Migrant Bodies

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Posted on February 16, 2015 in Migrant Bodies
The Protocol: Responses, Propositions, Emotions

The Migrant Bodies Project returned to Vancouver last week, kicking off the second round of residencies. Alexa Mardon, one of the project’s writers, provides this guest post:

In November 2014, when the project last landed in Vancouver, the group's time was largely spent outside of the studio absorbing some of the stories surrounding this place and its relationship to migration. This past week, I've witnessed the artists dive into their choreographic work, their studio time punctuated by meetings, sharing feedback and undertaking the logistics of finalizing a structure for this Wednesday's show.

With eight months of research and development now behind them, and July's final presentation at Operaestate Festival Veneto in Bassano, Italy, drawing nearer, the performances for the most part exist in a shape that will likely stay recognizable for the remainder of the project. The artists continue to fine-tune the work, but I see these ongoing choreographic pursuits as driven by continual questions, posed by the vast and complex topic of migration.

One way in which the group has chosen to address these questions is a system of communication developed during the first residency in Montreal, which the group has named "Protocol."  Arranged in a circle, the artists take timed turns during which they respond to a proposed topic. Each person has the option to talk, to sing, move, stay silent, or pass along the small stone held by the person speaking, and these turns typically last between one and a few minutes. While past Protocols between the artists have been set within the boundaries of a specific discussion topic, at the last Protocol I attended, Vancouver artist Lee Su-Feh pointed out that the Protocol always circled back to the binding force of the work: migration.

The logistics involved in the presentation of a series of time-based works in shared space are quite complex, and with an expanding group history of temporally and geographically sprawling encounters, I have come to see Protocol as an important arena for intuitive responses, propositions, emotions, and criticality to emerge in conversation outside of direct technical requirements.

As a way of welcoming the public into the project, The Dance Centre invited members of the community to join in one of these Protocol sessions last Friday. Late in the afternoon in the low-lit Faris Family Studio, we arrange a circle of chairs on the black floor. As members of the community trickle in, finding their seats, chatting, we pull our chairs closer together, discarding empty seats to tighten the circle. Once we are settled, Ginelle Chagnon welcomes the public. We take turns introducing ourselves, and Alessandro Sciarroni explains the rules for Protocol. Some of our visitors are surprised to find out that the Protocol will ask them to join their voices with ours, and a little nervous laughter and seat shuffling follows. When Su-Feh begins, she invokes the project's past, bringing it into the present with a playback of a recording she took during a group walk in Bassano. The recording is of bright, elaborate birdsong, the whoosh of a river in steady accompaniment. In Bassano, the artists practiced walking as way of seeing a place through another's eyes. While we sit circled around Su-Feh, imagining birds, she sings a Malay song, which, she tells us, makes her feel as if she is home.

For the next hour, we pass the stone counter-clockwise, as each member of the circle - some reluctantly at first, and then with growing courage - takes the topic of migration and turns it over in the lap of their own experience.

In this makeshift ceremony in a black-box theatre in Vancouver's downtown core, we speak about the idea of home, of the stories we carry with us in our bodies in the form of illness, superstition, ancestry, doubts, dance, and language. What surfaces takes the form of questions, movements, confessions, stream-of-consciousness ramblings, contestations, and invitations. And this group of twenty-some people seems to me to be a microcosm of the project's concerns. If the two-minute limitation set by the timer allows for a deeply personal yet often frustratingly abbreviated examination of a myriad of lived, recalled, or transposed experiences, this too, feels like a reflection of the vastness of our topic. It has become very clear to me over the past few months that what is absent, unseen, unheard, obscured or forgotten is as powerful and important as what is revealed, insisted upon, or discussed.

Arundhati Roy writes, "There's really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard." This small and powerful sentence has stayed with me throughout my writing around this project. In reflecting on a cross-section of stories of violence, displacement and dispossession, the position of privilege occupied by the artist in a democratic society requires that we move forward with a responsibility to carefully consider the line between speaking for and speaking to.

While I continue to take these questions, frustrations, and revelations to task, the choreographers do so as well. The work presented on Wednesday will ask its audience to experience not-knowing, to encounter the past aching through a body into the present, to remember for those not here, and to ask themselves where they are, when - as Su-Feh proposes - we are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.


Migrant Bodies: Public Sharing Wednesday February 18, 2015 at 5pm at Scotiabank Dance Centre, Vancouver. Free admission.

Read previous Migrant Bodies blog posts.

The Migrant Bodies Project is supported by the Culture Programme of the European Union and the Province of British Columbia.

Photos: Alexa Mardon, Ginelle Chagnon


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