By Conal Dougan
One rewarding aspect of studying on the Society and Space course is seeing how the theories and philosophies we delve into in books and stuffy seminar rooms can come alive in the ‘real world’. This focus can be particularly sharp in Bristol, where everyday experiences invite reflection into everything from urban planning to sonic geographies and contentious politics. A recent experience of experimental dance theatre in particular led me to reflect on normative representations and performativity and the ways a Deleuzian micropolitics can be used to interrupt these.
In their paper The Minute Interventions of Stewart Lee (2014), Sharpe, Dewsbury and Hynes consider the “affirmative conditions of possibility in comedy, repetition and affect” (116). The paper looks at the work of stand-up comedian Stewart Lee as a way of illustrating Connolly’s (2011) idea of temporality as “slower experience of the past folding into the present and both flowing towards the future” (4). Lee is famous for extolling the use of form over content – his comedy routines feature few traditional jokes, and instead rely on playing with the actual form of comedy. Critiques of observational humour are frequent, as is moaning about the audience not ‘getting’ the intellectual register of his show. He also uses repetition, first to dull a joke and then to bring it back into sharp focus. As a result, the authors suggest that he works “more in a performative than a representational mode” (Sharpe, Dewsbury and Hynes, 2011: 119).
Recently I went to the Bristol Old Vic to see the dance performance CounterActs by the company Candoco. Candoco Dance Company is a famously inclusive organisation, and showcases both disabled and non-disabled dancers. The first half of the show was called ‘Beheld’, and was an unerringly abstract dance piece offering beauty in form. The choreography questioned what the body is, disabling the abled and abling the disabled. The second half – ‘Let’s talk about dis’ – worked around a series of spoken word pieces which were aimed at challenging social preconceptions, both about disability and about dance. The highlight of the piece was a routine featuring Andrew Graham, Toke Broni Strandby and Laura Patay. Patay spoke in French about her experiences of being disabled, translated into English by Strandby and then into sign language by the non-disabled Graham. Strandby, however, distorts Patay and can only discuss how Candoco is inclusive because “some of us are really really tall…we have very different heights and we all move differently because of that”. Tanja Erhart, meanwhile, ignores the disabilities of some of the dancers and opines that the company is inclusive because it employs both “female and non-female dancers, white dancers and…” before looking around her at the all-Caucasian troupe.
It is difficult to relay the power of the performance precisely because it was a performance – it mobilised form over content. The content only makes sense because Patay and Strandby are each missing a limb. While Patay speaks in French about her experiences of being disabled, the audience (depending on their knowledge of French) can only imagine what she is talking about. When Strandby (mis)translates it into a question of height rather than disability, it challenges the preconceptions of the audience.
While Patay is speaking, there is a pause in the explicit dialogue with the audience, creating a space for political possibility. In the paper on Stewart Lee, the authors note Sara Ahmed’s assertion that “bodies are shaped by what they tend toward, and … the repetition of that ‘tending toward’ produces certain tendencies” (Ahmed 2006: 129 in Sharpe, Dewsbury and Hynes 2014: 123). Lee agitates our normative representations of our past. Candoco agitate our normative representations of disability and the body.
Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Connolly, W. (2011) The World of Becoming. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sharpe, S., Dewsbury, J-D and Hynes, M. (2014) The minute interventions of Stewart Lee: the affirmative conditions of possibility in comedy, repetition and affect. Performance Research, 19 (2), 116-125.