Amelia Ehrhardt thinks about manipulation in Disabled Theater

HATCH is a situation where new performance and new audiences encounter one another in the spirit of inquiry. This year, artists participating in the HATCH residency are sharing insight on their projects in relation to the other work playing here at Harbourfront Centre – thinking through and sharing ideas across our performing arts programming.

In this post, curator Evan Webber asks Amelia Ehrhardt, contemporary dance artist, creator and organizer, to share her thoughts on the World Stage production of Jérôme Bel and Theater HORA’s Disabled Theater.

Evan Webber:
Making dance by making it look a certain way seems to betray the promise of dance as an authentic expression of inner life, right? This authentic expression is an old notion but it still seems like one of the ways dance is frequently read. To me this insistence on the primacy of the way things look is one of the ideas you propose. It’s an idea I can see it in the work of people like Jérôme Bel too. What do you think? What can happen when you insist on the way things look?

Amelia Ehrhardt:

Considering: agency, choicemaking, Jérôme Bel, family

My writing is based on my memory of seeing this work at ImPulsTanz in 2013.

Some bits of contextual information crucial to that are:

– I was taking a workshop with Jérôme Bel (and Trajal Harrel) during the week that this show went up
– It is different to see this work when most of the audience speaks German
– I saw the work with a friend whose brother has Down’s Syndrome

So the last bit being perhaps the most crucial in terms of how I understood the show. Because this work is very manipulative, manipulative in the sense that the performers are actors and really are trained to perform things so as to make an audience feel a certain way, and manipulative in that you actually can’t tell when they have been told to do something by Jérôme Bel – who is not the most diplomatic man I’ve ever met – or when their choice is Their Choice.

I wondered at the time how this work was created, did Jérôme Bel tell the performers to make me feel badly for them just then or did the performer make that choice in the moment? And then you circle around and catch yourself feeling badly for someone, which is maybe problematic also, like when SWM say to me “it must be terrible to be a woman,” only with much higher stakes. Why assume someone doesn’t like their life?

In the workshop, Jérôme Bel said some family members of the performers were horrified by this work and felt that it represented their children in exactly the way they did not want them to be represented (which is interesting given that Jérôme Bel said of the work that he was trying to put them onstage as exactly themselves). And my friend reacted extremely negatively towards this work, feeling that it took advantage of the performers. I don’t know anything about Down’s syndrome, certainly not with the intimacy and concern of a family member. It’s not up to me to decide whether someone really wants to be doing something or not – that’s up to the individual to decide. So it gets complicated to ask whether that’s up to someone’s family in a case where someone’s family legally gets to make life choices for an individual. I think this is where this work is most interesting, in being a sort of internal-tracking-device for an audience, for yourself tracking every time you think something you wouldn’t have thought about a person without Down’s syndrome.

Disabled Theater runs March 25 to 28 at the Fleck Dance Theatre. Get your tickets here.

Amelia Erhardt and her collaborators will be in the Studio Theatre for their residency April 20-26. Be sure to check here for more updates, and to join her at her presentation of Traditional Dance or This Dance is in Commemoration of the 102nd Anniversary of the Rite of Spring on April 26.