SPLASTIC: A reflection on work and process

Choreographer Tora Balslev speaks about the work she, and dancer Cath Borch Jensen, did exploring the perceived limitations of the human body and how non-normative bodies affect our perception of what we can and cannot do.

Published: January 29, 2017
Words: J.Scott Stratton & Tora Baslev
Photographs: Jens Juul
Artist Link: www.dailyfiction.dk

You’ve been touring your piece Splastic for over a year now, but for those that are unfamiliar with the piece, can you give me a little explanation of the concept of the work?

SPLASTIC is a performative exploration. The performance is a duet with two dancers, one of us has spasticity, and the other one does not. We move together in the space and tell short personal anecdotes on how we experience our own body and movement.

During the choreography, the audience first gets a chance to have a close look at Cath’s physicality, in a sequence where I copy her. Then we relate to each another in mirroring and manipulation, and in the last section we make our bodies available for something outside of us – images of nature – in an abstract sequence, where our concrete bodies are no longer the focal point, but working to let something else be seen through us.)

I started making SPLASTIC because I was disturbed by the fact that many people, myself included, tend to focus on what people with physical variations cannot do instead of focusing on what they actually can do. For example, think of the word ”disabled.” It means ”not able to.” It’s an offensive word when you think of it. Many indeed very able people have this term glued to them because their body does not conform to societies norms.

I became aware of this prejudice inside me when I met people with bodies different from my own: A black curtain would go down…”Der gik en sort klap ned”, as you would say in Danish…and I was not able to honestly see this person without feeling some sort of panic.

But why? I got curious about exploring this place of uncertainty and trying to become more open taking another body in. I made the piece as an invitational shortcut for an audience to do the same thing.

Also, I was inspired by feeling restricted in my own physical movement by norms laid down in my own and other peoples minds as well as in the architecture of spaces. You get surprised how little deviation it takes, of say tempo, level or shape to make people around you (and your own inner voice) react. I did some practical research on this in the public space and got some understanding of how it must be to have a different way of moving in this social structure. How could I wrestle this? How could I create more physical freedom? If not anywhere else then at least in my own consciousness.

You’ve mentioned that the primary starting point of this work was a process pulled from Butoh called “image-work.” Can you explain a little more about what this process is, and how you incorporated it into this work?

Image work is a process of choreographic tool coming from the Japanese art form butoh dance, that collides with what we normally think of as the beautiful and harmonious. Working with images this way, the dancer imagines being a certain material or image (for example stone or a tree), the dancer ”is” the material/image and lets the movement happen from the nature of the materials´ poetics and logic.

Working with images became central to the project because this method was present when Cath and I first met at Dansehallerne in 2010. She saw a short piece I presented, where I was working with a picture that created a twisted and tense quality. Afterwards, she came up to me and said: ”You are dancing my dance!” She felt reflected in what she saw on stage and wanted to try doing it herself. She joined some image work workshops, and the work made her very happy because this form has an inner focus. The goal is not to perform specific movements correct, but to give oneself to listening to the image and the physical state of being it creates. As she wrote in our facebook-log: ”I could not be wrong!”

We tried out many different images for the image work sequence rounding up the piece. I chose the ones that brought forth a variation of Caths physical qualities and at the same time allowed the audience to experience the image quality through her body. We worked on timing, space, light, and music in how to guide the focus of the audience to the special physical qualities our images would bring forth, and not to Caths spasticity. It was there as a parameter in the whole, but in this sequence, it was no longer in focus. When the audience tells me: ”But this piece was not at all about spasticity!”, I get the feeling we did something right.

You also mention that phenomenology was a driving force behind the research for this work. Can you elaborate on that?

I was inspired by Merleau-Ponty´s body phenomenology in the initial state of project development. It made me aware in a new way, that our experience of our own body and movement is central to our being-in-the-world and that this hybrid of body and mind seperates itself from a classic dualistic humanity, parting the world in body and soul. I became aware of how I automatically think in dualities around the body and consciousness – and how this dualism is embedded in the language of movement. The mindset of a body “anchored in the world” exacerbated the dilemma of treatments focusing on what people with spasticity “cannot do,” rather than encouraging what the person can do and strengthen the experience of it.

SPLASTIC formed as a practical exercise in surpassing a restricted view on being human. The body phenomenology became an encouragement or drive along the way, giving me a good reason keep walking – and rolling! – on in the direction we set out for.

You worked with a team of neuroscientists in developing this piece. What role did they have to play in the development?

The neuroscientists Jens Bo Nielsen and Mark Schram Christensen from KU and Elsass Instituttet work on consciousness about movement and research how to improve treatment for people with spasticity. They propelled me to start the whole project when they told me about problems they meet in their work.

For example, treatment often focuses solely on how to get a person to walk, and not for example on how to improve this persons “own” movement or enjoyment of moving. Jens said: “If a child wants to cross the floor, it’s not important if it’s crawling, rolling or walking.” But something makes that statement trying to carry into action it seemed. That inspired me, and we started a collaboration about the piece.

In the process, they counseled us to reflect on the material we showed, and they were part of the artist talks both at the premiere and on tour.

Take me through the process of developing the choreography for this piece.

SPLASTIC’s process builds on a continuous exchange between the artist- and science participants, audience, and people interested for other reasons. We tried to go forth and back many times (or spiraling) between developing, performing, sharing and reflecting instead of moving ”chronologically” from developing to performing, sharing, and reflecting. I view this exchange happening continuously between the different parties as a part of the piece itself – the performative exploration SPLASTIC.

I laugh now as I write this because this kind of process sounds so easy to put down in a few lines, yet it takes nerve to present stuff you do not understand – yet talk openly with the spectators and reference groups about. For me, risking ourselves this way is also where stage art gets interesting as an exclusive live art form, where audience can actually take part in making sense. This perspective probes a question: Who in such a process is the audience?

How was the process of working with non-professionally trained dance body in developing the choreography? Did you face any challenges?

Cath and I did face many challenges in our search for a mutual choreographic language. I find it hard to attribute what difficulties were due to which of our differences – in physicality or training. It seemed to me overcoming our different physical languages was a part of the reward of the piece.

We both were pushed to be extremely specific, honest and open for a immense amount of time. I think it made the process more intimate, that when I would usually just say: “All right, then let´s go over here.” Cath and I had to go into details with “from this position would it be possible to move in this direction?” “If so, how can it be done?” This level of intimate detail required honesty and patience from both of us.

There could a lot of social/political commentary implied to this to this piece? Was this intentionally done to challenge normative thinking?

I think so yes. I was interested in questioning “the normal” and how we can get ourselves around it. I wanted to ask my self and others: What is so great about being normal if it leaves us in a tiny spot with no much space to move and watch each other unfold in miraculously manifold ways?

I made SPLASTIC to strive to see beyond an everyday restricted consciousness and its categories of ”right” and ”wrong.” The piece would break the norms as a way to create new spaces of possibilities, other truths, to freedom and integrity. My own restricted view on others was also an aspect of how I restrict myself. If Cath could find her dance, and if myself and others could experience it, it could be an eye-opener and inspiration. Our whole search for that dance would be cathartic. I was in for that!

You have also mentioned that there is a book in development, under the same moniker of SPLASTIC. Can you tell me about that?

Because of the nature of our sharing and reflective process, a lot of reflection (on the piece and process) was accumulated at a certain point, that I wished to anchor and share. I asked participants to write it down and printed it in the form of a little booklet, to hand out to the audience when touring and as a shared practice for other artists.

Is there anything else that you would like to add about the piece, or your work in general?

Daily Fiction, my dance company, will be premiering a new piece called ”Nature´s Calling” in the spring of 2019, which revolves around smartphones. In this one, I am going to challenge myself on the parameter of the shared process again. We have a public showing at Københavns Musikteater in March, and we are launching a video-log, where we share the work taking shape. I can´t wait to do it!