Sinking into a sweet abyss: a series of questions arising from working with intellectual disability.


From the beginning of my involvement in the field of dance and disability I have maintained that what is at stake here is not the transformational effect of dance on the way we perceive disability, but the transformational effect of engaging with disability on the ontology of dance. Affirming this intuitive, practice based experience, Ann Cooper Albright, in her seminal text ‘Moving Across difference: Dance and Disability’ (1997: 57) suggests that disability in dance gives us an opportunity to:

reenvision just what kinds of movements can constitute a dance and, by extension, what kind of body can constitute a dancer.

She then moves on to define these movements and this body through examples of dances that demonstrate this view by deconstructing traditional frameworks of representation, and bringing them into opposition with others which ‘recreate the representational frames of traditional proscenium performances, emphasizing the element of virtuosity and technical expertise to reaffirm a classical body in spite of its limitations’ (Albright, 1997: 63,64).

Within the Unlimited Access* program I have been working with a mixed group of people with and without intellectual disabilities. I have been teaching in collaboration with Eirini Kourouvani, who is a dancer with a physical disability, and we have so far completed the educational phase of the project which consisted of a weekly dance improvisation class over a period of three months. My collaboration with Eirini and the same group of dancers, extends now into a new phase of work in which we will produce a twenty minute dance piece to be the performed in February.

Coming out of the initial phase of work and having researched the subject of dance and disability from a more academic viewpoint, I was tempted to paraphrase the above statement to suit the setting of our work, and, in turn, suggest that intellectual disability in dance gives us an opportunity:

not only to reenvision what kinds of movements can constitute a dance, but also what kinds of minds can constitute a dancer’s mind.

The implications of this statement have struck me many times through this process, and will continue to create new resonances well beyond this project and certainly beyond the beginnings of an analysis in this short text. The questions that arise from this statement are truly overwhelming and possibly even more complex than those that arise from Albright’s original statement.

On the one hand, one has to deal with a rich tradition of stereotypes around the dancer’s intellect. There has been a lot of writing on the subject of the intelligence of the dancer’s body, which attempts to overcome the dichotomy between the mind and body and integrate the notions of the intellectual and the physical. These issues also touch upon the gender dualism which regards the body as female and the mind as male, the default gender of the dancer being female and subject to the male gaze of the choreographer and audience. And yet the mind/body divide is pervasive within a great volume of dance literature which regards the body merely as a passive instrument of the mind, in its quest for artistic expression. Also there has been a lot of discourse on the issue of knowledge through dance, and the need to valorise practice based research and its results, against a purely logocentric tradition of knowledge production.

So on the one hand there is this attempt to reinstate dance as an ‘intelligent practice’, and on the other hand the above paraphrased statement seems, on the surface, to reverse the argument once more by attempting to validate the practice of the intellectually disabled dancer. What is crucial here is that no definition of intelligence could possibly be limited to such a tool as the IQ rating, but would have to include other factors like adaptive behaviour which relates to communication and functional skills. If we escape the idea of skills altogether and start exploring the potential of a different range of communication and a different context of functioning on stage, questions arise regarding the representational imprint of these elements on stage and the discussion of value within this setting. In the same way a body with a physical disability can produce a unique range of movement, the mind of a person with an intellectual disability can produce a unique range of physical and verbal expression, opening up a new radical space, ‘un unruly location where disparate assumptions collide’ (Albright, 1997: 58).

To further complicate the issue, another question that arises has to do with the hierarchy between the role of the dancer and the choreographer. Traditionally the (male) choreographer is seen as the intellectual force who uses his (female) dancers as instruments that will embody his choreographic vision. The situation I find myself in, is that of a choreographer without intellectual disability called upon to choreograph a mixed group with and without intellectual disability. My aim within this process has been to find ways to subvert this hierarchy and allow for an agency in the dancers’ choreographic and structural input and a heightened consciousness of the work we are producing as a group. One of the ways I worked on this in the workshop phase was by always spending the last half hour doing a completely free improvisation, where people were free to enter and exit the ‘stage’ space as they wished. In response to this task we talked a lot about how one watches what is happening on stage, when we decide to enter and exit, and how we relate to what is happening by supporting, complementing or bringing a new or oppositional element onto stage with our own presence and actions.

The way I am planning to work in for the production of the piece, will involve three main strands: a) a period of getting to know each other through meetings in and out of the rehearsal context, from which texts, oral accounts and movement material will emerge; b) a process with each person working with me and Eirini to create a block of individual material of performance, based on the material from the previous strand and finally, c) a phase of rehearsal where we will work freely with this material through open group improvisations, relating the individual materials between themselves and to the group.

Apart from this quite formal plan of how we will work, another issue that I have been thinking about a lot has to do with the use of language within this context. The following incident took place during a class I taught last March and greatly influenced the rest of the workshop. We were all nice and warm and people were in a positive and creative mood. The task at hand was that one person had to lead the group with his/her palm and the group had to follow as if there was an invisible connection between the palm of the leader and their heads. Manolis, one of the leaders, got a bit carried away and started enthusiastically leading the group with both arms and basically his whole body. I could see his group getting a bit confused and nervous, so I said to him to try to concentrate on his one arm and when that didn’t work I stood behind him and by holding his arm with my arm, I tried to focus his attention on just one limb. Then, out of the blue Konstantinos from his group said “Manoli, lower your wings, please lower your wings”, which miraculously and instantly did the trick and Manolis continued the task in a much more receptive way, enjoying the sense of following he got from the group.

This was really a turning point in the process for me as it helped me see ‘meaning’ as something much more fluid within this group. Rather than see this fluidity in a negative light, as some peoples’ inability to understand a task, I decided to make use of it; see it as a tool for producing new potential in meaning, as a trigger for unpredictable movement possibilities and as a possibility to bring out a new poetics in performance.

Working with this incredible group of people has been a truly transformative experience for me, an opportunity to rethink everything we take for granted regarding our practices in dance. In the words of Cristiana, a member of the group, it has been like ‘sinking into a sweet abyss’.

Medie Megas | choreographer

* Unlimited Access is a dance and disability program initiated by the British Council and carried out in partnership with the Onassis Cultural Centre (Greece), Vo’Arte (Portugal), the Croatian Institute for Movement and Dance. The workshop and performance mentioned in this article are strands of the program proposed by the Onassis Arts Centre in Athens.