Gili Hammer, AXIS Scholar-in-Residence

Gili Hammer, February 2015, Berkeley, CA

My research with AXIS as a scholar in residence

“I was amazed by [...] seeing integrated movement for the first time. I guess I was surprised by how many different types of things could all merge together [...] I mean, someone who has more of a balancing body motion, somebody who has an elongated, stretched way of moving; different substances, bones, and muscles, as well as metal wheels and rubber tires; and different styles of movement; and how the right choreography could really... blend them all together. So beautifully” (excerpt from an interview with an able-bodied dancer in a dance company of performers with and without disabilities)

For the last six months I’ve had the great good fortune to study AXIS Dance Company as part of my ongoing post-doctoral research into integrated performance projects in Israel and the US. I’m grateful for this opportunity and would like to use this blog entry to introduce myself and to share a little bit about my work and fields of interest.

What brought me to this research?

As a PhD student in anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem I became interested in the crossroads of disability and performance while conducting research that focused on blind women's gender identity. I was interviewing women who had been blind since birth or from a young age, and many of them spoke about their awareness of the stares they attract and the ways they serve as the object of the gaze in their everyday lives. They shared innumerable stories about these encounters and how it felt to hear the whispers and comments directed at them or their friends (feeling “like a poster” as one woman put it), and that it felt like a performance when they went out in public, marked by their cane or guide dog when simply walking down the street. These stories inspired me to inquire more deeply into staring, disability, and performativity, and I began reading articles in the field of Disability Studies about the ways people with disabilities are commonly treated like performers in their everyday lives.

Another unexpected outcome of my interviews was the stories the women shared about their creative responses to staring and the gaze. They described the many ways they consciously manipulated staring relations, which allowed me to understand the subjectivity, agency, and creativity the “staree” can have,” acting in ways that surprise the “starer” and challenge the “visual status quo” (for wonderful writings on this matter see Rosemary Garland Thomson's work).

This topic, which became a chapter in my dissertation, provided my main attraction to the intersection of disability, performativity, and spectatorship, and eventually led me to the decision to shift the focus of my research from performance in everyday life to theatrical performances. Now in my post-doctoral studies I’m looking into the experiences of people with disabilities who choose to perform on stage, in order to better understand their relationships with the gaze, and I’m also interested in the definitions of movement and embodiment that the meeting between different bodies reveals. This is what brought me to discover the field of integrated dance and theater, and to offer the first ethnography of the “disability culture” (Kuppers 2011; Peters 2010) phenomenon, and more specifically, of the genre identified as “disability performance art” (Garland-Thomson 2000). What intrigued me about integrated settings was, among others, their capacity to shed light on social dynamics that take place when people with different bodies meet and work together, within a context already sensitive to the nuances of movement and speech. Studying integrated companies and performance projects has also allowed me to deepen my previous interest in the concept of “dialogical performance” – the ways dialogues are created between different people when we encounter “difference” as human beings -- and develop my study within the anthropology of the senses about the ways we understand the kinesthetic body and movement as a sense.

What does the research look like?

As a post-doctoral scholar in the Disability Studies Program at UC Berkeley, I’m dividing my time between studying and researching. While working with Prof. Georgina Kleege, a UC Berkeley advisor, I’m in the process of writing articles for academic publications, taking a class in Performance Theory, participating in a writing group, and attending relevant meetings and lectures. Alongside my work on campus, I’m researching performance projects in the Bay Area, and in May 2014 I began conducting research with AXIS Dance Company. At AXIS I conduct observations in the studio, watch rehearsals and speak to dancers. I also observe outreach programs and performances, and conduct interviews with current and past staff members, dancers, and choreographers. This ongoing involvement with AXIS is very meaningful for my work, and has allowed me to develop a close relationship with the company. As an anthropologist, I’m a great believer in ethnography as a research method, and find it important to gain an intimate and close familiarity with the project I’m writing about; it's a method that allows me to say something meaningful which, hopefully, captures as much as possible, the experiences of the people I meet with and interview. In addition, since I’m not a dancer, this day-to-day work with AXIS is important in order to give me a sense of what it means to be part of a dance company in general and of AXIS in particular. I’m grateful to the AXIS Dance Company for accepting my presence, for opening the doors to their studio and stage, and for not minding me sitting there all day taking notes and asking questions.

The research I’m conducting now is the second year of my post-doctoral project.  Last year I was a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Michigan, documenting disability performances projects in the American Midwest and working with performance and disability scholar Prof. Petra Kuppers. This is also not my first time in Berkeley -- 4 years ago I was here for a year as a visiting student on a Fulbright fellowship, completing a year of my PhD studies at Cal. It’s great to be back in Berkeley!  

Some of the questions I bring to the studio...

As a cultural anthropologist working mainly in the fields of anthropology of the senses, gender studies, sociology and anthropology of the body, and visual culture, I bring anthropological theory into the studio when studying social dynamics and analyzing dance pieces performed on stage. This means I’m looking for moments when social interactions and elements of the choreography maintain cultural order, maintaining the traditional boundaries between social definitions such as nature/culture, ability/disability, stillness/movement, resilience/vulnerability; and also moments when those cultural binaries are challenged, opening up spaces for multiplicity and play. The interesting thing about this anthropological analysis is that these moments typically exist side by side, with opposing dynamics operating simultaneously. These moments offer deep insights into the cultural structures around which societies are organized and through which we come to understand ourselves as “human.”

As an anthropologist, though not a dance scholar, I’m also focusing on the ways in which Axis and other performance projects play with, respond to, challenge, and maintain cultural definitions related to embodiments, disability, ability, and movement. In order to do so I pay close attention to the ways dancers, staff members, and choreographers talk about movement, and I document their vocabulary in order to enrich and expand the ways we articulate movement, dance, and social interaction. Additionally, I’m interested in the notion of diversity in these environments -- the way it changes and affects “movement” and how at the same time movement (created in the studio) affects the notion of “diversity.” With these questions in mind I hope to bring new voices into dance studies, and to acknowledge the importance of integrated movement.

One of dancers I talked to in this research said in our interview: “Art is like a distilled, concentrated slice of life that you get to see [...] A very concentrated moment of... what it is to be human.” In anthropology we’re interested in exactly that -- what it means to be human. From my experience in this research, integrated dance simultaneously refines and expands our “slice of life”; in a short sequence of movements, this art raises many questions about what it means to move and to be in one’s body. At the same time, integrated dance also expands our knowledge of what is physically and emotionally possible, and our knowledge of social and human interaction, including a wide variety of body types and ways of moving, and serving as a catalyst for critical thinking and theory relevant not only to dance, theater, or performance studies, but also more generally to sociologists and anthropologists of the body, and to scholars interested in what movement is, in the meeting between “us” and the “other,” and in the ways we understand ourselves as human. I can’t think of a field site more intriguing, or more capable of dealing with these questions so interestingly, than integrated performance.

My experience with AXIS

One of the things I like most about AXIS is the people. I’ve had the good fortune to meet people who are deeply passionate about their work, and even more importantly, who care for each other. This has made my stay with AXIS a true pleasure: spending time with people I’m continually learning from, whose work I appreciate, and, not least important, are really fun to be with!

It is not obvious for an organization to have a scholar in residence, even more so an anthropologist. It takes open mindedness, transparency, and a willingness to face challenging questions and to have an outside eye on their work, sometimes in the most vulnerable and intimate stages of the artistic processes. I am grateful for AXIS for their willingness to open their doors for me and appreciate their engagement with my research. I think it speaks to the credentials of this company.

For additional information:

Don't hesitate to contact Gili for additional information on her work. She is available at: gili.hammer@mail.huji.ac.il 

Gili's LinkedIn page

Also, here is LINK to a conference paper Gili presented on disability and the arts