The long read: Dance and Disability in Poland

By Disability Arts International on March 24, 2020

By Alicja Müller (translated by Marta Dziurosz). Read the full version published in Polish on

Recently, Teatr 21’s ‘Rewolucja, której nie było’ (“The Revolution That Didn’t Happen”), directed by Justyna Sobczyk, received one of two special awards from the jury of the 12th International Theatre Festival Divine Comedy 2019.

Celebratory remarks included that it was ‘a unique gift to audiences which allows insight into the lives of people with Down’s syndrome’ and that the actors’ performances were ‘of the highest order, while its power of expression turned out to be more natural and moving than everything else we saw during the festival’.

With such high praise, one might wonder why Teatr 21 did not win the main trophy – and whether the jury did not get caught in the trap of normativity, which bids them to consider the performance by an inclusive and professional troupe (active since 2005) to be part of a separate category.

The jury’s verdict stands in opposition to what is going on in Polish theatre, namely projects by such creatives as Michał Borczuch, Wojtek Ziemilski or the aforementioned Sobczyk, which blur the boundaries between normative and alternative worlds, not only theatrical ones. This movement towards a democratised theatre, in which actors previously excluded from the space of performing arts (re)gain their voices, is also seen – perhaps most clearly – in the microcosm of dance.

The figure that most radically opened up Polish choreography to those with alternative motor skills was Rafał Urbacki (1984-2019). He was – and in a sense still remains – an artist in a category of his own.

It would be difficult to indicate (apart from isolated projects, such as Zofia Noworól’s ‘Commotion’) other choreographic works in which disabled performers enter the space of professional theatre and create choreographies that critique the status quo. There is more activity in the workshop world, the intensity of which allows one to hope that they will produce the necessary projects meant for a wide audience.

Can everyone be equal – even if one of them is standing, and the other is sitting in a wheelchair?’  Rafał Urbacki once asked with his characteristic irony in the description of the show “W Przechlapanem” (“In Doomedborough”, 2012). In this performance, the choreographer referred to the tradition of the freak show, in which Otherness functioned as a bizarre spectacle. He subverted the formula of a talent show with disabled people, which – by definition, as it were – robs commentators of critical tools and allows only quasi-affirmative descriptions that emphasise the performers’ uniqueness. Thus, he deconstructed the mechanisms of triggering internalised compassion on the one hand, and of the infantilisation of non-normative performers on the other.

At the same time, he captured and problematised the unsettling and dangerous similarity between the traditional freak show which openly fetishizes difference, and the seemingly inclusive model of a talent show featuring non-normative artists, during which the performances themselves are secondary to who enters the stage.

“In Doomedborough” was a parody of pseudo-democratic projects during which disabled participants (re)gain their agency and ability to speak for themselves yet only ostensibly. The dramatic concept is one of single vocal/dance performances interweaved with ostentatiously grotesque narrative parts, during which both Urbacki and the performers (Ania Dzieduszycka, Basia Lityńska, Maja Tur, Aniela Presko, Magdalena Gałaj, Magdalena Olszewska and Agata Wąsik) manifested their distance from the accepted convention. This is highlighted in a scene in which the compère asks the participants to tell sad stories from their lives, and then reacts to them with clichés like ‘That must have been horrible!’

Using the self-defeating formula of the talent show, the creators of “In Doomedborough” display their critical attitude towards the ableist model of disability in which a bodily or mental non-normativity is something to be fought against and overcome. In this case, it’s ‘overcome’ by the act of going on stage. Irony allows them to reject the society-imposed mask which, in the dominant discourse about disability, frequently takes the form of a super-cripple, i.e. someone who enters a space reserved for non-disabled people despite adversity. Irony also disarms automatic compassion as a mechanism which determines the relationship between the norm and what is marginal or radically different to that norm, and which reinforces the dominance and submission relation between those two.

In his choreographic works involving disabled performers – from the autobiographic ‘Mt 9,7 [On wstał i poszedł do domu]’ (‘Mt 9,7 [Then the man got up and went home]’, 2010) and ‘Stypa’ (‘The Wake’, 2012) to participatory projects such as ‘Gatunki chronione’ (‘Protected Species’, 2014) or ‘Niech nigdy w tym dniu słońce nie świeci’ (‘May the Sun Never Shine on This Day’, 2014) – Urbacki dismantled the rule of political correctness when speaking about disability. This was because he considered it to be one of the forms of symbolic violence towards non-normative identities. Linguistic infantilisation was one of its manifestations.

In his stage expressions, he consistently objected against pity as a particularly oppressive form of compassion, situating its subjects in a position weaker than that of the person feeling pity. In this context, Urbacki’s performances can be treated as attempts to go beyond the language of compassion (which he saw to be fundamental for ableism and reinforcing norms) and attain the right to self-determine.

One of the strategies Urbacki used for criticising the appropriation of non-normative identities and bodies by mainstream, norm-centric narratives was taking his audiences out of the comfort zone of distanced reception. He confronted the viewers with images of unbridled Otherness, which manifested its incongruity with the dominant system of representation both on the level of language and of movement. His creative method involved exposing the performers’ bodily differences, which stemmed from a rebellion against the social and cultural expectation to conceal them. Another important element was reclaiming words that stigmatise disability to form a discourse of emancipation. Talking about himself in the media, the choreographer intentionally used such phrases as ‘poor cripple’ or ‘crip Billy Elliot’.

Disability studies: between theory and practice

Urbacki’s uncompromising and rebellious performances are undoubtedly some of the most radical incarnations of Polish critical and political choreography, while also initiating pioneering disabled-led dance, long ignored in Polish theatre and culture studies. In my opinion the multi-level marginality of that theatre had two causes: on the one hand, disability studies has been absent from the humanities which could form a bridge between academia and activism or artistic activity; and on the other – the marginalisation of dance itself within the microcosm of performing arts, which strongly privileges drama.

In the context of academic analysis of disabled-led dance, the publication of the book ‘Odzyskiwanie obecności. Niepełnosprawność w teatrze i performansie’ (‘Regaining Presence. Disability in Theatre and Performance’) must be considered a breakthrough in Poland. It is a collection of canonical Western disability studies texts symbolically initiating a new chapter in the history of Polish humanities. So far, research in this area has been scattered and shyly looming on the horizon of cultural studies and sociological research. The selection of texts by the book’s editors, Ewelina Godlewska-Byliniak and Justyna Lipko-Konieczna, lets us grasp the complexity of the experience of non-normativity in its discursive and socio-political dimension.

The demand to reject the ableist model of disability and recognise disability’s constructive character recurs in the collected texts. They do not consider disability to be a non-negotiable fact or, as in the medical model, a personal problem. Instead they position it with a certain potentiality which can be understood in two ways. Firstly, every human body may experience temporary or permanent impairment (accidents, old age etc.) Secondly, the otherness of a disabled people is only revealed when they encounter obstacles (for example, no wheelchair ramps or audio description, or a kerb that is too high).

The analyses collected in ‘Regaining Presence’ which seem most vital in terms of theorising the relationship between dance and disability speak about performative strategies of emancipation. These strategies are understood as a drive towards a permanent change of the status quo.

The presence on stage of non-normative bodies which act or dance on their own terms can be understood as (re)negotiating classical dance training. The balletic body conceals its imperfections and masks every sign of its mortality. It creates an illusion of extraordinariness and becomes a representation of normative beauty.

In this context, the ballet scene itself is something of an idealised reflection of the public sphere, in which a division between the desired and the unwanted has also been introduced. A dancing disabled body which moves according to its own rules and does not aim to replicate normative choreographies, belongs, then, to the order of counter-visuality. Shifting the limits of the (in)visibility of bodily otherness is political because it influences what can be seen in shared spaces, both in theatres and in public.

Another important aspect of writing about disabled dancers is the context of theatre itself as a medium of social change. Within this space, it is possible to integrate that which – on the outside – is often invisible or even construed as monstrous. In the choreographies discussed, the stage becomes a prototype of a democratised public space and a site of abolished divisions. Here, difference is not erased but emphasised, and its hypervisibility is included in the process of emancipation. The situation here is the opposite of the traditional freak shows, in which the presentations of otherness only reinforced the status quo because the bodies featured in them were forced into narratives of wonders and anomalies.

It is worth emphasising that Disability Studies stems directly from the activism of disabled people. Their sources are to be found in the counter-culture movements from the 1960s and 1970s. It was these practices that embodied a democratic desire to give both voice and visibility to representatives of marginalised groups. As one of the post-modern xenologies (Otherness Studies), Disability Studies remains dispersed and fragmentary.

Still, it is possible to point to common threads, such as resistance against traditional representations of non-normativity as illness, dysfunction or personal tragedy, the visibility of which must be minimised, striving towards a state that is as close as possible to the norm. The intersectionality of Disability Studies seems also to be a sort of safety measure against the theoretical temptation of appropriating and colonising Otherness in non-negotiable, totalising concepts.

In Poland, like in the West, this discipline is closely intertwined with praxis and could be defined as a supplementary theory. The volume ‘Regaining Presence’ looks to be the most important Polish introduction to Disability Studies published so far, especially in the context of dance and new choreography. However, one should also mention other attempts at summarising the current state of research on the one hand, and on the other – at confronting their critical potential with the activity of Polish artists. This is because involving theory enables a fuller description of the activities that deconstruct normality, which assumes the duty of adjusting the non-normative body to the social and cultural norm.

Those publications include the tenth issue of the ‘Annales Universitatis Paedagogicae Cracoviensis’ (2018); its editor, Agnieszka Ogonowska, made sure that it included both texts about the artistic and discursive strategies of empowering disabled people, and articles problematising techniques of subjugating and discriminating non-normative identities by forcing them into the dichotomy of desired norm and dangerous deviation. Other publications that talk about changing ideas around disability are the magazines ‘Fragile’ (issue 1/2017) and ‘Czas Kultury’ (‘Time of Culture’, 4/2019), in which the authors’ main focuses are literary and artistic attempts to dismantle the norm by a subversive appropriation of its idioms.

Two important events for the development of Polish disability studies were two big international conferences: ‘Negotiating Space of (Dis)Ability in Drama, Theatre, Film and Media’ (25-27th September 2015, University of Łódź) and ‘Sztuka i niepełnosprawność: przekraczanie granic’ (‘Art and Disability: Crossing Borders’, Warsaw, 4-5th April 2019) which took place as part of ‘THEATRE – DANCE – DISABILITY’, a joint project by the British Council, The Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute and The Institute of Music and Dance, inspired by the Unlimited festival in London. The first of these became a site for a multi-layered discussion about the shifting paradigms of otherness and subsequent representations in various (pop)cultural contexts. The latter – part of Europe Beyond Access – focused its discussions on strategies of increasing access to the arts and culture for disabled people.

Improvisation and diversity

The history of dance and of its discourses is a story of more or less spectacular negations and revolutions which led to its democratisation. They have also shaped a discourse that is critical towards the traditional ballet canon, and consequently towards the normative order of representation which assumes a strict division between what is visible and invisible in theatres and in public. Think of some of the most vivid historical works, Louis XIV’s “royal corps” and the communist ballets and revues that embody the principles of socialist realism to serve as propaganda. In this context, the actions of choreographers working disabled performers and creators can be seen as a continuation of attempts – initiated by pioneers of modern and post-modern dance – to dismantle and re-compose the regimes of ballet and reveal the classical tradition’s totalitarian character.

However, the cornerstone for the development of choreography that equally features disabled and non-disabled bodies seems to be the aesthetic revolution under the banner of Judson Dance Theatre, which is as much a formal movement as a political one, or, in the words of André Lepecki, a ‘choreo-political’ one. This is because one of the ideas Judson’s performances explored was a criticism of the American government that was strongly present in the public space. To radically reject the virtuosity and showmanship of dance became part of a strategy of resistance towards the capitalist myth of the American dream, embodied as the gloriousness of the American body.

Another favourite among dance post-modernists was the dismantling of gender stereotypes and the canon into which the dancing body should fit. Here, choreographers established a framework of non-hierarchical dance which could encompass both highly-trained and everyday/found movement.

The democratic nature of this process is also reflected in contact improvisation, an experimental method developed by one of Judson Dance Theatre’s most renowned representatives, Steve Paxton. It encompasses the dancers’ heightened awareness of the physical proposals extended by their partners in spontaneous choreographic interactions; being open to the risk that comes with a bodily encounter with others; and a readiness to exercise vulnerability in a polyphonic, unstructured dialogue. This practice – which its creator called a modern game with an open formula – has become one of the most important techniques of modern dance as it opens itself to non-normative movement. One of the tenets of contact improvisation is ‘a lack of rules – apart from directing all of one’s attention towards one’s partner (…), being sensitive to and anticipating their position and movement’.

It has been interpreted as ‘only an anarchist dancer will be really good at this technique, which requires a libertine’s sensitivity’ – writes Jean-Marc Adolphe, as quoted by Joanna Szymajda.

The fundamental anti-systemic quality of contact improvisation allows its participants to abandon conventional patterns of social interaction. As a result, it breaks down the traditional divisions between the stage-worthy and the everyday, between things that can be shown and things that are repressed from the official systems of representation.

Its potential is frequently used by choreographers working with disabled creatives. It features both in performances like Zofia Noworól’s ‘Poruszenie’ (‘Commotion’, 2015), in which the performers’ improvisations from rehearsals were included within the dramatic structures of the show, and during workshops. Using this method, participants are encouraged to open themselves up to alternative methods of interacting and communicating with the world – listening through touch and moving with one’s eyes closed.

It can improve dancers’ mindfulness of themselves in interaction with others, yet it can also increase the sensitivity around building dance vocabularies for diverse bodies. Examples of this in practice are the classes that David Toole and Amy Butler (Stopgap Dance Company) led with Rafał Urbacki (25-27th September 2019) at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw as part of ‘DANCE – THEATRE – DISABILITY’ project, and workshop/residences with Ewa Sobiak, Justyna Duda, Sylwia Hefczyńska-Lewandowska and Mark Brew for disabled artists that took place at the Rozbark Theatre in Bytom (9th August – 13th October 2019). The aim of the latter – with their focus on shared experiments with movement and new artistic ideas – was to start a creative dialogue which might initiate change throughout Polish dance. Four participants of the Bytom workshops were also invited to take part in Europe Beyond Access international meetings of a similar character: Tatiana Cholewa and Katarzyna Żeglicka were invited to Maastricht (9-11th August 2019, to the Dutch Dance Days festival), and Patrycja Nosowicz, Dominika Feiglewicz and Cholewa visited The Hague (15-30th November 2019, Dance Air).

Speaking about Polish dance in the context of disability and processes of democratising public (not only performance) spaces, it is worth remembering that contact improvisation workshops – although less spectacular and media-friendly than performances – play an important role in challenging ableism and creating new dance vocabularies. In part, they do this by dismantling binary divisions of ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ and supporting marginalised performers in gaining the right to dance, act and speak on their own terms. The strategies of building a choreographic language which emerges from an experience of difference remains vital.

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