Torture Survivors' Dance

“Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed, or intimidating him or other persons.” United Nations Definition of Torture

My dance company Irish Modern Dance Theatre has some interesting dancers with very different bodies and styles – Ashley Chen, Cheryl Therrien and sometimes Derry Swan – all ex Cunningham – plus Becky Reilly, James Hosty, Philip Connaughton – fierce, passionate Irish dancers from Dublin – used to working in adversarial conditions for dance – then there’s Florence from Togo – spine damaged in three places, her body covered in burns – no dance training, Kiribu – an African mother – former political activist in her country whose husband was shot in front of her and her family. She danced at weddings and funerals in her country. She can’t take a proper dance class because of her bad knees but when she lifts her arms up onstage – the intensity of her gaze and the emotions pouring out of her can make an entire audience and the cast catch their breaths and weep. There’s Nina, from Romania, a former athlete and teacher with a serious form of Asthma. Then theres Saed, a young nomad from Sudan – who jumps like Nijinsky He received surgery for injuries he is too ashamed to talk about. My dance company, my life and my worked turned upside down in 2003 when I was approached by an organization called the Centre for Care for Survivors of Torture to give dance workshops for their ‘clients’. There are over 2000 known ‘Torture Survivors’ in Ireland – refugees from Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I agreed to ‘try’ some workshops if they might help. I am not a therapist, I was cautious of what I might be walking into.

The aim of torture is not to kill the victim, but to break down the victims personality. I wondered what a Torture Survivor would look like. The first day, I entered the room and met 10 dignified people- some very quiet, others very lively. I was not sure if this was the correct group. I asked Mike, the organizer what I should say – he said it was better not to ask questions but if they wanted to talk, to let them. Mike told me one of the big effects of torture is total lack of trust. I introduced myself. I said I was very happy and honored to be asked to work with them, that I understood they had come on long and difficult journeys to be in Ireland and to be in the room together. I said my work did not tell stories but was abstract, that we would experiment with dance and movement and they could say and do as much or as little as they wanted to say or could say. They nodded. This marked the beginning of our ‘deal’: They don’t necessarily tell me what they are doing in their dance. Its part of our pact. No questions asked, no information needed. Just the work.

I knew from the moment we stood in a circle together that I could never leave them. The workshops for me became a way of trying to hold the group together and make material without ever talking about people’s personal histories. I did my best to hold onto them. And they held onto me.

One of the group, later described my workshops as giving them permission to express themselves without having to talk about the bad things. I was scared to push them physically in case they may have had injuries. I started with a gentle warm. I taught an exercise from Anna Sokolow’s class – thrust out your arms with massive force, hold them out and slowly lower them while lifting inside and while lowering the arms thinking up, up up. We made simple arm movements, gradually moved our arms up – I told them to imagine they were opening to the sky – some of them smiled. I told them to exhale and hold their arms up. Kiribu, lifted her arms slower than the others and softly sighed and opened her mouth in a radiant smile. She held them up and closed her eyes and swayed from side to side. I was winging what to do next. I copied her and got everyone to do the same. Looking at Kiribu hold her arms in a beautiful ark made me feel tears coming to my eyes. She later described what she does when she dances.

“I like to open my hands, it’s like beginning a life. I want to be free, with just purity in the air. “You go to a psychologist and you talk – it is like rewinding the tape of your life. They tell you to talk everything from how things went wrong, and that is sad. “ – Kiribu

A Nigerian man kept throwing his arms out with terrific force with a look in his eyes that burned through you. Later a teenage boy, Saed came late. It was Friday, he had been at the Mosque to pray. Someone left to see their solicitor about their asylum case. We sat and did some floor exercises. Saed– opened his legs to almost a split second position. He dropped forward and almost touched the floor with his nose. I wondered was he a professional dancer. I asked them to show me a gesture or movement or sound from their daily lives, then one from the past. Someone began waving. He said he was waving goodbye to his family, who had all been massacred. A man and woman did “a rotation thing with their necks and backs – it was beautiful, expressive. Then she raised her head, and she was glowing. With time, they began to talk about their experiences, but I don’t probe. One of them has severe back injuries from being hung upside-down. Additionally, many of them don’t speak English. I was overwhelmed by the richness of each tiny solo, of how each person moved and where the impulse to move came from.

The workshops continued –never exactly the same group, many people came late. A new woman came late but just wanted to watch. She talked on her mobile phone throughout in Swahili. It was like a strange music sountdtrack to the workshop. Sometimes the atmosphere of these intense exercises and studies coupled with people on cellphones and people ‘popping in ‘ for a few minutes resembled a happening. I felt there could be some incredible sort of performance to make from all this but I didn’t yet know how to realize it.

People came to the workshops on wet winter night in the rain – despite their ailments, their complex schedules and living in hostels with rigid timetables and curfews – sometimes ten in a workshop – sometimes one – but we kept going. I wasn’t sure why people came back of what they were getting. Every workshop was different based on the need to involve everyone present. One night I had two ex soldiers, we did fast physical things and jumps. Other times we did more fragile things, arm movements, group exercises, sound, language,,, anything to keep the thread to keep them working together, to keep them listening and moving. It felt like water divining – looking for a flash, for something to validate their involvement, find their dances. We had to keep trying new things to go for each situation. The group was different each time so it was always a new situation.

One night I had only one man, Sebastiao, a former soldier from Angola. When I suggested cancelling the workshop, he cried so I did a whole workshop just for him. He was tense and couldn’t do anything fluid. I got him to breath and move his hands. I then asked him to talk, any language, he gasped like someone who was drowning, he waved his arms and made one of the most beautiful dances I ever saw, breathing the whole time. At the end he cried – he spoke a dialect he only spoke with his family who were now dead. He described it later.

“I closed my eyes and I was doing that movement with the arms, thinking about my homeland, about my past, everything what happened in my country.” – Sebastiao

At that moment I knew I had to make a performance with these extraordinary dancers and show people these beautiful, heartbreaking and totally compelling dances we were making. They were not dancing to be beautiful or to entertain They dance because they have to.

“When we dance, I could say I’m in heaven because I’m mingling with so many people others can’t see – I’m mixing with people who are dead, it’s like I’m talking to them with my hands” – Kiribu

I wanted to do something that showed their dignity, their individuality as people, not as victims of torture. I didn’t want to intrude on their privacy. I don’t seek the personal stuff. I do work that avoids narrative.

Over months of workshops with the fluctuating group, working with two of my dancers, Aisling Doyle and Philip Connaughton, we rehearsed looking for material and finding things we could use. The only thing that was clear was that there would be a performance on 26th June – the UN day in recognition of Victims of Torture.

Fall and Recover became the working title for this performance but as we developed the material there was no other title that could fit – the description of Doris Humphrey’s technique: “Dance occurs in the frightening moment between falling and recovering by the arc swept by a body moving between equilibrium and uncontrol.”

In the Tower of Babel section of Fall and Recover the dancers speak 11 different languages at the same time – no one understands what is being said but they spend their time as refugees trying to communicate and no one ever listens – the languages are like music all telling a terrible story – and we the spectators understand. They performers have found a way to articulate the unspeakable and the performance Fall and Recover gives us a chance to see their soul inside their broken bodies and lives.

Performing FALL AND RECOVER has become a political act of defiance – Showing Refugees, asylum seekers – not officially part of our society, without passports or status or state protection – performing, present, speaking, dancing – forces the audience to confront and acknowledge a part of society they do not normally see. One of the highlights is a solo with Kiribu moving her arms before the entrance of the whole cast

“In my heart I say: “OK. It will be OK. I open my arms and say it’s alright, that’s my past. I have to move on.” Kiribu

I still don’t know what I’m doing – I have to watch how far I can push each workshop physically and look at people to see if they will come back.

My company rehearses, performs, tours, chases funding, make grant applications, meet presenters, journalists – like any non profit dance company. But I also go to court houses – call lawyers and sometimes write affidavits to appeal Deportation orders. Sometimes I go to the Irish Garda National Immigration Bureau (immigration police) and wait with a dancer with a Deportation Order – waiting for it to be stamped. And watching to check they aren’t taken inside and snatched away to the airport.

There is Sylvia, serially raped in jail by several guards – one of whom ate part of her back. She receives weekly medical dressings for the still open wound but has been refused Refugee status because she did not explain her situation clearly enough – she has lots of psychological evaluation from the Rape Crisis Center but it doesn’t satisfy the Refugee commissioner. Then there’s Lamine from Guinea – medicated to keep the memories overcoming him. His Father has been in jail since 1988, his Mother is dead and he doesn’t know if he will receive Refugee status – despite 5 appeals by his lawyers. He could be deported and sent back. There used to be a Kurdish guy with a great movement talent and flexible back. But he would not point his left foot in the exercises. When I corrected him, he lifted his track suit pants and showed me his leg from above the ankle to below the knee was just bone and burnt flesh from being hung upside down. He couldn’t take the uncertainlty of waiting for a decision on his asylum anymore and went back to Iraq. He promised to phone me when he arrived back. That was August 2003. He hasn’t called me yet – I can’t bring myself to delete his number from my phone.

I have been to the High Court to take an injunction against the Minister of Justice preventing the deportation of a former soldier to Angola. I have written affidavits to prevent the deportation of a woman to Nigeria where she was fleeing female circumcision. I have read case histories documenting rapes, arrests. It degrades me to know this intimate information and about the people I work with. I watch people respond with quiet dignity when someone shouts ‘Dirty Nigger’ at them in the street. When their cellphone rings it could be news or a message from home, from children they can never be reunited with, from a sick mother they cannot visit.

After Fall and Recover in 2004, I started to bring these dancers to perform in my other work with the trained professional dancer. We have made ‘THE WHITE PIECE’ and danced it in Brazil, Palestine and Israel. We continue to work together. Some people have moved on and no longer need to dance, many still come and we are getting new people too. We are now like a family and I feel I am one of the luckiest choreographers alive.

“When we dance, I could say I’m in heaven because I’m mingling with so many people others can’t see,” she said. “In the dance is how my life was before everything went wrong.” Kiribu

Reprinted with permission from John Scott’s Modern Dance Company.



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