Foreground: a figure holds a microphone (face and body out of picture). Midground: a man looks towards her. Background: a woman (face and body half off pic) also looks towards her


CODA 2022: movement research for every body?

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Joel Brown on the panel of the CODA seminar titled “How can we get more diversity and inclusion on the stage in Norway?” Photo © Lars Opstad/CODA Oslo Int. Dance Festival
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Yasen Vasilev looks forwards and outwards from the main seminar at CODA 2022, on the theme of disability

See also CODA 2022: staging diversities for a different Springback view from the festival

The twentieth anniversary of CODA Oslo International Contemporary Dance Festival, marks a pivot in its course. Stine Nilsen, artistic director since 2017 and former co-director of the London-based mixed-ability company Candoco, has always had disability in her focus, but for the first time this year the festival made mixed ability, disability, and different bodies its central theme, traced through (almost) all the shows in the programme. If there are often mixed feelings within the European contemporary dance field about some of UK’s cultural policies, there is common agreement on the considerable progress the UK has made on issues surrounding (dis)ability. Nilsen brings this knowledge and experience to Norway and is using the platform of CODA to promote structural change in the field – from education to stage representation.

A seminar giving voice to local and international artists, programmers and policymakers living and/or dealing with disability was the discursive bind that held this year’s programme together, and articulated CODA’s ambition to move from critique to action that can create change in the long term. In line with these goals, Kulturrådet, the Norwegian arts council, presented a new grant scheme which pays a full-year salary to a person with disability integrated as a professional advisor into a cultural institution to help it become more inclusive with both audiences and artists. The first panel included Norwegian actress Ipek Mehlum and director Kjersti Horn sharing their personal path to becoming professionals in the field and the obstacles they faced because of their disability. This was followed by a second international panel with both artists – Katarzyna Żeglicka (Poland), Joel Brown (US/UK/Candoco) – and programmers/producers Veera Suvalo Grimberg (Sweden/Dansekompaniet SPINN) and Anna Consolati (Italy/Oriente Occidente). One major problem that came up in these talks is that the term ‘disability’ covers a wide range of differences that require different specific needs and adjustments; that can make it difficult to build solidarity or project a common vision.

The seminar first outlined various problems that persist in the Norwegian context – in terms of education, access, diversity in the field, and far too little professional opportunity. Formal education is often not designed for difference. It aims for uniformity, as does a lot of the work on stage. Furthermore, the struggles are different if you are disabled and want to work off stage (as director or scenographer for example) or on stage, as well as if you work with theatre or dance. When performing onstage in dance, disabled artists can be confronted with two extremes: either ‘overcome’ your disability by reaching a technical level that appears to transcend difference to fit into normative professional standards, or make disability and difference the central topic of the work where you problematise your own existence.

Black man in green shirt at right of photo, holds arms together, one amputated at the wrist. Behind on a sofa are the blurry images of other participants
Jean-Baptiste Baele in NORMAL, by 71BODIES/Daniel Mariblanca. Photo © Lars Opstad/CODA Oslo Int. Dance Festival

Examples of highly contrasting choices were evident in the CODA programme. Reinventing canonical works of contemporary dance to include disabled artists is indeed empowering. It breaks the conventions of what the body on stage ‘should be’, it proves what can be achieved with dedication and hard work (if ever given the space and opportunity), it highlights once again why these scores became part of the canon in the first place, and it also shows how our societies are changing. This was the case with Candoco’s brilliant reinterpretation of Trisha Brown’s 1983 piece Set and Reset (covered in more detail in Springback here). Striving to present the widest spectrum of practices, CODA also delivered quite the opposite strategy with NORMAL by Bergen-based transgender-inclusive company 71BODIES, led by Daniel Mariblanca. The project, co-produced by CODA, BIT Teatergarasjen, Carte Blanche and DansiT, evolved over a year of workshops followed by a year of production. The workshops served to invite local disabled and queer protagonists into the production. Formal education in dance wasn’t a requirement; rather they drew from their own lived experiences. Dance nevertheless remained at the core of this multidisciplinary effort to explore how diverse bodies experience intimacy and touch, how normative professional standards can be challenged and questioned, and how vulnerability can be shared safely on stage. The piece included sign language interpretation, and marked the first time that audio description was used for a performance at CODA and Dansens Hus. In Set and Reset/Reset, disability is integrated within a now-classical form; in NORMAL, the content and the personal take over the form but offer a safe space of inclusion and acceptance.

Inclusive dance is not entirely new to Norway. Established 20 years ago after a university research proposal by Tone Pernille Østern, Danslaboratoriet has been a pioneer working with disability. An inclusive mixed-ability dance company, supported by Trondheim municipality, it is integrated with the choreographic centre DansiT, and is now led by Ingeborg Dugstad Sanders. Danslaboratoriet is run on the border between community practice and professionalisation: neither a regular dance company (there is no touring, for example), nor just a community project, it strives to introduce its performers to various contemporary approaches to movement and dance-making. The performers train weekly and have worked alongside many artists and choreographers from Norway and abroad, with a wide range of movement styles and vocabularies. The ‘laboratory’ in its name indicates the experimental as an ethos, and the performers are often co-creators of the work through improvisation and discussion, their voices actively involved in the making.

Looking forwards

Looking at these examples, I started thinking: how might the artistic voices of disabled artists be emancipated from existing aesthetics or the personal-political? Does the gap between professionalisation and community engagement need to be that wide? Maybe our understanding of professional standards needs to change, maybe there’s a way to reinvent the form so that it not only includes diverse bodies, but allows them to shape it. Representation is important but it’s not enough, and can often burden people to stand for and speak for others. What does it say for a society that someone needs to be given a voice, rather than claim it themselves? Yes, visibility can be transformed into political power but it can also expose vulnerability, and frame its subjects as victims. To have real equality, we need emancipation and access, not just representation, visibility and the amplification of voices.

How can this happen? Scenarios for change should come from the artists themselves, but I would like to share one vision (I am sure there are many others) that came to me after the CODA seminar. I noticed that Norwegian universities were not represented (or at least not given the floor and the mic), even though a lot was said about the importance of education. There has been a recent expansion of artistic research programmes in Norwegian universities, where artists can develop experimental work while reflecting on it over the course of several years. How would the field change, locally and internationally, if there were quota-guaranteed artistic research positions with a focus on disability? For example, a movement research doctorate, where artists with disabilities can explore what their bodies can do, how they can express their lived experience, what kind of movement vocabularies, dramaturgies and new aesthetics they can produce. As well as expanding dance in general, this would allow disability to be considered not only on the level of content and representational politics, but on the level of the art form itself. And last but not least, it would employ artists with disabilities from all over the world as full-time professional artist-researchers and give their voices more credibility in the field.

Seated woman with raised arm speaks into microphone. A woman interprets using sign language.In front, the backs of heads in the audience
Kjersti Horn with sign language interpreter at CODA 2022. Photo © Lars Opstad/CODA Oslo Int. Dance Festival

Looking outwards

I don’t know if the above is a good or bad idea. I do know that change is not impossible. One doesn’t need to look far to see that the efforts of a small group of people can amplify voices, promote transformation and create lasting structural changes. Italy has become a role model for disability activism in the arts in just a few years. It started with the EU funded project EBA Europe Beyond Access, ‘the largest Arts and Disability project in the world’, supported by activists, artists and institutions, that led to increased understanding, developed a discourse around the issue and resulted in concrete, practical proposals for change. Led in Italy by the festival Oriente Occidente, and followed by 51 other Italian organisations, the network built expertise on the professionalisation of disabled artists. Chiara Bersani, now the artistic director of Spazio Kor in Piedmont, is maybe the most internationally recognised artist of this development, but there are many others, as seen in the manifesto of Al. Di. Qua. Change can happen, and does happen. 

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Oslo, Norway
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Visit New Dramaturgies for a Bulgarian translation of this article.

For a counterpart to this article, see also CODA 2022: staging diversities by Sanjoy Roy

Yasen Vasilev’s trip was provided by CODA Oslo International Dance Festival

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