Interview: Joe Moran - on Dance Art Foundation's first tour

Tuesday 4 November 2014 by Lucie Sheppard

Joe Moran.

London based choreographer, dancer Joe Moran is in the midst of his first UK tour which takes in arts centres, galleries – and hospitals. With his company Dance Art Foundation, he has created Breathing Space, a programme which explores the ways that engaging with dance can promote health and well being. We asked him to tell us more – and about the work which ends the tour at Greenwich Dance, on Saturday 15 November…

Tell us about Arrangement
It’s my reaction to all-male contemporary dance. I’ve become increasing exasperated by what I see as a hugely stereotypical representation of men and masculinity in dance, which seems to have become so prevalent and insistent in recent years. Often it feels to me that feminism, queer theory, British New Dance, the 1980s, and DV8 never happened! I find intense, dynamic, athletic, and explosive dance thrilling; however, with an explosion of preoccupation with all-male dance, men in dance seems so often to have become limited to this one mode. Physical intimacy is framed as aggressive or competitive to assuage anxiety about how men should behave. I find this alienating and tedious. It does not open up possibilities about who, what and how we may be – something I think is a distinct skill of dance – but rather conforms to wildly outdated stereotypes: misogynistic, heteronormative, homophobic. I am keenly aware that in my creating an all-male work, whether it operates as critique or not, I am inevitably wandering into an idolisation of men and the terms of representation. And yet, my irritation has become such that I have been willing to try to navigate those dicey waters. So for Arrangement, I have wanted to foreground the rich differences between men and our contrasting and rounded experience; our capacity for reflection and tenderness, our negotiation of failure, humour and lightness, as well as skill, power and prowess. One of the key strategies we have employed is questioning representations of the male body through its disruption.

I am really excited to bring Arrangement back to London for the finale of our tour. We’re taking on the incredible Borough Hall at Greenwich Dance, which is one of my favourite spaces for dance in London. It may be a little unexpected to those familiar with my work, or having just heard my rally against all-male dance, to learn that this the piece has also turned out to be quite funny!

You’re currently on your first national tour, with your company Dance Art Foundation, to venues including arts centres, galleries universities – and perhaps most surprisingly – hospitals. Tell us about your Breathing Space programme…
Breathing Space is a project I founded in 2000 having spent time studying with Anna Halprin in San Francisco. My encounter with Anna was enormously influential on many levels, in particular learning about her work with dance and those living with life-threatening illness, which had arisen from Anna’s own experience having cancer. I was funded by what was then London Arts Board to work with Anna intensively and to research her work with dance-in-health. I came back to London with the aim of creating a new programme in the UK inspired by the spirit of Anna’s pioneering vision. In collaboration with an incredible team of project artists, twelve years later our Breathing Space dance-in-health programme is a celebrated national initiative offering workshops, residencies and performances in health settings across the UK.

The benefits of visual arts in hospitals are now well acknowledged – are you aiming to do something similar with dance? As an art form which uses the body and movement does dance bring something unique to the medical setting?
At Dance Art Foundation we are very proud to be part of a remarkable groundswell of dance-in-health practice that has flourished in the UK, particularly over the past 15 years. There is a growing archive of medical literature that engagement with dance can make a powerful contribution to health and wellbeing. In my view, and through my experience running Breathing Space, what is so special about dance in a clinical context is that it is able to connect us to our full range of experience: emotional, psychological and physical. There is a possibility in dance to connect us to our profound inner resources, opened up and accessed through creative embodied experience.

How do the performances work in hospitals? Do you need ‘theatrical spaces’?
I am really excited about expanding our performance work as part of Breathing Space, which we are piloting at the moment as part of my first national tour, Assembly. We have presented work in hospitals since 2005 and have invited many very experienced artists and companies to present work in the hospital context. We have learnt that our approach needs to be very flexible. Performances are generally low-tech with just the dancers and maybe a sound system. We often present work in public atriums – the most theatrical of hospital spaces – as well as more ad hoc settings such as outpatient waiting rooms. We very often perform directly on wards and may offer accompanying participatory workshops. Occasionally, we offer hybrid performance-workshops or performance-Q&As with which we have been experimenting this autumn.

Do you make works specifically for the medical context?
I have made one work, and have commissioned one piece, specifically for hospitals. However, generally we present existing works that are transposed to the context. This can, at times, be a delicate process. Our main challenge is negotiating the nature of the environment and recognising that those encountering our work may be in heightened, distressed or very low states. All of this of course has bearing on how our performances are experienced and is something to which I very keenly attend. Sometimes partners have an aspiration for us to bring work that is more conventional; other partners look to us to be the part of their art programme that is most challenging and experimental. We have found that we need to pay careful attention to specific aspects, such as sound levels or how we place very dynamic work in confided or sensitive spaces. We have also found, sometimes to our surprise, that often our most well received works are our most uncompromising. Like many, I view art as the active ingredient in arts-in-health work and as such it is hugely important that the integrity of any work we present is safeguarded. When we start second guessing what will engage a hospital audience, rather than honouring the artistic inquiry, works tend to dilute and become lost. Currently, we are presenting two very different works from our Assembly touring programme in hospitals across the UK. The trio Obverse (see video below), commissioned for The Place Prize sponsored by Bloomberg, and my men’s work, Arrangement. Where time is limited, we are also performing abridged versions of both works, including conversations with the audience about the pieces, which I am finding really exciting.

Do you find the hospital audience react very differently to your work, compared to those in more conventional spaces?
I find that the conversations we have with audiences in hospitals and their responses to our performances are tremendously generous and engaged. The context is very immediate, dynamic and, at times, quite unstable. By that I mean unstable in a generative, useful way. Critically, I am excited about the opportunity for performance to operate outside of the conventions and established ways of seeing of the theatre or the gallery and museum. The hospital situates dance more in the realm of public art than any other. To me it is a fresh context to meet audiences in a way that is unadorned, unguarded and open. I think there is something very valuable about offering something unexpected and allowing art to complicate or unsettle the air a little in a way catches people unawares and hopefully offers them a moment of ‘breathing space’, in whatever way, as part of their time at the hospital.

You say are “taking new ideas in dance out into the world in fresh and imaginative ways”. Is it a two way process? Do you find anything in the unusual settings you are presenting your work in to bring back into dance?
Absolutely. For our current tour we are performing in a huge range of contexts – theatres, galleries, universities, public spaces, hospitals – the experiences in each context is refining and developing our understanding of the works and the choices we are making. I have the great pleasure to be collaborating with a formidable team of dancers and producers by whom I am very much kept on my toes as to why we are doing what, where. This ongoing dialogue, as well as the sheer number of times we are performing the pieces, which being my first national tour is a first for me, is helping the pieces to deepen and grow. It’s as if we are discovering the works through their performance in the many varied settings.

Joe Moran’s Arrangement is at Greenwich Dance, Saturday 15 November, 7.30pm

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