By Chan Sze-Wei
(945 words, 9-minute read)
“There are so many taboos and judgements around our bodies and the politics they carry. Let’s take the leap to talk and dance about tough questions. Let’s be unashamed. Walang hiya.”
Over two weeks this February in Manila and Singapore, a group of dancers came together to look critically at the politics of bodies: embodied approaches to social and political questions as a physically immediate trigger for challenging conversations about society and change. The title of the Manila event, “walang hiya,” was chosen by the Filipin@ members* of the organising team and roughly translates (from Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines) as “shameless” or “immoral”. The workshops were organized and facilitated by three of us: Manila-based choreographer Ea Torrado (and Daloy Dance Company), Daniel Mang from Sweden, and I.
The entry point for these workshops was the dance form of Contact Improvisation, developed by Steve Paxton and other dancers during the 1970s wave of post-modern dance experiments. Contact Improvisation emphasises the body’s relationship with gravity; movement is created spontaneously through points of physical contact and weight-sharing between dancers. In its day, it was a radical departure from the conventions of modern dance. Among many factors, Contact Improvisation disavows pre-determined choreographic steps, explores a spherical 360-degree dancing space instead of the frontal presentation of most concert dance, and takes a gender-neutral approach to partnering where both men and women can lift and be lifted. As it became popularised as a community and social dance form, Contact Improvisation has come to be practised in dancing communities around the world by people of all ages, body types, abilities and experience. This aspect of the practice emphasises participation and direct experience, and dispenses with the hierarchy of restricting the practice of dance to trained, athletic, young bodies. A spirit of experimentation and research continues to animate many Contact practitioners in fields including physics, kinesiology, psychology, sociology and philosophy.
The Manila and Singapore workshops developed from our interest in a body of work combining the study and practice of contact improvisation with embodied approaches to social and political questions, such as: cultural constructions of health; (dis)ability, body image, beauty; the objectification, sexualisation and desexualisation of bodies; how society ascribes meaning to different zones of the human body (“mapping”); how experiences of violence and oppression differentially tune people’s autonomic nervous systems (the “social nervous system”); or more generally, how domination takes root in the body. The material has been developed by Daniel, myself and many others at various gatherings since 2008, most of them in Europe under the name of Radical Contact. Ea attended her first Radical Contact gathering in 2016, and the idea for the first Southeast Asia workshops was mooted.
The sessions in Manila and Singapore incorporated Contact Improvisation fundamentals with explorations into personal and physical boundaries, verbal and non-verbal consent, body image and identity. Inverting the position where a vulnerable individual (e.g. a weaker person, a younger person, a female person, a person of minority status, an older person, a disabled person…) becomes the passive object of gaze or of touch, we experimented with “tuning the gaze”, requesting to be looked at in different ways from supportive, witnessing, to challenging and threatening. We “tuned the touch” and practiced requesting and experiencing specific qualities of touch. We danced a version of the “privilege walk” exercise, where questions specific to each location separated and restricted the dancing abilities of the people in the group. I cannot forget the moment of kinaesthetic intensity when half of the room in Manila shifted because of their connection with victims of President Duterte’s war on drugs, or when a section of the Singapore group was isolated and immobilized because of language barriers.
An example of the integration of contact improvisation skills with our social-political concerns is the story of “The Princess and the Horse”, based on a childhood experience of one of the workshop participants. Being from a modest social background, she occasionally accompanied her grandmother to work at the house of a rich family. She befriended the employer’s daughter, a girl her age who had a whole room full of enviable toys. She was delighted when she was invited to sleep over, until her host proposed to play “princess and horse” – and decided that our friend was going to be the horse, all night. Our friend did not want to be the horse, she wanted to be the princess sometimes too! She felt she could not say no, and went home in tears. Today, she realises she could not say refuse because of her intuitive understanding of her family’s social status, and her intimidation as a guest in the house of these very wealthy people. After listening to the story, the workshop group was asked to take a walk around the studio in pairs. And since we were now not in this old story, we were able to choose whether we wanted to be the horse (coming down on all fours to offer support to our partner) or the princess (flying and riding on our supportive partners). Revisiting this story, we could now communicate our wishes clearly and confidently to one another, changing roles and exchanging support.
The workshop formats alternated between physical/movement exercises and verbal exchanges in duets, small groups and the whole group. We found ourselves frequently laughing or hugging, but just as often introspective and emotional in response to proposals to rethink and repattern different aspects of our relationships to others and ourselves. In Ea’s words, “What I love about workshops like this is the self-awareness it gives the participant. Awareness precedes choice. When you are aware, you get to choose to remain the same, or to change. To improve.”
*Filipin@ is a gender-netural adjective/pronoun for a person of Philippine nationality that resembles both the feminine-associated “Filipina” and the male-associated “Filipino”
¡Walang Hiya! (Unashamed) Contact improvisation and body politics festival was held in the Philippines, 1 – 5 February 2017, Makati, Metro Manila. Workshop Report
Body politics and contact improvisation/New Normal workshop by Daniel Mang and Chan Sze-Wei was held on 11, 12, 15 February 2017, in Singapore.
Guest Contributor Chan Sze-Wei stepped into a dance class for a university P.E. requirement, and hasn’t stopped dancing since. She graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Diploma in Dance) in 2011 and the London Contemporary Dance School (M.A. Contemporary Dance) in 2016. Blending conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, performance installation and film, her work is often intimate and sometimes invasively personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender. Her work has been shown in Singapore, London, Indonesia, Laos, Taiwan and Croatia. She is currently an Associate Artist of the Dance Nucleus (Singapore) and a member of the PG Gang collective (London).