Suzanne Cowan: “I Can’t Be Reduced to One Thing”

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO

Suzanne Cowan is a New Zealand based performer, choreographer, teacher and researcher. She completed her PhD in Dance Studies at the University of Auckland, possibly the first wheelchair user in the world to do so. Suzanne’s career began 20 years ago with Touch Compass Dance Company in New Zealand. She has also worked for Candoco Dance Company in the UK and as a freelance artist. Her performances and writings trouble reductionist and essentialist perceptions of disability and present posthumanist alternatives. Her solo show, Manifesto of a Good Cripple, is an autobiographical retrospective based on her career as a disability dance artist.

To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Projectvisit here!

Illustration of Suzanne Cowan

Image description: Suzanne is depicted seated in her wheelchair facing the left diagonal, but the image is fractured so that there appear three left wheels, three heads, three left arms, all subtly different. Behind her wheelchair extends a blue river and in front extends a blue road. A red flame of energy encompasses her head.

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How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?

As a child and teenager, I did ballet, modern and jazz. I was non-disabled at that point. I acquired a spinal injury when I was 22. I came back into contemporary dance 10 years after that when I discovered Touch Compass Dance Company, based here in New Zealand. I did a show with them in 1999, and then in 2000 I joined Candoco Dance Company, based in London. I spent three and a half years touring internationally with Candoco.

I came back to New Zealand in 2004 and studied choreography at Unitec Institute as part of a BA program in Performing Arts. In 2005, I started a master’s program in Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Auckland. As part of my research, I made a series of performances that looked at the relationship between dance and disability. I wanted to research how a dancer with a disability is generative around aesthetics. I also wanted to explore the spectrum from the classical body, which is rooted in European bourgeoise aesthetics, to the grotesque body, where the boundaries between inside and outside are less defined.

I worked as an independent artist with Touch Compass, and then I started my PhD in Dance. My research, which I finished a few years ago, was based on a posthumanist reflection on dance and disability beyond identity politics. The body is part of a rich ecology of human and non-human elements as well as animate and inanimate objects. This is controversial in terms of disability identity, which resonates from the perspective of a political body, and which can be relevant but also constraining. What is more current is to have a broader conception of where we fit in a rich ecology that’s not human centered.

In 2019, I did a solo show, Manifesto of a Good Cripple, which was a reflection on 20 years of being a dancer with a disability. I incorporated my transition from one body consciousness into another. Identity is always shifting; who I am continually morphs according to the environments I move through. I’m immersed in the environments I live in, and they live through me. I’m not a separate self that sits outside the world as a fixed person. I’m intrinsically immersed in environment.

How would you describe your current dance practice?

I practice a range, which includes somatic practices, meditation and contact improvisation. During the coronavirus, I explored contact with the surfaces in my apartment. For example, one day I did a little dance in my kitchen ricocheting off surfaces. My practice reflects how we relate to the spaces we live in. During the pandemic, it was a contained space, so I asked: How do we navigate the sense of containment?

While I was rehearsing Manifesto of a Good Cripple, I danced every day for a few hours. I work on a project-by-project basis. Outside of that, I have certain core practices, like Open Floor. Technique classes are not particularly useful for me, but contact improvisation is great. I like to move with other people, and I need a regular environment to jam.

Since my interest is in ecology, much of my work is immersed in the natural environment. Just before the coronavirus emerged, I completed an installation piece with my colleague Rodney Bell. It was an accessible walk through the bush in the west of Auckland, and in it we reflected on genealogy, colonial politics and Indigenous politics, as well as our relationship to environment. With colonization, there’s this sense of extracting from the environment. We were interested in how we nurture and give back to our environment, which includes other people. How do we enact reciprocity?

During the coronavirus, everyone was contained by the lockdown, but people with disabilities are often contained by places we can’t go or activities we can’t participate in. In that sense, we have a toolbox for how to deal. We know we won’t be able to do certain things, but it’s okay. We learn to navigate around what we can and can’t do and the sense of perceived containment.

When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?

People often say, “Cool,” or, “Great,” but I think in the back of their minds they are wondering, “How does she do that?” I’ve also gotten surprise and disbelief. I remember when I traveled internationally with Candoco, I would have to fill out my occupation on customs forms. I’d put, “dancer,” and the customs officers would look at me like, “Hello?” There’s often puzzlement and a sense of fascination.

What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?

The stereotypes get trotted out. Journalists are looking for terms of reference that people are going to relate to, so they go straight for stereotypes. It’s a combination of disaster porn and inspiration porn. If they manage to extract from me that my disability derives from an accident, they’ll hone in on that. I become defined by one moment in my life. I’m contextualized by either promoting a narrative of inspiration or of overcoming adversity. Both are really problematic.

With regards to press, what advice would you give to a reporter who is unfamiliar writing about dance artists with disabilities?

Reading firsthand accounts by those artists would be the best approach. If you want to be familiar with the terminology people use, look at how they speak and write about themselves. Look at primary sources.

Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?

It’s tricky. The onus is on the individual to navigate mainstream education systems. Should we segregate and create spaces just for people with disabilities? Those environments can be generative but also restrictive. Part of the reason I’ve enjoyed pursuing my own research is I don’t have to fit into a mainstream environment. In a dance class, the references are able-bodied, and the mode of teaching is demonstrating. Disabled dance students must adapt what they see with how they move. I find that to be a waste of time. If I could wave my magic wand, we’d have programs set up by people like myself who have experience in the field and who have a rich knowledge of navigating the world as a dancer with a disability.

In terms of getting a PhD in dance, someone could potentially follow in my footsteps; I’m not a unique case. A prospective PhD must be able to think and write; you don’t have to audition in a technique class. You just have to reach a certain level academically. However, at Unitec, which was a mainstream dance program, the head of my program, Chris Jannides, was open to me being involved, but I just did choreography classes, not all the dance technique classes. I did what I knew would be inclusive. That’s the difference between physical dance training and a self-directed approach like a PhD.

Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?

Ideally, we should be able to join any dance class as long as we’re not worried about keeping up, banging into other people, or getting it right. When I take a class, I just engage with the threads that resonate with me; I don’t feel like I have to follow every instruction. Anyone can do that, but you need a level of self-confidence. I have my own process, instead of being directed and prescribed by someone else.

For students with less experience, it would be ideal to have someone with a disability lead the class and demonstrate from that particular physical approach. A lot depends on what people want to get out of the class. If you’re not worried about looking like everyone else, then you just go and don’t give a shit. But that’s hard to do, since we’re socialized to conform.

If a teacher can distill their teaching practice into principles, they can be adapted to any physicality and in a variety of ways so that people can find their own approach. It becomes self-directed with the teacher offering provocations. That process works well in an inclusive environment. What doesn’t work is the transmission model where we’re all trying to be as similar to the teacher’s body as possible. That can be really unsatisfying.

We all can have the experience of feeling wrong in our bodies. Body politics are so messed up: feeling too old, too fat, even too intellectual. That sense of not fitting in is not exclusive to people with disabilities.

What is your preferred term for the field?

I don’t like any of the prevailing terms because the implication is that I’m outside trying to be integrated into the whole. Those terms are problematic because they assume there’s a normal, and I’m not it. This is an area where we can be creative and find new ways of defining ourselves. I played with that idea in my PhD research. For example, one of the ways of describing myself in the studio was, “I’m a fast-moving machine that eats up the space.” I’m not just one thing; I’m multi-dimensional. I can’t be reduced to one thing, like being abled or disabled. Let’s dissolve the binary. What I’m interested in is a pluralistic identity that occupies multiple spaces and keeps shifting and changing. None of us want to be stuck in the same identity forever.

In your perspective, is the field improving with time?

The important consideration is context and geography. In some parts of the world, there’s more opportunity, but in other parts, there’s nothing. In Europe, there have been a lot of disability art festivals and independent practitioners. That’s true in other pockets of the world as well, but it all depends on where you live. In places where there’s a larger population, there’s more currency for a diversity of people to find their niche. But if you live somewhere smaller, there’s less diversity and less opportunity. A lot of progress is dependent on geography and, in New Zealand, it’s pretty limited. Right now, the arts in general are under threat.

Any other thoughts?

In terms of what we can do with our bodies and what we can create, the possibilities are limitless. The great challenge of the moment in a world recession is to rethink how we do our art.

Artistic photo of Suzanne Cowan

Pictured: Suzanne Cowan, Photo by Alyx Duncan from Manifesto of A Good Cripple

Image description: In this artistic photograph, Suzanne is pictured from the side driving her wheelchair from the left to the right of the frame. Behind her are mountains covered in snow, and Suzanne appears to be drawing the outline of the mountains with her finger in white as she passes.

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To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Projectvisit here!

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