Refugees, displacement and moving bodies: studying loss and the language of dance

Dance offers an avenue to communicate experiences of loss (for example of refugees, expelled ethno-religious or national minorities) beyond language barriers.

Ulrike M Vieten
9 January 2018
Ulrike Image 1_0.jpg

Dance performance in the Duncairn centre, Belfast, 14 December 2017. All rights reserved.This week’s series, 'Turkey: crisis and loss', curated by Mehmet Kurt, will unpack the connections between crisis in contemporary Turkey and a politics of loss. It is inspired by a recent collaborative Queen’s University Belfast and Bilgi University Istanbul Global Challenges Workshop which took place in Istanbul in June 2017.

The workshop chose the concept of ‘loss’ to better understand social transformation in the context of internal/international migration and displacement in Turkey. We discussed ‘loss’ both in its psychosocial reading as a form of mourning, melancholia, nostalgia, sadness, trauma, and depression and within a social-scientific frame as contested sets of relations and structures of feeling in historical, economic and socio-political processes.

‘Humanity is in crisis – and there is no exit from that crisis other than solidarity of humans.’ (Zygmunt Bauman, 2016) 

The current mass movement of people fleeing from war zones and devastation – the so called refugee ‘crisis’ since 2015 – makes urgent the need to understand loss in the context of displaced people immigrating to Europe and to other parts of the worlds (e.g. Asia; Africa, Americas). But we also need to understand the notion of ‘loss’ in terms of host nations and populations losing their traditional sense of stability, security and safety. Human tragedies and human costs of displacement, migration and movement affect numerous places across the so-called post-industrial western world and beyond. Thus, deepening our knowledge of loss is a way of coming to terms with the contemporary liminality, temporality as well as contact and conflict zones of late modernity.

Loss as a concept looms in psychological studies dealing with trauma, the mourning of loved ones, but also in social science looking at a contested set of power relations and structures of feeling with respect to historical, cultural and wider socio-economic processes. Loss and the transformation of societies are connected as loss and structures of feeling are.

Theoretical and empirical connections of loss in the analysis of migration and displacement have also been made in a variety of disciplinary and thematic fields. For example, ‘diaspora has been largely defined by “what is left behind” and notions of nostalgia and longing, which constitute significant elements of loss.’ (Murphy & Chatzipanagiotidou, 2016). Minority ethno-national-religious groups such as Jews, Armenians and Greek represent classic diasporic groups, connected to historical experiences of dispersal and imaginaries of the homeland. Here, loss is linked to group belonging and specific memories of the past. A notion of ‘becoming’ is central that takes on board Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) concept of ‘de-territorialization and re-territorialization’. It is here where the notion of loss as absence, but also as the effort to generate something different, perhaps, even something ’new’, comes into sight.

Loss and dance theory

According to André Lepecki, dance has five constitutive qualities: ‘ephemerality, corporality, precariousness, scoring and performativity.’ Dance is to a degree ephemeral as ‘it leaves no object behind after its performance’. This quality as connected to corporeality – dancing as embodying presence – captures physically the meaning of loss. When the performance is finished, the act is lost; but it will be re-enacted as new performance again, and again. ‘Making a dance return, again and again.’

This insistence on the ‘ethics of persisting while facing the demands of absence’ speaks to the intrinsic instability that loss creates. It is here where the tension between the phenomenon of ‘loss’ and the practice of ‘dance’ produces interesting angles. As Lepecki argues further there have been collaborations between philosophy and dance choreographers in the past. Particularly in the Continental European history of dance as art, philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Nancy, but also Agamben have talked about dance and gesture ‘while developing their political philosophies of modernity and contemporaneity’. Moving people and moving bodies become intertwined emotional and material social practices. Mark Franko stresses the political dimension of dance, ‘Since the seventeenth century dance has served to fashion and project images of monarchy, national identity, gendered identity, racialized identity and ritualized identity. But, in most of these areas it has also demonstrated the ability to stand apart, acting as a critical theory of society’.

The latter reminds us of the potential of critical reflection that is opening up space for an audience to identify political meaning.

The study – Loss and the Language of Dance

It is here, where the idea to develop an innovative and interdisciplinary project started: moving beyond a widely-held perception of refugees lacking their own agency, as individuals become labelled as a group of ‘refugees’. The 7 month pilot research project, ‘Loss and the Language of Dance: embodying displacement in Turkey’[1] focuses on specific localities (Northern Ireland: Belfast and Derry; Turkey: Istanbul) and individual experiences of loss by displaced people.

Unlike written texts or spoken words limiting the possibility of sharing individual and collective experiences of loss primarily to cultural or language insiders, dance offers an avenue to communicate experiences of loss (e.g. of refugees, expelled ethno-religious or national minorities) beyond language barriers.

It is an opportunity to embark on an innovative and groundbreaking collaboration between academics with inter-or transdisciplinary background, and professional artists, performers and civil society agents from Turkey. The research project explores how the concept of loss can be translated into the language of dance while looking into structures of feeling, how loss is enacted by contemporary dance, and analyzing responses of audiences to dance performances on loss in different countries. While approaching contemporary modern dance as an aesthetic tool tailored to challenge social-political practices, it aims to contribute to a cosmopolitan cultural archive of transnational belonging and understanding of loss in Europe, and beyond.

The project is organized into two consecutive parts: part 1 – a week of intellectual exchange and performances in Northern Ireland took place 11-16 December 2017. Part 2, consists of several focus group interviews in Northern Ireland, and a forum in Istanbul mid-February 2018. In Istanbul the dance performance ‘loss and displacement’ in its final stage will also be staged. Further we will facilitate an interdisciplinary symposium with NGOs, different UK- and Turkey-based partners and possibly, also involve a professional dancer, who was displaced and has become a refugee.

Performing loss and displacement in Northern Ireland

In the week 11-16 December, the Istanbul based dance-company ‘Ciplak Ayaklar’, visited Belfast and Derry to perform ‘Nothing is in the right place’, a work in progress.

On the days of the two performances we distributed a questionnaire to get to know the audience, but also in order to recruit people willing to take part in the study, later on. Audience numbers were lower than expected, but those who attended were impressed, moved and stimulated by the dance performances.

Some of the feedback we got: nearly 80% of those who attended are willing to be interviewed. Each dance performance was organized in 5 sequences using different material (e.g. plywood; but also water; sound and light), and included a Q&A session after the performance. One man, in his fifties, connected the feeling of loss as it was aesthetically ‘re’-created’ with the experience of local families having lost members of the family in conflict, or ‘at sea’. Constructive advice was also given to the dancers on how to make the dance performance stronger.

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Dance performance at the Culturlaan centre in Derry, 15 December 2017. All rights reserved.

Further reading

Agamben, G. (2005) ‘Movement’, transcribed lecture. Multitudes Online (2005), in: A. Lepecki (ed.) DANCE – Documents of Contemporary Art, Cambridge- Massachusetts: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 142-144.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2016). Strangers at Our Door. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (translated by B. Massumi). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Franko, M. (2006) ‘Dance and the Political: States of Exception’, Dance Research Journal, vol. 38, no. 1 and 2; reprinted in Dance discourses: Keywords in Dance Research, ed. Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera, London and New York: Routledge, 2007, 12-13.

Healey, R. L. (2006) ‘Asylum-seekers and refugees: a structuration theory analysis of their experience in the UK’, Population, Space and Place 12 (4), 257-271.

Isin, E. F. and M. Saward, eds. (2013). Enacting European Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lepecki, A. (2012), Introduction// Dance as a Practice of Contemporaneity’, in Andre Lepecki, (ed.) DANCE – Documents of Contemporary Art, Cambridge- Massachusetts: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 14-23.

Murphy, F. & U. M. Vieten (2017), Final Report: Asylum seekers and refugees’ experiences with living in Northern Ireland, on behalf of the FMDFM Stormont.

Pratt, M. L. (1991) ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’. Profession, 30-40.

Recchi, E. (2014). ‘Pathways to European identity formation: a tale of two models’, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research vol. 27, No.2, 119-133.

Safran, E. (1991) ‘Diasporas in modern societies: Myths of homeland and return. Diaspora, 1 (1), 83-99.

Vieten, U. M. (2014) ‘When I land in Islamabad I feel home and when I land in Heathrow I feel home – Gendered Belonging and Diasporic Identities of South Asian British Citizens in London, in Leicester and in North England’, in: G. Tsolidis (ed.) Migration, Diaspora and Identity – Cross-National Experiences, Dordrecht/ Heidelberg/ New York/ London: Springer, 51-74.

Vieten, U. M. & G. Valentine (2016) ‘Counter-Mappings: Cartography and Difference’, in: U. M. Vieten & G. Valentine (eds.) Cartographies of Differences – Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Oxford/ Bern/ Berlin/Bruxelles/Frankfurt am Main/ New York/ Wien: Peter Lang, 1-11.

The pilot project is funded by the Department for Economy (DfE); Northern Ireland as part of the Global Challenge Research Funding (GCRF); Dr Ulrike M Vieten is the Principal Investigator.

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