Dancers in loose V-formation with wheelchair user at the front, the others lined behind with arms loosely stretched forward. Above them hanging transparent cloths with geometric patterns echo their loose translucent costumes

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CODA 2022: staging diversities

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Candoco in Set and Reset/Reset. Photo © Lars Opstad/CODA Oslo Int. Dance Festival
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Towards a diversity of diversities at CODA Oslo International Dance Festival

See also CODA 2022: movement research for every body? for a different Springback view from the festival


 

Offstage

The stage is not normal life. That might sound like an empty truism – what happens on stage is not what happens off stage – yet it’s the single main idea I take from this year’s CODA Oslo International Dance Festival (12–16 October 2022). I heard it from American-born dance artist Annie Hanauer in the bar of Oslo’s Dansens Hus, where she was telling me about the pleasures of being on stage – a space which liberates, or at least loosens her from the norms and normativities of everyday life. She had been using this idea with her performers in the rehearsal studio (a place we might call backstage, rather than on or offstage), during the creation of her new quartet soft shell, part of a triple bill performed later that evening by UK company Candoco
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What has this got to do with CODA? Well, when Stine Nilsen became its artistic director in 2017 after two decades living in the UK, one principle that she brought with her was ‘diversity’ – a contested term, for sure, but one that certainly gestures towards what is different from ‘norms and normativities’. Nilsen’s first full programme in 2019 put the emphasis on cultural and racial diversity; her second in 2021, curtailed by Covid, was necessarily a make-do programme. This year, the festival’s twentieth anniversary, she has turned more explicitly to the theme of disability (already present in previous editions), building on her own background as a member and then co-director of Candoco, which works in this field, as well as on a new recognition of disability within the policies of the Norwegian arts council.

In fact, Candoco would have performed in 2020 had it not been for Covid. When their 2022 visit was confirmed, Nilsen started to wonder how to show ‘the diversity in the diversity’, as she puts it. ‘It was important for me that audiences could experience a disabled maker or performer not as an aesthetic, not as a style, not as a subject – not as one kind of thing. I felt that it was a moment to challenge the norm by celebrating different visions of the dancing body.’

The final CODA programme included such different visions as an evening of work by Candoco, a new commission by Marc Brew (part of a triple bill at the Opera House), a performance produced by 71BODIES/Daniel Mariblanca called NORMAL; a central seminar on disability, diversity and inclusion in Norwegian arts, and workshops by Marc Brew and Katarzyna Żeglicka with different approaches to the field of disability. Though the programme was not all about disability, I will focus on that thread here, according to how I (an able-bodied audience member) followed it through the festival.

Backstage

I love going backstage. Most audience members don’t get that opportunity, and for me it is a precious chance to witness and sometimes discuss aspects of performance that may be obscure or even invisible on stage. My first backstage chat at CODA was with Joel Brown, a wheelchair user who was dancing later that evening in Candoco’s Set and Reset/Reset, the company’s justly popular version of Trisha Brown’s 1983 classic Set and Reset. Candoco’s version has been quite a hit for them, yet it’s also a one-off: a repertory piece originally created with an able-bodied dance company, then reprocessed for Candoco. I asked Brown (no relation to Trisha, by the way!) how it was to learn and perform.

‘Quite arduous,’ he admits. ‘We had to learn set material created by non-disabled dancers, and translate it for our own bodies in a way that became legible to each other, and to the audience. That’s hard work. You have to learn something that you quote-unquote “can’t do”, and find a way through that. It’s lonely, it’s frustrating.’

Yet in the end, he found a glorious freedom. ‘The important aspect of Set and Reset are its choreographic structures,’ he says. ‘The stronger that structure, the more play and aliveness there is within it. Once you know those structures, you can just let them happen.’ Despite the hard grind of learning the choreography, he says that it is in fact ‘a joy to perform – every time.’

He gives some fascinating insights into the composition that you wouldn’t get from just watching it – for example, how everything derives from a set phrase originally made by Trisha Brown, yet that phrase itself is never seen; rather, it is ‘reset’ in many different ways. It’s a work that I have adored for years, and Brown’s backstage chat illuminates it, and Candoco’s version, in new ways: how its slippery structures are made; what it was like for him to learn and perform; not least, his own dancer’s-eye perspective compared with my particular spectator view (he often enjoys individual performers and moments of performance, whereas I tend to be spellbound by the composition).


Foreground: a man reaches sideways in a long tilt on one leg, looking alarmed and tense. Background: a row of figures with bent arms stretched out and up, two in wheelchairs, one with dwarfism
un-be-known by Marc Brew at CODA 2022. Photo © Lars Opstad/CODA Oslo Int. Dance Festival

I go backstage again to observe a workshop led by Marc Brew, another wheelchair user, here at CODA as a choreographer rather than a performer. The workshop (which uses tasks and principles that he also used in creating his CODA commission) is open and accessible to people with all kinds of bodies and abilities. Interestingly, the approach to movement was not so different from what I’d seen elsewhere (and indeed just heard about in the case of Set and Reset/Reset): the choreographer gives open-ended instructions for the dancers to interpret, with no right or wrong outcome. This produces ‘material’ – material that thus has both a coherent source and a diverse expression.

Brew is interested in that idea. ‘I am fascinated by how we use the word “unison”,’ he tells me after the workshop, ‘especially when we work with diverse bodies. Somebody once told me: you can’t do unison! So of course I wanted to prove them wrong. I often choreograph a “unison” section, but to me it’s not always about doing the same movement. It could be about the timing, or the angle, or the accent. Unison can have a bigger meaning than being exactly the same.’ It sounds to me like a way of finding a route between uniformity on the one hand and atomisation on the other. Instead of either sameness or difference, the focus is on affiliation, commonalities.

Brew’s workshop is perhaps more distinctive for its approach to people than to movement. He always begins with a personal ‘check-in’ – a trust-building space where participants share names, pronouns, need-to-knows, how they are right now. ‘It’s also for us to get to know each other as people,’ says Brew. ‘Sometimes I’ve worked with professional groups who have never had that. Some people may have worked together for many years, but they learn things about each other they never knew before.’ Thus the workshop becomes ‘inclusive’ not just of the dancer, performer or movement-maker, but of the person – not always an easy process, but one that Brew finds it valuable for both individual and group.

It’s only after the festival is over that I manage to ask Daniel Mariblanca about the workshops for NORMAL, and his answers illuminate a different approach to dancemaking from those above. Rather than finding ways to include different people within a process, their process begins with the people themselves – whom he refers to as protagonists rather than performers – who thus become the source of their own material and stories.

‘Reality is our starting point,’ says Mariblanca (whose own story you can read about here). ‘In 71BODIES we work with and through important chapters of our lives, artistically. Whether working with the protagonists individually or all together in the studio, I always focus on their own particular qualities, their own stories and unique journeys.’

This perspective, closer to collectively devised theatre than to choreographically directed creation, is consistent with the work’s theme, an exploration of the interactions and intersections between disabilities, gender identity and sexuality. It’s appropriate, too, that such a multidimensional approach to people is itself multidisciplinary: while dance remains a central strand, the production ended up incorporating different modes and media, including film, storytelling, sign language, poetry and live music. In short, NORMAL is in itself non-normative in approach, as Mariblanca affirms. ‘I never work from the stereotypes or the speculations of what and who the majority is,’ he says.

Onstage

In the festival, I watch three onstage performances with disability as a feature. Brew’s un-be-known is the last of a triple-bill of CODA commissions at the Opera House (following Gigant, a moody, edgily kinetic sextet by Berit and Anna Einemo Frøysland, and Flower Boy, an atmospheric, image-based solo by Carl Aquilizan, hidden like a secret within the petal-like folds of his costume). In Brew’s work, featuring nine performers, I recognise the compositional imprint of the workshop I’d witnessed: walking patterns with incremental complexities and choices, movement phrases taken up in different ways, and yes, forms of ‘unison’ through gesture, action and orientation that create coherence within diversity. The effect of the personal aspect of Brew’s workshop I find impossible to gauge; perhaps it’s knowable only to those who were personally involved. The element that lets down the performance for me is the music: lots of plaintive piano, pleasant enough for workshop studies but a little drifty on stage.

71BODIES/Daniel Mariblanca take an entirely contrasting approach in NORMAL, a kind of multimodal performative lec-dem presentation that had grown out of the workshops they had been running around the sensorial erotics of touch, for a variety of non-normative protagonists with diverse disabilities: physical, functional, neurological, visible, invisible, congenital, acquired. On one evening, a sign language interpreter is incorporated into the choreography as she relays the stories being told; on another, the company provide a sensory ‘touch tour’ before the performance, and live audio description during the show to those who choose it. On stage, following an explanatory prelude that puts the whole project in context, the protagonists reveal something of their personal lives, on film or on stage, in words and motion. We become keenly aware of their offstage lives as a hinterland to their onstage bodies – bodies which we see and sense very physically through a variety of intimate, skin-to-skin duets, structured around touch more than phrasing. Still, I struggle to find a way through the work: to me it feels like the offstage and backstage stories overpower the onstage dramaturgy.


Blue Quote Mark

Each work finds, or seeks, a way for diverse people to cohabit a space in a meaningful way

Blue Quote Mark

Unlike NORMAL, the two new pieces on Candoco’s triple bill – Seke Chimutengwende’s In Worlds Unknown quintet and Annie Hanauer’s soft shell quartet – are not ‘about’ their performers: their offstage lives are not presented on stage, though they were to some degree an influence on the creation, and of course affect the work backstage. At the same time, there was notably less ‘unison’, however loosely defined, than in Brew’s piece. In Worlds Unknown splices stanzas of verse, scrolled on a screen and spoken by the dancers, one of them in sign language (its choreographic incorporation different in function to the sign language in NORMAL). The result is a weave of intensely poetic images, non-sequential verses, clusters of action and textured music, affording diverse entry points into the piece – though for me, also too much information to take in.

Hanauer’s soft shell, more streamlined, also uses splicing, establishing the dancers’ differences through signature movements before reshuffling them so that sass, seriousness, poses and wanderings meld into a choppy kind of coherence. For all that, it only gels towards the end, when the dancers don fragments of costume so that they look part real, part fantasy – and finally, like the costumes themselves, parts of a larger whole.

A structure of movement that can incorporate differences rather than being built from them, Set and Reset/Reset is perhaps closest in approach to Brew’s piece. I’ve seen both Candoco’s and Trisha Brown’s versions many times now, and the work still strikes me as genius, for the way it combines casual attitude with compositional exactitude, conjuring high art from happy accidents. Knowledge of its offstage or backstage context is illuminating, but not necessary: the piece works just fine on stage, regardless.

It’s interesting that all these performances were group works, not solos. Each finds, or seeks, a way for diverse people to cohabit a space in a meaningful way. They ask questions of difference: how and why are we together here? In that sense, they are implicitly social as well as explicitly artistic visions.

Smiling woman with blonde hair, black rimmed glasses and bright red and green coat looks at an angle towards camera
Director Stine Nilsen at CODA 2022. Photo © Lars Opstad/CODA Oslo Int. Dance Festival

Next stage?

When Nilsen returned to Norway from London in 2017, she found a cultural scene shaken in particular by the #metoo movement. ‘In Norway we think of ourselves as quite an equal society, but that was rocking our own sense of equality,’ she says. ‘It really shifted our thinking around power structures – not only around gender but also around diversity.’ Initially, she recalls, diversity was seen predominantly in terms of race, ethnicity and nation (‘multiculturalism’, to use a British term), but it has widened considerably since then. Her vision for CODA is to embed diversity – or a diversity of diversity – into its programming. That is, to incorporate it as a springboard for exploration rather than a series of boxes to tick, and so to seed changes into the norms and normativities of dance in Norway. ‘The ripple effect of the festival may be intangible,’ she says, ‘but the idea is to leave an imprint.’ 


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Oslo, Norway
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For a counterpart to this article, see also CODA 2022: movement research for every body? by Yasen Vasilev

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