: a performative externalization of mental distress. Augustine, in particular, became famous. Sigmund Freud and Edgar Degas came to see her, making her an intriguing hinge case between psychoanalysis and dance. In our 2021 ritual, between force and trace, between staring men and our bodymindspirits reaching out across time, we all twist ourselves like Augustine did.
After sharing the movements, and trying them out, we put it all together— moving out into the wider public space. The Green is busy: around us are people relaxing after work, some tourists, some people who are waiting for the Restart Stages performances to open: stages that hope to awaken nyc’s performance life at (what we hope to be) the tail-end of the covid-19 pandemic. People watch us, and listen to our people’s mic: human sound not as intrusive as electronically amplified sound, but still loud enough for people to watch attentively what is happening here in their midst.
Some get drawn in: in an earlier photoshoot performance of this ritual, with dance artist Hettie Barnhill and theater-maker Kate Freer, a little girl got so enamored with our easily repeatable actions that she joined in. We checked with her and with her dad: they were both happy for her to be part of the dance and of the photoshoot, so you see her here in these photos: our tiniest community participant. She particularly enjoyed saying thanks at the end of our action, and sent her love to her grandma.
The larger score enactment was a ritual, not a performance, so documentation wasn’t our aim. Jacqueline shot a few photos, and I am glad to have them. Our actual documentation is our bodily archive of sensation and memory, of twining the past into ourselves, and letting our own pasts influence the future of the crip/mad archive. We all became both private and communal, alone and public at the same time, as we tasked our memory to hold onto the four movement sequences, as we reached deep inside ourselves while also keeping track of others and their timing. It was an improvisation, semi-visible to passers-by. Time unfolded. Arms reached up in push-pulls. I saw bodies contract and elongate. I felt my own head lift, loosen, taken over by older forces, just on the edge of control. At the end, I was one of many who reached for my wheelchair scooter’s yellow battery to find a solid color to assemble with.
I cried when I witnessed the ritual unfold for the first time. Instead of finding the jewel moments of crip/mad ancestors one at a time in archives or at widely strewn festivals, here we were, bringing their memory together, as dancers involved in our own historiographic exploration, caring for future archives. Here is a switch for me, in my disciplinary dis/orientation: I move from being someone who sleuths out disabled performance artists to someone who hosts a disability history investigation through the public dissemination of dancerly infectious movement. There’s a new alignment inside myself, and I feel a spindle moment of arts-based methods, an energetic coiling toward new futures.
At the end of each of our movement rituals, we touch back in with our own individual ancestries and lineages, biological and chosen, dancerly and otherwise, and we give thanks again to who has carried us all the way to the here and now, to The Green at Lincoln Center. None of us move the same way. Among us are many technique lineages. Some of us share the shame and sadness of access failures, our bodies not being allowed to be part of dance’s developing story. But here, in this community ritual, we are part of the chain of dance, of endless embodied transmission, taking care of one another. Bodymindspirits, in movement.