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Animated Edition - Summer 2002
An evolution in practice
Integrated practice: History, background and the future by Adam Benjamin

I never cease to be amazed at the way history is all around me, though unless someone points it out, it remains invisible. It seems that we travel paths, and follow ideas that have set in motion long before our birth, inherit ways of thinking, good and bad, that have been passed down across the centuries, and only rarely, if we are lucky do we catch a glimpse of where, they (and we) have come from, and so gain a new perspective on where we might be, and where we might be heading.

The photo (1) is of The Power of Balance danced by the Vertigo Dance Company from Jerusalem. Photo and video are possibly the only way this work will be seen in the UK: I recently spoke to a well known London theatre director, who was personally very taken with the piece, but felt unable to book it, not because of the size or difficulties involved in transporting and accommodating such a large company, but due to the present policies of the State of Israel. It was a position I in many ways sympathised with. When I was first asked to make a piece in the Middle East, I wanted to work with Israelis and Palestinians, it seemed to me that this was what anything carrying the label 'integrated' should at least attempt. It was an idea that faded as the hostilities escalated out of control. I am happy that The Power of Balance continues to do its work within Israel, changing some prejudices, even if it is unable to make much of a mark on the greater ones that possess the politicians and fundamentalists on both sides of the Arab - Israeli divide. As an artist, and as a Jew, I had hoped to be able to do more.

How is this related to the theme I have been asked to talk about; the history, background and future of integrated dance practice? Firstly because it is a pointer to an unavoidable, though frequently avoided fact of artistic life; that the arts, including dance, are bound in ways, seen and unseen, to the politics and policies of the past; and that politics may not only shape the boundaries of our physical world, but also the way we see, and are seen by others. Secondly because I believe that artists are amongst those who, though often undervalued, and at times unheard, hold keys to new interpretations and new beginnings. (One disabled Israeli soldier in a workshop said to me 'If only we could get the politicians from both sides into a workshop like this - it could change more than all the talking'). Thirdly, because for me the history of what is often called 'integrated dance' is not specifically about disability, rather it is about unity. I don't mean by this that all our dances should be about smiling happy people, but that underneath whatever is presented on stage, there is an underlying concern with how things are put together: how we as people connect to each other and equally importantly how we connect to the world around us. It is, I would like to think a movement that has multiple threads that combine artistic, moral and ethical concerns. Perhaps it is one of our tasks to reclaim these from the dry texts of philosophy and render them vibrant, tactile and exciting.

As a currently non-disabled man, I am disinclined to hold forth on the history of disability. History makes most sense to me when I see it as something I am part of, so in responding to the request to speak I needed to ask where do I fit into this picture? How far back should I go in searching for origins? From where do we, as dancers involved in this area, trace our beginnings? Is it to the birth of CandoCo in 1990? To the work of Wolfgang Stange in the 1980s? Is it to the pioneers of the 1960s and 70s - Veronica Sherborne and Gina Levete or further still to Rudolph Laban, Hilde Holger and the roots of Contemporary Dance amongst the German Expressionists in the days before two world wars reshaped the world and the arts forever?

If by 'integrated' we mean the shared practice of disabled and non-disabled people exploring dance together as equals, then it is probably a far shorter and simpler task that can see its first real glimmers in the late 1980s evolving from the convergence of the Civil Rights Movement, and the advent and subsequent spread of Contact Improvisation in post Vietnam America. If, however we consider the term integrated to refer to something that includes but goes beyond the inclusion of disability then we have a far longer and perhaps more inclusive journey to make. For myself as an artist, disability has never been the focus of what I do. Dare I say it, I have never been particularly interested in disabled people as a collective, any more than any other agglomerate of bodies. In fact it is just that forcing of people into categories, which has in many ways given rise to what is now called integrated practice. It is the undoing of restrictive and dehumanising categorisations and the recognition and celebration of different dances that marks those of us who currently gather under this banner.

The belief that people can be manipulated and controlled, herded and corralled has appeared in various powerful forms across history. It was raised to particular heights by a familiar, and much feted figure in dance history; Louis XIV of France. Louis gets generally very good press in dance history, if for no other reason than that he established the Academie de Danse Royale, and the Academie d'Opera, he is considered the founding patron of modern ballet, but he was also, and this a point casually omitted from most dance texts, a ruthless and unrestrained and bloody tyrant. In his dance, as in his political policies, Louis sought absolute command of space, absolute order and total conformity (to his wishes)... his patronage created a wondrous court theatre portraying a world of controlled physicality where nothing was ever out of place, and where the people of France danced their gratitude to their wise and omniscient master. In the cold reality of the French countryside, Louis' funding policies were seen to rest on the brutal dispossession of the poor, the stealing of land and the destruction of local communities and indigenous culture. (the same was to be the case in England under the court of Charles I.)

The dispossession of the peasant classes and the enclosure of common land marked not only the end of many local customs and cultures, it erased the dance spaces that were used by them. The twilight of these traditions is beautifully captured in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Hardy effectively describes the cold hand of the Industrial Revolution, as it tightened its grip on the natural world. It could be argued that the resulting disconnection of people from the land, and of time from place, remain the greatest collective dis-ease of the modern world and the one from which springs most of our greatest ills.

The dances of our long distant ancestors served many purposes, but perhaps most importantly they were an unmistakable link to the natural cycles of the world, affirming and reaffirming the interdependence of humanity and nature. They were not decoration, or simply 'art', but served a vital purpose. They were to be danced at certain times to acknowledge the influence, the power and the flow of Nature and to reaffirm our human place within it. Our real partnership, not corporate, but our corporeal relationship to the world we inhabit.

Modern western dance as we know it through its roots in ballet reflects a world that has been repeatedly dissected by politicians and philosophers, by religion and science but that is repeatedly presented to us as a pure art form. The dances we inherit hold the imprint of our past, but we have in many instances forgotten exactly who was calling the tune when the steps were learned: those conservative past masters who demanded a uniformed and uninformed chorus were, often-violent men with equally violent fantasies.

'We might suppose that the aparatchics of apartheid, those heavy-jowled men in grey suits, never felt so worthy or so solemn in their worldliness as when they witnessed the rush of cygnets in white taffeta, en pointe.'

Words from Nicola Visser's and Nick Shepherd's article in the last issue of Animated, recounting the days of apartheid South Africa but which might equally apply to Louis XIV or any number of dictators across the pages of history. This is not to deny the beauty of the classically trained body, but to encourage us to recognise that our art forms carry political imprints and political messages encoded but readable, and that powerful ideas have lifetimes that stretch long beyond that of their originators.

I have spoken at length elsewhere about the meaning of the word integration, but what of the history of dance, the one thing that has brought all of us together here? Historically the word 'dance' is itself a relative newcomer, unused before the fourteenth century. The art of dance, for which the British were once famed was termed - Saltatione.

When Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species stated 'Natura non facit saltum' he used the same Latin expression - saltum, in this instance meaning leap. Throughout history, Nature had been considered an animate and dancing world represented by countless gods and spirits. Darwin had made what was to be a defining statement for the C19 and C20, one which put the final nail in the coffin of a declining Church, and buried with it the origins of dance. Science in C19 was intent on proving that Nature, indeed the world, was a spiritless and dance less thing, an inert mass, that could be plundered for resources, dissected without qualm or scruple, divided and ruptured without consequence. The earth was no longer a mother (mater), to be danced with and respected, but 'matter', inert unfeeling, to be consumed without gratitude, altered at will, modified to suit the owner.

Evolution was, and is considered to be brought about through bit-by-bit adjustments, wrought through competition over long periods of time. This bit-by-bit adjustment theory was (and for many still is) a pillar of evolutionary theory. In isolation, it also became a pillar of the Eugenics Movement in the twentieth century, taken up by intellectuals and scientists around the world and brought to its most terrible conclusion at the hands of the Nazis. If nature only advances on the principle of the destruction of the unfit then the Nazis considered themselves justified, morally and scientifically in exterminating those deemed below par. So in the name of improving humanity, a quarter of a million disabled German people were murdered by Nazis doctors, to be followed by Germany's artistic, dissident and gay community... precursor to the Holocaust.

Those who could, fled, bringing with them the early experimental work that had been blossoming prior to the war. American dance was to benefit from an influx of dancers versed in improvisation, England from the tardy arrival of Rudolf Laban, licking his wounds after a failed choreographic commission for Hitler's Olympic Games. Laban later said. 'The first condition of my collaboration is, that you must grant me the privilege to try, and err, because trial and error is the basis of all healthy development.'

He was fortunate that this particular collaboration with Hitler's pre-war propaganda machine, was not an error that resulted in a trial. Thankfully for Laban (and for us) he was reinstated through his services to British industry and his post war return to dance would lay the foundations of community dance in England, from which integrated practice would grow. Funny old world ain't it? (2)

The Nazis' belief that this cleansing of the genetic building blocks would lead to a superior human, overlooked the fate that awaits all over specialised organisms - an inability to adapt to change... a reduction in the creative potential lying dormant in the more bizarre and wayward members of any population be it plant, bird or mammal. As we know today, difference and the multiplicity of the wilderness are nature's storehouse for future adaption. When we declare by our dancing, and by this conference that we celebrate difference, we align ourselves to a wider, humanitarian and ecological movement. Our dances may have many themes and many orientations, but each one says something about our ability to connect, to recognise and value each other, and that we regard these qualities more highly than the ability to divide, destroy or replicate. We are the organic movement in the face of a million golden delicious, we prefer spots on our apples.

The development of dance in the West since the days of Isadora Duncan has been a series of defiant acts in the face of skepticism and conformity; a struggle toward unity championed by individualists. When our individual steps are so diverse, it is difficult sometimes to recognise the strands that connect us. So what imprints and ideas do we wish to leave? What of our future? What messages do we wish to see stretch beyond our time on the stage? Perhaps it is that we deplore political inequality but rejoice in individual difference, that we have taken down walls and have not been brutalised, that we have touched each other and are not afraid.

Perhaps we have discovered something of value beyond our expectations and beyond our limitations; that the future of the world is linked ultimately to our ability to recognise its dances, and to do this we must learn to leave space in our environment for different landscapes and different peoples, and time in our lives to appreciate them.

Perhaps today Darwin might agree, that Nature dances, we dance, the world dances, and only where it does not, is it sick and in need of healing.... and perhaps that too is an indication of where we must look, and where our future lies.

Adam Benjamin, Email:

References (1) A video excerpt was shown at the conference (2) See Preston-Dunlop, V (1998) Rudolf Laban. An Extraordinary Life. London, Dance Books.

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Animated: Summer 2002