Border transgressions in Dancing with Strangers: From Calais to England

published 15 November 2017
In 2016 Portuguese dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Instant Dissidence Rita Marcalo travelled to the refugee camp – The Jungle – in Calais. There she and her team spent time with refugees. They listened to people’s stories. Marcalo taught dance workshops  for those wanting to take part. From these encounters four duets between Marcalo and a refugee – Yodite Melku (Eritrea), Abdul Rehman (Afghanistan), Johnoy Miller (Pakistan), Addisu Tariku (Ethiopia) – were developed. These four duets are the dance content of the work ‘Dancing with Strangers: From Calais to England’ – a work that invites a stranger in England (and beyond) to dance with  a particular refugee. Marcalo stands with outstretched arms in a public space, wearing a T-shirt that declares ‘Dance With Me.’ While the refugee has been unable to cross the border to England, their dances have – through Marcalo’s body, and their voices have – in digital form. Those who accept the invitation to dance put on a pair of headphone and begin to move with Marcalo. In so doing they come into connection with a particular refugee – their dance, their voice, their story.

‘Dancing with Strangers: From Calais to England’ operates through openness on the part of the refugees, of Marcalo, of those accepting the dance invitation, and through the willingness of those taking part to enter into an experience of and with another. Each refugee’s digital voice recordings is edited to include that person’s choice of music to accompany their dance. (These recordings are also available on the project website so able to reach a wider public than those able to participate in the dance.) In addressing the experiences of refugees the project deals with one of the most pressing issues of our time. Perceiving this work and its capacity to make a direct connection between people as a potent example of 21st century choreography, I invite Marcalo to be interviewed for the Figures Series project. Marcalo’s response is a gentle rebuff:

Abdul’s story – drawing Lucy Barker

I understand the purpose [of the interviews in Figures Series] to be the advancement of choreography as an art form. A very legitimate purpose, for sure, but politically I have recently began questioning the morality/ethics of contributing to the advancement of art, and of myself as an artist. Indeed, I find myself, saying no to requests to talk about this thing people call (and I used to call) ‘my work’.

Yodite’s story – drawing Lucy Barker

And so this text is a not an interview with Rita Marcalo although it draws from our continued correspondence. All texts in bold italics are direct quotes from Marcalo. The text that runs along with Marcalo’s words are my words – in plain font. Interspersed through the page are (pen drawing) links leading to the voices of Yodite, Abdul, Johnoy and Addisu. The combined words are offered as a meditation around the ethical and social responsibility aspect of artistic practices – and hover around questions of engagement: with complexities – with bodies – with memories – with the lives of others – with what it means to be human.

• In a world marked not only by economic inequality but also by educational inequality, how can I justify creating work which operates in a way that only those with an art education can understand?

• By doing so, am I not re-enacting my (educational) privilege and am I not accumulating more cultural capital, in the same way that a banker might be said to [be] constantly re-enacting his/her economic privilege and accumulating more financial capital?

• As a highly educated and highly privileged human, is it not my ‘ethical duty’ to put my privilege and knowledge to the service of others? Is it not my duty to create opportunities that give voices to others (enables them to acquire cultural capital), instead of continuing to service my own cultural capital?

Is it that the work of the contemporary artist is that of responding critically-creatively to the times we are living in?


How to respond?

How to grow capacities to respond?

Might the artist who is invited onto a platform for the expression of their voice, instead propose  that that platform be offered as a space for those who have no (or very little) voice, to express their own thoughts?

By what power(s) are voices heard?

By what modes of agency?

What are the systems through which voices move?

What forms of language do these systems conduct?

Or silence?

By what power(s) might silenced voices be heard?

By what modes of agency?

Where are the byways through which silences erupt?

Or whisper urgently?

What of the voice that in its being heard becomes endangered?

Johnoy’s story – drawing Lucy Barker

I never, EVER, thought that the work would lead to me questioning its representation and the context of its representation… And questions of ethics and morality… A real surprise this has been…)

She calls the work a choreographic act of border transgression

Her body acts as emissary (a person sent as a diplomatic representative on a special mission)
as intermediary (a person who acts as a link between people in order to try and bring about an agreement; a mediator)

Addisu’s story – drawing Lucy Barker

Some of my experiences in refuge camps have changed my world-view and my value system, I can not return to the previous one.

Featured image by Julia Bauer for Tempting Failure 2016

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