Five (new) Questions for John Scott

Irish Modern Dance Theatre artistic director John Scott”s Fall and Recover is currently running at La Mama thru April 9. He and I recently met to talk specifically about his process working with survivors of torture who now live in Ireland. He spoke to Andy last year for a previous Five Questions.

How did you come to this project? You should look up the UN definition of torture. In summary: “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.” It is meant to destroy a person without killing them. I was asked to do some workshops and I’m not a therapist or anything, but the survivors were doing art therapy at the Centre for Care for Survivors of Torture in Dublin and they’d asked for dance. They’d been working in drama and one of them, Kiribu, said it was too close to therapy because you’d talk about yourself and they didn’t feel safe doing it. There’s shame and guilt and trying to comprehend the horror of it all. Kiribu said that in Africa you dance all the time – when you work, when you’re happy, sad, at funerals. Dance is so much a part of their feeling that they wanted to try it and to feel good in their bodies again. They’ve said that the effect of the torture is something like having your shadow in front of you all your life. Sometimes they can’t get out of bed in the morning, they have skin problems, allergies, one of the performers has a severe asthma, so she carries a letter for doctors, and she was a gymnast. They have insomnia and paranoia and there is always the risk of that an event, anything, can be a trigger for a flashback. Laying on a cold floor can trigger a flashback. There’s a piece I hope to bring next year where the dancers stand still for a long time and one of them said “I can’t do that. When it happened to me I had to stand still for hours and I can’t stand still anymore.” So it can be a position or a sound. The composer had a sound in rehearsals that reminded several of them with aerial bombardment. They asked him to take it out and he did. It’s all about listening and respecting each other.

How did you start the process with them? I did my normal dance workshop based on what I learned with Pablo Vela, Meredith Monk, Anna Sokolow, etc. We did these exercises with our names – singing and moving, writing your names in space. I’d say something like run your name across the room and all the Arabic speakers ran to the other side of the room because the script runs the other way and we had instant choreography. I was told to never ask what happened to them. You could ask names and where are you from. So I walked into a room and they looked just like people, you know and I’d been asked if I’d like having a therapist to sit in the workshops. I said no, that was in 2003 and I haven’t needed one yet. Dancers are sensitive and this work requires a heightened sensitivity. People sometimes become aggressive or very quiet. When you’re working with longtime collaborators you know if they’re in a difficult mood, you see it coming. But with these guys it’s very quick. It may have been festering for a week, but suddenly BING! They pull themselves through it though. So I said: “My name is John, I’m a choreographer. I haven’t come a very long distance. But, I know some of you have left your homes and left your countries and I’m sorry for what you have been through. I want you to know I will never ask you what happened. My work is abstract and I don’t use stories. I use symbols and ideas. My dancers bring in ideas and we have fun. You can call me anytime day or night. Say anything you like.” It was two years later when one of them told me that made them feel safe and they knew they could work without giving anything away. Imagine, if a woman was tortured maybe her husband, son, daughter, mother could have been killed and she might feel shame for surviving. Your life is never the same.

Clearly, this project presented very different challenges. How do they manage working on this while recovering from the unspeakable? They also have the issues of a strange country, a strange language, culture/racial hostility and suspicion and then, having your case accepted and receiving refugee status. For every 100 people in Ireland who apply, only 6 to 10 might get that. It can take 2-7 years to go through this process. One guy in our group (who couldn’t come because he doesn’t have status) has been waiting 6 years and he’s 22 years old. He’s covered in beating marks and burns. The other performers told me he would never take his shirt off in the changing room. When he asked me and my manager to help him with his case, I said I can ask an immigration lawyer who can help you, but were you beaten and then he took off his shirt. It was shocking and those scars are 6 years old. He said when he did dance classes and performed, he didn’t have to take his medication. He’s still waiting to hear if he’s going to be deported. You can also apply for Humanitarian Leave to remain and if you can get 5 years out of that, then you can apply for citizenship. He has a file, psychological evaluations, they interview them, but the hearing is alone – basically with retired judges. You have to prove you will be killed if you go home. They can acknowledge the wounds, the medical file, that you will have trouble if you go back. But, if there is not enough evidence to prove that if you go back to your country you will be killed, they can’t grant you status. There’s a powerful book Human Cargo by Elizabeth Morehead. I couldn’t read it all, I’m too close to it, but she talks about what’s happening to refugees around the world especially after 9/11 when the US shut its doors and it all came down to Europe. Different countries in the EU have a lot autonomy and they don’t cooperate, but when it comes to immigration they cooperate very well. There’s an EU organization that deals with border enforcement. They will round up people and stop in a few EU countries. In Ireland, you apply for status and you’re usually living in a hostel. You get breakfast at 8, Lunch at 12, dinner at 5, a dorm room, your medical expenses covered and are given 19 euros a week. So, if they had dance practice til 5, they’d miss their dinner across town. It all could really make you give up. But, I wasn’t aware of any of that when I started.

When did you begin actually making this work with them? In our first exercise, we stood in a circle and were raising arms and they were looking at me and I felt this huge responsibility and great need in the way they were moving. I wanted to cry and I was inspired. Kiribu just kept reaching up and there was this young kid who had a perfect second position. He was a shepherd from Sudan, but he could jump and I thought he was a professional dancer. He’d gone up to the hills one day and some group had sacked the village and his mother and brother were killed. His father gave someone money to get him out and he was brought to Turkey and got on a plane thinking he was going to America and got off in Ireland. The trafficker tricked him. Everyone in the group was very gifted, with technical and beautiful qualities. I kept thinking this is so interesting. We’ll make a little piece in 2003 for the UN’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. I kept thinking it would be amazing to make a piece with them, but they’re not used to any kind of rehearsal structure. So, we got a grant to bring in 2 professional dancers and went through a 2-month rehearsal process that was the most enjoyable experience creatively and personally. It was joyous and funny and stressful. We did it at The Project Arts Centre in Dublin, in the small auditorium. Word got out and radio show interviewed me and, suddenly, there was a line around the block. We brought it back 3 times, toured the country. I put it to bed in ’06 and continued working with some of them on a different piece. We toured to Rio, Israel, etc.

I saw your work at La Mama Moves last year. It was highly physical and pretty virtuosic. You brought two professional dancers into this. How does that integration work in your cast? It’s so interesting. My dance dance is often very technical and virtuosic, but this particular group of people have different levels of spiritual and physical virtuosity. It’s a great human palette. In Ireland, the people don’t notice the massive change in our culture. All these people with new skin colors identifying themselves as Irish. We found someone from Eretria, he’s 65 and dancing. He’s incredible. So, we have people of many skills now. We’re working with a retired ballerina. At 71 years old, she’s dancing with us. I’ve started to perform more, even as my body is in decline. We have different bodies different sizes and shapes. We put everyone in this work. There is no disqualificaiton. Everyone who was in a rehearsal could be in it. We never turned a person away, the door was always open. It’s been joyous seeing people grow in confiedence, get married, having kids getting jobs. As one of the dancers described the process as thus: ‘We are fallen. We have come up. When you get the chance to move on, we move on. It is essential that someone has to lift you up – when you get up you can help the next person up.’

For more information, you can listen to John and cast on with Leonard Lopate last week and with the BBC a couple years ago.

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